In the inaugural episode of the “High Tech High Unboxed: Pro Sessions” podcast series, EL Education Chief Academic Officer Ron Berger explains how to help a class work together to make sense of an academic text that most adults would be unable to read on their own.
Our other podcast episode featuring Ron Berger is “Ron Berger on the magic of beautiful lessons, and of “no lesson at all”
Stacey Caillier’s interview with Ron Berger is “Crafting Beautiful Lessons: An Interview with Ron Berger”
Resources from EL Education: In this video, Hillary Mills’ 11th grade biology class at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in New York City grapples with a scientific figure taken from an article on TALEN gene therapy.
This video shows Peter Hill’s 8th grade science class at King Middle School (Portland, Maine) grappling with an article about how magnets and wires generate electricity.
A few years ago, a comedy sketch from the duo Key and Peele got played at a staff meeting at my school. In the sketch, two sportscasters are hosting a show called Teaching Center.
Hello, and welcome to Teaching Center. I’m Boyd Maxwell with today’s top stories from the exciting world of teaching.
And I’m Perry Schmidt.
Here’s their play by play of the teaching move that they chose as highlight of the day.
Now, look at this. She looks left, then right, looks past the students with their arms up in the air, spots Max near the back– sees that even though his hand isn’t up, he’s engaged.
It was Fort Sumter.
Oh, come on. See what she did there? She’s bringing an introvert into the discussion, y’all. That’s a teacher of the year play right there.
That’s right, Boyd.
If you teach, this is an irresistible premise. What if pro teaching were treated with as much reverence as pro football? But there’s one thing the sketch gets wrong. Teaching isn’t like playing a sport. It’s like playing six different sports at the same time. Plus, you have to navigate between all the playing field using a map and a compass, and you’ll be doing all your own first aid.
There’s just so much you’re supposed to know how to do really well as a teacher, and it all comes at you at once unpredictably. That’s why we’re starting a feature on this podcast that we call Pro Session.
I’m Alec Patton. This is High Tech High Unboxed, and that’s our special Pro Sessions theme music. In every Pro Session, I’ll sit down with an expert to go deep on one of the hundreds of skills that goes into being a teacher.
Today I’m talking to Ron Berger. Ron is the Chief Academic Officer of EL Education, a network of over 150 schools across the United States. But before that, he taught elementary school for 28 years, so he knows a lot about teaching. Today Ron is explaining a strategy that he calls a full-class grapple. We’re mostly talking about how to use it for reading, but it also works for math. Here’s Ron explaining the concept to Stacey Caillier, Director of the Center for Research on Equity and Innovation.
Giving kids a written piece where you say, no one in this class is going to understand this page, nobody. And your parents wouldn’t understand this page because it comes from an adult scientific journal. And it’s about a topic that we’re not experts in. So if you don’t understand this page at all when you first look at it, and it scares you, that’s fine. And don’t freak out, and don’t cry. But I bet if you looked at it, you’d think, I understand a little bit. I know some of these– I get some of this.
So if you understand any bit of this page, you’re already winning, right? Don’t freak out and think, I don’t understand every word of it, so I’m losing. It’s like, any word you get, you’re winning. Any concept you get, you’re winning. So you’ve got five minutes to look at this page by yourself. Start circling things that you get. Start underlining. Use your text-coding strategies. Or maybe we’ll give them a very formalized text-coding protocol that we’ve used with four different symbols or five different symbols that they’re using.
And then at the end of that, put them in groups– where four kids get together and is like, what did you get out of this? What did you get out of this? Did you get anything? Yeah, I get this. I think I got that. What about this? And then having the group share out. We think this part’s about this. We recognize this word. We recognize this whole sentence. We think this is about this.
And if, at the end of 20 minutes, the whole class has kind of made sense of this, they feel like, oh my god. We understood this thing that adults don’t even get. My parents wouldn’t even understand this, and we got it. That is so cool. It makes you think, I’m not scared of hard text anymore because we took it on, and we beat it.
And when that becomes a regular practice in a school where you’re doing that all the time, then kids don’t get freaked out by hard text after that because they think, oh, yeah, we do this all the time. I have many entry points. I know where to start with hard text. And I feel important because I’m able to look at professional-level text and make sense of it and discussing what strategies you used to make meaning of the text.
So I just think close reads are great. I’d want to do them almost every day and in many different topics.
When I heard this, I loved the idea of the entire class grappling with a text that no one could understand. But I could also imagine this crashing spectacularly in the hands of a teacher who didn’t get it right. I’ve crushed enough teaching strategies in my career to know I needed to hear more about this one, so I called Ron. I was so taken with the whole-class close read.
And I couldn’t see how I would have done it in my classroom because while everybody might be confused by scientific academic text, a kid with a third-grade reading level is going to be confused to a different degree than a kid with a college reading level. And I always had both in my classes. I could really see a kid with a third-grade reading level going, I’m just going to sit this one out. And I was wondering how you designed to mitigate that?
Great question, and it’s a question that I and my colleagues grapple with all the time with the teachers we’re working with in our schools, which is, what makes a perfect grapple? What’s the kind of problem and the level of problem in history and math and science and literacy that is the right level of challenge for kids in your class? And there’s no one answer to that. There’s an art to getting good at finding the right grapple.
But I think I always, Alec, had students like yours. I always had a really wide range of struggling readers to very sophisticated readers. So it was really important that if I’m going to use a grapple, it’s a grapple that there’s not a single kid who feels confident and they see it. Every kid is a little intimidated by it. Some kids are going to be much more intimidated, as you say, because their level is much more basic.
But there’s no kid that’s like, oh, I got this. Nobody looks around and think, oh, Alex got it, so why should I even try? Everyone’s like, oh, man, even Alex’s struggling. This is kind of cool. Nobody can get this. And there is a very explicit vision of how we’re approaching it, which is we’re all going to try together. We’re going to work together on this and make sense of it. Doesn’t matter if you get just a little bit of it or a lot of it. Nobody gets all of it, so we really have to work together.
And so I did not find in those things that the weaker kids gave up because they always felt like they had something to contribute, like they could be part of this. And nobody had it down. It had to be a piece of reading or a math problem that nobody felt confident with right away.
And if you’ve got that sort of five minutes or whatever to read it silently yourself, you can be going around as a teacher. And if you can see that the kids like, yep, I’m not going to even get involved, you’ve got that opportunity to check in with them.
Exactly. When we sit down with the can and you say– wait, are there any words here you know? Oh, very cool. Yeah. Oh, you got that one? What about this? Do you get that? Yeah, very cool. During that five minute time, you can focus on kids that you might think would get discouraged. But after a while, kids get a little bit more resilient.
You’ve been listening to the first ever Pro Session on the High Tech High Unboxed podcast. I’m Alec Patton. My guest was Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education. To hear more from Ron, check out episode five of the High Tech High Unboxed podcast. The title is “Ron Berger on the Magic of Beautiful Lessons and of No Lesson At All.”
Also, on the High Tech High Unboxed website, you can read Stacey Caillier’s full interview with Ron, which is called “Crafting Beautiful Lessons– An Interview with Ron Berger.” You can find links to both of those in the show notes as well as links to some EL Education resources about grapples. The Pro Session’s theme music is “Can Do It” by Temple Dogs. And the High Tech High Unboxed theme music is “Agassi, Into the Spider’s Web” by Brother Hershel. Thanks for listening.