What We Can Learn from Our Math Colleagues: A Look at Rich Tasks

This year I’ve had the privilege of doing some work for an amazing organization called Metamorphosis. Founded by the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, Metamorphosis offers content-focused coaching to math—and more recently ELA and science—teachers through an outstanding corps of consultants. And it also operates as a kind of think tank that explores best practices in teaching and coaching, which is where I first heard of rich tasks.

At the first consultants’ meeting I attended, a visiting mathematician Betina Zolkower asked us to form groups to try to solve one of several problems she presented, all of which were examples of rich tasks. Not feeling particularly confident about my math skills (i.e., being terrified), I chose one that seemed relatively easy: to figure out the number of ways you could spell MATH from the following graphic configuration:

MATH Graphic

Different group members approached the problem differently. For me, after staring at it for a while, I took the simple route. I used colored markers to trace the different ways, discovering that there were more ways than I’d initially thought (which is a testament, I think, to what happens when you muck around instead of ponder from afar). And then I doubled the numbers of times each way showed up to account for the bottom.

MATH with Markers2

This method worked but I was aware that there might be a more mathematical way of approaching it, which wound up being needed when Betina upped the ante by asking, “What if the word were OCTOPUS instead of MATH?” Immediately I realized the limits of my method, envisioning a tangle of colored markers too confusing to count. But fortunately one of my group members shared what she’d done. She showed me how each letter (except for the H) could form the word by going two ways, which she was able to express mathematically as 2 to the 3rd power. My conceptual understanding of that still needed a lot of work, but I cannot tell you how excited I was when I realized I could apply what she’d done to the word OCTOPUS without making a magic marker mess. And for one wonderfully energizing moment, I felt smart in math.

MATH with Markers3

If I asked you to think about what a rich task was based on this example, my hunch is that you’d come up with some of the same descriptors found in these links to Metamorphosis and an educational blogger in Victoria, Australia—or in my words here:

  • RICH TASKS are open-ended problems or projects that offer students multiple points of entry and multiple ways of solving, from simple to complex (e.g., my route versus my group-mate’s, which means they offer built-in differentiation).
  • RICH TASKS invite creative and critical thinking as well as reasoning and meta-cognition as students explore the problem and explain how they worked through it to each other.
  • RICH TASKS throw the spotlight on both process and product in a way that helps students better see the connection between means and ends.
  • RICH TASKS promote student ownership, self-direction and engagement while maintaining academic rigor (or as several students I’ve worked with have said, “That was hard but fun!”).

What’s interesting, though, was that when I googled ‘rich task’, all I came up were math sites. And adding the word literacy didn’t really help. There were plenty of links about rich tasks for mathematical or media literacy, and lots that looked at “literacy-rich environments.” But the only one I found that specifically discussed rich tasks in ELA equated them with the kind of performance-based tasks designed by PARCC and Achieve the Core, which are anything but open-ended. In fact, those tasks do exactly what my new friend in Victoria, Australia, says rich tasks do not: They put students in the position of “simply trying to crack the code to predict an answer/solution that has been predetermined as correct by the teacher.”

AfterSo what would a truly rich task in literacy look like? For me, it seems to be a new way of talking about the kind of problem solving I often ask kids to do, which, in one way or another, involves thinking about what an author might be trying to show us or asking us to consider in a scene, a passage, a line, a whole text. Depending on the text, this might also be framed in a slightly more specific way, as I’ve been doing with one of my favorite finds of the year, Gregory Maguire‘s short story “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by haplessjoey@homeskool.guv” from the anthology After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and DystopiaWhether with a 10th grade class that was reading dystopian novels or the participants at one of my sessions for the Literacy Promise Conference, I’ve asked everyone to read the first page and consider the following question: What do you think is happening and why?

HowTh'IrthWintRong1

Considering that question requires all kinds of problem solving: What does the title mean? Why all the misspellings? Who’s Big Ant and Hapless Joey? And where and when is this taking place? Like my math group, different people—whether they were 10th graders or conference attendees—took different paths to come up with different possible answers. I, for instance, along with the 10th graders, didn’t figure out the word Th’Irth until the second page, while some of the teachers in Salt Lake figured it out more quickly. Everyone agreed that the time wasn’t now, some from the detail about the old-timey pen and others from the next page, where Big Ant called homeskool.guv “Brite-time writing. From back in the days of internet and puters.”

As for what happened, many wondered at this point whether there had been some catastrophe (like an atomic war, which, as one of the Conference attendees said, might account for Hapless Joey’s “hairliss skalp”) and/or whether our dependence on technology had come to the point where people no longer knew how to spell. But no matter how readers interpreted this text, everyone was engaged. And just as I felt with the math problem, everyone had a moment when they felt really smart.

