The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut

Last week I heard from my friend and fellow teacher Debora St. Claire. She’d tried using the What I Know/What I Wonder strategy I shared in a recent post with her 8th grade students as they embarked on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and she said that it worked quite well. But what was really remarkable was what her students had to say when she asked them whether it made them do anything differently as they read.

“I can get lost in a text and then I get frustrated and quit paying attention,” one student said. “Seeing my questions on the page helped me keep focus and keep reading.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in having questions and being confused,” said another.

“It forced me to reflect more about the story instead of just reading it,” said a third.

As these students attested, this simple tool helps make the process of meaning making visible, with students drafting and revising their way from confusion to understanding and reading on with more purpose and intention. But if we truly want students to make their own meaning and not ape or take on ours, we, as teachers, have to do something that’s hard: we have to keep our mouths shut.

I was reminded of this just the other day as I met with a small group of middle school students who were stuck at level S. They were able to get the gist of what they read on the literal level, but they missed many of the smaller clues that revealed feelings, attitudes, even glimmers of themes that the author didn’t spell out directly. And that impaired their ability to read more complex texts.

To support them, I selected a short passage from Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness, a level T book about a Mexican boy newly arrived in Los Angeles. Then I gathered them together to explain that we were going to do something out loud today that readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we were learning from the text along with what we’re confused or wondering about. And to help us deal with our confusion and questions, we were going to think and talk about the details the writer gives us, because readers know that writer often leave clues about what’s going on through those details, especially about how the characters feel or why they do the things they do.

We read the first page, beginning with the chapter title and the epigraph, and the students shared out what they’d learned—that the narrator was named Arturo, or Turo, and that he has a grandmother—along with what they were confused or wondering about—the epigraph and the part about the bricks. Then I asked them then to reread the passage and see if the details offered any clues that might clear up their confusion or give them a sense of what Turo or his grandmother felt or said what they did. That led them to think that the grandmother thought Turo’s name was good and strong—like the stack of bricks—and that she might have felt proud of the name. They couldn’t quite tell, though, what Turo felt about his name, so we left that as a question.

So far, so good, I thought to myself, as we read on to learn how Turo’s family had come to Los Angeles. But then we hit this passage and the trouble began:

I asked if they’d learned anything new in this paragraph, and one of the students said, “Yeah, Miss Pringle’s probably the teacher because it’s the first day of school and she says, ‘Class’. And there’s someone named Arthur Rodriquez.”

Oops. As a reader I had immediately inferred that Miss Pringle had introduced Arturo as Arthur, for reasons I had a hunch about. But while this student had caught that Miss Pringle was the teacher, he’d missed the other clues that connected Arthur to Arturo. In the past I might have prompted him more or shared my own take on the text in the guise of a think-aloud, but putting my faith in the process of reading, which I knew often included missteps, I stuck instead to the strategy and asked, “So we think that Miss Pringle’s the teacher because of what she says, but do we have any clues about Arthur Rodriquez?”

“He’s probably another kid in the class,” one of the students said as the rest nodded in agreement. “Okay,” I said then, biting my tongue, “is anything confusing?”

Lots, the students said. They pointed to the rubbery-dolphin smile and everything that followed Arthur Rodriquez. I reminded them what they’d done on the first page: they went back and took a closer look at the details, which gave them a whole bunch of new ideas about those confusing bricks. And so I asked them to do that again—to reread and look for clues—and this time one of the students, Kaliv, had a new idea.

“Miss Pringle seems nice because she’s smiling, but it says her smile is rubbery, which sort of sounds, you know, fake. So maybe she’s not so nice. And maybe,” he said, then stopped himself, “maybe she called Arturo Arthur to make things easier for herself.”

Relief passed through me, though it was short lived, for none of the other students agreed. “No way,” they said, “it’s another kid.”

And so I bit my tongue again and recapped where we were: “It seems like we’ve got two ideas at this point. Some of us think Arthur Rodriquez is one of Miss Pringle’s students, while Kaliv thinks it might really be Arturo and maybe Miss Pringle said that because Arthur was easier to say than Arturo or because she’s not really so nice.” Then I suggested we read the next paragraph to see if we could figure out any more.

 A collective ‘oh’ rose up from the group as they read the next line. When I asked why, they all said they now thought Kaliv was right. Arthur was Arturo. And they also thought he didn’t mind the new name because it might help him fit in. And so they revised their understanding of the text.

Then they read the rest of the passage to see what else they might learn. And this time they didn’t even need a reminder about the strategy to get that Miss Pringle had changed lots of names to make them sound more American and that not everyone thought that was cool. Alicia didn’t because, they said, her eyes were like two dark, hurting bruises, which they thought meant she was either angry or sad.

I ended the session by naming for them the work they’d done as readers: They’d considered the significance of small details to help them navigate through their confusion and dig into the less visible layers of the text. And I named for myself what I had done: I’d let the students find their own route to meaning by trusting the process and keeping my mouth shut when they took a wrong turn. Doing that wasn’t easy, but each student left the group that day feeling more accomplished as a reader, and two of the students asked afterwards if they could read the whole book.

Not stepping in was a small price to pay for such an enormous payback.

8 thoughts on “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut

  1. What a treat! To be let in on that group discussion made me feel like I was back in my middle school classroom again. (I do miss it!) It’s so hard to keep quiet, but the reward is incredible when you see those lightbulbs turn on and your kids walk out the door with a sense of accomplishment and pride. Thanks again for your wonderful insight!

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  5. This post, though posted a pretty long time ago, really spoke to me and my educational philosophy. I have maintained, both with myself and with the new teachers I mentor, that it is always important to make sure the students are the ones doing the thinking. I tell them, the new teachers, not to be the “sage on the stage” and make sure that they give their students the freedom to do the thinking themselves. However, I realized, while reading this post, that I am often too quick to help redirect them when I see them struggling. I don’t do enough of allowing my students to be wrong and find their way to right. Thanks for the reminder that I have been breaking my own rule. :o)

  6. Love that phrase, “The sage on the stage”! It reminds me of how smitten we can be with out own ideas and insights and how hard it can be to keep our mouths shut when the students don’t see something that seems so obvious to us. But while I, too, sometimes err in stepping in to help them, I try to remember that if I’m teaching the reader, not the text, it’s okay for the reader to not get everything I get in order to make meaning. And if it’s a kind of thinking that they’re struggling with—like inferring or interpreting imagery, which this passage asks readers to do—it might be better to give them another opportunity to do this in a slightly easier text than to tell them what this text means. Or to wait till some of what could be inferred here becomes more explicit in the text, then go back to rethink the significance of that imagery in light of what’s later revealed. Both moves would empower readers more than taking on the teacher’s thinking. But it requires a leap of faith in our students that these days seems sadly in short supply.

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