In the inaugural issue of UnBoxed, Rob Riordan and Ben Daley interviewed Ron Berger, veteran elementary school teacher and Chief Academic Officer of EL Education, on his approach to engage students in the creation of “beautiful work” by showing them models, eliciting multiple drafts, and employing classroom critique as an instructional strategy. The interview was titled “Crafting Beautiful Work.”
For our retrospective issue on literacy, Stacey Caillier, Director of the High Tech High Graduate School of Education’s Center for Research on Equity and Innovation, talked with Ron about how his thinking about literacy within project-based learning has evolved since he last spoke to Unboxed. What follows is a transcript of that interview, edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about how your thinking has shifted about literacy and projects.
I’ve been in education 43 years, and I’ve been a project-based learning teacher and advocate all of that time. I’ve written books on project- based learning, and I was in the classroom myself for 28 years doing project-based learning. And I think I was a good project based learning teacher.
Skills of reading and writing and speaking and listening were always built into that. But it was before the age of common core standards and state standards, and I never was a person to look closely at standards. Now, in this new world of tightly looking at standards and understanding the science of reading better, at EL Education, we have dozens of literacy specialists, and I’ve learned so much from them.
When I look back on who I was as a teacher in the classroom, our staff would be critical of me—as well meaning as I was—and I can see blind spots I had during that time. I also know why I had those blind spots. But in order to understand that, I’ll start with what I prioritized:
Priority 1: Projects contribute to the world.
Number one, that the kids had a project that was going to contribute in some way to the world. It was really important to me that they felt like their work was important and had a real audience, and that it contributed something of value to the world. That always included reading, writing, speaking and listening, but the contribution was first on my mind: “Are they going to create something they’re proud of, or perform something they’re proud of, or create an action or do something that they’re really proud of that will be transformational for their lives?”
Priority 2: Projects build character.
Number two, I wanted the project to build their character. In terms of literacy and character, I wanted to build in places where they had to read hard materials, and speak in front of adults and people who were different from them, and learn the courtesies of crossing different cultures. A lot of literacy skills are embedded in projects that make kids more courageous and more courteous and more respectful. Throughout each project I asked myself “Are the topics in our readings going to help build the kind of people that we want?”
Priority 3: Students learn key content and concepts for themselves through reading.
Number three, I wanted to make sure students understood the scientific concepts or historical concepts or the social issues that we were studying in our projects. There were certain concepts that I thought “I want them to get this right so they really understand what we’re trying to do.” So I designed reading and writing tasks that allowed kids to get access to the content without me having to teach it to them directly. That way, I didn’t have to lecture the kids; they could gain that knowledge from their own research and crystallize that knowledge through their own writing. It’s not me telling them the content, it’s them discovering the content and then figuring out ways to reshape that content to inform others.
Priority 4: Students learn to read charts and pictures as well as text.
Number four, I wanted to vary it so that there was visual content as well as written content, and students learned how to read diagrams, how to read illustrations, how to read photographs.
I really thought I was good at this stuff, and I thought about it a lot, and for many years I was considered an expert in embedding literacy into projects. Now when I look back, I realize how many gaps I had that I was blind to.
So here are some of those gaps.
Gap 1: Attending to the balance of reading and writing tasks across the year.
I was so driven by the kids developing conceptual understanding of what we were studying, and by them developing character and confidence as scholars and human beings, that I wasn’t really thinking at the same time about giving them the right experiences to build their skills as readers and writers, and covering all the different concepts in reading and writing and speaking and listening in a balanced way.
And balance is important in a number of ways. I didn’t look over the course of the year to see if I was giving kids reading experiences in all the different kinds of modalities and genres, and levels of complexity. I was so obsessed with what they needed to know for each project that the overview was not something I focused on. It was the same with writing: the writing activities had to fit that particular project, but I didn’t ask “Over the course of the year, what are all the different genres of writing that they should be practicing, and did I balance those across the year?” I wouldn’t have noticed if they never did procedural writing, or analytical writing, because I was so excited about the fact that they were doing genuine writing for an authentic audience.
Gap 2: Making sure students are learning what they’re supposed to be learning at grade level.
