Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater: Some Thoughts on Teaching to the Standards

As we head into the final year before full implementation of the Common Core Standards is required by those states that are ‘racing to the top’, I sense some anxiety in the air. In meetings with teachers and in educators’ blogs questions keep popping up: Is there still a place for read aloud? Or genre studies? Or writers’ notebooks? And what about guided and independent reading? What about essential questions?

With all this uncertainty and a deadline pending (not to mention federal money), it’s tempting to jettison everything we’ve done and teach directly to the Standards, with specific lessons aimed, for instance, at determining the theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text (RL2 for 5th grade). Or we could follow the same route that has led New York City and 19 other urban school districts to sign a pact stating that since “80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis . . . aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

On the one hand, I suppose there’s some logic to this. But beyond the questions I’ve already raised about Achieve the Core’s brand of text-dependent questions—and the fact that the actual road to success is rarely a straight, direct path—the phrase ‘teach to the Standards’ sounds eerily like ‘teach to the test’ to me. And we all know how real learning suffers when we teach to the test.

I’m also reminded of these wise words from the developer of the 6 Traits approach to writing and the author of The 9 Rights of Every Writer, Vicki Spandel:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim too high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons—to help our children write with passion and touch the hearts of readers—the little things tend to fall into place anyway. We get the topic sentences and details and strong verbs we hoped to see because those little things help the writer reach her loftier goals. What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said she should, but because these writer’s skills took her where she wanted to go all along, to a place where her writing became powerful.”

I believe the same is true for readers. When we teach students to read for the ‘right reasons’—to deeply engage with a text in a way that “deepens and widens and expands our sense of life,” in the words of Anne Lamott—the Standards tend to fall into place. We get the inferences we hoped to see, not because we’ve pulled our hair out trying to teach students to infer, but because they’re actively looking for clues that might help them answer the burning questions the text has raised for them. And we get them valuing evidence, not because we told them they should, but because they’ve experienced for themselves how attending to details leads to insight .

We can see this in action in the classroom examples that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Dolike the fifth graders reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis WoodsBy keeping track of what they were figuring out and what they were confused or wondering about in the beginning of the book, these students developed a first draft impression of Hollis as an angry, misunderstood girl who desperately wanted a family—which, as you can see from the excerpt below, required a lot of inferring. And as they explained what made them think that, they met Reading Literature Standard 1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from it.”

They also had a slew of why questions about Hollis’s behavior and circumstance, which fueled their reading and became what we might call lines of inquiry. Following these lines as they read forward, they also began to notice patterns. They saw a pattern in the way the book was structured, with italicized sections describing a picture before each actual chapter. They saw patterns formed by lines that were repeated, like “I’ll show you tough,” and patterns in the character’s actions and feelings, such as “Hollis always imagines talking to Steven in her head,” and “Hollis always thinks about the mountain—even though she tells herself not to.” And all those patterns led them again to that critical question, “Why?”

Tracking those patterns, they also noticed that some of them broke or changed, at which point they began to have hunches about what the writer might be trying to show them through those changing patterns. These hunches, which they kept revising as they read, eventually developed into interpretations of the book’s big ideas or themes. And as they considered the implication of those ideas for their own lives, they deepened and widened and expanded their sense of what makes people tick. They also incidentally met the fifth grade Reading Standards for Literature 2-6, without us teaching the Standards per se or directing them via questions to lines or passages we’d deemed important.

Given all the questions about instructional approaches stirred up by the Standards, it seems important to note that this work was grounded in balanced literacy and reading workshop. The book was done as a read aloud, with students receiving additional support through small group instruction and conferences that helped them transfer the thinking to their independent reading.

What was different was what, in the language of the Standards, we might call instructional shifts. We shifted the purpose of the read aloud from building community and enjoying a great read to exploring how readers make meaning—which inevitably created a highly engaged community of readers. We shifted the way we talked about details from asking students to distinguish important from unimportant details to asking them to consider the possible importance and meaning of the details they noticed. And we shifted our instruction from generic comprehension strategies, which too often draw students away from the text, to strategies that drew them deeper in, such as these:

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

What we held on to was what I like to think is the ‘baby’ in the bath: The belief that we should be teaching readers and the thinking involved in meaning making, not texts, trusting that if we do that, the students will plumb the depths of a text, read deeply and meet the Standards—and possibly even become lifelong readers who value the printed word. And that’s what I think we shouldn’t throw out, no matter what else gets tossed, if we’re serious about empowering students to truly be independent.

Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from http://www.toothpastefordinner.com

Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.

Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”

There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.

Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.

To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.

Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.

We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.

Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games. 

Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.

In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940’s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.

In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.

That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.

© 2011 D.A.Wagner - http://dawagner.com