Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Zone of Proximal Development for our Student Writers

When I visit writing classrooms, I frequently notice how much adults do for students--especially for students with IEP's. Adults translate so many lessons for students--where to add details, how to add more specific words, where to include an anecdote. They do a great job at making that particular piece better, but what is the message and the teaching that their students are receiving?

Last week, I presented a workshop on writing instruction to our district's Special Education paraprofessionals. Since one of my favorite messages from Lucy Calkins is "teach the writer and not the writing", I decided that part of my presentation would be about Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers."

My workshop centered on how we could provide the most effective support for our most struggling learners and one of the take-aways that I wanted to give was that we should teach students within the middle ring.

So many times, I hear adults in the room telling students exactly what to do since most of our students with IEP's are several rings away from the dark purple circle that represents independence in the above model.

 In order to illustrate this concept, I asked the adults to unscramble three sets of words:

1. A set of commonly owned household pets. This was easy for them and they quickly recognized dog, cat, bird, and bunny.

2. A set of the last names of the district secretaries. I had to encourage them to collaborate but once they realized that asking each other was allowable, they were able to solve these five word jumbles.

3. A set of the last names of famous Russian and Italian painters without any access to technology. For this last one, I purposely rushed them, pronouncing the names and pressuring them to write the answers. Then, I spelled the names, but I spelled them quickly.

While I know that this activity was not a perfect simulation for how our students feel, I think that it did illustrate the competence and pride that we have when we complete a task and the frustration that we feel when we face a task that is completely beyond our ability. Some of the comments that I heard were:

"I liked the second task best--it was fun when we could figure it out."
"She really annoyed me when she spelled those names so quickly."
"How were we supposed to know how to spell those names?"
And, my favorite...
"No wonder the kids act out!"

From this part of the presentation, I'm hoping that everyone walked away with an:
  • increased appreciation for the frustration people feel when they need to be told how to complete every step.
  • increased commitment to fostering independence and courage for all students during writing workshop (and maybe for the other parts of the day, as well!)
  • increased curiosity of how to break down the task of writing so that what we ask our students to is what they are able to do with guidance as opposed to constant supervision.
So far the feedback has been positive, but we'll see if the interactions change...

Enjoy your Sunday evenings,

Melanie Meehan

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