On Rigor, Grit, Productive Struggle and What Our Word Choice Means

Word Choice Matters

As happened last year, many of the teachers, administrators and parents who left feedback on last month’s English Language Arts test at testingtalk.org pointed to what they felt were questions that focused on minutiae which, as Brooklyn principal Liz Phillips said “had little bearing on [children's] reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.” Most of those questions were aimed at assessing the Common Core’s Reading Standards 4-6, which are the ones that look at word choice and structure. Having not seen this year’s tests, I’m not in a position to comment—though if the questions were like the ones I shared from some practice tests earlier, I can see what the concern was about.

Most of the practice test questions associated with those standards were, indeed, picayune and disconnected from the text’s overall meaning. But I don’t think that means that thinking about word choice and structure isn’t important—only that the test questions weren’t very good. Word choice and structure can, in fact, be windows onto a text’s deeper meaning. Or as my colleagues Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have suggested, thinking about Reading Standards 4-6 can get us to Standards 1-3, which are all about meaning. And so this week, I’d like to apply Reading Anchor Standard 4—”Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choice shape meaning or tone”—to three key buzzwords attached to the Standards—rigor, grit and productive struggle.

Rigor DefinitionTo me, all three seem to have strangely negative connotations. And in that, I’m not alone. Many educators have pointed out that, if we look up the word rigor in the dictionary, we find definitions that suggest something downright punishing. That’s why some educational writers, such as Stevi Quate and John McDermott, the authors of Clock Watchersdeliberately decided to use the word challenge instead of rigor in their most recent book The Just-Right ChallengeOthers, such as former NCTE president Joanne Yatvin prefer the word vigor, which turning to the thesaurus this time, lists synonyms such as energy, strength, gusto and zing. Either or both of those words seem better than one connected to stiff dead bodies—i.e., rigor mortis. Yet rigor is the word that’s most in vogue.

The word grit is also popular today and is frequently touted as “the secret to success.” Yet it, too, has a whiff of negativity about it. Grit is what’s needed to get through something
Child Refusing Dinnerunpleasant, boring or even painful that someone else has said is good for you—like eating your vegetables or sitting through days and days of standardized testing. And as Alfie Kohn notes in his great piece “Ten Concerns about the ‘Let Them Teach Grit’ Fad,” grit seems connected to a slew of other terms, like self-discipline, will power and deferred gratification, all of which push students to “resist temptation, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do—and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

Here, too, we could choose another word, like resilience, without the same connotations as grit, but we don’t. According to Merriam-Webster again, resilience focuses on “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change,” not just the stamina or toughness to trudge through it. And as former principal and speaker Peter DeWitt notes in his EdWeek blog post “Should Children Really Be Expected to Have Grit?“, resilience “can coincide with empathy and compassion,” whereas grit seems more about sheer doggedness—and in the case of vegetables and tests, compliance, which may be the word’s hidden agenda.

And then there’s the term productive struggle, which I confess I’ve embraced in the past, as an earlier blog post attests to. I believe completely in giving students time to explore and wrestle with a text in order to arrive at their own meaning because whatever is learned through that process—about that text, texts in general, and the reader himself—will stick much more than if we overly direct or scaffold students to a pre-determined answer. But that word struggle comes with the same negative connotations as the two other words do. The thesaurus, for instance, lists battle and fight as synonyms for struggle, with pains and drudgery as related words. And while I think we can reclaim words—such as turning the word confusion into something to celebrate rather than avoid—I’ve recently started to wonder if we shouldn’t choose a more positive word to get at the same concept, as you’ll see in the twitter exchange I had with two teachers after reading a blog post by the wonderful Annie PaulTwitter Inquiry vs. Struggle

Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as “a systematic search for the truth or facts about something” and unlike the word struggle, which seems mostly connected to hardship and conflict, the word inquiry is connected to questioning, challenge and self-reflection. In fact, it seems to embrace the very habits of mind that NCTE has identified in their Framework for Postsecondary Success:

NCTE Habits of Mind Framework

So what does it say about our culture that the words we’ve chosen to latch on to the most all seem to carry connotations of hardship, toughness and forbearance? Some writers, like Alfie Kohn, see this as simply a new manifestation of the Puritan work ethic—in a time in which it’s become much harder to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Others, like P. L. Thomas of Furman University, sees in the “‘grit’ narrative” something much more insidious: “a not-so-thinly masked appeal to racism”, with students of color being tagged as the ones most in need of more rigor, grit and time spent struggling.

