Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

It’s true that when I look at the books on my shelves and the stack on my nightstand, fiction outnumbers nonfiction by more than ten to one. That’s because fiction feeds my soul like nothing else I know of. But the following are also true: I rarely go anywhere without a New Yorker (especially when it involves the subway, a.k.a., the Underground New York Public Library); I’m an avid fan of the science program Radiolab; I read all sorts of blogs and online digests (including my new favorite brainpickings); I don’t mind waits in doctors’ offices as long as I can read People magazine; and I’m a bit of a news junkie.

All this qualifies me as a reader of nonfiction, though as I said in my last post, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what I do as a nonfiction reader until this year when nonfiction became the big, hot topic. So I began to explore nonfiction reading by asking myself two critical questions: Why do we read nonfiction? And how do we actually do it?

Taking on the why question allows us to consider what we might call the enduring understandings about nonfiction—that is, the lasting value of reading it throughout life, not just in the classroom, that we want students to get. My hunch is that most students would say we read nonfiction to learn new information or facts. And while that’s certainly part of why I read nonfiction—to find out the Supreme Court’s decision, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act or know what to do with the butterfly bush I fear I killed in my garden—I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Beyond gathering information I think I need to garden, to travel, to work in schools and to generally be an informed citizen, I read nonfiction for many of the same reasons that I read fiction: to engage with the ideas an author is exploring in a way that will enrich, expand and illuminate my sense of how people and the world work. In fiction, the writer explores those ideas through the vehicle of the story, while nonfiction writers do it through the facts they present and what they see as the implications of those facts. And in this way, I read nonfiction for the reasons that author and guest editor Alan Lightman describes in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2000:

I want to see a mind a work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand . . . to feel that I’m going on a journey. The [writer] is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move.

Of course, Lightman is talking about essays here, which are only one form nonfiction takes. Yet when I look at the exemplar texts in Appendix B of the Standards, I see many texts in which facts are not the whole story—where there is, in fact, a mind at work, taking us on a journey, whether it’s Kathleen V. Kudlinski exploring the evolution of thinking about dinosaurs in the grade 2-3 exemplar Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs or Henry Petroski, author of the grade 6-8 exemplar “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” using facts about the development of the paper bag to explore the idea of perfectability in design, which he has an opinion about.

And here’s where the why leads into the how: Whether we’re fully conscious of this or not, I think we read nonfiction with an awareness that it’s not a single entity, requiring a single way of thinking, but, in fact, has as many sub-genres as fiction does, including essays, feature articles, all-about books, editorials, biographies, memoirs, reviews and, of course, textbooks. All of these sub-genres traffic in facts, though I think that, as readers, we’re also aware that facts are used slightly differently in these various sub-genres. All-about books and most textbooks, for instance, mainly use facts to inform—that is, they give us facts for facts’ sake. Feature articles, on the other hand, along with essays and texts like Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs use facts to explore ideas or issues. And editorials, arguments and texts like “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” mainly use facts to explore ideas or issues the writer has an opinion about. And knowing this as readers, we automatically come to nonfiction texts wondering what the author might be exploring through the facts she presents.

Unfortunately, in addition to sometimes teaching nonfiction as a single entity, we also don’t always make clear to our students what we mean by an idea, which the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus says is a near antonym to a fact. Of course, the word ‘idea’ has other meanings beyond the one stated here. But an idea is not the same as a fact. It is bigger than any single fact and usually contains some kind of judgement or observation about the facts, such as “Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs.” That idea is stated explicitly, but most ideas are not, and they often can’t be accessed through many of the strategies we currently give students for reading nonfiction, such as skimming or scanning a text or looking for key words.

We also, I fear, make matters worse by emphasizing the notion of the ‘main idea.’ Like themes in fiction, many texts explore more than one idea, and reducing the complexity of a writer’s exploration into a tidy statement doesn’t always serve readers well. Also, we don’t always mean an idea when we talk about the main idea. Instead, we use the term either as a synonym for a topic sentence, the aspect of a topic focused on in a paragraph, or a single-sentence summary of the who, what, where, when and why of a text—none of which are necessarily the same as an idea.

