In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

Milton Avery Reclining Reader

“Reclining Reader” by Milton Avery

Last week third through eighth grade students across New York State took the three-day marathon known as the Common Core English Language Arts Test. And if the feedback left on, the website set up by some of the best literacy minds in the country, is any indication, it was not a pretty sight. Words like travesty and debacle—and even sadistic—appear with some regularity as do many stories from both teachers and parents about student acting out in various ways to deal with the pressure and stress, such as the parent who came home to find her son beating a bush with a stick.

Many questions were also raised about what these test were actually testing, since careful close reading simply wasn’t possible given the time constraints and few, if any, questions required critical thinking, if for no other reason than that they were incredibly narrow and myopic. Additionally, as I wrote in an early post, many of the teachers leaving feedback spoke about the convoluted and confusing nature of the questions themselves and the fact that many of those questions asked students to discern insignificant or minor differences between several possible ‘right’ answers. And all that reminded me of this  quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Applied to our current situation, I interpret this as meaning that the whole one-right-answer approach to testing is a function of the vise-grip that powerful corporate interests have over education these days, not on some unequivocal truth. And in addition to adding my voice to, I decided to push back this week by reviving an idea I tried out in my first year as a blogger: inviting readers to read a short text, this time 20/20 by author Linda Brewer, and share what they made of it, knowing that it’s the diversity—not the conformity—of our interpretations and the particular way we express them that enriches our understanding of ourselves, the text and the world.

Basic CMYKYour task, should you choose to accept it, is not to focus on, say, how paragraph four develops the main character’s point of view or why the author used the word ‘choked’ in line six. Instead I ask you to do what the test-makers seem to consider Mission Impossible: to think about the meaning of the whole story, which will almost inevitably entail looking at the story through the eyes of the characters, the eyes of the author and ultimately your own eyes, as you consider what you think and feel about what you think the author might be trying to show us about people, the world, or life through the particulars of this story. And I invite you to do that by simply paying attention to what you notice in the text and what you make of that.

Then in the spirit of collaborative learning, real reading and community, I invite you to share your thoughts about the story, how you arrived at them and what the experience felt like by either clicking on the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title or on the word ‘reply’ at the bottom of the post, right after the list of tag words. (Email subscribers can used the comment link at the end of the email.) And if anyone wants to try it out on some students, please go right ahead!

Just remember, though, there is no right answer! There is only interpretation and what happens between the mind of the reader and the words on the page. And now here is 20/20 by Linda Brewer:

20:20 by Linda Brewer

Now follow these simple instructions from the poet Mary Oliver:



SWBAT Read the Learning Targets from the Board

Hit the target

As other educational bloggers, such as Grant Wiggins and the teacher behind “TeachingTweaks,” have noticed, lesson plans are filled these days with learning objectives and targets, which spell out what students supposedly will be able to (SWBAT) do by the end of the lesson. These objectives and targets, most of which refer to specific standards, are also often written on white boards or posted on classroom charts, and teachers and/or students often read them aloud before the lesson starts.

In addition to proving to the powers that be that we’re aligning our instruction to the Standards—and have clear objectives in mind—I think this practice is intended to make the work of reading more visible to students. As anyone who’s read What Readers Really Do knows, I think it’s critical to make the invisible work of reading visible. But saying that you can do something doesn’t necessarily ensure that you can, as I’ve been recently seeing. Or put another way, talking the talk doesn’t mean that you can walk the walk.

Esperanza_Rising CoverHere, for instance, is what happened in a school that was thinking the same very same thing. They’d adopted Expeditionary Learning, which was one of the reading programs New York City had recommended last year as being Common Core ready. But while the teachers loved some things about it (especially some of the protocols), they weren’t sure what the kids were really getting. And so one day I found myself in a 5th grade class that was reading Esperanza RisingPam Munoz Ryan‘s wonderful book about a young, pampered Mexican girl whose life is completely turned upside down when, after her father is killed, she and her mother flee to California where they become farm laborers. The class was up to Lesson 10, which focused on the chapter called “Las Papas (Potatoes)” and included the following learning targets:

Esperanza Rising Targets 10

According to the lesson plan, the students would meet these targets through the following activites:

