The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.

14CowsforAmerica_1

In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.

14CowsforAmerica_2

As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?

Hmmm.2

Jumping into the Fray: Some Thoughts on the Common Core Standards

The first chapter of Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman‘s Pathways to the Common Core suggests that educators tend to view the Standards in one of two opposing ways: They either see them negatively, taking the stance of what the Pathways authors dub a curmudgeon, or they embrace the Standards positively as if, as they put it, they’re “gold.”

The authors thoroughly map out the reasons behind each side’s point of view, with ample evidence provided for both. Then they take the high-road and offer readers pro-active ways of working within the Common Core’s framework regardless of their take. But reading that chapter the other week, I found myself wondering which one I was, a curmudgeon or a happy camper who saw the Standards as gold.

Certainly there are many things I like about the Common Core. There’s a kind of elegance in its design and the way it builds and develops key skills as students move and spiral up the grades. And as readers of this blog might already suspect, I like the way the Publishers Criteria pulls back from some common classroom practices, such as automatically pre-teaching background knowledge and engaging in generic strategy instruction, in favor of close, attentive reading.

But here’s where my inner curmudgeon kicks in—though I think what prompts her to make an appearance is less about grumpiness than fear. I do see the Common Core as a positive corrective to instruction that has been focused on strategies that too often have been severed from the strategic end of meaning and that pull readers away, not deeper into, texts. But I worry that the Common Core shifts too far the other way, by virtually ignoring what the reader brings and, as seems evident from the Curriculum Exemplars which can now be found online, suggesting that a definitive ‘correct’ interpretation of a text can be arrived at through objective—and exhaustive—analysis.

As Pathways explains, this view of reading is based on a particular literary theory called New Criticism. Developed in the 1930′s and mostly taught in upper-level college English classes, New Criticism is one of a group of critical approaches and theories that includes Gender Studies and Reader-Response Criticism, among others. Some of these schools of thought have filtered down to primary and secondary classrooms where students use critical lenses to consider what a text might have to say about issues of power, stereotypes and fairness. A watered-down version of Reader-Response Theory also can been seen in many rooms where students are asked to connect to texts at a personal level. My hunch is, in fact, that the Standards also stand as a corrective to this watered-down version of Readers-Response, which often fails to adhere to the close reading aspect of the theory. But again, I fear, it goes too far in the other direction.

I’ll save some of my specific reservations about the New Criticism-based approach for another post. But I will say here that in sanctioning one approach over all others, the authors of the Standards seem to be violating one of the characteristics of college and career ready students: “Students appreciate that the twenty-first century classrooms and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together.”

Additionally a close reading of the Common Core material by a reader who “works diligently to understand precisely what an author is saying but also questions an author’s assumptions and premises” (as college and career ready students also must do) might come to the same conclusions I have: that the authors of the Common Core value dispassion over passion, analyzing over creating, product over process, and reason and logic over qualities like intuition and imagination.

That’s not to say that reason and logic aren’t important, but as writer and educator Tom Romano reminds us:

No matter what professions students enter, facts and analysis are not enough. If our decisions are to be both sound and humane, we need to understand emotion and circumstance, as well as logic and outcome.

I believe that weighing the scales so heavily in favor of analysis and logic risks turning schools into places that may support the future lawyers in our midsts, as they move from writing opinions to legal briefs, but do little to nourish the budding artists, social activists, scientists and inventors that fill our classrooms—let alone the readers and writers.

In “The Text Itself,” Tom Newkirk, author of the glorious book The Art of Slow Reading, thinks that the model of reading promoted in the Publishers Criteria and now embodied in the Curriculum Exemplars “creates a sterile and, in my view, inhumanly fractured model of what goes on in deep reading.” For my own part, I find myself also wondering where the next generation of exemplar text writers will come from if we revere arguments over all other kinds of writing and offer analysis as the only way of engaging with texts. And I don’t see how that model builds the kind of life-long readers who, according to the National Endowment of the Arts’ study Reading at Risk, are much more likely than non-readers to participate in the sort of civic life needed for a democracy to thrive.

Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be periodically looking at some specific aspects of the Common Core along with the instructional model it’s spawned in the Curriculum Exemplars. And I’ll try to offer alternative ways of meeting the Standards through a humane version of close reading that honors different perspectives without taking on the narrow and reactionary spirit that seems to inform some of the Standards’ auxilliary documents.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth recalling what Pathways to the Common Core reminds usthat embedded in the Standards “is the right for the teachers across a school or district to make decisions” about implementation. And we might also do ourselves a service to remember these words of Albert Einstein:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Matching Practice to Purpose: To Read or Not To Read a Book’s Back Cover

Piggyback by Robert Duncan (used with permission of the artist)

Whether I’m in a bookstore or library or even online at amazon, I always read back cover blurbs when I’m in the market for a book. And I always encourage students to do so when they’re looking for a new read as well. But when I’m the one choosing a text for, say, a read aloud or a small group, I don’t automatically do it because I usually want students to construct their own understanding of the text, not piggyback on another reader’s interpretation. And I don’t want them to ever think that there’s a single ‘right’ take on a text that others have and they don’t.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at what happened in a second grade room I was in the other day as I helped a group of teachers launch an author study of Tomie dePaola. Given the number of English Language Learners in the school, I’d decided to kick-off the unit with the almost wordless picture book Andy, which I thought everyone could access. The book is about a young child who, while searching for playmates, encounters a group of older kids who have all the earmarks of bullies (or, as the students said, were ‘bad guys’). And I began, as I usually do by introducing a text-based Know/Wonder chart as a means of keeping track of what we were learning and what we were wondering about as we drafted and revised our understanding of the story as we read.

Then we looked at the cover, not to predict (which I also don’t typically do), but to begin the process of thinking about what we knew at the point and what we wondered—and a heated discussion immediately erupted.

“There’s a boy named Andy,” one student said, to which I asked my standard follow-up question aimed to shed light on student thinking: “What made you think that?”

“Because Andy’s a boy’s name,” he said, pointing to a boy named Andy beside him on the rug.

“But he’s wearing pink,” another student said, “and that makes me think it’s a girl.”

“And the shoes and that green thing. Those look like girl stuff,” another student added on.

“Or maybe it’s back in the old days,” said another, “and that’s what boys wore back then.”

They batted ideas back and forth and then we continued reading, with the question of whether Andy was a boy or girl remaining unanswered right to the end. Then I asked the students to turn and talk about what they thought Tomie dePaola might be trying to show us or get us thinking about through Andy’s story, and I hunkered down with a few students to hear what they had to say.

One pair talked movingly about how the story made them think how wrong it was to take someone else’s things, which the ‘bad guys’ had done, while another group thought that if that ever happens, you have to stand up and take your things back the way that Andy did. But while I was listening, one of the students borrowed the book and proceeded to read the back cover.

 “I knew it,” he said. “Andy’s a boy. And the book is about learning letters.”

It had never occurred to me or the teachers that Andy couldn’t read. Nor had any of us seen the book as either a phonics lesson or a story about winning. Yet many of the students were ready to chuck all the thinking they’d done out the window and adopt the blurb writer’s take—and all of the teachers were looking at me to see what I’d do next.

So I asked everyone to turn their eyes back to me, and I told them the truth: that the person who wrote the blurb was just one reader whose thinking was no better or right than theirs, so long as their ideas came from the details Tomie dePaola had provided, which they clearly had. “In fact,” I said, “the blurb writer missed something that we noticed, that Tomie dePaola never makes it clear whether Andy’s a boy or a girl, and maybe he did that for a reason. Maybe he made it confusing because he wanted us to consider something that we couldn’t if we knew for sure. So I want you to turn and talk one last time about why Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear whether Andy was a boy or a girl.”

Many of the students seemed puzzled—by my questions as much as by dePaola’s choice. But one girl raised her hand when we came back to share and directed the class to this page, at which point Andy has reclaimed the letters the big kids took and is heading home.

“Maybe,” she said, “Tomie dePaola wants us to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or a girl. You’re important no matter what.”

“Yeah,” said her partner. “And no one should ever take your things even if you’re little or a girl.”

I asked the class if they thought that was possible—that Tomie dePaola might have not made it clear just so we’d think something like that—and many students nodded their heads. Then I ended the session by applying that idea to what had just happened with the back cover, telling them that their own thoughts were just as important as the thoughts of the blurb writer, with the meaning they made no less correct because they were smaller or younger.

Experiences like this have made me believe that if you want your students to fully engage in the process of meaning making with a text that you’ve chosen, reading the back cover is counter-productive. It’s another way of front-loading information and providing a reader with access to the text without actually grappling with it.  And for many students, the back cover becomes a crutch that encourages passive reading, while reinforcing the dangerous idea that there’s a single ‘right’ way to see and interpret a book.

I want students to be confident readers, able to stand on their own two feet and construct their own understanding. Of course, once they’ve done that, I might invite them to hear other interpretations. But they need to know that their ideas are as valid as any other readers, provided they’re constructed from the bottom-up from the building blocks of the text’s details.

From No to Yes: Making Meaning with Read Alouds

Over the years my thinking about read alouds has evolved as I’ve tried to hone in on the essential experience of how readers make meaning as they read. And at some point along the way, my partner David, whose pictures frequently grace these posts, introduced me to the photographer Richard Avedon and his ‘Series of No’s’. In his attempt to make his work more authentic, simple and direct, Avedon said, “No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narratives.” All these no’s, he said, forced him to yes: to the subject on a plain white background and “the thing that happens between us.”

