On the Road Again: Upcoming Events

Coming Up

Last week I got to hangout on Google with Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn to talk through the session we’ll be presenting together at this year’s NCTE conventional at National Harbor, just south of D.C. The talk was deep and rich and energizing, and it made me want to share a few details about that and other places I’ll be presenting over the next several months, where, as always, I’d relish the chance to meet blog readers in person.

PrintBefore jumping on the Bolt Bus to D.C., however, I’ll be heading half-way around the world to the city of Doha in Qatar. In addition to working for several days with teachers (and my Reggio-Emilia comrade, Katrina Theilmann) at the American School in Doha, I’ll be facilitating a two-day workshop on “Teaching the Process of Meaning Making in Reading,” as part of the NESA (Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools) Fall Training Institute, which will be held on November 7 and 8. I know it’s highly unlikely that I’ll run into any stateside blog readers there, but I’m hoping to touch base with a few overseas ones as well as reconnect to some of my other Reggio-Emilia trip colleagues as well.

Next up will be NCTE where I’ll be chairing the session that was mapped out in that Google Hangout last week on Friday November 21 at 4:15. Titled “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading,” each presenter will share work they’ve done—some with students, some with teachers—that grew out of questions they wondered about and pursued with passion and curiosity. And I’ll be there to connect the pieces together and share the story of how we all discovered each other, from New York to National Harbor mapOhio to Iowa to California, through the blogosphere.

I’ll also be presenting the following day, November 22, again at 4:15 with two of my favorite people in the world, Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer, in a session called “Embracing Complexity: Helping Students (and Ourselves) Become More Complex Readers, Writers and Learners.” While we’re still ironing out the final details of that session, we’ll each share classroom stories and student work that show what can happen when we move away from more teacher-directed procedural ways of teaching to something more messy and complex.

Greetings from PortlandAfter that I’ll be in Portland, Oregon, December 9 and 10, presenting a workshop for educators sponsored by the Portland Children’s Museum Center for Learning and the Opal School. Called “Extending Our Image of Children: New Possibilities for Readers,” Opal School teachers and I will share stories and ways in which we’ve invited children to enter texts as authentic readers. And I’ll also have the amazing opportunity to model some of the approaches I’ve developed in an Opal School classroom—though I imagine the kids will steal the show (as well they should).

Toronto MapAnd finally, after what I hope will be two balmy days in Los Angeles in January working with LAUSD’s wonderful Education Service Center South coaches and teachers, I’ll be heading north to wintery Toronto for the Reading for the Love of It Language Arts Conference on February 9 and 10, 2015. Along with other amazing presenters, such as Ruth Culham, Pat Johnson, Tanny McGregor and Linda Rief, I’ll be doing two sessions, one on “Helping Students and Ourselves Become Critical Thinkers and Insightful Readers,” which will focus on fiction and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Nonfiction Texts.”

So much to see, so much to plan for! Here’s hoping I get to see some of you, too!

See You soon

 

Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars

Challenge

Watching the news these days is depressing as, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson or our dysfunctional Congress, the whole world seems enmeshed with conflicts. And here, on the literacy home front, we seem to be in the midst of a new round of reading wars, with Balanced Literacy and ‘just right’ books being pitted again Achieve-the-Core-style close reading methods and complex texts the same way that phonics was set in opposition to Whole Language way back in the 1970′s.

false_dilemma

© 2013 Alejandro Giraldo, illustrator of The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (New York: Jasper Collins Publishers). Reprinted with the illustrator’s permission. http://www.alejogiraldo.com

Just as then, this either-or mentality isn’t terribly helpful, nor is it always accurate. In fact, all of these this-versus-that positions seem like examples of a particular kind a reasoning flaw called the false dichotomy or dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy. This flaw in logic appears in arguments when an author presents a reader with only two opposing alternatives without any acknowledgement, let alone consideration, of other options or shades of gray. And, in fact, there are all sorts of other options. In many a classroom, for instance, phonics instruction co-exists with various whole language approaches—and no teacher or child has yet died. Balanced Literacy can meet the objectives of the both the Common Core Standards and close reading as the two lessons I compared in “Weighing in on Balanced Literacy” demonstrated. And in both their recent blog post and their fabulous article in this month’s Reading Today, “Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or-Nothing Thinking,” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris push back on what many have framed as a choice between complex texts and ‘just right’ level books with this sound advice:

“To avoid the educational equivalent of scurvy and the whiplash that comes from the constant pendulum shift, we suggest moving from ‘either/or’ conversations about instructional- and frustration level reading to ‘both’ conversations.’”

