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

On Teachers & Learners & the First Day of School

Just like their colleagues around the country, New York City teachers will be back in their schools next week, arranging tables, organizing classroom libraries, hanging up charts and meeting with colleagues to share resources and plan in preparation for the million and more students who will arrive on Thursday for the first day of the new school year. What this year will bring, no one fully knows—especially those of us working in states that are “racing to the top.” But contrary to what some unfortunately think, I believe that the vast majority of this country’s teachers are quite capable of meeting whatever challenges lay ahead because they’re thoughtful and resourceful, flexible and resilient, conscientious and persistent—the very qualities a new book on education, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Characterby Paul Tough, equates with success.

Of course, in the age of the Common Core Standards, such a claim cannot stand without textual evidence. And so this week, to support my claim, mark the launch of the school year and celebrate the wisdom of teachers, I’d like to share some of the comments I’ve received from teachers this year. In each case, I’ve put an image that links the comment to the post it’s responding to. And in each case, you’ll see teachers actively thinking: wrestling with ideas, reflecting on their practice, listening to students, questioning and wondering, and perhaps most importantly, learning. For as writer Richard Henry Dann once said, “He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

In the pursuit of learning, these teachers push their thinking about reading, their students and education in general. And in doing so, they’ve kept me thinking and learning. They’ve also often been able to articulate something I’d been struggling to say myself. I’m hoping that they’ll inspire you, too, as you dive into this new year and begin to learn about your students as readers, writers, thinkers and learners.

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison

“This really reminds me how informational is deep and filled with ideas and themes, and we teachers do a disservice if we require students to determine ‘the main point” of a text like The Story of Salt. A reader could ‘mine’ that text for evidence of how communities develop, the importance of trade, the unintended consequences of contact . . . all sorts of themes could be the ‘the main idea’ depending on how one decided to read the text. An all-encompassing main idea would likely be so general as to be pretty much meaningless.” Steve Peterson

“I wonder how the bigger system of public education would shift if we consistently and constantly provided instruction based on student strengths and what they know vs. on what we perceive they don’t know. How might standardized testing change (or spontaneously combust) if this was our national paradigm?” Jessica Cuthbertson (For her own take on the first day of school, see http://transformed.teachingquality.org/blogs/08-2012/teachers-night-first-day-school)

“One should always consider how much front loading is necessary. I was once doing a ‘picture walk’ with a first grader prior to his reading a book. His urgent request: “Don’t tell me the end!” Another lesson taught by a student! How many times do we ‘spoil’ the reading by over teaching.” Nancy McCoy

© 2011 D.A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

“The purpose of reading a novel is to ask questions, comprehend a story and to engage with the text. I also understand why most ELA’s are concerned about this new way of teaching. It’s NEW! It goes against everything we have been taught about reading instruction. We have taught the vocabulary, the setting of the story, the characters, introduced every concept that we think important for students in the process of dissecting the novel FOR THEM. This is where the new approach turns the tables. We want students to take part in the process and start thinking on their own . . . While changing the way we effectively teach reading, we may actually change the way students perceive reading. We may instill the enjoyment of a gift that could potentially change their lives and have them career and college ready, too.” Deborah Mozingo

“Inductive thinking—what some would call synthesizing, right?—moving from parts to whole. I find this so hard to teach readers except when thinking aloud about a read aloud we are in together, but the moments when it does work seem like magic. You see it in the eyes of the students—teaching reading is about striking the balance between the art and the science—because when you lean too much on the science then the magic disappears.” Ryan Scala

. . . I was feeling that the students and I were not connecting on the latest unit where they were reading independent books (nonfiction). The wide variety of titles and interests was becoming unwieldy for me as well . . . and I was looking for a common thread. So (in desperation) I suddenly asked what was the purpose to coming to English? Worksheets would not have worked in the brainstorming session that followed . . .and I think we are a little more ‘re-calibrated’ as to what we are trying to achieve together. I am finding a new understanding about how purpose is at the heart of every lesson . . . and that practicing ‘what is my purpose’ will make thinking about questions (to quote you) automatic and fluent.” Colette Marie Bennett (For her post on the brainstorming session, see http://usedbooksinclass.com/2012/02/15/so-i-asked-whats-the-purpose-of-english-class/)

