Noticing What There Is to Be Noticed: A Tribute to Maxine Greene

Bike Sign Post

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

In the flurry of getting ready to leave for Spain, the release from the grip of news cycles while away and the catch-up game of coming home to scores of voice messages and emails, I missed the fact that Maxine Greene, champion of the imagination and the arts in education, died last month at the age of 93. My dear friend Mary Ehrenworth introduced me to her when we were writing The Power of Grammar together, and strangely enough I found myself thinking of her while I was away. Knowing now that she’d died, it’s tempting to wonder if some energy was released by her parting that I felt a whole ocean away. But then I was only aware of my desire to follow her injunction to “notice what there is  to be noticed” and to live in a state of what she called “wide-awakeness,” being fully present, receptive and curious to everything around me.

Traveling, I think, invites wide-awakeness, especially if you give yourself permission to ignore the calls of the digital world, which I more or less managed to do. We also decided to forgo the guided or audio tours offered at sites and museums in order to, in Greene’s words, “notice what there is to be noticed without imposing alien readings or interpretations.” That allowed us to feel the thrill of discovering sites on our own, like the moment when I noticed that one of the columns in Gaudi’s fabulous viaduct in Barcelona’s Parc Guell had morphed into a stone woman before I read anything about it,

Gaudi Viaduct 2

From Vicki’s iPad in Parc Guell, Barcelona 2014

and when it dawned on me that we must be in Girona’s old medieval Jewish Quarter because I kept noticing menorahs.

Girona Menorah

Of course, relying on our eyes instead of a guidebook meant that we missed a thing or two, but it allowed us to attend to other things, like the shadow of a lantern cast on the floor of the Girona cathedral,

Girona Cathedral Shadow

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the origami butterflies we first spotted on the wall of the Archeological Museum and then started seeing everywhere,

Girona Butterflies

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

and the delightful details we noticed on an 11th century tapestry, in which Adam and Eve stood alongside Apollo and turtles looked like cats.

Creation Tapestry detail

We stood in front of that tapestry, drinking it in for quite some time in what I think Maxine Greene would call an “aesthetic encounter.” According to Greene,

“Opening ourselves to encounters with the arts awakens us, prepares us for deeper living because our imagination is at work, and with imagination, a possibility of our transformation.”

In this case, we tried to imagine the lives and beliefs of the artists who created the tapestry as well as the world they inhabited and to also probe why and how the piece spoke to us so deeply across so many centuries. And as happened with everything we noticed, we had a lot of questions, which Greene says is a natural outcome of any aesthetic encounter.

European Appliance SymbolsTo answer some of those questions, we did sometimes turn to guidebooks or google (which helped us figure out what some of the mysterious symbols meant on the appliances in the apartment we rented). But many of our questions, like what the origami butterflies were for, remained a mystery. And while we did consult maps and bike route signs, it was often what we stumbled on when we were lost that was the most memorable, whether it was the tiled water foundation we noticed in an eerily empty Catalonia village right when we needed more water,

Girona Water Fountain

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

the columns from an ancient Roman temple that were hidden in the courtyard of a medieval building in Barcelona’s old Gothic Quarter,

BCN Roman Columns

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

or the factory where the Catalonian beer we thought was the perfect accompaniment to mid-afternoon tapas was made.

Damm Beer Factory, Barcelona

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,

Transitioning back now from vacation to work mode, it seems important to note that, as an educator, Greene envisioned having these aesthetic experiences not while traveling but in classrooms. And to provide those experiences to students, she believed that a teacher’s “educative task” was set students up to notice what there is to be noticed by creating opportunities that “nurture appreciative, reflective, cultural, participatory engagement with works of art,” along with “situations in which the young are moved to begin to ask, in all tones of voice there are, ‘Why?’”

