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

On Conventions & Talk & the Power of Listening

This week I head to Las Vegas for NCTE’s annual convention where, along with session Chair Mary Ehrenworth and my fellow speaker and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson, I’ll be presenting at a session on Friday entitled “Unleashing and Harnessing the Power of Talk to Construct and Demonstrate Understanding of Texts, Ourselves, and the World.”

In my part, I’ll be using the lens of talk to share some of the work I’ve written about here and, along with Dorothy Barnhouse, in What Readers Really Do. And I’ll be demonstrating a lesson, using the opening page of Lois Lowry‘s The Giverthat positions students to talk their way from confusion toward insight, with the participants playing the role of typical middle school students—which means that no comment is too literal or far-fetched. Then Jessica will share a clip of “The Giver Geek Squad”—a.k.a. some of her 6th graders—wrestling with some of the patterns and details they’ve noticed in the book.

Our session is based on the premise that, as Grand Conversation authors Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds say, “Dialogue is the best pedagogy.” And it’s informed by the work of Peter Johnston who, in his indispensible books Choice Words and Opening Minds, demonstrates how profoundly our talk affects students. My time in Reggio, however, reminded me of how important it is not just to give students time and space to talk, but to give ourselves time and space to listen. In fact, listening deeply to what students are saying seemed something that many of us wanted to import from Reggio and bring back home to our schools.

This is not to say we don’t already listen. But like the purposes behind the practice of charting, which I explored last week, I think there’s a subtle but significant difference between the purpose of listening in Reggio and here. And that difference seems captured in this quote from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

In classrooms I think we tend to listen in order to reply instructionally, as we zip from student to student to student, dispensing advice during conferences,  or we squeeze in a required number of small groups in a narrow window of time. In fact, we’re often evaluated by how many students we can get to in a day, which seems to suggest that we value quantity over quality, despite whatever we might say, and, perhaps, are more focused on teaching than learning.

In my own practice with teachers, however, I often try to do what I was pleased to see affirmed in Reggio: to use what precious time I have to try to understand as deeply as possible what students are doing with the texts in front of them by listening to their thinking. Last month, for instance, I worked with a small group of students as a handful of teachers watched. According to their teacher, all five students seemed stuck at level M. And knowing that level M books often require a fair amount of inferring, especially around characters and their relationships to others, I planned a lesson using the following excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff‘s book Fish Face, which, as you can see, is filled with revealing details that both show and tell.

I explained to the students that we were going to read a chunk at a time then share our ideas about what the writer might be trying to tell us through the details that she’s chosen. But while one student was able to read the first chunk and say that he thought Emily was jealous of the new girl because of “the stuff” about the earrings, the other four weren’t so sure. And as we listened to the talk that ensued, it became clear that those four students were really confused about who was who—who had the brown hair, who had the earrings, who thought about begging her mother—and much of that confusion stemmed from their uncertainty about the pronoun ‘she’.

Giving the students the space and time to talk—and listening really closely—allowed us to better understand what was holding those students back. But instead of jumping in to clear up their confusion or offering some on-the-spot instruction, I did something similar to what Reggio teachers do. I took what I’d learned by listening and designed a new lesson—what in Reggio they call a new ‘learning context’—to, in their words, ‘relaunch’ the learning, choosing the following page from Leftover Lily by Sally Warner, which offered similar pronoun challenges.

Gathering the four students who’d struggled last time, I began by making a list of pronouns and acknowledging how confusing these little words could be. Then I invited them to think about how we could figure out who those small words referred to as we read a paragraph at a time and talked. And as I and the observing teachers listened, more things came to light. Some students thought the ‘I’ in the first paragraph had to be the same ‘I’ in the second, though others thought that didn’t make sense. Then one suggested that since there seemed to be a conversation going on, the ‘I’ in the second paragraph had to be the person Daisy was talking to, which she thought was Lily. All the students agreed with that, but that didn’t necessarily mean they knew whose heart was going floop. They needed to talk that through as well, eventually solving the problem by replacing the ‘my’ with each character’s name and deciding whose heart would most likely be bouncing or tied in a knot, which is how they interpreted floop. To do this, they had to go back to the beginning and think about what was happening, while also dealing with the pronoun ‘us’. And through this process they ultimately arrived at the idea that Lily, of the flooping heart, was the one telling the story.

As the teachers and I thought about what we’d heard, we decided that these students needed much more time practicing this exact kind of thinking in order to truly internalize and learn it, and that they also needed time thinking about how dialogue, narrators and paragraphs worked since they also weren’t sure that the ‘she’ in the last paragraph meant Daisy. The teachers were eager to try and create additional ‘learning contexts’ for them to experience these concepts—and to continue to listen closely to better understand their students’ thinking.

