Writing - Walking, Tinkertoys, and Legos
By: Linda Hecker
In one part of the room two students are "walking a paper." One is walking and talking, generating ideas for a persuasive essay about euthanasia, while the other takes notes or asks questions when the walker falls silent. In another corner some students are organizing their ideas for the essay by building models out of Tinkertoys and Legos; while others check their drafts for sentence completeness and variety by laying different colored Cuisenaire rods over the subjects, verbs, modifiers.
Movement, manipulatives, and multiple intelligences
Where do you suppose you are? A kindergarten room? A Montessori pre-school? No, you are in an English classroom at Landmark College, a post-secondary school that serves students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and Attention Deficit Disorder. While the manipulatives may remind you of primary school, here they embody cutting edge applications of recent research in multiple intelligences theory. Thus, they put us in the midst of a controversy raised in the December 1995 issue of English Journal. Letters to the editor in the subsequent February and March issues raised critical points about the tension between providing students "the opportunity to demonstrate what they understand about the content of the lesson - in a way that makes sense to them" and ensuring that they be held "accountable for demonstrating... that they have, indeed, learned to read, write, listen, and speak competently" (Miller 1996). Similarly, Alan Pierpoint contends that "these non-verbal assignments [don't] do the serious work of an English class" (Pierpoint 1996). However, with just a little ingenuity informed by research from the fields of learning disabilities and cognitive psychology, many nonverbal assignments can perform this "serious work" admirably. English teachers who want to reap the benefits of "providing alternative, individualized pathways which can be followed during, the course of learning," (Miller 1996) can use these pathways to directly enhance students' reading and writing skills. In fact, understanding how to do this enables many students who struggle with language skills to experience success in their area of greatest challenge, often for the first time.
That's what we've been learning at Landmark College since the early 1990's. And although these strategies were developed to improve the skills of LD college students, my experience confirms that they are extremely applicable in middle and high school English classes. This article will describe - how students' strengths in alternative intelligences can be called upon to improve their language skills and how visuals can help students improve writing.
Genesis of strategies
The inspiration for this approach grew from problems teachers at Landmark frequently encountered (and we were certainly not alone): the frustration of seeing bright, often articulate, creative, and diligent students struggle with writing assignments, yet failing to meet teachers' expectations or to produce any writing at all. Breaking the writing task into stages and following a process helped to some extent. Using color-coded graphics such as flow charts, mind maps, and Venn diagrams to sort and organize ideas also helped, but many students continued to struggle and meet defeat.
A chance encounter with Karen Klein of Brandeis University, who at the time was teaching a course called "Advanced Composition for Visual Thinkers," set off the sparks that lead to developing our strategies. Klein, who is both a visual artist and a professor of English , had been inspired by reading Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind (1983) to develop a composition course for students who had difficulty writing, but knew themselves to be strong in visual/spatial thinking. This applied to many of my students at Landmark. Thomas West's book In the Mind's Eye (1992) makes a compelling case for the connections between dyslexia and visual giftedness.
Walking and building
As Klein and I corresponded and collaborated, we explored two different techniques: walking strategies, which call upon kinesthetic intelligence, and building strategies, which capitalize on spatial intelligence. In the first, students walk their ideas across a room, changing directions to indicate changes in the logic of the argument or the sequence of events. In the latter, students construct three- dimensional models that show how ideas relate to each other. Both of these are pre-writing strategies to generate and organize ideas and share the critical attributes of movement and touch. In an article in the LD Network Exchange, Steve Wilkins notes that "the kinesthetic channel is the great forgotten learning channel in American classrooms. Most children learn best when there are tangible, concrete manipulatives that help explain an abstract or complex concept" (1995, 4).
Our experiences at Landmark College emphatically bear this out. Or, as one of my students said, "If I can touch it, it's real." Furthermore, once students have internalized concepts or generated and organized their ideas through -"alternative pathways," they have had a jumpstart into the linguistic processes demanded in the English classroom. It then becomes much easier for them to draft compositions and complete the writing process. We have corroboration for this from no less a thinker than Albert Einstein, who explained the source of his ideas as "playing with image":
The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images ... of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will. (Einstein, quoted in West 1991, 26)
Movement: drawing on kinesthetic intelligence
Let's turn first to the use of movement as a pre-writing strategy. Students who are good candidates for these kinds of strategies tend to be, strong athletes, gymnasts, or good dancers, whether formally trained or not. They may even walk with style, moving through the hallways in a distinctively "cool" fashion. Kristin Lougheed, a Landmark student. who completed a Guided Study project on the use of movement in academics, concluded that "movement is a strategy to allow students to make a bridge for themselves into the academic world" (1995). Lougheed, who generalized from her own case and collaborated with classmates, notes that being in motion is often "a way of life" for students with Attention Deficit Disorders. Experts in ADHD such as Ned Hallowell (1994) and Mel Levine (1994) concur that the hardest thing-and the most counterproductive- for many students is to try sitting still. However, movement can be used to facilitate learning instead of wasting everybody's energy by fighting against it.
