The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

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

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

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

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

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

14CowsforAmerica_1

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

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

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

14CowsforAmerica_2

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

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

Hmmm.2

Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.

The Messy Work of Reading

Here’s a question I found myself thinking about as I prepared for a presentation that I thought could use some visuals. What does reading look like? Not the act of opening the covers of a book and scanning the lines with your eyes, but the path a mind takes as it tries to make meaning of both the words on a single page and the pages of an entire book? And what does the teaching of that journey look like?

I decided that too often our vision of reading looks like this: a straight road that leads over time and many pages to a particular meaning we want our students to ‘get’ that we, as teachers, have gotten from our repeated reading and teaching of a book or from a teacher’s guide.

Of course, we don’t simply set our students on the road and expect them to arrive there without support. We ask them questions. We direct them to passages we know are important from our own prior reading or the teacher’s guide. We invite them to make predictions and connections, latching on to those we think will help nudge them down that predetermined road so that ultimately they ‘see’ what we saw in the text and ‘get’ whatever we got.

Whether we do this explicitly or not, you could say we offer students a route map, like the highway sign below, with page numbers posted instead of mileage and literary features as destinations. Foreshadowing, we convey through our questions and prompts, coming up on page 23. Significant scene on page 57. Important image on page 104.

              These practices might help some students read more closely, as the Common Core Standards ask them to, but I’m not sure how it helps them reach the Standards’ overarching goals as captured in the “Students Who are College and Career Ready” descriptors−particularly the goal of demonstrating independence “without significant scaffolding.” That’s because I believe that the road of meaning making is only straight when we’ve already read a text before and can see retroactively how the pieces fit together to form a meaningful whole−and even then there’s usually no single road, since whatever meaning we’ve made of the whole is open to interpretation, which depends on who we are, what we’ve noticed, and how we fit that together.

Instead, when we enter a text for the first time, we often have no idea where it’s going nor what the writer might be exploring. If we did, there would be no point in reading on; we’d know everything right from the start. But not knowing means that, on a first read, we can’t know which passages are significant. We can’t know which scenes are pivotal, which details will reverberate later, beyond a general understanding and awareness that everything we encounter in a text−from the tiniest detail to the overall structure−potentially carries meaning and has been deliberately chosen by the author for some purpose that will eventually become clearer as we keep on reading.

In this way, I think the path of meaning making as we make our way the first time through a text actually looks like this: a messy tangle of highways and side roads, with on-ramps and off-ramps, dead-ends and detours, and lanes that merge or diverge and divide or sometimes go round in circles−all of which we must navigate on our own by paying attention to the details we encounter and considering what they might mean, while remaining open and flexible enough to revise our understanding as we go.

My co-author Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore what it means to teach with this vision of reading in our new book, What Readers Really Do, which will come out next year. I’ll be sharing out-takes and ideas from it here. But for now I think it’s important to consider that if we want to support and nurture readers who are able to enter a text knowing nothing and emerge pages later with a deep understanding of a text’s ideas and themes, we need to let them know that this is what reading looks like. It’s not a beeline to a given, accepted meaning that either you get or you don’t. It’s a messy, complicated and confusing process that’s filled with wrong turns, false starts and uncertainty. And I believe we serve our students better if we acknowledge and honor that messiness and confusion as the place from which learning and understanding starts.