Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

A Tale of Two Students: More Findings from Research Conferences

Girl and boy reading book isolated on white background

Piggybacking on the other week’s post, which looked at what a student was doing with her ‘just right’ book, I share here the stories of two students, both at the same level and reading the same book to continue to explore what we can learn by using a conference to research the kinds of thinking students are bringing to texts.

MarisolThe students were two fourth grade girls who were both reading Marisol, an American Girl Today book written by Gary Soto. Both had also participated in two small groups I wrote about previously, in which I and the teachers I worked with discovered that the students couldn’t take on the work of considering what the author might be trying to show us through the details she had chosen because they were thrown for a loop by the pronouns.

With both girls I began by asking if there was anything they were working on as readers to focus the conference on the process of reading rather than the contents of the book. And when each girl looked at me askance, I followed that up by saying, “For instance, are there any questions you’re thinking about or anything in particular you’ve noticed?” That clarification enabled the first girl, Yesenia, to say, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to figure out why Marisol is moving.”

I applauded her for asking a why question, which are always great thinking tools. But not knowing whether this information was stated directly or indirectly, I’m not sure if it’s something Yesenia missed or something that hadn’t yet been revealed. So I pose another question: “Is Marisol trying to figure that out, too, or is it just you?”

“No, Marisol doesn’t know either. She’s asked her parents before, but here it is again on the top of the page,” she says, pointing to a line that reads, “Even though I didn’t know where we were moving. Or really why.

ResearchKnowing that Marisol is as much in the dark about the move as Yesenia is suggests that a reason hasn’t yet been provided. So I ask if she thinks she’s found any clues that might answer the question.

Yesenia pauses for a moment then slowly says, “No, but I do think I know how she feels. She really loves her house and her room and doesn’t want to leave it. Like here,” she says, turning back a page. “Her friend Victor wanted her to come out and play but she wanted to stay in her room—not like her other friend Becky, who has to stay inside because she’s in trouble, but because she knows she’ll have to leave it soon.”

Quickly scanning the page spread myself, I’m able to see how Yesenia has used the information to support the idea she’s developing about Marisol’s feelings. And curious to see how she processes new text, I ask her to pick up where she left off, which sends her back to the paragraph below the line she pointed to earlier.

Marisol Excerpt 1

Reading over her shoulder again, I’m aware that the paragraph holds several vocabulary challenges. But instead of expending too much time on words like ‘wallowing’ and ‘self-pity,’ neither of which she might know, she pronounces them the best she can and keeps reading to the end of the paragraph, at which point I ask her what she thinks is happening as a way of assessing how much meaning she could make despite the challenging words.

“Well, I think she’s feeling bad about moving and so she decides to practice her dancing because she knows it will make her feel better. But now I’m wondering if she’ll have to move before her big performance. That will make her even sadder.”

Yesenia has gotten the gist of the passage. And she’s connected what she just learned to what she already knows, revising and adjusting her understanding of the text as she encounters new information, which in turn yields new questions. And after naming that for her, I decide to instructionally offer a next step by saying, “I think that’s another great question to ask, along with how she deals with it, if that actually happens.” Yesenia nods her head in agreement as I move on to Melaysia, who coincidentally enough is at the same level, reading the same book.

When I ask my conference kick-off questions, Melaysia shrugs and says no; she’s not doing anything special as a reader. And so after complimenting her on her honesty, I ask her to turn to the page she’s on and read some aloud, beginning right where she left off, which is the last paragraph before the line break below:

Marisol Excerpt 2

Knowing that Melaysia has struggled with pronouns, I stop her after that paragraph to see how she’s making sense with those. “Do you know who the ‘I’ is here,” I ask, to which she replies, “That’s Marisol.” And how about the ‘she’? Do you know who that is?” “Miss Mendoza?” she says without a lot of confidence, which prompts me to ask the indispensable question: “What made you think that?”

A long silence ensues, in which Melaysia keeps her eyes focused on her lap. And so I remind her of what we discovered in our earlier group: that an ‘I’ wouldn’t talk about herself as a ‘she’, and the pronoun almost always refers to the last non-I person who’s been mentioned. Then I ask her to take another look, and this time she says, “It is Miss Mendoza.”