I’ll try to share more ideas for creating rich tasks (or enriching tasks you have) later on. But given all these benefits—and the fact that those 10th graders were actually enjoying reading closely—I don’t fully understand why the idea of rich tasks hasn’t had as much traction in literacy as in math. My hunch is that it has to do with narrow interpretations of the Standards and our obsession with outcomes and products—plus the fact that it’s hard to package such open-ended curriculum. But if ELA students can meet the Standards through rich tasks as well as more teacher-directed methods, why wouldn’t we want them to experience the thrill of independently figuring things out?

Thinking_Is_Fun_small_4552

Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray

Study DrivenMost writers I know have moments of envy when they wish with every fiber in their being that they, themselves, had written a line that another writer did. Katie Wood Ray‘s line, “Before revision, vision,” from her marvelous book Study Drivenis one of those lines for me. I love it for its succinctness and simplicity and, of course, for the emphasis on vision, which the line reminds us we should keep in our heads whenever we attempt to revise anything, just as it’s kept, like a Russian nesting doll, within the word revision.

In this case, Katie was talking about helping students develop a vision of what they’re hoping to write, just as real writers do. In fact, Study Driven wound up on my desk because, in wrestling with how to structure what I’m currently working on, I was poring over professional books and found myself inspired by the way that Study Driven was divided into three main sections, one that explored and unpacked understandings, one that looked at practice, and a third the offered resources so that teachers could put those understandings into practice. But as I flipped through the pages, I noticed something else. As has happened before when I revisited the work of Don Murray or Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, I found myself reading a book on writing that seemed to have all sorts of implications for the teaching of reading as well, starting with that line, “Before revision, vision.”

I believe that readers need a vision as well, whether they’re students or teachers: a vision of what it looks, sounds and feels like to enter a text knowing virtually nothing and end it Visionwith a deep of understanding of what they think the author is exploring. And they need a vision of how readers do that by noticing and connecting details that develop and change across the text. The question is when and how to provide that—and Study Driven had ideas about that, too.

In writing, students develop a big picture vision during a period of immersion, a time when students read and get a feel for the kind of writing they’ll be doing. That immersion period is also the first part of what Katie calls a whole-part-whole framework for instruction: Students get a feel for the whole first, then they closely study and practice the parts (leads, transitions, dialogue, etc., depending on what they’re writing) in order to eventually create a whole themselves.

That whole-part-whole framework stands in contrast, she thinks, to how we tend to teach writing, which, as she explains below, frequently involves teaching the parts:

“I believe part-to-whole is still the most prevalent curriculum orientation in the teaching of writing, and my theory about why is because with this orientation, curriculum feels more manageable . . . . Having parts to teach makes us feel safe because, quite simply, it makes us feel like we have something to teach.

But, she warns, that kind of teaching risks leaving students “with a part-to-whole understanding of writing that I fear never adds up.” On the other hand, she says,

“if teaching begins with the wholeness of vision, the parts won’t go away . . . [but they’ll] mean much more to the students because they know where they came from, they know what they are parts of.

When it comes to reading, I think we also tend to teach parts, with lessons framed around specific skills, strategies and, increasingly, individual standards. And like the risk Katie cites in writing, this teaching of parts often never adds up, as attested to by the number of teachers who confess to wanting to pull out their hair because their students can’t seem to infer despite repeated lessons.

So what would an immersion period, in which students develop a vision of the whole, look like in reading? For me, it’s exactly the kind of read aloud experience (or shared reading hybrid) that I shared in my “From Demonstration to Orchestration” post. There students were getting a feel for how readers make meaning from a text, using the meaning making process that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Do. And in addition to practicing the first main teaching point—how readers begin a text by keeping track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about—the students also uncovered other things that readers do, such as stay alert for small, subtle clues that can signal a flashback as well as a return to the present narrative moment.

In this way, students are doing precisely what Katie describes as the purpose of immersion: “They are making notes of the things they notice” with a focus on the process, which in reading is how readers read closely to construct an understanding. And through that process, students, themselves, also “develop curriculum,” such as how readers recognize and navigate flashbacks.

