Using Kenneth Burke and Implementing Gradual Release of Responsibility

In a previous post, “Decisions, Decisions, Decisions,” I explored several concepts related to designing instructional units, among them “Gradual Release of Responsibility” as presented by Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey. In this post, I will begin to apply this concept to the design of a module built around another previous post, “Using Kenneth Burke’s Pentad.” Writing this mini-module may take several posts. When I finish, I will post the whole module as a downloadable unit.

Fisher and Frey describe gradual release as a continuum: “I do, we do, you do together, you do.” I find those pronouns a little confusing because in writing modules we often shift from the teacher view to the student view. I think it is clearer to say, “teacher does, teacher and students do together, students do together, student does.” They also discuss this as “Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks.” Activities do not necessarily have to be done in that order. What is important is to be aware of where the responsibility for learning and thinking lies and to have a mix of different types of interactions as appropriate to the learning goals. For convenience, lets imagine a 1-4 scale with “1” representing “teacher does” and “4” representing “student does.”

Because of my concern with backwards mapping (or “Backwards Design”), another concept I discussed in the “Decisions” post, I want to start out by laying out for the students what they are going to learn and how they are going to use it. I am going to try being very direct. This is very much a “teacher does” activity:

A student (or teacher) reads aloud:

In this unit, you will learn about a useful strategy called “the pentad” that is related to the who, what, when, where, why, and how questions that you probably already know. As you explore this strategy, you will analyze relationships between people and places, between tools and actions, and think about why people do the things they do. We will use this strategy to analyze movies, stories, and political issues in new ways. When we are asked to write about something, one of the biggest problems is thinking of new things to say. The pentad can be a big help. At the end of this unit, you will be asked to write about a novel or story you have studied or written about before, but in a new way. After learning about the pentad, it will be easy to take a new approach.

After reading this paragraph, what questions do you have? What more do you want to know about “the pentad”? Write down at least one question to share with the class.

The follow up question moves from “teacher does” or “1” on my scale to “teacher and students do together,” which is “2” on my scale. The purpose here is to create some anticipation of what is to come.

Now I want to activate background knowledge by asking students to do a task that shows them that they already know something about this, but also allows them to see this knowledge in a new way. I want them to think about “scene” words, words that name or define a location or context. One way of doing this is to give them a passage and ask them to find “scene” words:

When someone does something, they have to do it somewhere. Action is situated. It happens in a time and place. We can call a time and place where something happens a “scene,” as in the phrase “the scene of the crime.” When a writer begins a story, the first few paragraphs usually “set the scene.” Here is the first paragraph of a famous short story, “Hill Like White Elephants,” by Ernest Hemingway. As you read the paragraph, try to identify “scene” words and phrases, words and phrases that are associated with places or parts of places where things might happen.

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

How many words did you find? For example, the “Ebro” is a river. That is a place. It has formed a valley, and there are hills. There are names of cities. There are also location words such as “side” and “between.”

The Hemingway passage “sets the scene” for the story, but you could substitute a passage from almost any literary work. I would rate this activity a “2” on my scale because the teacher is supplying the passage and asking the questions.

Next, I would like to explore the relationship between the scene and the people in it, what Burke will call a scene→agent ratio.

Write a paragraph about how where you grew up (scene) influenced who you are as a person. You can define the “scene” in various ways big or small–a country, a city or town, a neighborhood, a school, an ethnic community, a household, a family, etc.

This writing task will initiate a scene→agent ratio without using all of Burke’s terms. The task itself is a “4,” because the students are deciding what to write about and working independently. We could transition to a “3” type of activity by having students share their paragraphs in groups or pairs and commenting further on the ways that scenes influence the people in them.

At this point, the students have been introduced to the concept of “scene” and have worked on the relationship between scenes and agents with knowing very much about Burke’s entire scheme. They are now ready to read my short introduction to Burke’s pentad. This is a “Focused Instruction” activity, a “1” on my scale. It is essentially a lecture.

I will follow this with some group activities using the pentad to analyze popular movies, moving from “2” type “guided instruction” activities to “3” type collaborative activities. At the end they will get an independent writing assignment. I will describe these activities in detail in a following post.  So far, I have introduced some new concepts, explored them a bit with examples, and asked students to apply them.  In the following post, they will begin to use them for their own purposes.