But when I ask her who Miss Mendoza is, she hesitates again. “I think she just stopped by,” she says, “so maybe she’s like a neighbor or something.”

maybe“Maybe’s always a good thinking word,” I say before asking if there’s anything else she thought about Miss Mendoza, in the hope that she might have noticed the word ‘student,’ which, combined with the preceding exchange of dialogue, provides a clue about Marisol’s feelings for her. But again Melaysia says nothing.

So I ask her to continue reading, which she does with a degree of fluency until she hits the word ‘enchilada,’ which she spends some time trying to sound out. When she’s finally able to pronounce the word, I ask her if she knows what it means and she says she doesn’t. And when, after reading to the end of the page, I ask her how this section connects to what she read before, she says that she’s forgotten. Spending so much mental energy on a single word made her loose the thread of a story she had only a tentative hold on to begin with.

As the teachers and I pondered the implications of these conferences, we came to some conclusions. Melaysia needed to learn how to make strategic decisions about when to read over an unknown word for the sake of holding on to the story. She also needed lots of opportunities to meta-cognitively talk about her thinking and to more deliberately draft and revise her understanding. And she could benefit from holding on to a question or wondering, as Yesenia did, which we could call a text-based strategy—i.e., a move a reader makes that helps them stick to the text and read more attentively.

Put your plan into action, words on blackboard.WIth that we had a plan of action: more small group and one-on-one work with Melaysia, maybe using an easier text until the thinking—and her confidence—took hold, and a follow-up conference with Yesenia to see if she’s able to maintain the same level of thinking as the pages accrue. It took some time to make these decisions. But having a clearer sense of what our next instructional steps could be made the time worthwhile.

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.

Rethinking What Makes a ‘Just Right’ Book Just Right

Too often when I pull up a chair with teachers to confer with students during independent reading, we come to the same conclusion: With some stellar exceptions, the students aren’t doing a whole lot with the books they’re reading. Many, in fact, are downright lost or unable to say more about their book than what the blurb on the back cover says. And those who do manage to retell in a way that suggests they’re comprehending do little more than tick off a sequence of events as if everything that happened was of equal importance—despite the fact that most are reading books at their assessed reading level, a.k.a. a ‘just right’ book.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, the first of which has to do with what we should expect from a ‘just right’ book. According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, leveled texts provide students with “the problem solving opportunities that build the reading process.” But they don’t guarantee that a student will take advantage of those opportunities and solve whatever problems—of decoding, inferring or holding a story line in your head over dozens of pages, to name just a few—the text might present.

There’s also the matter of our expectations, as seen in the tools we give students for determining if a book is just right. Often I see charts in classrooms that offer students guidelines for assessing a ‘just right’ book. I like this one in particular because it acknowledges enjoyment as a key factor. But the second bullet point about understanding can be problematic, as Ellin Keene demonstrated in the opening anecdote of her book To Understand, which recounts a conference she had with a student named Jamika. As she often does, Keene began the conference by asking Jamika if her book made sense, at which point Jamika exploded in a tirade that began with “‘Y’all always say that—does this book make sense?’” and ended with the sobering indictment, “‘But, none a ya’ll ever says what make sense mean.’”

To both assess a ‘just right’ book and help ensure that it makes sense, we also give students the 5 Finger Rule,  which asks them to read the first page of a book and count the number of words they can’t figure out by either decoding or using context clues. If they struggle with less than four or five words, the books is deemed to be just right. But that seems to assume that the only problem to solve in a text—and all that making sense hinges on—is figuring out individual words.

But let’s look at the first page of the Level R book The Sword Thief, by Peter Lerangis, one of the books in The 39 Clues series, which is popular in grade 4 on up. And let’s see how many problems a reader must solve, beyond decoding or vocabulary, for it to make sense:

Students who’ve read other books in the series have a better chance of solving the problems this page presents than those who jump into the story here. But even they might have trouble making sense of this, beginning with the very first line, which will throw most literal thinkers for a loop. To make sense of what follows, readers also must infer everything that’s happening, since nothing but the characters’ name and their relationship is stated directly. They must infer, for instance, that Amy and Dan are at an airport from the detail about the conveyor belt, that the airport is in a place called Venice from a sign, and from the siblings’ exchange of dialogue, that the battered black duffle bag belongs to them and is bulging with samurai swords that they fear will be found in `a random luggage search.

