Over the River & Through the Woods: Good Tidings (and an Invite) for the Holidays

Currier_and_Ives_Otto_Knirsch_The_Road_Winter

I decided to celebrate the holidays this year by writing a post that was inspired by two seemingly random but serendipitous events. The first was my experience at NCTE where it was so invigorating to hear educators share so many innovative and meaningful ways for students to not only embrace reading and reading but to truly own their learning. And several of the ones I found most compelling all connected literacy to the visual arts.

Should Would Could DidGiven the responses to the two posts I wrote and the links to others that can be found at the #NCTE13 Roundup on Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn’s blog “A Year of Reading,” I think many people felt the same. And that experience was still vividly in my mind as, shortly after Thanksgiving, I started noticing tweets from a group of great educators loosely connected through the Nerdy Book Club, twitter and the blogosphere. Using the hashtag #nerdlution, each person committed to doing something they’d wanted to do for a while for the next fifty days, out of the belief that making a pledge with others would keep them on track. Many choose to write every day, while others vowed to exercise more. And reading the tweets, I found myself intrigued—and simultaneously terrified—at the idea of adding one more thing to my already busy life.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure that I needed to write any more than I’m currently doing, and while I could always exercise more, I’m pretty good at getting on a bike (outside as long as it’s at least 50 and inside, watching old Project Runways from a stationary bike, when it’s colder). But it occurred to me that there was something I’d been wanting to add to my life for a while but couldn’t ever seem to find the time for: drawing.

Of course, the prospect of trying to find time to draw each day for fifty days seemed to much. But with all the inspiring visual work I saw at NCTE—and all the inspiring #nerdlution tweets from people doing what they thought they couldn’t do—I decided to give myself a You're-Invited-3challenge. I would try to follow the instructions that Linda Rief gave her students for the magnificent heart book project she shared at NCTE: to find a poem that resonated for me and write it out in my own hand, then illustrate it and do a little research to find out what the poet has to say about reading or writing. And I’d like to challenge (or more politely invite) anyone out there who’s been feeling an urge to reconnect with poetry, do something creative, or learn by doing an assignment you’re considering for your own students to share a poem that speaks to your heart, following Linda’s steps. If you have a blog, you can post it there with a link back here. And if you’re blog-less, you can attach the poem, an illustration and any wise words you find from the poet in an email and send it to me at vvinton@nyc.rr.com, and I’ll share it here. And, who knows, maybe we’ll even start a new holiday tradition—and give birth to a hashtag (#heartpoems anyone?)!

In the meantime, though, enjoy the holidays, both the known and the unknown, the clarity and the confusion. And follow these words of Wendell Berry, the poet I did my research on, which seem particularly apt for the season:

“Be joyful because it is humanly possible.”

The Real Work2

Heart Collage 2

© Vicki Vinton 2013 “The Real Work” Heart Collage, http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

See you next year when the journey of the real work carries on!

Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from http://www.toothpastefordinner.com

‘Tis the Season

 Earlier this month I received what seemed like a gift from a Secret Santa. Somehow, some way, through facebook posts and tweets, my post, “What Messages Are We Sending Students About Reading,” went viral, bringing over 1,000 readers to this blog in less than three full days.

Clearly it struck a chord in readers who treasure books and want to give children authentic and meaningful experiences as readers. And it struck a chord in those of us who sometimes fear that in our data-obsessed and -driven age, where logic and analysis seem to be valued over wonder and imagination, we risk losing what we most cherish.

I was both humbled and heartened to know how many of us are out there. And so in the spirit of gift-giving, I’d like to give something back to all of you who hold on to the dream of not only helping the students we work with be college- and career-ready, but become passionate readers and writers. Here are three texts that speak to those higher purposes and callings by three wise writers whose words seem more precious to me than frankincense, gold and myrrh. In each case I share an excerpt and a link, which will take you to the full piece where you may also want to poke around for more inspiration and solace.

The first piece is called “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” by the great children’s and young adult book author Julius Lester. In this essay, he looks at the origins of the words book, read, and knowledge, and he makes a powerful, persuasive case for letting children choose what to read without interference or judgment, while exploring what the written word gives us:

Books invite us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Books are the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through words, I create the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought. When we can imagine the hurt and anger of another person, we have an understanding in the heart. When we understand in the heart, each of us is less alone.

The second is the preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel, one of the key developers of the 6-Trait model for writing instruction and assessment. Here she looks squarely at what assessments can and cannot give us, while urging us, as teachers, to hold on to and embrace what is most meaningful and significant about writing, not just what can be easily measured:

In this book, I touch on what I believe to be the most worthwhile goals of writing: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward, to be whole comfortable with the act and process of writing. These are all hard things to measure. Moreover, they take time. Significant time. Heavy emphasis on assessment can rob us of that precious time. It can also make us afraid.

The third is a poem called “Revolution for the Tested” by former teacher and award-winning author Kate Messner, which has been making its way around my corner of the cybersphere. It’s an impassioned call-to-arms for both students and teachers to resist the forces of standardization that threaten to rob us of the vital lifeblood of real reading and writing that I’ve been carrying with me every day I walk into a school. Here are two sample stanzas:

Read.

