Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow

Shame

For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

So here’s a true confession: I was one of those high school students who sometimes handed in book reports about books I hadn’t read. I’m not really sure when my fudging began, but I distinctly remember the time when my 10th grade teacher Miss Ingersoll assigned the class John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read and write about over a break. I meant to read it, I really did, just as soon as I finished the unassigned book I was secretly reading at home—John Fowles’s The Collector, which my parents disapproved of but I found riveting.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t finish The Collector until the night before the book report was due. And so, without the benefit of Spark Notes or sites like iEssay.com, I read the blurbs, grabbed a thesaurus and scanned a few pages for quotes. Then I cobbled and strung together what I had well enough to earn a B- and to learn the same lesson Calvin shares here with Hobbes:

In the age of the Internet when a Google search for “free high school English essays” yields over 19 million results in less than a second, I don’t know how many students learned the same lesson that Calvin and I did. But I do see a lot of writing these days that doesn’t seem terribly meaningful—as my book report wasn’t—and I think that’s directly connected to the college student’s comment I shared the other week: that across the grades, from first up through twelfth, we focus too much on teaching students how to organize ideas and not enough on how to build them.

Many colleges address this imbalance by assigning what the great writing professor and author Peter Elbow calls “low stakes writing”—i.e., writing that’s undertaken “not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn and understand more of the course material.” In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Elbow enumerates the benefits of low stakes writing, which include the following:

  • Low stakes writing helps students be active learners [rather than] merely passive receivers.
  • Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course; they work out their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts . . . in their own lingo.
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to their teaching. We get a better sense of how their minds work.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of high stakes writing [because] with frequent low stakes writing we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we grade a high stakes piece.

This sort of low stakes writing does crop up in grade schools, though not as much in high schools as I think it should. Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke, for Low Stakes Writinginstance, devote close to half their book Content-Area Writing to low stakes “Writing to Learn” strategies. Middle school teacher, blogger and Two Writing Teachers contributor Tara Smith shares how she helps students use their reading notebooks to push and develop thinking in her recent posts “Setting Up the Reading Journal For a Year of Writing About Reading” and “Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading.” And in her book Writing about Reading,” Janet Angelillo offers a great list of low stakes “Ways to Think, Talk and Writing About Books,” which includes options such as “Finding places in the text where a light goes on in my mind and signals me to pay attention” and “Finding an idea thread to follow throughout the text or building a theory about the text.”

In my own practice, I’ve been inviting students to consider some open-ended questions about details, lines, patterns or scenes, such as Why might the author be showing you Basic CMYKthis? How might this be connected to that? And why and how has this changed your thinking—or not? I’ve also invited them to consider questions that engage them in viewing the text through more than one lens of the Character-Author-Reader eye. With a class of fifth graders, for instance, who just finished the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s marvelous Tiger Rising, I asked students what they thought was making the main character’s life hard, how he was dealing with that, and whether or not they thought his ways of coping were effective. As you’ll see below, this led students to focus on different aspects of the text and voice a wide range of ideas, which they revisited, developed and revised as they kept on reading.

Tiger Rising Responses

 I’ve also had wonderful opportunities to work with teachers who are eager to experiment with different ways of writing about reading, such as Ede Blabec and Rachel Kovach who wanted to bring more meaningful writing back to their eighth grade students’ reading notebooks. To do this, they decided to have students keep a separate notebook dedicated to their next read-aloud A Wrinkle in Time. And they made a brilliant decision to provide the class with simple, unadorned notebooks that were small enough to fit in a pocket. This made the notebooks seem both personal and unintimidating, and to personalize them even more, the students were invited to illustrate their thinking, which as you can see below allowed some students to unleash their inner artist.

Wrinkle 01Wrinkle 02

All these ways of writing about reading seem different from the menus or lists of reading response options I frequently find stapled into students’ reading notebooks. These low risk ways of writing focus on the reader as much as on the text and on what Dorothy Barnhouse and I call “the process of meaning making,” where students are invited to question, dig deeper, explore ideas and consider how the text affects them. The reading response menus, on the other hand, seem more like performance-based tasks or short-constructed responses—and they’re often evaluated with rubrics that emphasize structure, mechanics and the citing of evidence over depth of thought.

Of course, students who engage in low stakes writing may still have to learn a thing or two about structure. And so in Part 2, I’ll share ways they can do that by studying mentor texts rather than by using a formula. But at least when it’s time to write more formally, students will have something meaningful to say. And they’ll also have experienced for themselves how writing, like talk, can be used as a tool not only to present and demonstrate thinking but to actually grow ideas.

 

Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing

MIND THE GAP

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it’s] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.

Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers

Naming-new

As I did with my first read-along invitational two years ago, I want to try to notice and name some of the great thinking found in the comments left by readers on this year’s read-along, “20/20″ by Linda Brewer, in order to consider the instructional implications as well as how that thinking work is connected to critical thinking. And to do the latter, I want to share again what’s become one of my turn-to quotes on critical thinking, Francis Bacon’s definition, which seems to me as good as any:

“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.”

In comment after comment (which you can read too by clicking here and scrolling down), I saw readers seeking, doubting, meditating and considering. By the end, some felt ready to assert and set an interpretation in order, but many wanted to linger and mull over the questions the text raised for them without rushing to make any sort of claim—yet. Or as Victoria wrote, “I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about.”

The instructional implications of this seem huge. We currently live in a climate where making a claim—no matter how simple or undeveloped it is as long as it’s backed up with some evidence—seems to be valued more than developing a carefully considered idea, which can’t happen fast precisely because it’s carefully arrived at. If we’re serious about critical thinking then, it seems to me that we need to give students more time to seek, doubt, mediate and consider, knowing that, if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful. Anything less, I’m tempted to say, is more about test prep than reading.

If You're Not Confused 2

“Dazed and Confused” by Ketna Patel, with quote from Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos”

It’s also worth noticing that these readers were questioning because they were perplexed or wanted more. That is, their questions came directly out of their curiosity and their confusion—and those, in turn, came from the fact that they were paying attention. And here again, the implications seem huge.

Much has been written about the importance of getting to students to ask their own questions. Yet if your experience is anything like mine, when we teach questioning as a skill divorced from confusion and curiosity, we often get questions that seem mechanical and that students aren’t interested in; or worse, we get students raising questions they already know the answers to just to meet an assignment. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.” And we can start doing that by sharing with our students the fact that we’re often confused when we read, and then inviting students to share their confusion, too.

There are also implications in how these readers dealt with their confusion by creating what Steve Peterson called “maybe-stories.” They attempted to fit the pieces together in order to consider what the writer might be trying to show them, with different readers fitting different pieces together to arrive at different ideas. Most readers began that process by thinking about the characters, though people came up with quite different interpretations—from seeing Ruthie, as Julieanne did, as a “seemingly simple soul,” to Mary Jo Wentz who made me rethink my whole take on the story by suggesting that, far from being simple, Ruthie might have been taking Bill for a ride.

Testing VisionMany, such as Susan, also found the title key to their understanding, though again, readers came up with a range of interpretations about what “20/20″ meant. Karen, for instance, thought the story suggested that “there is no such thing as 20/20″ vision”, while Emily Rietz thought that 20/20 meant “seeing each other clearly in this world.” Others, found themselves focusing on the idea of a journey, in which Bill might be learning something from Ruthie, whether that’s, as Terri put it, a lesson about “reveling in the moment’ or in a more practical (and humorous) vein “to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures,” as Gail Ballard wryly put it. Meanwhile Pat thought about the story through the lens of assumptions, with Bill going from “lump[ing] people into categories” to “realiz[ing] he needed to look deeper.” And Colette managed to circle many of these ideas by focusing solely on the dialogue!

The instructional implications here seem to be that it doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you notice something and then start questioning and thinking about how it does or doesn’t fit with other details you notice. And that’s a far cry from the text-dependent question approach to close reading, which directs students to something the teacher (or textbook writer) has noticed and then “scaffolds” students until they arrive at the same answer as the teacher or textbook writer. And lest anyone think that students aren’t capable of doing what these readers did without that all that directing and scaffolding, here’s an excerpt from the comment Christina Sweeney left after she took up my invitation to try the text out with her 7th graders:

“I was surprise how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even point out the recurring references to ‘eyes’—Bill resting his, Ruthie’s ‘big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,’ the ‘visions’ she has over the course of the story. . . .

Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing—that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.”

Young Girl Hag Optical IllusionAs for me—though I’ve read this story any number of times, all these comments deepened and enriched my understanding of it. And this time around they enabled me to see the story in more than one way at once, like the optical illusion of the young girl and the hag, or those red spots winking by the side of the road, which could be reflectors or Bigfoot—or both.

This ability to recognize and appreciate more than one way of seeing things seems both integral to the story and to critical thinking. Unfortunately, however, it gets short shrift in curriculum that guides students to a single way of seeing things, which is what too much of the supposedly Common Core aligned programs to. Once again, if we’re serious about critical thinking, we could see these programs as impostures (a word which Merriam-Webster says “applies to any situation in which a spurious object or performance is passed off as genuine”) and look upon them with hatred. Or we could arrive at the same conclusion Brette Locker reached as she looked at the wealth of thinking that was generated by simply paying enough attention to become confused: “I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?”

 

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.

GoatThrowingChart

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.