Like the rich tasks I wrote about a few months ago, these situations and opportunities don’t have to involve extensive planning. They can be folded into practices and structures you already have in your room, such as reading conferences, simply by changing the questions we ask students. A 9th grade teacher I worked with, for instance, wanted to re-instate independent reading, which had been pushed aside in his classroom in favor of ‘complex’ whole class texts that many of his students couldn’t access. To keep his students accountable, he considered asking them to keep track of the literary elements in their books, and I asked if we could see what happened instead if we asked students what they noticed and what they made of that.

Game but skeptical, the teacher sat down next to me as I conferred with a student named Alex who was on the opening page of Gary Soto’s story “Broken Chain” from the collection Baseball in April—and in 9th grade, was only at a 5th grade reading level.


I began by asking Alex if anything had stood out for him on this page, and Alex responded by shrugging his shoulders. So I asked if he’d consider reading it again and see if he noticed anything that seemed interesting, confusing, cool, weird, or anything else to him. Baseball in AprilThis time Alex pointed to the line about Alfonso wanting to look like the Aztec warrior from the calendar, which he said was really weird.

I asked him then if he could say more about why he thought that was weird, and after pausing just long enough for me to worry that all I’d get was another shrug, he said this: “I think this guy cares too much about what other people think of him. And that picture’s probably not even real; I bet those cuts are air-brushed in. He should be okay with who he is.”

I believe that Gary Soto’s stories are works of art and that, when I gave Alex the opportunity, he started engaging with the story in the appreciative, reflective, and wide-awake way Maxine Greene says is needed if we, as teachers, are “concerned for teaching rather than training, for persons in their pluralities rather than potentional ‘job-holders and consumers’.” She also has these words to say to us, which seem important to keep in mind:

“To provoke students to break through the limits of the conventional and the taken for granted, we ourselves have to experience breaks with what has been established in our own lives; we have to keep arousing ourselves to begin again.”

Summer is a wonderful time to break with the conventional, whether you’re traveling or curling up with a great book. So with thanks to the wonderful Maxine Greene, here’s to noticing what there is to be noticed, staying wide-awake to all that’s around us, and opening ourselves up to new encounters.

Girona Greenway

© 2014 D.A. Wagner,




Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.


We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

Looking at Complex Texts More Complexly (or What’s Wrong with this Picture?)

Clifford Loves Me -SunAlsoRises

By now many of us have experienced or heard about the effects of using Lexile levels as the sole arbiter of text complexity. In her wonderful post “Guess My Lexile,” for instance, Donalyn Miller looks at the absurdity of putting book with widely different reader appeal and age appropriateness in the same book bin because they share a Lexile level (as my own favorite Lexile odd couple, Clifford and Hemingway, do, with both clocking in at 610L). And for those of us who strongly believe in the power of choice and interest-based reading, young adult writer Mike Mullin shares a chilling story in a blog post about a mother frantically searching for a book that her dystopian-loving 6th grade daughter, whose Lexile level was 1000, would be allowed to read for school. The Giver—out. Fahrenheit 451—out. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—out, all because of Lexile levels which, in its arbitrariness and control, seems like something out of those dystopian books.

text complexity triangleWhile I can’t vouch for the intentions of the Common Core authors (as I can’t for any writer without direct communication), this is not what’s stated in the Standards themselves. In Appendix A’s “Approach to Text Complexity,” the Common Core authors offer a three-part model for measuring text complexity, which they capture with a now familiar graphic. This model, they clearly state, “consists of three equally important parts”—the qualitative dimensions, the quantitative dimensions, and the reader and the task—all of which must be considered when determining a text’s complexity in order to address “the intertwined issues of what and how students read.” Yet how often does that actually happen?

The Arrival coverThe sad fact is that too many schools, reading programs and test makers rely on quantitative measures such as Lexiles to make text selections for students because it’s simple and easy. Lexiles can be found with a click of a mouse, while assessing the qualitative measures is harder and much more time consuming, even when we use rubrics. That’s because the rubrics are often filled with abstract words that are open to interpretation, and they use what seems like circular logic—e.g., saying that “a text is complex if its structure is complex—which doesn’t seem terribly helpful. And how do you deal with a wordless book like Shaun Tan‘s The Arrivalwhich I recently explored with teachers from two schools that were looking at text complexity? Ban it from classrooms because, without words, there’s nothing to quantitatively measure?