I’ll share more thoughts about the how of reading nonfiction in my next post. But for now I think it’s important to remember that as the Common Core asks students to read more complex texts and engage in more critical thinking, it also invites us to think more deeply about what and how we teach. But before we start revising our practice, we need to know what we’re teaching toward—or as Katie Wood Ray puts it in a phrase I wish I’d coined myself: “Before Revision, Vision.” She uses it in Study Driven to stress how important it is for students to have a vision of what they’re aiming for in writing before they jump in and revise. But I think the same holds true for us. Before we revise how we teach nonfiction, let’s develop a deeper, more complex vision of what it really is, so we know more precisely what our instruction needs to aim for in order to better hit the mark.

Beyond Counting Syllables: Thinking Through Haiku

The title for this week’s post is inspired by another of my favorite professional books, Thinking Through Genre by Heather Lattimer. In addition to providing readers with several genre-based units of study, such as memoir and feature articles, Lattimer offers a template and process for designing genre units in general, with goals and instructional focuses set for both reading and writing.

The process she maps out begins with the teacher immersing him or herself in the genre to be studied in order to consider to two critical questions: What do you want students to learn, understand and be able to do as a result of the study? and What about this genre is worthy of an ‘enduring understanding’—that is, why should we spend time reading and writing it?

To answer the second question, Lattimer looks at what specific genres do for us as readers and writers and how they affect us. Thinking through the genre of memoir, for instance, she writers:

“A good memoir will provide the reader with the opportunity to connect with the experience—to feel the emotions, empathize with the response, appreciate the learning that took place, and find community it what can be an isolating world. A great memoir will cause readers to reflect upon and better understanding their own lives and experience.”

And her immersion in feature articles leads her to this understanding:

“It should capture readers’ fascination and spark within them an intense desire to learn, not just about interesting people and place, but about ideas and perspectives.”

Thinking Through Genre doesn’t delve into poetry, let alone the sub-genre of haiku. But a few years ago I began using haiku in curriculum planning workshops to model Lattimer’s process in a way that I hoped would empower teachers to design genre units of their own. I begin, as Lattimer does, with immersion, sharing a handful of haiku, such as these which come from the journal “Modern Haiku“:

a jacket

on the playground fence

summer moon

Cor Van den Heuven

after the reindeer cookie

only a redhot

on her plate

Susan Delphine Delaney

stars at dawn:

the clatter of small change

on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson

I ask the workshop participants to read them, attending to both what they notice and how they’re affected as readers. And if you were like some of them, you may have found yourself counting the syllables and noticing that none of the above conformed to the usual 5-7-5 pattern. A bit of googling will reveal that the haiku formula we often teach in schools is an inaccurate translation of Japanese characters into western syllables. And while generally there are no more than 17 syllables in a haiku, neither the number of lines nor the syllables for each line are as rigid as we tend to teach them.

But then . . . if haiku is not a short poem composed of three lines that each have a specific number of syllables, what is it? What does it do for us as readers? How does it affect us? What makes it worthy of our consideration? What might we say is its essence?

When workshop participants go back to the poems without syllables on their minds, they begin to notice other things. Some notice that there seems to be a pattern, with one line establishing a season or time and the other two creating an image. Others say that each evokes a feeling in addition to an image; others notice that they’re composed primarily of concrete nouns. Still others think that each one captures a moment while also suggesting other moments or events, as if the captured moment contains not just the present but the past and future, too: We see the jacket on the playground fence, for instance, frozen in time like a photograph, but our minds also wander to what happened before that and what might happen afterwards, so that the present moment resonates with both the future and past.

Almost everyone, however, acknowledges that they’re not as simple as they first appear. You need to slow down and attend for a moment, so that reading the poem stops time as well. And it’s this ability of haiku to make us slow down and attend to the momentary particulars of the world that the great haiku critic and translator R. H. Blyth says is “the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Now that, it seems to me, is an enduring understanding worthy of true study. Thinking through haiku allows us to attend to the incandescence of individual moments, to stop and smell the proverbial roses in a way that makes us better appreciate the small wonders of world around us. And when we design instruction that helps students see this, first as readers then as writers, we get poems like these by three 8th graders, that have captured some of the essence of haiku:

Face lit by a screen

way past midnight

homework still not done

Nathan

Ferris Wheel seats

creak in the wind

Coney Island in November

Naomi

Cat’s sandpaper tongue

on my cheek

better than an alarm clock

Tryone

So attend to genre deeply, as haiku attends to the moment. And invite your students to do so as well. It is, indeed, a harder path, requiring that we connect with our own inner reader and not rely on someone else’s take. But it’s also more rewarding, for teachers and students alike.

