Three Big Questions to Support Adolescent English Learners

Most high school teachers I’ve talked with lately are working hard to help their English learners achieve academic success. With so many aspects of students’ lives beyond our control, how can we make a difference for these young adults? My last post introduced three big questions that can set systemic conditions for large and small changes:

  • Who are we and what are we about?
  • What differences make the biggest difference to our work?
  • How do we do that work together?

Here, I’m describing one example of how a small group of high school teachers is using those three questions as they focus on how to teach writing, especially to English learners.

I have been privileged to work with these teachers since 2007, when we were funded by National Writing Project’s Local Sites Research Initiative, to investigate how to best support adolescent English learners’ academic writing achievement. After a five-day summer institute sponsored by North Star of Texas Writing Project in 2008, the teachers went back to their classrooms to see how they could adapt and modify what they learned in response to their students. They met throughout the year to reflect on the year and to synthesize what they had learned.

Our Findings

To be honest, after that first year, we had more questions than answers. With additional funding, we have continued our exploration, inviting new teachers into the network. Over the years, our network has included about 30 people—teachers in middle and high schools and university educators. The list of articles below chronicles some of our findings.  If you want to get to know our work better, follow us on the Literacy in Learning Exchange—North Star Culturally Mediated Writing Instruction and on Facebook.

We have learned that powerful support for English learners can’t be reduced to five steps or to a list of instructional strategies.

  • It is about setting conditions that invite students to ask important questions about writing and about the world.
  • It’s about building on everything that students bring to the classroom—their cultures, their interests, their use of multiple technologies.
  • It’s about knowing when to step in to guide students when an explicit lesson is needed, and it’s about stepping back and giving students space to explore when they need that.
  • It’s about learning how to have significant conversations about writing and learning.
  • Most of all, it’s about inviting students to join us in an inquiry stance about the world, to search for answers, and to tell the stories of our inquiries.  We use Adaptive Action (Eoyang and Holladay, 2013) as a framework for this inquiry with our students and our colleagues.

Each year since then we have continued this inquiry, and we have come to understand something of the complexity of this kind of powerful instruction. We have begun to call the patterns we want to see in our classrooms “generative teaching and learning.”  “Generative” suggests creativity, adaptation, and transformation. It describes what most teachers and researchers and school reformers see as “best practice.”  It is consistent with project-based learning, with writing workshop, and with other interactive, learner-centered approaches to instruction. But it is difficult to describe or explain in a formula or program that might be implemented across a campus or district.  In fact, once it becomes a formula, it is no longer “generative.”

Here is our most important finding:  A knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsive, and adaptive teacher is essential to generative learning.

Our Plans for a Book

Our focus now is to write about what we have learned. We met one Sunday evening not long ago to talk about how we might put what we have learned into a practical book for teachers. As we talked about our hopes for this book, we realized that the “three big questions” (which we had used now and then throughout our time together) might capture our vision for the book. In this conversation, we realized that our goal is to capture the complexity of teachers’ decision-making in particular contexts, in response to particular students at a particular time. .

This graphic represents our “radical inquiry”—how the three big questions set conditions for our work. (See the explanation of Radical Inquiry at the Human Systems Dynamics Institute website.)

As we have worked with more and more students over the years, our answers to these questions have evolved.  The arrows suggest that our answers to these three questions come together in a complex dynamic that influences how learning self-organizes into a generative pattern. These questions point to “simple rules” that can create the patterns we want to see. Here is how we are currently answering these questions:

Who are we and what is our Work?

  • We are teachers and learners.
  • We are readers and writers.
  • We are change agents.
What makes the most difference to our Work?
  • Empathy and responsiveness
  • Inquiry
  • Authenticity
  • Social and cultural capital
  • Knowledge (about language, literacy, and the world)
  • System coherence (similarities across the whole, part, and greater whole)
How do we work together?
  • Adaptive Action
  • Dialogue (writing and speaking)
  • Mediation and modeling
  • Multiple modes, media, and genre.

