Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students

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For those of us who like to ground our writing instruction in mentor texts—i.e., letting students read and study great examples of the kind of writing they’ll be doing—the Common Core Standards pose some problems, especially when it comes to the kind of textual analysis the Standards seem to emphasize. Writing standard 9, for instance, which begins in the fourth grade, asks students to “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research” with reference to a particular reading literature or information text standard. Many interpret this as pure academic writing of the sort that would address the kind of performance-based task prompts that are listed in the Common Core’s Appendix B. These are specifically aimed at demonstrating proficiency in one or more reading standards, with the teacher usually being the sole audience—and there’s not exactly a ton of great samples of that kind of writing out there.

Default ButtonThis lack of mentor texts frequently leaves students without a clear vision of what this kind of writing might look and sound like. And it often encourages us as teachers to default to some preconceived and often formulaic notions about structure and organization that ConversationEducation blogger and educator Tomasen Carey calls mortifying myths and ridiculous rules in her post on “Miss-Interpretations of the Common Core and Teaching Writing.” So to make this kind of writing more concrete for students and teachers alike, I’ve started asking the teachers I work with (and myself, as well) to try to write the tasks we design to meet particular standards—and virtually every time we do this, we discover that our preconceived notions don’t actually hold much weight.

Hey World Here I Am CoverTake the group of fifth grade teachers I worked with who wanted their students to write an analysis aligned to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.” To try it out ourselves we read two short texts that circled the same feminist theme: “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little‘s Hey World, Here I Am!a deceptively simple text that requires far more thinking to get than its Lexile or reading level might suggest, and The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch‘s gender bending fairy tale that I looked at in my post about theme.

When we first discussed the standard, the teachers all envisioned that the writing would take the form of a four-paragraph essay with the first paragraph introducing the purpose of comparing and contrasting the two texts, the second listing what was similar between them, the third the differences, and the fourth concluding with some final reflection or thoughts about both texts. But as you’ll see from mine below, when we tried it ourselves, both the structure and content looked different than what they’d envisioned.

Compare & Contrast Thematic Essay

In slightly different ways—and without discussing it beforehand—each of us did what I did above. Rather than introducing our purpose, we each went straight to what was thematically similar about the texts, then we each described in more detail how those similarities played out in the two texts, with one paragraph devoted to one text and another to the second. In the limited time we’d given ourselves, we did end with a paragraph that spoke to both texts, but we all kept the focus again on the similarities because they seemed more significant than the differences between the texts. And in that way, we automatically went for what was “deep and penetrating” versus what was “readily apparent” as the Making Thinking Visible authors I quoted in an early post on compare and contrast suggested we do whenever we engage in a particular thinking skill.

Poppleton IllustrationSimilarly, I worked with a group of fourth grade ESL teachers who wanted their students to write an analysis and reflection tied to Reading Literature Standard 2 as part of a unit on overcoming adversity. The standard asks students to “determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text; summarize the test,” and initially the teachers thought that, given how new and potentially challenging the thinking around theme might be, they would only focus on the first half of the standard and let the summary go. When we tried to do it ourselves, however, with the story “Icicles” from Poppleton in Winter, which we thought might be a good entry point for those English Language Learners, every single one of us included what we decided to call a thematically focused summary (as you’ll see again in mine). By writing, we realized that the summary wasn’t actually a separate task; it was the way each of us showed how the theme was conveyed through the details of the story—though the summaries we wrote were different than the summaries we tend to teach.

Poppleton Essay

In each case, we deepened our own understanding of what this kind of writing could look like by doing it ourselves. And in each case we didn’t do what we imagined we’d teach students to do based on our preconceived notions. We also wound up with several mentor texts, which we were excited to share with the students so that they, too, could have a better idea of what this kind of writing could look like. And we had a clearer vision of what our instructional focus might be based on what we’d done as writers.

Of course, I’m still wrestling with how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students. But to do that I think we’d have to breaking yet another mortifying myth and ridiculous rule that I broke myself: That there is no “I” in essays.

Remembering the Power of Writing & Reading: Reflections from Jordan

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A few days after putting up my last post mourning what feels like the dashed dreams of the Standards and the return of scripted reading programs, I found myself on a plane bound for Jordan with two remarkable women: Mary Ehrenworth, the Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project and co-author of numerous books on teaching including Pathways to the Common Core and (with yours truly) The Power of Grammar, and Katherine Bomer, consultant extraordinaire and the author of Writing a Life and Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.

