Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I’d like to take a moment between regular posts to give thanks to all those who, in these crazy, stressful times of new standards, more tests and more expectations, help me stay centered and sane.

I’m thankful that I have the privilege to work with teachers, administrators and other educators who somehow manage to steer through the craziness with humor and warmth and grace, never losing sight, in this data-obsessed age, of the hard-to-measure needs of the whole child.

And I’m thankful for the children who make the work worthwhile. There is Kyra, for instance, a sixth grade student, who gives me a hug each time she sees me in the hall because, spying her with a book one day, I asked her what she was reading, and we discovered that we shared a love of historical fiction and the amazing way writers can help us see ourselves in characters who live in different times, different cultures and different places.

And there’s Oscar, a third grader, who reminded me last week that thinking is more important than correctness when he shared the personal narrative he was writing about the time he’d been knocked down by a cow in India. “In India,” he wrote, “cows can go anywhere because people believe they are holy.” He’d put the sentence in quotation marks as if it was a line of dialogue, which his class was learning about, and when I asked if those were words he actually spoke aloud, he answered without hesitation, “Yes. Those are the words I’m speaking to my reader, because they might not know about the cows.”

Kyra, in turn, reminds me of something else I’m thankful for—what Stephen Greenblatt, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, described in his acceptance speech as the “magic of the written word”:

“. . . the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead seem to be in the room with you.”

And Oscar reminds me of the importance of readers, which I’m also deeply thankful to have. Publishing a blog post often feels like tossing a message in a bottle out to sea, not knowing when and where, if ever, it might land and be found by a reader. If you’re reading these words, do know how very thankful I am that you’ve pulled them out from the cybersea and taken the time to read them. May they give you as much sustenance, hope and belief in the work we’ve been called on to do as your reading this gives me.

Now on to the turkey. I’ll be back next week with Beyond All About Books Part 2.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

We all know how important it is to reflect and set goals for ourselves and our students, and to help students develop those same metacognitive capacities, I’m increasingly seeing student-written goals displayed in classrooms. “I need to infer more,” I spotted on an index card taped to a child’s desk. “My goal is to read Level Z books,” I spied on a bulletin board.

One the one hand, these student-generated goals speak to a student’s academic aspirations, which is certainly a good thing. But as a reader, I have to pause and wonder. Is that what constitutes success as a reader? To master the skill of inferring? To read a Level Z book? Are we somehow conveying, intentionally or not, that we read in order to climb the level ladder or infer a character trait, to fill out a worksheet on the main idea or make text-to-self connections?

For better or worse, levels, strategies and skills are frequently what’s most visible in our classrooms. Libraries are filled with bins of leveled books. Worksheets abound on identifying traits, the main idea and story mountain steps. Strategy charts hang on our walls and from clothes lines that stretch across our rooms. What tends to be far less visible, though, is why we really do all those things: why we take such pains to find a just right book, consider what kind of person a character is, make inferences and predictions. And in that vacuum, it’s perhaps no wonder that children come away thinking that what we value are the things they do see, which I think are actually the means to the end, not the end itself.

But what is the end and how do we make it visible? As I suggested in an earlier post, I think we could make our rooms and our students’ understanding of reading richer and deeper if we brought in the words of writers who read. Here, for example, is a blurb for Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table, by the writer Abraham Verghese that speaks to the deeper purposes of reading:

“When it was over, I had the sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life.”

And here are a few lines from Joyce Sutphen‘s poem, “Bookmobile,” that captures some of the real reasons that we read:

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

Of course we need to do more than hang these quotes on our classroom walls. We need to show children how a reader engages with a book in a way that allows them to come away with not just an understanding of a character but who they are themselves. We need to let them see how books can inform lives, giving us a wider, expanded vision of who we are, who we might become and how we might engage with the world.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I share ways of reframing reading workshop around these deeper purposes, with skills and strategies all firmly tied to more meaningful ends and time carved out to consider what a book might have to say to a student before they return it back to its bin and take another one out.

But there’s a simple step we all can take to make sure our students don’t think that all we value is their level or our worksheets: We can ask them if they love what they’re reading. We can ask if they’ve ever found a character who’s just like a best friend, if they’ve ever heard an echo of their own thoughts and feelings in the pages of a book, if they’ve ever come away understanding someone better than they had before. And we can share what we’ve gotten from books that’s allowed us to go forth into the world with more understanding and awareness of both ourselves and others.

For this, I believe, is what reading can give us. Not a letter on an level assessment or a score on a test, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and all the fallible, convoluted ways we try to make something of our lives. But most of our students will only see this if we offer them something more meaningful and visible to reach for than this when they pick up a book:

The Messy Work of Reading

Here’s a question I found myself thinking about as I prepared for a presentation that I thought could use some visuals. What does reading look like? Not the act of opening the covers of a book and scanning the lines with your eyes, but the path a mind takes as it tries to make meaning of both the words on a single page and the pages of an entire book? And what does the teaching of that journey look like?