The-part-can-never-beAfter the immersion period, where students are in engaged in the whole work of reading, they hunker down for what Katie calls “Close Study”. This involves the class revisiting texts to investigate the parts. And here there are parallels, too. In reading, this revisiting could take several forms: Students might return to a passage in the immersion text that puzzled them for a second look; they could gather up specific lines connected to a pattern they’d noticed, as the third grade Winn-Dixie readers from last week’s post did, to see what else they might reveal; or after finishing the immersion text, they could return to the beginning to better ‘see’ how the writer planted details and clues that would be developed throughout the text, as another group of third graders I wrote about earlier did with The Blue Ghost

That close study time could also take the shape of the kind of small group work I’ve written about, where students have time to practice—or study—excerpts of other text whose parts operate in a similar way. The students in the “Orchestration” post who were confused by the shifts in time in The Name Jar, for instance, might look at Cynthia Rylant’s story “A Bad Road for Cats,” from Every Living Thing, which contains a flashback that rejoins the present moment through subtle textual clues, in order to be more aware of the way writers signal those shifts.

Finally, in Katie’s whole-part-whole writing framework, students are “Writing Under the Influence” of the study, where they apply all they have learned through both the immersion and close study time to their own piece of writing. And this seems exactly what we want the readers in our classrooms to do: to apply all that they’ve learned about how readers read closely to construct meaning to their own independent reading books.

Of course to do this, we, as teachers, need a vision as well. So here’s hoping that this helps both you and your students develop an inner vision of the whole complex work of reading that you can tuck inside your minds like that little wooden doll.

Matrioska Russian Doll

Seeing with New Eyes: First Impressions of Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia © 2012 D.A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

A few days before David and I left for Italy, he sent me a quote he’d stumbled on from the writer Marcel Proust: “The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Of course, having a new landscape doesn’t hurt—especially one as stunning as Italy—nor does having time freed from the usual constraints of work and other obligations. It also doesn’t hurt to be surrounded by colleagues who came to Reggio Emilia, as I did, to look and listen and learn, and who, through untold conversations and encounters, helped my eyes to see as I embarked on an amazing voyage of discovery.

I’m still processing much that I saw on this, my first week back (having been stranded in London for a week because of the hurricane that devastated parts of my beloved city), but I’d like to share here a few ideas that grew out of what my new eyes saw. Again and again in presentations and school visits, I saw children rapt and deeply involved in whatever it was they were doing. In one classroom, for instance, I watched a young child study a pomegranate her teacher had arranged on a few leaves of lettuce in order to paint it in watercolors. The concentration she displayed was more sustained and focused than what I often see in classrooms, as was the passion and energy another group of children brought to a rousing discussion of negative numbers (in which one student, trying to articulate the relationship between positive and negative numbers, described zero as “il cancello dei numeri,” or the gate of numbers).

Watching those students talk and work, several of us found ourselves thinking about how different that sustained concentration was to the way we tend to talk about stamina and the need for children to build it. We talk as we’re preparing students for an endurance test, something that’s arduous and beyond their ability without weeks and weeks of training. The students in Reggio, however, hadn’t ‘built up stamina'; they were simply deeply engaged with what they were doing. And they were engaged not because the teacher had hooked them with something fun or diverting or offered them a reward, but because they were eager to wrap their minds around whatever problem the teacher had invited them to consider through either the arrangement of materials (in the case of the girl with the pomegranate) or an intriguing, provocative question (in the case of the negative number group).

I’ll share more about what teachers do to promote that deep concentration and thinking in a later post, but here’s something else many of us noticed. There were none of the kinds of charts we tend to see in U.S. classrooms—no list of the behaviors or strategies of good readers or reminders of how to choose a just right book. Instead the rooms were filled with what in Reggio they call documentation: photographs of the children at work alongside transcripts of their thoughts and discussions, some compiled and created by the teachers and some by the students themselves.

Noticing this, we found ourselves thinking about the intentions and purposes of each. Here, at home, for instance, we make charts for a variety of reasons: to create a print-rich environment, help students ‘hold on’ to their learning, and demonstrate to the powers that be what’s going on in our rooms. The charts in Reggio, however, seemed to have different functions. They captured the work the students were doing; celebrated and honored the process, not the outcomes; acted as formative assessments that helped the teachers determine their next steps; and helped students reflect on what they could do, not on what they should do or know.

Once again, my new eyes prompted me to question practices I took for granted—and not just about the dubious idea of putting up charts to impress evaluators. I thought of all those times I’ve seen students answer questions by spouting off the words on a chart without really understanding them. Those students can seemingly talk the talk, but not walk the walk. And this, in turn, begged another question: Have students really learned something if their hold on it is so tenuous that they need constant reminders? And if, as I suspect, the answer is no, won’t they learn better by having additional opportunities to discover and experience what those charts say readers do instead of relying on written reminders whose meaning they haven’t yet felt?