“I wonder if we, as teachers, did a better job of presenting education as a journey into the unknown, rather than a means to an end, students would be more willing to come along for the ride.”  Catherine Flynn

These comments and others remind me (Vicki) that teaching, too, is as an art as much as a science and that the first day of school is always an embarkation into the unknown. Here’s my hope that it’s a thrilling ride for all of us, teachers, administrators and students alike, and that by engaging and valuing the journey, even when it’s messy or hard, we’ll manage to reach a deeper and more meaningful end (while meeting the Standards as well).

It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission. http://www.facebook.com/JoelRobisonPhotography

Last month I plunged into nonfiction by first exploring what readers really do when they read it and then looking at some of the challenges it poses at the level of comprehension—i.e., what the words literally and inferentially mean line by line and page by page. There are many challenges for readers at this level, especially when we move from books packaged by educational publishers, like Mondo and Rigby, to trade books. At the risk of over-generalizing, the former tends to maximize the accessibility of the content, with text features that support easy fact retrieval and explicitly state the sub-topics. Trade books, on the other hand, frequently operate in less straightforward ways and often require far more inferring to fully comprehend.

They also have more of what I call an authorial presence. That is, we feel the presence of the author more strongly in trade books, whether it’s Mark Kurlansky who begins his fascinating book The Story of Salt with an anecdote from his own life or Seymour Simon who starts his book Volcanoes not with a standard definition or introduction of words like ‘magma,’ but with the ancient Romans and Hawaiians who worshipped gods of fire they associated with volcanoes.

Like many of the nonfiction authors I’ve looked at this summer—Kathleen V. Kudlinski, Henry Petroski, Eugene Linden, and Neil Degrasse Tyson—these writers take us on the kind of journey of thought I described in my first nonfiction post, in which, as writer Alan Lightman puts it, “the facts are important but never enough.” These writers use facts not just to inform us but to explore ideas, and they’ve deliberately chosen and arranged the facts in a particular way to help us, as readers, ‘see’ and consider those ideas.

Doing this, however, requires a kind of mind work that’s different enough from comprehending a sentence to warrant being called something else—which is why Dorothy Barnhouse and I differentiate this kind of thinking from comprehension by calling it understanding. It’s inferring and interpreting across a whole text, not just with a line or a page, which adds another layer of challenge. So what, as teachers, do we need to do to help our students not just comprehend but engage in understanding as well?

We can begin by sharing what Donna Santman calls in her great book for middle school teachers Shades of Meaning a “reading secret”: that there are issues and ideas hiding in the texts students read and one of their main jobs as readers is to think about the ideas the writer might be exploring and how they develop across a text.

For some students, with some texts, this is enough. In Thinking Through Genre, for instance, Heather Lattimer recounts what happened in a 6th grade classroom studying feature articles when, instead of asking students to find the main idea, she asked them to simply jot down the details that stood out for them and, from that, think about what the writer might be wanting them to understand. Rather than groaning, as they did whenever they heard the words ‘main idea,’ they plunged into the text and came up with an array of fresh, insightful thinking.

Many students, however, need more support to engage in the work of understanding. Unfortunately, though, many of the strategies we offer don’t really help. To see what I mean, let’s look more closely at Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt, with its wonderful illustrations by S. D. Schindler:

A typical read aloud or guided reading lesson might begin with asking the students to predict what they think they’ll discover in the book by looking at the front cover. This might lead some students to say that they were going to learn about salt around the world and through the ages because the people on the cover appear to be from different times and places—though many a student might simply say they were going to learn about salt.

