Superficial or Significant: The Challenge of Comparing

Compare Contrast Vegas+Reggio

When a friend and colleague heard I was going to Las Vegas for NCTE so soon after being in Reggio Emilia, she thought it might be interesting for me to compare the two places. My initial thought was no, that’s too easy. The light, the noise level, the language—all different. The money, the history—all different as well, with Las Vegas, as we know it, a virtual newborn in the span of human time and some buildings in Reggio standing in place for more than one thousand years.

making-thinking-visible-ritchhart-ron-9780470915516But then I thought of quote another friend and colleague recently sent me from Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison’s book Making Thinking Visible. Here the authors take a look at skills and thinking, like comparing, that appear in classification charts such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and they offer this advice:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels or quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

With Las Vegas and Reggio, I think I was simply ticking off “readily apparent features” without being terribly insightful, just as I described many students doing in last spring’s post on the limits of graphic organizers. Of course, sometimes a student will come up with something that does seem “deep and penetrating.” But I don’t think we always teach toward that, aiming instead at just teaching the skill without that attention on quality. Or put another way, we teach the concept of comparing without teaching the concept of significance.

The Common Core Standards, however, have dramatically upped the ante in ways that I think are important. In the case of comparing, for instance—a.k.a. Anchor Reading Standard 9—the focus should be on significant, not superficial, comparisons. But how can we instructionally help students move beyond what’s readily apparent to what’s more penetrating but often less visible—a step which often requires readers to look beyond the specifics of any one text to something that’s more abstract and general? Thinking about this, I’ve developed a theory that, when comparing, it’s often useful to focus exclusively on similarities between two things or texts that, on the surface, seem different, and explore differences when similarities are more apparent. Then once those have been mapped out, the next step is to dig into the differences within the similarities or the similarities within the differences.

ClaudetteColvinCoverI tested this theory out last spring with a group of middle school teachers who had gathered for two days to explore ways of helping students read complex nonfiction texts on a common topic or theme. To make this concrete, I asked them to read an excerpt of Philip Hoose‘s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which combines transcripts of interviews with Colvin with more expository text, using a text-based Know/Wonder chart to see how it could help students connect details within the text (e.g., figure out why the number ten was detested, which is mentioned on the first page below).

Claudette Colvin Excerpt

Then we read an excerpt of Ann Petry‘s biography Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroadwhich appears in the Standards Appendix B as a middle school informational exemplar text. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

Harriet Tubman Excerpt

HarrietTubmanCoverRather than handing out Venn Diagrams, I asked the teachers to take out their notebooks and jot down as many similarities they could think of or patterns that recurred across the books, without judging any of their ideas—that is, nothing should be deemed too obvious or, conversely, too far-fetched. This helped them move beyond the most apparent similarities that both books were about African-American girls who as children experienced inequality based on race, to more insightful noticings such as these:

    • Both girl’s parents were addressed by their first name by white people.
    • Both girls learned lessons about the social structure they lived in very early in life.
    • The social structure was enforced through threats of violence, insults and humiliation.
    • Both girls felt fear, uncertainty and confusion.
    • Both girls saw the adults around them afraid.
    • Both girls were expected to take responsibility for something that was done to them, not by them.
    • Neither girl’s parents could protect them.
    • Both girls felt that there were unstated rules “in the air”.

As these were shared, I invited teachers to add ideas they hadn’t thought of before to their list. Then I asked them to look at their expanded list and think about which similarity seemed the most  important or significant to them and on another page of their notebook to briefly explain why. Using another think-to-write strategy, the Write-Around, from Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke‘s Content Area Writing, I then had everyone pass their notebook to the person on their right. That person would then read what the other person wrote then write a quick response, extending, commenting, questioning, and probing what the writer before them had said, before passing the notebooks yet again to the right.

After several passes, the notebooks were returned to their owners who were eager to see how their original thinking had traveled and evolved. And at that point, they felt they would be prepared to have a more formal discussion or even to begin planning out a piece of writing. But perhaps, most importantly, they saw how this process could help lift their students’ thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial in ways that would help them, not just meet the Standards, but understand the undercurrents of a topic in that deep, more penetrating way.

Which brings me back to Vegas and Reggio. After giving myself some time to brainstorm, I did come up with something that was similar and more significant than the fact that both cities had two-word names that were often shortened to one. Both cities revolved around public spaces where people congregated and socialized. In Las Vegas, it was the casinos; in Reggio, the piazzas. And what seemed different within this similarity was the purpose of those spaces. In Reggio the piazzas helped the community connect and strengthen their social bonds, while the casinos were there to make money—with visitors like me forced to walk through the casinos just to get water or coffee.