There’s also something key that’s left out of all these this-text-or-this-approach-versus-that talk: Thinking. What kind of thinking are we asking or setting up students to do regardless of the texts or approach? Is it identifying text structures or using more clues to figure out unknown vocabulary as the two lessons I shared in that earlier post did? Or are we Main Idea Google Searchreally asking students to consider a text’s meaning at both the literal and thematic level, whether it’s a quantitatively measured complex text or a ‘just right’ book? And what kind of thinking are we engaged in ourselves when we create those lessons? Are we filling in the boxes of lesson planning templates with Standard numbers and objectives or searching google for a lesson on, say, the main idea (which yielded 1,770,000 results in .53 seconds)? Or are we thinking deeply about the texts we’re putting in front of our students to better understand how a reader actually determines the themes of that text through its specific details?

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be in this whole Common Core/complex text pickle if we always set students up for deeper thinking instead of practicing skills or strategies that don’t necessarily lead to closer reading and more insightful meaning making. But that means that rather than investing in supposedly Common Core-aligned curriculum and training sessions on creating text-dependent questions, we would have needed to give teachers more time and space to be readers—deep, close and thoughtful readers who authentically think about how specific texts are put together and the kind of demands they place on a reader. And of course, we didn’t.

For a long time now I’ve believed that building our own capacity as readers is the key to helping our students become deeper thinking readers, too. And that belief informs much that I do, from offering occasional read alongs on the blog to starting workshops by asking teachers to read a text not as teachers, but as readers, as I did last week when I had the great privilege of working with coaches and teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s South schools. And so I was utterly thrilled to learn about a keynote speech Lucy Calkins gave at the opening of one of this summer’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institutes, where in her inimitable stirring and raise-the-bar way she said this: “To lift the level of your teaching, you must work on your own reading . . . [you must] try to outgrow yourself as a reader.”

Reading Today CoverWhat’s fascinating, though, is that Timothy Shanahan, one of the key proponents of the Standards and the author of another ‘just right’ book bashing article that also can be found in this month’s Reading Today, says more or less the same thing. In his clearly frustrated post, “Why Discussions of Close Reading Sound Like Nails Scratching on a Chalkboard,” he suggests that rather than “signing up for a workshop in ‘How to Teach the Close Reading Lesson,’” teachers would “be better off signing up for a Great Books discussion group,” which he likens to the a “reading version of the Writer’s Workshop approach to professional development” where teachers write to become better teachers of writing.

And that makes me wonder about what could happen if we focused on what we have in common rather than on how we differ: the need to carve out time and space for teachers to deeply read together and then apply what they learned from those experiences to design instruction that helps students grow into close and thoughtful readers. Perhaps then we wouldn’t need to create these false choices between this or that text or approach because we’d all share a more developed vision of what deep reading really looks and feels like. And who knows, perhaps that would even help us solve some of those other conflicts.

P.S. If you’re looking for more food for thought, here’s three links worth checking out that  are related to this week’s post:

1. To hear more incredibly sane and wise thoughts from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, check out their new book Reading Wellness.

2. To see more fun illustrations and explanations of other logical fallacies, check out The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

3. And to get a taste for some of the work I did last week in Los Angeles, check out this podcast interview I gave with the Instructional Superintendent of LAUSD South schools, Robert Bravo.

