The structure of language is one element that sets poetry apart from prose. For the lover of poetry its unique structure is an element of beauty. For a middle school student who is a reluctant reader, poetry’s unique structure is can be yet another obstacle to understanding the written word. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) offer nine skills readers need to make meaning from text. Systems thinking—a set of concepts and tools that focus on the web of relationships that make up any given system—provides specific strategies that promote the deep learning and critical thinking called for in the CCSS. Milwaukee Public School teacher, Susan Russell, combines the iceberg model, a systems thinking tool, the ELA standards and the power of poetry to engage her students.
The English Language Arts CCSS for reading both literature and informational texts are categorized into three clusters: Key Ideas and Details, Craft and Structure, and Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. The iceberg model provides a simple, visual way to support students in mastering these standards. By considering a text in light of the layers of the iceberg, readers continually deepen their understanding and internalize the key concepts of each of ELA CCSS standards.
The iceberg model illustrates progressively deeper levels of understanding of a system. In the Key Ideas and Details section of the standards, readers are asked to read closely to determine what the text says. Those skills fall at the top of the iceberg: information that is observable. The next cluster of standards, Craft and Structure, requires readers to analyze the structure of texts, making a solid parallel to the structure section of the iceberg model. Students reach the deepest level of meaning through the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas cluster of standards. The base of a systems thinking iceberg focuses on how mental models—deeply ingrained assumptions or beliefs—affects the system. Readers bring their own mental models every time they engage in the process of reading. Good readers continually refine their mental models, based on their understanding of what they have read. They can eventually apply their knowledge to compare one text to another and to look at texts within a historical context. More information on the connections between the standards and the iceberg can be found here.
At the tip of Mrs. Russell’s poetry iceberg students list the main idea and details from the text. In the accompanying example her students read the poem “Mother to Son,” by Langston Hughes. A student identified the main idea in this poem as, “Life ain’t no joke.” He offered the following evidence from the text, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” In analyzing the craft and structure of the poem, students identify key vocabulary and reflect on the poem’s point of view— a mother sharing wisdom with her son.
The real understanding of the poem comes when students are able to take information from the text and see how it fits or compares to their understanding of the world. The power of poetry is its ability to connect individuals from different times and places through the commonality of the human experience. After reading “Mother to Son” students felt strong agreement with the author that you can’t give up even when you have been through bad experiences. Students shared connections that included the death of family members, not meeting goals and failing in school.
While it can be difficult to attribute causality in education, Mrs. Russell reports that student performance on regularly scheduled benchmark testing increased dramatically after she introduced this version of the iceberg. Students continue to use the iceberg to analyze text and demonstrate deeper understanding of what they read.
The Waters Foundation does not just teach systems thinking, but rather builds capacity so that educators like Susan Russell can take the habits and tools of ST and integrate them into their teaching in ways that support students’ learning and thinking. Thank you, Susan, for sharing this idea encompassing poetry, standards and structure with your colleagues and allowing us to share it with an even broader audience of educators committed to deep thinking and meaningful learning.