AmmanOnce there I had the incredible opportunity to work alongside Mary and Katherine and three amazing Jordanian educators from the Queen Rania Teacher Academy, Taraf Ghanem, Jumana Jabr, and Maysoon Massoud, as they, in turn, worked with teachers from schools in and around Amman. All were committed to bringing writing workshop to the children of Jordan. And all took on that work with a passion and dedication that was moving and inspiring to see–though, sadly, for me it was also ironic. Here was a country embarking on a journey which the U.S. is seemingly turning away from: helping students feel the power of language to move hearts and change minds by empowering them to become authors whose words and voice and subject matter were of their own making and choosing.

Jordanian students face the same kind of high-stake tests that American students do. In fact, the tests they take as they finish high school will determine whether they can go on to college, thus fixing the paths of their lives. And they will have to complete much of that test in a second language, English. Yet these educators believe, as Mary, Katherine and I do, that they will serve their students best if, rather than drilling them for the test from an early age, they invite them to feel what Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, describes as the magic of writing. “Just think,” he writes:

We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts . . . . Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.

We could feel the students harnessing that magic in the pieces students shared in their classrooms and their teachers brought to our sessions, such as this excerpt from a beautifully written and illustrated narrative from one of the students in teacher Nawal Qawasmeh’s class:

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You can feel it, too, in this persuasive essay from another one of Nawal’s students who, without being taught what an argument was, let alone a claim or a stance, expressed herself in a second language with passion and poignancy:

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These students will eventually have to learn how to cite evidence and elaborate more, as well as develop a repertoire of other craft and rhetorical moves. But I believe those skills can be mastered more easily once they have felt how the words of their hearts can transcend the particulars of time and place to affect a reader deeply. They will also benefit by reading more widely–or as Gary Paulsen says in a quote I shared with many of the teachers, they must learn “to read like the wolf eats.”

The DotUnfortunately, in Jordan that is a challenge because books in public schools are in short supply, both in Arabic and English. And to try to address that in some small way, Mary, Katherine and I all brought books along with us. Mary shared Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home and poems by Rachel Pastan and Naomi Shihab Nye as a way of introducing teachers to the idea of close reading. Katherine read—and acted out—The Dot by Peter Reynolds, the story of a little girl who develops an identity and sense of agency as an artist when her teacher elevates the dot she drew to a work of art, in order to demonstrate the power of conferences that are built on student strengths, not deficits. And I brought a few dozen child-size board books about animals, dinosaurs and elves, which I passed out to the Bedouin children who worked with their families at the ancient site of Petra.

Boy on DonkeyThe Gift of Books (Boy Walking)

Seeing the children’s reactions to the books brought home in the simplest but most profound way that while reading and writing are, indeed, skills, they are also priceless gifts. They bind us together. They keep us alive. They nourish our minds and our souls, giving voice to our deepest dreams and desires and reminding us both of the marvels of the world and what it means to be human. Having students practice those skills without feeling the power and magic they hold, as some of the Common Core programs seem to do, drains the life out of reading and writing and risks turning those vital, life-sustaining acts into something mechanical and dry. The teachers in Jordan, however, are working hard to set those skills within that deeper, more meaningful context–and you could see the pay-off of that hard work in their students’ faces as they proudly showed us their writing.

Students from Soof

Finally once I got back home, I serendipitously stumbled on these words of advice from Barry Lopez‘s wonderful children’s book Crow and Weasel

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

The stories I had the privilege to read and hear from the teachers and children of Jordan fed me as much as the wonderful platters of hummus and kabobs did. And having those stories come to me, I’m passing them on because I think that we need them in these challenging times. We need them because they remind us that reading and writing can do more than make students ready for college or jobs. They can help us find meaning in whatever we do as we try to forge meaningful lives. And they can connect us, beyond culture and place, to the humanity we all hold in common.

Lunch

Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters

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Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.

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Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

Crafting a LifeFor reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to renovate my office in September, which meant moving all my books to the bedroom and stacking them up on the floor. I thought the project would take three weeks, with everything neatly back in place before I left for Italy. But as anyone who’s remodeled anything knows, stuff inevitably happens—in my case, the discovery that beneath the old carpet lay an unlevel floor with a few rotting floorboards.