I’m eager to listen in Las Vegas as well, where I’m sure there will be much to learn. And I’m eager to meet blog readers in person if any of you are there. Just know, though, that what happens in Vegas might not necessarily stay there . . . .

The Limits of Graphic Organizers, or More Tales from a Second Grade Author Study

In Content-Area Writingauthors Harvey Daniels, Steven Zimmerman and Nancy Steineke make a distinction between writing to learn or to think and writing to demonstrate what was learned or thought. Writing to learn, they say, is usually short, spontaneous, exploratory and personal—that is, it’s writing that helps the writer probe, discover, understand or clarify something for him or herself. Writing to demonstrate learning, on the other hand, is more substantial, authoritative, polished and planned, and it’s aimed for an audience.

This fits nicely into my own belief that writing is both a tool and a product. It helps the writer figure out what he thinks then allows him to convey it to others. I worry, though, that we don’t always make this distinction clear, both for ourselves or our students, especially when it comes to graphic organizers, which Daniels & Co. list as a writing-to-learn strategy that can help writers map and cluster ideas. Students, I think, often see graphic organizers as products or assignments to be quickly dispatched and completed rather than as tools to push thinking. And I have to wonder whether they do so in part because we set them up that way.

This was brought home to me and the teachers I worked with in the second grade author study of Tomie dePaola I wrote about several weeks ago. To helps students keep track of individual books, consider how the elements of a story worked together to support the author’s message, and eventually discover patterns across the books they read, we designed two graphic organizers aimed at helping students think deeply. The first was a large attribute chart where the students could note the elements of each story, with a final column left for whatever connections and observations they might notice and make between books. The second was a Venn diagram that we thought would support the comparing and contrasting of the books for that final column.

Both were designed with the best of intentions. And both didn’t work quite as intended because the students seemed to view them as products to complete, not as tools to deepen their thinking. And so we had to push our own thinking to revise and refine these tools.

With the attribute chart, for instance, what the teachers and I noticed was that the students saw each of the columns as separate and discrete. They could identify the elements—the characters, the setting, the problem and solution and sometimes even what they called the lesson. But they weren’t thinking about how the elements were connected and how they contributed to the overall effect of the story. In particular, they weren’t considering how the kind of person a character is affects how they do or don’t deal with their problems, nor how the way those problems get solved can shed light on the themes or lessons of the story.

Instead they tried to pin adages, such as “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” on the stories. And while sometimes those sayings did, indeed, fit, they didn’t always capture the richness of the stories, nor the various things the students had noticed. And so we made two critical decisions. The first was: No more canned adages or maxims. We’d encourage students to use their own words and consider how the lesson was embedded in the story, not something tacked on at the end, which we made more explicit by adding a question beneath the element headers, like this:

The second was that we wouldn’t reduce each book to just one lesson or theme. Instead we’d open the door to multiple interpretations in acknowledgement of the fact that different readers notice and attend to different things and that even simple picture books can’t always be summed up in one idea. Here, for instance are transcripts of two different interpretations of Tomie dePaola’s The Art Lesson:

We had to go back to the drawing board, as well, with the Venn Diagram because, not seeing the organizer as an opportunity to stretch thinking, the students simply took what was on the attribute chart and plugged it into the organizer. And, as you can see, the results were superficial:

Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush and Andy by Tomie dePaola

To counter this, we decided to put them into groups with a basket of books at each table and ask them to talk solely about what similarities or patterns they noticed recurring across the books. Then once they had a chance to trade ideas, we asked them to individually jot down what they’d noticed on a sticky note. And this time their thinking was far more insightful.

Adelita and Gopher tried to solve their own problems. For example, Adelita tried to make Javier come to her, and Gopher tried to find the right colors to paint the sunset.

Both characters Adelita and Little Gopher have a helper to solve their problems. For example, Esperanza helped Adelita to the party and the dream vision let Little Gopher to go to the hill and paint the sunset.

Through this process, students came away with a deep understanding of Tomie dePaola as an author. They saw how in seemingly very different stories—from original tales like the Strega Nona books to retellings of Indian legends and Irish folktales to the more autobiographical stories—he kept circling some of the same ideas or themes: The need to be true to your own self, even if that path is hard; the great gift of having people who help and support you; the consequences of meddling with what you don’t understand; the need to give back to others what they have given to you; and the importance of advocating for yourself.