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

In a previous post I described a “Flexible Module Planner” that introduces a bit less linearity to module design. My colleagues saw this planning document not only as a guide for designing new modules, but also for planning how to teach an existing one. This post is an expansion of that one, providing some background questions for discussion. The problem is, none of these questions have right answers. They all require decisions, sometimes made on the fly.

Here is a list of important concepts in ERWC (and teaching in general) that we often talk about in isolation though they overlap, interact, and sometimes contradict. For each one, success is about hitting the sweet spot for students, but those sweet spots can be different for different students even in the same classroom.

  • Backwards mapping (We plan the beginning with the end in mind. How much should we preview the end at the beginning?)
  • Gradual release of responsibility (If the goal is independent learning, when does scaffolding help and when does it hinder? How do we know?)
  • Self-teaching (What you teach yourself, you remember for a lifetime. How can we facilitate such independence?)
  • Connection (We want connections in all directions—text to text, reading to writing, student to issue, strategy to task, present task to future problem-solving. How do we make those connections, yet stay focused?)
  • Perceived Utility (We attend to and value what seems useful, but the use of a strategy is not always immediately apparent. How can we cultivate persistence in the face of a lack of perceived utility? How can we make the utility of a strategy appear?)
  • Engagement (Is engagement the product of a formula, i.e. Connection + Strategy + Utility + Goal? How do we implement this formula in the classroom?)
  • Transfer (Is transfer a product of sustained engagement? How do we design lessons with engagement in mind?)

I’ll discuss them one by one.

Backwards Mapping

We begin with the end in mind. A teaching unit is somewhat like the Midgard Serpent from Norse mythology, a snake eating its tail. The head and the tail are in the same place. When we begin a journey, we want to know where we are going, even if when we arrive it is not exactly as we imagined. Seeing the summit, even dimly through the clouds, inspires us to move on. I think that too many teaching modules, including some of my own, don’t reveal enough of the destination to inspire students to want to go there. We know what the writing task is. Why not show it to them? (One answer is that we want them to value the reading for its own sake, which is a valid point. So, a decision must be made.)

Gradual Release of Responsibility

This is a tough one. How much scaffolding is enough? How much is too much? How do we know? Formative assessment can help, but sometimes it is too late to change a decision. Even subtle hints can imply a reading and deny a student an opportunity to think for themselves. For example, in my seminar this semester, one group of students decided that they were against “prereading” activities and the “Preparing to Read” section of the ERWC template. Why? Because they were English majors and they thought that students had a right to their own interpretation. I argued against this because I think that prereading activities make a big difference in how students respond to reading. Activating background knowledge is an important reading strategy and students also want to know why they are reading something and what the teacher thinks is important to attend to. However, my students had a point. Everything we do before they read influences their interpretation.

For example, in my first mini-module built around two tiny stories written by Lydia Davis, my prereading instruction was simply, “As you read the following stories, think about relationships.” I gave them a theme for the stories. Without that theme, they would struggle longer, I think, to make sense of the stories, but would that struggle be productive? By giving them a push toward a particular reading, am I taking their own reading away? But perhaps they would give up on the odd little stories entirely? Again, it’s a decision. Even one word has consequences.

My students in “Advanced Expository Writing” had to research a topic of their own choice and create a website to present their findings. One task was to create a literature review. I did not tell them how many sources they needed to have. I said it was a rhetorical decision. They kept asking me, so often that I finally got mad at them (never a good development). I said, “It would be a lot easier for me if I just told you exactly what to do.” They answered, almost the whole class in unison, “That’s what we are used to!” I asked, “If you were going to your site for information about this topic, would you be satisfied with two sources?” They agreed that they would not. “How about three sources?” They got the point. And they agreed that they learned more this way. I was trying to get them to actually do the task of informing their readers, while they were looking for completion criteria so that they would know when they could stop pretending to do the task.