We then might do a picture walk, which might confirm that initial prediction about salt throughout the ages, as students spotted mummies, knights and people dressed in togas. But many of the pictures are baffling, such as this one:

We might also do a text-feature walk, zooming in on the section titles and headings as a way of anticipating the information the text contains. As you can see, though, from the title above, this might not get students very far either because many of the titles are as baffling as the pictures. But the bigger problem is that relying on text features encourages students to see sections as discrete entities, not as parts of a whole, and as such text-feature walks can work against the idea of the text as a journey where the whole point is discovering more than you expected as you pay attention to the turns and twists and connect detail to detail.

We also ask students to scan and skim to find the main idea, which could conceivably yield this sentence from the last page of the book: “Salt shaped the history of the world.”

Like the prediction about the book containing information about salt throughout the ages, this statement does seem to circle what we might call the main idea. But it only goes so far. It doesn’t get to the deeper exploration of why or how salt shaped the world, which can only be gotten by going on the journey and reading closely. We can, though, help students do this by using the same strategy that Dorothy and I offer students when they read fiction: noticing patterns and considering what the writer might be trying to show us through them.

Inviting students to think about patterns—whether it’s a word, a detail, an image, an event or a structural device that repeats—could help students, for instance, notice how many times the word ‘power’ appears. And noticing that, they’d be better positioned to ‘see’ how other sections involve power, even when the word isn’t used. Noticing this might also lead them to discover patterns within the power pattern, as there are several stories about salt being used as a means of control and others where salt is an agent of liberation. And that’s just from noticing one word. There are also recurring stories about how our need for salt led to innovations and stories about things—streets, cities, food—named after salt. There’s even a pattern in the book’s structure, with the book beginning and ending in the present, and the past sandwiched in between.

Any of these patterns would act as an in-road to the deeper ideas that infuse the book, which is why it’s not necessary for students to ‘see’ the exact same patterns that we’ve seen. Just the act of noticing patterns gets students thinking—for as the writer Norman Maclean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” And that’s what happens on a journey when we set off into the unknown. Our senses are heightened as we take in the sights and go off on detours that surprisingly lead to places full of meaning. All that’s needed is an open mind—and a strategy that supports close reading.

Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

It’s true that when I look at the books on my shelves and the stack on my nightstand, fiction outnumbers nonfiction by more than ten to one. That’s because fiction feeds my soul like nothing else I know of. But the following are also true: I rarely go anywhere without a New Yorker (especially when it involves the subway, a.k.a., the Underground New York Public Library); I’m an avid fan of the science program Radiolab; I read all sorts of blogs and online digests (including my new favorite brainpickings); I don’t mind waits in doctors’ offices as long as I can read People magazine; and I’m a bit of a news junkie.

All this qualifies me as a reader of nonfiction, though as I said in my last post, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what I do as a nonfiction reader until this year when nonfiction became the big, hot topic. So I began to explore nonfiction reading by asking myself two critical questions: Why do we read nonfiction? And how do we actually do it?

Taking on the why question allows us to consider what we might call the enduring understandings about nonfiction—that is, the lasting value of reading it throughout life, not just in the classroom, that we want students to get. My hunch is that most students would say we read nonfiction to learn new information or facts. And while that’s certainly part of why I read nonfiction—to find out the Supreme Court’s decision, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act or know what to do with the butterfly bush I fear I killed in my garden—I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Beyond gathering information I think I need to garden, to travel, to work in schools and to generally be an informed citizen, I read nonfiction for many of the same reasons that I read fiction: to engage with the ideas an author is exploring in a way that will enrich, expand and illuminate my sense of how people and the world work. In fiction, the writer explores those ideas through the vehicle of the story, while nonfiction writers do it through the facts they present and what they see as the implications of those facts. And in this way, I read nonfiction for the reasons that author and guest editor Alan Lightman describes in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2000:

I want to see a mind a work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand . . . to feel that I’m going on a journey. The [writer] is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move.

