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Lesson-Launch

The launch is a short period of time at the beginning of a lesson that prepares students to
explore the lesson’s learning goal(s) during the investigation period that follows. This part of
the lesson is devoted to three key activities: first, building students’ background knowledge1
regarding the learning goal; second, ensuring that students have a sufficient grasp of the
lesson’s ideas and content that they will be successful during the more independent
investigation; and third, ensuring that students understand the scope of the investigation
they are about to begin.

How to Build Students’


Because OAUC students generally have significant Background Knowledge
gaps in their working schema (background knowledge), 1. Encourage them to make
strategic decisions about what to focus on during the connections to their own
experience and prior knowledge
lesson launch are critical: an emphasis on content- and the new ideas to be
explored in the lesson.
specific big ideas and ways of thinking, paired with the
2. Ask them to “wonder” about one
FEI’s learning strategies are typically most effective at of the big ideas that will be
explored that day.
facilitating student independence There are many 3. Provide them with a piece of
new information that will
different techniques and activities for building students’
deepen their overall
background knowledge, many of which can be used in understanding of the material to
be studied that day.
any of the disciplines.2 The literacy practice of “read-

1
See Chapter 1 of the TSI Handbook (p. 16) for a description of building background.
2
There are important modifications to make in math classrooms because the nature of “text” is so different.
ELA Read-Aloud/Think-Aloud
“I begin to read chapter 3 with students. As I
aloud/think-aloud,”3 is one of the most powerful ways read, I pause and model the questions I have. I
to launch a lesson. Here, the teacher builds students’ begin with an "understand" (thin) question and
then form a more “evaluative” (thick) question.
background knowledge by modeling how she thinks I ask students to notice what is different about
those two questions. Why are they different?
about a specific concept and/or learning strategy, and What do they do differently for us as readers?  
how she applies the learning strategy to analyze, • Understand-"I wonder how the Little Prince
evaluate and synthesize ideas. In this way, she ended up on Earth?" (Note to self: Make sure
students notice that the answer to this
provides students with a peek into the metacognitive question can be found in the book and it is
what we might call a "thin" or "clarifying"
narrative that strong academic readers construct as question.)  
 
they engage with complex material. • Evaluate-"The narrator mentions that he
wants us to read his book 'carefully'...What
In our work, we encourage teachers to deeply does he mean by this? What does it mean to
read a book like this carefully? Does this
study the “read-aloud/think-aloud,” in order to have something to do with how the book is
develop a strong capacity to model their own written?" (Note to self: Help students see
that this is a "thicker" question because I
metacognitive narratives to students (and then to have to answer it through inferring, and
making connections to my background
teach students to notice and develop theirs). Though knowledge. The answer is more “in-between
the lines.”  
strong metacognitive skills are at the heart of all
--Michael Wolach’s Lesson on Questioning,
independent learning they are rarely explicitly taught
in high school, as few teachers have been trained to make this the centerpiece of their
instruction. Organizing the FEI’s lesson launch around a “read-aloud/think-aloud” provides
opportunities for students and teachers alike to become more practiced in this arena, as
they become more accustomed to identifying what strategic learning looks and feels like.

In Michael’s ELA lesson on using questions to explore the values and beliefs of
characters in The Little Prince, he uses the lesson launch to help students differentiate
between lower-order questions that clarify confusions and support remembering,
summarizing and understanding texts at the literal level (often called “thin” questions in
literacy classrooms), and higher-order questions that support analytic and evaluative text-
based work (“thick” questions) (see inset). During the investigation, students will practice
asking both thin and thick questions about the characters in the text, while also completing a
meta-analysis by categorizing the questions they ask.

3
One of the first and best texts written on this subject was authored by Jeffrey Wilhelm in 2002: Improving
Comprehension with Think-Aloud Strategies. Scholastic: 2002. Since then, many others have expanded the body
of work related to Read-Aloud/Think-aloud Strategies, and districts such as Greece, NY have made it a central
literacy practice in their efforts to improve instruction: http://www.greece.k12.ny.us/instruction/ela/6-
12/Reading/Reading%20Strategies/thinkaloud.htm
In addition to the “read-aloud/think-aloud,” lesson launches can also be oriented around
“anticipatory activities,”4 designed to preview the big ideas that will be investigated during
the main part of the lesson. For example, in preparation to reading Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and
Men” students might be asked to complete a survey that explores the nature of friendship.
Or, prior to studying polynomials, students might predict what this study will entail given
what they know about binomials and trinomials (the concepts as well as the roots and
prefixes). Well-designed “anticipatory” activities provide students with enough background
knowledge to successfully begin engaging in new material on their own or with their peers.
This is clearly visible in Tegan’s unit on Gentrification in Brooklyn, which launches with a set
of building-background questions that would more typically be found in a social studies
course.

• What is gentrification? What do you know about the word “Gentry”?


• Are the neighborhoods in Brooklyn racially segregated?...What evidence do you
have to support your view?
• Does racial composition in neighborhoods change over time?...Do you have
evidence?
• What might lead the racial composition of a neighborhood to change?

This early effort to build students’ “anticipation” of the material to be studied creates a
schematic anchor upon which to build: first, through a deepening understanding of the social
justice issues to be explored; and soon thereafter, through a mathematical analysis of
Brooklyn data.

