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

Keeping It Real in Test Prep Season: Some Thoughts about Nonfiction Text Structure

After an amazing weekend at the Dublin Literacy Conference, which was all about real reading and writing, I arrived back home to find many schools plunging into test prep. The New York State tests aren’t until April, but many schools are already worried about this year’s ELA test, which supposedly has been aligned to the Standards. The New York City Schools Chancellor has already said that he expects scores to plummet, and the sample tests the state has posted on their engageny website have done nothing to allay fears. Third graders are expected to read a story by Tolstoy, which a parent of a city third grader called “excruciatingly dull and confusing.” And fifth graders are asked to compare two passages written from an animal’s point of view—one from The Secret Garden, the other from Black Beauty—and discuss how “the animal’s perspectives influence how events are described.”

Given that teachers are being evaluated by test scores in New York and other states, the apprehension seems justified. And so the test prep workbooks have come out. These workbooks, too, have supposedly been aligned to the Common Core, and at least in the ones I’ve seen, a whole new crop of questions are being asked about the text structure of nonfiction texts in order to assess whether students are meeting Reading Informational Texts Standard 5. These include questions not just about the structure of the entire passage, but also the structure of individual paragraphs and sentences, as can be seen below.

Here, for instance, is a 4th grade text-structure question about an article on the history of film making:

History of Film Making Question 2

And here is another on an excerpt from the autobiography of one of the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest:

Tiger in the Snow Question

dok-wheelEach of these questions ask students to identify or match a sentence with a text structure type, which, in terms of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, is only Level 1 thinking. Each can also be answered without actually reading the passage, which surely is not what the Standards intended. And all this has led to  a new crop of test-taking strategies being taught—such as looking for text-structure signal words—which, in turn, is taking time away from authentic reading.

Ironically, these text-structure questions also fly in the face of some of the pronouncements of David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core. I rarely agree with Coleman’s solutions to the problems he sees in classrooms, especially when it comes to overly prompted models of close reading, but I often agree with his diagnoses. Here, for instance, in a presentation he gave to the New York State Department of Education, he comes down hard on what he calls “the strategy of the week”—i.e., using texts to practice a skill or strategy, such as identifying cause and effect—which I, too,  believe is problematic in the way he describes:

“Nothing could be more lethal to paying attention to the text in front of you than such a hunt and seek mission. . . . When have you read a difficult text ever in your life and said, ‘I’ve got it now. It’s a cause and effect text not a problem and solution text.’ We lavish too much attention on these strategies in the place of reading. I would urge us to instead read.”

But all this does raise the question: Does knowing about concepts such as cause and effect, problem and solution and compare and contrast actually help us, as authentic readers, understand what an author of a nonfiction text might be trying to say? I think it can, but not as reflected in the above kind of questions. To see how, let’s look at one of the ‘one-page wonders’ Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke share in their great resource Text Lessons for Content-Area Reading: “Vampire Bat Debate: To Kill or Not to Kill” by Chris Kraul.

VampireBatDebate

If identification is the name of the game, the title alone lets us know that this is a compare-and-contrast piece. But if we want to truly understand the complexity of the debate, not just identify the text-structure, we need to remember what we instinctively know as readers: that nonfiction authors frequently explore problems and solutions, causes and effects, and different perspectives in the pieces they write. And so as readers, we enter the text on the look out not only for the different points of view alluded to in the title but for the problems that sparked the debate, the causes and effects of those problems, and the real and possible effects of whatever solutions have been undertaken or proposed.

Vice ClampIn this way, we use our understanding of those concepts to dig deeper into the text; they expand our understanding, rather than reduce it, which happens when we try to fit a text that explores virtually anything complicated into a text-structure vise. And so beyond test prep, I don’t spend a lot of time explicitly teaching text structures. Instead, with the vampire bat article, I’ve been asking students to consider how each paragraph adds to their understanding of the title’s debate and how each is connected to the next. This has allowed them to construct their understanding of the complexity of the issue as they make their way through the text—and for problem and solution and cause and effect to rise up naturally as they read and discuss it, not because I’ve sent them on a hunt and seek mission.