At the very end of the unit, students watched a video of Tomie dePaola talking about his life, and they literally gasped at the connections they heard between his life and the themes in his books. This allowed them to also circled the writing truth that F. Scott Fitzgerald so eloquently articulated when he wrote:

“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves—that’s the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives—experiences so great and moving that it doesn’t seem at the time that anyone else has ever been caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded  and humbled in just that way before.”

As for those graphic organizers: At best they served as a pre-assessment, showing us what the students could already do and where we, as teachers, could push in. What helped far more was setting up the students with opportunities to talk—and with us, as teachers, having a deeper vision of where that talk could lead.

Skills versus Meaning: The Problem with Packaged Reading Programs

I began to work in schools in the late 1980’s, right around the time that the tides were turning away from packaged reading programs—otherwise known as basals—to what Ralph Peterson and Mary Ann Eeds, authors of the seminal book Grand Conversations, called “real books”—books “written by authors who know how to unlock the world with words and to open our eyes and our hearts.”

Those were the years in which teachers and schools heeded the words of the great children’s book author Katherine Paterson who said:

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations—something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”

To that end schools invested in classroom libraries where students could choose independent reading books. And teachers helped students form literature circles to discuss what they read in accordance with Peterson and Eeds’s four core beliefs:

    • Story is an exploration and illumination of life
    • Interpretation is the result of a transactional process in which readers bring meaning to as well as take meaning from a text
    • Children are born makers of meaning
    • Dialogue is the best method for teaching and learning about literature

It was a heady, invigorating time—and a challenging one, too, as many of us learned that it wasn’t always enough to just put a book in a child’s hand or let them talk with their peers. Some students couldn’t comprehend what they read; some didn’t know how to listen and talk in a way that could build and deepen understanding. And so many of us started teaching strategies and skills that would help students reap the rewards that Katherine Paterson so eloquently spelled out.

I’ve dedicated my work life to supporting teachers do this valuable work, but this year I’m seeing a disturbing trend back toward packaged reading programs, a.k.a. 21st century-style basals. I think this has happened for a number of reasons: the climate of testing, the obsession with data, the belief among some who wield power that corporate publishing conglomerates know more about teaching than teachers do. Plus there’s the fact that real, authentic reading—that transactional exchange that stretches imaginations and illuminates life—is hard to assess and quantify. But with so many schools going back to packaged programs, I decided that I needed to look at them more closely, both to see what I was up against and make sure I wasn’t misjudging them.

And so one day during a break I opened up the fourth grade version of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s program Journeys to see what I could see. Having been raised on Dick and Jane, the first thing I noticed was that the Table of Contents was filled with the name of real authors whose books were worth reading precisely for the reasons Katherine Paterson’s enumerated. There was Kate DiCamillo and Julia Alvarez, Laurence Yep and Pam Munoz Ryan. The illustrations were charming and I had to concede that the vocabulary component might be useful. But I ran into trouble when I looked more closely at one of the weekly lessons.

The text for that week was “The Screech Owl Who Liked Television,” which combined two chapters from Jean Craighead George‘s autobiographical collection of stories about animals, The Tarantula in My PurseThese two chapters recounted the George family’s experience with an injured gray screech owl they brought into their homes, and among the many things the story explores and illuminates is how little we can ever truly know the animals we share our lives with and how letting go is as much a part of love as trying to spare and shield those we love from the pain that letting go brings.

If we say that meaning is the ultimate goal, you would think that the week’s comprehension lesson would focus on a strategy or skill that helped students access and consider the text’s deeper meaning. But the comprehension lesson was on fact vs. opinion, with students asked to search the text for examples, as if reading were a scavenger hunt. I do think it might be possible to use an understanding of fact and opinion to get to those deeper levels, but the program didn’t ask students asked to do that. Instead they were asked to explain how the facts and opinions they collected could or couldn’t be verified as a means of proving what each sample was.

To be fair, there were some comprehension questions that seemed to circle the deeper meaning. But the students weren’t given any strategies to answer those beyond the literal level, which was all that seemed to be expected of them from the sample answers in the Teacher’s Guide. Mostly they were asked to recall information, not to stretch their imaginations and consider what their eyes and hearts were open to. In this way, the text seemed little more than the vehicle to practice a skill with, rather than one to read closely and examine in order to “gain the maximum insight,” as the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria requires instructional material to do.

So . . . my final verdict? The texts in Journeys were dramatically better than the Dick and Jane books I grew up on, which makes these anthologies a potentially great resource for short, well-written texts. But what they asked students to do with these texts was often boring and lifeless, with insight seemingly relegated to the sidelines and skills disconnected from meaning. And that left me with one final question: Was it a fact or an opinion that all packaged reading programs were aligned to the Common Core Standards—despite whatever they claimed?  Verification seemed in order.