When I was teaching we didn’t have that clarity of standards we have now, but even so, I didn’t take that step deeper to look at “What are all the standards that we should be hitting at this grade level, and am I making sure that I’m actually hitting all those reading, writing, speaking and listening standards in some way, in a balanced way throughout the literacy work we’re doing?” So I never had that broad overview, and I wasn’t tracking those skills and standards.
Gap 3: Tracking learning through small, frequent assessments.
Also, if I were tracking those specific learning skills and standards closely, which I was not, I would have had to be building in small performance assessments. So I would think “This is the skill I’m trying to have kids do: I’m trying to have them create an evidence-based argument and cite their evidence. What are all the small performance tasks I’m doing along the way to figure out which of my kids are getting it and which aren’t, so I can really support those kids who are not?” Because I wasn’t doing this, I ended up having to intuitively seek out kids that was worried about, and then near the end of the project, give a lot more support to those kids, because I wasn’t doing small assessments along the way.
Gap 4: Monitoring text complexity.
Text complexity was never an issue that I was carefully monitoring. I used a lot of really complex texts with kids because I love challenge. So I often used adult level scientific texts or historical texts that kids didn’t understand, and I was doing close reads with complex texts decades before it was a popular thing to do. But when I chose the anchor text for our work, whether it was fiction or nonfiction, I didn’t even think about text complexity. What I thought about was, “Does it have the right angle on the content?” “Is it a compelling story?” I wanted to find a book that would excite them, and if the text complexity was really a bad choice for us to be dwelling in deeply for four weeks, I wasn’t even tracking that. That doesn’t matter for the strong readers, because they’re doing so much reading on their own, so if the text complexity is way below what they need, they’re getting a lot of challenge in their own reading. But if there are kids for whom reading is challenging and they’re not doing a lot of reading outside of school, and I’ve chosen two or three books in a row that are not pushing them in text complexity, then it’s a big disservice to them.
Gap 5: Breaking down text features.
The other issue is text features: being a good reader is understanding styles of text and text features in fiction and nonfiction work. And I didn’t break down for kids the deep understanding of text features, and then make sure that I balanced the text choices I made during the year around those, nor did I balance how to use those in their own writing.
So, I had great passion for teaching and put a lot of heart into it, and kids loved their projects and did a lot of great reading and writing and speaking and listening, and they learned a lot. But many kids might have had gaps in their literacy skills because I wasn’t tracking all that stuff. Now, when I see my former students as adults, it’s great to see them, and they remember the projects we did 40 years ago, and I feel like I succeeded in so many ways. But I feel that I probably let some of them down because for the ones that were struggling with literacy, I didn’t have a balanced approach.
And so now in our coaching work at EL Education, we spend a lot of time helping teachers design their projects, being really thoughtful about looking at the skills and standards first, thinking deeply about “What are the things we want to really make sure kids experience?” and then planning the project and the project sequence for the year, making sure that we’re hitting all those. And for every text choice we’re thinking about text complexity and text features as well as content. So kids are getting the right level of challenge and push and the right level of instruction, and we’re keeping that separate from independent reading where kids have choice, or phonics skills if it’s little kids. But we’re being much more intentional and explicit about attending to literacy skills as part of the project. For me personally, the content and concepts of a project used to be probably 90% of what I cared about, and 10% was the literacy stuff.
But the literacy skills are so important! I probably should have been putting 50% of my attention on selection of tasks, assessments and texts. I should have been thinking about “How am I building reading and writing skills?” as much as I was thinking about “How do I make them experts in geology?” I always prioritized the geology concepts, not seeing the geology so much as an opportunity to build their reading, writing, and speaking skills.
Can you describe an ideal version of this in a classroom? I mean, there’s no ideal, so maybe that’s a bad question…
Yes, I don’t think there is an ideal, but I think that in every school, we need to work with kids at the outer edge of their reading ability and writing ability so they’re being pushed. And so, finding common texts and writing tasks that are slightly uncomfortable for all kids, so that we can get on their growth edge, is an essential part of pushing them to become better readers and better writers. And grappling with complex texts and complex writing tasks through close reads, and writing that goes through multiple drafts has to be a regular thing, K through 12.