Of course, Lightman is talking about essays here, which are only one form nonfiction takes. Yet when I look at the exemplar texts in Appendix B of the Standards, I see many texts in which facts are not the whole story—where there is, in fact, a mind at work, taking us on a journey, whether it’s Kathleen V. Kudlinski exploring the evolution of thinking about dinosaurs in the grade 2-3 exemplar Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs or Henry Petroski, author of the grade 6-8 exemplar “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” using facts about the development of the paper bag to explore the idea of perfectability in design, which he has an opinion about.

And here’s where the why leads into the how: Whether we’re fully conscious of this or not, I think we read nonfiction with an awareness that it’s not a single entity, requiring a single way of thinking, but, in fact, has as many sub-genres as fiction does, including essays, feature articles, all-about books, editorials, biographies, memoirs, reviews and, of course, textbooks. All of these sub-genres traffic in facts, though I think that, as readers, we’re also aware that facts are used slightly differently in these various sub-genres. All-about books and most textbooks, for instance, mainly use facts to inform—that is, they give us facts for facts’ sake. Feature articles, on the other hand, along with essays and texts like Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs use facts to explore ideas or issues. And editorials, arguments and texts like “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” mainly use facts to explore ideas or issues the writer has an opinion about. And knowing this as readers, we automatically come to nonfiction texts wondering what the author might be exploring through the facts she presents.

Unfortunately, in addition to sometimes teaching nonfiction as a single entity, we also don’t always make clear to our students what we mean by an idea, which the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus says is a near antonym to a fact. Of course, the word ‘idea’ has other meanings beyond the one stated here. But an idea is not the same as a fact. It is bigger than any single fact and usually contains some kind of judgement or observation about the facts, such as “Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs.” That idea is stated explicitly, but most ideas are not, and they often can’t be accessed through many of the strategies we currently give students for reading nonfiction, such as skimming or scanning a text or looking for key words.

We also, I fear, make matters worse by emphasizing the notion of the ‘main idea.’ Like themes in fiction, many texts explore more than one idea, and reducing the complexity of a writer’s exploration into a tidy statement doesn’t always serve readers well. Also, we don’t always mean an idea when we talk about the main idea. Instead, we use the term either as a synonym for a topic sentence, the aspect of a topic focused on in a paragraph, or a single-sentence summary of the who, what, where, when and why of a text—none of which are necessarily the same as an idea.

I’ll share more thoughts about the how of reading nonfiction in my next post. But for now I think it’s important to remember that as the Common Core asks students to read more complex texts and engage in more critical thinking, it also invites us to think more deeply about what and how we teach. But before we start revising our practice, we need to know what we’re teaching toward—or as Katie Wood Ray puts it in a phrase I wish I’d coined myself: “Before Revision, Vision.” She uses it in Study Driven to stress how important it is for students to have a vision of what they’re aiming for in writing before they jump in and revise. But I think the same holds true for us. Before we revise how we teach nonfiction, let’s develop a deeper, more complex vision of what it really is, so we know more precisely what our instruction needs to aim for in order to better hit the mark.

Some Questions about Text Dependent Questions

As the school year finally begins to wind down here in New York City, a new term is the air: text dependent questions. I first encountered the term in the Common Core Standards Publishers Criteria, which recommends that Standards-based instructional material includes a sequence of “rigorous text dependent questions that require students to demonstrate that they not only can follow the details of what is explicitly stated but also are able to make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text.” And now Student Achievement Partners, the group founded by several of the Common Core authors, has issued a “Guide to Creating Text Dependent Questions” along with an ever-growing number of “Close Reading Exemplars” that show this method in action.

These text dependent questions stand in contrast to some of the common kinds of questions often heard in classrooms, such as questions about students’ own feelings or experiences and questions related to strategies or skills, like “What’s the main idea?” I agree that these kinds of questions are problematic and should be used sparingly. The first kind can shift students’ attention away from the text to their own thoughts, while the second can turn the act of reading into a scavenger hunt, as I explored a few weeks ago in my post on basal readers.