I loved the less-is-more sensibility in this. And using it as a kind of mentor text, I’ve developed my own series of no’s for read alouds, which I believe support getting to the essential yes of what can happen between a reader and the page:

To see this series of no’s in action, here’s a read aloud I did the other week in a first-third grade special-ed bridge class, using Jon Klassen‘s delightful new picture book I Want My Hat Back and the What We Know/What We Wonder chart that I use to support students’ meaning making from kindergarten right up through twelfth grade. (And spoiler alert: I share the end of the book.)

The teacher, Christine LaPlume, and I gathered the children on the rug, where instead of engaging in any pre-reading activities, such as picture walks or front cover predictions, I introduced the chart to the class and said that we’d be using it to do what readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we’re learning and wondering in order to think deeply about the story. Then I turned to the first page spread, which consisted of a picture of the bear on the cover and read the following two lines:

My hat is gone.

I want it back.

We tried out the chart with those first two sentences, with the students saying that they learned that there was a bear whose hat was missing and they wondered what happened to the hat. I continued reading then, with the students learning that neither a fox nor a snake had seen the hat. Then we came to this page spread and immediately several students called out, “The rabbit’s got the hat!”

After reading the page, however, there was some disagreement. Some of the children thought the hat was the bear’s because the one the rabbit had on was the same as the hat on the back cover. But another group took the rabbit at his word, not even reconsidering when a student named Alay said, “But you know the way the rabbit’s talking? It’s like the way you talk when you’ve done something you’re not supposed to. Like maybe he did steal the hat.”

And here was the tricky moment. Here was a student who’d picked up the clues the writer had deliberately left, and there were the students who were having none of it. In the past I might have leapt on Alay’s comment and helped everyone see what he saw. Or I might not have even left Alay’s insight up to chance and directed the students to the rabbit’s words with a loaded question prompt. But remembering my series of no’s—and trusting the process to weed out missteps by offering multiple on-ramps for meaning—I reframed some of the thinking as questions and added two wonderings to the chart: “Did the rabbit take the hat?” and “Could the rabbit be lying?”

Then we kept on going, keeping track of our learning, until finally a deer asks the bear what the hat looks like, and as the bear describes the hat, he suddenly remembers that he saw it somewhere and rushes back to find the rabbit.

At that point, even the most pro-rabbit readers agreed that the rabbit took the hat, though as we came to the next to last page, which showed the bear happily wearing the hat without any sign of the rabbit, a final burning question came up: What happened to the rabbit?

So I turned the page and read this exchange between the bear and a squirrel, after which all the students literally gasped. “The bear ate the rabbit!” they said virtually in unison. And when I asked them what made them think that, every single student pointed to the fact that the bear was talking just the way the rabbit had when he denied having seen the hat.

Christine and I both applauded the students for the amazing thinking work they’d done, and as we debriefed, she shared that she’d been struggling with teaching some of the very same strategies the students had actually used here. Questioning came up automatically here, as did predicting (though I deliberately reframed their predictions as questions to avoid the kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thinking predictions sometimes engender.) Most notably, they also inferred, with Alay additionally making a connection that enabled him to consider that the rabbit might be lying. And they did so as a natural outgrowth of readers trying to make meaning of a text, not through a typical strategy lesson.

Of course, many of the students will need more specific instruction and time to practice the kind of work Alay did, which laid the groundwork for the students’ insight at the end. The whole class might benefit, for instance, by returning to this text to become more aware of the clues the author planted (not all of which they caught this first time). And they could use additional practice in thinking specifically about the possible subtext in a character’s dialogue, using books like Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann or any number of books from the wonderful Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. These could be done in a subsequent read aloud or in a more targeted small group. But either way, I’d begin by reminding them of what they were able to see and understand in I Want My Hat Back.

And that reminds me of another no: No to the deficit model of learning—and yes to building on strengths.

Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.

Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”

There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.

Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.

To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.

Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.

We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.

Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games. 

Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.

In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940′s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.

In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.

That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.

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

Helping Students Practice Problem Solving in ‘Stepped-Up’ Small Groups

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

As I explored in last week’s post on rethinking ‘just right’ books, there are many more problems a reader needs to solve for a text to ‘make sense’ than the meaning or decoding of individual words—especially as texts become more complex. Readers often have to figure out basic information, like who’s who and what’s going on, just to have a foothold on a story. And while some readers do this automatically, picking up details and using them to infer what the writer is saying indirectly, many students don’t, which leaves them at risk for getting lost and being unable to access rich, more complex texts.