And at the same time, we have to build a culture of love of reading and writing. So there also have to be times in the day when kids get to read and write more for pleasure. For elementary kids, it should be pretty much every day: some time for reading where teachers are either conferencing with kids or reading on their own. But there should be this “We love to read” feeling everywhere in the building.
And in middle and high school, we shouldn’t give that up. We may not be able to fit it in every day, but we should have a couple times a week at least where kids have a silent reading time where they’re allowed to read and they’re helped to make good choices and we model the pleasure of reading, just to get more kids to be readers and loving reading. And you need times where kids have flexible writing tasks as well, but I am much less attached to flexible choice writing time for kids being a regular thing. I think kids do need flexible journaling times and writing times and free writes occasionally, but I think constraints around writing don’t kill the creativity in kids. Having kids write through particular formats and genres that fit the project you’re doing still allows for a lot of expression.
To give a particular project example: let’s say you’re going to send your kids out into the community to interview people, maybe veterans of US wars, or local civil rights heroes, or civic leaders in your community, or new immigrants to America. It’s a great project to have kids interview people, but before you send them out to do these interviews, you’ve got to turn them into journalists. So, there’s so much reading to do about journalism, about the craft of interviewing. They need to read interviews with people so they gain an understanding of what a good interview is– and they need to practice by interviewing each other and writing that up, and interviewing their families and writing that up, and critiquing their interviews. And that can all be done by looking closely at the standards and looking at the skills you want kids to learn, and making sure you have built a sequence that hits all the different things you want to hit, and has assessments built into that along the way.
You may not have a lot of free writing built into your day for a couple months when you’re doing that, but I actually wouldn’t worry about that. I’m much less worried about free writes happening all the time, than that kids are writing with purpose about topics they care about.
About a year and a half ago I asked you what literacy practices you wished were happening in all middle and high schools. I remember you mentioned close reads and interactive word walls. Can you say a little bit about those two? Why are they important and what do they look like at their best?
I am super attached to close reading, because it embodies challenge. It’s hard for kids but it’s intriguing, like a really great math problem, or a really cool puzzle challenge.
For example, you give the class a written piece, you read it aloud for them, and here’s what you say:
No one in this class is going to fully understand this page—nobody. And your parents probably 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. In fact, I bet if you look at it closely you’ll think, ‘I understand a little bit, I know some of these words. I get some of this.’ So, if you understand any bit of this page, you’re already winning. Don’t think, ‘I don’t understand every word of it so I’m losing.’ 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 things, use your text coding strategies.
Maybe you give them a very formalized text coding protocol that you’ve used before, with symbols for things you have a question about, things you understand already. And at the end of that, you put them in groups where four kids get together to work on it, to discuss “What did you get out of this part?” “What did you get out of this part?” “Did you get anything?” “Yeah, I got this.” “I think I got that. What about this?” And then the group shares out with the class: “We think this part’s about this, we recognize this word, we recognize this whole sentence.”
And if at the end of 20 minutes the whole class has kind of made sense of this scientific journal article, 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 them 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, then kids don’t get freaked out by hard text 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 they feel kind of important, because they are able to look at professional level text and make sense of it. So, I just think close reads are great. I’d want to do them almost every day and in many different topics.
I love this! So often kids experience a deficit approach: “Circle the words you don’t know, highlight the ideas that confuse you.” But being told “Circle all the things you know” feels very different! I’ve also come across close reading described as “Read the text once for x, and then read it again for y, and then read it a third time for z,” but you’re describing something different. Can you say more about that?
So, there’s lots of different close reading strategies. And I think multiple close reads are a common strategy: “read the text first time for this and read it a second time for that.” It can be very useful. But the important thing about those strategies is not to follow them blindly, because if you decide “Every time we do a close read we’re going to read the text three times,” then it’s like, “Oh, man, I got enough out of two times!” or maybe we need four times. I think you should use your own discretion as a teacher about multiple reads. You should vary your close reading strategies and you should attune them to a particular piece of text and what the kids are getting out of it. But the point of a close read should always be to make sense of the content, and to get a metacognitive sense of our reading skills: “How are we making sense of this text?”