Needing to put a whole new floor down meant that I didn’t get my books back on the shelves until last week. But while I had definitely grown tired of navigating the stacks of books in the bedroom, the timing turned out to be lucky, for over the break I had the time not just to put the books back on the shelves, but to pause, reconnect and re-acquaint myself with some I hadn’t read for a while, including Don Murray‘s Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.

Along with his fellow New Hampshire-ite Donald Graves, Don Murray was one of the founding fathers of the writing workshop approach, which invited students to follow the same process that actual writers used—pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing their way to a published piece. I’d bought Crafting a Life when it first came out, when most of the work I was doing in schools centered around writing, and I was curious to see what I’d think of it now, having focused so much recently on reading. I was even more curious when I opened it up and discovered that I’d read the book with a yellow highlighter in hand. Would what had struck me as important back then still seem important to me now? Would I see more than I saw before? Would I discover new insights?

Highlighter and word ideaI doubt I would be writing this if the answer was no. As it was, as I read the lines I’d highlighted, I found myself thinking that I’d stumbled on a whole new way of articulating the reading-writing connection, for on page after page I found parallels between the work of a writer, as Murray describes it, and the work of a reader. Of course, some of these parallels weren’t exactly new. Murray talks, for instance, about the need to form communities where “we share who we are, what we feel, what we think,” which many teachers try to do, too, for both he writers and the readers in their rooms. And he talks about “cultivating a writing habit,” which seems similar to how we help students plan a reading life by setting aside time, creating goals and thinking about what they’ll read next.

But what struck me the most were the parallels I saw in his descriptions of a writer’s purpose and attitude. Here, for instance, is a passage where Murray explains why he writes that could just as easily explain why we read:

“The reason I write is simple: to surprise myself. I want to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew, to see a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way, to contradict my most certain beliefs, to burst through expectation and intent to insight and clarity, to hurt and laugh and understand and be confused in a way that I have not experienced before.” (p. 47)

Writing to surprise yourself, according to Murray, requires a particular attitude or stance, which he says begins with paying attention, just as reading to surprise yourself does. It also requires openness and a flexible mind, as he describes below:

“It is dangerous for the writer to know exactly where he or she is going . . . . The writer has to become receptive, open to gesture, to slight adjustments in a tone of voice, to what is different from yesterday, to what will be different tomorrow, to fleeting thought and changes in feelings as subtle as an off-shore breeze that hints of rain.” (p. 29)

Surprise Box Shipped Cardboard PackageIt seems unadvisable to me, as well, for a reader to know where he or she’s going (at least the first time through a text); for if we did know, there wouldn’t really be any need to keep turning the pages. Not knowing is what keeps us engaged; it’s what propels us forward. And it’s what helps us keep our minds open and receptive to whatever surprises the text holds. If you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.

Unfortunately, however, many of the strategies we teach children to use, such as predicting and picture walks—and even connecting and accessing schema—work against this open mindset by encouraging students to form ideas before they even start reading. And as Murray says in yet another line that has implications for readers: “Beginning writers make the mistake of looking for ideas before beginning to write.” Far better, I think, would be to teach students to ask the very same questions that Murray asks himself as he writes:

“What are the most specific details I can spot? What do they reveal? Which specifics connect? What does their pattern reveal? What specifics repel others? What does that lack of pattern reveal? (p. 47)

Murray poses these questions as he drafts and revises, with each successive draft becoming what he calls “an adventure into meaning.” As readers of What Readers Really Do know, I believe that reading is as much an adventure into meaning as writing is, and it’s also a process of drafting and revising, with this important difference. “During revision,” Murray says, “I re-see the subject, developing clues into understanding, hints into insights, reordering to produce clearer patterns.” As readers, however, we can’t revise the clues or patterns the writer has laid down; what we have to keep revising instead is what we think those patterns and clues reveal and what insights they might be leading us to. And to do this, once again, we have to apply Murray’s writing words to readers: “You discover what [the text has] to say by letting go of preconceptions.”

“Writing should have led you to a new understanding—or, at least, a new confusion,” Murray writes, which is true for reading as well. Rereading Murray deepened my understanding of the reading-writing connection and what it means to read like a writer, and it helped me discover what I didn’t know I already knew. Reconnecting with him over the break was also a great way to start the new year.

Now I wonder what other surprises I’ll find waiting for me on my bookshelves . . .