I’ve also been asking students whether they think the author has an opinion, and many have said that they think he does—that he sides with the scientists, not the cattlemen, because he devotes more words and space to the scientists’ side and lets them have the last word. That seems a far more insightful analysis of the text’s structure than anything the workbook questions ask for. And it involves much higher levels of thinking than those multiple choice questions demand.

Keep It RealI truly believe that this kind of real reading can ultimately prepare students for the test as well as any short-cut strategies, such as hunting for signal words, can. And it produces none of the negative effects—the narrowing of curriculum, the stressful climate in classrooms, and the lack of critical thinking—that a coalition of Massachusetts college professors recently cited as reasons why their state should abandon high-stakes standardized testing. And so I find myself in the surprising position of echoing David Coleman: Let’s try as much as humanly possible to keep it real by really reading.

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

During my week in Reggio Emilia, my fellow study group members and I had several opportunities to speak through translators to our Italian colleagues to share observations and ask questions about some of the incredible practices we saw. I was also curious to know what our hosts thought about some of the practices we hold dear and whether or not they confronted some of the problems that we faced, which prompted me to ask questions.

Reggio AtelierHaving visited one of their new elementary schools, for instance, where there was much writing on display, I asked what they thought about craft lessons. This necessitated a bit of back and forth between me, the translator and the teachers who wanted to make sure they understood what I meant by craft. When that was clarified they said that, yes, they would invite students to study craft. But they reminded us of something else they’d said when we’d all marveled at the magnificent ateliers or art studios that are at the center of each school: “[They] do not offer art and technique in order for children to become artists, but in order for them not to become slaves.”

It’s a line I’ve pondered about a lot, along with their answer to another question I posed. I asked if they ever saw children, like the ones I described in my two last posts, who are able to read a text fluently but seemingly don’t understand what it says. And if so, what do they do. Again the question caused some back and forth between the translator and the teachers, though finally they said that they do occasionally see that, and when they do, they refer the child to specialists in order to determine the root cause.

At the time, the answer seemed insufficient—and having been astounded by so much of what we saw, some of us wondered whether here, in the States, we’d actually done more thinking about reading and all that’s involved in comprehending than our Italian colleagues, who were just embarking on lower schools, had. But increasingly I found myself thinking of all the stories and videos they’d shared of students wrestling with ideas, whether it was the existence of negative numbers or how to write certain letters. In each case, the students passionately, thoughtfully—and sometimes even heatedly—shared their own provisional theories about whatever was being explored, which they then would test out, revise and develop as they dug deeper into their study and listened to their classmates.

No Judgment ZoneReminded of that, I found myself wondering whether their constructivist approach to learning—where students don’t consume information but actually build their own knowledge—made some of what we see here moot. Every single child in Reggio was engaged in questioning and developing theories about whatever it was they were exploring, and children were confidently  voicing ideas without fear of the teacher’s judgement. In those rooms, it seems possible that no one without some cognitive glitch would read without wondering what the author might be saying, and no one would be passively calling out words without thinking about what those words meant. And the teachers would both expect and trust that even if the students’ initial theories were far-fetched or even faulty, the process of sharing and revising ideas would eventually lead everyone to understand more in an age-appropriate way.

I wonder, though, if we expect the same. We certainly expect students to learn and know things, and we expect them to perform. But in our race to meet the Standards, move students up levels and complexity bands, and answer our close reading questions, do we really care how deeply they understand as long as they get the right answer? And do we really trust and expect they can get there without our firm, directing hand?

If You Lived with the Iroquois CoverWith these questions in mind, a group of fourth grade teachers I’ve been working with decided to put understanding front and center by inviting students to acknowledge what they didn’t understand as a place from which to start learning. To do this we chose a nonfiction text, If You Lived with the Iroquois by Ellen Levine, aware that, particularly with nonfiction, there was a big difference between knowing the facts and truly understanding them. Then gathering a small group of students on the rug, we gave each child a copy of the book, asked them to turn to the following page and to read thinking about not what they learned but what they’d didn’t fully understand.