  • taking a short comprehension quiz
  • summarizing the chapter
  • discussing the meaning of the title
  • reviewing their “Inferring by Using Text Clues” and “Metaphors and Themes in Esperanza Rising” chart
  • rereading a passage in the chapter using evidence flags to answer and discuss, both in triads and whole class, nine right-or-wrong-answer text-dependent questions
  • adding notes to the character T-charts in their workbooks, and
  • writing a short constructed response to a prompt about how Esperanza was changing

As you may have found yourself thinking as you read that, I thought there was simply too much going on, with too much of it disconnected. And having been invited to take liberties with the lesson, I decided to focus it instead on how writers use and develop metaphors to show us how characters change. And rather than following the lesson script, which instructed me to begin the class by “reviewing the learning targets with students by reading them out loud,” I instead simply asked the class what they thought a metaphor was.

Pin DroppingYou could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room, so I asked everyone to think about a metaphor in the book they’d talked about before, then to turn and talk to share with a partner what they thought a metaphor could be, even if they weren’t quite sure. This at least got everyone talking, and amid their uncertainty we did hear a few students say something about comparing.

Their memory banks kicking in more when I clicked on the following slide, which represented some of the metaphors that appeared on their “Metaphors and Themes” chart. They were sure that the image on the top left was Abuelita’s blanket, whose zigzag pattern was like mountains and valleys that represented the ups and downs of life.

Esperanza Rising Metaphors

This is stated pretty explicitly earlier in the book, when Esperanza’s grandmother Abuelita says,

“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of the mountain again.”

And for me that raised the question: Had they learned that the blanket was a metaphor for life either because it was so explicit or the teachers had led them there, or had they really learned how to think about metaphors in a deeper way?

Since the blanket featured prominently in Chapter 10, I wanted to see if the students could think more deeply about its role in the story. And to do that, I put the students in groups and gave each group a piece of chart paper (wanting also to break out from the workbooks with their worksheets and graphic organizers). I then read the following page in two chunks, asking the students to talk about what Pam Munoz Ryan might be trying to show them about the meaning the blanket, then to write down some of their thoughts on the paper and illustrate it in some fashion.

Esperanza Rising excerpt

For the first chunk, which ended with the words “Mama’s lungs,” different groups noticed different things. Some, for instance, thought about what the blanket must mean to Mama, who was so ill she barely could speak. Others thought it might be important that Esperanza had seemingly forgotten about it, while still others noted that the dust had gotten into both Mama’s lungs and the trunk and they talked about what that might mean, which led them to consider how the blanket and Mama’s lungs might be similar.

CrochetingWith the second chunk, many were reminded of how Abuelita would weave her own hair into the blanket, which made it seem to mean even more—almost like a stand-in for Abuelita herself. And some noted how the blanket held the scents of both smoke and peppermint, as if it contained both the good and bad memories from their life in Mexico. And all this made them feel the significance of the moment when Esperanza, who’d expressed no interest in crocheting before, takes up her grandmother’s crochet needles and starts to finish the blanket.

Of course, with all the thinking, talking, writing, drawing and sharing out, this took a fair amount of time. But there was just time enough to ask one more question: “Do you think you learned anything about metaphors today?” And this time the kids had lots to say:

“We learned that sometimes things mean more than they are.”

“A metaphor can mean more than one thing and its meaning can change.”

“A metaphor is a thing that means more than what it is.”

“Sometimes the writer tells you what it means, but sometimes you have to figure it out by thinking about other parts of the book.”

I think the truth is that if we’re truly asking for deeper thinking and understanding, we can’t know we’ll get it for sure until we see or hear it. And we can’t expect to hit our targets without giving students lots of time to practice. If we thinking otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves—and we’re misleading our students.

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.


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.


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?


Engaging with Engagement: Building the Need to Know

two girls

© Dmitry Vereshchagin –

A few months ago I had a chance to hear Mike Schmoker, author of the popular ASCD book Focus, speak at a summer institute. In his keynote, he shared ideas from his book, which was subtitled Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, and some of these I wholeheartedly agreed with. He came down hard, for instance, on worksheets, which he described in his keynote as busywork and in Focus as “the archenemy of abundant purposeful reading, discussion and writing.” And as I’ve written about myself, he warned against reading instruction that sends students off on “treasure hunts” rather than actually reading. But when it came to engagement I paused.

