Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction

Just the Facts Ma'amAs part of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon that Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts hosted to kick-off their new book, Falling in Love with Close ReadingKate reminded us that not every nonfiction text warrants a close reading. In particular she noted texts whose word choice and details don’t reveal an authorial point of view—or as Kate so wonderfully put it, “aren’t rippling with nuance.” Many of those texts are purely factual—i.e., they don’t use facts to explore a question, issue or event that the writer may have a stance on. And many are content area texts that provide social studies or science information without much of a discernible view point.

I agree completely that not every text deserves close point-of-view scrutiny, but there are other reasons to read those texts closely, as I think they pose many problems for students and offer many problem-solving opportunities. The title of this week’s post, for instance, alludes to something that not every reader might know—in this case, a TV show that was popular before some of you were born. References and allusions like this abound in all sorts of nonfiction, from Nicholas Carr‘s intriguing piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, which begins with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Sy Montgomery‘s grade 4-5 text exemplar Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, which in passing mentions hobbits, trolls, Sponge Bob and Stuart Little. Most of these references are kid-friendly and add to the fun of the book. But like the old TV show Dragnet, I imagine that there are students out there who’ve never heard of Stuart Little. So what’s a fourth or fifth grader to do when reading a section that begins like this:

“Stuart Little, the small mouse with big parents, had nothing on baby marsupials. Marsupials (“mar-SOUP-ee-ulz”) are special kinds of mammals. Even the biggest ones give birth to babies who are incredibly small. A two-hundred-pound, six-foot mother kangaroo, for instance, gives birth to a baby as small as a lima bean. That’s what makes marsupials marsupials.”

QuestfortheTreeKangarooThe easiest way to solve the problem of what Stuart Little means would be for a teacher to tell the students who Stuart Little is. No doubt that might be entertaining and even lead some students to the book. But given that, just like vocabulary words, it’s simply impossible for a teacher to provide explanations for every allusion or reference students might encounter in a text, we might want to think twice about solving the problems that allusions and references pose and instead let students try to solve them on their own, at least some of the time. Some students, for instance, might solve the problem here by skipping right over Stuart Little and focusing instead on what they can understand: that marsupials are mammals whose babies are super small. Others, instead, might create what I call a “place holder”: they figure out that whoever Stuart Little is, the difference in size between him and his parents isn’t nearly as great as the difference between marsupial babies and their moms.

I believe that providing students with opportunities to wrestle with problems like these helps them become confident and resourceful readers. But for that to happen, we, as teachers, need to be more aware of the problem-solving opportunities that specific texts hold. We can do that by recognizing that many of the items that frequently appear in text complexity rubrics, such as allusions, vocabulary and complicated syntax, can be thought of as problems to solve, as can the kind of “holes in the cheese” I discussed in an earlier post—those places where a nonfiction writer hasn’t explicitly spelled out how the facts are connected. We can also better see the problems a text poses if we ask students what they’re confused about, as I wrote about last year and did as well with two groups of fourth graders that looked at this excerpt from Samuel de Champlain: From New France to Cape Cod by Adrianna Morganelli:

Trade & Exploration

Both groups of students had studied explorers earlier in the year, and so I began by asking each group to think about what they had learned. In both cases, the students shrugged more than spoke, which gave their teachers pause. Interestingly enough, though, as they made their way through the first paragraph, which was filled with things that confused them—”thirst for wealth”, “the spice trade” and “commodities”, which they solved by checking out the glossary—they started to remember more.

I think it’s important to note here that the call to activate schema before reading yielded virtually nothing, but the students automatically started pulling information without prompting from their memory banks in order to resolve their confusion. Problem solving, thus, gave them a purpose for strategically drawing on their background knowledge in a way that years of deliberately practicing the strategy of activating schema hadn’t. And with that paragraph mostly solved they moved on to the next.

The first group I read this passage with helped me better see the problems that the second part posed, as students were once again confused. In particular, they were confused by the references to trade routes, both overland and sea ones, as well as by the glut of place names and the different types of people. In fact, who controlled and discovered what where, along with why and how, were all problems that needed solving. And while I ran out of time with the first group, I came more prepared for the second, offering them this map to look at and use as a problem solving tool:

Age of Exploration Map

Using the map helped them figure out the difference between overland and sea routes as well as who controlled which and why. It also allowed them to understand what the first group hadn’t: that the New World was discovered almost by accident, as explorers sought to find the Moluccas, and that furs, fish, gold and silver were the new commodities mentioned in the first paragraph, which again were discovered through what had originally been a search for spices and silk. And here again, they automatically inferred in order to solve those problems.

Arriving at these understandings definitely took longer than it would have if I’d solved the problems for the students by pre-teaching or explaining what had confused them or modeling a think-aloud. But as I debriefed the lesson with the teachers, we all thought that in addition to helping students become stronger independent readers, they were also more likely to remember the content because they’d figured it out for themselves and it now belonged to them. And as some of the teachers who attended the session I did last month in New Hampshire said, putting students in problem-solving mode helped them “see themselves as ‘figuring-it-out’ kind of kids.” And that, I think is well worth the time, both for us and for students.