The model that Fisher and Frey discuss in Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility is basically “I do, we do, you do together, you do alone.”  In this .pdf from Doug Fisher, this translates to an instructional template with the following stages: Focus Lessons, Guided Instruction, Collaborative Learning, and Independent Tasks. The decision-making and control move from the teacher, to groups of students working collaboratively, and finally to the individual student.  Teacher lore says that it is better to be a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.”  In the gradual release model, this is not a binary.  The teacher shifts her role from sage to guide to inspirational presence over time, as needed.

Of course, the “gradual” part of gradual release means that we scaffold more at the beginning, but less and less as students learn more and more to work independently as they internalize concepts and strategies. The Fisher and Frey model shows that it is not only the amount of scaffolding that should change, but also the way it is offered and by whom.  Again, formative assessments, formal and informal, will help, but this is largely a matter of listening to and observing your students. In focus groups, ERWC teachers have reported that students sometimes say, “We have done this a million times [referring to an ERWC strategy], can’t we just read it?” This means they have internalized the strategy.  It’s time for a decision.

Self-Teaching

What we are taught by others often lasts only until the test, but what we teach ourselves or teach others remains for a long time. When I started learning music theory I wanted to write songs in modes other than major or minor. I spent half a day building triads on each degree of modal scales only to find that they were the same as the harmonized major scale, just starting in a different place. Then I turned to the next chapter in the music theory book and found that the author presented everything I had just discovered on my own. However, I still remember it, 40 years later. I remember little else from that music theory course. This is clearly related to the “gradual release” issue. Teaching yourself is the ideal, but it is not always possible. We all need guidance and help. But when should we step out of the way?  It’s a decision.

Connection

Probably the most important connection to be concerned about is the connection to the student’s lifeworld. We are interested in what seems real to us. But texts, issues, strategies, and writing tasks should all seem connected. When students get a worksheet on this and another on that, then a reading on lizards in Guam and another on a boy in Afghanistan, followed by an essay on “My Spring Break,” it all seems random, perhaps even postmodern. When you think about introducing a worksheet, a strategy, a reading, ask yourself, “How does this connect with what they are doing right now? How will it connect with what they are going to be doing tomorrow?” It’s a decision.

Perceived Utility

Here I might bring up what I call the “effort to benefit” ratio. We are usually willing to work to learn something that looks useful for the current task. If it also looks like it might come in handy for future imagined tasks, we might even put in more effort, and we might remember what we learned. However, if the strategy or tool appears very difficult and time-consuming to learn, and the benefit looks small, we might pass on it. I had this sort of experience when I first encountered Microsoft Excel. Learning to use formulas in spreadsheets was tough. I avoided it. Word processing was much more useful. However, when I started running a writing center and I had to make budgets and cost out proposals, I learned quickly. I realized that the first time I created a spreadsheet, it was a lot of work, but after it was created, I could use it over and over.

I think perceived utility is the first necessary condition to what people are now calling “transfer.” We need to help students see how the strategies we teach are actually useful, not meaningless rigmarole that they are being forced to learn. Here, the students make the decision, but we have to persuade them.

Engagement

“Engagement” is a hot topic in educational circles, but it is somewhat mysterious. Sometimes it is confused with “relevance,” and sometimes “entertainment.” Your mileage may vary, but I think it is actually a product of the right combination of the five factors described above.

Transfer

Transfer, in my view, is not just a matter of reinforcing the same limited number of concepts and strategies over and over. It is a matter of sustaining engagement over time so that the concepts are not only reinforced, but valued, perceived as useful, even loved because they solve problems and reduce anxiety.  It’s all about making the right decisions, in the right places.

The ERWC Approach: Inquiry-based Instruction

At our recent meeting to review ERWC modules in process, one of the issues that came up was explanation-based versus inquiry-based instruction. Robby Ching responded to one of the module writers with the following suggestions, which we thought were so good that they deserved to become a guest post on this blog. These suggestions apply to all kinds of texts–fictional and non-fictional.  Thank you , Robby!

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1. ERWC modules are inquiry-based. Their end goal is to enable students to do the work of understanding and analyzing texts independently. Instead of directing teachers to explain something, whether it is the meaning of a word, the way in which a text is structured, the purpose of a text feature, or a literary interpretation, see if you can set up an activity so that students can figure out answers themselves, either by collaborating in pairs or a group or independently.

