Superficial or Significant: The Challenge of Comparing

Compare Contrast Vegas+Reggio

When a friend and colleague heard I was going to Las Vegas for NCTE so soon after being in Reggio Emilia, she thought it might be interesting for me to compare the two places. My initial thought was no, that’s too easy. The light, the noise level, the language—all different. The money, the history—all different as well, with Las Vegas, as we know it, a virtual newborn in the span of human time and some buildings in Reggio standing in place for more than one thousand years.

making-thinking-visible-ritchhart-ron-9780470915516But then I thought of quote another friend and colleague recently sent me from Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison’s book Making Thinking Visible. Here the authors take a look at skills and thinking, like comparing, that appear in classification charts such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and they offer this advice:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels or quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

With Las Vegas and Reggio, I think I was simply ticking off “readily apparent features” without being terribly insightful, just as I described many students doing in last spring’s post on the limits of graphic organizers. Of course, sometimes a student will come up with something that does seem “deep and penetrating.” But I don’t think we always teach toward that, aiming instead at just teaching the skill without that attention on quality. Or put another way, we teach the concept of comparing without teaching the concept of significance.

The Common Core Standards, however, have dramatically upped the ante in ways that I think are important. In the case of comparing, for instance—a.k.a. Anchor Reading Standard 9—the focus should be on significant, not superficial, comparisons. But how can we instructionally help students move beyond what’s readily apparent to what’s more penetrating but often less visible—a step which often requires readers to look beyond the specifics of any one text to something that’s more abstract and general? Thinking about this, I’ve developed a theory that, when comparing, it’s often useful to focus exclusively on similarities between two things or texts that, on the surface, seem different, and explore differences when similarities are more apparent. Then once those have been mapped out, the next step is to dig into the differences within the similarities or the similarities within the differences.

ClaudetteColvinCoverI tested this theory out last spring with a group of middle school teachers who had gathered for two days to explore ways of helping students read complex nonfiction texts on a common topic or theme. To make this concrete, I asked them to read an excerpt of Philip Hoose‘s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which combines transcripts of interviews with Colvin with more expository text, using a text-based Know/Wonder chart to see how it could help students connect details within the text (e.g., figure out why the number ten was detested, which is mentioned on the first page below).

Claudette Colvin Excerpt

Then we read an excerpt of Ann Petry‘s biography Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroadwhich appears in the Standards Appendix B as a middle school informational exemplar text. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

Harriet Tubman Excerpt

HarrietTubmanCoverRather than handing out Venn Diagrams, I asked the teachers to take out their notebooks and jot down as many similarities they could think of or patterns that recurred across the books, without judging any of their ideas—that is, nothing should be deemed too obvious or, conversely, too far-fetched. This helped them move beyond the most apparent similarities that both books were about African-American girls who as children experienced inequality based on race, to more insightful noticings such as these:

    • Both girl’s parents were addressed by their first name by white people.
    • Both girls learned lessons about the social structure they lived in very early in life.
    • The social structure was enforced through threats of violence, insults and humiliation.
    • Both girls felt fear, uncertainty and confusion.
    • Both girls saw the adults around them afraid.
    • Both girls were expected to take responsibility for something that was done to them, not by them.
    • Neither girl’s parents could protect them.
    • Both girls felt that there were unstated rules “in the air”.

As these were shared, I invited teachers to add ideas they hadn’t thought of before to their list. Then I asked them to look at their expanded list and think about which similarity seemed the most  important or significant to them and on another page of their notebook to briefly explain why. Using another think-to-write strategy, the Write-Around, from Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke‘s Content Area Writing, I then had everyone pass their notebook to the person on their right. That person would then read what the other person wrote then write a quick response, extending, commenting, questioning, and probing what the writer before them had said, before passing the notebooks yet again to the right.

After several passes, the notebooks were returned to their owners who were eager to see how their original thinking had traveled and evolved. And at that point, they felt they would be prepared to have a more formal discussion or even to begin planning out a piece of writing. But perhaps, most importantly, they saw how this process could help lift their students’ thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial in ways that would help them, not just meet the Standards, but understand the undercurrents of a topic in that deep, more penetrating way.

Which brings me back to Vegas and Reggio. After giving myself some time to brainstorm, I did come up with something that was similar and more significant than the fact that both cities had two-word names that were often shortened to one. Both cities revolved around public spaces where people congregated and socialized. In Las Vegas, it was the casinos; in Reggio, the piazzas. And what seemed different within this similarity was the purpose of those spaces. In Reggio the piazzas helped the community connect and strengthen their social bonds, while the casinos were there to make money—with visitors like me forced to walk through the casinos just to get water or coffee.

These differences led to a final similarity: The purpose of these spaces reflected the cultural values of each of the cities, with those values again being different. Anyone want to place a bet on which one I liked best?

Reggio Piazza Las Vegas Casino

10 thoughts on “Superficial or Significant: The Challenge of Comparing

  1. Hello Vicki
    I am a Grade Two teacher who enjoys reading and learning from your blog. This post makes me recognize the value of standing back to think about thinking. In my classroom I realized that we most often look for commonalities, not differences in our inquiries centred on culture, identity and values. It feels right, with Grade Two children, to focus on ‘just like me.’
    Your writing is nourishing!
    Cheers
    Brette Lockyer
    @brettelockyer

    • I, too, tend to want to push into commonalities rather than differences since it’s usually our differences we need to think past in order to find common ground and empathy, which is so very needed in this world. So I’m really glad that you see how it can translate into a second grade room! And, yes, it seems to important to think about thinking and to share that with out students so that they can reflect on their own thinking, too. It’s that important meta-cognitive piece that helps children apply and transfer thinking from one context to another.