The practices that support Reggio children to deeply engage and understand are directly related to the school community’s belief that children are born with an innate curiosity and desire to understand the world around them and are capable of figuring things out as they try to make sense of their experience. These beliefs and the practices they spawned developed out of years of public discussion—of the sort we rarely have here—between educators, families and city officials. But if we look at many of our practices, such as the ones noted above, they seem to reflect almost the opposite belief: that children are passive and not terribly capable of figuring things out for themselves without us pushing and prodding and holding them accountable—which my new eyes suddenly saw in a more negative light, as yet another measure we put in place because we don’t really trust that learning will happen in any other way.

At some point during the week, our Italian colleagues shared this quote by the great developmental psychologist Piaget who said, “What we see changes what we know. What we know changes what we see.” I felt the truth of that in Reggio, as did my other travelers, and many of us have pledged ourselves to write about our experience in order to open up those larger conversations about what truly constitutes knowledge and how children best learn. I hope that blog readers will join that conversation because the more voices and eyes we have, the more we can see and come to know. In the meantime, I return to work curious to see how what I now know changes what I now see.

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

Some Questions about Text Dependent Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Counting Syllables: Thinking Through Haiku

The title for this week’s post is inspired by another of my favorite professional books, Thinking Through Genre by Heather Lattimer. In addition to providing readers with several genre-based units of study, such as memoir and feature articles, Lattimer offers a template and process for designing genre units in general, with goals and instructional focuses set for both reading and writing.

The process she maps out begins with the teacher immersing him or herself in the genre to be studied in order to consider to two critical questions: What do you want students to learn, understand and be able to do as a result of the study? and What about this genre is worthy of an ‘enduring understanding’—that is, why should we spend time reading and writing it?

To answer the second question, Lattimer looks at what specific genres do for us as readers and writers and how they affect us. Thinking through the genre of memoir, for instance, she writers:

“A good memoir will provide the reader with the opportunity to connect with the experience—to feel the emotions, empathize with the response, appreciate the learning that took place, and find community it what can be an isolating world. A great memoir will cause readers to reflect upon and better understanding their own lives and experience.”

And her immersion in feature articles leads her to this understanding:

“It should capture readers’ fascination and spark within them an intense desire to learn, not just about interesting people and place, but about ideas and perspectives.”

Thinking Through Genre doesn’t delve into poetry, let alone the sub-genre of haiku. But a few years ago I began using haiku in curriculum planning workshops to model Lattimer’s process in a way that I hoped would empower teachers to design genre units of their own. I begin, as Lattimer does, with immersion, sharing a handful of haiku, such as these which come from the journal “Modern Haiku“:

a jacket

on the playground fence

summer moon

Cor Van den Heuven

after the reindeer cookie

only a redhot

on her plate

Susan Delphine Delaney

stars at dawn:

the clatter of small change

on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson

I ask the workshop participants to read them, attending to both what they notice and how they’re affected as readers. And if you were like some of them, you may have found yourself counting the syllables and noticing that none of the above conformed to the usual 5-7-5 pattern. A bit of googling will reveal that the haiku formula we often teach in schools is an inaccurate translation of Japanese characters into western syllables. And while generally there are no more than 17 syllables in a haiku, neither the number of lines nor the syllables for each line are as rigid as we tend to teach them.

But then . . . if haiku is not a short poem composed of three lines that each have a specific number of syllables, what is it? What does it do for us as readers? How does it affect us? What makes it worthy of our consideration? What might we say is its essence?

When workshop participants go back to the poems without syllables on their minds, they begin to notice other things. Some notice that there seems to be a pattern, with one line establishing a season or time and the other two creating an image. Others say that each evokes a feeling in addition to an image; others notice that they’re composed primarily of concrete nouns. Still others think that each one captures a moment while also suggesting other moments or events, as if the captured moment contains not just the present but the past and future, too: We see the jacket on the playground fence, for instance, frozen in time like a photograph, but our minds also wander to what happened before that and what might happen afterwards, so that the present moment resonates with both the future and past.

Almost everyone, however, acknowledges that they’re not as simple as they first appear. You need to slow down and attend for a moment, so that reading the poem stops time as well. And it’s this ability of haiku to make us slow down and attend to the momentary particulars of the world that the great haiku critic and translator R. H. Blyth says is “the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Now that, it seems to me, is an enduring understanding worthy of true study. Thinking through haiku allows us to attend to the incandescence of individual moments, to stop and smell the proverbial roses in a way that makes us better appreciate the small wonders of world around us. And when we design instruction that helps students see this, first as readers then as writers, we get poems like these by three 8th graders, that have captured some of the essence of haiku:

Face lit by a screen

way past midnight

homework still not done

Nathan

Ferris Wheel seats

creak in the wind

Coney Island in November

Naomi

Cat’s sandpaper tongue

on my cheek

better than an alarm clock

Tryone

So attend to genre deeply, as haiku attends to the moment. And invite your students to do so as well. It is, indeed, a harder path, requiring that we connect with our own inner reader and not rely on someone else’s take. But it’s also more rewarding, for teachers and students alike.