Unraveling the Process of Meaning Making

Last week in “Seeing the Forest Through the Trees,” I attempted to set the strategies and skills we need to teach our students and the assessment we design to monitor their growth within the context of a larger enduring understanding. And to help with that, I shared the process of meaning making I explore in depth in What Readers Really Do, which breaks down the thinking work of reading into three distinct but related modes: comprehension, understanding and evaluation.

I defined each term in that post. But to demonstrate what I mean and hopefully provide a clearer, more concrete sense of each, let’s look at an excerpt from one of my all-time favorite books for teaching both reading and writing, Hey World, Here I Am! It’s ostensibly the notebook of a feisty but sensitive middle school girl named Kate Bloomfield, written by Jean Little with illustrations by Sue Truesdell, and it comprises short vignettes and prose poems like this:

If we define comprehension as the literal and inferential meaning a reader makes on a line-by-line or page-by-page basis, we can see that this piece doesn’t put a lot of demands on readers at the literal level, as Jean Little tells us explicitly how each character peels an orange.

At the inferential level, however, things get a little trickier. The details seem to suggest something about each character that is only accessible through inferring: that Kate may be a neat person more generally and Emily an impulsive one as shown through the way each handles an orange. We might also infer that Emily admires Kate from her exclamatory comment. But what are we to do with the last line? Why would Kate say what she does? Does it mean that she wants to be admired or be better at something than Emily? Does she wish she wasn’t such a perfectionist? Does she idolize Emily, no matter what she does? What, oh what, does it mean?

As readers entertain these questions, they move from comprehension to the realm of understanding—that is, from the surface level of the text to those deeper layers where ideas and themes reside. And they make that move, unconsciously or not, because they’re aware that this piece is about more than just oranges. Jean Little is revealing something here about each girl and their relationship to each other and perhaps even something more universal about the idea or theme of friendship.

To understand that, we’d have to take what we comprehended in this section and connect it to other pages and sections, holding all those questions in our heads and reading closely to see if we noticed any patterns in the way the girls interacted. Are there other times, for instance, when the two girls compete? Are they opposites in more ways than peeling oranges? Is their admiration mutual or lopsided? Do the seemingly neat and impulsive streaks that we’ve noticed here reappear? And if so, do they impact the two girls’ friendship in any way?

In this way, readers fit parts of a text together, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, in order to ‘see’ something they couldn’t in any single piece. Based on what patterns they noticed and how they fit them together, readers would draft an understanding (which we also can call an interpretation) of what they think Jean Little might be trying to say about Kate and Emily’s friendship, which, in turn, says something about friendship in general.

This kind of thinking seems too different from the work of comprehending a single line or page to use the same word to describe it, which is why it seems helpful for both students and teachers to name them as separate but connected modes of thinking. And while experienced readers and even some students engage in the work of understanding automatically, many need our help in making it visible in order to partake in it, too, with instruction provided that encourages students to be on the look-out for patterns and to make connections within the text in order to interpret.

Additionally, many readers need to have the last step in the process made visible as well. For once readers have constructed an understanding of what they think the author is saying across the whole text, not just on one page, they consider whether that understanding holds any real weight for them in their lives. Does it affirm, expand, inform, refute or challenge what they already know about friendship? Is it something they want to hold on to and remember? Is it something they want to discard or disagree with, which is every reader’s right?

Dorothy and I call this part of the process evaluation, and I believe it’s as vital for readers to engage in as comprehension and understanding because it’s in the act of evaluating that we truly take stock of what reading gives us. We draft and revise our understanding of a text as we fit the pieces we notice together. Then we take what we have come to understand to draft and revise our understanding of ourselves as we fit the text into our lives. As Kate of the perfectly peeled oranges says to her guidance counselor near the end of Hey World, Here I Am!:

I’m putting myself together, Miss McIntyre. But it is like a jigsaw puzzle. I keep on finding new pieces.

Reading helps us put ourselves together by offering us new takes on the world and the human condition. But this can only happen if we acknowledge that purpose and have both an instructional framework and a vision of reading that explicitly supports it.  Breaking the complicated process of meaning-making into these three components helps. It also allows us, as teachers, to assess how much time and instruction we really spend on each part of the process—and to try to redress any imbalance as we continue to plan and move forward, tying whatever strategies we offer to these more meaning-full strategic ends.

Comprehension + Understanding + Evaluation = Meaning

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.