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

During my week in Reggio Emilia, my fellow study group members and I had several opportunities to speak through translators to our Italian colleagues to share observations and ask questions about some of the incredible practices we saw. I was also curious to know what our hosts thought about some of the practices we hold dear and whether or not they confronted some of the problems that we faced, which prompted me to ask questions.

Reggio AtelierHaving visited one of their new elementary schools, for instance, where there was much writing on display, I asked what they thought about craft lessons. This necessitated a bit of back and forth between me, the translator and the teachers who wanted to make sure they understood what I meant by craft. When that was clarified they said that, yes, they would invite students to study craft. But they reminded us of something else they’d said when we’d all marveled at the magnificent ateliers or art studios that are at the center of each school: “[They] do not offer art and technique in order for children to become artists, but in order for them not to become slaves.”

It’s a line I’ve pondered about a lot, along with their answer to another question I posed. I asked if they ever saw children, like the ones I described in my two last posts, who are able to read a text fluently but seemingly don’t understand what it says. And if so, what do they do. Again the question caused some back and forth between the translator and the teachers, though finally they said that they do occasionally see that, and when they do, they refer the child to specialists in order to determine the root cause.

At the time, the answer seemed insufficient—and having been astounded by so much of what we saw, some of us wondered whether here, in the States, we’d actually done more thinking about reading and all that’s involved in comprehending than our Italian colleagues, who were just embarking on lower schools, had. But increasingly I found myself thinking of all the stories and videos they’d shared of students wrestling with ideas, whether it was the existence of negative numbers or how to write certain letters. In each case, the students passionately, thoughtfully—and sometimes even heatedly—shared their own provisional theories about whatever was being explored, which they then would test out, revise and develop as they dug deeper into their study and listened to their classmates.

No Judgment ZoneReminded of that, I found myself wondering whether their constructivist approach to learning—where students don’t consume information but actually build their own knowledge—made some of what we see here moot. Every single child in Reggio was engaged in questioning and developing theories about whatever it was they were exploring, and children were confidently  voicing ideas without fear of the teacher’s judgement. In those rooms, it seems possible that no one without some cognitive glitch would read without wondering what the author might be saying, and no one would be passively calling out words without thinking about what those words meant. And the teachers would both expect and trust that even if the students’ initial theories were far-fetched or even faulty, the process of sharing and revising ideas would eventually lead everyone to understand more in an age-appropriate way.

I wonder, though, if we expect the same. We certainly expect students to learn and know things, and we expect them to perform. But in our race to meet the Standards, move students up levels and complexity bands, and answer our close reading questions, do we really care how deeply they understand as long as they get the right answer? And do we really trust and expect they can get there without our firm, directing hand?

If You Lived with the Iroquois CoverWith these questions in mind, a group of fourth grade teachers I’ve been working with decided to put understanding front and center by inviting students to acknowledge what they didn’t understand as a place from which to start learning. To do this we chose a nonfiction text, If You Lived with the Iroquois by Ellen Levine, aware that, particularly with nonfiction, there was a big difference between knowing the facts and truly understanding them. Then gathering a small group of students on the rug, we gave each child a copy of the book, asked them to turn to the following page and to read thinking about not what they learned but what they’d didn’t fully understand.

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

Right away a student said that he didn’t understand the sentence about the Iroquois using what nature provided, and once he’d revealed that, the others all agreed. They also didn’t know what a ‘kilt-like skirt’ was, and when I asked about the word ‘tanned,’ they said they weren’t so sure about that either—unless it meant laying the skins in the sun to tan. We then invited the students to look through the book, seeing if there were any places, either in the text or the pictures, that might help them understand what they hadn’t. This led one girl to discover a whole section on tanning a few pages later and several students to develop an understanding of a kilt-like skirt from the illustrations.

We went on then to read the section about tanning, which was hard for them to fully grasp. But at some point the boy who’d originally cited the line about using what nature provided said he now thought he knew what that meant: The Iroquois used material they could find outside, like deer skin and brains, moss and corncobs to make what they needed. And another student, going back to the previous page, added on that porcupine quills, which they used for decoration, also came from nature.

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

That led one girl to ask, “Did they have stores back then?” “What do you think?” we asked, and after flipping through the pages one last time to see if they spotted any sign of stores or manufactured goods, they all decided they didn’t think so, which they thought was pretty amazing and made them curious to learn more.

The teachers and I all believed that the students left the group that day with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Iroquois than they’d had if we’d set them up to take notes, gather facts, or fill out a worksheet. And we sent out a message to them that I fear students don’t always hear: We care more about your thinking than your answers, and we truly want you to understand—so much so that we’ll honor what you don’t understand as the place to begin exploring and will carve out time to give everyone the chance to reveal their fledgling thinking and then use talk, not to prove a claim, but to grow and develop ideas. And by trusting and expecting you to understand, you will come to expect that, too, and accept nothing less. And that means you’ll never be a slave to someone else’s thinking.