To help students practice this kind of problem solving in a way that encourages them to read more closely and builds their ability as readers, I’ve had to do some problem solving myself. Along with my What Readers Really Do co-author Dorothy Barnhouse, I’ve thought about how to adapt the structures of guided reading to offer small group instruction that more directly engages students in the problem-solving process of meaning making.

Like typical guided reading, the approach I’ve developed is aimed at a small group of students that present similar needs, who I gather together to read an excerpt from a text that’s been carefully chosen not just by its level but by the particular demands it puts on a reader. I don’t, however, automatically engage in pre-reading activities—that is, no picture walks or front-loading of information or predicting based on the cover as a simple matter of course. Nor do I ask students to practice the usual round-up of comprehension strategies, such as connecting or visualizing (though these sometimes crop up).

Instead I design lessons that encourage students to attend to the details of a text in order to solve one or more of the problems the text presents. And to help students get a feel for that kind of thinking, I sometimes begin with a text below their reading level then ‘step up’ to one that’s more complex.

Dorothy and I unpack a classroom example of this kind of ‘stepped-up’ approach at the end of Chapter 3, which is currently available online at Heinemann. But to illustrate what this could look like here, let’s look at how I might help a small group of level P and Q students solve one particular problem readers encounter as texts get more complex: figuring out who a first-person narrator is and what kind of situation they’re in.

I’d introduce the lesson by letting the students know that when they read a book with a first-person narrator, one of their very first jobs as readers is to think about who the narrator is and what seems to be happening to them. Sometimes, I’d explain, it’s really obvious because the writer comes right out and tells us, like the way the Geronimo Stilton books always say, “I, Geronimo Stilton, . . . .” or the Amber Brown books say, “I, Amber Brown, . . . .” But other times it’s not so clear because, instead of saying things directly, the writer leaves us little clues that we have to piece together to figure this out. Then we’d look at the first page of a text below the student’s independent reading level, like Leftover Lily, a level M book by Sally Warner, where basic information is conveyed in indirect ways:

Even students who’ve been assessed at higher reading levels aren’t always able to figure out that the I’ is Lily without slowing down and really thinking about it. Some students, for example, initially think that Daisy is the narrator because she uses the word I; while some think there are four people in the scene, Daisy, Lily, LaVon and a still-as-yet-to-be-named ‘I’.

I’d let the students bat ideas back and forth, reminding myself of the critical need to keep my own mouth shut and jumping in only to ask them what made them think what they did. This process would ultimately allow students to figure out that the I’ is Lily and that she’s being excluded from what had been a threesome by Daisy, who doesn’t seem to be very nice, despite the smile and perfect hair. And it would allow me to make the thinking the students did visible by naming and charting their moves:

  • You thought about who was talking to whom in the dialogue
  • You thought about who was feeling what
  • You thought about who the pronouns referred to (I, we my, us, her, she)
  • You thought about the title of the book
  • You looked at the front cover for clues
  • You thought about the characters’ relationship to each other
  • You questioned each others’ thinking
  • You tested your ideas out until you found one that made sense to everyone
  • You realized that the narrator’s name was tucked into a line of dialogue

I’d then ‘step up’ the group to a text at their level that presents the same kind of problem-solving challenges as Leftover Lily did, such as Just Juice by Karen Hesse. Here’s the first three paragraphs of the book, which you’ll see requires readers to infer both who’s telling the story and what’s going on in order for it to ‘make sense’:

This text has the added challenges of unfamiliar vocabulary (truant officer) and dialect (the word “mought”), along with the fact that Juice isn’t always recognizable immediately as a name. But here again, rather than front-load this, I’d let the students wrestle with the text, stepping in only to remind them of what they did in the previous excerpt that helped them solve the same kind of problems that they’re facing now.

Once again, this process allows most students to figure out that Juice is the narrator and that she’s hiding from someone called a truant officer, who’s job it is to make sure kids get to school, which Juice doesn’t want to do for reasons still unknown. Depending on how much time that took, I’d ‘step up’ the students that same day or the next to a text above their level that posed similar problems, such as Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, which starts out like this:

This texts involves yet more challenges, among them the fact that the narrator’s name doesn’t appear until the second page and then is tucked into a line of remembered dialogue. Many students will also need to keep reading to be certain of what’s alluded to here: that no one is singing anymore because Anna and Caleb’s mother is gone. But feeling more accomplished now, they’d enter the text as problem-solving readers, on the look-out for clues that might help them figure out who’s who and what’s going on. And they’d use the same strategies that had allowed them to be successful before. For that’s what the bullet points listed above are: They are text-based strategies whose application leads to meaning more directly than typical strategies do because they keep students in the text in the active role of problem solvers.

And that’s where we want them to be.