Some Thoughts on a Thought-Provoking Trip

Between Thanksgiving, Buffalo, Portland and a book that still needs to get done, I haven’t had much time to post, but I did want to share a link to the blog of the Opal School in Portland, where I was last week, and invite you to join a discussion about reading that we started there. For those of you unfamiliar with Opal, it’s a Reggio-inspired pre-K though grade 5 school (the preschool is private while the elementary school is a public, lottery-based charter) housed in Portland’s Children Museum. And it’s mission is “to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, imagination and the wonder of learning thrive.”

I’ve know about Opal since I had the great fortune to meet Susan Mackay, the Director of the Museum Center for Learning, and Mary Gage Davis, the school’s Curriculum Director, Reggio Emilia Outsidetwo years ago in Reggio-Emilia where we were fellow participants in a study group exploring the implications of the Reggio approach on literacy instruction across the grade. (To read more about that experience, click here, here and here.) And I’d come to know Matt Karlson, the Center for Learning Administrator who also writes many of the Opal School blog posts, through the perceptive and thoughtful comments he’s left here on this blog. But I’d never been to Opal before. So when Matt invited me to join them for a workshop on “New Possibilities for Readers,” I jumped at the opportunity. And what an opportunity it was! Inspiring, energizing and incredibly thought-provoking, as the staff and I shared ideas and questions about the role and place of reading.

You can learn more about the workshop itself and the ideas and questions we’re still puzzling over in Matt’s recent blog post. But in a nutshell, we realized that while we share many of the same visions, beliefs and hopes for children and schools, we saw the role of books and the purpose of reading slightly differently.

My belief in the power of books and reading are perhaps best captured by author Julius Lester in his wonderful piece “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” where he looks at the origins of the words book, read, imagine, and knowledge and explores the implications of each word’s root. The word read, for instance,

“comes from an Old Teutonic root and means ‘to fit together, to consider, to deliberate, to take thought, to attend to, to take care or charge of a thing.’ To read is to fit together, to attend to. It is to take care of something, to take charge of something. So, what is being attended to? What is being fit together?”

Lester believes that ultimately it’s the reader who is being fit together. And he thinks this because

“. . . books are the royal road that enable us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Books enable us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through books we experience other modes of being. Through books we recognize who we are and who we might become.”

For this magic to happen, however, he says, “Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others.” And I wonder if it’s this idea of putting ourselves in a box by the door to take on the spirit of another—whether that’s a character, an author, or the subjects of facts—that raised the questions we posed.

At the risk of trying to speak for Opal, I think the conversation for them always begins, not with the word book, read, or even imagine (as it often does with me), but with the word child. They believe strongly in the power of children to make sense of the world around them in ways that can also illuminate for us, the adults who are privileged to spend time with them, the wonder, beauty and heartache of our world. It’s certain something I believe in, too. In fact, here’s a sentence from the same piece by Lester:

“When we read we discover and rediscover the power of words, the power to express thoughts and feelings, the power to touch another, the power to express love, the power to take care,”

If I recast it with children at the center, I see an equally powerful truth: When we listen to children we discover and rediscover the power of their words to express Opal_What Happens When You Look Closelythoughts and feelings, to care for and touch one another. And given that our current educational climate tends to value data points over children’s words, I understand and applaud Opal’s commitment to seeing literacy education as first and foremost concerned with offering “experiences that lead [children] to understand that they have something worth saying before caring about what others have to say.” In fact, seeing the amazing work the children and teachers were doing at Opal made me wonder if my work with reading was really big enough—and if perhaps I’m too pious and staunch in my reverence for books. But then the book lover in me kicks in again, wanting to say it’s enough, especially when students have other opportunities in other kinds of settings to recognize who they are and who they might become, as they do at Opal.

And that in turn reminds me of words Susan Mackay shared from Toni Morrison: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” My visit to Opal raised all sorts of questions for me and the teachers there about why, how and when to balance—or not—the words on the page with the words of the child, and what agendas might be served by the choices we make. It’s not an either/or proposition, rather, as Matt said, a question of emphasis. But if we believe, as Jerome Bruner does, that “pedagogy is never innocent,” these questions are worth considering.