We suggest that teachers begin with inquiry and encourage students to investigate problems, generate questions, and then read and writing to explore those questions. Structures like project-based learning and writing workshops can provide essential support for our approach. We also recommend particular practices—writer’s notebooks, mentor texts, quick writes, class discussions, anchor charts, graphic organizers, and more.

When people ask us how to teach students to write, we have to answer, “It depends.”  It depends on the context, the purpose, the students, the resources, and the teacher. We have found, however, that it also depends on our deep beliefs and principles. We are more clear about those beliefs and principles because we have asked one another these three big questions again and again. With each iteration, we have been able to consider more data and more stories from our classrooms to help us answer the questions, questions which help us articulate our beliefs and principles. As we try to enact the answers to these questions, our decisions create particular patterns across time—patterns that have a better chance of making a powerful difference for students.

Teaching writing to anyone (especially adolescent English learners) is a complex business. We can’t control or predict how one student will respond to a particular lesson. But we can use these three questions to set conditions that make powerful literacy learning more likely.

Further Reading

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L, Wickstrom, C., and Araujo, J. (2011). Culturally mediated writing instruction for adolescent English language learners. Research Report of the National Writing Project. http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/3621

Wickstrom, C., Patterson, L., and Isgitt, J. (2012). One teacher’s implementation of Culturally Medited Writing Instruction. 61st Yearbook of the Literacy Research Association. Oak Creek, WI: Literacy Research Association, Inc.

Wickstrom, C., Araujo, J., Patterson, L., (with Hoki, C., & Roberts, J.). (2011). I can see you, therefore I can teach. In Dunston, P., Gambrell, K. H., Stecker, P., Fullerton, S., Gillis, V., & Bates, C. C. (Eds.), 60th Literacy Research Association Yearbook, (pp. 144-157), Oak Creek, WI: Literacy Research Association.

Patterson, L., Wickstrom, C., Roberts, J., Araujo, J., & Hoki, C. (2010). Deciding when to step in and when to back off. The Tapestry Journal, 2, 1, 1-18. http://tapestry.usf.edu/journal/v02n01.php

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Three Big Questions to Change the World!

Really?  Three questions can change the world? Well, maybe. Let’s think about it for a minute. One thing we know about schools is that nothing stays the same for long.  Each year brings the latest “best practice.” Each week brings a new procedure and its paperwork. Each day, our students pose new challenges. Each hour, the media bombards us with news about the latest crisis. What might possibly  help us keep our balance as the world shifts beneath us?

Clearly, no one is in absolute control of these changes. We cannot predict what is coming, and we have to admit that we have little control over how these changes will happen. To think about our options, let’s consider what scientists tell us about other turbulent and continually changing systems — systems like the weather, population growth, and the stock market. Although scientists and economists can see general patterns, they have come to realize that they can neither predict nor control individual actions in these complex adaptive systems. They also recognize that many of these unpredictable individual actions combine to generate coherent patterns across the whole system. Whether or not we like those patterns, they become a part of our reality.

In classrooms, when the actions of individual students contribute to the pattern of the whole, we talk about the class taking on a life of its own. The actions of individual students and staff members contribute to patterns that we call the “campus culture.” So, in the face of continual change, how can we pay attention to these individual actions and the emerging patterns across the system to help us see some coherence and build some sense of balance?

Jennifer Isgitt recently posted a story about the Mission Statement that she and her students created. She  explained that she used a set of questions from Human Systems Dynamics Institute to guide this work. These questions can be worded differently, depending on the audience, but they focus on the heart of all complex adaptive systems:

  • Who are we and what are we about?
  • What differences make the biggest difference to our work?
  • How do we do that work together?

These are the three big questions that we can ask in the face of continual change—no matter where we stand, no matter what work we are doing. We can ask and answer those questions over and over again as we navigate the shifting landscape where we are working.

These are critical questions because they point to the underlying dynamics of complex systems. According to Glenda Eoyang (2002; 2013) and illustrated in the figure below, the dynamics of all complex adaptive systems are influenced by three conditions:

  • the “container” that holds the system together;
  • the critical “differences” that hold tension and energy in the system; and
  • the “exchanges” that are responsible for the transfer and transformation of energy and information throughout the system.