But don’t read what they tell you to.

Don’t read excerpts, half-poems,

Carefully selected for lexile content,

Or articles written for the sole purpose

Of testing your comprehension . . . .

Read for the world.

Read to solve its problems.

Read to separate reality from ranting

Possibility from false promise,

And leaders from snake oil peddlers.

Read so you can tell the difference,

Because an educated person is so much harder

To enslave.

Finally, whether you’re lighting candles on a menorah, reconnecting with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, trading presents beside a tree, or just curling up with a good book, I wish you well this holiday season and hope that these offerings fill your heart and spirit with good tidings of comfort and joy.

Till next year . . . .

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

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

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

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

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

Shoptalk for Readers

Among the many books on the shelves behind my desk is a worn copy of Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by the master writing teacher Donald Murray. The book is a collection of quotes by writers that describe their habits and process, organized in chapters with wonderful titles like “Being Found by a Subject,” “Riding the Flow” and “Planning for Surprise.”

I discovered the book many years ago when I was working for the Teachers College Writing Project, and like other books by Donald Murray, Shoptalk became a kind of gospel, offering guidance, inspiration and a vision to those of us who wanted to ground our writing instruction in the work that real writers do. I’d bring in quotes to teachers I worked with, and together we’d create charts and mini-lessons, sharing, for example, Mark Twain’s injunction, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream,” for a lesson on show, don’t tell, and using Edward Albee’s assertion that “I write to find out what I’m thinking about,” as an invitation to students to use writing to explore, not just record, what’s on their mind. Then we’d return to those quotes when it came time to share, asking who in the room had used Mark Twain’s advice or who had discovered something new by exploring their experience and perceptions.

I loved Shoptalk for the way that even the chapter titles brought depth and life and soul to the words typically found on classroom charts outlining the steps in the writing process. And when my work began to encompass reading, too, I longed for words that would give soul and meaning to the often simplistic and reductive language I found in the charts that were everywhere in classrooms, listing comprehension strategies, the habits of good readers and the author’s purpose.

And so I turned to writers and began collecting quotes that seemed to more vividly capture the purpose and the craft of reading. Many found their way into What Readers Really Do, and some I’ve brought into classrooms. But here’s one that I recently discovered. It’s from a poem by the amazing poet Marie Howe that explores both the challenges and consolations of reading novels. I’m sharing part of it here, but if you click on the poem, it will open up in a new tab where you can read the poem as published in Boston Review in its entirety.

                                How much richer might our students’ notions of reading be if we shared this kind of shoptalk with them and learned to read from writers? For here’s the question: What is Marie Howe’s purpose?

A. To persuade

B. To inform

C. To entertain

D. All of the above

E. None of the above

The answer seems not quite as easy as pie. Nor should it be, I think, if we want our students to read thoughtfully and deeply, not just match a text up with a word.

So What’s with the Prairie?

I love a good title. To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And so when I first thought of writing a blog, I thought about what I might call it.

At first I considered just using my name, which might make it easy to find. But blogging risked being self-centered enough without naming the blog after me. Then I entertained a riff on the old 3 R’s−reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic−with reflection replacing the ‘rithmetic as the third R in my teaching trinity. But that sounded clunky and too literal and also problematic as I remembered a few lines from an old song my grandmother used to sing: Readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetic/Taught to the tune of a hickory stick.

I didn’t want allusions to corporal punishment cropping up in anyone’s mind. So that one was out as well. But the process of vetting titles made had yielded something. It made me realize that what I really wanted was more in keeping with the titles I loved−something that was poetic and quirky, and even a bit enigmatic.

Of course, I had no idea what that was. But that’s when fate stepped in−fate in the form of a link on the online front page of The New York Times.

I hit the link and found myself transported to one of the newpaper’s blogs where I found a posting called “On Reverie” by a writer named Raphaël Enthoven. It was a dense and weighty piece, but there were phrases and sentences that took my breath away. Reverie, Enthoven writers, “is thought turned loose.” It’s “a search that begins by giving up and lets itself be dazzled . . . .” “It’s a transition, a passage where the heart, confounded, converts habit into astonishment.”

Reading those words turned my own thoughts loose, and I found myself recalling a poem I’d once read−something about clover and a bee and that word again, reverie. I wouldn’t quite call this a text-to-text connection; it was more like the kind of free association a mind makes when it has time to wander. But now that it had popped into my head I was curious. So I ran a search on google and, voilà, there it was: “To Make a Prairie” by Emily Dickinson, which now appears in the sidebar.

It’s one of those poems you don’t want to over analyze. You just want to let it dazzle you. And feeling dazzled, I also felt astonished. Here, it occurred to me, was my blog’s title: a phrase that was poetic, quirky and enigmatic, just like the titles I loved, and that seemed to speak to what we can make as writers and readers and thinkers when we surrender ourselves to what we notice−on the page, in the world, in our minds−and let that lead us somewhere unexpected, to a place both surprising and right.

And that felt like a good place to start.