Like other short cuts and quick fixes I’ve shared, dismissing a book like The Arrival, based on a non-existent Lexile level, risks short-changing students. The book requires an enormous amount of thinking, as the teachers I worked with discovered. And interestingly enough, their thinking mirrored that of the students of fourth grade teacher Steve Peterson, who wrote about his class’s journey through the book on his blog Inside the Dog. Both the fourth graders and the teachers had to make sense of what the author presented them by attending carefully to what they noticed and what they made of that. And while some of the initial ideas they came up with were different (the teachers thought the portraits on the page below were of immigrants, not terrorists, as some of Steve’s kids first did), the process was the same.


Both students and teachers had to constantly revise their understanding as they encountered new details and images that challenged or extended their thinking. And both debated the meaning of certain details in very similar ways. The teachers, for instance, argued whether the dragon-like shadow that first appeared in the picture below was real or a metaphor for something like oppression, while in a second post, Steve recounts how his kids debated whether the bird-like fish that appear later in the book were real or a metaphor for wishes.


The teachers only read the first part of the book, after which I passed out the rubric below, which many states seem to be using, and asked them how they’d qualitatively assess this text. Being wordless, the text couldn’t be scored for its Language Features, but for every other attribute on the rubric—Meaning, Text Structure and Knowledge Demands—the teachers all decided it was very complex, especially in terms of meaning.

Literary Text Complexity Rubric

If we give equal weight to both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of this text, we have to say that even with a zero Lexile level, it’s at least moderately complex. And what happens when we add in the Reader and the Task, which sometimes feels like the forgotten step-child in text complexity discussions?

Steve and I used the text for different purposes—Steve to launch a unit on immigration, me for a workshop on text complexity. But we each set up our readersNCTE Logo to engage in critical thinking, which the National Council of Teachers of English defines as “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action.” Both the teachers and students engaged in this process not because they’d had a lesson on suspending judgment or logical inquiry, but because they were curious about what the writer might be trying to show them. And to answer that question, both the students and the teachers automatically and authentically engaged in the work the Common Core’s Reading Standards 1-6.

Unfortunately many of the tasks we set for students aim much lower than that, including some of those found in the Common Core’s Appendix B, such as the following:

Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers. (RL.3.1)

Students provide an objective summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wherein they analyze how over the course of the text different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping. (RL.11-12.2)

Each of these tasks are aimed at a particular standard, and frequently the instruction that supports them (plus the worksheets, graphic organizers and sentence starters) focuses the students’ attention on that single standard, rather than on a more holistic way of reading, which would naturally involve multiple standards. And while the Gatsby task is certainly harder than the third grade one, the prompt takes care of the hardest thinking by handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.

But what if the reading task we set for students in every text they read is to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure—all those words that litter the Standards. Wouldn’t that, in addition to a complex qualitative measure, off-set a high Lexile level, if all three truly held equal weight?

I’ll share more thoughts on the reader and the task in an upcoming post. But for now I can’t stop thinking that if instead of ramping up the complexity of texts, we ramped up the complexity of thinking we aim for—trading in, say, some of the hardness of texts for deeper and more insightful thinking—we might, in fact, prepare students better for colleges, careers and life.

Preparation of Life Quote

Coming to a City Near You (or On the Road Again)

"To Them of the Last Wagon" by Lynn Fausett

“To Them of the Last Wagon” by Lynn Fausett

Just a quick post this week to let all my blog reading friends in the Rockies and points west know that I’ll be presenting next month at The Literacy Promise: Opening Doors for the Adolescent Learner conference in Salt Lake City. Sponsored by the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at Brigham Young University, the biennial conference takes place at the Salt Lake City Convention Center March 12—14, 2014, and has a stellar line-up of speakers, including Ellin Keene, Carol Jago, Tanny McGregor and yours truly.

