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The Big Fresh June 6, 2015 The Wow! Scaffold

Brenda Power

When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.

                                                            Mary Oliver

Sugatra Mitra, a professor of educational technology in Newcastle, England, studies self-organized learning and just how much children can teach themselves. He put kid-height computer kiosks in remote villages all over India (computers with programming in English and no directions), and just left them there to see what the children could figure out. The computers were equipped with “remote desktop” technology so that Sugatra Mitra could remotely observe what the children were doing. In village after village, children who began with absolutely no computer proficiency taught themselves English, computer skills, and even science simply by working together and experimenting. In fact, after nine months of “self-organized learning” the children who had never used a computer before had the same level of computer skills as an office secretary.

Next, Sugatra Mitra decided to see if some of the poorest children in India could teach themselves something really challenging: the science of DNA replication. As a control group, Sugatra Mitra selected students in an affluent, private school who were working with a teacher who was a trained biologist. He found that village children were able to teach themselves a pretty impressive amount of DNA science, but after a certain amount of time, they hit a wall and the children working with a teacher were at a substantial advantage.

So, Sugatra Mitra decided to find a teacher for the village children. He wanted to make sure the teacher didn’t interfere with the children’s self-organization, so he told her to use the “Grandmother Method”--stand behind the children and every time they do something say, “Wow! How did you do that?” and “What will you do now?” With two months of this human connection with a teacher who scaffolded primarily with “Wow!” and prompted students to reflect on their learning, the village children in India improved their knowledge of DNA replication by 50% and matched the scores of the wealthy children working with a teacher who was a biologist.

In education, it is easy to find lots of directions about how to scaffold kids. Publishers sell 37-page prompting guides that tell us what cues to use as children work through books in guided reading. There are whole books about conferring, gathering data, and differentiating instruction. We think these resources have a lot of value; in fact, our bookshelves are filled with them. We also believe, however, that education could use a little more of the Grandmother Method.

What would happen if we carefully designed tantalizing tasks and watched, listened, and said “Wow!” as children dug into them? We invite you to experiment with engaging students in irresistible thinking work and then, standing behind them, say, “Wow! How did you do that?” and “What will you do next?” Maybe excellent teaching is about designing spectacularly engaging tasks and getting out of the way so that our students have unfettered opportunities to amaze us.

This week we look at ways to celebrate and build communities. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris

Contributors, Choice Literacy


Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins are the writers and thinkers behind Burkins and Yaris -- Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy, where their blog and their instructional resources have drawn a national audience. Their book Reading Wellness is available through Stenhouse Publishers.


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All hail Ruth Ayres, the queen of literacy celebrations! She shares some useful tips in Respond, Reflect, Rejoice: The 3 Rs of Writing Celebrations:


Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan provide two protocols for building community with adults in professional development settings:


Betsy Hubbard created and leads Chalk-A-Bration, a wonderful way to get kids outdoors to celebrate literacy and life. It's a great activity to include in your planning for next year or for regular summer celebrations of learning if you are leading sessions with students in the coming weeks


Our summer online courses include new offerings from Jennifer Schwanke on how principals can evaluate and support literacy instruction, and from Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan on designing book rooms. You can view descriptions and registration information at this link:



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Melanie Quinn finds it is Worth the Investment to take time for community building in schools and classrooms, because the practice pays dividends all year long:


In Words with Friends, Melissa Kolb explores what needs to be in place for our youngest students to learn how to converse kindly:


Melanie Meehan recommends linking goal setting to small celebrations as a great way to build community and skills at the same time:


In an encore video, Katie Doherty uses the "I Am the One Who" activity to link community building and writing in her middle school classroom:

New PD2Go:  Clare Landrigan leads a small reading group after a fifth-grade demonstration lesson:


This video and workshop guide fulfill Common Core State Standard

RF.5.4: Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.

That's all for this week!

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Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.