Don’t Box Me In: More Thoughts on Worksheets & Graphic Organizers

Alice in Wonderland

Several weeks ago I was in a 6th grade class that was reading Rick Riordan‘s The Lightning Thief, a book that has brought the Greek gods back to life for a generation of readers. The sixth grade team had decided to look at the book through the lens of conflict, knowing that the book was rife with conflicts as Percy Jackson struggles to not only slay monsters and navigate the worlds of both men and gods, but to figure out who he actually is. To help students keep track of their thinking around conflict the teachers had designed a graphic organizer, which asked the students to think about the kind of conflict they saw in each chapter and cite a quote from the text that revealed it. And that day, as the teacher handed out the worksheet, she said that the chapter they’d just read was great because it was full of conflicts.

“But there’s only one box,” a student said as he looked down the organizer.

Fortunately the teacher jumped right back and said they could use the boxes below that, which had been intended for subsequent chapters. But the moment raised a troubling question: How often do the supports we give students actually limit, not encourage, their thinking.

The_Lightning_Thief-1In this case we wanted the students not just to identify the type of conflict—which, whether we use Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, isn’t exactly higher order thinking. Instead, in our planning sessions, we talked about wanting the students to think more deeply about conflicts, exploring their causes, how they might be connected, how Percy dealt with them or not, which would ultimately give us a window on whatever Rick Riordan was trying to explore about the human condition (a.k.a., the themes) through Percy’s experiences. But unfortunately the organizer didn’t capture all that thinking; it fact, it limited how deeply students could go simply by not giving them room to write more than a word or a sentence. It also limited the students’ ability to talk more about their own thoughts by wrestling and exploring questions like, Which did they think was more challenging for Percy, fighting the minotaur or discovering that his mother had lied to him his whole life—and, of course, how and why? 

That’s not to say that we should go out and banish all worksheets and graphic organizers. But we do have to be aware of the kind of thinking they’re asking for and if they’re actually instructional tools meant to support and push students thinking or assessments of what’s been taught. The organizer below, for instance, asks students to record what they’ve already thought, not develop new thinking, and as such, I’d say it’s an assessment, not a tool. And it leaves the harder thinking work—how you figure out the main idea in the first place, especially in a text where it isn’t explicit—invisible.

Think You Know the Main Idea

This other one, however, from the National Archives online Teacher’s Resources page, actually invites students to notice more than they have at first when it asks them to “divide the photo into quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.” And then it asks them to make something of what they’ve notice—i.e., to grow new thinking—by asking them to “list three things you might infer from this photograph,” based on what they noticed.

National Archives Worksheet

This one seems far more useful to me because it offers a process of thinking that can lead to new thoughts and insight. And it also gives teachers a window on how students think, which the first graphic organizer doesn’t. We might see there who could identify a main idea and supporting details, but for those that couldn’t, we can’t really see where the thinking might have broken down.

No Child Has Ever WorksheetBut even the best graphic organizers can be problematic because they feel disposable. In fact, my hunch is that if we collected all the graphic organizers and worksheets that wind up crumpled in trash cans, students’ cubbies, lockers and desk, as well as those that have fallen like dead leaves out of folders and binders, they might, strung together, circle the earth as many times as discarded plastic bottles do. And they seem disposable because, even when we try to make them fun—using silly shapes or metaphors like the paragraph hamburger—they don’t really belong to the students. And because of this whatever learning might be captured in those graphic organizers might be discarded along with the paper.

So what’s a teacher to do? As I did with the students in last week’s post, we can let them determine how they want to represent whatever thinking they’ve done, which I think inherently makes it more memorable and meaningful. It certainly helped with the students I wrote about last week who were digging into metaphors. And let’s compare a graphic organizer for poetry that, by including questions, wonderings and feelings, seems much better than most, with a chart a group of students created to share the thinking they had done after reading and discussing the poem “Ode to Stone” from Nikki Grimes‘s great book Bronx Masquerade:

Poetry Worksheet

Ode to Stone Chart

Granted, the students didn’t identify the poetic devices that Grimes’s used. But they definitely got the poem—which raises another question: What’s the more critical and higher order thinking work, identifying a metaphor or thinking about what it means within the context of the poem?

