# WCYDWT English?

This post has to do with Dan Meyer’s What Can You Do With This? concept and my utter failure to come up with ways to do it the way I’d like in English.

I seem to be struggling with the same things that Todd Seal is/was struggling with over on Thoughts on Teaching.

I can come up with lots of ways to make media encourage actions (prompts essentially) but I’m failing to figure out ways to make questions that require specific skills/understanding1.

The question is the key element it seems. The question has to drive the whole thing and be simple enough that people will take a guess without feeling over invested. This primes the pump so to speak.

Every question I come up with ends up with possible skills all over the place but missing the requirement for a specific skill or set of skills. In English it often seems like you can accomplish an answer but it’s less a puzzle to figure out that will require specific skills and more of a task to accomplish that can be completed to a greater or lesser degree depending on a variety of skills2.

I wonder if it doesn’t come down to the fact that in English we often lack a definitive “right” answer. It could be I’m just failing to think properly about this.

Take the serial comma artifact that was posted on Dan’s site a while back. I ended up at Wikipedia pondering a way to make this into something that had a question and required understanding the serial comma to answer the question.

I wanted to ask was something like –”Given the sentence below, how many people went to Oregon?”
I went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.

That creates the confusion. I can even resolve the confusion for this particular sentence but it’s more about reading it closely and just re-writing it as opposed to starting to understand something like Wikipedia’s explanation —

The list x, y and z is unambiguous if y and z cannot be read as in apposition to x.
Equally, x, y, and z is unambiguous if y cannot be read as in apposition to x.
If neither y nor y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are unambiguous; but if y or y[,] and z can be read as in apposition to x, then both forms of the list are ambiguous.
x and y and z is unambiguous.

There’s something to be said for just having fun with the language and letting some things be messy. That’s good and fine but I still think there are ways to get at more specific understandings using the WCYDWT format. I haven’t given up but I wouldn’t mind hearing the thoughts of some others who might have already fought this battle.

Then drop this one in-
I went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook.
But I don’t feel like I end up with clarity.

1 General stuff is easy but making very specific skills a requirement to solve the problem in the way I see it happen in math is not going well for me.

2 Maybe that sentence indicates why I’m failing here.

1. Max said on December 21, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I’m a math teacher, not an English teacher, so I’m left wondering what you mean by “specific skills.” Does that mean grammar skills? Or skills like writing particular kinds of letters (business letter, compare and contrast essay, parody)? Or skills like reading comprehension?

In math, I think of WCYDWT as being in part a specific formulary for engaging students in real-world problem-solving with a multi-media component, a way to check your work, and an element of doing a particular kind of mathematical problem solving in which quantities are identified, ways to measure them are decided, and a mathematical model is made describing all the relationships among the quantities, and then the model is tested. The content of the model can vary depending on the math content one is addressing (e.g. ratio and proportion, quadratic relationships, etc.).

It’s a way, also, to get students to realize the way real life can and is “mathematized” by geeks like math teachers.

In English, I’d think that there are general kinds of problem-solving-in-the-real-world through reading and writing that we’d want students to get good at, and the kind of reading and writing skills addressed would come through the content of the scenario, though they would be open-ended if the scenario was of good quality. Good WCYDWT would be ones that real people in the field would care about and use their problem-solving-through-reading-and-writing skills to solve.

I imagine things like WCYDWT copy-editing moments, in which either published text with errors, or actual manuscripts, are shared with students, they try to edit them, and then compare their work with the revised or edited texts. Fun bonus: they see that real writers make mistakes and revise, they aren’t perfect from the start.

And WCYDWT scenarios in which careful reading and good writing solve problems — for example, a controversial historical article or blog post to which students respond and then compare their work to the responses from the original time.

Similarly, scenarios in which students could solve a problem in their own school or life by writing well about the scenario, to persuade someone, etc. And then seeing what that person’s reaction is.

Another idea might be for people to capture pieces of writing that they were confused by, intrigued by, thought other people misinterpreted, etc., and share them with the class. Interpretations and suggestions for revision could then be shared and discussed, and then a poll could be taken to see if the students’ interpretations were preferred, or suggested revisions were better.

Do others think that would be in the WCYDWT spirit?

2. Todd said on January 3, 2011 at 6:35 pm

My biggest frustration with all of this is how to make it not seem so obviously English-y. The WCYDWT ideas that I’ve seen, and what I thought was ultra cool about them, took math concepts and applied them to real problems without obviously being a revision of a textbook problem. That’s what I’m looking for.

The ideas about playing around with grammar and stuff that you suggest, Max and Tom, are good ones, but I don’t get the same WCYDWT vibe that I got from all of Dan’s material. He’s got one on serial commas and one that could possibly be used for connotation vs. denotation, but those all feel like small fillers. It’s flushing these things out to full lesson size that I struggle with.

I take pictures of misused or missing punctuation almost obsessively. I’ve thought of doing a few things with them (and that’s next on the ol’ neglected blog). But none of this gets to Dan’s original bit walking down the stairs or his basketball video or his video of him running against himself or any of those things. Maybe that just doesn’t exist in our sphere and I’m hoping for too much. I just cannot shake the feeling that I’m missing something incredibly powerful and useful in making my subject area relevant to all students in the classroom.

• Tom said on January 4, 2011 at 10:39 pm

I feel the same way. It just isn’t the same. The English attempts seem to be far less focused as well. The basketball shot, the stairs, all create the need for a very specific understanding. I struggle to achieve a similar focus with English.

I’ve got one or two ideas that might be closer that I’ll post sooner or later but no English class to try them on so it’s all hypothetical posturing for me anyway. . .

3. Todd said on January 6, 2011 at 12:08 pm

Well, I can give the ideas a shot if you publish them.

4. Todd said on January 6, 2011 at 12:20 pm

AND I think I just stumbled on something closer than my previous attempts. Still not spot on, but getting there. Trouble is, the sign that it involves me taking a picture of is now gone. But maybe I can make a reasonable facsimile thereof. Just a reminder to take the picture even if you’re not immediately sure how to use it, dang it!

5. Christopher Danielson said on April 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Here’s my contribution to your quest.

Think about Dan’s love of the black rectangle and the pause button. You could work with scenes of compelling dialogue (but from plays, films and television with which your students are unfamiliar). Use black rectangles and the pause button judiciously. Examples:

(1) Foreign film with subtitles. Tension builds in the scene, students get a sense of the story arc, then the black rectangle covers the subtitles for an important line. Students predict the line and discuss why-how is your line compatible with the story arc, and with the facial expressions of those involved?

(2) English film. Same as above, but we pause before the final line is uttered. Students predict. There is less scaffolding here, as they don’t have the body language associated with the delivered line.

(3) English film. Cloze activity. Delete one word or series of words, using the black rectangle to cover the lips of the speaker. You could delete to make points about word choice, verb tense/agreement, etc.

As an English teacher, you are better positioned than I am to make the specific choices. I offer the idea from an instructional design perspective. It has in common with Dan’s work that you are using media to engage. You want to engage your students in the language and the narrative structure in the media, rather than with the quantitative relationships. It also shares with Dan’s work the opportunity to check your answer-the teacher isn’t evaluating the students’ answers, they can see the answers play out on screen.