So if you have your own thoughts, ideas or questions, Matt and I both hope you’ll consider leaving a comment here or on the Opal School’s blog to keep the conversation going. And I promise that I’ll be back soon with Writing Meaningfully about Meaningful Reading Part 2!

Coming to a City Near You (or On the Road Again)

"To Them of the Last Wagon" by Lynn Fausett

“To Them of the Last Wagon” by Lynn Fausett

Just a quick post this week to let all my blog reading friends in the Rockies and points west know that I’ll be presenting next month at The Literacy Promise: Opening Doors for the Adolescent Learner conference in Salt Lake City. Sponsored by the Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling at Brigham Young University, the biennial conference takes place at the Salt Lake City Convention Center March 12—14, 2014, and has a stellar line-up of speakers, including Ellin Keene, Carol Jago, Tanny McGregor and yours truly.

I’ll be giving two sessions on Thursday, March 13, one titled “Setting Students Up to Problem Solve (or How to Help Students Read Closely without Overly Prompting)” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Texts.” I’m sure I’ll be sharing some thoughts from these sessions on the blog before or after the conference, but just so you know, it always brings me great joy to meet blog readers in person.

For more on the conference, including how to register, click on the link above or on the image below. And if our paths don’t meet this time, I’m hoping they will in the future.

The Literacy Promise Banner

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

© 2011 D.A.Wagner -

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s where we want them to be.

Rethinking What Makes a ‘Just Right’ Book Just Right

Too often when I pull up a chair with teachers to confer with students during independent reading, we come to the same conclusion: With some stellar exceptions, the students aren’t doing a whole lot with the books they’re reading. Many, in fact, are downright lost or unable to say more about their book than what the blurb on the back cover says. And those who do manage to retell in a way that suggests they’re comprehending do little more than tick off a sequence of events as if everything that happened was of equal importance—despite the fact that most are reading books at their assessed reading level, a.k.a. a ‘just right’ book.

I think this happens for a number of reasons, the first of which has to do with what we should expect from a ‘just right’ book. According to Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, leveled texts provide students with “the problem solving opportunities that build the reading process.” But they don’t guarantee that a student will take advantage of those opportunities and solve whatever problems—of decoding, inferring or holding a story line in your head over dozens of pages, to name just a few—the text might present.

There’s also the matter of our expectations, as seen in the tools we give students for determining if a book is just right. Often I see charts in classrooms that offer students guidelines for assessing a ‘just right’ book. I like this one in particular because it acknowledges enjoyment as a key factor. But the second bullet point about understanding can be problematic, as Ellin Keene demonstrated in the opening anecdote of her book To Understand, which recounts a conference she had with a student named Jamika. As she often does, Keene began the conference by asking Jamika if her book made sense, at which point Jamika exploded in a tirade that began with “‘Y’all always say that—does this book make sense?'” and ended with the sobering indictment, “‘But, none a ya’ll ever says what make sense mean.'”

To both assess a ‘just right’ book and help ensure that it makes sense, we also give students the 5 Finger Rule,  which asks them to read the first page of a book and count the number of words they can’t figure out by either decoding or using context clues. If they struggle with less than four or five words, the books is deemed to be just right. But that seems to assume that the only problem to solve in a text—and all that making sense hinges on—is figuring out individual words.

But let’s look at the first page of the Level R book The Sword Thief, by Peter Lerangis, one of the books in The 39 Clues series, which is popular in grade 4 on up. And let’s see how many problems a reader must solve, beyond decoding or vocabulary, for it to make sense:

Students who’ve read other books in the series have a better chance of solving the problems this page presents than those who jump into the story here. But even they might have trouble making sense of this, beginning with the very first line, which will throw most literal thinkers for a loop. To make sense of what follows, readers also must infer everything that’s happening, since nothing but the characters’ name and their relationship is stated directly. They must infer, for instance, that Amy and Dan are at an airport from the detail about the conveyor belt, that the airport is in a place called Venice from a sign, and from the siblings’ exchange of dialogue, that the battered black duffle bag belongs to them and is bulging with samurai swords that they fear will be found in `a random luggage search.