Thinking (Please be Patient)

10 thoughts on “Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction

  1. Thank you for a thoughtful exploration into your lesson. Blogging takes time and thoughtful blogging that really provides teachers with practical direction takes even more time!

    • And thanks so much, in return, for scooping it! Any chance you’ll be in Boston this week for NCTE? I love being able to connect with amazing educators online, but there’s nothing quite like face to face.

      • Just seeing your reply! Sorry about that! No, I didn’t go to NCTE this year. First time in many years that I’ve missed. Also the first year in many that they didn’t go for my proposal. I thought I’d stay home and plan for 2014! Did you enjoy the conference?

      • NCTE was great—though, for the record, you should know that I had another proposal out that also wasn’t accepted. But hopefully we can connect next year in DC where I’d love to meet you in person.

  2. Vicki,
    Thank you for your specific links back to earlier posts that add to the meaning of this one. (Readers can then choose whether to go back and reread, reflect or move on!) This format of writing for the “reader’s understanding” is also a critical skill to be mastered for our students and teachers!

    Your entire text, “What Readers Really Do, emphasizes that the readers have to be in charge of the learning and understanding. Student response to “schema activation” may have been low due to the expectation that “if we wait long enough, the teacher will just tell us what we need to know” or “lack of desire to take a risk in front of peers.”

    I believe that your post reinforced that “understanding” involves student work whether the three texts you displayed were familiar to the reader or not. I use the “Just the facts, ma’m!” all the time in “close reading work” when I want the readers to look for and mark the specific evidence that led the reader to a pattern or a more clear picture. I love it for the nostalgia and the terseness of the communication that is conveyed. Let’s just get to the point!

    However, I also have to be sure to not “rush on” without checking for understanding the “why?” of the trade routes. I can still remember marking trade routes on worksheets. I do not recall any maps that clearly showed that different spices grew in different locales of the world and I am not sure that those spices as a source of wealth would have made sense to me. The use of these paragraphs (and not a textbook with one section on all explorers) was critical for understanding the motivation behind the explorations – power!

    As always, thanks for the thinking!

    • Oh, Fran, we have Dragnet in common and those trade route worksheets! It’s interesting to me that both you and Julieanne noted what might feel risky for students–and that both cited an example of students assuming that the teacher had the answer. That’s precisely what we need to change–yes? And I think, in this crazy world, in which teachers are asked to do so much that’s beyond their control, I think that creating an environment where it’s safe to take risks is one thing we do have some control over. And giving kids enough to do really deep thinking work seems part of what can convey that, as well as by celebrating the process, not just the products, which is what those worksheets were all about.

  3. I’m printing out the thinking graphic and posting it in my classroom. (The patient part is mostly for me!) Thinking seems to be a painful activity for some. There is safety in answering a given question, filling out a worksheet, or being told what to do and where to do it. “You’re the teacher! You tell me,” one student said. I laughed and thought, your the learner, figure it out!

    Creating figure-it out kids seems to be the mission. They need to feel in their bones they can do it. It does take time, and time is always in short supply. This time to figure out should be build into our planning. Giving them the tools, like glossaries and maps and of course strategies, time and the expectation that they can figure it out, sounds like a nice teaching/learning cycle. Kind of reminds me of when kids are learning to tie their shoes. It’s so much quicker to do it for them. But in the end, they just need the time to figure it out, then they are off and running.

    • I was struck, Julianne by the idea of thinking being painful for some and my hunch is that it’s not so much painful as scary–and it’s scary because it often seems risky. If that’s the case, I think we have a capacity as teachers to help kids feel less scared of being wrong–at least when it’s not test season. When asking kids to turn and talk, for instance, about something specific, I’ve been telling them that the worst thing that can happen is to say you don’t know–and that’s actually not a bad place to be. A teacher watching me demo a lesson in Colorado also noticed how I said to a student, “Don’t worry if you haven’t figured it all out yet, just give us a sense of what you’re thinking–and feel free to start anywhere.” My hunch is that if you can get those fearful students to say something, you’ll know how to turn it into something positive, even if it’s just to notice and name that the student actually was thinking. And the next time they’ll be a little less afraid. Yes?

  4. I love how you have phrased this as problem-solving in text. It is a nice shift to developing students as thinkers rather than using students as receptacles for content. This post is very helpful as I support teachers who are questioning the value and purpose of front-loading information after reading your book, What Readers Really Do, and hearing you speak. Thank you again for your wonderful insight into how readers read.

    • Hello Calarri! We might not have the time to do this with every text, but if we do it at least once in a while, students develop a difference sense of what it means to comprehend and understand–and I think over time, they expect that, of both themselves and texts, which is what we want if we don’t want to see them as empty vessels for teachers to fill. And once again, thank you in return, for a great day in Colorado!

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