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.

Using Text Sets to Help Students Build an Understanding of the World of a Book

Last week’s post, which looked at the way that well-intentioned scaffolds can sometimes undermine students’ ability to make meaning, reminded me of a 7th grade teacher I worked with several years ago. She’d designed her humanities curriculum around questions of power and how and why governments do or don’t control their citizens, and she decided to kick-off the class that year by having the students read Lois Lowry‘s The Giver.

The book was a great choice for the year’s themes. But many of her students read way below grade level, and after a day of being met by blank stares when she asked a question about the reading assignment, the teacher shifted into read-aloud mode, hoping that a fluent, dramatic reading would allow the class to comprehend a text they couldn’t navigate on their own.

The students loved the read aloud, quickly convening and settling down in the back of the room to listen. But when the teacher paused to ask questions, she was still met with blank stares. They had no ideas about what it might mean to be ‘released’, no thoughts about the rituals of sharing feelings at night and all the talk about assignments and rules. And so with discomfort, she began doing what I imagine each and every one of us has done at some point in a classroom: she kept prompting them with leading questions, pulling answers out of them like teeth. And if the answers still didn’t come, she’d tuck what she was looking for into a question—like, “Do you think it’s possible that released means killed?”—at which point you’d see light bulbs going off in the students’ heads as they entertained the idea she’d put out that they hadn’t been able to access themselves.

In my own evolution as a literacy coach, I was still a few years away from the Know/Wonder chart that Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed which, by helping students pay more attention to what they’re figuring out from a text and what they’re wondering or confused about, encourages them to read more closely and pick up more detail clues. That tool, I believe, would have helped those students focus on the questions the first page raises, such as “Why is Jonas beginning to be frightened?” and “Why was everyone so scared of a plane?” It would also have positioned them to be more attentive to details that begin to repeat and form patterns—e.g., the capitalization of jobs, like Pilots; the emphasis on naming feelings precisely; the loudspeaker voice that tells people what do; and the many, many references to rules. And those questions and patterns would, in turn, help them develop lines of inquiry and hunches about the kind of world they were in.

Back then, though, what the teacher and I both realized was that the students needed more than a fluent reader’s voice to make meaning of the text. If she wasn’t going to push and prod them—or simply spoon-feed them what they couldn’t infer—they needed time to practice the kind of thinking I shared in last week’s post as I drafted an understanding of the world of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars from the details the author gives.  And so we gathered up a handful of books, like the ones below, that were set in some future time and place, and we created stations the students would visit and rotate among. At each station they’d read a few pages with a small group or partner and consider the following questions, which we modeled with one of the books. Then they shared their ideas on chart paper to compare with other groups’ and partner’s findings.

  • Do you notice any differences between this world and ours?
  • Are there words that seem to mean something special or are capitalized or used strangely? What do you think they might mean?
  • Are there different groups of people in this world? If so, can you tell anything about them or their relationship to each other?
  • Is there anything that gives you a sense of the worlds’ rules or what they seem to believe in—even if you don’t fully understand yet?

   

At this point in my practice, I like giving students more room to attend to what they notice in a text rather than direct them to specific details through prompts like the questions above. But I continue to use text sets like this to help students see and practice how readers infer the world of a book through the author’s details—whether the text is futuristic, historical, fantasy or realistic. (And for students who need even more support, I’d use them in the kind of ‘stepped-up’ guided small group I shared in an earlier post.)

This kind of close reading inevitably makes students want to keep reading the books. And when they do, they read with more engagement and depth because they’re no longer dependent on someone else’s questions to uncover what’s suggested on the page. They also read with more confidence and sense of agency because they know what it feels like to catch the little clues that reveal the text’s deeper meaning.

Text Set Books: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy FarmerFeed by M. T. Anderson, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbreck, The Copper Elephant by Adam Rapp, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.

Helping Students Practice Problem Solving in ‘Stepped-Up’ Small Groups

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

As I explored in last week’s post on rethinking ‘just right’ books, there are many more problems a reader needs to solve for a text to ‘make sense’ than the meaning or decoding of individual words—especially as texts become more complex. Readers often have to figure out basic information, like who’s who and what’s going on, just to have a foothold on a story. And while some readers do this automatically, picking up details and using them to infer what the writer is saying indirectly, many students don’t, which leaves them at risk for getting lost and being unable to access rich, more complex texts.

To help students practice this kind of problem solving in a way that encourages them to read more closely and builds their ability as readers, I’ve had to do some problem solving myself. Along with my What Readers Really Do co-author Dorothy Barnhouse, I’ve thought about how to adapt the structures of guided reading to offer small group instruction that more directly engages students in the problem-solving process of meaning making.

