Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters

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Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.

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Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

My Christmas Wish List

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I began thinking about this post last Thursday after I’d spent the day with some teachers who were trying to wrap their minds around what makes a nonfiction text complex beyond background knowledge and vocabulary. I’d brought a sampling of books with me, many from the list of text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Standards, and as the teachers began to pour through them, they noticed many things. They noticed, for instance, that most of these books disrupted much of what we teach students about nonfiction; many had illustrations, for instance, instead of photographs, and many had no text features to speak of—no table of contents, no index, no subheadings, to make fact retrieval easy. And rather than the dry, utilitarian language we often find in nonfiction, these books were filled with the kind of language more often associated with poetry, as can be seen from this gorgeous page from Nicola Davies‘s book Big Blue Whale:

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“I wish I could find a teacher who’d do an author study of Nicola Davies with me,” I said as I imagined children writing ‘information’ texts that explored content through beautiful language that made facts come alive and were structured as creatively as these text exemplars were, rather than by drearily following the Writing Standards bullet points like a formula.

That, in turn, gave birth to several wishes that Thursday afternoon. I wished that in this current climate of argument, analysis and evidence, we could find the time not just to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings,” but to relish and delight in language and feel its power to move us. And to do this, I wished, as Tom Newkirk does in his wonderful piece “Reading Is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading Movement‘”, that we could stop equating proficient reading with speed and right answers and instead, “not put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible—’This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.’”

walt-whitmanI also found myself wishing that we could crack open those first three writing Standards and acknowledge how truly powerful writing doesn’t always fit comfortably and neatly into those opinion, information, and narrative categories—even when we’re writing about texts. Here, for instance, is a link and an excerpt to writer, professor and educator Tom Romano‘s glorious essay “A Relationship with Literature,” which combines personal narrative, literary analysis and deeply held convictions to explore his life-long relationship with Walt Whitman:

“Through their essays students have shown me that literature matters to them for many reasons: because of their search for identity, their spiritual needs, their desire to escape to imaginative worlds, their evolving sense of justice. . . . No students yet have written that what won them over to literature was the arc of the Victorian novel, or the qualities of Romanticism, or what a green light symbolized at the end of a dock. This doesn’t surprise me. Literature matters to my students because of their wild and precious lives. They want them to make sense, to be meaningful. They want to find their way. And I understand. ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ (Whitman).”

And then, of course, came last Friday, when yet another unimaginable act of violence occurred, destroying 27 wild and precious lives. Tom Romano notes that some of his students “have come through slaughter, and a book helped them understand that pain, fear and despair.” I do wish that at some point the families of Newtown, Connecticut, will find some shred of solace in a writer’s words. But right now I wish that literature will fail us, that it actually won’t help us make sense of what happened, because if understanding begets acceptance and tolerance, I wish to never understand what happened that day and to never, ever have to see the words massacre and school in the same sentence again.

Finally, as we head into the holidays, I wish that we might find the strength and courage to to change a world that seems bent on discounting creativity, beauty and the slow accretion of meaning, that seems to care more for the rights of gun owners than the rights of children, and that narrowly evaluates the value of a teacher in ways that fail to acknowledge the valor and sacrifice of the teachers in Newtown. Of course, doing that will not be easy. But for that we might want to hold on to the words of Anais Nin‘s poem “Risk”:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

Pine Tree in Snow

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater: Some Thoughts on Teaching to the Standards

As we head into the final year before full implementation of the Common Core Standards is required by those states that are ‘racing to the top’, I sense some anxiety in the air. In meetings with teachers and in educators’ blogs questions keep popping up: Is there still a place for read aloud? Or genre studies? Or writers’ notebooks? And what about guided and independent reading? What about essential questions?

