When Students Just Aren’t Getting It: Looking for the CAN before the CAN’T

In infancy, a child’s growth is so rapid that it seems nearly perceptible as it is occurring in real time. My eight week old son looks different daily; indeed he often looks bigger just after a nap. He constantly masters new skills, making developmental leaps that both amaze and move me to tears. (The other day he looked right at me and smiled.) As children get older, their rate of growth slows, of course. They can do so much more, and we expect so much more of them. Their mastery of skills becomes a matter of course, and as teachers of older children, it is easy to slip into a content mindset, rather than a skills mindset. We may focus more on children learning the information that fills our curriculum, not on the skills it takes to learn this information, such as nonfiction reading and writing in social studies. We become frustrated when their output comes up short of our expectations. 

What happens then, is it becomes very easy to fall into a habit of seeing children’s work for what it is lacking, not for what it has. Sometimes we expect that students should already know how to do things they haven’t yet been taught, or that they should be able to master skills after we have taught them once. However, As Dick Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2000), students often need to be taught a skill twenty to thirty times before they master it. Allington is writing specifically about struggling students in his book, but the case could be made that ALL students benefit from repetition and plenty of opportunity to practice. Further, if students aren’t demonstrating mastery of a skill, shouldn’t we, as their teachers, take responsibility for this? 

Take, for instance, the following excerpt from a fourth grader’s information writing in social studies. 

info writing dark years Dec 18

This is a portion of the student’s final report, one he wrote after spending weeks researching the Iroquois. I could notice all that is lacking in the writing and bemoan the fact that there is little evidence of the research the class conducted. I could notice that some of the facts even seem fabricated, added in as filler because the student didn’t have much information to go on. Further, I could choose to be frustrated not only with the student’s lack of research, but also with his apparent lack of understanding of the content he was supposed to be learning.

OR… I could choose to first notice what this student is doing well, upon which I could build my teaching. This student has some nice elaboration skills. He paints a picture for the reader by including details that help us to imagine how that time period might have looked like or felt like. He says, “There were arrows flying everywhere, people yelling, birds squawking, flying away from their perches. It was crazy!” Even if those details didn’t come from a social studies text, clearly this student knows how to use his visualization skills as a way to help teach information. I could build upon this skill, teaching the student that in research-based information writing, it’s important to have a balance of information from credible sources, as well as snippets that come from the writer’s thinking and imagination. I could also teach him that it’s helpful to let the reader know which parts are the writer’s speculation, with phrases such as: “Imagine what this might have looked like…” or, “There could have been…”, or, “Possibly…” I could also teach him phrases that might support him in including more research, such as: “According to the text (insert name of text)…” or, “The author (insert author) says…”.

To be sure, it can be frustrating to teach your heart out, only to collect student work and notice that many students have mastered only a fraction of what you were teaching. This frustration comes from a good place, a place of concern and care for your students and their well-being. However, it also feels disheartening and can derail your future teaching. If our students haven’t mastered what we would like them to master, they may be showing us they need more practice before moving on. Indeed, it would be very rare that their lack of mastery comes from a desire to frustrate their teacher.

As we approach the winter holiday, I am presenting a challenge to myself, and my hope is that others will join me. I am challenging myself to take ownership of what my students cannot yet do, to reframe what could be considered gaps in their ability as my responsibility to teach or reteach. Instead of using language like. “Beverly can’t organize her writing clearly”, or “Kyoko won’t make inferences in her independent reading book”, I will say: “I need to think of a different way to teach Beverly to organize her information. Maybe a few models will help, or maybe I could set her up with Brian, since he would be a good mentor.” About Kyoko I will say, “The ways I have been teaching inferencing haven’t been effective for Kyoko. I need to think of other ways to help her reach for this skill.”

Have a wonderful holiday break, and I would love to hear how you reframe your frustrations when your students aren’t mastering what you would like them to master.


4 thoughts on “When Students Just Aren’t Getting It: Looking for the CAN before the CAN’T

  1. Great post, Anna! I also like to think of it in terms of one of those reality-competition shows like “American Idol.” We can choose to look at work like we are Simon, or we can choose to look at it like we are Paula (or something more up-to-date!).

    At any rate, we all see the same things in kids’ work, right? It’s the mindset we choose to look at them with that matters. When we say, “This writer is doing ____” it makes us apt to think, “Well, this writer could also then do ____.” But when we say, “This writers isn’t/can’t do ____.” Then we are more apt to also to think, “Well, then they also aren’t/can’t/won’t do ____.” This is true for writing but also all subjects. I agree with you that a generosity of spirit, a positive teaching mindset will lead to more achievement than cynical or negative one.

  2. This post reminds me of a keynote address I heard at the RIWP several years ago about kids at-promise instead of kids at-risk (http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/making-kids-feel-big-not-small/). It was powerful to think about reframing children in this way.

    Thanks for this very important post, Anna. When we think about what young writers CAN do, it positions them in a better way (and makes our jobs more enjoyable since we’re not looking at them with a deficit perspective).

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