I’ll be giving two sessions on Thursday, March 13, one titled “Setting Students Up to Problem Solve (or How to Help Students Read Closely without Overly Prompting)” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Texts.” I’m sure I’ll be sharing some thoughts from these sessions on the blog before or after the conference, but just so you know, it always brings me great joy to meet blog readers in person.

For more on the conference, including how to register, click on the link above or on the image below. And if our paths don’t meet this time, I’m hoping they will in the future.

The Literacy Promise Banner

The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.


In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.


As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?


What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea?

Main Idea PosterIn my ongoing belief that we, as teachers, learn much when we try to do the tasks we assign to students, I asked a group of teachers I worked with to do a task that was part of a 5th grade nonfiction reading and writing unit recommended by the NYC Department of Ed. The unit, designed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, asked students to read and watch several texts and videos related to zoos and endangered animals in order to ultimately write an opinion essay. But before they took a stance on the topic, the students had to complete a smaller task for each text and video they studied, one of which the teachers and I agreed to try out ourselves.

For this task, students had to read an adapted excerpt from journalist Thomas French’s book Zoo Story, called “The Swazi Eleven.” The excerpt focused on a group of elephants who were flown from game reserves in Swaziland to two zoos in the States because of a slew of problems. And after reading the piece, the student were prompted to “summarize the main ideas and supporting details,” so that the teacher could see if “you can spot the main ideas and show how they are supported with key details.”

Zoo StoryThe piece is a wonderful choice of text, but when I announced the task to the teachers, anxiety filled the air. Clearly we all felt the pressure to perform what turned out to not be such a simple task. If you click through to the piece, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated; it explores multiple points of view about multiple problems and solutions that have multiple causes and effects, and some of these aren’t explicitly stated—which meant that we couldn’t simply look for a main idea sentence, which is something we teach students to do.

Additionally, as we tried to write we wrestled with another problem: What was the prompt really looking for? One teacher used a strategy she’d taught her students to use: she identified the who, what, when, where, and why. But in doing so, she feared she’d reduced the complexity of the piece to a single perspective. Another felt that writing a summary of the main ideas was something of an oxymoron, with summaries sticking to the surface of the text and main ideas going deeper. Several of us, on the other hand, sought to capture what we saw as the big picture, which had to do with how human beings had messed things up for animals. But in trying to do that in a timed setting, we left out critical details. I, for one, neglected to mention elephants, while a colleague forgot to note zoos.

As we debriefed the experience—which began with relief that we weren’t getting graded—we acknowledged how challenging this was with a complex text and how inadequate much of the instruction we offer to students is. Too often, for instance, we model finding the main idea with a text that’s simply too simple—e.g., one in which the main idea is explicitly stated in the text. Or we model in ways that are, frankly, confusing, with the supporting details not really connected to the supposed main idea.

All these problems and more were on display in the student work I recently looked at with a 7th grade teacher. She’d decided to supplement her students’ reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with several nonfiction articles about unusual traditions around the world. And in addition to considering the thematic connection to “The Lottery,” she wanted to use these nonfiction pieces to give her students practice in finding the main idea.

To do this, she broke the class into small groups and gave each group an article to look at, including one about a small town in Spain that celebrates the town’s patron Saint Goat Throwing in SpainDay by throwing a live goat from the church’s bell tower. Then she asked each group to read their text, discuss it, then create a chart that noted the main idea and supporting details.

Several groups cited the topic (which was usually the name of the tradition) as the main idea, writing down, for instance, “The Day of the Dead” at the top of their charts. That made us suspect that some students weren’t sure about the difference between a topic and an idea. And while, as you can see below, the group that read the goat throwing article was able to do more than that, we weren’t sure there if they understood the difference between a fact and an idea (which we had to wrestle with ourselves) or if they realized that a main idea could be implicit, rather than explicit, which meant that they might have to do more than chose a sentence to quote.