I decided that too often our vision of reading looks like this: a straight road that leads over time and many pages to a particular meaning we want our students to ‘get’ that we, as teachers, have gotten from our repeated reading and teaching of a book or from a teacher’s guide.

Of course, we don’t simply set our students on the road and expect them to arrive there without support. We ask them questions. We direct them to passages we know are important from our own prior reading or the teacher’s guide. We invite them to make predictions and connections, latching on to those we think will help nudge them down that predetermined road so that ultimately they ‘see’ what we saw in the text and ‘get’ whatever we got.

Whether we do this explicitly or not, you could say we offer students a route map, like the highway sign below, with page numbers posted instead of mileage and literary features as destinations. Foreshadowing, we convey through our questions and prompts, coming up on page 23. Significant scene on page 57. Important image on page 104.

              These practices might help some students read more closely, as the Common Core Standards ask them to, but I’m not sure how it helps them reach the Standards’ overarching goals as captured in the “Students Who are College and Career Ready” descriptors−particularly the goal of demonstrating independence “without significant scaffolding.” That’s because I believe that the road of meaning making is only straight when we’ve already read a text before and can see retroactively how the pieces fit together to form a meaningful whole−and even then there’s usually no single road, since whatever meaning we’ve made of the whole is open to interpretation, which depends on who we are, what we’ve noticed, and how we fit that together.

Instead, when we enter a text for the first time, we often have no idea where it’s going nor what the writer might be exploring. If we did, there would be no point in reading on; we’d know everything right from the start. But not knowing means that, on a first read, we can’t know which passages are significant. We can’t know which scenes are pivotal, which details will reverberate later, beyond a general understanding and awareness that everything we encounter in a text−from the tiniest detail to the overall structure−potentially carries meaning and has been deliberately chosen by the author for some purpose that will eventually become clearer as we keep on reading.

In this way, I think the path of meaning making as we make our way the first time through a text actually looks like this: a messy tangle of highways and side roads, with on-ramps and off-ramps, dead-ends and detours, and lanes that merge or diverge and divide or sometimes go round in circles−all of which we must navigate on our own by paying attention to the details we encounter and considering what they might mean, while remaining open and flexible enough to revise our understanding as we go.

My co-author Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore what it means to teach with this vision of reading in our new book, What Readers Really Do, which will come out next year. I’ll be sharing out-takes and ideas from it here. But for now I think it’s important to consider that if we want to support and nurture readers who are able to enter a text knowing nothing and emerge pages later with a deep understanding of a text’s ideas and themes, we need to let them know that this is what reading looks like. It’s not a beeline to a given, accepted meaning that either you get or you don’t. It’s a messy, complicated and confusing process that’s filled with wrong turns, false starts and uncertainty. And I believe we serve our students better if we acknowledge and honor that messiness and confusion as the place from which learning and understanding starts.

So What’s with the Prairie?

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And so when I first thought of writing a blog, I thought about what I might call it.

At first I considered just using my name, which might make it easy to find. But blogging risked being self-centered enough without naming the blog after me. Then I entertained a riff on the old 3 R’s−reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic−with reflection replacing the ‘rithmetic as the third R in my teaching trinity. But that sounded clunky and too literal and also problematic as I remembered a few lines from an old song my grandmother used to sing: Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic/Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

I didn’t want allusions to corporal punishment cropping up in anyone’s mind. So that one was out as well. But the process of vetting titles made had yielded something. It made me realize that what I really wanted was more in keeping with the titles I loved−something that was poetic and quirky, and even a bit enigmatic.

Of course, I had no idea what that was. But that’s when fate stepped in−fate in the form of a link on the online front page of The New York Times.

I hit the link and found myself transported to one of the newpaper’s blogs where I found a posting called “On Reverie” by a writer named Raphaël Enthoven. It was a dense and weighty piece, but there were phrases and sentences that took my breath away. Reverie, Enthoven writers, “is thought turned loose.” It’s “a search that begins by giving up and lets itself be dazzled . . . .” “It’s a transition, a passage where the heart, confounded, converts habit into astonishment.”

Reading those words turned my own thoughts loose, and I found myself recalling a poem I’d once read−something about clover and a bee and that word again, reverie. I wouldn’t quite call this a text-to-text connection; it was more like the kind of free association a mind makes when it has time to wander. But now that it had popped into my head I was curious. So I ran a search on google and, voilà, there it was: “To Make a Prairie” by Emily Dickinson, which now appears in the sidebar.

It’s one of those poems you don’t want to over analyze. You just want to let it dazzle you. And feeling dazzled, I also felt astonished. Here, it occurred to me, was my blog’s title: a phrase that was poetic, quirky and enigmatic, just like the titles I loved, and that seemed to speak to what we can make as writers and readers and thinkers when we surrender ourselves to what we notice−on the page, in the world, in our minds−and let that lead us somewhere unexpected, to a place both surprising and right.

And that felt like a good place to start.