But text dependent questions seem problematic, as well. The Student Achievement Partners’ guide says that text dependent questions aim to “help students see something worthwhile that they would not have seen in a more cursory reading.” This is a goal I completely share. But the text dependent question approach relies on teachers directing and prompting students to what they want them to see, not on teaching in a way that empowers students to more independently notice what there is to be noticed through their own agency. And in this way text dependent questions run the risk of creating teacher dependent students instead of strong, flexible readers.

To see what I mean, let’s look at one of the Close Reading Exemplars from the Student Achievement Partners’ Achieve the Core site. Here eighth graders are asked to dip into a passage from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave, Written by Himselfwhich begins like this:

Like all the Exemplars, this one asks students to first read the passage silently to themselves, without any introduction or instruction. They then follow along for a second go through as the teacher reads the text aloud in order to offer “all students access to this complex text.” Then the questions start:

This read-listen-then-answer-questions sequence seems to almost guarantee that some, if not most, students will read and listen to the passage passively, waiting for the teacher to tell them what to do. It also seems to mirror standardized tests, where students don’t often begin to think until they hit the questions, rather than the moment they first begin to read.

The questions themselves also seem test-like; you can almost imagine them being followed by a choice of four possible answers. That’s because there seems to be one right answer, and the questions are seeing if you ‘got it’ or not. In this way, the questions are assessing comprehension, not helping students build it, which means that students who are able to comprehend will probably do fine, while those who can’t, will not. And one can only imagine how those answers might be pulled and yanked like a tooth from those struggling students through continued prompting.

But what if, instead, we taught students that every reader enters a text not knowing where it’s headed, and because of that they keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re confused or wondering about, knowing that they’ll figure out more as they both read forward and think backwards? This vision of what readers do acknowledges that reading is just as much a process of drafting and revising as writing is, with readers constantly questioning and developing their understanding of what an author is saying as they make their way through a text. And it supports the idea that readers are actively engaged and thinking about how the pieces of a text fit together, beginning with the very first line.

To make this process more visible to students, Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed our text-based Know/Wonder chart. Depending on students’ familiarity with the chart, we might briefly model how we use it in a way that encourages students to acknowledge their confusion by reading the first two sentences and noting the following:

Students who had noticed the title, might say that the narrator was a slave, which would help answer the first question and also raise a lot more, including how a slave got to be friends with white boys; where, exactly, was this taking place; how old is/was the narrator; and, as they read further on, how did he manage to get a book and was he allowed to take the bread or had he stolen it.  Reading forward on the lookout for answers to these student-generated questions, the students would pick up clues that engaged them in considering the third text dependent question about how Douglass’s life as a slave differed from those of the boys. And those students who hadn’t caught the title could hold on to the question, made visible by the chart, until later on in the passage where they’d encounter more clues. And at that point they’d need to think backwards to revise whatever they’d made of the text so far in light of this realization.

Thus, all this could happen the first time the students read the text with virtually no teacher prompting, because they’d be reading closely from the get-go, fitting details together like puzzle pieces to see the larger picture they revealed. And doing so without any prompting would contribute to an increase in both their engagement and their ability as readers. It would also be an experience they could transfer to the next complex text they read.

Additionally all this drafting and revising would eventually enable students to “make valid claims that square with all the evidence in the text,” in a much more independent way than the text dependent question method permits, because so much more of the thinking is theirs. So let’s not jump so quickly on the text dependent question bandwagon and consider, instead, making the process of meaning making more visible to our students, by offering instruction not directions and giving them time to practice–and perhaps remembering that asking a question doesn’t constitute teaching, nor does answering one always mean learning.

Inductive, Deductive, Reductive: What Kinds of Thinking Do We Ask of Students—and Why?

© Copyright 2003 by Jeanne Curran from http://www.csudh.edu/dearhabermas/beaucoup01.htm

One of the patterns readers of this blog may have noticed cropping up in post after post is a repeated emphasis on details—on attending to details, connecting details, considering what details might mean. This emphasis stands apart from some of the talk about details found in classrooms, where details, at best, are valued as supporting evidence for ideas the reader has and, at worst, are seen as distracting our attention from the holy grail of the main idea.