What seemed interesting, though, was that the supporting details this group cited did all seem to point to an idea: that this tradition was quite controversial. Recognizing this allowed the teacher and I to formulate a way of talking about ideas versus facts. As I suggested in an earlier post, ideas often explore a fact or event through one or more of the following lenses: compare and contrast, problem and solution, cause and effect, and/or claim and support. And as I wrote about theme, we might do better if, rather than asking students what the text is about, we asked, “What about what it’s about?”

We also thought that whether that group was aware of it or not, they had, in fact, noticed a pattern: a handful of details about what people thought about the tradition. And if they considered what the writer might be trying to show them through that pattern, they might be able to construct a main idea, rather than identify or find it. But that would require a change in the kind of thinking we ask students to do.

Deduction InductionWhether they’re in the shape of a flower, a table, a fishbone or a hamburger, most of the graphic organizers we have kids fill out ask them to think deductively—that is, to come up with a large generalized idea first then think about what supports that. Starting with the details, however, and then thinking about what ideas they might point to involves inductive thinking. And while deductive thinking often works in texts where a general idea is spelled out, many students simply have no idea how to ‘spot’ a main idea when it’s not right there for the spotting, and they need to see how use details to build those bigger ideas.

Finally, I noticed another pattern in the goat throwing piece that seemed to have implications for thinking about main ideas: recurring references to how no one really knew the origin or purpose of the custom. The same, I think, is true of the way we tend to teach the main idea. We do it the way it’s traditionally been done, with the same old strategies and worksheets, without necessarily questioning why or assessing the strategies’ effectiveness. And in this new world we find ourselves in, with its emphasis on complex texts, perhaps it’s time to think more complexly about the main idea.

What’s the Difference Between a Teacher & a Packaged Program?

Now that most of us have settled into the new school year, my corner of the blogosphere is buzzing with the first student responses to curricula designed to meet the Common Core through a steady diet of close reading. Last week, for instance, Chris Lehman shared some of the trove of tweets he discovered, like the one I found below, from students who were flummoxed, frustrated and furious with their close reading assignments. Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan over at Teachers for Teachers shared the notebook entry of a student who confessed, “I find myself so focused on how to annotate that I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading.” And Kim Yaris, of Burkins & Yaris, shared a cautionary tale of her own after her fifth grade son came home from school, brought to the brink of despair and tears by a two-week-long close reading of a document that Kim’s research suggest is actually more college than lower school fare.

Close Reading Tweet2

I can’t verify that all these tweets and confessions are connected with packaged programs, though Kim’s son’s story definitely is. But I seriously suspect that in one way or another they reflect the effects and consequences of a document written by the authors of the Standards known as “The Publisher’s Criteria.” According to the authors, “These criteria [were] designed to guide publishers and curriculum developers” in creating Common Core aligned instructional material “to ensure that teachers receive effective tools.” And it’s here that some of the ideas and language that have taken over classrooms first appear, such as:

  • Whole class instruction should be focused on short texts on or above a grade’s complexity band throughout the year 
  • Students should be engaged in close reading of those texts, which include multiple readings
  • Those close readings should be guided by a set and sequence of text-dependent questions

What’s important to remember is that these criteria weren’t aimed at teachers, only those in the business of marketing products. Yet many a teacher has been forced, persuaded or enticed to follow, having been told, perhaps, that they’re the only way to raise test scores or meet the Standards. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t expose their students to challenging texts, nor have some text-dependent questions up their sleeves that encourage reading closely for deeper meaning. But providing texts, questions to ask, answers to look for and worksheets to pass out is pretty much all a program can do. And because teachers are living human beings, with active minds and hearts, they can do things programs cannot, beginning with the most obvious: A program cannot not know the students, only a teacher can.

