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To Understand. Ellin Oliver Keene [email protected] Two key questions to guide our inquiry today…. What characterizes deeper understanding – understanding that lasts?

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To Understand

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To understand

To Understand

Ellin Oliver Keene

[email protected]


Two key questions to guide our inquiry today

Two key questions to guide our inquiry today…

  • What characterizes deeper understanding – understanding that lasts?

  • How can we make modifications in our oral language interactions with children in order to raise expectations and enhance understanding?


Does it last

Does it last?

  • Do the concepts we teach and the insights children have from reading outlast the intervals?

  • Do they retain and reapply in six days, six weeks, six months?

  • What are the conditions necessary for children to really understand, to retain and reapply over long periods of time?


Real understanding happens when

Real understanding happens when…

  • We teach a few concepts,

  • Of great import,

  • In real depth,

  • Over a long period of time, and

  • Give children an opportunity to apply those concepts in a wide variety of texts and contexts.


What happens when we understand

What happens when we understand?

  • Listen as I read A Year and A Day

  • Reread it, carefully observing what you do in order to understand

  • Make notes as you reread

  • Share your insights with a partner

  • What conclusions do you draw about children’s understanding?


We need to rethink what it means to understand

We need to rethink what it means to understand…

  • Comprehension strategies are very useful tools, but we must think about where they lead…

  • “When you use a comprehension strategy, what do you understand that you may not have understood before?”

  • “How does that strategy help you understand this text?”


What does it mean to understand deeply

What does it mean to understand …deeply?

We need to know what deep understanding looks like when we see/hear it

We need some markers to know when children understand deeply

We need to label deep understanding so that children repeat it


What does it mean to understand deeply1

What does it mean to understand …deeply?

Some of the markers will be cognitive – they will emerge in conversation and writing (outcomes of understanding)

Some of the markers will be behavioral – we’ll be able to see and hear them (dimensions of understanding)


In our minds

In our minds. . .

Empathy -- a belief that the reader is actually a part of the setting, knows the characters, stands alongside them in their trials, brings something of himself to the events and resolution -- emotions are aroused

Darrell determining importance in Dear Mr. Henshaw “It’s me in there.”


In our minds1

In our minds…

Children begin to understand leadership – they explore and begin to understand the lives of those who have made significant contributions to a field and begin to imagine how they might make contributions

Matthew and the sleeping bags in space


In our minds2

In our minds. . .

A sense of the aesthetic – a desire to linger with portions of the text or linger with the events the reader finds beautiful or moving – the desire to experience it again

Gigi using schema in If You’re Not From the Prairie “I know how I like to do it. I just have to read it again and again to feel that way.”


What does it mean to understand deeply2

What does it mean to understand… deeply?

We need some markers to know when children understand deeply

Some of these will be particular behaviors, preferences and priorities characteristic of learners who understand. . .


In our lives

In our lives. . .

A desire to act – children may act in some way to mitigate or resolve related conflicts in the world

Hannah synthesizing in Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge “We gotta get over there right now!”


In our lives1

In our lives. . .

We concentrate intensively, we are fervent – we lose ourselves in the experience of thought, the world disappears and we work hard to learn more, we choose to challenge ourselves on topics about which we are passionate

Kevin and The Stranger


In our lives2

In Our Lives. . .

We struggle for insight, we savor and learn from the struggle itself, we take ventures into new learning territory and fight the debilitating influence of judgment

Kevin and The Stranger


In our lives3

In our lives…

Children argue/defend – they may discuss, challenge others’ ideas and beliefs and/or defend their own with evidence from the text and from background knowledge (schema)

Miguel and Marcos on immigration issues


Dimensions of understanding

Dimensions of Understanding

Readers are deeply engaged – we concentrate intensively – we experience a sense that the world around has disappeared and they work hard to learn more, they choose to challenge themselves on topics about which they are passionate, we apply fervent attention


Dimensions of understanding1

Dimensions of Understanding

Readers show a willingness to struggle --we choose to challenge ourselves in order to understand more deeply – we consciously fight the debilitating influence of negative self-judgment, we seek, with a sense of efficacy to solve complex problems


Pause and ponder

Pause and ponder

In what ways can you imagine

Introducing the outcomes and dimensions of understanding to your students?

Observing your students for evidence that they are exhibiting outcomes and/or dimensions of understanding?


Some closing thoughts about the outcomes and dimensions of understanding

Some closing thoughts about the outcomes and dimensions of understanding…

We need to redefine what it means to comprehend deeply

We need markers to show us when children comprehend deeply

We need a common language to help us define and discuss deeper comprehension

The outcomes and dimensions can provide those markers and that language if we weave them into our classroom discourse


What modifications can we make in our oral language interactions with children

What modifications can we make in our oral language interactions with children?


Some observations about the power of oral language

Some observations about the power of oral language

  • Children need more opportunities to interact, using increasingly sophisticated oral language, with their teachers and other children

  • These opportunities deepen and secure understanding (as do written, artistic and dramatic opportunities to share thinking)

  • Children who are asked to think at high levels consistently rise to the occasion


Some observations about the power of oral language1

Some observations about the power of oral language

  • Any child who can use an oral language to communicate by the age of five can think and learn at the highest levels

  • Children deserve impeccable examples of oral language – we owe them the most thoughtful, precise, elegant, varied language we can muster


A few classic patterns in teachers oral language

A Few Classic Patterns in Teachers’ Oral Language

  • Talking “around” the key points

  • Cutting students off before they’ve had a chance to fully develop their thinking

  • Accepting the students’ first thoughts without probing for deeper thinking


Classic patterns in teachers oral language

Classic Patterns in Teachers’ Oral Language

  • Missing opportunities to vary the tone, volume and emotion in speech

  • Segueing from our modeling to student responsibility too quickly

  • Moving on before we label students’ descriptions of thinking so they can be used later


Talk about understanding principles

Talk About Understanding Principles

  • Came from a longstanding question I’ve had about simple ways we can modify our oral language to enhance understanding

  • Developed from observation in classrooms and analysis of video footage – my own and other teachers

  • Just looking at teacher talk – initiated and responsive


A place to begin the conversation about conversation

A Place to begin the conversation about conversation

  • View video to look for patterns that need to be changed

  • Encourage colleagues to use an oral language observation tool with each other

  • Explore the Talk about Understanding Principles

  • Ask students to reflect on discourse patterns that enhance their understanding

  • Ask students to reflect on the depth of their understanding


In your own classroom or when working with teachers

In your own classroom or when working with teachers:

  • Vary tone, pace and emotion to indicate variations in meaning

  • Vary the syntax and vocabulary as well as the formality of language to indicate variations in meaning


In your own classroom or while working with teachers

In your own classroom or while working with teachers:

  • Demonstrate spirited and informed argument about ideas from text; model engaged and lively discourse

  • Model ways in which we restatewhat we understandduring discussions giving us a chance to further reflect on what they have said and to probe ideas further


Why our oral language matters

Why our oral language matters

  • Children long to be intellectually engaged

  • Depth and breadth in language use introduces them to the life of the mind

  • Children can learn how to be intellectually engaged if we, and eventually, they can name and describe the thinking processes they use.


Oral language with children

Oral language with children

  • Matters as much as any other teaching move teachers make

  • Teachers’ language choices have everything to do with whether students understand


The power of our talk

The Power of our Talk

“I believe in the power and mystery of naming things. Language has the capacity to transform our cells, rearrange our learned patterns of behavior, and redirect our thinking. I believe in naming what’s right in front of us because that is often what is most invisible.”

Eve Ensler (This I Believe)


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