Bookshelves

My Christmas Wish List

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I began thinking about this post last Thursday after I’d spent the day with some teachers who were trying to wrap their minds around what makes a nonfiction text complex beyond background knowledge and vocabulary. I’d brought a sampling of books with me, many from the list of text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Standards, and as the teachers began to pour through them, they noticed many things. They noticed, for instance, that most of these books disrupted much of what we teach students about nonfiction; many had illustrations, for instance, instead of photographs, and many had no text features to speak of—no table of contents, no index, no subheadings, to make fact retrieval easy. And rather than the dry, utilitarian language we often find in nonfiction, these books were filled with the kind of language more often associated with poetry, as can be seen from this gorgeous page from Nicola Davies‘s book Big Blue Whale:

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“I wish I could find a teacher who’d do an author study of Nicola Davies with me,” I said as I imagined children writing ‘information’ texts that explored content through beautiful language that made facts come alive and were structured as creatively as these text exemplars were, rather than by drearily following the Writing Standards bullet points like a formula.

That, in turn, gave birth to several wishes that Thursday afternoon. I wished that in this current climate of argument, analysis and evidence, we could find the time not just to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings,” but to relish and delight in language and feel its power to move us. And to do this, I wished, as Tom Newkirk does in his wonderful piece “Reading Is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading Movement‘”, that we could stop equating proficient reading with speed and right answers and instead, “not put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible—’This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.’”

walt-whitmanI also found myself wishing that we could crack open those first three writing Standards and acknowledge how truly powerful writing doesn’t always fit comfortably and neatly into those opinion, information, and narrative categories—even when we’re writing about texts. Here, for instance, is a link and an excerpt to writer, professor and educator Tom Romano‘s glorious essay “A Relationship with Literature,” which combines personal narrative, literary analysis and deeply held convictions to explore his life-long relationship with Walt Whitman:

“Through their essays students have shown me that literature matters to them for many reasons: because of their search for identity, their spiritual needs, their desire to escape to imaginative worlds, their evolving sense of justice. . . . No students yet have written that what won them over to literature was the arc of the Victorian novel, or the qualities of Romanticism, or what a green light symbolized at the end of a dock. This doesn’t surprise me. Literature matters to my students because of their wild and precious lives. They want them to make sense, to be meaningful. They want to find their way. And I understand. ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ (Whitman).”

And then, of course, came last Friday, when yet another unimaginable act of violence occurred, destroying 27 wild and precious lives. Tom Romano notes that some of his students “have come through slaughter, and a book helped them understand that pain, fear and despair.” I do wish that at some point the families of Newtown, Connecticut, will find some shred of solace in a writer’s words. But right now I wish that literature will fail us, that it actually won’t help us make sense of what happened, because if understanding begets acceptance and tolerance, I wish to never understand what happened that day and to never, ever have to see the words massacre and school in the same sentence again.

Finally, as we head into the holidays, I wish that we might find the strength and courage to to change a world that seems bent on discounting creativity, beauty and the slow accretion of meaning, that seems to care more for the rights of gun owners than the rights of children, and that narrowly evaluates the value of a teacher in ways that fail to acknowledge the valor and sacrifice of the teachers in Newtown. Of course, doing that will not be easy. But for that we might want to hold on to the words of Anais Nin‘s poem “Risk”:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

Pine Tree in Snow

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

A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

While I couldn’t quite manage to get this out before the turkey was carved, I’d like to give my thanks this week to the amazing educators I had the privilege of hearing at last week’s NCTE convention and to share some of their incredible thinking with those who couldn’t be there. The theme of this year’s convention was Dream, Connect, Ignite, but in most of the sessions I attended there seemed to be another theme lying just below the surface: a dream that by connecting we could ignite a movement to push back against the forces of standardization that threaten to engulf us.

This came through loud and clear in the keynote address by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, who expanded on the ideas from his famous Ted Talk on “Changing Education Paradigms” (which can be seen in this wonderful animated version by RSA Animates). According to Robinson, our current educational system is not only out-dated, it’s built on three principles—conformity, compliance, and linear thinking—which are diametrically opposed to the very qualities that make human beings vibrant and vital: creativity, diversity, and ways of thinking that are organic and highly personal. And it’s precisely these last three qualities that he thinks schools need to foster and embrace.