Actually, the answers to these questions are less important than the conversations they trigger. Ongoing dialogue about these three questions is essential. It is not enough to find answers to these questions and then post them on the website for everyone to see.  Multiple  conversations triggered by these questions over time will help us see, understand, and influence learning and adaptation in our system(s). That is why these questions are the heart of professional learning communities. That is why these questions (however they might be worded) are embedded in the work of the inquiry groups on the Literacy in Learning Exchange.

If we want to be ready to adapt in generative ways to constant change, we need to be asking and answering those three questions over and over again. Of course, our answers will change as the landscape around us changes, but the questions help us keep our balance as we move forward on this ever-changing path. Maybe the title of this post is not so crazy. Maybe we can use these three questions to change the world.

 

References

Eoyang, G. H. (2002).  Conditions for self-organizing in human systems (Doctoral dissertation, Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2002).

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.

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Uncertainty is our Friend!

In human systems, uncertainty is our most constant companion. It is, in fact, our friend. To influence human systems (like learning in classrooms and schools), we have to expect things to be uncertain, unpredictable, surprising, and sometimes confusing.  That is the way things are.  The only constant is change, and the only sure thing is surprise.

So how do we cope?  How do we have any sense of influence over these unpredictable realities?  Eoyang and Holladay (see reference below) say that we must embrace uncertainty. We must “leverage uncertainty” so that we can see options for action and set conditions for positive change. How do we do that?  They recommend Adaptive Action–a cycle of observation, reflection, inquiry and action that can help us choose the best next step toward our goal.

  • What is happening?
  • So what does that mean?
  • Now what shall we do next?  Now what are our new questions?

Here’s a blog post from Amanda Goss, on the North Star of Texas group on the Literacy in Learning Exchange, that shows how their inquiry group is using Adaptive Action — and how they are tweaking the language to make it their own:
http://www.literacyinlearningexchange.org/blog/re-visioning-differences-make-difference#comment-275

This inquiry/action cycle is at the heart of responsive teaching, and it should be at the heart of responsive school reform/transformation. This recursive cycle is “simply” a way to talk about teaching and learning that resonates with what many others have said over the years. It would sound familiar to John Dewey, Louise Rosenblatt, and Marie Clay. We have found these questions a simple and powerful way to talk about what can happen when we welcome uncertainty and move forward, even when the path is unclear.

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.

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From Trees to Webs: Transformation Is About Changing How We Think!

In HSD, we look for questions and answers that are both TRUE and USEFUL — that combine theory and practice. Janelle Quintans Bence–a high school teacher in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a North Star of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultant–has posted this blog that talks about that link between thought and action: 

http://persistentpondering.posterous.com/from-trees-to-webs-transformati…

What do you think?  True?  Useful?

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A “Simple” Way to Save Public Schools

For the last 12 months, I have been on an amazing learning journey with my colleagues at Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) and The Ball Foundation. Together, we have worked with some impressive educators in New Haven Unified School District (CA), to improve learning for all students in their district. We are now looking back on the year, trying to synthesize what we learned. Here’s my most important ah-ha to this point.

Public schools in the U.S. are facing overwhelming challenges. The future does not look good.  To meet those challenges, we must take radical steps, but, contrary to many recent school reforms, the solution may actually be fairly simple. What I’ve learned alongside my colleagues in California this year is this:

Transforming schools is simply about learning. It’s about setting conditions that ensure that everyone learns, individually and together.

We want to see kindergartners dive into new experiences, take risks, make guesses, ask questions, seek patterns, interpret their experiences, and share what they are learning. We want to see 12th graders ask significant questions, observe closely, read deeply, analyze issues thoroughly, draw conclusions, and create compelling reports and essays.  That is precisely  what teachers, educators, parents, and policy makers need to do if we are going to save public schools! There is no silver bullet–no program or policy that will transform schools. Forget  Superman.

It is simply about learning that leads to action–and action that leads to more learning. HSD calls it “Adaptive Action.”

Here is a list of questions educators might ask as they use  Adaptive Action:

What?