Cold CallingMany of the practices he suggested were similar to those advised by Doug Lemov, the author of the widely read Teach Like a ChampionThese include training students to keep their eyes on the teacher, cold calling on students whose hands aren’t raised to keep everyone on their toes, and launching lessons with some kind of teacher teaser intended to spark interest. For several of us listening, this sounded more like compliance and fear tactics than authentic engagement, and in this we weren’t alone. Charlotte Danielson, for instance, whose Framework for Teaching rubrics are being used, along with test scores, to evaluate teachers in New York City, describes engagement this way:

“Student engagement is not the same as ‘time on task’ . . . . Mere activity is inadequate for engagement. Nor is simple participation sufficient. The activity should represent new learning. What is required  for student engagement is intellectual involvement with the content or active construction of understanding.

This ‘intellectual involvement’, she goes on to say, requires designing activities and assignments that “emphasize problem-based learning,” “encourage depth rather than breadth” and “require student thinking”—none of which is necessarily happens when we stand in front of a class to share an interesting fact or anecdote that we hope will whet the students’ appetites.

I’m also not convinced anymore that ‘intellectual involvement’ is really kick-started by practices such as Anticipation Guides, which I used to use myself. Here, for instance, is one I designed for some 7th and 8th grade special students as the kick-off to a unit on relationship, in which they read several short stories by Gary Soto, Virginia Euwer Wolff, and Sharon Flake and watched West Side Story:

Anticipation Guide on Relationships

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant

And here’s another one a group of science teachers and I created for a unit on genetics that would eventually involve the students exploring some of the complex ethical questions raised by advances in that field:

Anticipation Guide on Genetics

© Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant

In both cases the students participated. They actively read the statements, circling A if they agreed or D if they disagreed in the Before Reading column, before they turned and talked with a partner. But in addition to the fact that only a few actually wrote any comments, the thinking they were doing involved little more than recalling what they already thought, not constructing some new understanding.

Better, I’ve found, are visual images, especially in the content areas. Here, for instance, is a set of images of Venice that a third grade class I worked with studied carefully, one at a time, before embarking on a social studies unit on Italy:


Venice Flooded

Venice Map

In the first image, students were intrigued by the place, in particular what many of them thought was a castle until one child noticed the cross on the dome and thought it might be a church. They also closely studied the tray of the family in the foreground, noticing the silver cups and spoons and the slices of lemon in glasses, all of which made them think that the place was not only beautiful but fancy. In the second, they were actually aghast at the transformation of the beautiful place they’d seen in the previous picture. And calculating the height of the water from the half-submerged tables and chairs, they worried about what might have been damaged in the castle-like church. And finally, the third image helped them develop hunches about what might have happened to create such as disaster—especially after some of the students began to think that the blue lines that criss-crossed the city weren’t roads as they first had thought, but water ways that might flood.

NeedtoKnow-450x254Compared to the students who were circling A or D in the Anticipation Guides above, these students were involved in much higher order thinking as they used what they’d noticed to infer and developed hypotheses that might explain what caused the difference in the two pictures. They were constructing new understanding, at least a provisional one. And feeling a burning need to know, especially about the fate of the buildings, they eagerly dove into an article about the problems Venice faced with the kind of intellectual involvement that Charlotte Danielson speaks about.

Those students’ engagement began with curiosity, which many scientists, such as John Medina, the Director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning and Research and the author of the best-selling book Brain Rules, think is intrinsically connected to our capacity to learn. And that initial curiosity led those students to think and to discover, which in turn fueled their engagement. That all happened because I think that thinking is actually exhilarating and discovery, as Medina writes, “brings joy,” which can become downright addictive—especially when the thinking and discoveries arise from our own noticings.