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.

Helping Students Consider the Significance of Details with Wordless Books

As we saw last week when I shared the responses to Allen Woodman’s story “Wallet,” experienced readers invest much thought in considering the possible significance of a narrative’s details. To do this, they use many of the strategies we commonly teach in classrooms—they visualize, infer and question up a storm. But they use those strategies because they know something about the way narratives work that I think we teach far less often: that everything readers encounter in a text—from the title to the imagery to the lowliest detail—has been deliberately chosen by the author for a purpose. And a reader’s job is like a detective’s: We carefully attend to the details for clues in order to develop hunches and theories about what we think the author might be trying to showing us and exploring through those detail clues.

I believe it’s important that we share this knowledge with the students we teach and set whatever strategy work we do in the context of this understanding. The question, as always, in classrooms is how. We can, of course, present it as a teaching point in a mini-lesson, modeling how we ask ourselves questions like, “Why is the author showing me this?” and “What could this detail mean?” then demonstrating how we brainstorm possibilities and read on on the look-out for more clues. Over the years, though, I’ve come to believe that while this kind of think-aloud can certainly help some students, many more need to experience it themselves to truly ‘get’ it in a way that allows them to transfer the thinking to other texts.

This belief is supported by the research behind Learning Pyramids such as this one, which show how much students retain what’s taught according to the instructional method. You’ll see that, while 30% of students retain what’s been demonstrated, more than twice that many retain what they’ve been able to practice themselves. Because of this, I try to keep demonstrations short and move students from listening to practicing quickly so that, in this case, they can experience for themselves the purposefulness of an author’s choice of detail. That means that I need to be purposeful as well with my choice of text, finding one that allows students to engage in this work with a minimum of scaffolding and modeling. And that’s where wordless books come in.

Wordless books allow students to engage in the thinking work of meaning making without any of the decoding, vocabulary or syntax challenges of print. And they invite students to scrutinize the details in the pictures in the exact same way we want them to eventually scrutinize the details in print. There are many wonderful wordless picture books for lower school children, including the delightful Boy, Dog, Frog books by Mercer Mayer and virtually anything by David Wiesner. But for middle and even high school students, who often need experience with this thinking as well, my all-time favorite is Shaun Tan‘s amazing wordless book The Arrival

Everything about The Arrival is mysterious, from the antique-looking cover to the two title pages, one of which is in an unidentifiable language with a strange-looking alphabet. And then comes the first page, which looks like this:

Frequently students react with a “Huh?”, which seems like a perfectly reasonable response to such an opening—and is, in fact, a reasonable reaction to the beginnings of many narratives from Level M on up. But when asked to look carefully and share out what they notice, they begin to do what experienced readers do: They attend to the details and wonder what they might mean by connecting detail to detail and inferring. Many notice, for instance, the drawing in the center of the page and the picture in the lower right corner and wonder if they’re the same people. Some connect the suitcase to the one on the cover and wonder if that man is the same man here. And some notice the crack in the teapot and the chip on the cup and think that maybe these people are poor. And if so, maybe the fact that they’re poor has something to do with the suitcase and the title, which now takes on more significance.

As Dorothy Barnhouse and I suggest in What Readers Really Do, these wonderings and fledgling ideas are the students’ first-draft understanding of the text, which will go through many revisions as they encounter more details, connect them together and develop their ideas. And that process begins immediately as we turn the page and come to the next spread (where students have actually been known to gasp):

What had seemed so confusing just a page before suddenly takes on more meaning as the students infer that all of these objects belong to the couple in the earlier picture and that all but that picture, which has been tenderly wrapped and packed in the suitcase, will soon be left behind. From the gestures and expressions, they also infer that this is a sad occasion, though Tan brings back the origami bird a few pages later to suggest a different feeling and show us something about the man’s character and his relationship with the child.

Beyond being an extraordinary story, The Arrival helps students see how authors plant and use details to reveal everything from the characters to themes. And having seen and experienced that first hand here, they’re more primed to attend to details in a printed text than they’d be if they’d just observed a think-aloud. Additionally, having made this visible for students, we’re in a better position, as teachers, to remind them of that thinking work when we confer with them on their own reading. And if they’re beginning to take that work on, a conference offers students the perfect opportunity to teach us what they’re discovering as readers, which helps them retain this key understanding about how texts work even more.