Teachers know which students come from families who struggle and which come to school sleepless or hungry. They know which ones are wizards at math but feel defeated by reading and which are precocious but avoid taking risks. They know which don’t talk because they’re shy and which don’t because they’re lost. And knowing all this, they also know that not every student needs every question the program tells them to ask, nor will every student manage to read complex texts by the end of the year (which is what the Standards actually say) by constantly being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Teachers know all this because they watch and listen to their students, which leads to another critical distinction between a program and a teacher: A program can tell you what to say, but it cannot tell you what you’ll hear if you’re listening for more than what the program deems an acceptable answer. I think this kind of listening is just like the way we want students to read, attending closely to the details of the text to think about what the author might be trying to show them, not just to ‘get’ a particular answer but to understand more deeply. And that close, attentive listening allows teachers to make all sorts of moves that programs simply can’t capture in scripts, let alone actually make. Teachers can, for instance, do all of the following, none of which a program can:

  • Seize a teaching moment when it presents itself
  • Tuck what you’ve heard into your pocket to consider its instructional implications
  • Probe student thinking to better understand what’s behind their responses
  • Respond in a way that helps students build identity and agency as readers
  • Welcome and value out-of-the-box thinking

Several of these moves were visible in a classroom I worked in last week, where teachers were using some of the scaffolds that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really DoA seventh grade ICT class, for instance, began reading Shirley Jackson‘s story “The Lottery”—in which a community engages in an annual tradition of stoning the winner The Lotteryof a lottery to death—by asking students to fill out their own text-based Know/Wonder charts. As the teachers and I walked around the room, we were thrilled to see how many students had noted the odd details about stones in the first three paragraphs and had wondered why characters were putting them in their pockets and stacking them in piles.

But I also saw this: One of the boys had copied a sentence from the second paragraph in full: “School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of [the children].” Aware of how many of these students had plucked lines from texts for evidence on the test without seemingly understanding them, I asked him what he thought that meant. “They’re not comfortable with the freedom they have now that school’s out,” he said in a way that allayed my concern. And when I then asked him what he thought about that, he said he thought it was weird. No kids he knew were uneasy with summer. And thinking that, he decided to add a new question to his chart: “Why did most of the kids feel uneasy when school was out?”

Probing this student’s thinking this way not only revealed that he understood more than I first suspected; he was, in fact, the only one who picked up on the current of unease that runs throughout the story. But it also allowed me to name for him both the way that texts operate and the work he’d done as a reader, which increased his confidence.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there was this: As the teacher asked the class to share what they’d learned and wondered about, one student said she learned that the children were talking about planting, rain, tractors and taxes, from this line in the text:

“Soon the men began to gather, watching their children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes.”

Clearly she’d miscomprehended the sentence because of its construction, and initially I saw this as an opportunity to seize a teaching moment by asking the class who they thought was speaking and why. But when I debriefed that moment with the teacher, who’d noticed the mistake as well, she said she didn’t want to call her out in front of the class because it was the very first time that student had shared her thinking. Rather, in what I thought was a wise move, she wanted to think about how to address it in a way that would empower, not deflate, the student, and so she tucked what she’d heard in her pocket to think about her next steps.

And this leads to one final difference between a program and a teacher: Packaged programs teach curriculums and texts. Teachers teach real, live students. And I wonder, if we kept that distinction in mind, whether we’d stope feeling as frazzled and frustrated as the students sometimes do when we march them through a series of pre-determined questions in an achingly hard text.

Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?


Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready

On Shortcuts, Quick Fixes and Why They Often Don’t Work

Short Cut Sign

This spring I found myself in many classrooms—from third grade right up to twelfth—working on content area nonfiction. In each school, teachers were worried that students weren’t comprehending what they were reading, even when the information was stated explicitly. And without understanding the basic facts, it was nearly impossible for them to engage with whatever less explicit ideas the writer might be exploring or with any of the essential questions the teachers had framed their units around.