2. Much of the inquiry students should be doing is rhetorical. At its most basic level, this is asking them to realize that the text was written by a real person who had an authentic reason for writing and hoped to accomplish something as a result. The module writer should be setting up opportunities in the form of activities in which students ask themselves why the writer chose to do whatever she or he did and what the effect of that choice is. Why did the writer choose the title or create short or long paragraphs or use a particular word or type of words (formal vs. informal, Spanish vs. English, disciplinary vs. familiar). Why did the writer structure the text in a particular way? Why include pictures or a subtitle or headings—or not? Why did the writer tell a particular story or use a particular piece of evidence? What did the writer want us to think? And then how do we as readers respond to what the writer is doing? What do we feel and think? Are we persuaded? At every point from Getting Ready to Read to Thinking Critically, there are “why” questions that can and should be asked. We don’t want to explain things about a text and its writer to students; instead we want to them to discover things—and what they discover may surprise us and enrich our own understanding. We include “possible answers” in italics not because they are right but because they suggest the intellectual bar we want to guide students toward.

3. Academic discussion is central to ERWC and to the goals of the NPD project. Most activities should take the form of a series of questions or collaborative activities that students respond to or work on in pairs or small groups. This then dictates the format: the purpose, the procedure, and the student activity done in pairs or small groups followed by some kind of reporting out, debriefing, or reflection that takes their understanding to a new level. Often this involves further questions for them to consider as a class.

4. Writing during the reading process is important both to get students thinking before they begin an activity and to reflect on what they learned at the end. Quickwrites can be used for multiple purposes, but keep them short. They should be focused on a single question. Reading a few aloud lets students benefit from what their peers are thinking. You can also provide formative assessment guidance to the teacher by suggesting what she may want to look for to guide her future instruction.

What Is a Mini-Module?

After we started getting feedback from the study of our first i3 grant, we found that there was a lot of evidence that some of our modules were too long and too complicated to finish in the alloted time. The teacher version of my 1984 module was 70 pages long! Because teachers were worried about not being able to finish the required eight modules in the year, they were sometimes getting to the end of the “Reading Rhetorically” section, having a discussion about the writing topic, and moving on to the next module. I began to think about how to make modules shorter.

The first move was to start talking about the ERWC “arc.” We saw an ERWC module as moving from a professional text to a student text, with defined stages in-between. We started telling teachers in professional learning sessions that the module wasn’t completed unless they completed the arc. We also started emphasizing using formative assessment activities to determine what students actually needed, rather than just going through each and every activity in the module.

Second, I started experimenting with mini-modules (6-8 pages) and even micro-modules (2-3 pages).

Third, I started promulgating the slogan, “Shorter, Simple, Smarter” to module writers, hoping that the final products will be slimmer.

Fourth, we are revising our recommended module writing process. Most of us tended to write a full-blown teacher version first and then extract the student materials to make the student version. Now we have an initial proposal, then a mini-module, and finally the full module. Some modules will stay in the mini-module form.

Which brings us to the question at hand, “What is a mini-module?”

I usually say this:

A mini-module is a module that is teachable in a week or less. It is a complete teachable module with at least one activity under each secondary heading of the template. It has a limited number of short texts, probably one or two. If it deals with a longer work, such as a novel, the mini-module serves as a kind of pilot for the approach the module writer is going to take. In that case, it deals with a passage, a page, a section, or a chapter. It accomplishes a piece of what the entire module will do.

Here is a chart that might help with thinking about designing a mini-module:

mini-mod-chart2
mini-mod-chart

“Reading Rhetorically” is a primary heading with three secondary headings–“Preparing to Read,” “Reading Purposefully,” and “Questioning the Text”–under it. A mini-module will have at least one activity under each one of those secondary headings. The next primary heading, “Preparing to Respond,” has only one secondary heading under it: “Discovering What You Think.” Most mini-modules will present the writing topic here under the first cell, “Considering Your Task and Your Rhetorical Situation.”