Like typical guided reading, the approach I’ve developed is aimed at a small group of students that present similar needs, who I gather together to read an excerpt from a text that’s been carefully chosen not just by its level but by the particular demands it puts on a reader. I don’t, however, automatically engage in pre-reading activities—that is, no picture walks or front-loading of information or predicting based on the cover as a simple matter of course. Nor do I ask students to practice the usual round-up of comprehension strategies, such as connecting or visualizing (though these sometimes crop up).

Instead I design lessons that encourage students to attend to the details of a text in order to solve one or more of the problems the text presents. And to help students get a feel for that kind of thinking, I sometimes begin with a text below their reading level then ‘step up’ to one that’s more complex.

Dorothy and I unpack a classroom example of this kind of ‘stepped-up’ approach at the end of Chapter 3, which is currently available online at Heinemann. But to illustrate what this could look like here, let’s look at how I might help a small group of level P and Q students solve one particular problem readers encounter as texts get more complex: figuring out who a first-person narrator is and what kind of situation they’re in.

I’d introduce the lesson by letting the students know that when they read a book with a first-person narrator, one of their very first jobs as readers is to think about who the narrator is and what seems to be happening to them. Sometimes, I’d explain, it’s really obvious because the writer comes right out and tells us, like the way the Geronimo Stilton books always say, “I, Geronimo Stilton, . . . .” or the Amber Brown books say, “I, Amber Brown, . . . .” But other times it’s not so clear because, instead of saying things directly, the writer leaves us little clues that we have to piece together to figure this out. Then we’d look at the first page of a text below the student’s independent reading level, like Leftover Lily, a level M book by Sally Warner, where basic information is conveyed in indirect ways:

Even students who’ve been assessed at higher reading levels aren’t always able to figure out that the I’ is Lily without slowing down and really thinking about it. Some students, for example, initially think that Daisy is the narrator because she uses the word I; while some think there are four people in the scene, Daisy, Lily, LaVon and a still-as-yet-to-be-named ‘I’.

I’d let the students bat ideas back and forth, reminding myself of the critical need to keep my own mouth shut and jumping in only to ask them what made them think what they did. This process would ultimately allow students to figure out that the I’ is Lily and that she’s being excluded from what had been a threesome by Daisy, who doesn’t seem to be very nice, despite the smile and perfect hair. And it would allow me to make the thinking the students did visible by naming and charting their moves:

  • You thought about who was talking to whom in the dialogue
  • You thought about who was feeling what
  • You thought about who the pronouns referred to (I, we my, us, her, she)
  • You thought about the title of the book
  • You looked at the front cover for clues
  • You thought about the characters’ relationship to each other
  • You questioned each others’ thinking
  • You tested your ideas out until you found one that made sense to everyone
  • You realized that the narrator’s name was tucked into a line of dialogue

I’d then ‘step up’ the group to a text at their level that presents the same kind of problem-solving challenges as Leftover Lily did, such as Just Juice by Karen Hesse. Here’s the first three paragraphs of the book, which you’ll see requires readers to infer both who’s telling the story and what’s going on in order for it to ‘make sense':

This text has the added challenges of unfamiliar vocabulary (truant officer) and dialect (the word “mought”), along with the fact that Juice isn’t always recognizable immediately as a name. But here again, rather than front-load this, I’d let the students wrestle with the text, stepping in only to remind them of what they did in the previous excerpt that helped them solve the same kind of problems that they’re facing now.

Once again, this process allows most students to figure out that Juice is the narrator and that she’s hiding from someone called a truant officer, who’s job it is to make sure kids get to school, which Juice doesn’t want to do for reasons still unknown. Depending on how much time that took, I’d ‘step up’ the students that same day or the next to a text above their level that posed similar problems, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which starts out like this:

This texts involves yet more challenges, among them the fact that the narrator’s name doesn’t appear until the second page and then is tucked into a line of remembered dialogue. Many students will also need to keep reading to be certain of what’s alluded to here: that no one is singing anymore because Anna and Caleb’s mother is gone. But feeling more accomplished now, they’d enter the text as problem-solving readers, on the look-out for clues that might help them figure out who’s who and what’s going on. And they’d use the same strategies that had allowed them to be successful before. For that’s what the bullet points listed above are: They are text-based strategies whose application leads to meaning more directly than typical strategies do because they keep students in the text in the active role of problem solvers.

And that’s where we want them to be.