Creativity, diversity and personalized thinking were on center stage in a knock-out (and hilarious) session by Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Matt Glover and Ginny Lockwood, who explored different aspects of choice and ownership. Kathy looked at how, even in an education system narrowed by the confines of conformity, we, as teachers, still have some choice in what we attend to and ask students to do. And Ginny, picking up on that thread, made a passionate plea for choosing to create classrooms in which students are not simply ‘doing’ school—i.e., compliantly completing our assignments—but are truly and deeply ‘being’ in school, with mind, body and soul fully present.

To see what that could actually look like, Stephanie shared clips of her fourth grade students discussing topics of their own choice (in this case, whether money solved problems or made them worse) in what they had dubbed the “Circle of Talkingness”. And she celebrated what she called the “little healthy chaos”—i.e., the messiness that inevitably comes when we choose not to make our students conform to linear ways of thinking. Then Matt shared the amazingly diverse and highly personal ways second grade students incorporated what they had learned from an author study of Cynthia Rylant into writing pieces whose genre they had chosen themselves; and he offered other ways of giving students more choice in what they were going to make within the framework of non-genre specific units. Then the session ended with a rousing reading of my new favorite picture book Prudence Wants a Pet by Cathleen Daly, whose main character, as you can see below, is the epitome of a creative, unique thinker.

I also had the opportunity to hear Randy and Katherine Bomer speak along with professor Allison Skerrett and high school teacher Deb Kelt in a session entitled “Building on Strengths: Teaching English as if Adolescents Already Knew What They Were Doing.” In each speaker’s own unique, diverse way, they shared examples of “appreciative” curricula and teaching, which acknowledges, honors and builds on the experience and capabilities of students, instead of seeing them as deficient because they don’t conform to some norm. Kicking off the session, Randy looked at how deficit language, which sends out the subliminal message to students that they’re lacking or unable, can creep into our teaching talk even when we don’t intend it to; while Katherine suggested a writing conference move inspired by improvisational comedian Stephen Colbert: saying “Yes, and . . . ” to students instead of “No, but . . .” as a way of framing whatever follows around student strengths instead of deficits.

And finally, in perhaps the most subversive talk, I saw middle school teacher and cartoonist David Finkle share a comic strip presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” which used the scene from The Wizard of Oz to question the bluster and wisdom of the wizard behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards. My favorite part? After hearing the wizard, a.k.a. David Coleman, say that “people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” (as he actually did during a presentation to the New York State Department of Education), a puzzled student asks his teacher, “But don’t authors want us to feel something?”

Needless to say, I came away inspired to focus on what both we and the students we work with can do, instead of what they can’t, in ways that push back on the conformity, compliance and linear thinking that this David Finkle cartoon so brilliantly captures. And for that, I’m astoundingly thankful.

Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

Celebrating Independence!

With the Fourth of July almost upon us and barbeques, fireworks and the beach or mountains beckoning, it seems like some relaxation and celebration are in order. So this week, I’m going to keep this short and celebrate by sharing links to two of the fiercely independent online voices that have helped keep me informed and inspired in this challenging year.

Along with Jan Burkins, Kim Yaris is the voice behind the professional development site Literacy Builders, and she holds the distinction of also being the very first person who didn’t already know me to subscribe to this blog. She and Jan also run Burkins & Yaris: Think Tank for 21st Century Literacy, whose blog, in my humble opinion, contains the smartest, most thorough and probing commentary about the Common Core Standards out there. The series they ran about the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) Model Content Frameworks, which threaten to dictate ELA curriculum across the grades, is nothing short of brilliant. And I love the distinction they make between text-based answers and text-based responses in their exploration of the implications of the Standards six instructional shifts.

Jan and Kim provide a great public service for the educational community. (I, for one, knew little about PARCC until I started reading their posts.) They’re also passionate advocates for children as is, in a very different way, poet, teacher and blogger Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. I’d heard about Amy a few years ago when a principal told me about a woman who’d committed herself to writing and posting a poem a day for full year at a site called The Poem Farm. By the time I managed to connect with Amy, that year was over; but Amy was still posting poems and tips for both teachers and student writers, while also launching a second site called Sharing Our Notebooks, in which writers of every shape and size share the actual pages of their notebooks along with how they use them. More recently, she and writer, educator and musician Barry Lane teamed together to write a song called “More Than a Number,” which ends with this powerful and poignant plea:

I’m more than a number.