  2. I love this post and can’t wait to try a similar lesson. This idea about superficial vs. significant makes me think about text-to-self connections. So many students aren’t really thinking anything new because they connect somehow to the story. Their connecting is superficial. If we are to guide children to a place where they are truly thinking critically about text, we need to give them tools for evaluating whether their thinking is adding anything new to their understanding. What good is it to stay exactly in the same place? We should always be questioning the quality of thinking. As always, thank you for sharing your insight!

    • Hello Kim! I think that some of the push back on strategy instruction is precisely because we’ve taught strategies without asking students to consider whether those strategies have actually allowed them to understand more than they had—i.e., did the strategy strategically help you? Ellin Keene has lots of ideas about how to push into this in Talk About Understanding, and I’m going to try to share a great tool I saw in Las Vegas in an upcoming post. But I do also think that if we set students up to problem solve in texts, they automatically reach for strategies in order to understand, making connections or inferring, for instance, to answer questions the text has raised for them. And thanks in return for this week’s posts on coaching—especially the one about modeling messiness!

  3. “After several passes, the notebooks were returned to their owners who were eager to see how their original thinking had traveled and evolved. And at that point, they felt they would be prepared to have a more formal discussion or even to begin planning out a piece of writing. But perhaps, most importantly, they saw how this process could help lift their students’ thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial in ways that would help them, not just meet the Standards, but understand the undercurrents of a topic in that deep, more penetrating way.”

    This sounds like a very interesting process! And, like Kim Yaris, I think it is crucial for me, as a teacher, to know how to move students (and myself!) towards deeper and deeper thinking. I’m excited to try this, too!

    I’m wondering, should you be so inclined and have time, and since you’ve watched this unfold in action, if you would speculate on WHY this process might have worked to deepen thinking. Was it primarily that someone else took seriously the patterns that were noticed, even the ones that at first appeared “superficial” to the original thinker? (Sort of a validation that there are riches in them thar hills, and that most creeks in this region can be panned for gold if you keep on working at it.) Did the collaboration, itself, help confirm (or suggest) for a thinker what was an important focus? (“Other people were interested in this observation I made rather than that one, therefore this one might be especially interesting.”) Or maybe it was some other process involved.

    I’m wondering about WHY it worked because by understanding that better, I might be able to help the children I work with name (perhaps even feel?) the kind of thinking they are doing, even when they aren’t using the exact procedures you outline. This feels important to me because as you’ve said in other places, this process of naming and knowing might move me (and the students) away from replicating just the technique(s), and towards being able to know when we’re doing that kind of work without the technique. (The thinking you did feels like this, looks like this, sounds like this…that sort of thing.)

    Thank you for your thoughts! They always get me thinking.

    • Hello Steve! I think what helped was a couple of factors. First the brainstorming list was what Penny Kittle (who I also heard in Las Vegas) might call low-risk—as in there was no right or wrong and stealing ideas from others was encouraged. Also I’ve found that noticing one pattern positions you to notice more—or as Norman MacClean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” The write-around also does honor each person’s thinking—and again no one was obligated to stick to their original idea if by reading and responding to others helped them rethink the two texts. It worked like a great discussion does; it pushed and probed everyone’s thinking so that if they had to move into a higher-stakes setting that would be evaluated or assessed, they could benefit from the collaborative thinking of the group. They could also see how thinking grows and can travel, with the ultimately goal of being able to that in your own head.

      I think what’s important is the choice of texts. And without younger students you might need to do some whole class brainstorming orally first, just to get them going. I’m hoping to share more of the author study work I did in a 4th grade class room, which would speak to that. In the meantime, though, I’ve been loving your blog, especially the move you made to go back to the nurse dying in Goblins the Castle. I did something like that with the 7th grade class reading Miracle Boy’s that Dorothy & I share in the book. Many of them were really upset that they never learned anything more about an incident in the juvenile delinquent center that one of the brother’s had been sent to, and the question of why the author never said more was something we went back to once the book was finished. They, too, decided the omission was deliberate and served a purpose that, looking back on it now through the lens of your post, I see was felt as well as understood, which is so very important.

      • I like the way you are able to put big ideas into metaphor. Here’s an example: “They could also see how thinking grows and can travel.” I suspect that you talk this way with students, too, which helps them understand (and study) what good thinking does, almost as if it were a character in a book. I can imagine students asking the same questions I ask: How does my thinking grow? How has my thinking traveled? I like that.

  4. What a fabulous lens to look at these two cities through. I find it fascinating that Vegas seems to “force” and even manipulate “the gathering of people” while Reggio is more organic, and is out of choice. Hmmmm…makes me think of schools these days!! So much manipulation going on without much attention to choice. Are we becoming a nation of Vegas schools where the ultimate jackpot is high test scores and empty promises?

    As I read through I was thinking about adapting this technique to use with one of my graduate classes where each class they are asked to bring a one-pager ( a Don Murray classic reflection).
    I am thinking in terms of looking more deeply at the similarities in their reflections. Many respond to the text from a front line educators perspective and I am wondering if we try to go deeper with their thinking about those similar thoughts if we can get to some larger ideas.

    Thanks as always, for writing! LOVE your blog!
    Tomasen

    • This seems to be mutual admiration week, since I loved your post on reclaiming passion! I was actually going to touch on that same Huffington Post article in a post I’m working on about modeling and the Reggio idea of teachers creating what they call ‘learning contexts.’ But American schools based on Las Vegas—where education is a crap shoot? We have to do everything we can to stop that! In the meantime, good luck on your similarities idea. My hunch is we reveal ourselves in all kinds of ways when we write and looking to see what keeps cropping up could be really interesting.

  5. Pingback: Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students | To Make a Prairie

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