“We’re going to do pull-ups,” said the fitness instructor last week. I burst into a peal of laughter that momentarily echoed around the gym. I have never in my life been able to do a pull-up, so that wasn’t even on my radar of possibility at age 54.
Then she led us to this weight machine that pushes up under my feet with the amount of weight I set it for to assist my effort. It turns out that I CAN do a pull-up—with 95 pounds of help. It was HARD, but I DID it! That felt great! And maybe, with persistence, I could do it with less and less help! However far I get toward doing a completely unassisted pull-up, working on it increases my strength, muscle tone, and bone density—my real health goals at this point in life.
That pull-up apparatus struck me as a great analogy for the scaffolding I need to provide for students as they learn. Everyone knows what the goal is, values it, knows that the scaffolded attempt isn’t the end goal, but IS an important step, both in providing the motivation of knowing what it feels like and in exercising all the muscles needed for the end goal at the level those muscles are currently capable of. And that working toward the goal is the real goal.
What does that kind of scaffolding look like in an English class? Here are a few ideas: Painting the goals of proficiency in reading, writing, thinking, speaking, listening to promote buy-in. Differentiating according to students’ readiness, interest, and learning needs. Providing a lot of time for practice along with targeted instruction and formative feedback. Setting high expectations, with sign-posts of progress along the way for encouragement.
I still have vivid memories of the President’s Physical Fitness Test from elementary school. I was a tomboy who prided myself on competing with the boys in every way. I played basketball, mastered boys’ push-ups, and grabbed the frogs and bugs out of their hands when they shoved them in my face hoping to see me scream and run away. The only thing that totally defeated me was the pull-up. For the President’s Physical Fitness Test, I had to hang. It’s been this little sliver of hidden shame all these years, finally exorcised by those words, “We’re going to do pull-ups” and the apparatus to help me do it. I love practicing my pull-ups now!
How do you scaffold learning to help students discover joy and motivation in doing things that had seemed too hard?