Initially many teachers saw this as a problem of the students’ background knowledge—i.e., students couldn’t comprehend what the writer was saying because they didn’t have enough prior knowledge for the information to make sense. Or they saw it as a vocabulary issue, especially in those cases where the students were either English Language Learners or were working with texts that matched someone’s insane notion of text complexity (such as the third-grade-is-the-new-seventh-grade example I shared in a recent post).

Can of WormsI don’t want to minimize the need to help students build larger and more sophisticated word banks or to have more background knowledge. But I’m also reminded of what I wrote in a post last summer: that too much emphasis on vocabulary or gaps in background knowledge may actually undermine students’ ability to become stronger, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning if we don’t know all the words and references. Plus obsessing about what students lack sometimes blinds us to what they can do, and so before I started making suggestions, I asked the teachers I was working with what kind of instruction they’d offered students and how they had done with that—which opened up another can of worms.

In almost every case, the teachers had offered students strategies for summarizing or finding the main idea, which often involved looking for topic sentences or repeated key words, as many a classroom chart advises. Some also taught students how to use text features to predict what information they’d find, which we could also call a strategy. These strategies, however, were in fact shortcuts; they offered students ways of synthesizing a text without actually reading it carefully and thoughtfully. And as the teachers shared anecdotes and student work, what seemed clear was that too often those strategies simply wound up backfiring.

In the case of using text features, for instance, students frequently became wedded to predictions they’d made based on pictures and headings, and with those in mind, they ignored any parts that didn’t match their predictions. Main idea and summarizing strategies, on the other hand, often sent students on scavengers hunts—or what SmartBrief blogger Fred Ende calls “Seek & Find” missions in a great post on readers versus scavengers—with students searching for key words or topic sentences without really thinking about how those words or sentences were connected.

Swiss CheeseRecognizing that the very strategies they’d offered might actually be interfering with real understanding, many of the teachers agreed to change tacts and focus on questioning instead—not the kind that would send students back to the text on more scavenging expeditions, but questions that would invite them to wrestle with the concepts and information an author presents. We also wanted them to become more aware of what I started calling ‘the holes in the cheese’—that is, the places where a nonfiction author doesn’t spell everything out, but rather relies on us, as readers, to connect the dots of facts together to figure something out. And to do this, we needed to study the texts we were giving to students, like this one from a fourth grade science textbook that I looked at with an ESL teacher named Cybi, to better understand how the author presented concepts and where the holes in the cheese were.

Mineral Textbook Page 1

In terms of concepts, we saw that the author explicitly described what a mineral was in the second paragraph. But by focusing on repeated or highlighted words, as Cybi had taught them to do, she wasn’t sure if her students would fully grasp the relationship or connection between minerals and rocks—i.e., that minerals were in rocks—which was exactly what happened when I modeled the shared reading later that day. Using the text features to predict the chapter’s content, the students concluded that minerals must be kinds of rocks. Acknowledging that they didn’t know that for sure, they agreed to let me reframe that as a question, which I asked them to hold in their heads as we read. But even with that, they glossed over the word ‘in’ until the very end when, with the question still unanswered, they went back and reread the beginning. At that point hands shot up around the room, and after they shared what they’d discovered, I noticed and named for them how paying attention to small words like ‘in’ had really helped them understand the connection and relationship between the more prominent words. And understanding how those words and facts were connected was really, really important.

We also wanted them to understand the concept of properties and how they helped scientists classify and differentiate minerals. Drawing on her knowledge of her students once again, Cybi thought they might be able to understand that based on the examples on this page and the next. But we both thought we detected a hole in the cheese in this page’s last two sentences where a reader would need to connect the information about hardness and scratching and apply the concept of properties to infer that calcite is harder than gypsum. And so we decided that this would be a good place to stop and ask a question, which I framed during the shared reading this way:

I want to pause here for a moment because I think there’s something the author’s not telling us that we might need to figure out. We know that hardness is a property and that properties help scientists tell minerals apart. We also know that scratching is a way of testing hardness and that gypsum is easier to scratch than calcite. But the author doesn’t come right out and say which mineral is harder, gypsum or calcite. I think he’s left that for us to figure out. So turn and talk. What do you think? Based on what the author has told us, which mineral do you think is harder and why?