We could say, thus, that in order for this text to make sense readers must problem solve what’s happening and where—and perhaps even who’s in the scene, since readers could also come away thinking that Jackie Chan and a ninja warrior are in the airport, too. Unfortunately my experience leads me to believe that many readers won’t engage in trying to solve these problems but will just keep reading, picking up what they can and glossing over the rest, until they’re either lost or they reach the point where the story aligns with the back cover blurb, which they’ll use to ground themselves instead of using the actual details the author has provided.

So to raise the bar for what makes a ‘just right’ book right and encourage students to engage more in the kind of problem solving needed for a book to make sense, some of the teachers I work with and I have been experimenting with introducing another bullet point to classroom ‘Just Right’ charts:

  • You can figure out who’s in each scene, where and when it takes place, and what’s going on

This doesn’t mean students have to understand everything; few readers actually do. They skip over unfamiliar idioms and foreign language phrases. They don’t always catch every reference or allusion, or infer every detail’s significance. But they try to get the basics.

It also doesn’t mean that understanding consists of just getting the who, what, when and where. But it is a starting place—and a reasonable expectation for an active reader in a book that’s supposedly ‘just right.’ And so far, the results have been good, with many students reading more attentively and others more aware of when they’re confused because they now have a more concrete tool and strategy for monitoring and assessing their comprehension.

Of course, to hold students accountable for this, we need to give them some instruction and plenty of time to practice. But I’ll save that for a future post that explores what that can look like.

Giving Thanks

With Thanksgiving almost upon us, I’d like to take a moment between regular posts to give thanks to all those who, in these crazy, stressful times of new standards, more tests and more expectations, help me stay centered and sane.

I’m thankful that I have the privilege to work with teachers, administrators and other educators who somehow manage to steer through the craziness with humor and warmth and grace, never losing sight, in this data-obsessed age, of the hard-to-measure needs of the whole child.

And I’m thankful for the children who make the work worthwhile. There is Kyra, for instance, a sixth grade student, who gives me a hug each time she sees me in the hall because, spying her with a book one day, I asked her what she was reading, and we discovered that we shared a love of historical fiction and the amazing way writers can help us see ourselves in characters who live in different times, different cultures and different places.

And there’s Oscar, a third grader, who reminded me last week that thinking is more important than correctness when he shared the personal narrative he was writing about the time he’d been knocked down by a cow in India. “In India,” he wrote, “cows can go anywhere because people believe they are holy.” He’d put the sentence in quotation marks as if it was a line of dialogue, which his class was learning about, and when I asked if those were words he actually spoke aloud, he answered without hesitation, “Yes. Those are the words I’m speaking to my reader, because they might not know about the cows.”

Kyra, in turn, reminds me of something else I’m thankful for—what Stephen Greenblatt, this year’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction, described in his acceptance speech as the “magic of the written word”:

“. . . the power of books to cross boundaries, to speak to you impossibly across space and time and distance, to have someone long dead seem to be in the room with you.”

And Oscar reminds me of the importance of readers, which I’m also deeply thankful to have. Publishing a blog post often feels like tossing a message in a bottle out to sea, not knowing when and where, if ever, it might land and be found by a reader. If you’re reading these words, do know how very thankful I am that you’ve pulled them out from the cybersea and taken the time to read them. May they give you as much sustenance, hope and belief in the work we’ve been called on to do as your reading this gives me.

Now on to the turkey. I’ll be back next week with Beyond All About Books Part 2.

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students About Reading?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The librarian is busy, getting out

the inky pad and the lined cards.

I pace back and forth in the line,

hungry for the fresh bread of the page,

because I need something that will tell me

what I am . . . .

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

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

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

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

All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.