In addition to these troubling implications, these three words also focus on student deficits, not on student strengths. And they suggest that we, as teachers, should be like Catwoman with her scowl and her whip, rather than like the Cat Lady who invites children to get to know the kitties. And I can’t help thinking that if, as a society, we chose some of those other words from the NCTE Framework instead—such as curiosity, openness, creativity and engagement—students would engage in productive struggle, even with something deemed rigorous, without explicit lessons on grit. And that’s because . . .

Word Choice Matters 2

 

 

 

 

 

In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

Milton Avery Reclining Reader

“Reclining Reader” by Milton Avery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20:20 by Linda Brewer

Now follow these simple instructions from the poet Mary Oliver:

Pay-attention-be-astonished-tell-about-it-mary-oliver-256832

 

Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

test-prep-strategies-©

We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

Reading Closely versus Close Reading: A Cautionary Tale

Caution Tape

Since I first wrote about close reading last fall, the practice seems to have settled into one of two prescribed methods. The first, which I looked at in an earlier post, is modeled on Achieve the Core’s original unit exemplars, which many of the new packaged programs are emulating. The second comes by way of Timothy Shanahan, who demonstrates the planning process behind his approach in a PowerPoint presentation, using the picture book The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater.

In this example, students read a text three time to answer three sets of text-dependent questions that correlate to the bands of the Common Core reading standards. Thus the first time round, students answer questions about Key Ideas and Details, as aligned to RL.1-3, in order to comprehend what the text says. The second read is guided by questions related to the Craft and Structure standards (RL.4-6), which ask students to consider how the text works or says what it did. And in the third read students are asked Integration of Knowledge and Idea questions (RL.7-9) in order to evaluate the worth of the text and compare it with others.

It’s a nifty and rather elegant construct: three reads of a text, three bands of reading standards, with each read devoted to a band. And I love the idea that’s implicit in this: that when we read for deep understanding, we actually engage in all the reading standards, not just one or two. But it’s also something of a formula, which Shanahan, himself, has cautioned against. And below is another reason to be wary of overly prompted and structured close readings.

The Pity Party CoverSome fifth grade teachers I worked with had used both methods with their students in preparation for New York’s now infamous test, and after watching their classes struggle on the test, they wondered how well those close readings had helped them and whether or not the students were transferring that thinking to their independent books. To explore that second question, we decided to confer with students to look for evidence of transfer. And given that I’ve billed this a cautionary tale, you can probably guess the answer: not much. Here, for instance, is what happened with a student named Jade who was just beginning Alison Pollet‘s The Pity Party.

As Jade opened the book and thumbed to the first chapter, I noticed that she’d passed a page that may have been a prologue. Curious to know both what the page was and what made her decide to skip it, I asked to see the book for a moment and took a look at this page:

The Pity Party Excerpt 1

Beyond recognizing this as a reading list, a thoughtful reader who’s reading closely—versus ‘doing’ a close reading via text-dependent questions—might notice that all the annotations include references to orphans, which would naturally lead to the question, “Why?” What’s with all the notes about orphans? Is the character who wrote them an orphan? And could that be connected somehow to the pity party of the title?

Those questions, in turn, would position a reader to read forward with intention. But when I gave the book back back to Jade, she once again opened it to Chapter One. Then looking at me, she did flip back, and when I asked what she made of the page, said, “It’s just a book list.” Then she turned the page and started the first chapter, with no questions or seeming awareness of orphans.

A Cautionary TaleOf course, if the word orphan is important (as it turns out to be) there will be other opportunities for a reader to realize that the main character is one and to think about the impact of that. But Jade’s cursory read of the book’s first few pages made both me and the teachers think that all that close reading work they’d done hadn’t led this students to read more attentively or engage in the thinking work readers do from the beginning as they notice, connect and fit details together to draft their understanding of the text. And while there may be many reasons why the thinking didn’t transfer, as Nancy Boyles writes in “Closing in on Close Reading,” “If all we’re doing is asking questions about [a book], readers will probably have a solid understanding of that book by the last page. But those questions . . . don’t inform the study of subsequent books.”

