Updated: Feb 13, 2020
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“But we must cultivate our garden,” is the very last line of Voltaire’s 18th century satire, Candide. This final statement was the protagonist’s response as he reflected on the multitude of extreme hardships he and his cohort were forced to endure before ultimately arriving at a Turkish farm. The author was referring to the symbolic idea of garden cultivation: much like weeding and pruning, it emphasizes the importance of identifying and tending to one’s own struggles in life for the sake of self-improvement, rather than depending on an outside source to guide us in interpreting our misfortunes. Candide’s conclusion represents a personal awakening and commitment to self-improvement. This deceptively simple quotation culminates the very essence of metacognitive and self-regulated learning, as it refers to an introspective observation in order to self-assess what is needed, determine the most appropriate course of action to take, and to reflect on how to improve. Essentially the metacognitive approach to learning is a personal enlightenment that touches every facet of life. Self-regulating one’s learning trains a learner to be their own teacher, and ideally, my overall objective as an English teacher, is to empower my students with new instincts on which they can rely, not only in the classroom, but throughout life, whereas my short-term contribution to this effort shall be incorporating what I believe are the best metacognitive strategies for my secondary literature and Language Arts students.
In my literature classroom, the stages of investigating a text allow for a number of strategies to be used in order to achieve our learning goals. The best approach to self-regulation here would be for students to keep a separate journal for monitoring each stage of the self regulation cycle in the unit. I propose that the worksheets related to each stage be uploaded to a personal on-line journal. This journal would be proof of the students’ work devoted to the learning of the class content as well as integrating a permanent record of metacognitive strategies for future use. This initial stage would also require the use of metacognitive terminology so that their awareness is heightened to a new level.
My diction as an instructor must be tailored to reminding students to stay mindful as we enter this first stage of engaging with a text. To instill good habits of metacognitive knowledge and awareness, careful phrasing and advice must be used to keep them mindful of their goals. For example, the teacher must use consistent phrasing, suggestions and direct questioning, such as, “Based on the objectives of this unit, articulate what success looks like to you.” “What strategies are the most useful for your goal?” “Everyone stop and assess your current situation - what can help you to become more alert and focused right now?” As time passes and the lesson develops further, I’d continue my verbal reminders of mindfulness with a more specific focus related to the unit objectives, such as, “What distractions are holding you back right now, and what can be done to remedy that?” After the assessments, the focus of the lesson and my diction, would switch accordingly to reflection. I’d ask, “Can you articulate what you’ve learned and, and how you learned,” “How have your thinking or opinions changed since the beginning?” and “What would you do differently next time?” Carefully selected words before, during, and after the lesson, for the purpose of instilling an internal monologue of awareness, are essential but not enough to fully integrate the metacognitive habits to make successful self-regulated learners, because carefully selected strategies are equally as essential.
As we start out engaging with a new text, our learning objectives are to first examine (a) the author’s background, (b) the author’s purpose or motivation for writing, (c) the historical time period of the work, and (d) the author’s writing style. We then narrow our focus on the (e) main characters, (f) the themes, and (g) the key vocabulary terms. This stage is critical as students are not yet fully engaged in the content. This moment is when the content is most vulnerable, as it requires the teacher’s full commitment to the buy-in. Frontloading the unit with preparatory information builds an essential knowledge base. In the metacognitive text entitled But Will it Work with Real Students? Scenarios for teaching Secondary Language Arts, authors Alsup and Bush describe the value of literature learning as follows: “We believe in the power of books to provide both windows and mirrors into the lives of others and ourselves. Literature as a window allows readers to experience other people, places, and events unfamiliar to them - the quintessential vicarious experience. Literature as a mirror allows readers to see themselves reflected in ways that increase self-awareness and enrich interactions with others. ” In other words, there is a lot at stake if this stage falters. The preparation stage not only assesses their background knowledge but also gages the students’ readiness for learning. To accomplish this, I propose the use of starter activities and other preparation strategies ranging from lesson wrappers, the “What do I already know” and “What do I need to know” activities, and an anticipation guide to the text we’re reading which particularly focuses on students’ opinions on thematic statements of the text. An example of this would be in a questionnaire included in the literature packet for Exupéry’s novella The Little Prince. On this page, students would respond to a Likert scale ranging from strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, to strongly disagree with about ten statements such as “Children’s stories have nothing to teach me” or “I believe one should keep their one’s childlike innocence even in adulthood.” Afterwards, they choose their top three and elaborate on why they think the way they do. These simple but essential activities prepare them for a deeper investigation into the text, otherwise known as the preparations stage of self-regulated learning.