Unfortunately, though, curiosity and joy seems undervalued and underutilized in many schools settings, particularly in the upper grades where, as Medina also says, “Fascination can become secondary to ‘What do I need to know to get the grade?’” And this emphasis on grades instead of fascination—and performance instead of exploration—leaves too many students disengaged and at risk for checking out, as can be seen in a recent Gallup poll that showed that the percentage of disengaged students climb steadily as kids move up the grades, with eight-in-ten students engaged in lower school and only four-in-ten in high school.

RosesI’m aware, of course, that it may seem much easier to tap into students’ curiosity with a compelling image than with a complex text (which Chris Lehman’s latest Close Reading Blog-a-Thon post painfully illustrates). But I’ll tell you when those 7th and 8th grade special ed students really got engaged: not when they filled out the Anticipation Guide but when they read the first short story, “Dozens of Roses,” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, which I looked at last month. I invited them then to simply wonder, which I said could consist of something that confused them or something they were curious about. And with that and time to talk, they were filled with questions: Who sent Lucy the roses? Why didn’t she want them? Why doesn’t she have any pep now? And those questions built the need to know that naturally led them to read closely with their full mental engagement.

So what are you doing to build your students’ intellectually involving engagement—which, as Chris, also rightly points out “isn’t a thing, it’s the only thing” that counts?

Building Better Teachers

By R. Kikuo Johnson for The New York TImes. Used with permission of the artist.

The Start of a Tradition: Kicking Off the School Year with Teacher Thinking

ChalkboardPart of why I love summer so much is because its full of traditions I’ve developed over the years: nighttime walks to different neighborhoods for ice cream, picnics at the Botantical Gardens, a bike ride to the Cloisters to start the cycling season, morning trips to the Farmer’s Market for peaches, tomatoes and corn. Of course, the first day of school is a tradition, too, which I imagine many mark in special ways (which may or may not include new school supplies). But as we nudge up to that day here, it occurred to me that I could mark the day by starting another tradition here by sharing, as I did last August, some of the amazingly thoughtful comments that teachers have left on this blog over the last twelve months.

As I did last year, I do so in part to counter some of the flack and blame that’s all too often directed at teachers about this country’s educational woes and to celebrate, instead, these educators’ astounding commitment and willingness to raise difficult questions, probe their own thinking and reflect on their practice, knowing that as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and the way he understands it.”

What follows, in no particular order, is a small sampling of the nearly two hundred comments I received this year. In each case, the teacher’s comment is set next to an image that links back to the post he or she was responding to, with another link embedded in the teacher’s name if they’re part of the growing and vibrant community of teachers who also blog. In each case, I also hope you find a voice that affirms, reinvigorates or fuels your own thinking as we all embark on another year that may, yet again, be bumpy. And I invite you to take a look at other comments that can be accessed on each post for more inspiration—and to feel free to join the conversation whenever the spirit moves you.

Hansel and Gretel 2“In our 5th grades we are guiding students at the end of a fantasy unit to decide on themes that are surfacing for them. The difficulty, as you stated, is that the adults guiding them haven’t had enough time to linger themselves with the ‘what’ of theme. They are nervous in the students’ need to linger and try out their thinking around themes that surface for them. As Ginny Lockwood (our consultant) and others caution us, we need to expose, not impose. The demands of the Common Core make it such that the adults guiding the work need a very sophisticated understanding of literature. Without it, the best laid plans could end up fostering the present type of ‘pin the tail’ thinking as we move ahead in this complex work.” Margaret C.

Short Cut Sign“I am always concerned with activities that ask students to ‘hunt’ as you say for specific information which leaves them with a page full of facts – not always correct, and certainly not really understood. The most effective learning experiences that I am part of with my students is when we make time for discussion, sharing our thinking and letting questions lead us to more questions as we making meaning together and understand the text. Yes, this is time consuming, but giving the process time gives value to the fact that it is important to slow down and really read and engage with the text.” Carrie Gelson

“I find that explaining your thinking is a very powerful strategy for deepening understanding. I experience it every time I respond to a blog, blog or present my ideas to others. I really have to think about my thinking in order to explain it, and as a consequence my understanding is stronger. So it goes for our students. By explaining their thinking they not only are demonstrating to us their understanding, but also working out exactly why they think what they think.” Julieanne Harmatz

