Teaching for Transfer: Using Film and Social Media to Teach Systems of Thought

One of the greatest frustrations teachers face is the discovery that their students don’t remember the lessons they were taught. Teachers check to see what students know about a topic to activate prior knowledge, only to find that they don’t seem to know much at all about the topic. They then spend valuable class time re-teaching what students “should” have learned last year, last semester, or even last week, hoping that this time it will stick.

There are many possible reasons students are unable to retain the content and skills they were taught, and it is easy to place the blame on the students or their past teachers. But our instructional practices may contribute to the problem. Too often, well-meaning teachers focus their instruction on specific content or skills taught in isolation. Students are able to demonstrate mastery during that lesson or unit, but they often are unable to transfer that learning to other situations.

Grant Wiggins explains the problem with transfer well:

You can provide students with training in a dozen reading strategies … provide helpful verbal cues, etc. and yet, when asked to read on their own, they may neither activate the strategies by themselves nor make meaning of unfamiliar material.

We need to help our students transfer what they learn in our lessons to real applications. In How People Learn, the authors explain how we can help facilitate this transfer. They claim that

organizing information into a conceptual framework allows for greater ‘transfer’; that is, it allows the student to apply what was learned in new situations and to learn related information more quickly.

But the good news is that we don’t have to invent these frameworks ourselves; we can capitalize on the frameworks and systems from different aspects of our students’ lives.

Early in my career, I read John Golden’s book Reading in the Dark: Using Film as a Tool in the English Classroom. English teachers often use film in their classrooms, but most follow the traditional practice of showing entire movies over several days, usually after finishing a novel or other full-length text. Golden advocates a different approach and teaches students to analyze the techniques filmmakers use to create meaning. While this is interesting instruction, Golden has a greater purpose:

Kids tend to be visually oriented, able to point out every significant image in a three-minute MTV music video, but when it comes to doing the same with a written text, they stare at it as if they are reading German. Nonetheless, we know, or strongly suspect, that the skills they use to decode the visual image are the same skills they use for a written text, and our goal, therefore, is to use that immediate interest in and uncanny ability with film and to make it work for us. What this guide does, then, is suggest that your students might want to practice by responding to film clips and then — hopefully — transfer to written texts.

Golden then gives examples of how we can use viewing strategies our students already know and apply those skills to reading. He connects literary analysis skills to a framework of thought that students have developed throughout their lives. For example, instead of teaching the importance of setting as if it is a new topic, or a topic limited only to literary texts, Golden taps into what they already know about how setting affects character or plot in film, and then encourages them to apply that skill to their reading.

While we may need to update Golden’s references a bit — MTV no longer plays music videos, as far as I know — the truth has not changed. We respond to filmmakers’ craft. I remember my two-year-old son watching Sesame Street’s Hitchcock spoof, “Monsterpiece Theater: The 39 Stairs.” He had never seen a Hitchcock film. He knew nothing of lighting or sound techniques. There is nothing scary about the dialogue or action. And yet it made him cry. My son didn’t need lessons on lighting, camera angles, sound effects or the genre of suspense. He knew something was wrong, and he cried.

My son is in the 8th grade now, and I am sure his teachers have taught him about setting. They have given him worksheets and quizzes that ask him to define it, identify it, and explain how it affected his reading of a text. But how many tapped into what he knew, intuitively, as a two-year old and asked him to transfer that knowledge to his reading of complex texts? Have they considered the viewing skills he has practiced over the past decade watching TV shows and movies?

When students see our lessons as building on skills they already own, not just as isolated skills that only happen in an ELA class, it is more likely that they will retain that knowledge or skill. Teachers know this, of course, and our teacher evaluation rubrics value this as well. The benefit of Golden’s approach is that it isn’t just one more classroom activity or an isolated skill that will be mastered and then forgotten. Instead, it capitalizes on a framework of understanding that students frequently practice daily in their own lives. When I use his strategies in my class, it not only sharpens my students’ reading abilities, but students have told me that our study of film techniques has changed the ways in which they view movies and TV. Their framework for understanding texts in general — not just print texts — has expanded.

Recently, I started using Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading with my students. Beers and Probst introduce six signposts to help students focus on important moves authors make. These signposts help readers make inferences about what they read. When my students pay attention to these signposts, they begin to read with more understanding and move beyond simple retelling of plot. But some of my students struggle to incorporate these signposts into their reading. While I can see the benefits of asking questions and making inferences, some of my students approach the signpost strategy as if it’s just one more classroom activity that they have to do. They go through the motions, but aren’t really working it into their own frameworks for understanding text. I want to help my students see these signposts as part of an overall system for reading texts, not just as yet another classroom activity they will forget about next week, next month, or next year.

The first step to building this systemic thinking is to ensure that students understand that the signposts are a potential means to an end, not the end itself. Grant Wiggins explains in another blog post that “the goal is NOT skill or strategy mastery, but text understanding.” He reminds us that the recurring questions students must ask are “So, are we understanding this text better? If not, what might help us here?” They need to see these signposts are not just something they have to do in my class, but are part of a system for understanding the world around them.

As Golden did with film strategies, I seek ways to connect Beers and Probst’s signposts to skills my students already own. I realized that noticing things and commenting on them is something that my students do every day on social media. This is a transferrable skill I can incorporate into my class, and so last week I began a discussion about hashtags. I asked my students about hashtags and let them teach me about how they use them: What are they? Why do we use them? What purpose do they serve? What hashtags do students use in their interactions online?

It was a lively, interesting conversation, and the student examples varied from the silly, such as #nicoisawesome, to the more complex. Students had to explain a few to me, and we also discovered that hashtags may have more than one meaning, depending on context. The students were quick to tell me that #nofilter refers to not using a filter to alter a photo, but then also realized that it could mean more, referring to someone’s honesty, transparency, or lack of decorum.

The most interesting student example was #subtweet, which was new to me. My students defined subtweeting as the act of tweeting about someone without mentioning them by name. It is a passive-aggressive move, used to talk about people behind their backs. I asked them to consider the etymology of the word subtweet (literally, something below the tweet) and then we discussed the decisions one must make while posting on social media. What is said outright in a post? What is implied? What is communicated through hashtags?

Through this discussion of hashtags, we all learned something. I learned more about how students are interacting via social media, but we all realized that hashtags are not just about sorting or identifying information. Through hashtags, people can express more about what they want to say, revealing subtext and deeper meaning, which is especially important when tweets are limited to 140 characters. As a class, we came up with hashtags for each of Beers and Probst’s signposts, and they are now “tagging” these as they read. I’m hoping my students have begun to understand that the Notice and Note Signposts, and annotating skills in general, work in ways similar to their current practices of using hashtags. We use annotations to categorize and organize our thoughts, but we also use them to identify the underlying issues and important ideas in a text. In future weeks, I will come back to this idea, hoping to build on the frameworks and strategies my students have developed while reading and writing in their social media. In doing so, I hope that students will see the benefits of annotating printed texts, but also hope to help them read and write more thoughtfully in their digital world.

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