Over 225 educators from around Manitoba were discussing energetically a complex text we just read. "Stop your learning and listen to me," Dr. Jeffrey Wilhelm told us, calling our attention back to the front to have a whole-room discussion. Acknowledging the importance of student conversations and the learning within them was only one of the many themes Wilhelm touched on during his MTS Professional Development Day presentation, hosted by the Reading Council of Greater Winnipeg. Indeed, Dr. Wilhelm's words are one of my "take-aways" that I will use this day forward in my classroom, as I learned a new approach to enhance my teaching.
Dr. Wilhelm, teacher, university professor, author and co-author of 24 books, has devoted his career to assisting struggling readers and at-risk students. He has developed strategies to help teachers reach these students, so that the students not only become successful, literate readers and writers but also obtain a deeper understanding of the text and be able to relate the content to personal experiences.
His session focused on developing strategies to foster inquiry-based learning and engaging reluctant readers and writers by using Essential Questions. Wilhelm shared examples from his experience teaching Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to 9th and 10th graders and how the essential question can awaken understanding in students. If he had simply said, "We are going to learn about one of the most upheld writers of all time, Shakespeare and his Romeo and Juliet," to his students, he said he would have lost their attention.
"They don't care. They can't relate to the topic – yet. However, when I asked the essential question, 'What breaks up relationships?' I had their attention because this is the focus of their lives." He then added afterwards he was able to watch and listen to their ideas as they shared with each other what breaks up relationships, creating a classroom of learning or a dialogical classroom.
Wilhelm's students listened to each other, shared ideas, and had healthy debates. Wilhelm continued to explain that he could use the text to support his students' learning by finding reasons why relationships – involving love or otherwise – fall apart. This helped his students develop their understanding of the text and practice their questioning and inferencing skills, thus reaching outcomes of our ELA curriculum. He modeled and mentored the sequence for learning and his students exhibited motivation to learn, to share and discuss and apply the text to themselves and their world, resulting in true transfer of learning.
Currently, I am reading his book Engaging Readers and Writers with Inquiry and have started to implement the strategies Wilhelm discussed at MTS PD Day. I have seen the results and can attest to the sharing of ideas, the healthy debates amongst my students in Social Studies as we learn about human rights and how the Essential Question does activate engagement among my students. I am modeling questioning and inferencing strategies and listening to my students as they learn to practice these strategies and generate ideas on how they can assist others and build community and empathy.
So, "Stop your learning and listen to me," - obtain a copy of this book and start with one strategy and watch as your students develop into the readers and writers that we know they could be with the proper guidance, modeling and engagement. Every old dog can learn a new trick - I am such an example.
About the Author – Kimberley Corneillie is a middle years teacher at Linden Meadows School in the Pembina Trails School Division and a board member of the Reading Council of Greater Winnipeg. She is passionate about literacy and works towards helping all students engage with literature and developing their confidence and passion for the written word.