The final primary heading is “Writing Rhetorically.” There are three secondary headings: “Composing a Draft,” “Revising Rhetorically,” and “Editing.” Again, there should be at least one activity under each secondary heading.

All of this means that a mini-module will have seven activities as a minimum number. However, some of these activities can be quite minimalist. For example, in one of my Lydia Davis micro-modules, the activity for “Reading for Understanding” is simply, “Read the following stories, thinking about ‘relationships.'” Of course, you could have more than one activity under a secondary heading.

Once you have a functioning mini-module, you can begin to think about how it might be developed further. What other activities could be productively added? What other texts might be added? What other learning goals might be addressed? How could different student populations be better served? However, be careful about what you add. Make sure that whatever you add is necessary, or at least useful. After all, we want the completed module to be “Shorter, Simpler, Smarter.”

Updated Gatsby Module

I have updated the module on The Great Gatsby to ERWC 3.0.  This version includes the new 3.0 cells.  I eliminated some of the possible literary approaches and streamlined it a bit.  I now have a short writing assignment after each section so that instead of one module “arc” it has four mini arcs.   It is currently being piloted by at least one teacher.  After the pilot, I will create a teacher version.  If you have a chance to pilot it, please give me feedback.

The post on the older version is here.

The ERWC “Cell”

Why are the third-level headings in the ERWC Assignment Template called “cells”?

When we designed the first ERWC Assignment Template, we created a two column table with the ELA standards on the left hand and a description of an activity that addressed those standards on the right. As we added activities, we added rows, and eventually, we started naming categories of activities and describing the kinds of things that would happen at that point in the process. We started calling these categories “cells” because they were inserted into cells in the big table that was developing.

 

Recently, as we work on designing ERWC 3.0, some members of the committee began to question the term “cell,” saying that it wasn’t intuitive and that it reminded them of a prison cell. One even said that the term was “just weird.” I found myself defending the term, having used it without thinking much about it for more than 14 years.

Element

One of the suggested replacements was “element.” I took an immediate dislike to this, but I had to think carefully about why. In one sense, an “element” is a substance with a unique molecular structure that is uncombined and pure. In another sense, it is a necessary part of something else. Neither of these descriptions fit what we have in mind when we imagine our activity categories, which are not unique, pure, or necessary.  And “element” seemed solid and static. It didn’t feel right.

A Container

I began to think about the connotations of “cell.” A cell is a space with boundaries in which things happen. Yes, there are prison cells, but there are also monk’s cells. A cell has an inside and an outside. A biological cell is full of activity, consuming energy, processing things, accomplishing tasks, performing functions. A biological cell has a role to play, connects and collaborates with other cells, does work and passes the results on to other cells with different roles. A cell is part of a whole, part of an organism without which it cannot survive.

So a “cell” is an activity node, a waystation in a network of activity. I think this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish in naming the places and pathways of the template. We fill the cell with possible activities, processes, and products that connect to other cells and other products. And moving from the template cell to the module cell is a kind of reproduction, mitosis if you will. So yes, I think we should imagine a module to look something like the picture at the beginning of this post.  It is a pretty good metaphor for what we are doing. I think we should keep the term.

New 1984 Writing Prompts

In a college-level literature course for English majors, the general practice is to assign several novels or other works and then let the students decide what they want to write about. Usually, this involves choosing a theme, a motif, a set of symbols, a social issue, or other focus and examining how it plays out in a particular work or works. Students support their reading of the work with evidence from the text. However, this practice is a bit too open-ended for non-majors. For ERWC, the writing assignment needs to have more focus.

A novel like 1984 is bristling with themes and big ideas to write about. However, the Internet creates problems in this regard. All of the obvious themes and big ideas have been explored in Spark Notes, Cliff’s Notes and various homework helper sites. A student can easily find essays to download, or detailed comments to copy and paste from Goodreads and other review sites.

In my original module, I tried to follow somewhat unconventional themes that perhaps had not been explored so thoroughly. I created four topics:

  1. The Party and Power: Can a society based on hate survive?
  2. The Fall of Big Brother: What might cause the fall of Big Brother?
  3. The Party and Objective Reality: Can Big Brother decide what is real and what is not?
  4. Surveillance and Big Brother: Is our technology taking us closer to the world of Big Brother?