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

Right away a student said that he didn’t understand the sentence about the Iroquois using what nature provided, and once he’d revealed that, the others all agreed. They also didn’t know what a ‘kilt-like skirt’ was, and when I asked about the word ‘tanned,’ they said they weren’t so sure about that either—unless it meant laying the skins in the sun to tan. We then invited the students to look through the book, seeing if there were any places, either in the text or the pictures, that might help them understand what they hadn’t. This led one girl to discover a whole section on tanning a few pages later and several students to develop an understanding of a kilt-like skirt from the illustrations.

We went on then to read the section about tanning, which was hard for them to fully grasp. But at some point the boy who’d originally cited the line about using what nature provided said he now thought he knew what that meant: The Iroquois used material they could find outside, like deer skin and brains, moss and corncobs to make what they needed. And another student, going back to the previous page, added on that porcupine quills, which they used for decoration, also came from nature.

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

That led one girl to ask, “Did they have stores back then?” “What do you think?” we asked, and after flipping through the pages one last time to see if they spotted any sign of stores or manufactured goods, they all decided they didn’t think so, which they thought was pretty amazing and made them curious to learn more.

The teachers and I all believed that the students left the group that day with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Iroquois than they’d had if we’d set them up to take notes, gather facts, or fill out a worksheet. And we sent out a message to them that I fear students don’t always hear: We care more about your thinking than your answers, and we truly want you to understand—so much so that we’ll honor what you don’t understand as the place to begin exploring and will carve out time to give everyone the chance to reveal their fledgling thinking and then use talk, not to prove a claim, but to grow and develop ideas. And by trusting and expecting you to understand, you will come to expect that, too, and accept nothing less. And that means you’ll never be a slave to someone else’s thinking.

Reveal, Listen, Understand

My Christmas Wish List

christmas-star-gradient-8r

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

Big Blue Whale 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pine Tree in Snow

Superficial or Significant: The Challenge of Comparing

Compare Contrast Vegas+Reggio

When a friend and colleague heard I was going to Las Vegas for NCTE so soon after being in Reggio Emilia, she thought it might be interesting for me to compare the two places. My initial thought was no, that’s too easy. The light, the noise level, the language—all different. The money, the history—all different as well, with Las Vegas, as we know it, a virtual newborn in the span of human time and some buildings in Reggio standing in place for more than one thousand years.

making-thinking-visible-ritchhart-ron-9780470915516But then I thought of quote another friend and colleague recently sent me from Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison’s book Making Thinking Visible. Here the authors take a look at skills and thinking, like comparing, that appear in classification charts such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and they offer this advice:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels or quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

With Las Vegas and Reggio, I think I was simply ticking off “readily apparent features” without being terribly insightful, just as I described many students doing in last spring’s post on the limits of graphic organizers. Of course, sometimes a student will come up with something that does seem “deep and penetrating.” But I don’t think we always teach toward that, aiming instead at just teaching the skill without that attention on quality. Or put another way, we teach the concept of comparing without teaching the concept of significance.

The Common Core Standards, however, have dramatically upped the ante in ways that I think are important. In the case of comparing, for instance—a.k.a. Anchor Reading Standard 9—the focus should be on significant, not superficial, comparisons. But how can we instructionally help students move beyond what’s readily apparent to what’s more penetrating but often less visible—a step which often requires readers to look beyond the specifics of any one text to something that’s more abstract and general? Thinking about this, I’ve developed a theory that, when comparing, it’s often useful to focus exclusively on similarities between two things or texts that, on the surface, seem different, and explore differences when similarities are more apparent. Then once those have been mapped out, the next step is to dig into the differences within the similarities or the similarities within the differences.