And as far as the texts you choose, how do you decide when to have the whole class grapple with a difficult text and when to provide multiple texts at different levels?
I think that you want to have common close reads that push every kid in your classroom, so that every kid feels like, “Wow, we all struggle with this.” But it’s also fine to differentiate some close reads.I don’t think differentiating for small groups is a bad thing, as long as you’re also making sure every kid has the challenge and access to the really hard text, which is at grade level or above, or even far above. But every kid being pushed by the same text is a great team-building thing for the class to realize “We’re all trying to figure this out together.”
Now, the other strategy I’m really excited about is the interactive word wall. The standard “word wall” is just a list of words on the wall and the whole point of it is memorizing vocabulary. And memorized vocabulary sometimes sticks with you, and sometimes evaporates. But interactive word walls are about the relationships and the concepts that are embedded in the words. There’s not a “right” answer to them. So you could take all the interesting vocabulary words that you are grappling with in your project and have groups of kids spread those words out on a table and start arranging them in logic models of “This causes this and this is actually a subset of this, and then you get this from this,” which inevitably leads to “No, I was thinking about it this way. Because this is really the large category and then these are all the subcategories of that.” Then someone else will say, “But this is actually their primary cause, so I would line up the words like this.” And the kids who don’t really understand the words well are learning to make sense of those words in context. The words get a whole different level of meaning when you’re thinking about how they sit in a logic model.
I love that! An interactive word wall is about highlightst’s about relationships between words, not just individual words.
Exactly. And it’s about the conceptual understanding of whatever it is you’re studying: the concepts embedded in that topic come out based on how you arrange the words. And logistically this can be small groups doing it on a table; it can also be a big wall with everything velcroed or magnetized to the wall where kids come up in teams and rearrange it and explain their thinking to the other group and then the next group comes up and rearranges the words. Or it could be something that’s permanently up in your classroom and it keeps getting changed all the time as kids come up with new ways of thinking about the words. And you can incorporate arrows and equals signs, and “both ways” arrows, all those symbols that connect things. It’s a terrific process, and you can use it with kindergarteners all the way up to high school kids.
I love that. Now, a colleague of mine came back from your talk yesterday and said “Ron Berger talked about how he’s been an advocate of beautiful work for decades and now he’s a real advocate of beautiful instruction.” Can you say a little bit about that shift for you and what beautiful instruction means to you?
As a project based teacher, what I worried most about was “Can I design a project which is so compelling for kids and builds in all the skills and concepts that I want that it will kind of run itself?” I thought “Kids will run the classroom, it’ll be like a newsroom or a science lab, they’ll be working all the time.” And that is ideally what we all want to do, and sometimes my classroom was truly like that. But what I was leaving out of that paradigm is that you have to build in a whole lot of lessons so that kids can develop enough of the concepts and skills to be able to work independently on what you want them to work independently on. And if you don’t design those lessons well, then you’re talking at them a lot, rather than having them engage and discover stuff in really powerful ways and learn to work as teams.
I spent decades learning how to design projects well and having kids create great work, and I didn’t obsess about “How do you structure a really sharp lesson where kids are learning to collaborate, learning to think, learning to share their thinking?” Now for the past 15 years I’ve had this gift of traveling around the country and seeing great teachers and working with lesson geeks who are obsessed with great lessons. These are people who will get as nuanced as “That lesson would have been better if it was only three minutes here instead of five minutes,” or, “Yeah, we used that protocol, but this protocol would have actually even been more engaging,” or “We should have used pairs instead of triads there.” And they’ve taught me that lessons can be beautiful if you do them well.
What would you say to a project-based teacher who says “I’m putting so much energy into thinking about the project arc and design, I don’t have time to design beautiful lessons every day?” How do routines and structures fit in?
The art of doing lessons well isn’t that you have to kill yourself every time with a totally fresh idea. It’s that you build a repertoire of lessons, frameworks, structures and practices that you get better and better at, so you can employ those components in a good lesson. It’s a skill you develop. And I say that because I’m way better now when I do a demonstration lesson with kids than I was when I was back doing projects, because I wasn’t thinking so sharply about lessons.