Furthermore, you don't have to be ADHD for this technique to be effective. Walking seems to stimulate the flow of ideas and calls forth language, as anyone who gets their best ideas while jogging, walking, or driving can attest. It is liberating to leave the struggles at your desk to get up, move around, and let ideas flow. Movement also appears to mitigate word retrieval problems; often a word will "pop" up as a student takes a step forward. At Landmark you might encounter students preparing to write by walking in the halls or on the quad and talking into a tape recorder or to a tutor, who will jot down their ideas.
Fitting ideas together
Another way walking aids writing is by helping students sort out how ideas fit together. They do this by developing a kinesthetic sense of the logic of relationships. In an earlier article I co-authored with Karen Mein, we detailed how to "walk" an essay by using body movements and arm gestures to map the essay across a room, representing logical connections between ideas with changes in the direction of movements (1994).
For instance, when adding new information, one walks forward; when elaborating or giving examples, off to the side; and when contradicting, one turns 180 degrees and walks back toward the starting point. The teacher or another student accompanies the walker, jotting down the ideas, asking questions when the walker gets stuck, and representing the changes in direction with graphic symbols in the margins (see sidebar). For example, addition of new information, which enables one to walk forward is represented by "+." Causation, as represented by "because" or "thus," can be shown as ">." The precise nature of the graphic symbol is not critical. In fact, the process works best when students generate their own symbols which are personally meaningful.
After walking several essays, students internalize the movements and need not actually "move" all their essays, unless they get stuck somewhere in the- process. At this point they have developed an internal, kinesthetic conception of the logical relations among ideas. This understanding can be used to generate and organize further' essays, to comprehend the underlying structure of other author's texts, and to aid in the revision process. When students walk their own completed drafts, they recognize in a visceral way if they have gone off on tangents, committed circular reasoning, or failed to advance their arguments sufficiently. Students who are otherwise resistant to making significant structural changes in a Completed draft have been known to reorganize paragraphs and resequence ideas once they understand structure in a physical/bodily -sense.
Even when students are writing in less formal rhetorical modes than analysis or argument, walking can be used to stimulate the writing process. For instance, when students are writing narratives, we have them walk their stories as they talk them, moving across the room to act out the events of the story . As in walking essays, the teacher, an other student, or a portable tape recorder takes down the gist of the narrative. As a first step students often find it easier to tell their stories than to commit them to paper. Walking also sequences the story accurately. When a student skips over an important detail, but recalls it later in the story, he/she will spontaneously return to the place in the room where that detail rightfully belonged to "insert" it in the proper sequence.
Walking to drawing to writing
Students can write their narratives directly from the transcription provided by their teacher or partner but we find the writing is enhanced if students first draw the events of the story onto the frames of storyboarding paper. (This consists of six large boxes drawn onto a page; film and video producers use it to decide what each frame should look like.) The visual act of drawing helps students picture their stories with greater clarity and more detail, while placing the events into the six boxes helps them see that stories have a definite structure and are not an endless string of tangentially related episodes. (See storyboard for Two Bears story, p. 48.)Click here to view Cuisinaire Rods - Sentence Concepts
Manipulatives: drawing on spatial intelligence
For students with strengths in spatial intelligence, manipulatives may be the strategy of choice. Not only artists have spatial intelligence. In fact you can be quite intelligent spatially and not be able to draw well. Spatial intelligence involves the ability to perceive patterns and arrays and to conceptualize ideas dimensionally, as in understanding how the parts of something go together to make the whole. Architects, engineers, designers, and many scientists possess a high level of spatial intelligence. Students who are often doodling or cartooning, who love to build models or make charts, or who know how to take apart an object and put it. back together without looking at a diagram or manual can be good candidates for these strategies.
As with the walking strategies, they can be used in a variety of ways. First, we use them to help students learn and remember concepts that are complex, abstract, or elusive. Imagine the folly of explaining to a student with linguistic deficits what a sentence is, or how a thesis statement works, using only words. Would you use pictures to explain architecture to a blind person? Instead, we build three-dimensional models to illustrate language structure. For instance, we have successfully used Cuisenaire rods (Crods) to teach sentence structure. This involves moving colored rods of differing lengths into patterns that represent sentences. We explicitly teach the basic sentence as a kind of (simplified) formula: Sentence = Subject + Verb + (Complement or Object) and suggest students represent each part of speech with a different colored C-rod. When students work in groups, one of the first discoveries they make is that in order to communicate easily, they have to decide on a common representation for each part of speech. Voila-they discover for themselves the necessity for grammatical terminology.