ClaudetteColvinCoverI tested this theory out last spring with a group of middle school teachers who had gathered for two days to explore ways of helping students read complex nonfiction texts on a common topic or theme. To make this concrete, I asked them to read an excerpt of Philip Hoose‘s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which combines transcripts of interviews with Colvin with more expository text, using a text-based Know/Wonder chart to see how it could help students connect details within the text (e.g., figure out why the number ten was detested, which is mentioned on the first page below).

Claudette Colvin Excerpt

Then we read an excerpt of Ann Petry‘s biography Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroadwhich appears in the Standards Appendix B as a middle school informational exemplar text. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

Harriet Tubman Excerpt

HarrietTubmanCoverRather than handing out Venn Diagrams, I asked the teachers to take out their notebooks and jot down as many similarities they could think of or patterns that recurred across the books, without judging any of their ideas—that is, nothing should be deemed too obvious or, conversely, too far-fetched. This helped them move beyond the most apparent similarities that both books were about African-American girls who as children experienced inequality based on race, to more insightful noticings such as these:

    • Both girl’s parents were addressed by their first name by white people.
    • Both girls learned lessons about the social structure they lived in very early in life.
    • The social structure was enforced through threats of violence, insults and humiliation.
    • Both girls felt fear, uncertainty and confusion.
    • Both girls saw the adults around them afraid.
    • Both girls were expected to take responsibility for something that was done to them, not by them.
    • Neither girl’s parents could protect them.
    • Both girls felt that there were unstated rules “in the air”.

As these were shared, I invited teachers to add ideas they hadn’t thought of before to their list. Then I asked them to look at their expanded list and think about which similarity seemed the most  important or significant to them and on another page of their notebook to briefly explain why. Using another think-to-write strategy, the Write-Around, from Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke‘s Content Area Writing, I then had everyone pass their notebook to the person on their right. That person would then read what the other person wrote then write a quick response, extending, commenting, questioning, and probing what the writer before them had said, before passing the notebooks yet again to the right.

After several passes, the notebooks were returned to their owners who were eager to see how their original thinking had traveled and evolved. And at that point, they felt they would be prepared to have a more formal discussion or even to begin planning out a piece of writing. But perhaps, most importantly, they saw how this process could help lift their students’ thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial in ways that would help them, not just meet the Standards, but understand the undercurrents of a topic in that deep, more penetrating way.

Which brings me back to Vegas and Reggio. After giving myself some time to brainstorm, I did come up with something that was similar and more significant than the fact that both cities had two-word names that were often shortened to one. Both cities revolved around public spaces where people congregated and socialized. In Las Vegas, it was the casinos; in Reggio, the piazzas. And what seemed different within this similarity was the purpose of those spaces. In Reggio the piazzas helped the community connect and strengthen their social bonds, while the casinos were there to make money—with visitors like me forced to walk through the casinos just to get water or coffee.

These differences led to a final similarity: The purpose of these spaces reflected the cultural values of each of the cities, with those values again being different. Anyone want to place a bet on which one I liked best?

Reggio Piazza Las Vegas Casino

More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction

Recently I looked at how inviting students to notice patterns across a nonfiction text can help them consider the large and often invisible—i.e., not explicitly stated—ideas a writer is exploring. Raising students’ awareness of patterns and how writers use them to explore and develop ideas can ultimately help students meet many of the Reading Informational Text Standards of the Common Core, especially RI2 and RI5. It also helps students reap the full benefits of reading nonfiction, which is not always just about learning new facts but considering a writer’s unique take or perspective on those facts in a way that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

To introduce your students to how writers use patterns to develop their ideas—and how readers, in turn, build their ideas about a text by noticing the patterns the writer’s laid down and considering what they might mean—you’d follow the same process that I engaged in to plan the blog post on patterns: I pulled out a handful of books from my shelves and asked myself the following questions as I looked through and read each book:

  • Does this seem like a text in which the writer is using facts to explore one or more ideas—or put another way, is it a text that I’d want students not just to comprehend but also understand?
  • Do I notice patterns in the book—words, images, events, even structural devices that somehow keep repeating?
  • Does asking myself what the writer might be trying to show me through those patterns help me dig deeper into the text?

