Seek to Understand

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you're going so that you better understand where you are now and so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” Stephen Covey


Often, I am asked, “Where do you start a writing lesson?” Educators will toss out ideas like brainstorming, thinking of the perfect sentence, or perhaps a great grabber lead. You should see the expressions on their faces when I say - “Nope. None of those answers are correct.”


You see, the first step in accomplishing any task is to understand the task at hand. Yes, I know that is a given. It’s simple. Many say, “We already do that.” But - do you? I would whole-heartedly agree that the intention is there to understand the task at hand, unfortunately, in my years of experience in the field, students rarely do.


Stephen Covey said it best - “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination.” For teachers, we’ve all heard this quote a million times. Sadly, it’s the first step that trips us up. We skip it. Students skip it. We think it is so mundane, we just roll right over it and go to the next step. If you want to drastically affect your test scores this year, take Covey’s advice (and mine too) and let’s have a serious look at STEP ONE - Understand.


When a school brings me in to consult about their writing plan and/or close reading comprehension, the first thing I evaluate is how the students are approaching the writing to begin with. Nine times out of ten, the first problem lies here. Students are not close reading the instructions. Therefore, they are not grasping what they are supposed to be writing about. They don’t include all the elements in the writing to obtain full points on the response. 


Here’s an example - 

Hillary brought two dozen chocolate chip cookies to school. She wants to divide them up and give each of her classmates and herself two cookies. Hillary has eleven classmates. Draw a model to find the answer. Write an equation for the problem. Explain how you found your answer. 


If a student skims and scans their way through this math word problem, they are doomed. Will they recognize that there are twelve students in the class? Will they count Hillary as a student and add her to the eleven? Do they realize that the problem is asking for three separate things? A model. An equation. And a written explanation of how the answer was found? Do they know there are twelve cookies in a dozen? Will they do the mental math for 12 x 2 to get 24 cookies?


While this is a simple math word problem, it presents a great deal of anxiety for the skimmer/scanner student. Close reading comprehension is not a language arts problem. It’s an every subject problem. However - if we focus our attention on Step One - “to UNDERSTAND,” we can make significant changes in how students approach the work in front of them for any subject where text-dependent writing is required. 


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