I work with one school, Two Rivers Charter in DC, which is a total lesson geek school. They obsess about lessons. They spent an entire year just focusing on how to end the lesson well. All their PD for a year was “How do we end our lessons well?” Now, in order to end the lesson well you’ve got to think about “Is every kid leaving feeling excited and clear?” “Is every kid leaving having gotten something important from the lesson?” “Is every kid leaving feeling a sense of closure to what we did that day?” Is the teacher leaving feeling like “I understand which kids got what, and which kids didn’t, and I understand what my next steps will be?” And in fact, it’s very hard to pull a lesson together at the end.
That year of geeky focus on lesson endings was amazing for me. And I joined them when they spent six weeks on exit tickets. I used to think, “Yeah, I get exit tickets,” but I didn’t. I didn’t realize that the exit ticket can be used in so many ways: a sample problem that gives you a sense of which kids get a concept and which kids don’t; a philosophical question about “How are you feeling about what we did?” It can be “What’s your identity as a mathematician or historian?” It can be “How are you doing personally right now?” It can be “What other kids in the classroom are struggling that I don’t know about?” It could be “Where are you getting help in the classroom from people who aren’t me? And how are they helping you?” It could be “How are you changing in your thinking about this topic or this subject?” It could be “What am I doing in my teaching that’s really helpful right now, what’s not, and what advice would you give me?” It could be “What should we be doing next? What would be the next step if you were running the class?”
After that six weeks on exit tickets, I thought, “I’m going to be such a better teacher.” Because my exit tickets were going to be so much more powerful and useful. As a teacher, if I’m giving a lesson and it comes time for the end of the lesson, I’ve spent a whole year thinking about how to end the lesson well, and I have 20 different exit tickets in my mind. I can think “Which is the right one for today’s lesson?”
Closing a lesson is tough, maybe the toughest part of a lesson. Based on what you’ve learned from working with Two Rivers Charter, do you have any advice for how teachers can help synthesize and consolidate the learning so students leave feeling like “I learned this today” or even “I’m grappling with this idea”?
There’s so much to say about how to close the lesson, but I think the clarity of your learning targets has a big effect on whether you can get consolidation or synthesis at the end of your lesson. I think lessons that are hard to close off normally don’t have enough clarity about what the goal of the lesson was. So you need to make sure that not only you as a teacher, but all the kids, understand the learning targets for that lesson.
You may not be sharing your target until halfway through the lesson because you’ve started with an individual grapple, or a group grapple. And then you say, “Okay, here’s the learning target we’re aiming for, let’s discuss that and unpack that learning target together.” Then at the end of your lesson, you may be building in a question directly around that target, or giving a performance assessment that’s directly on that target. So if the target is “I can graph a linear equation” then you give them one linear equation and you ask them to do it on their graph paper. Then you collect it and you know. Or if the learning target is “I can explain two different perspectives on this historical issue,” then you say in your exit ticket, I want a small example of two different perspectives on that issue.
So, if the learning target is super clear, generally the synthesis is clear, because you know what you’re aiming for, and often, if the learning target is a little vague or not too sharp, then it’s hard to get synthesis because you weren’t quite clear what you were aiming for.
And how do you feel about co-constructing learning targets? What would you say to teachers who are reluctant to share clear targets with the class or who want students to figure out the targets themselves?
I didn’t use learning targets back in my teaching when I was in the classroom. Now that I do demonstration lessons and teach graduate level classes, I use learning targets all the time, because what the learning targets do—and I think not everyone understands this—is that the learning target actually empowers kids because they understand what they’re aiming for. They’re not waiting for you to tell them how to get there. They can start charting more of their own course toward that target, because they understand, “Oh, that’s what we’re aiming for.”
So I think you want to start with the teacher choosing the targets, especially since even teachers have a hard time constructing good learning targets at first. It takes years for the teachers I work with to become experts at creating good learning targets. It’s unrealistic to assume kids can do that well right away. But what kids can, and should do, is critique your targets. And after a while they will be able to not only critique and refine the target you picked, but maybe construct better ones or suggest better ones. But it’s not going to come right away for them. It’s a learning curve for them just like it’s a learning curve for teachers.