The lesson launch should always close with a few moments devoted to detailing the task
to be completed during the investigation period, using both writing and speaking—and
images or other visual cues when possible.5 This ensures that students have access to as
much information as possible about what is expected of them, while also making it possible
for them to be as independent as possible in the next stage of the lesson.

4
Extensive “Anticipatory Activities”—such as those used to introduce a difficult novel, or a new science unit--might
also become the basis of an investigation. Some of the best work done in this area is by high school teacher Kelly
Gallagher in his book Deeper Reading, published by Stenhouse in 2005. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and others
have also provided some wonderful anticipatory activities in their text 50 Content Area Strategies for Adolescent
Literacy. Prentice-Hall: 2006.
5 See p 17 in the TSI handbook for further discussion of this method, originally developed by researchers at the

SIOP Institute (http://www.siopinstitute.net). Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey have also devoted a book to this
topic: Background Knowledge: The Missing Piece of the Comprehension Puzzle. Heineman: 2009.
Metacognitive Guideposts for the Lesson Launch
1. Given the learning goals and strategies I prepared for this lesson, what do I need to teach
directly during the launch?
2. What is the best way for me to design the launch (modeling? Read-aloud? Deconstructing an
exemplar?...?)?
3. Which concepts/vocabulary words must be directly taught in the launch if the lesson is to be
successful?
4. What are my learning goals for the concepts I’ve selected (for students to…learn the words?
…access their meaning quickly as they are reading so they don’t get bogged down? learn
strategies for learning words?…)?
5. Am I telling students too much content? Is there more they could figure out on their own if I
gave them the chance during the investigation?
6. In order for students to undertake the investigation what do they need to have or understand?

Frequently asked Questions about the Lesson Launch:


1. Every teacher in my school begins their teaching with a “Do-Now”-- a
five-m inute activity that asks students to work independently as a way
to help them settle into a learning m ind-set. How would this fit with the
lesson launch?

There is no inherent conflict between the FEI’s Lesson Launch and the use of a “Do-
Now;” however there are two challenges: The first is ensuring that the “Do-Now” truly
acts as a springboard into the day’s learning, rather than as a stand-alone activity.
The second challenge associated with using “Do-Nows” is the difficulty in creating
meaningful activities that are truly limited to five-minutes. This second issue is one
that many teachers struggle with as they discover that loosely planned “Do-Nows”
easily stretch into fifteen minute activities, making it difficult to move on to the other
segments of the lesson.

Within our network, teachers have found that brief anticipatory activities often work
very well, as do activities that ask students to engage with the lesson’s big ideas by
making predications, brainstorming, or deconstructing key terms using back-ground
knowledge of root words, pre-fixes and suffixes. Because of the need to use time
effectively, it is rare that teachers would use the “Do-Now” to review homework or the
previous day’s learning. The exception to this is when the “Do-Now” is structured to
ask students to re-access what they’ve learned in order to use it in the upcoming
investigation.

2. W hat’s the difference between a “read-aloud/think-aloud” and a


lecture?...and W here do m y lectures fit in?

While a lecture focuses on transferring a body of content and skill knowledge from
the teacher to the students, the “read-aloud/think-aloud” emphasizes providing
students with the strategic tools they need in order to independently investigate a
new information or a set of ideas, by reading, analyzing images, thinking alone and
with their peers, listening to audio files, and watching video. While the “read-
aloud/think-aloud” allows students to see how anyone can make meaning of text, the
lecture format shows students the meaning that the teacher has already made.
Within FEI classrooms lectures are fairly rare, for a number of reasons:
a. Research on passive learning clearly reveals it as one of the least effective
teaching practices (reportedly, our brain only remembers 10% of what it
hears in lectures6);
b. There are very few teachers who can create lectures that can compete with
the incredible array of rich materials that are now available through mixed-
media text sets;
c. Given the brevity of most high school class periods, most of the teachers we
work with find that teaching students how to use learning strategies to think
about ideas ultimately takes priority over transmitting information to them—
something students can do on their own during the investigation period if
provided with the appropriate strategies (interactive modeling allows
students to take in close to 50% of what they hear7).

3. I cannot find a way to make my lesson launch shorter than 20 mins.


Our periods are only 45 minutes long, so this doesn’t leave very much
tim e for investigation and synthesis. W hat am I doing wrong?

Teachers within the LAC Project have found that is virtually impossible to regularly
complete a full FEI-lesson within a 45-minute period. In order to address this, some
transfer schools have experimented by adopting a block-schedule, with periods that
are 60-90 minutes long. In schools where this structural adaptation has not
occurred, we have worked with teachers to adapt the lesson structure so that
material is taught over a 2-day period. In both cases, the total amount of time spent
on the launch is approximately 20% of the teaching time. When the FEI lesson is
stretched over a 2-day period, the first day often emphasizes the launch, with a bit of
time for investigation and synthesis, while the second day begins with a much briefer
launch, continues the investigation, and provides ample time for students to
synthesize what they have learned.

6
http://lpc1.clpccd.cc.ca.us/lpc/hanna/learning/activelearning.htm#verballec
7
http://lpc1.clpccd.cc.ca.us/lpc/hanna/learning/activelearning.htm#verballec