My hunch is that we don’t always ask ourselves the last two questions—and we might not ask the first one either because of the way we’ve traditionally used nonfiction in the classrooms. We have students read nonfiction, for instance, to learn facts about specific content, whether it’s to know the names of the great explorers or the process of photosynthesis. We have them read nonfiction to learn about text features or different text structures, or to find facts for research projects. But unless we’re looking squarely at bias, we may not think about the writer at all when we’re reading nonfiction, at least not to think about why she’s chosen and arranged whatever facts she’s sharing in a certain way.

I think that all this has to change in light of the Common Core Standards, which, in standard after standard, ask students to think about how the parts of a text are related to the whole. Noticing patterns and thinking about what the writer might be trying to show us through them automatically helps students do that—without the kind of teacher-directed prompting that comes with the text-dependent questions approach. And again and again I’ve discovered that, just as with students, we, too, as teachers start noticing patterns when we look for them, as an instructional coach and teacher in Georgia attests to in her blog post “Confessions of a Plot Junkie.”

But what happens when you don’t notice patterns, which certainly happens to me sometimes when I read nonfiction? As experienced readers, we know that nonfiction writers often use facts to explore ideas they sometimes have an opinion about, and they unfold those ideas in more complicated, subtle and indirect ways than thesis-driven five-paragraph essays. Because of this we enter a text on the look-out for glimmers of ideas and opinions, asking ourselves, consciously or not, what the writer might want us to understand, as we both read forward and think backwards to draft and revise our ideas.

Unless we’re in a text outside our comfort zone, we tend to do this work automatically, barely aware of how we process and arrive at our sense of what the writers is up to. But to make this more visible for students, we can ask them to be trackers, reading the text paragraph by paragraph to sniff out possible ideas, and then reading forward and thinking backwards to consider how those might—or might not—be connected to what came before and comes after.

To show a group of K-12 educators what this approach could look like during a workshop on reading nonfiction, I searched for another text that, like many of the Common Core exemplars, took readers on a journey of thought that couldn’t be fully anticipated or deeply understood by most of the strategies we currently give students. To provide some common ground across grades, we decided to focus on a single topic, food, and for this activity I chose a short piece from The New Yorker called “The Big Heat,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which begins with the grabbing and provocative lead, “Corn sex is complicated,” before taking all sorts of twists and turns whose purpose and logic aren’t immediately apparent.

I asked the participants to read it with a partner (as I invite to to do, too, on your own or with a colleague), stopping at every paragraph to share both what they thought the writer might want them to understand and how that might or might not be connected to whatever had come before. Interestingly enough in the beginning, several found the piece so disjointed they were tempted to deem it ‘bad’ writing. But by the middle of the second page, everyone began to see that there was a method to Kolbert’s seeming madness. And at that point they had to revise their understanding of what the piece was ‘about,’ which they had to do yet again as they reached the final two paragraphs.

The participants left the workshop that day with a deeper understanding of both what, beyond obvious measures like lexiles, makes a text complex and what readers need to do to navigate that complexity in a way that allows them to understand the ideas and the train of thought that holds the facts together. They also came away understanding that food has many implications, beyond health and nutrition. And when, after reading this text together, they explored ones that were at their students’ grade levels (some of which there are links for below), they were far more aware that there were ideas and opinions lurking in them. They saw more because they were looking for more—and they were eager to invite their students to look for more than text features and facts when they got back to their classrooms, as well.

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.

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 2)

Last week I shared a story from my own reading life to explore ways of helping students negotiate texts with challenging vocabulary without automatically pre-teaching a long list of words in order to ensure that students don’t become overly dependent on us or think that meaning hinges on knowing every single word. There are, of course, times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. What’s important, though, is finding the right balance between teaching students vocabulary and giving them time to build their reading muscle, which is what a group of high school teachers I worked with recently tried to do as part of a workshop on incorporating more complex texts in the content areas.