I invent things when I play.

I collect shells and fossils.

Please hear me when I say

I will not be a ’1′—

a ’2′, a ’3′, or a ’4′.

I am me. I’m a mystery.

I’m a child—not a score.

So before you grab a book and find a hammock, I hope you take a moment to visit their sites, where you can hear Amy and Barry’s song and maybe even use the letter template that Jan and Kim have provided to let your own independent voices be heard in the PARCC Content Frameworks discussion—because we are not test scores or numbers either. We’re independent thinkers and learners.

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Some Reflections on the Year

Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Between teacher effectiveness rubrics, performance-based tasks and text complexity bands—not to mention testing scandals and the growing concerns about the privatization of public education—it hasn’t exactly been an easy year. Yet when I give myself some time to look back, what strikes me most is how much I learned. And that learning helped to balance out the challenges of the year.

So what did I learn? For one, I learned that I can sometimes be wrong, which is always good to know. In this case, I was wrong about the nonfiction performance-based tasks the New York City Department of Ed required every teacher in the city to implement as part of their drive to bring schools up to speed on the Common Core. As someone who cut her teeth at the Teachers College Writing Project, I’ve always believed that the best writing comes from a process that gives students time to draft and revise with feedback from both teachers and peers. And so I questioned the ‘on demand’ aspect of the tasks. Also, the sample text-sets and tasks, which came to be known as ‘bundles,’ that the DOE posted online seemed a little too test-like to me, with administration guidelines and actual scripts like those found in standardized test packets.

I also worried that yet again the emphasis was being placed on assessment not instruction, which seems problematic to me. But here’s where I was wrong. While some teachers chose to use the DOE ‘bundles,’ many designed their own tasks as a final assessment of a meaningful content unit that was already on their curriculum. They did this by setting aside one last aspect of the unit topic for students to read and write about on their own, without the same level of scaffolding they’d provided throughout the unit. Second graders, for example, who’d been studying plants and learning to write All About Books, were asked to read two final pieces about carnivorous plants then write an information piece on demand to share what they had learned. And two impassioned first grade teachers extended a unit they’d developed that combined a study of social activists with writing reading responses by having students listen to one last book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace  by Jeanette Winter, about the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and then write a response. And, as can be seen, the results were stupendous (though I do think they’re a testament to the thoughtful, well-planned instruction that proceeded the task more than the assessment design):

I also learned much about reading nonfiction, which I dove into deeply this year to help the schools I work with make the first two Instructional Shifts required by the Standards. Of course, I’d ‘done’ nonfiction before. I’d taught students how to use text features to both anticipate the information they’d encounter and locate facts they might want to use for the nonfiction pieces they were writing. And I’d brought in feature articles and creative nonfiction books like Atlantic and Bat Loves the Night for students to study as mentor texts to learn about structure and craft.

© 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

But I hadn’t thought much about what readers really do to comprehend and understand nonfiction. And so I tried to do what Dorothy Barnhouse and I did when we explored the reading of fiction in What Readers Really Do: “peer into the recesses of our own reader’s mind, attending to the work we do internally that frequently goes unnoticed or that happens so quickly that it feels automatic.” I also studied some of the Standards’ exemplar texts to see what sorts of demands they put on readers in order to better understand what students might need instructionally to read these kinds of texts. And for better or worse, I discovered that much of what passes as conventional wisdom about teaching nonfiction reading, like the practices listed above, don’t always help students move from plucking facts to deeply understanding what they read.

I’ll be sharing more specifics about reading nonfiction over the next few months, along with more of what I learned as I helped teachers implement a second Author Study unit in the age of the Common Core. But I’ll also be taking some time off to recharge my batteries and reconnect with myself as a reader and writer, which may mean not posting quite so frequently. In addition to finally getting to the stack of books sitting on my nightstand, I also plan on spending time reading new children’s and YA books and on joining write Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Fever 1793in her annual “Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge,” which she hosts in August.

I also want to update this blog to include a list of the wonderful blogs I discovered this year. For this is something else I learned: There are so many smart, dedicated thinkers among us, putting themselves out there week after week, raising questions we all need to consider, sharing their invaluable resources and experiences, and making me, for one, feel less alone. They’ve taught me much in this challenging year that I’ll be mulling over as I sit beneath my own tree that grows in Brooklyn and reap the joys of a literate life.

Illustrations from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens