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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Meaningful Work in the Literacy Classroom

In my last post I discussed the concept of meaningful work and how it is essential to the recruitment,
development and retention of teachers. In this post I would like to address how meaningful work is essential to student learning. As teachers we have every right to demand the autonomy, complexity and rewards that are necessary to making our work meaningful. At the same time, we have the professional obligation to provide meaningful work for our students, so that we may help activate student motivation to learn and the students may optimize their learning.

As Malcolm Gladwell has discussed in his 2009 book, Outliers, meaningful work is one major component of achieving success in life. It is meaningful work that drives people to master a complex craft, whether it be in the arts, as with The Beatles and the hours upon hours of practice they got in Hamburg, Germany strip clubs before they hit it big; or in the sciences, as with Bill Gates, who spent thousands and thousands of hours writing computer programs before he achieved success with Microsoft; or in sports, where Michael Jordan couldn’t even make his high school basketball team and yet through hard practice went on to become the greatest player of all time. To learn something well takes time and commitment (and yes, talent. But many talented people have not achieved greatness).

How do we get this type of commitment to hard work from our students? One possible answer is by providing them with meaningful work. The work that The Beatles, Bill Gates and Michael Jordan did was personally meaningful to them, so they were willing to make the commitment and put in the effort. What can teachers learn from this?

In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS, Gladwell defined meaningful work this way:

Meaningful work is one of the most important things we can impart to children. Meaningful work is work that is autonomous. Work that is complex, that occupies your mind. And work where there is a relationship between effort and reward — for everything you put in, you get something out…

So meaningful work involves autonomy, complexity and direct relationship between effort and reward. It may seem a daunting task to provide every individual in our class with meaningful work as Gladwell defines it. But let’s take a close look at this through the discipline that I know best – literacy.

By definition, literacy is meaningful work. Whether we are reading or listening, writing or speaking, we are in the business of making meaning or communicating meaning. Too often, however, the way we teach these skills obscures the meaningfulness of the work. What would a meaningful approach to literacy instruction look like? A look at Gladwell’s three elements of meaningful work might be helpful.


In order to provide students with autonomy in reading and writing, we need to insure that students get a considerable element of choice in their reading and writing. In reading this means time is given over in class to independent reading. Students need to be encouraged to explore their passions through reading and teachers need to be knowledgeable about a broad range of reading choices and student interests to guide children toward reading they may be passionate about. As students read independently, teachers are available to assist students over bumpy patches, confer with students about their understanding of what they are reading and suggest other books on similar topics.

As a 9th grader in Benjamin Franklin Junior High School in 1961, I, along with everyone else in my English class, was assigned to read Silas Marner, by George Eliot. I am sure Silas Marner is a great book, but as a fourteen year-old mainly interested in baseball and girls, I hated that book. I could not make sense of it and eventually gave up reading it and tried to fake my way through the class and the subsequent test. The back of the edition of Silas Marner I was given, however, contained a short novel by John Steinbeck, The Pearl. Sitting in class one day trying to avoid being called upon, I stumbled across The Pearl, and started reading. I loved it. I was transported from my classroom to coastal Mexico and I was transfixed by the graceful sentences wrought by Mr. Steinbeck. I read it during class, on the bus on the way home from school, and finished it that night in bed. I quickly became a Steinbeck aficionado and by the end of high school had read virtually everything he had written (Steinbeck wrote a lot of short novels that I found great for book reports). My choice to read Steinbeck unleashed a previously untapped passion to read. If we are to develop life-long readers, we are going to have to provide students with some choice.

In writing, autonomy means providing children with choice in their topics, real purposes for writing and genuine audiences to receive the writing. Students often aren’t very good at identifying the topics they are passionate about and that is where the teacher comes in, helping children identify a passion, a concern, an area of expertise and helping them find their voice to communicate about these things. I think of the book Black Ants and Buddhists, by teacher Mary Cowhey, that shows how an entire classroom of children was activated to read, write and think critically about issues of social justice through a discussion of a troop of ants that invaded the classroom one day. Kids feel passionately about many things, rather than assigning writing topics, we would do better to help students find those topics of passion and guide them to write about them.

What about the skills you ask? What about grammar? What about spelling? What about vocabulary? I would argue that when kids are reading deeply and writing thoughtfully based on a level of autonomy in the classroom, we can teach any of the skills within that context, either through directly instructing through mini-lessons or through individual conferences.


Both reading and writing are, of course, complex processes. The trick here is applying Gladwell’s complexity principle to teaching and learning. Students are capable of complex work and complex thought, but this complexity must be mediated by a teacher. Where we want students to be working is in their “zone of proximal development”, that is, at a level of thinking that is just above where they can function easily and comfortably, but not so far above their level that they cannot make meaning of the material. Writing provides an ideal medium for this type of instruction, since when children are writing on their own chosen topics and are writing for their own chosen reasons, the work is uniquely individualized and children are working in their zone. Teachers can then work with students to move that zone forward through conferences where suggestions for extending, refining and reorganizing thought can be conducted.

Reading creates some different kinds of challenges when it comes to complexity. If a text is too complex for a particular reader, meaning will be lost and the reader may lose interest. On the other hand, if the child is particularly interested in a topic, she may struggle through a “too difficult” text through shear will. As the teacher our job is to advise students on reading choices, let them try reading things we may think are too difficult sometimes, and support their growing understanding of the texts, again through conferences or mini-lessons.

We will also want to provide the students with exposure to complex texts through read-alouds. Since most children have a listening comprehension about two years above their reading level and since the teacher can provide mediation of the text while reading aloud, high quality challenging books should be chosen for classroom read-alouds. By asking students to grapple with more complex texts in the safety of the read-aloud environment, we can help insure both growth in reading comprehension and an interest in reading more difficult text.

Relationship between effort and reward

In the business world, the relationship between effort and reward is pretty clear: You work hard and well and you make more money. In school this relationship is more complex. A few education reformers have actually tried paying students for attending school and working hard with disappointing (for them) results. When we think in terms of effort and reward for school students we might think of grades, and hard work should, I suppose, be rewarded with good grades, although you will find many who say that grades should be based solely on achievement and not include effort.

To me, money or grades are false rewards. I would prefer to de-emphasize the grade as the reward and focus the rewards on what all real readers and real writers want – an audience for their thoughts and ideas. A writer wants to know what a reader thinks of the work. A reader wants to share thoughts on the reading with others and hear what others think. So as teachers we must read our students’ writing and listen to our students talk about their reading and provide genuine feedback that acknowledges what the student has done well and constructively suggests what the student needs to focus on next. We need to reward our students with respect for their efforts by being a knowledgeable audience for their efforts. I don’t think any monetary rewards or stickers can ever replace a few moments of rapt attention from the teacher. Students respond to teachers who are good listeners. Reward your students with the gift of your attention.

If this all sounds to you like a recommendation for a reader’s/writer’s workshop approach to literacy instruction, you would be correct. The workshop structure provides the opportunity for independent reading, personal choice writing, targeted mini-lessons and teacher conferring that will make the hard work of learning to read and write well meaningful work.

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