Additionally letting students decide how to represent their thinking lets them practice creating organizing structures, which the Common Core writing standards require students to do as early as grade four—and which can be done even earlier as educational blogger Tomasen Carey shows in her great post “You Got the MOVES! Writing Nonfiction with Voice, Choice, Clarity and Creativity.” And finally, as students share out what they created, they can offer their classmates a vision of different ways both of thinking about the text and conveying that thinking, which is just what happens in this lovely passage about two students, Daphne and Henrietta, in Andrea Barrett‘s story “The Island” from her collection Archangel:

Archangel CoverIn the laboratory, where she and Henrietta worked at the same dissections and experiments, their notebooks looked like they were taking two different courses. Henrietta did as she’d learned in Oswego: neat ruled columns, numbered lists of observations, modest questions framed without any trace of personality, and in such a way that they might be answered. The “I,” Mr. Robbins had said, has no place in scientific study. Daphne’s pages seemed, in contrast, to be filled with everything Henrietta had expunged. Scores or drawings filled the margins, everything from fish eggs to the fringed feelers of the barnacle’s waving legs. Describing a beach plum’s flowering parts, she broke into unrelated speculations, circled these darkly, and then drew arrows from there to cartoons of the professor.

We can say that by taking on her former teacher’s ideas, Henriette put herself in a box, while Daphne made the information her own, which seems to me one of the hallmarks of true independence, which should always be our ultimate goal. So let’s be careful and more aware of when we put students in boxes—lest we inadvertently stifle and stunt their growth and thinking, which I’m sure we don’t want to do.

Thinking Outside of the Box

Coming to a City Near You (or On the Road Again)

"To Them of the Last Wagon" by Lynn Fausett

“To Them of the Last Wagon” by Lynn Fausett

Just a quick post this week to let all my blog reading friends in the Rockies and points west know that I’ll be presenting next month at The Literacy Promise: Opening Doors for the Adolescent Learner conference in Salt Lake City. Sponsored by the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at Brigham Young University, the biennial conference takes place at the Salt Lake City Convention Center March 12—14, 2014, and has a stellar line-up of speakers, including Ellin Keene, Carol Jago, Tanny McGregor and yours truly.

I’ll be giving two sessions on Thursday, March 13, one titled “Setting Students Up to Problem Solve (or How to Help Students Read Closely without Overly Prompting)” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Texts.” I’m sure I’ll be sharing some thoughts from these sessions on the blog before or after the conference, but just so you know, it always brings me great joy to meet blog readers in person.

For more on the conference, including how to register, click on the link above or on the image below. And if our paths don’t meet this time, I’m hoping they will in the future.

The Literacy Promise Banner

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.

On Shortcuts, Quick Fixes and Why They Often Don’t Work

Short Cut Sign

This spring I found myself in many classrooms—from third grade right up to twelfth—working on content area nonfiction. In each school, teachers were worried that students weren’t comprehending what they were reading, even when the information was stated explicitly. And without understanding the basic facts, it was nearly impossible for them to engage with whatever less explicit ideas the writer might be exploring or with any of the essential questions the teachers had framed their units around.

Initially many teachers saw this as a problem of the students’ background knowledge—i.e., students couldn’t comprehend what the writer was saying because they didn’t have enough prior knowledge for the information to make sense. Or they saw it as a vocabulary issue, especially in those cases where the students were either English Language Learners or were working with texts that matched someone’s insane notion of text complexity (such as the third-grade-is-the-new-seventh-grade example I shared in a recent post).

Can of WormsI don’t want to minimize the need to help students build larger and more sophisticated word banks or to have more background knowledge. But I’m also reminded of what I wrote in a post last summer: that too much emphasis on vocabulary or gaps in background knowledge may actually undermine students’ ability to become stronger, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning if we don’t know all the words and references. Plus obsessing about what students lack sometimes blinds us to what they can do, and so before I started making suggestions, I asked the teachers I was working with what kind of instruction they’d offered students and how they had done with that—which opened up another can of worms.