Old Books with Magnifying Glass“There must be some other reasons, more centered on the learner himself, that provides the enticement to read closely. For me, I know my ‘learner intention’ is honed and refined by being in a community of learners . . .  I love the way my thinking gets sharper while tossing ideas around. I love the ‘cupcakes’ I get from those interactions with people and ideas: a deeper understanding of this beautiful world, new insights into my life and the life of others, all that stuff. . . . It seems to me that my teaching, at the very least, has to make explicit the existence of said ‘cupcakes’ for learners who haven’t savored them yet.” Steve Peterson

Art of Anticipation“I’m re-thinking the way I launch my reading workshop, and the first read aloud of the year, too. My goal is to find ways to make my students ‘aware of all a text holds’, as you mention – the key to which is my own reading, selecting, ruminating, and responding to those very same texts so that I can be responsive to my students . . .Your post, and the article, reminds me to slow down in my planning process, to make it more organic – to allow my planning to be driven by where my kids are in their reading lives, not just what our district’s curricular map dictates.” Tara

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner,

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner,

“I once was told that all good scaffolds must self destruct. So often in our quest to make learning easier and accessible for our students we have allowed the scaffolds to become crutches, leaving little thinking for the student. Pacing has also had a huge impact on students learning deeply; sustained concentration requires time”. Mille Arellano

 And now with these reminders to go slow and let go so that students have more time to think, may your year be filled with fascinating questions, rousing conversation, great reads and new traditions!

Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?


Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready

More Thoughts on Craft and Those Pesky Test Questions

CRAFTAfter reading my last post on craft, a friend and colleague emailed me saying how amused she was by the fact that I’d used the phrase ‘make no bones’ in the same sentence in which I’d compared close reading to a mouse dissection. I had, indeed, purposely chosen the simile to evoke the sense of desecration I think happens when we over-analyze a text. But the phrase ‘make no bones’ had just popped into my head, and I used it with no awareness that it echoed the lab mouse dissection until she’d pointed it out. Put another way, I didn’t consciously choose that phrase to create the effect she experienced, though I was tickled by what she’d noticed. And this reminded me of a quote from Samuel Johnson that speaks to the relationship between writers and readers: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

I think this is true for the simple reason that a writer’s words on a page are inert until a reader’s mind brings them to life. And while I do believe that writers make choices about words, details, images, and structure in order to convey what they’re trying to exploring, there’s also something intuitive and uncanny about the process, with writers making unconscious decisions as well as conscious ones as they craft a text. And that opens the door for readers to see even more than the writer might have intended and to come up with a range of interpretations about the words on the page.

Notice and NoteKylene Beers and Robert Probst address this very point in their new book Notice & Notewhere they share an anecdote about the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot. A literary critic who’d seen one of his plays thought the play director had misinterpreted Eliot’s meaning. Eliot agreed that the production conveyed something different than what he’d intended, but he wasn’t really troubled by that. “‘But if the two meanings are contradictory,’” the critic asked, “‘is  not one right and the other wrong. Must not the author be right?’” Eliot replied: “‘Not necessarily, do you think? Why is either wrong?’”

This anecdote suggests that, despite his connection with New Criticism, the literary theory behind the Common Core, Eliot believed that multiple interpretations can, indeed, co-exist and that in the end the writer’s intentions don’t necessarily carry more weight than a reader’s interpretation. And this raises some interesting questions about all those “Why did the author include X in line Y” multiple-choice questions on New York State’s tests.

More questions are raised by the memoirist Patricia Hampl who, in her essay “The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination,” looks at the fallacy and the presumption of those author purpose questions. In the essay she recounts the experience of having an excerpt of a memoir she wrote appear in a college anthology that she, herself, had used in classes. Initially delighted to be included, she had an unexpected and uncomfortable reaction when she received the new edition in which her excerpt appeared and saw the questions that accompanied the piece. “And there, at the end of the selection,” she writes,

in those shivery italic letters reserved for especially significant copy, were the study questions. There were several under the heading “Questions About Purpose.” One will do: “Why does Hampl establish her father’s significance to the family before she narrates the major incident?” Beats me, I thought.

I had no idea what Hampl’s purpose was. All the study questions looked quite mad to me.

