Engaging senior students in learning in English and English Language

Engaged students in learning
Suzanne Toniolo
English Learning Leader, Marcellin College

A busy boys school means teachers are constantly reflecting and adapting their practice to meet the demands of the timetable, attention span of students and new exciting learning spaces that cry out for innovative practice.

We need to find ways to encourage students to engage with the texts beyond the scope and content we can cover in class. We also need to teach them thinking and writing skills, and to have a voice about the themes and issues in the texts. We use a variety of protocols to get the students thinking, talking, writing, moving, and most importantly learning.

We use the See / Think / Wonder protocol for analysing political cartoons, advertisements, and other combinations of visual and verbal texts in English and English Language classes.

This protocol slows down the thinking process and begs students to examine the layers within a text. It allows them to consider the text’s construction rather than make quick assumptions about it. 

Whiteboard

See / Think / Wonder protocol

See - allows students to make both simple and complex observations about the layout, language choices and formatting of the text. When done in small groups, this allows students to “see” things in the text they wouldn’t if they were looking at it on their own. The things they see then support them in the next step of the protocol.

Think - allows students to ask questions of the text. “Which meaning of the word works better here?” “I think there is a pattern emerging here..." “The connotations of the words imply…” Once they have had the chance to notice patterns and make insightful observations, they then have the chance to “wonder”. This step is the most complex and most rewarding. 

Wonder - affords the students the chance to imagine they are a stakeholder, character or participant, and also be the omniscient narrator, in that they can voice things about the text that perhaps even the author didn’t think about. “I wonder what was the author’s incentive was to publish this text at this time?” “I wonder about the letters of complaint and support the author received after this” “I wonder how young American women responded to this?”

These students learnt this protocol for examining texts closely so they could then apply these same steps to their own researched and collected examples.

In English Language, students need to gather their own examples of contextual language in the media, government and in their own personal lives. This 3-step protocol helps them to distance themselves from the text and become a critical observer, but also allows them to get intimate with the text and thus better grapple with the questions that need answering. 

For the Senior English Language essay, this 3 step protocol used was

  1. See: equates to them finding their own examples
  2. Think: allows them to contextualise the example and begin to question its appropriateness
  3. Wonder: allows them to make inferences and form arguments.

The product of this protocol is improved ability to infer and argue after having been able to more closely examine a text.

But sometimes the process is just as important as the product and it is important to be explicit about how learning happens. The first time I used the See / Think / Wonder protocol with my year 12 classes, I asked the students to reflect on the process, not just the product. As they were engaged in the process, I walked amongst them and their small groups, noting down the snippets from their group-talk. I wrote these snippets on the front board for the class to see at the end of the lesson. 

Comments I gathered were 

  • “I didn’t notice that the first time I saw it”
  • “That word contradicts these words. I wonder where the truth really lies”
  • “The image depicts this idea, but that contrasts with the ideas suggested by the words”
  • “I’m glad she doesn’t want me to tell the whole class my answers”
  • “I saw something similar to this in another example I have already collected”

I asked the students to tell me why I gathered their comments and put them on the board. I then asked them to explain to me where was the learning in this activity and their answers were astounding. They rattled off these insights about their own learning: having a voice in a small group rather than being forced to talk to the whole class; noticing intricacies in a text takes several viewings; other people’s interpretations allow your own to grow or to be challenged; understanding the author and intended audience helps us understand the appropriateness of the text; this same process is going to help me better analyse my own examples; this process is going to encourage faster thinking about texts but at a deeper level; so much planning goes in to advertisements that you otherwise don’t notice until you strip back the layers…and so on.

So how do I engage my students into their learning? I allow protocols into the classroom from time to time. Step away from the front of the room and the whiteboard and let the students move into small groups and spaces. Let students work out what is important in the text rather than tell them. Explain to them the learning process and congratulate them for enjoying it.