In almost every case, the teachers had offered students strategies for summarizing or finding the main idea, which often involved looking for topic sentences or repeated key words, as many a classroom chart advises. Some also taught students how to use text features to predict what information they’d find, which we could also call a strategy. These strategies, however, were in fact shortcuts; they offered students ways of synthesizing a text without actually reading it carefully and thoughtfully. And as the teachers shared anecdotes and student work, what seemed clear was that too often those strategies simply wound up backfiring.

In the case of using text features, for instance, students frequently became wedded to predictions they’d made based on pictures and headings, and with those in mind, they ignored any parts that didn’t match their predictions. Main idea and summarizing strategies, on the other hand, often sent students on scavengers hunts—or what SmartBrief blogger Fred Ende calls “Seek & Find” missions in a great post on readers versus scavengers—with students searching for key words or topic sentences without really thinking about how those words or sentences were connected.

Swiss CheeseRecognizing that the very strategies they’d offered might actually be interfering with real understanding, many of the teachers agreed to change tacts and focus on questioning instead—not the kind that would send students back to the text on more scavenging expeditions, but questions that would invite them to wrestle with the concepts and information an author presents. We also wanted them to become more aware of what I started calling ‘the holes in the cheese’—that is, the places where a nonfiction author doesn’t spell everything out, but rather relies on us, as readers, to connect the dots of facts together to figure something out. And to do this, we needed to study the texts we were giving to students, like this one from a fourth grade science textbook that I looked at with an ESL teacher named Cybi, to better understand how the author presented concepts and where the holes in the cheese were.

Mineral Textbook Page 1

In terms of concepts, we saw that the author explicitly described what a mineral was in the second paragraph. But by focusing on repeated or highlighted words, as Cybi had taught them to do, she wasn’t sure if her students would fully grasp the relationship or connection between minerals and rocks—i.e., that minerals were in rocks—which was exactly what happened when I modeled the shared reading later that day. Using the text features to predict the chapter’s content, the students concluded that minerals must be kinds of rocks. Acknowledging that they didn’t know that for sure, they agreed to let me reframe that as a question, which I asked them to hold in their heads as we read. But even with that, they glossed over the word ‘in’ until the very end when, with the question still unanswered, they went back and reread the beginning. At that point hands shot up around the room, and after they shared what they’d discovered, I noticed and named for them how paying attention to small words like ‘in’ had really helped them understand the connection and relationship between the more prominent words. And understanding how those words and facts were connected was really, really important.

We also wanted them to understand the concept of properties and how they helped scientists classify and differentiate minerals. Drawing on her knowledge of her students once again, Cybi thought they might be able to understand that based on the examples on this page and the next. But we both thought we detected a hole in the cheese in this page’s last two sentences where a reader would need to connect the information about hardness and scratching and apply the concept of properties to infer that calcite is harder than gypsum. And so we decided that this would be a good place to stop and ask a question, which I framed during the shared reading this way:

I want to pause here for a moment because I think there’s something the author’s not telling us that we might need to figure out. We know that hardness is a property and that properties help scientists tell minerals apart. We also know that scratching is a way of testing hardness and that gypsum is easier to scratch than calcite. But the author doesn’t come right out and say which mineral is harder, gypsum or calcite. I think he’s left that for us to figure out. So turn and talk. What do you think? Based on what the author has told us, which mineral do you think is harder and why?

This kind of question asked students to synthesize and apply information, not to simply retrieve it. And it asked them to actually think in a way that allowed them to construct understanding, not just consume and regurgitate information, as scavenger hunts often do. Ultimately, though, we wanted the students to be in charge of the questioning, and to that end we combined teacher-created questions, like the one above, that put students in problem-solving mode, with open invitations for the students to share whatever they found confusing or curious. And after I shared my holes-in-the-cheese metaphor, we began asking students if they thought there were things the writer hadn’t fully explained—i.e., holes in the cheese—then gave them time to figure those things out based on what the writer did say.

And as for those shortcuts: In the end, they weren’t so short after all, as they often took students away from real reading and real understanding, helping them, perhaps, to practice a skill but not really engage in deep thinking.

No Shortcuts

Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com