Students generate sentences that follow this three-dimensional template and look for examples in their own writing. Next, we teach that compound sentences are two basic sentences joined together at the same level by a certain kind of joining word we call a conjunction, while complex sentences are two basic sentences joined together at different levels, one lower or "subordinate" to the other (see Cuisenaire Rods for basic, compound, and complex sentences, p. 49). You are probably thinking, "That's nothing but old-fashioned sentence diagramming." It does bear certain resemblances, but we find that touching and moving the rods are critical factors in students' understanding, as are the visual features of rods that differ in color and length. When students are comfortable with these concepts, they can lay out the C-rods over sentences they've written to test for sentence completeness. If a green or yellow rod is missing from a sentence, students see immediately that it's not a complete sentence, and they know whether it's the subject or verb that's missing. Similarly, when students check for sentence variety, a repeated pattern of the same colors is the tip-off for an overused structure.
Modeling rhetorical forms
We can also use manipulatives to model rhetorical forms for students. This method shares some similarities with graphic organizers such as flow charts or mind maps, but again, the dimensionality of the process is crucial for some students' understanding. A favorite resource is Klondikers, chunky interlocking gear-shaped pieces, all the same size, but in varying colors. We can show students what we mean by a five-sentence paragraph or a five-paragraph essay by building a model for them to observe, touch, and- use as a template. The first block, in green (for start), represents the introduction paragraph' or topic sentence. This is followed by three blocks in blue for the supporting details, and ends with a final block in red (for stop) for the conclusion.
Yes, you might think this is a simplistic way of explaining form in writing, but for students truly lost in the concept of how to construct a paragraph or an essay, it's very helpful to provide a concrete, explicit model for them to expand upon. And expand we do. We show students how to add additional details, or to use two paragraphs of introduction when circumstances dictate an extended opening. After students write their own drafts, we have them build a model of what they've, written, idea by idea, to examine the soundness of their composition's structure. If students "have gone off on tangents", their models become unbalanced and actually fall over. Likewise, an essay minus its conclusion does not match the original model presented by the teacher. It's easy to see what's missing.
One of my students had a burst of insight after I presented a Lego model of compare/contrast structure. "I never realized it was all about parallelism and symmetry before," she said, and went on to successfully complete her first essay in that form. (See compare/contrast model, p. 5 1.)
Assessing- students' understanding of concepts
This leads us to the use of manipulatives as a diagnostic assessment tool. Say you've presented the concept of paragraph structure to a class of basic writers using words and perhaps diagrams to explain. You can effectively test students' comprehension by asking them to make their own models of a paragraph using a variety of manipulatives. We generally use Legos, Tinkertoys, Klondikers, or colored pipe cleaners (very inexpensive, very obtainable at craft supply centers, and not tainted by association with preschool). The sets should contain pieces in a variety of sizes, shapes, and colors that can be joined together in a limited number of ways (too many choices can be overwhelming).
From the students' models you will readily see who understands the entire concept, Who gets the big picture but is fuzzy about some of the details, and who doesn't have a clue, but you should also ask each student to verbally explain his/her model. This has the double advantage of confirming your suspicions and having students practice putting the concepts back into words. I often find the problem lies not in the students' inability to conceptualize, but in their inability to articulate the concept.
Pre-writing: generating ideas
Finally, manipulatives can be used as a pre-writing exploration of ideas and their relationships, in ways that are analogous to the walking strategies. For students who have trouble generating ideas, especially about abstractions, just handling the pieces as they talk through their notions, can be a spur to thought.
I particularly remember Jim, who had been "stuck" in developmental courses for a few semesters. Some of his teachers even hinted that he might never develop the analytical skills and ease in configuring abstractions needed to do college-level work. One day when Jim was struggling with a paper discussing the symbolism in a passage from All Quiet on the Western front, his tutor gave him a set of Tinkertoys. She encouraged him to use the rods and spools to anchor his thoughts as he speculated about symbolism. To both their astonishment, the ideas seemed to spill out as Jim moved the pieces around and connected them to show how he felt ideas were related.
From then on, Jim often used the Tinkertoys when attempting to express ideas that didn't come easily. The quality of his writing improved dramatically, gaining him entry into credit-level classes, again reinforcing my notion that many students we label as "concrete thinkers" actually are capable of sophisticated'; abstract conceptualization, but may not be able to express this in words as a first step.