From No to Yes: Making Meaning with Read Alouds

Over the years my thinking about read alouds has evolved as I’ve tried to hone in on the essential experience of how readers make meaning as they read. And at some point along the way, my partner David, whose pictures frequently grace these posts, introduced me to the photographer Richard Avedon and his ‘Series of No’s’. In his attempt to make his work more authentic, simple and direct, Avedon said, “No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narratives.” All these no’s, he said, forced him to yes: to the subject on a plain white background and “the thing that happens between us.”

I loved the less-is-more sensibility in this. And using it as a kind of mentor text, I’ve developed my own series of no’s for read alouds, which I believe support getting to the essential yes of what can happen between a reader and the page:

To see this series of no’s in action, here’s a read aloud I did the other week in a first-third grade special-ed bridge class, using Jon Klassen‘s delightful new picture book I Want My Hat Back and the What We Know/What We Wonder chart that I use to support students’ meaning making from kindergarten right up through twelfth grade. (And spoiler alert: I share the end of the book.)

The teacher, Christine LaPlume, and I gathered the children on the rug, where instead of engaging in any pre-reading activities, such as picture walks or front cover predictions, I introduced the chart to the class and said that we’d be using it to do what readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we’re learning and wondering in order to think deeply about the story. Then I turned to the first page spread, which consisted of a picture of the bear on the cover and read the following two lines:

My hat is gone.

I want it back.

We tried out the chart with those first two sentences, with the students saying that they learned that there was a bear whose hat was missing and they wondered what happened to the hat. I continued reading then, with the students learning that neither a fox nor a snake had seen the hat. Then we came to this page spread and immediately several students called out, “The rabbit’s got the hat!”

After reading the page, however, there was some disagreement. Some of the children thought the hat was the bear’s because the one the rabbit had on was the same as the hat on the back cover. But another group took the rabbit at his word, not even reconsidering when a student named Alay said, “But you know the way the rabbit’s talking? It’s like the way you talk when you’ve done something you’re not supposed to. Like maybe he did steal the hat.”

And here was the tricky moment. Here was a student who’d picked up the clues the writer had deliberately left, and there were the students who were having none of it. In the past I might have leapt on Alay’s comment and helped everyone see what he saw. Or I might not have even left Alay’s insight up to chance and directed the students to the rabbit’s words with a loaded question prompt. But remembering my series of no’s—and trusting the process to weed out missteps by offering multiple on-ramps for meaning—I reframed some of the thinking as questions and added two wonderings to the chart: “Did the rabbit take the hat?” and “Could the rabbit be lying?”

Then we kept on going, keeping track of our learning, until finally a deer asks the bear what the hat looks like, and as the bear describes the hat, he suddenly remembers that he saw it somewhere and rushes back to find the rabbit.

At that point, even the most pro-rabbit readers agreed that the rabbit took the hat, though as we came to the next to last page, which showed the bear happily wearing the hat without any sign of the rabbit, a final burning question came up: What happened to the rabbit?

So I turned the page and read this exchange between the bear and a squirrel, after which all the students literally gasped. “The bear ate the rabbit!” they said virtually in unison. And when I asked them what made them think that, every single student pointed to the fact that the bear was talking just the way the rabbit had when he denied having seen the hat.

Christine and I both applauded the students for the amazing thinking work they’d done, and as we debriefed, she shared that she’d been struggling with teaching some of the very same strategies the students had actually used here. Questioning came up automatically here, as did predicting (though I deliberately reframed their predictions as questions to avoid the kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thinking predictions sometimes engender.) Most notably, they also inferred, with Alay additionally making a connection that enabled him to consider that the rabbit might be lying. And they did so as a natural outgrowth of readers trying to make meaning of a text, not through a typical strategy lesson.

Of course, many of the students will need more specific instruction and time to practice the kind of work Alay did, which laid the groundwork for the students’ insight at the end. The whole class might benefit, for instance, by returning to this text to become more aware of the clues the author planted (not all of which they caught this first time). And they could use additional practice in thinking specifically about the possible subtext in a character’s dialogue, using books like Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann or any number of books from the wonderful Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. These could be done in a subsequent read aloud or in a more targeted small group. But either way, I’d begin by reminding them of what they were able to see and understand in I Want My Hat Back.

And that reminds me of another no: No to the deficit model of learning—and yes to building on strengths.

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.

All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.