Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Mystery at Camp ALEC - Students and Teachers Seeing Themselves as Thinkers - Part 2

Note that this post is a further expansion on my earlier post outlining the Mystery at Camp ALEC.  The experience that we had at Camp ALEC has gotten me thinking a lot about inference and how language and communication development impact the ability to gain skills in inference. 

"Inference is the mental process by which we reach a conclusion based on a specific evidence. Inferences are the stock and trade of detectives examining clues, of doctors diagnosing diseases, and of car mechanics repairing engine problems. We infer motives, purpose, and intentions."(

Inference requires reading the ideas that are behind words. Both listening and reading should be active, reflective, problem solving processes. Listening and reading require simultaneously taking in language (words) and constructing meaning about what those words mean in a given context.

Why was it that these campers, who were all proficient communicators and who all had access to unlimited vocabulary through speech or their devices, were able to engage in a process of inquiry in to "who done it" around this poster? Could a camper who did not have the autonomy that comes with access to an unlimited number of words have engaged in this process?  How did the understanding of language lead these campers to solving the mystery?  

In this process, we needed to take what was "literally" presented to us and use that as a starting point for our detective work. Early in the process, the campers tried to link what was being said to who might say those things and to explain why they might say them.  Throughout the process, they found hints or had hints point out in the language that wrapped itself around the experience. They keyed in to the ideas on the poster trying to think through if it  might be someone who had a potbelly and hair on his knuckles that would write such a thing, thinking through the sarcastic tone and the people know who might use that tone with their words, trying to remember the pronoun (we) that was used when they believed they had figured it out...etc. 

Understanding more than what is literally on the paper and going beyond just laughing at and moving on, required access to language (words), understanding of the meaning of words and phrases that were being used, understanding the social conventions that wrapped around the way we used both oral and written language through the process, and understanding the context that all these words were sitting in the middle of.  Even their final solution to get their last suspect to confess came down to the fact that they had spent some time with him during the investigation and believed that taking a round-about approach of smothering him with hugs and coffee until he confessed might work better than straight out asking had. 

If I were given a "do-over" of this mystery experience at Camp ALEC, I think it would have been good to give it a bit more of an formal organizational structure by using a K-W-H-L chart.  Although we went through all of these phases, it would have been nice to have this all more formally organized so that we could reference back to it as we went through the process.  It would have also set the stage a bit better for wrapping up the experience. 

I included the "teachers seeing themselves as thinker" part in title of this series of post for a reason. We came in to each of these days with what we thought would be interesting and useful literacy activities for the campers we were working with but in the middle of their excitement about this mystery, we had to scrap our plans and go with where they were leading us.  At one point when we tried to return to the activities we had planned, one student interrupted the lesson and asked when we were going to get back to the mystery... and then typed in to her AAC device... "I'm in to that."

I'm in to that... These are perhaps the most powerful words that can ever come from a learners "mouth". 

I came away understanding more deeply that if we want our students to engage in the active in-the-moment meaning making that is required for them to become a proficient reader, we might have to be willing to engage in the same process in the middle of the learning experiences that we are co-creating with our students.  It come down to defining our purpose.  If we know what we are trying to accomplish we can be open to the possibility of taking different paths to get there.

Our goal with these campers was to have fun (it was camp after all) and to gather the information for the informal literacy assessment that we were doing with these students throughout the week. We needed to gain understanding around these students print processing skills, their language and reading comprehension skills, their word attack skills, and their writing skills.  We could have done this in a million different ways.  Doing it this way meant that we didn't have to worry about motivating the students because they were doing that part themselves. We could then focus on engaging with them as they displayed the skills we were trying to assess in the middle of the mystery.

It didn't end with this mystery. In our work room, we ended up having campers who were reading of listening to mysteries to find language that would reveal clues, we had students who were creating clues for others to find the mystery word they were thinking of, we had students who came to understand revision through thinking of themselves as a detective looking for ways to add more necessary information to their writing.  The potential around it is only limited to the length of time that the theme would remain a motivating factor to the campers (and the limited time we had with the campers).  Did we capitalize on all the learning potential of this experience?  No. We did not. But because of this experience, the next time a student-motivated learning opportunity presents itself, we will have more to draw from and capitalize a bit more on the potential.  It was about being a community of learners.  Perhaps this was part of the beauty of merging the literal role of being a student (taking the course) and being a teacher (working with the campers).

Student engagement is a challenge for us as  teachers... particularly when we put time and energy in to planning learning experiences that we believe will be interesting and engaging for students.  If they don't engage, we sometimes want to respond by trying to make them engage. As teachers we are constantly thinking and responding to what is going on with our students. We understand the importance of focused "on-task behaviour" (aka engagement) and we want our students to learn. It's why we teach.  We know that if students are not engaged with the work they are doing, there isn't really going to be much chance of authentic learning. We sometimes even define students who are motivated by what we have designed/planned as being students who "want to learn" and those who are not motivated as "not wanting to learn". Sometimes in the process of wanting to ensure engagement in learning, we go down another path and decide that the student simply doesn't have the capacity to get anything out of what we are doing in our classrooms. We focus on the outward actions (behaviors)... the things we can see... the tangible results they can give us... and we end up putting our energy into the product rather than the process.

Sometimes when we are learning things... like the process and thinking and language involved in inference... we might not have a nice clean product at the end.  It might simply be that we are able to have a conversation that allows us to fill in that last line of the KWHL chart... and then maybe someday when a lesson is being done on inference, background knowledge can be activated as a result of the experience that took place at an earlier time.  

There are many questions worth considering. What in this can be applied to classroom where there are 20 to 30 students? Are there kids who actually don't want to learn? If there are, what would cause that? Are there kids who really not able to learn in the context of the classroom?  Do all kids need to be learning the same thing? Perhaps most important, when we are challenged by a lack of motivation... Are we aiming to increase thinking, engagement and learning or are we aiming to decrease or eliminate non-engaged or distracting "behaviour"? Is there a difference? Can we actually force kids to learn? 


  1. Thanks for these posts Monica. You captured the week so articulately and brought tears to my eyes!

  2. Toby - It was amazing to get to know and work with you during the week. Look forward to continuing to implement all we learned through our own practice and by connecting in this new community of practice.