These ‘quite mad’ questions are, of course, precisely the kind that appeared on this year’s tests, with four possible answers for students to choose from, only one of which was deemed right. And they’re also the kind of questions that appear on the new Teacher Performance Assessments that Pearson has developed for edTPA, the organization that will be testing pre-service candidates to see if “a new teacher is ready for the job.” Here’s the first paragraph of one of the passages from the sample literacy skills test online:

Gertrude Stein Passage

And here’s the kind of question that’s asked. As in Hampl’s case, one will do:

Gertrude Stein Question

Picasso Portrait of Gertrude SteinThe repetition of the phrase does suggest some intention on the part of the author, but none of those answers seemed ‘right’ to me–including B, which the answer link said was correct. None, for instance, captured my sense that in her own unique and unconventional way, Gertrude Stein had a well-rounded life that was full of friends that were like a family, which might only have been possible because her family was prosperous. And none were connected to other details I’d noticed about her father, which suggested to me that she was repeating in reverse the journey that he had made. And when I re-read the passage, as close readers are supposed to do, I found myself thinking that the repetition had less to do with Gertrude Stein than with the idea that’s embedded in the title: that we cannot predict or control the future because we live in a world that’s disordered, in which the unthinkable happens. But that wasn’t one of the options.

One thing for sure, though, the question and answers forced me to abandon all the thinking I was doing and instead try to guess what the test-makers were thinking. And at that point I stopped being a reader and became a test-taker instead.

This has all made me think that when it comes to craft we might do better by remembering that readers and writers are both engaged in fitting details together to build meaning, with the writer ‘crafting’ the story out of details and the reader then using the details the writer’s chosen to ‘craft’ an interpretation. Any interpretation should be considered valid as long as it’s supportable by the details of the text, even if it veers from the writer’s intention. Most writers I know would agree with that because they respect and value the magic that happens when the words they’ve written interact with the mind of a reader. But one has to wonder what edTPA wants when they think that what demonstrates a teaching candidate’s readiness to become a teacher is the ability to second-guess the test-makers’ interpretations, which is what those answers are. What students really need are teachers who know how to help them craft their own ideas from the details the writer’s crafted the text from.

Fitting Pieces Together

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

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

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

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

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

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

Reveal, Listen, Understand

A Tale of Two Students: More Findings from Research Conferences

Girl and boy reading book isolated on white background

Piggybacking on the other week’s post, which looked at what a student was doing with her ‘just right’ book, I share here the stories of two students, both at the same level and reading the same book to continue to explore what we can learn by using a conference to research the kinds of thinking students are bringing to texts.

MarisolThe students were two fourth grade girls who were both reading Marisol, an American Girl Today book written by Gary Soto. Both had also participated in two small groups I wrote about previously, in which I and the teachers I worked with discovered that the students couldn’t take on the work of considering what the author might be trying to show us through the details she had chosen because they were thrown for a loop by the pronouns.

With both girls I began by asking if there was anything they were working on as readers to focus the conference on the process of reading rather than the contents of the book. And when each girl looked at me askance, I followed that up by saying, “For instance, are there any questions you’re thinking about or anything in particular you’ve noticed?” That clarification enabled the first girl, Yesenia, to say, “Oh yeah, I’m trying to figure out why Marisol is moving.”

I applauded her for asking a why question, which are always great thinking tools. But not knowing whether this information was stated directly or indirectly, I’m not sure if it’s something Yesenia missed or something that hadn’t yet been revealed. So I pose another question: “Is Marisol trying to figure that out, too, or is it just you?”

“No, Marisol doesn’t know either. She’s asked her parents before, but here it is again on the top of the page,” she says, pointing to a line that reads, “Even though I didn’t know where we were moving. Or really why.

ResearchKnowing that Marisol is as much in the dark about the move as Yesenia is suggests that a reason hasn’t yet been provided. So I ask if she thinks she’s found any clues that might answer the question.

Yesenia pauses for a moment then slowly says, “No, but I do think I know how she feels. She really loves her house and her room and doesn’t want to leave it. Like here,” she says, turning back a page. “Her friend Victor wanted her to come out and play but she wanted to stay in her room—not like her other friend Becky, who has to stay inside because she’s in trouble, but because she knows she’ll have to leave it soon.”