I think this is unfortunate because details are, in fact, the building blocks of texts. They’re what writers use to construct and explore characters, situations, ideas and themes in both fiction and non-fiction. And they’re what readers use to construct whatever ideas or interpretations they have about what they read.

Experienced readers tend to do this work invisibly, noticing, processing and fitting details together to consider their possible meaning almost as automatically and fluently as they notice, process and fit words together to fluently make sense of a sentence. Many students, however, don’t even know that this is what readers do, or they haven’t reached the point yet where they’ve internalized the process enough to automatically do it.

Those students need practice in thinking inductively–that is, moving from the parts to the whole by first noticing the details the author provides then thinking about what those details might suggest or signify in order to build an idea or understanding from the bottom up. That’s the kind of thinking the 7th grade students in last week’s post used to build an understanding of the worlds they encountered at their dystopian novel stations. And it’s the kind of thinking I invited readers to try on two weeks ago with the opening pages of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars.

Unfortunately, though, too many of the tools we give our students, such as the graphic organizer here, don’t help because they require deductive thinking, which asks students to move from the whole to the parts, coming up with an idea then searching for details to prove the idea’s validity. These organizers might help students develop the habit of supporting ideas with evidence, but they don’t explicitly show students how to construct an idea in the first place, which for many is the more difficult work.

The other problem with top-down, deductive-based organizers is that they frequently encourage reductive thinking, with characters reduced to one or more single-word traits or with rich and nuanced multi-faceted texts reduced to a lone main-idea sentence. That’s not to say it’s not important to get a sense of a character in a narrative. But we do so not to pin them down with an adjective, like a butterfly in a display case, but to think about how those traits help or hinder them from dealing with whatever problems the writer has put in their path, and to be able to better see how they do or don’t change as they grapple with those problems. And we do all that, in turn, because attending to how characters change and develop as they wrestle with their problems can help us think about what aspect of the human condition the writer might be exploring—a.k.a. the theme.

Thus, thinking about a character’s so-called traits is the first step in the long process of meaning making,  not an isolated end to itself as these worksheets seem to suggest. Better, I think, are supports that push student thinking across a text, like the chart that teacher Cory Gillette designed to help her students think about characters within the context of the plot, which consultant Stephanie Parsons‘s shares and discusses on her blog. Or like this one from What Readers Really Do, which supports inductive thinking by inviting students to notice and connect patterns of recurring details in order to question or develop an idea about what they might possibly mean (filled in here with the thoughts of a fifth grade class reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis Woods):

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

Once again, in the end, it seems to come down to purpose. If you want to help build your students’ ability to support their ideas with details or to have a baseline read of a character as a starting point for tracking their development, then a graphic organizer based on deductive thinking could conceivably help. But it will do nothing to help those students who struggle with coming up with an idea in the first place. They need a tool that supports and makes visible the inductive process of thinking that experienced readers invisibly use. And they need lots of practice for that kind of thinking to become automatic and fluent.

The good news, though, is that the very same details they notice and use to inductively construct an idea can subsequently be used to support the idea in a deductive way. The bad news is that too often I think we ask students to complete these kinds of worksheets and graphic organizers when they don’t really need to—i.e., when they’re already doing the work automatically, which is the ultimately goal, or when they’re not ready because they need to experience the invisible inductive step before making the deductive one.

What doesn’t seem a valid enough purpose, however, is to have them fill in worksheets so that we can collect and arm ourselves with data. There are plenty of other more authentic ways to formatively assess what a reader can do, from conferences to formal accountable talk circles to genuine reading responses. The trick is to find opportunities and tools that give you a window on a child’s mind as it attempts to make meaning without dulling or destroying their engagement with reading through too much of what can seem like busywork—and to consider what thinking we’re asking them to do, along with that crucial why?