This kind of question asked students to synthesize and apply information, not to simply retrieve it. And it asked them to actually think in a way that allowed them to construct understanding, not just consume and regurgitate information, as scavenger hunts often do. Ultimately, though, we wanted the students to be in charge of the questioning, and to that end we combined teacher-created questions, like the one above, that put students in problem-solving mode, with open invitations for the students to share whatever they found confusing or curious. And after I shared my holes-in-the-cheese metaphor, we began asking students if they thought there were things the writer hadn’t fully explained—i.e., holes in the cheese—then gave them time to figure those things out based on what the writer did say.

And as for those shortcuts: In the end, they weren’t so short after all, as they often took students away from real reading and real understanding, helping them, perhaps, to practice a skill but not really engage in deep thinking.

No Shortcuts

Who Do We Want Our Students to Be and Who Do They Need Us to Be: An Invitation to Share Your Thoughts

Young Child Reading Book

In a few days time, I’ll be heading north for ten days worth of cycling in Quebec, and while there’s much that I’m looking forward to—the scenery, the food, the sound of French, the feel of cobblestones beneath my feet—I’m also looking forward to how cycling frees my mind to wander and ruminate. In particular, I’m hoping to ponder the two questions in this post’s title: Who do we want our students to be? and Who do they need us to be? They’re questions I’ve been considering using to frame my next book on reading, where I’m hoping I can deepen, expand and explode what’s become the given language of the day: that we want our students to be career and college ready, with our teaching directed at making even our youngest students mini-academics, scouring complex texts for evidence to plug into tasks that we, as teachers, assign in order to determine if a student has met one or more particular standards.

The Day You Become a TeacherFor me, this nifty graphic from captures some of what I think our students need us to be: teachers who are mindful of the fact that we teach students, not curriculum or Standards, and who know that we can meet those other expectations in a deeper and more meaningful way if we listen carefully to what students are saying and build their learning from there in a way that allows them to construct their own understanding, not just take on ours.

I’m quite sure that many of you reading this have ideas about these questions as well, and with summer upon us, you might even have time to share some of your thinking here. If so, please click on the reply link at the bottom of this post and type away. And if you want more food for thought—or just have a little more time on your hands now that it’s July—here’s three links that in different ways explore those same two questions:

Ken Robinson QuoteIf you missed Sir Ken Robinson‘s keynote address at last year’s NCTE Convention, his TED Talk video on “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley” will bring you up to speed. In addition to expressing his deep belief in teaching as a “creative profession,” not “a delivery system,” he makes an impassioned plea for reorganizing schools around the three principles he believes are what allow human beings to flourish: diversity, curiosity and creativity.

A Year at Mission HillIf you’re like me, there may be many articles, blog posts and videos you mean to get to but don’t because of time. Fortunately, though, I’ve finally had time to catch up with A Year at Mission Hill, a series of videos that chronicle a year at a remarkable public school in Boston. All ten chapters are amazing but for the purposes of this post, I invite you to watch the inspiring “Freedom to Teach,” which ends with teachers singing a song that includes these critical words: “You can give them your love/but not your thoughts/They have their own thoughts/ They have their own thoughts.”

Hurt No Living ThingAnd finally there’s this from my colleague and friend Renée Dinnerstein whose early childhood education blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play has tons of implications for those of us working in other grades. Her most recent post “Hurt No Living Thing,” for instance, looks at the unintended consequences of well-intentioned behavior management charts, and along the way has lots to say about how to create the kinds of classrooms where students can emotionally, socially and academically develop and grow and thrive.

Here’s hoping you find some inspiration—or affirmation—here then share your thinking below. And now . . . I’ve got to pack!

Quebec Bikes