Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

Just What Exactly Are Students Doing with Their Just Right Books?

Just Right Book StickerIt’s January, and in many schools around the country, teachers are assessing their students’ reading levels for the second or third time this year to monitor their students’ growth and determine their independent reading level. I’ve written before about what I see as the impact of over-emphasizing levels on a student’s identity as a reader. Yet here’s an additional problem. Administering these assessments is time-consuming, and many a teacher must put conferring and even instruction on hold for a while in order to complete them. But given how much time we devote to this, how much time do we actually spend seeing what students are doing with those books once we’ve determine their level?

That’s not to say that we don’t talk to students about their books when we confer. But usually we’re in teacher, not researcher, mode, talking to students just long enough to find an entry point for instruction—priding ourselves, in fact, on how quickly we can get in and out. Rarely do we take the time to thoroughly get a handle on a child’s thinking, especially on the kinds of thinking the Common Core is expecting students to engage in independently. Yet it seems to me just as important to know what students are doing when they’re reading that ‘just right’ book as it is to know what level basket to send them to in the library.

To this end, I’ve been recommending that we at least occasionally spend as much time researching what students are doing with their books as we do assessing their levels—and that we resist jumping into to teach until we’ve gotten a clearer picture of what’s going on in a student’s head. When I’ve done this with teachers, we often discover that for every student who’s doing some interesting thinking—paying attention to how characters are changing, for example, and developing hunches about why—another student is completely lost in a book that’s supposedly just right.

KatieKazooCoverTake the case of Meera, a fourth grade student I recently conferred with. Meera was reading Open Wide, a Level M book in the Katie Kazoo Switcheroo series by Nancy Krulik, which I hadn’t read. Rather than asking about the book—which often leads students to launch into a retelling I cannot possibly assess for accuracy—I began by asking her if there was anything in particular she was working on as a reader. This question sometimes perplexes students, but Meera immediately replied that she was trying to picture the story in her head, which made her teacher, who was observing me, smile. I acknowledged how important visualizing was then asked her to turn to the page she was currently on and read a bit from where she’d left off.

Meera turned to page 58, which was approximately three-quarters of the way through the book, and fluently read the following page out loud:

KatieKazooExcerpt

I followed along as Meera read, not to check for fluency or miscues, but to get a feel for the kinds of demands this page put on a reader in order to better assess how Meera was negotiating those. Here, for instance, the action is explained explicitly, with little inferring required, yet there seemed to be a disconnect between the words and the picture, with the dentist appearing in the illustration but not in the words. So explaining to Meera that I was a little confused because I hadn’t read the book, I asked her if she could tell me what was going on.

“They’re at the dentist,” Meera said, “and the dentist isn’t being very nice.”

“Can you tell me who’s at the dentist?” I asked.

KatieKazoo“Katie, Matthew and Emma,” she said. Then she turned to the picture. “That’s Emma,” she explained, pointing to the girl with the glasses. “And that’s the dentist, and that’s Matthew,” she added, pointing to the boy with the hose. Then she flipped back several pages to show me a picture of Katie.

Her reliance on the illustrations combined with my own uncertainty about what was really going on, made me suspect that something was not quite right here. And so I plunged on. “I definitely see the dentist in the picture, but I didn’t hear him mentioned as you read. Can you tell me how you know from the words that he’s there?”

Meera turned to the previous page to show me a line from the following passage, in which the dentist is mentioned. “Here,” she said, pointing to the line, “‘Dr. Sang! That’s not nice,’ she hissed.”

KatieKazooExcerpt2

My eyes quickly scanned the sentences around this, and by following the dialogue, I was now quite sure that Meera had missed something significant. What I didn’t know, though, is whether what she’d missed had been stated explicitly or had to be inferred, which would suggest different instructional paths. And so rather than jumping in to teach with perhaps a reminder about monitoring comprehension, I told her how nicely she’d read the passage and then asked if I could borrow the book in order to get a better handle on why her comprehension had broken down in the first place.

Flipping back to the beginning, I found what I suspected: that Katie Kazoo wasn’t called Switcheroo for nothing. As the author explained explicitly on page 14, whenever Katie wished something, a magic wind would suddenly appear, “so strong, it could blow her right out of her body. . . and into someone else’s!“—in this case, Dr. Sang’s. And while the scene where the magic wind reappears to transform Katie into the dentist required a bit of inferring, there were lots of other explicit clues that pointed to the change.

Meera’s teacher and I mulled over the instructional implications of this in order to come up with a course of action. While Meera was ostensibly trying to visualize, she was missing all kinds of textual clues that would allow the movie she was constructing in her head to actually reflect the words on the page. So before she could monitor her comprehension, she needed to better experience how to build it by reading more attentively and actively. That would entail keeping track of what she was learning and what she was confused or wondering about in order to read forward with more purpose and connect one page to the next. And to help her do this more deliberately, we decided to put her in a small group so that she could verbalize what she was learning from a common text and what she was wondering about.

enfant consultation pédiatreIt’s important to note here is that this problem hadn’t shown up in her reading assessment, perhaps because the passage she’d read was so much shorter or didn’t involve something as improbable as a magic wind. It also wouldn’t show up in the data provided by other kinds of formative assessments—though it could be the root cause of whatever inabilities the data did reveal. It could only be discerned by a teacher who was trying to make a student’s thinking work visible by carefully listening, researching and probing before deciding what to teach.

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.