Saturday, March 22, 2014

Helping Our Students Navigate Learning

During the month of March, I am participating in the Slice of Life Challenge, hosted by Most of my posts are at my personal blog, because they are slices of daily life,  but this one is directly about education, so I am posting it here, on the professional blog that I share with Melanie Swider.

I have never been great at directions. I remember when I first got my license and my mother couldn't believe that I wasn't sure about how to get to the grocery store. I had my first accident because I couldn't decide which way to turn and concentrated harder on that decision than on staying out of the way of the oncoming car. (We were fine.) Fortunately, I married a guy who always seems to know the right direction to turn. Somehow, he always knows his north and south, even when it's a cloudy day. I don't.

Last weekend, I was in Michigan with our oldest daughter. We had a rental car and had to deal with navigating a completely new city. I loved Ann Arbor, but I don't think that I could provide much accurate description of where everything (almost anything) is. All weekend, I was incredibly grateful for my iPhone and my new favorite app, Waze. Waze told me exactly where to go. All the time. All I had to do was listen to the Waze lady and she knew what the traffic patterns were, whether the roads were closed, and what the shortest routes were. She told me exactly how to navigate. What I realized at the end of the weekend is that I did not even try to learn how to get around Ann Arbor myself because I had Waze telling me what to do.

This morning, lying in bed trying to figure out what to write for my daily slice, I made a connection between my lack of growth as an Ann Arbor navigator and the presentation's message that I gave on Thursday to paras who work with struggling writers: if we always tell students exactly what to do, they won't learn how to do any of it themselves. Learners (and navigators) need time and opportunities to practice just one part of the journey. Sometimes, they might have to travel that one section of the path many times before they continue on, and sometimes a part of the path might have to be shortened. However, once they get it, they can move on and be ready to learn another part.

I would have learned how to get from my hotel to the city's center if I had practiced it and made myself pay attention, but it was easier to just rely on the app. I think that many of our struggling writers, the really struggling writers, the struggling learners, have realized that it is way easier to navigate writing, learning, and school by relying on the adults around them. My message to the paras, and I presented it with a study of how to give a great conference, is that we have to break learning down for our students--give them one thing that they can do almost independently and then give them opportunities to practice it. Sometimes that task might look very different than the other work being done in the classroom, but that's how these students will make growth.

Writing a story, essay, paragraph, sentence, or even a word may feel to some students the way the roads between Detroit and our Ann Arbor hotel felt to me. Waze is okay for me as a navigator (as long as my phone is fully charged), but our students need to learn how to write (or read, or do math...) without a guide for every step of the way.

Happy Slicing,


  1. This is so true. I am always asking myself if I am giving too much support to my kiddos who struggle. It's such a fine line. Your analogy to WAZE is perfect. By the way, I'm a lot like you and depend on my phone to get me most places.

  2. Unfortunately, you may not have had the time to practice, to risk getting lost, Melanie. I still need to 'see' a map, I'm such a visual learner, but it's great that you had an app that worked for you. It's great to bring this up because there are students who learn quickly to lean on the adults, until we realize that they're in trouble & have not learned all those important steps. It's something to be attuned to always. Thanks much!

  3. Sometimes we want students who struggle to succeed we do too much for them, just so they succeed. That is not the best for them. We all have to struggle a bit to grow. Great thinking and connecting in this post.

  4. Funny, I have always had a good sense of direction but I think GPS has made me lazy. I love the analogy to writing with students. Great post.