Because these were all complex issues, I tried to help students by quoting relevant passages and asking lots of questions about subtopics. The prompts ended up being long and complicated, which is why I kept coming back to the core questions listed above. Recently, I asked one of my colleagues on the ERWC Steering Committee, who has read more sample ERWC essays than anyone I know, how these topics were working. The news was not good. Most students chose the fourth question about technology. Those who chose the first one about a society based on hate usually just answered “no” and went on to describe how horrible it was to live in Oceania. The topics were not inspiring good writing or thinking.

The other two topics were rarely used. The second topic about the fall of Big Brother requires an understanding of the fictitious book by Emmanuel Goldstein, plus an understanding of the implications of the appendix, the essay on Newspeak. It is an interesting political question, but too much for most students. The third topic, about Big Brother’s control of the perception of reality through language and power, is at its heart an epistemological question. I was setting the bar pretty high.

So as I revise the module for ERWC 3.0, one of my tasks is to create new writing prompts. My criteria are as follows: the prompt should

  • Require that the student have read the novel
  • Connect ideas from the novel to the student’s own experience
  • Be formulated in such a way that the student can take a stance and write a thesis statement

Here is a list of possible new topics (linked here and pasted below).  Please help me refine them by posting a comment:

1. Winston Smith is a low-level party member. In the course of the novel he has several interactions with the “proles” (short for “proletariat, essentially “the people”). How are the lives of proles and party members different? Would you rather be a prole or a Party member in 1984? Provide specific examples from the novel to support your argument.

2. The world of Big Brother has three main slogans:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

These slogans seem to be paradoxical and contradictory on the surface, but in the world of Big Brother, they make a kind of sense. Each is like an equation, but how can one thing equal its opposite? Perhaps it would be better to ask “How can one thing lead to its opposite?” Could war abroad lead to peace at home? Could absolute freedom make you a slave to your own desires? Could knowing too much make you think more than act? Choose one of these slogans and explore what it means in 1984, using examples from the book. Then think about how the slogan might apply in our own society.

3. The people of Oceania are under constant surveillance by the government, through telescreens and microphones. How does this surveillance affect the lives of the people? If you knew your TV, your smartphone, and other devices were constantly watching and listening to you, how would you change your behavior? In a well-organized essay, discuss the effects of surveillance in the novel and potentially in our own lives.

4. 1984 provides a cautionary tale about the potential of surveillance technology to allow an authoritarian government to control the population. At present, current technology, including smartphones, web cams, GPS tracking, internet-connected home appliances, and many other items, is being used to make daily life more convenient. However, each of these is potentially a very powerful surveillance technology that the totalitarian oligarchy of 1984 would have been overjoyed to use. At this moment, the government, or another entity, could easily see every Web site you have visited, read every message you ever sent, and listen to every phone call. In what ways does 1984 suggest that we should be worried that our use of electronic devices could someday lead to totalitarian control? If Big Brother really might use our electronics to watch us, what could we do to stop it?

5. Science fiction novels don’t always try to predict the future, but in 1984, Orwell is trying to warn us of what might happen if new propaganda techniques and technology were combined in the hands of an authoritarian leader. As a prediction of the future, how accurate is 1984? In a well-organized essay, discuss what Orwell got right, and what he got wrong. Support your arguments with examples from the text.

6. “Newspeak” is attempt by Big Brother to control thought by reducing the number of words in the language and eliminating words that might lead to “thoughtcrime,” which is itself a Newspeak word. Is it possible to control thought through controlling language? Does our own society have similar tendencies? In a well-organized essay, discuss examples of Newspeak in the novel and how this kind of control might function in our own society.