We could say, thus, that in order for this text to make sense readers must problem solve what’s happening and where—and perhaps even who’s in the scene, since readers could also come away thinking that Jackie Chan and a ninja warrior are in the airport, too. Unfortunately my experience leads me to believe that many readers won’t engage in trying to solve these problems but will just keep reading, picking up what they can and glossing over the rest, until they’re either lost or they reach the point where the story aligns with the back cover blurb, which they’ll use to ground themselves instead of using the actual details the author has provided.

So to raise the bar for what makes a ‘just right’ book right and encourage students to engage more in the kind of problem solving needed for a book to make sense, some of the teachers I work with and I have been experimenting with introducing another bullet point to classroom ‘Just Right’ charts:

  • You can figure out who’s in each scene, where and when it takes place, and what’s going on

This doesn’t mean students have to understand everything; few readers actually do. They skip over unfamiliar idioms and foreign language phrases. They don’t always catch every reference or allusion, or infer every detail’s significance. But they try to get the basics.

It also doesn’t mean that understanding consists of just getting the who, what, when and where. But it is a starting place—and a reasonable expectation for an active reader in a book that’s supposedly ‘just right.’ And so far, the results have been good, with many students reading more attentively and others more aware of when they’re confused because they now have a more concrete tool and strategy for monitoring and assessing their comprehension.

Of course, to hold students accountable for this, we need to give them some instruction and plenty of time to practice. But I’ll save that for a future post that explores what that can look like.

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

We all know how important it is to reflect and set goals for ourselves and our students, and to help students develop those same metacognitive capacities, I’m increasingly seeing student-written goals displayed in classrooms. “I need to infer more,” I spotted on an index card taped to a child’s desk. “My goal is to read Level Z books,” I spied on a bulletin board.

One the one hand, these student-generated goals speak to a student’s academic aspirations, which is certainly a good thing. But as a reader, I have to pause and wonder. Is that what constitutes success as a reader? To master the skill of inferring? To read a Level Z book? Are we somehow conveying, intentionally or not, that we read in order to climb the level ladder or infer a character trait, to fill out a worksheet on the main idea or make text-to-self connections?

For better or worse, levels, strategies and skills are frequently what’s most visible in our classrooms. Libraries are filled with bins of leveled books. Worksheets abound on identifying traits, the main idea and story mountain steps. Strategy charts hang on our walls and from clothes lines that stretch across our rooms. What tends to be far less visible, though, is why we really do all those things: why we take such pains to find a just right book, consider what kind of person a character is, make inferences and predictions. And in that vacuum, it’s perhaps no wonder that children come away thinking that what we value are the things they do see, which I think are actually the means to the end, not the end itself.

But what is the end and how do we make it visible? As I suggested in an earlier post, I think we could make our rooms and our students’ understanding of reading richer and deeper if we brought in the words of writers who read. Here, for example, is a blurb for Michael Ondaatje’s new book The Cat’s Table, by the writer Abraham Verghese that speaks to the deeper purposes of reading:

“When it was over, I had the sense one lives for as a reader: the feeling of having discovered a truth not just about the imagined world of the novelist, but also about oneself, a truth one can now carry forth into the world, into the rest of one’s life.”

And here are a few lines from Joyce Sutphen‘s poem, “Bookmobile,” that captures some of the real reasons that we read:

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

Of course we need to do more than hang these quotes on our classroom walls. We need to show children how a reader engages with a book in a way that allows them to come away with not just an understanding of a character but who they are themselves. We need to let them see how books can inform lives, giving us a wider, expanded vision of who we are, who we might become and how we might engage with the world.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I share ways of reframing reading workshop around these deeper purposes, with skills and strategies all firmly tied to more meaningful ends and time carved out to consider what a book might have to say to a student before they return it back to its bin and take another one out.

But there’s a simple step we all can take to make sure our students don’t think that all we value is their level or our worksheets: We can ask them if they love what they’re reading. We can ask if they’ve ever found a character who’s just like a best friend, if they’ve ever heard an echo of their own thoughts and feelings in the pages of a book, if they’ve ever come away understanding someone better than they had before. And we can share what we’ve gotten from books that’s allowed us to go forth into the world with more understanding and awareness of both ourselves and others.

For this, I believe, is what reading can give us. Not a letter on an level assessment or a score on a test, but a deeper understanding of the human condition and all the fallible, convoluted ways we try to make something of our lives. But most of our students will only see this if we offer them something more meaningful and visible to reach for than this when they pick up a book: