Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant

Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction

Just the Facts Ma'amAs part of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon that Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts hosted to kick-off their new book, Falling in Love with Close ReadingKate reminded us that not every nonfiction text warrants a close reading. In particular she noted texts whose word choice and details don’t reveal an authorial point of view—or as Kate so wonderfully put it, “aren’t rippling with nuance.” Many of those texts are purely factual—i.e., they don’t use facts to explore a question, issue or event that the writer may have a stance on. And many are content area texts that provide social studies or science information without much of a discernible view point.

I agree completely that not every text deserves close point-of-view scrutiny, but there are other reasons to read those texts closely, as I think they pose many problems for students and offer many problem-solving opportunities. The title of this week’s post, for instance, alludes to something that not every reader might know—in this case, a TV show that was popular before some of you were born. References and allusions like this abound in all sorts of nonfiction, from Nicholas Carr‘s intriguing piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, which begins with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Sy Montgomery‘s grade 4-5 text exemplar Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, which in passing mentions hobbits, trolls, Sponge Bob and Stuart Little. Most of these references are kid-friendly and add to the fun of the book. But like the old TV show Dragnet, I imagine that there are students out there who’ve never heard of Stuart Little. So what’s a fourth or fifth grader to do when reading a section that begins like this:

“Stuart Little, the small mouse with big parents, had nothing on baby marsupials. Marsupials (“mar-SOUP-ee-ulz”) are special kinds of mammals. Even the biggest ones give birth to babies who are incredibly small. A two-hundred-pound, six-foot mother kangaroo, for instance, gives birth to a baby as small as a lima bean. That’s what makes marsupials marsupials.”

QuestfortheTreeKangarooThe easiest way to solve the problem of what Stuart Little means would be for a teacher to tell the students who Stuart Little is. No doubt that might be entertaining and even lead some students to the book. But given that, just like vocabulary words, it’s simply impossible for a teacher to provide explanations for every allusion or reference students might encounter in a text, we might want to think twice about solving the problems that allusions and references pose and instead let students try to solve them on their own, at least some of the time. Some students, for instance, might solve the problem here by skipping right over Stuart Little and focusing instead on what they can understand: that marsupials are mammals whose babies are super small. Others, instead, might create what I call a “place holder”: they figure out that whoever Stuart Little is, the difference in size between him and his parents isn’t nearly as great as the difference between marsupial babies and their moms.

I believe that providing students with opportunities to wrestle with problems like these helps them become confident and resourceful readers. But for that to happen, we, as teachers, need to be more aware of the problem-solving opportunities that specific texts hold. We can do that by recognizing that many of the items that frequently appear in text complexity rubrics, such as allusions, vocabulary and complicated syntax, can be thought of as problems to solve, as can the kind of “holes in the cheese” I discussed in an earlier post—those places where a nonfiction writer hasn’t explicitly spelled out how the facts are connected. We can also better see the problems a text poses if we ask students what they’re confused about, as I wrote about last year and did as well with two groups of fourth graders that looked at this excerpt from Samuel de Champlain: From New France to Cape Cod by Adrianna Morganelli:

Trade & Exploration

Both groups of students had studied explorers earlier in the year, and so I began by asking each group to think about what they had learned. In both cases, the students shrugged more than spoke, which gave their teachers pause. Interestingly enough, though, as they made their way through the first paragraph, which was filled with things that confused them—”thirst for wealth”, “the spice trade” and “commodities”, which they solved by checking out the glossary—they started to remember more.

I think it’s important to note here that the call to activate schema before reading yielded virtually nothing, but the students automatically started pulling information without prompting from their memory banks in order to resolve their confusion. Problem solving, thus, gave them a purpose for strategically drawing on their background knowledge in a way that years of deliberately practicing the strategy of activating schema hadn’t. And with that paragraph mostly solved they moved on to the next.

The first group I read this passage with helped me better see the problems that the second part posed, as students were once again confused. In particular, they were confused by the references to trade routes, both overland and sea ones, as well as by the glut of place names and the different types of people. In fact, who controlled and discovered what where, along with why and how, were all problems that needed solving. And while I ran out of time with the first group, I came more prepared for the second, offering them this map to look at and use as a problem solving tool:

Age of Exploration Map

Using the map helped them figure out the difference between overland and sea routes as well as who controlled which and why. It also allowed them to understand what the first group hadn’t: that the New World was discovered almost by accident, as explorers sought to find the Moluccas, and that furs, fish, gold and silver were the new commodities mentioned in the first paragraph, which again were discovered through what had originally been a search for spices and silk. And here again, they automatically inferred in order to solve those problems.

Arriving at these understandings definitely took longer than it would have if I’d solved the problems for the students by pre-teaching or explaining what had confused them or modeling a think-aloud. But as I debriefed the lesson with the teachers, we all thought that in addition to helping students become stronger independent readers, they were also more likely to remember the content because they’d figured it out for themselves and it now belonged to them. And as some of the teachers who attended the session I did last month in New Hampshire said, putting students in problem-solving mode helped them “see themselves as ‘figuring-it-out’ kind of kids.” And that, I think is well worth the time, both for us and for students.

Thinking (Please be Patient)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matrioska Russian Doll

Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

Planning for What You Can't KnowThe title and lead picture of this week’s post comes by way of Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, whose article about planning writing units of study by projecting possible teaching points rather than creating a pacing calendar with a prescribed sequence of lessons seemed utterly brilliant to me when I saw it a few years ago. The article and the book it derived from, Projecting Possibilities for Writers, was based on the idea that if we want to be responsive teachers—i.e., teachers who teach students, not curriculum—we can’t always know how a unit will unfold, as it all depends on what our students bring with them and what they do with what we instructionally offer. This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t plan. We have plenty of plans up our sleeves, but we don’t necessarily decide what to teach and when until we see what the students do.

To help teachers wrap their minds around this, Matt and Mary Alice provide what they call “A Process for Projecting”: a template for planning, consisting of steps, that I believe has implications for reading as well. The first few steps, for instance, have teachers gathering and studying a stack of mentor texts then determining the unit’s major goals. For the first step teachers might gather texts connected by genre, author or craft then study them to think about what the authors of those texts are doing that they could invite students to emulate in their writing.

Big_Fresh_Newsletter_logoWhen it comes to reading, we might gather texts to choose a great read aloud to anchor a unit on a genre, author, topic or theme, or to create a text set. Coincidentally enough, this week’s “Big Fresh Newsletter” from Choice Literacy shares several links where phenomenal teachers, such as Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, explain how and why they choose certain texts as read alouds to kick off their year. For my part, I usually look for a text that I anticipate students will love and that’s not too long—a great picture book or a chapter book that’s under 200 pages. I also want one with lots of opportunities for students to think meaningfully and deeply in ways I believe will add to their enjoyment and sense of agency as readers. And since at some point early in the year, I want to engage students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore in What Readers Really Do, I also want a text that requires students to connect details within the text to infer and that uses patterns to develop its big ideas and themes.

I look for that first when I study the texts I’ve gathered. And once I’ve narrowed the stack of books down, I look more closely to better understand the particular demands those texts put on readers, or what we might call the specific kinds of problems readers would need to solve in order to literally and inferentially comprehend and think deeply about the book’s meaning. This is, in fact, exactly what I did with the teacher I wrote about last week, as we sat down together to assess how the textbook section she wanted to use conveyed content concepts and to see if there were any  ‘holes in the cheese‘—i.e., places where students would have to connect facts and details in order to apply the concepts and infer something the writer hasn’t said explicitly.

FreedomSummerStudying texts in this way also helps teachers become more aware of how the writer of a chosen text uses specific details, imagery and patterns to explore ideas, which is how I interpret the Common Core’s reading standards on craft. As I shared in a recent post about craft, my awareness of patterns in Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple helped me move students beyond the surface level. And studying texts helped the teacher in that classroom recognize the craft in other books she hoped to use to continue the work I had started. In Deborah Wiles‘s Freedom Summer, for example, which recounts the friendship of a white and black boy in the 1960’s segregated South, she noticed a pattern around ice pops and nickels that reveals a subtle change in the boys’ relationship after a head on encounter with racism at a town swimming pool.

It’s worth noting that the point of studying texts is not to know which specific details to direct students to, but to become more aware of all a text holds so that we can better respond to students and formatively assess their thinking. It also helps us take the reading Art of Anticipationequivalent of the fifth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s planning process: Anticipating Issues and Possible Small Group Work. In looking closely at the textbook I shared last week, the teacher I worked with anticipated that her students might not catch the tiny but important word ‘in’, which explained the relationship between minerals and rocks. So we anticipated planning some small group lessons to gave students additional time to practice thinking about the relationship or connection between the key words of a text. With One Green Apple, on the other hand, I anticipated that not every student would be able to see the metaphoric connection between the green apple and the main character, Farah. And while those who couldn’t might be able to piggyback on the thinking of others, I anticipated needing to plan some small group lessons of the sort I described in an early post to give them more time to experience that kind of figurative thinking for themselves.

Projecting those needs led me immediately to the sixth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s process: I had to think about materials and resources. If I saw what I anticipated seeing during the read alouds, I’d need some short texts or excerpts, possibly at different levels, that would offer opportunities for students to practice solving the specific kinds of problems that those texts presented. Projecting possibilities in this way, I’d be on the look out for those. But I’d also need to carefully listen to students during the read aloud to see if there were other needs or miscomprehensions I hadn’t anticipated, which I’d want to address in small groups as well, so that individual children had more time to wrestle with with whatever kind of problem they’d hit.

Finally, readers who clicked through to Matt and Mary Alice’s article might have noticed that I omitted a step: Developing a Sequence of Minilessons. With the number of questions I’ve been getting lately about the what, when and how of mini-lessons, I’m saving that for another post. But I hope this one helps with whatever planning for reading you’re doing this summer.

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.

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.

Using Text Sets to Help Students Build an Understanding of the World of a Book

Last week’s post, which looked at the way that well-intentioned scaffolds can sometimes undermine students’ ability to make meaning, reminded me of a 7th grade teacher I worked with several years ago. She’d designed her humanities curriculum around questions of power and how and why governments do or don’t control their citizens, and she decided to kick-off the class that year by having the students read Lois Lowry‘s The Giver.

The book was a great choice for the year’s themes. But many of her students read way below grade level, and after a day of being met by blank stares when she asked a question about the reading assignment, the teacher shifted into read-aloud mode, hoping that a fluent, dramatic reading would allow the class to comprehend a text they couldn’t navigate on their own.

The students loved the read aloud, quickly convening and settling down in the back of the room to listen. But when the teacher paused to ask questions, she was still met with blank stares. They had no ideas about what it might mean to be ‘released’, no thoughts about the rituals of sharing feelings at night and all the talk about assignments and rules. And so with discomfort, she began doing what I imagine each and every one of us has done at some point in a classroom: she kept prompting them with leading questions, pulling answers out of them like teeth. And if the answers still didn’t come, she’d tuck what she was looking for into a question—like, “Do you think it’s possible that released means killed?”—at which point you’d see light bulbs going off in the students’ heads as they entertained the idea she’d put out that they hadn’t been able to access themselves.

In my own evolution as a literacy coach, I was still a few years away from the Know/Wonder chart that Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed which, by helping students pay more attention to what they’re figuring out from a text and what they’re wondering or confused about, encourages them to read more closely and pick up more detail clues. That tool, I believe, would have helped those students focus on the questions the first page raises, such as “Why is Jonas beginning to be frightened?” and “Why was everyone so scared of a plane?” It would also have positioned them to be more attentive to details that begin to repeat and form patterns—e.g., the capitalization of jobs, like Pilots; the emphasis on naming feelings precisely; the loudspeaker voice that tells people what do; and the many, many references to rules. And those questions and patterns would, in turn, help them develop lines of inquiry and hunches about the kind of world they were in.

Back then, though, what the teacher and I both realized was that the students needed more than a fluent reader’s voice to make meaning of the text. If she wasn’t going to push and prod them—or simply spoon-feed them what they couldn’t infer—they needed time to practice the kind of thinking I shared in last week’s post as I drafted an understanding of the world of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars from the details the author gives.  And so we gathered up a handful of books, like the ones below, that were set in some future time and place, and we created stations the students would visit and rotate among. At each station they’d read a few pages with a small group or partner and consider the following questions, which we modeled with one of the books. Then they shared their ideas on chart paper to compare with other groups’ and partner’s findings.

  • Do you notice any differences between this world and ours?
  • Are there words that seem to mean something special or are capitalized or used strangely? What do you think they might mean?
  • Are there different groups of people in this world? If so, can you tell anything about them or their relationship to each other?
  • Is there anything that gives you a sense of the worlds’ rules or what they seem to believe in—even if you don’t fully understand yet?

   

At this point in my practice, I like giving students more room to attend to what they notice in a text rather than direct them to specific details through prompts like the questions above. But I continue to use text sets like this to help students see and practice how readers infer the world of a book through the author’s details—whether the text is futuristic, historical, fantasy or realistic. (And for students who need even more support, I’d use them in the kind of ‘stepped-up’ guided small group I shared in an earlier post.)

This kind of close reading inevitably makes students want to keep reading the books. And when they do, they read with more engagement and depth because they’re no longer dependent on someone else’s questions to uncover what’s suggested on the page. They also read with more confidence and sense of agency because they know what it feels like to catch the little clues that reveal the text’s deeper meaning.

Text Set Books: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy FarmerFeed by M. T. Anderson, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbreck, The Copper Elephant by Adam Rapp, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.