Shorter, Simpler, Smarter: Tips for Module Writers

I have joked in previous posts that my position on new ERWC modules is that they should be “shorter, simpler, and smarter” than our previous efforts.  I have been asked to clarify what I mean by that and how it might be achieved.  As ERWC is about to gear up for a mad dash of module writing, it is an appropriate time to unpack that slogan.  In response, I have brainstormed a series of tips, based on my experience writing modules and getting feedback on how they perform in the classroom.   It turned out there were ten.  Here they are:

  1. What is the most interesting aspect of the text? Is it the rhetorical strategies? Is it the claims, the arguments, and the evidence? Is it the style? Is it ethos constructed by the author? Is it the implications for our lives, or for the future? Focus your attention on the most interesting elements.
  2. Design learning goals that are appropriate for the course, the standards, the students and the text. Don’t try to do everything at once.
  3. Build your module from the inside out by writing a micro-module first. After choosing your text or texts, design a writing prompt, then a prereading activity, a reading activity, and a critical activity that lead up to it. Then consult the template and the course matrix to think about what might be added to enhance the module and support the learning goals.
  4. Don’t go cell by cell and design an activity for each one. Each cell is a possible door. Don’t open every one. You are charting a path, not ransacking a building.
  5. Every activity should have a clear purpose that supports the learning goals and moves the student toward the writing assignment.
  6. When you add an activity, think about how it integrates with other parts of the module. Can a written product produced in this activity be used for another task in a later one? Will the thinking or analysis used here be useful for a later step?
  7. When adding a new text or activity, always consider the effort-to-benefit ratio. Is the effort expended by the student worth the benefit they will get from it?
  8. When you add another text to the mix, think carefully about what is gained by it. Do you really need another perspective or more data? Do the texts complement each other, clash productively, or just give you more of the same?
  9. When writing your module, try to think like a teacher and think like a student. Imagine you are teaching your module, then imagine an inexperienced teacher teaching it, then imagine being a student in the class. Ask yourself, “What can they do now that they couldn’t do before?” and “What am I preparing them to do later?”
  10. Don’t present every interesting thing you have discovered about the text. Leave some treasures for students to find on their own.

To complement this list of tips for module writers, I have also posted the new ERWC 3.0 Assignment Template Outline with Key Questions, which is the short version of the template that serves as a cheat sheet for module writers.

A Narrative with a Point

An ERWC 3.0 Mini-Module

On May 1, 2017, Jimmy Kimmel opened his show with a story about his son, who was born with a heart defect.  He began

I have a story to tell about something that happened to our family last week. I’m sorry, you know I try not to get emotional, but it was a scary story, and before I go into it I want you to know it has a happy ending. Don’t get too upset; leave that to me.

It was an unusual beginning for a comedy show. He tells his audience that the story is scary, but not to worry, it has a happy ending, referencing both the past and the future at the outset. Then he returns to the past to begin his narrative. His son is born, but in the recovery room, a nurse notices something unusual. His son is rushed to another room, which soon fills up with doctors and specialists. Everyone is worried as more tests are made. Meanwhile, Kimmel’s wife is still in the recovery room, oblivious to any problems. Finally, Kimmel’s son is rushed to Children’s Hospital for heart surgery. Everything turns out ok.

Kimmel thanks doctors, nurses, and many others, and describes a happy home life with his new son. But then he makes a political point: “No parent should ever have to decide if they can afford to save their child’s life.” He connects this thesis to the vote on repealing the Affordable Care Act that is about to take place in the Senate.  This quickly became known as the “Jimmy Kimmel” test for the political viability of a health care policy.

The narrative is a well-crafted rhetorical piece with emotional appeals, strong identification, and various appeals to both medical and political logos. It also does interesting things with narrative time.  As he delivers the monologue, he moves back and forth between show time, hospital time, home time, and the larger political moment. There are many “nows” in his story, as there are in most stories, including the “now” of senators taking a vote on health care.

We used this monologue at our leadership events to introduce the concept of the rhetorical situation.  I found it so interesting that I decided to create a  mini module around it, based on the current draft of the ERWC 3.0 template.  See what you think.  Please post comments on this site.

What will ERWC 3.0 be like?

People have been asking me how ERWC will change as we work on the new NPD and i3 grants. I have some ideas, but we are just beginning our work. Although I nominally chair the steering committee, there are a lot of talented people on the various ERWC committees, and we don’t always initially agree. Still, I think that some things have become relatively clear.