Quickly scanning the page spread myself, I’m able to see how Yesenia has used the information to support the idea she’s developing about Marisol’s feelings. And curious to see how she processes new text, I ask her to pick up where she left off, which sends her back to the paragraph below the line she pointed to earlier.

Marisol Excerpt 1

Reading over her shoulder again, I’m aware that the paragraph holds several vocabulary challenges. But instead of expending too much time on words like ‘wallowing’ and ‘self-pity,’ neither of which she might know, she pronounces them the best she can and keeps reading to the end of the paragraph, at which point I ask her what she thinks is happening as a way of assessing how much meaning she could make despite the challenging words.

“Well, I think she’s feeling bad about moving and so she decides to practice her dancing because she knows it will make her feel better. But now I’m wondering if she’ll have to move before her big performance. That will make her even sadder.”

Yesenia has gotten the gist of the passage. And she’s connected what she just learned to what she already knows, revising and adjusting her understanding of the text as she encounters new information, which in turn yields new questions. And after naming that for her, I decide to instructionally offer a next step by saying, “I think that’s another great question to ask, along with how she deals with it, if that actually happens.” Yesenia nods her head in agreement as I move on to Melaysia, who coincidentally enough is at the same level, reading the same book.

When I ask my conference kick-off questions, Melaysia shrugs and says no; she’s not doing anything special as a reader. And so after complimenting her on her honesty, I ask her to turn to the page she’s on and read some aloud, beginning right where she left off, which is the last paragraph before the line break below:

Marisol Excerpt 2

Knowing that Melaysia has struggled with pronouns, I stop her after that paragraph to see how she’s making sense with those. “Do you know who the ‘I’ is here,” I ask, to which she replies, “That’s Marisol.” And how about the ‘she’? Do you know who that is?” “Miss Mendoza?” she says without a lot of confidence, which prompts me to ask the indispensable question: “What made you think that?”

A long silence ensues, in which Melaysia keeps her eyes focused on her lap. And so I remind her of what we discovered in our earlier group: that an ‘I’ wouldn’t talk about herself as a ‘she’, and the pronoun almost always refers to the last non-I person who’s been mentioned. Then I ask her to take another look, and this time she says, “It is Miss Mendoza.”

But when I ask her who Miss Mendoza is, she hesitates again. “I think she just stopped by,” she says, “so maybe she’s like a neighbor or something.”

maybe“Maybe’s always a good thinking word,” I say before asking if there’s anything else she thought about Miss Mendoza, in the hope that she might have noticed the word ‘student,’ which, combined with the preceding exchange of dialogue, provides a clue about Marisol’s feelings for her. But again Melaysia says nothing.

So I ask her to continue reading, which she does with a degree of fluency until she hits the word ‘enchilada,’ which she spends some time trying to sound out. When she’s finally able to pronounce the word, I ask her if she knows what it means and she says she doesn’t. And when, after reading to the end of the page, I ask her how this section connects to what she read before, she says that she’s forgotten. Spending so much mental energy on a single word made her loose the thread of a story she had only a tentative hold on to begin with.

As the teachers and I pondered the implications of these conferences, we came to some conclusions. Melaysia needed to learn how to make strategic decisions about when to read over an unknown word for the sake of holding on to the story. She also needed lots of opportunities to meta-cognitively talk about her thinking and to more deliberately draft and revise her understanding. And she could benefit from holding on to a question or wondering, as Yesenia did, which we could call a text-based strategy—i.e., a move a reader makes that helps them stick to the text and read more attentively.

Put your plan into action, words on blackboard.WIth that we had a plan of action: more small group and one-on-one work with Melaysia, maybe using an easier text until the thinking—and her confidence—took hold, and a follow-up conference with Yesenia to see if she’s able to maintain the same level of thinking as the pages accrue. It took some time to make these decisions. But having a clearer sense of what our next instructional steps could be made the time worthwhile.

Seeing with New Eyes: First Impressions of Reggio Emilia

Reggio Emilia © 2012 D.A. Wagner,

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,