Reveal, Listen, Understand

More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction

Recently I looked at how inviting students to notice patterns across a nonfiction text can help them consider the large and often invisible—i.e., not explicitly stated—ideas a writer is exploring. Raising students’ awareness of patterns and how writers use them to explore and develop ideas can ultimately help students meet many of the Reading Informational Text Standards of the Common Core, especially RI2 and RI5. It also helps students reap the full benefits of reading nonfiction, which is not always just about learning new facts but considering a writer’s unique take or perspective on those facts in a way that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

To introduce your students to how writers use patterns to develop their ideas—and how readers, in turn, build their ideas about a text by noticing the patterns the writer’s laid down and considering what they might mean—you’d follow the same process that I engaged in to plan the blog post on patterns: I pulled out a handful of books from my shelves and asked myself the following questions as I looked through and read each book:

  • Does this seem like a text in which the writer is using facts to explore one or more ideas—or put another way, is it a text that I’d want students not just to comprehend but also understand?
  • Do I notice patterns in the book—words, images, events, even structural devices that somehow keep repeating?
  • Does asking myself what the writer might be trying to show me through those patterns help me dig deeper into the text?

My hunch is that we don’t always ask ourselves the last two questions—and we might not ask the first one either because of the way we’ve traditionally used nonfiction in the classrooms. We have students read nonfiction, for instance, to learn facts about specific content, whether it’s to know the names of the great explorers or the process of photosynthesis. We have them read nonfiction to learn about text features or different text structures, or to find facts for research projects. But unless we’re looking squarely at bias, we may not think about the writer at all when we’re reading nonfiction, at least not to think about why she’s chosen and arranged whatever facts she’s sharing in a certain way.

I think that all this has to change in light of the Common Core Standards, which, in standard after standard, ask students to think about how the parts of a text are related to the whole. Noticing patterns and thinking about what the writer might be trying to show us through them automatically helps students do that—without the kind of teacher-directed prompting that comes with the text-dependent questions approach. And again and again I’ve discovered that, just as with students, we, too, as teachers start noticing patterns when we look for them, as an instructional coach and teacher in Georgia attests to in her blog post “Confessions of a Plot Junkie.”

But what happens when you don’t notice patterns, which certainly happens to me sometimes when I read nonfiction? As experienced readers, we know that nonfiction writers often use facts to explore ideas they sometimes have an opinion about, and they unfold those ideas in more complicated, subtle and indirect ways than thesis-driven five-paragraph essays. Because of this we enter a text on the look-out for glimmers of ideas and opinions, asking ourselves, consciously or not, what the writer might want us to understand, as we both read forward and think backwards to draft and revise our ideas.

Unless we’re in a text outside our comfort zone, we tend to do this work automatically, barely aware of how we process and arrive at our sense of what the writers is up to. But to make this more visible for students, we can ask them to be trackers, reading the text paragraph by paragraph to sniff out possible ideas, and then reading forward and thinking backwards to consider how those might—or might not—be connected to what came before and comes after.

To show a group of K-12 educators what this approach could look like during a workshop on reading nonfiction, I searched for another text that, like many of the Common Core exemplars, took readers on a journey of thought that couldn’t be fully anticipated or deeply understood by most of the strategies we currently give students. To provide some common ground across grades, we decided to focus on a single topic, food, and for this activity I chose a short piece from The New Yorker called “The Big Heat,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which begins with the grabbing and provocative lead, “Corn sex is complicated,” before taking all sorts of twists and turns whose purpose and logic aren’t immediately apparent.

I asked the participants to read it with a partner (as I invite to to do, too, on your own or with a colleague), stopping at every paragraph to share both what they thought the writer might want them to understand and how that might or might not be connected to whatever had come before. Interestingly enough in the beginning, several found the piece so disjointed they were tempted to deem it ‘bad’ writing. But by the middle of the second page, everyone began to see that there was a method to Kolbert’s seeming madness. And at that point they had to revise their understanding of what the piece was ‘about,’ which they had to do yet again as they reached the final two paragraphs.

The participants left the workshop that day with a deeper understanding of both what, beyond obvious measures like lexiles, makes a text complex and what readers need to do to navigate that complexity in a way that allows them to understand the ideas and the train of thought that holds the facts together. They also came away understanding that food has many implications, beyond health and nutrition. And when, after reading this text together, they explored ones that were at their students’ grade levels (some of which there are links for below), they were far more aware that there were ideas and opinions lurking in them. They saw more because they were looking for more—and they were eager to invite their students to look for more than text features and facts when they got back to their classrooms, as well.