11th Grade Course

Currently the ERWC curriculum consists of a 12th grade course with 12 modules, from which teachers select 8-10, with additional modules for grades 7-11. Our new plan is to create an 11th grade course and redesign the 12th grade. Some existing modules will remain, but some may be retired and some shifted to 11th grade. Many new modules will be created. The current plan is for each course to have eight major module slots with at least two to three possible choices for each slot. Mini-modules introducing rhetorical concepts will be available for the transitions between the major modules. The courses will form a coherent whole and the expected outcomes will be more clearly sequenced, but it will not be necessary for a student to take the 11th grade course in order to do well in the 12th grade. Our intention is to provide teachers and students with greater flexibility than in the past.

Literary Texts

The existing ERWC does a good job of addressing California’s English language arts (ELA) standards related to reading and writing expository and persuasive texts. Although literary texts have always been included in ERWC, they have not been a major focus. ERWC 3.0 will include more novels, poems, and short stories and will address all ELA standards, including speaking and listening. The ERWC approach to literature will go beyond the traditional focus on the use and interpretation of figurative language. Each literary module will take up multiple perspectives and theoretical approaches and encourage multiple interpretations. Of course, the rhetorical perspective that is built into ERWC will be a prominent one. The pilot module on The Great Gatsby is a good example of what an ERWC literary module will look like.

The Template

The Assignment Template has been called the DNA of ERWC. It is an apt metaphor because the template contains the structure and sequence of every module. It has been the foundation of our success and we are reluctant to alter it greatly. However, certain aspects of it need to evolve. Right now we are asking ourselves four big questions:

  1. How can we make ERWC more accessible to students with different learning strengths and needs?
  2. How can we incorporate Universal Design for Learning?
  3. How can we better support English learners?
  4. How can we update the template to reflect current research and new approaches?

We have lots of ideas about the first three questions. The problem is to integrate the material without turning the template into a dissertation. On the fourth question, we are still negotiating some important issues about theory and practice.

New Modules

My oft-repeated slogan for our new and revised modules is that they should be “Shorter, Simpler, Smarter.” I think it is beginning to catch on. In the last i3 study we found that many teachers were not able to finish one module before going on to the next one. This was one reason we started talking about the ERWC “Arc” and saying that a module moved from a professional text to a student text. It also was clear that it was difficult for teachers to finish eight modules in a year. In the last rewrite we had simply added too many activities and in some cases, too many texts (I was the biggest offender in this regard). Our idea was that we would provide lots of activities so that teachers could use formative assessment to determine which activities their students needed and which they did not. In practice, teachers new to ERWC may not have had enough experience with the materials to make these decisions. They tried to teach everything.

What the slogan really means is that module writers should be asking themselves questions such as

  1. Do I really need this activity or text to achieve the goals of the module?
  2. Is there a simpler way to do this activity and get the same result?
  3. Can I use the product of this activity in another activity for double benefit?
  4. Has another module already taught this sufficiently? Can I build on it?

Another way to look at this issue is to consider the effort to benefit ratio. In other words, is this complex or difficult activity worth the benefit it will achieve?

And we also face the challenge of balancing the need to add strategies and activities for integrated English language development to modules and still keep them shorter and simpler.

Rhetorical Concepts

When we designed ERWC 1.0, most high school teachers were unfamiliar with rhetoric. We introduced Aristotle’s three appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos—and based most of our critical thinking questions on them. We kept it simple. Now, most teachers are aware of this aspect of Aristotle and are ready to teach a more complex set of rhetorical tools. We will offer more sophisticated means for analyzing audience and purpose, building on Aristotle, but going beyond. The new version of “Three Ways to Persuade” is one example of this extension. We will focus more attention on the rhetorical situation, using concepts such as “kairos” (timeliness and appropriateness) and “exigence” (that which moves the speaker to speak). Our task is to present these concepts in such a way that they are easily understood and used in various contexts and situations. These new materials are under development.

In Summary

There will be lots of tweaks, revisions, and additions, but ERWC will remain recognizably ERWC. The new courses are going to be very interesting. We will address more standards and provide more tools and strategies for different populations of students. We will have new modules, texts, and strategies. It is an exciting time to be involved in ERWC.