With all this uncertainty and a deadline pending (not to mention federal money), it’s tempting to jettison everything we’ve done and teach directly to the Standards, with specific lessons aimed, for instance, at determining the theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text (RL2 for 5th grade). Or we could follow the same route that has led New York City and 19 other urban school districts to sign a pact stating that since “80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis . . . aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

On the one hand, I suppose there’s some logic to this. But beyond the questions I’ve already raised about Achieve the Core’s brand of text-dependent questions—and the fact that the actual road to success is rarely a straight, direct path—the phrase ‘teach to the Standards’ sounds eerily like ‘teach to the test’ to me. And we all know how real learning suffers when we teach to the test.

I’m also reminded of these wise words from the developer of the 6 Traits approach to writing and the author of The 9 Rights of Every Writer, Vicki Spandel:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim too high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons—to help our children write with passion and touch the hearts of readers—the little things tend to fall into place anyway. We get the topic sentences and details and strong verbs we hoped to see because those little things help the writer reach her loftier goals. What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said she should, but because these writer’s skills took her where she wanted to go all along, to a place where her writing became powerful.”

I believe the same is true for readers. When we teach students to read for the ‘right reasons’—to deeply engage with a text in a way that “deepens and widens and expands our sense of life,” in the words of Anne Lamott—the Standards tend to fall into place. We get the inferences we hoped to see, not because we’ve pulled our hair out trying to teach students to infer, but because they’re actively looking for clues that might help them answer the burning questions the text has raised for them. And we get them valuing evidence, not because we told them they should, but because they’ve experienced for themselves how attending to details leads to insight .

We can see this in action in the classroom examples that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Dolike the fifth graders reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis WoodsBy keeping track of what they were figuring out and what they were confused or wondering about in the beginning of the book, these students developed a first draft impression of Hollis as an angry, misunderstood girl who desperately wanted a family—which, as you can see from the excerpt below, required a lot of inferring. And as they explained what made them think that, they met Reading Literature Standard 1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from it.”

They also had a slew of why questions about Hollis’s behavior and circumstance, which fueled their reading and became what we might call lines of inquiry. Following these lines as they read forward, they also began to notice patterns. They saw a pattern in the way the book was structured, with italicized sections describing a picture before each actual chapter. They saw patterns formed by lines that were repeated, like “I’ll show you tough,” and patterns in the character’s actions and feelings, such as “Hollis always imagines talking to Steven in her head,” and “Hollis always thinks about the mountain—even though she tells herself not to.” And all those patterns led them again to that critical question, “Why?”

Tracking those patterns, they also noticed that some of them broke or changed, at which point they began to have hunches about what the writer might be trying to show them through those changing patterns. These hunches, which they kept revising as they read, eventually developed into interpretations of the book’s big ideas or themes. And as they considered the implication of those ideas for their own lives, they deepened and widened and expanded their sense of what makes people tick. They also incidentally met the fifth grade Reading Standards for Literature 2-6, without us teaching the Standards per se or directing them via questions to lines or passages we’d deemed important.

Given all the questions about instructional approaches stirred up by the Standards, it seems important to note that this work was grounded in balanced literacy and reading workshop. The book was done as a read aloud, with students receiving additional support through small group instruction and conferences that helped them transfer the thinking to their independent reading.

What was different was what, in the language of the Standards, we might call instructional shifts. We shifted the purpose of the read aloud from building community and enjoying a great read to exploring how readers make meaning—which inevitably created a highly engaged community of readers. We shifted the way we talked about details from asking students to distinguish important from unimportant details to asking them to consider the possible importance and meaning of the details they noticed. And we shifted our instruction from generic comprehension strategies, which too often draw students away from the text, to strategies that drew them deeper in, such as these:

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

What we held on to was what I like to think is the ‘baby’ in the bath: The belief that we should be teaching readers and the thinking involved in meaning making, not texts, trusting that if we do that, the students will plumb the depths of a text, read deeply and meet the Standards—and possibly even become lifelong readers who value the printed word. And that’s what I think we shouldn’t throw out, no matter what else gets tossed, if we’re serious about empowering students to truly be independent.