These differences led to a final similarity: The purpose of these spaces reflected the cultural values of each of the cities, with those values again being different. Anyone want to place a bet on which one I liked best?

Reggio Piazza Las Vegas Casino

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 2)

Last week I shared a story from my own reading life to explore ways of helping students negotiate texts with challenging vocabulary without automatically pre-teaching a long list of words in order to ensure that students don’t become overly dependent on us or think that meaning hinges on knowing every single word. There are, of course, times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. What’s important, though, is finding the right balance between teaching students vocabulary and giving them time to build their reading muscle, which is what a group of high school teachers I worked with recently tried to do as part of a workshop on incorporating more complex texts in the content areas.

To get a feel for the kinds of complex texts the Common Core Standards are asking us to integrate into our curricula, I turned once again to the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B. As I said in a previous post, I don’t think we have any obligation to use those particular texts (and I can’t imagine ever having a whole class of New York City 8th graders read Little Women as the Appendix suggests). But we do need to be aware of how they differ from the texts we typically expose students to in order to make sure that we’re providing students with a rich and diverse reading diet.

When it comes to nonfiction, one thing seems clear: The exemplars tend to present information in far more varied and indirect ways than many a classroom’s standard fare. They mix-up modes, moving back and forth between narrative, exposition, description and persuasion, and they use the kind of literary techniques and devices more often associated with fiction and even poetry. In addition—or perhaps because—of all that, many of the texts defy the strategies we frequently offer students, such as scanning and skimming, identifying keywords, using text features to predict the content and, when it comes to vocabulary, thinking about prefixes, suffixes and roots and looking for context clues. This was certainly true of the text I decided to use for the workshop, “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder’” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was first published in the journal Natural History and subsequently included in both The Best American Science Writing 2004 and the CCS Grade 11-12 list of  Informational Texts for Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. As you’ll see below, it begins with a song, speaks directly to the reader and is chock full of metaphors, allusions and challenging vocabulary.

After reading and discussing it first as readers to share what we made of it and how, we moved into teacher mode and began to talk about instruction by first thinking about which words we’d want to pre-teach and why. Here’s the beginning, which I invite you to read considering the same question:

Initially teachers came up with a long list of words—phobes, cosmology, “negative gravity”, exponentially, theorist, model, “thought experiment” and tantamount—which they said they’d need to pre-teach because the students wouldn’t already know them. Then I asked them to try to sort the words by considering the following three questions:

1. Which words might not be critical to a first draft understanding?

2. Which words might they want to have students hold on to and wrestle with as part of the meaning making process (paying particular attention to those that we, as readers, had to grapple with ourselves)

3. Which would be truly necessary or serve a larger academic purpose?

With those questions in mind, we whittled the list down to two: cosmology, because of its importance in the disciplineand phobes so that English Language Learners wouldn’t feel adrift right at the start. Exponentially and tantamount weren’t really necessary for a first draft understanding, they decided, though they were good words (or in the lingo of vocabulary instruction, “Tier Two” words) to return to later on, using some of the strategies offered by educators like Isabel Beck, Janet Allen, and Robert Marzano.

Negative gravity”, theorist, model, and “thought experiment,” on the other hand, were all words or phrases that the non-science teachers among us (including me) had to really think about. How, we wondered, did a theorist differ from an experimenter and how did that affect the scientific method? What did a ‘model’ in this context look like? And if “negative gravity” was the “mysterious and universal pressure that pervades all space,” where did it come from? How did it operate? And what did it have to do with Einstein?

These were also all words that seemed to lie at the heart of Tyson’s exploration and view of both Einstein and cosmology in general, and in each case we were able to construct those words’ meaning by connecting them to other details in the text. You could say that we used context clues, as we did with “negative gravity” above, but we did so on a grander scale than we usually teach students to do. That is, we didn’t just look at the sentence before or after the unknown words; instead we kept revising, refining and deepening our understanding of those terms as we continued reading, with some of us—i.e., me—not really ‘getting’ all the physics until much later on.

Thinking about those words across the whole text—and acknowledging our uncertainty about them—allowed us, as readers, to dig deeper into the piece. And we thought that if we let students wrestle with them, too, rather than just handing them over, they’d come away with both a deeper understanding of the content and a stronger sense of agency as readers. Plus they’d pick up some vocabulary words that they were likely to retain because they’d discovered their meaning.

A different group of teachers might have made different choices because, in the end, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about knowing your texts and your students, considering your purpose and embracing productive struggle—and finding that balance between teaching words and meaning making, knowing the two aren’t  the same.

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.