  • What patterns do we notice in our system (both desirable and undesirable)?
  • Where are the significant issues? What are the differences that make a difference? What are the tensions? Where are the questions?  Where are the puzzles and anomalies?

So What?

  • So what do these patterns say about our assumptions? our ideologies? our shared goals? our behaviors toward one another? our discourse?
  • So what do these tensions and questions mean for our system, for individuals, and for  the greater whole?

Now What?

  • Now what options for action might help us set conditions that amplify the patterns we want to see? or diminish the patterns that prove less useful?
  • Now what are our new questions?
  • And  how can we tell our story to others?

Once we take action, we begin the process again.

Here is what some of our colleagues in that school district said about the power of Adaptive Action. These are teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators who are standing in inquiry, looking at patterns and trying to solve real problems.

The one thing I always have going through my brain is “What? So what? Now what?”  Like what’s going on with my class right now? I even had it happen in the middle of a lesson where you just kind of feel the lesson isn’t going where you wanted it to go so you ask “What’s going on right now? So what can I do right now to change that?”

As a literacy coach, I think the biggest change for me has been just the idea of standing in inquiry and using adaptive action. . . .  I really am now thinking through things and asking those questions.

On my campus, we talk a lot about patterns and how, if we want to see a change, it has to be at all levels. So when you’re bringing a problem to the table, think about the what, so what, now what in terms of different levels because what might be an issue at your grade level, may also be an issue for the Instructional Leadership Team, or with all the elementary principals. So we’re not just looking at the issue at that one level but looking up and down and across the district.              

In my classroom, we were having a problem with partner talking so I sat with the class and I elicited a bunch of things that were happening — patterns that they saw. What are we noticing? It’s a pattern of a lack of respect for your partner so how can we change that? And my students came up with a few things that they wanted to try and change.  Since then it’s been pretty good.  We still have to go back and remind ourselves, but it’s been pretty good.

These educators are showing us what happens when each individual throughout a system begins to focus on students, honestly makes sense of the patterns in the system, and generates options for acting individually and collectively to support student learning.

We are beginning to see the potential for whole system transformation when individuals and groups throughout the system use Adaptive Action–in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, teacher workrooms, parent conferences, and board meetings–to focus on their most pressing challenges.

When everyone in the system is standing in inquiry, when everyone is learning, the dynamics shift. The system changes in a fundamental way. We simply ask questions, observe and interpret what we see, and, together, look for answers.

Perhaps Adaptive Action  is the “simple” path to saving our public schools.

For more information about Human Systems Dynamics and Adaptive action see http://www.hsdinstitute.org.

–Leslie Patterson

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Welcome to Generative Learning

I believe in the power of questions. I believe that questions generate our most creative and important work as human beings. As children, we stack blocks to see how high the tower can grow, and, as diplomats, we gather around a table to discuss the future of our planet. In both of these moments, we stand in inquiry. I believe that, when I stand in inquiry, I can do my best work. More important, at those moments, I become my best self. But what does it mean to stand in inquiry?

It means that I ask honest questions — questions about what I must know as I move forward. My questions are rooted in honest curiosity–not in criticism or frustration or anger. It’s not about posing questions to impress, nor to make a point, but questions to inform each next action, each next step into unknown territory.

It means that I honor the questions that you are asking. It means that I listen to what you are saying but also that I listen for the various unspoken meanings that may  attach themselves to your words as they go out into the world.

It means that I question my assumptions, that I take a critical look at the beliefs and biases beneath my questions. What do I really know? How do I know it? Have I considered other ways of knowing? All those questions I must ask of myself before I frame my questions for you.

Standing in inquiry means that I refuse to take it all too seriously. Questions are about play, about dancing with an idea, looking for its ticklish spots. Generative  questions are posed with a smile and an open hand–an invitation to come outside and play.

So you see, standing in inquiry is not really about standing at all. It’s about living and breathing and moving forward, hand-in-hand and step-by-step–using our questions to clear the path as we move into the next moment, and the next, and the next.

And standing in inquiry means that I continue to be curious about what it will mean to stand in inquiry tomorrow.

–Leslie Patterson, August 27, 2011

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