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”? Are we supposed to imagine them looking like this?

purplecells1

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.