Once we finish the preparation stage, we must dive into engagement with the text through close reading. Reading during class is the most effective way to ensure student comprehension because guided reading drives home important points that they would otherwise miss if they were to read independently as homework. Therefore, in class, we might read along with an ebook recording to stay together, or if time allows, we might take turns reading aloud section by section, or we even read silently. After the assigned passage is done, I would then assign smaller sections to small groups. During this stage, we investigate the character’s conflict, the changes in plot and characterization made during this conflict, all the while relating this conflict back to the author’s purpose. The appropriate strategies here would include a range of options. For fun, I’d have them write a limerick about a character. It should be a bit funny, have five lines, and use the AABBA a rhyme scheme. This would allow students to manipulate words to show engagement with the text. These limericks could be posted on the classroom wall for a print-rich atmosphere. Alternatively, the Think, Pair, Share activity lends itself well to investigation of the content, after the teacher poses a question that requires some depth of thought. During this stage, keeping tabs on the learning objectives can be done by using checklists. Students can use a checklist to monitor their progress and mastery of a skill. For example in the descriptive writing unit, we look for three things: figurative language, precise vocabulary, and sensory imagery. We keep these items at the forefront of our minds as we go, so students can annotate in their novels each time they identify it. Not only do they identify, but they also need to replicate it. For example, in the same writing style of imagist poet William Carlos Williams, they’d work in pairs to create a poem that describes an easily overlooked object in their vicinity, like an eraser rubbing or a discarded tissue. They elevate this lowly object using descriptive language, sensory imagery, and precise vocabulary to give it grandeur. An attached picture to their poem becomes a work of art displayed around the classroom. Alternatively, Literature Circles is effective, in which each student in a small group is assigned a role - summarizer, questioner, predictor, vocabulary generator, or theme finder. Once the students have had ample interaction with the text and come up with results, they’ll be asked to give mini-presentations to the whole class. They follow up this activity with a reflection in their online journals. We continue like this until assessment time is over, which is when we enter the appraisal stage.
At the end of the unit or project, students would then refer to their English journals and assess their choices. This final stage lends itself well to a number of strategies allowing students to reflect on what and how they learned, and how they could adapt. The Post Lesson Wrapper activity facilitates introspective thinking. A series of writing prompts would allow reflection over the entire process, including their work, their obstacles, strengths and weaknesses, and their predictions on more effective strategies in the future. As part of the lesson wrapper, a final survey of the text would include a questionnaire asking them to reflect on the individual student’s enjoyment and ability to fully comprehend the author’s purpose, whether or not it made a deep impression, and whether or not they allowed the character’s conflict to expand their awareness of the human condition. Ultimately my purpose is to assess their experience of the text in an engaging way. Literature reading and text handling is only a fraction of English however, with the other half being Language Arts, which is where we investigate the hands-on aspect of essay writing.
In the Language Arts classroom, the undertaking of an essay from beginning to end includes several stages, just like investigating a text. At the outset, students would need to fully grasp the type of essay and what is required of them. Therefore, a number of metacognitive starter activities could be employed here, namely a diagnostic investigation of their goals. Suppose they must do a persuasive essay. The diagnostic questionnaire would ask, “What does an effective persuasive essay look like?” and “What persuasive techniques or literary techniques should be included in an essay?” I would show them the assessment rubric up front in order to clearly state the scoring parameters. Students would create a new segment in their online journals reflecting on learning goals, choosing the proper strategy moving forward, and assess learning readiness. This can be done through a checklist or Likert scale. Then they narrow down and choose their topics, outline their arguments, research reliable resources, and start their first drafts. As we go, I’d show them examples of literary devices of persuasion, i.e. ethos, pathos, and logos. To further enforce the content, a Knowledge Hunt activity would support learning. I’d place pertinent information and examples of pathos, logos, and ethos around the room for them to search and report back to their groups. As their first drafts develop, I’d then create a peer editing activity in which their anonymous essays would be passed to small groups to read. A checklist of items to find within the essay would help guide them. They must find a cogent argument, reasonable support, persuasive devices, figurative language, and a clear introduction and conclusion. After that, they could give advice for improvement, plus one thing the writer did well that the editor could adapt in their own essay. Once their final drafts are done, the appraisal stage ensues. They could employ the DIRT strategy in their online journals, in which they reflect on the assessment criteria, what and how they learned, their time management, state of mind, and adaptation for the future. Effective essay writing is a challenging unit to teach and learn, but once the metacognitive skills are internalized, they stay.
One full school year is not a lot of time, unfortunately. It is my hope, however, that within that time, my students will be well equipped with the necessary skills to mindfully plan, monitor, evaluate, and regulate their own learning, not only in my classroom, but other classrooms, and even beyond school. During their time with me, they would be given the opportunity to engage with metacognitive learning. Just like Candide helped readers to understand, there is no need to consult an outside source when one has achieved self-regulation as a learner. We become our own teachers and metaphorically “cultivate our garden.”
Alsup, Janet, and Jonathan Bush. But Will It Work with Real Students?: Scenarios for Teaching Secondary English Language Arts. National Council of Teachers of English, 2003.
Panadero, Ernesto. “A Review of Self-Regulated Learning: Six Models and Four Directions for Research.” Frontiers in Psychology, Frontiers Media S.A., 28 Apr. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5408091/.
Voltaire. Candide. 1759, http://www.esp.org/books/voltaire/candide.pdf.