To get a feel for the kinds of complex texts the Common Core Standards are asking us to integrate into our curricula, I turned once again to the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B. As I said in a previous post, I don’t think we have any obligation to use those particular texts (and I can’t imagine ever having a whole class of New York City 8th graders read Little Women as the Appendix suggests). But we do need to be aware of how they differ from the texts we typically expose students to in order to make sure that we’re providing students with a rich and diverse reading diet.

When it comes to nonfiction, one thing seems clear: The exemplars tend to present information in far more varied and indirect ways than many a classroom’s standard fare. They mix-up modes, moving back and forth between narrative, exposition, description and persuasion, and they use the kind of literary techniques and devices more often associated with fiction and even poetry. In addition—or perhaps because—of all that, many of the texts defy the strategies we frequently offer students, such as scanning and skimming, identifying keywords, using text features to predict the content and, when it comes to vocabulary, thinking about prefixes, suffixes and roots and looking for context clues. This was certainly true of the text I decided to use for the workshop, “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder’” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was first published in the journal Natural History and subsequently included in both The Best American Science Writing 2004 and the CCS Grade 11-12 list of  Informational Texts for Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. As you’ll see below, it begins with a song, speaks directly to the reader and is chock full of metaphors, allusions and challenging vocabulary.

After reading and discussing it first as readers to share what we made of it and how, we moved into teacher mode and began to talk about instruction by first thinking about which words we’d want to pre-teach and why. Here’s the beginning, which I invite you to read considering the same question:

Initially teachers came up with a long list of words—phobes, cosmology, “negative gravity”, exponentially, theorist, model, “thought experiment” and tantamount—which they said they’d need to pre-teach because the students wouldn’t already know them. Then I asked them to try to sort the words by considering the following three questions:

1. Which words might not be critical to a first draft understanding?

2. Which words might they want to have students hold on to and wrestle with as part of the meaning making process (paying particular attention to those that we, as readers, had to grapple with ourselves)

3. Which would be truly necessary or serve a larger academic purpose?

With those questions in mind, we whittled the list down to two: cosmology, because of its importance in the disciplineand phobes so that English Language Learners wouldn’t feel adrift right at the start. Exponentially and tantamount weren’t really necessary for a first draft understanding, they decided, though they were good words (or in the lingo of vocabulary instruction, “Tier Two” words) to return to later on, using some of the strategies offered by educators like Isabel Beck, Janet Allen, and Robert Marzano.

Negative gravity”, theorist, model, and “thought experiment,” on the other hand, were all words or phrases that the non-science teachers among us (including me) had to really think about. How, we wondered, did a theorist differ from an experimenter and how did that affect the scientific method? What did a ‘model’ in this context look like? And if “negative gravity” was the “mysterious and universal pressure that pervades all space,” where did it come from? How did it operate? And what did it have to do with Einstein?

These were also all words that seemed to lie at the heart of Tyson’s exploration and view of both Einstein and cosmology in general, and in each case we were able to construct those words’ meaning by connecting them to other details in the text. You could say that we used context clues, as we did with “negative gravity” above, but we did so on a grander scale than we usually teach students to do. That is, we didn’t just look at the sentence before or after the unknown words; instead we kept revising, refining and deepening our understanding of those terms as we continued reading, with some of us—i.e., me—not really ‘getting’ all the physics until much later on.

Thinking about those words across the whole text—and acknowledging our uncertainty about them—allowed us, as readers, to dig deeper into the piece. And we thought that if we let students wrestle with them, too, rather than just handing them over, they’d come away with both a deeper understanding of the content and a stronger sense of agency as readers. Plus they’d pick up some vocabulary words that they were likely to retain because they’d discovered their meaning.

A different group of teachers might have made different choices because, in the end, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about knowing your texts and your students, considering your purpose and embracing productive struggle—and finding that balance between teaching words and meaning making, knowing the two aren’t  the same.