Prewriting: organizing ideasClick here to view Lego Model of Compare/Contrast
Manipulatives are also very helpful to students who at first may seem to have a problem the opposite of Jim's: they have too many ideas. As one of these students explained, "The more I'm interested in a subject, the more ideas I have. I could generate a whole 'roomful' of ideas on a topic that really interests me." In fact, Joanne had about 75 pages of notes for a three- to five-page paper on the role of China in contemporary world politics. Teachers acknowledged her to be a brilliant thinker, but she was on academic probation from her college because she could never finish her papers. Her ideas kept expanding; she had no idea of how to sort, categorize, and organize them into the analytical essays demanded by her professors.
I suggested Joanne leave the realm of words, briefly, and just "show me" with Tinkertoys how her ideas for the China paper fit together. She came back the next day with a model that sorted her concepts into an introduction, several main supports, and a conclusion, something she'd never achieved before. I asked her to tell me about her model, to explain how it all worked. As Joanne talked, it became clear that she'd created a sort of three-dimensional mind map: the spools represented concepts, while the connecting rods represented the relationships between concepts, the logical connections. In order not to forget the intricate details, I had her sketch the model on paper and label the parts (they had labels such as "economics," "military force," "system of government").
Then I asked her, "If you were going to explain this whole schema to someone who was new to the subject, where would you begin?" Joanne pointed to a spool in the introductory section. I had her put a #1 on her diagram at that point, and then to sequence the other parts, numbering the diagram accordingly. This simple step is crucial, because a sketch or a model conveys information simultaneously, that is, you see all the bits of information at once, whereas language conveys information sequentially, only one bit at a time. Numbering the parts of the model bridges the gap between simultaneous and sequential systems for ordering information. This gap is where many visual thinkers founder when they try to translate their concepts into language.
Joanne later became an apostle of Tinkertoys. She was so thrilled by her new ability to organize and complete papers that she made presentations to English classes and informal groups of students. The -virtues of a three-dimensional model, she explained, were that you can see where you're heading, concept by concept. You know if you're going off on a tangent because you refer to your model or diagram as you write, and you know where you need to use transition words or phrases. Every time you leap in your model from one spool to another, you must write in a transition that explains how they are connected.
Eventually Joanne returned to her original college, graduated, and became a teacher of learning disabled high school students. She still uses a personal kit of Tinkertoys in her teaching and writing and was recently accepted at a prestigious university for graduate work in philosophy.
Where does this get us?
Are these strategies a cure-all or a panacea? Do they let, you off the hook for teaching rhetorical forms, the rules of argument, process writing, usage, and punctuation? Not at all. However, they are powerful enhancers of learning, especially for students who may otherwise struggle in English class. Their most significant contribution is in helping students understand language structures in nonverbal ways that may be more intuitive to them than verbal explanations. The greatest success I've seen students achieve is that they actually complete well-organized, logically sequenced essays, whereas before they struggled mightily, experienced overwhelming frustration, and often failed to hand in anything at all.
A word of caution here, though: these techniques don't work for all students, nor are they formulas or recipes that can. be applied indiscriminately. It helps tremendously if you or your students have some notions about their domains of greater and lesser intelligence. And some students may shy away from (OK, some may even ridicule) the use of movement and manipulatives in a secondary or post-secondary setting. We've found it best to present these techniques as experiments in learning which we invite students to join. We model them, both showing and explaining, and back up our presentations with relevant research in neurology and cognitive psychology. Most of our students have responded enthusiastically and seen satisfying gains in their ability to think, read, and write.
Or as Joanne once said, "Tinkertoys: there's nothing playschool about them."
Linda Hecker teaches at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. Founded in 1986, Landmark is the nation's only accredited college devoted exclusively to serving students with learning disabilities.
Click the "References" link above to hide these references.
Gardner, H. 1983. Frame of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
. 1993. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books, Inc.
Hallowell, N., and J. Ratey. 1994. Driven to Distraction. New York: Pantheon Books.
Klein, K. and L. Hecker. 1994. "The Write Moves: Cultivating Kinesthetic and Spatial Intelligences in the Writing Process." Presence of Mind: Teaching Writing Beyond the Cognitive Domain. A. Brant and R. Graves, eds. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Leilne, M. 1994. Educational Care. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.
Lougheed, K. 1995. Movement and Academics: The Bridge to Success. Landmark College, Putney, VT: unpublished paper.
Miller, H. 1996. "Letter to the Editor." English journal 8 5.2 (Feb.): 11.
Pierpoint, A. 1996. "Letter to the Editor." English Journal 85.2 (Feb.): 11-12.
West, T. 1992. In the Mind's Eye. New York: Pantheon Books.
Wilkins, S. 1995. "A Teacher's Guide to the Brain." The Learning Disabilities Network Exchange. 13: 1-8.
Linda Hecker English Journal, October 1997