So what’s a teacher to do? The answer, I think, is to make a shift from ‘doing’ close reading to inviting students to attend more closely to what they’ve noticed and consider what it might mean, as two third grade ICT teachers I worked with did. Here’s a chart that records their students’ thinking when they asked them if they had noticed any patterns a quarter the way through Kate DiCamillo‘s now classic Because of Winn-Dixie:

Winn-Dixie Patterns

And here’s a chart that captures what they noticed within the pattern of lonely characters, which the class decided to track, with details that explained why a character was lonely above the horizontal line and those that showed how the pattern was changing listed underneath that:

Winn-Dixie Patterns 2

What I think is interesting in both these charts is that students are paying attention not only to what the text says but how it says it. They’ve noticed, for example, the motif of storytelling that runs throughout the book and the way Kate DiCamillo has described the Preacher as being “in his shell”. And they’ve even begun the process of interpreting by thinking about why he’s described that way, with the idea that he might be shy in parentheses.

In this way the students are doing what Tim Shanahan, in his close reading warning post, describes as “telescoping”: They’re engaging in the second Craft and Structure read concurrently with the first read. “To get immature readers to pay attention to the craft and structure issues,” he writes, “while they were first making sense of the plot would be an accomplishment.” Yet here are third graders, some of whom have special needs, doing exactly that.

Of course they’re not ready to make claims yet. But that’s because there’s still much to read and much to think about. And to help them keep thinking—and reading closely—we asked the class to gather up all the lines in which the Preacher’s shell had been mentioned to consider what else it could mean. In addition to their initial idea, the students connected the Preacher’s shell to another pattern they’d noticed—that he’s always doing work. And by looking closely at the last two lines, they arrived at a brand new idea they hadn’t before entertained: that maybe the Preacher goes into his shell to avoid talking about Opal’s mother.

Winn-DixieMaybes

Connecting these patterns and seeing how they change and develop over the course of the book will eventually allow students to consider what the author might be trying to show them about loneliness, friendship, storytelling and loss. And because it’s based on a process of meaning making, not on text-dependent questions, the thinking is actually transferable from one text to another. Furthermore, if we see close reading as an outcome or goal, as Tim Shanahan requests, not as a teaching technique, these students are, in fact, engaged in close reading. They’re just doing it with more independence—which is just what the Common Core asks for.

close-reading-button-01

Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

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

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

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

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

Dozens of Roses

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

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

FishFaceIllustration

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

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

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

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

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

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

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

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

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

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

I'm just not yet ready

More Thoughts on Craft and Those Pesky Test Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude Stein Passage

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

Gertrude Stein Question

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

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

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

Fitting Pieces Together

Cracking Open the Word Craft

Cracking Open Nuts

For those of us who have taught writing workshop over the years, we tend to think of craft as the particular moves a writer makes that we can invite students to emulate in their own writing, such as using sensory details or repeating a line as structural device or refrain. Writers, we tell students, make these moves to engage their readers and bring whatever they’re writing about more vividly to life, which is indeed true. But that concept of craft is very different, I think, from what’s meant by the word in the Common Core Standards, where three “Craft and Structure” reading standards exist for both literary and information texts from kindergarten up to twelfth grade.

Those standards require students to consider the significance of, say, the particular sensory details a writer has chosen and to analyze how those choices contribute to the overall meaning or tone of a text. And if New York City is any indication, there’s a fair amount of contention brewing around those standards—especially in the way they were tested in the recent state ELA exams where students faced a barrage of multiple choice questions that asked them why an author used a particular word, detail or phrase in a given text. Many of the over 600 parents, principals and teachers who left comments on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project ELA feedback site, for instance, saw this as a troubling emphasis on minutia over big understandings, with Lucy Calkins, the Project Director, summing up those sentiments this way:

“. . . I think the test makers are interpreting the standards, even for 9 and 10 year olds, to be all about ultra-ultra-law-school-literary-criticism-level-close analytic reading, asking ‘why did the author include (mean by) X in line Y?’ and not at all about reading to acquire knowledge or construct big ideas about a comprehensible story. How will a test like this alter reading and writing curriculum, and will that yield a generation of engaged, curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers and writers?”

Rat DissectionI’ve made no bones about my fears of where curriculum is headed, and have questioned how certain models of close reading, which encourage students to dissect texts, like science lab mice, through teacher-driven text-dependent questions, can possibly yield those curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers that I, too, want students to be. But for all the questions and worries I have about analysis as the end goal of reading, I do think it’s important to ask students to consider the possible significance of details for authentic reasons.

Every time, for instance, that we infer a feeling or motivation from a detail a writer gives us, we’re engaged in thinking about the writer’s choices, automatically but invisibly asking ourselves, Why is the author telling me this? What is she trying to show me? That’s because thoughtful and knowledgeable readers know that, as I wrote in an earlier post about the writing mantra ‘show don’t tell,’ writers actually show and tell, through details they’ve purposefully chosen.

One Green AppleFrom a reader’s perspective then we can think of craft as how writers use and arrange specific details, words, images, and figurative language to convey their story’s meaning—i.e., to show and tell. And readers construct those desired big ideas by attending to and interpreting those choices.  Here, for instance, is a group of fifth graders I worked with recently reading Eve Bunting‘s great book One Green Apple, which tells the story of a girl named Farah who, having recently moved to America, takes a giant step toward belonging during a class field trip to an orchard.

If we stick to some of the common methods of thinking about theme or the gist of a story, such as thinking about what a character learned or using a Somebody Wanted Something But So chart, students may think that this is a story about the challenges of learning a new language. That certainly is something Bunting explores, but when I asked the students if they noticed any patterns—recurring words, details, images, ideas that the writer had purposely woven into the story—their thinking got much deeper.

As they made their way the first time through the story, they noticed how many details were about things that were different. There was Farah, herself, who was different from the others, the language she spoke, the head scarf she wore, the way boys and girls sat together, and the green apple of the title, which came from a tree that was different than the others. And as the story progressed, they noticed a shift, with fewer details about things that were different and more about things that were the same. The green apple was “small and alone” like Farah, and lots of sounds were described as being the same in America and Farah’s homeland, such as people laughing, sneezing and belching and dogs crunching on apples.

OneGreenApple2OneGreenApple3

Noticing all this allowed them to move beyond the lesson about learning English to something deeper that Eve Bunting seemed to be exploring through these patterns: how our similarities might be more important than our differences. And with this in mind, we revisited the story to develop and refine that idea, with the students noticing even more. They noticed that the day, itself, was different; that among the three dogs, one was different; that the words belong and blend were repeated; and that there were differences among the other children, with some being friendly and some smiling “cruel smiles.”

They also took another look at a page that had puzzled them before where one of the boys attempts to stop Farah from dropping her green apple into the cider press. On their first read they had developed two ideas about why the boy tried to stop her: that he may have feared that the apple, being green, wasn’t ripe and would spoil the cider, and that he might have wanted the apple for himself because it was unique. Each idea was somewhat grounded in the text—the apple was green and it was unlike the others—but with a heightened awareness of the patterns Bunting had crafted and the link between Farah and the apple, they now wondered if perhaps the boy didn’t want the green apple—and by extension Farah—mixing with the others.

OneGreenApple1

Paying more attention to the details of the story and how the author used them helped these students consider something they never had before: that bigotry can exist among children even now. And like the students discovering the gender issues in The Paper Bag Princess earlier, they had much to say about that. And that brings us to another authentic reason for thinking about craft: It helps us reap one of the great gifts of reading—to expand and enrich our understanding of people and the world.

The Blue GhostIt also helps students become more aware of the intentionality of details, as two third graders of teacher and blogger Steve Peterson discovered when they returned to the beginning of a book they’d finished, The Blue Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer. As Steve recounts in his post “Re-reading to Discover Author Choices,” going back to the first chapter helped these readers see how the author had planted all sorts of clues they hadn’t noticed the first time around. This could, of course, help them analyze the text. But more importantly it will help them enter the next book they read with a greater awareness of how writers craft a text by arranging and using details that develop everything from character to theme. And, in the end, I believe that will make them more college and career ready than any multiple choice questions will.

So let’s not discount the importance of craft. Let’s just be sure that both we and students see how thinking about it really helps readers.

Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com

Pushing Back on the United States of Pearson

Pearsonflag

Last week I attended this year’s IRA Convention where every registered participant not associated with an exhibitor’s booth had to wear a name badge around their neck emblazoned with Pearson’s name and logo—which, in effect, made each and every one of us a walking advertisement for the corporate giant that seems to be taking over public education. Also last week third through eighth grade students throughout New York State were sitting at their desks with sharpened pencils, bubble sheets and test booklets published by Pearson, trying to make it through the three-day ordeal that was this year’s state ELA exam.

Subway Test PosterPearson created the tests as part of a $32 million five-year contract with New York State to design Common Core aligned assessments, and the word on the street was they were going to be hard. New York City had, in fact, already warned schools and parents to expect a dramatic drop in scores, and they spent $240,000 on what the New York Daily News called “a splashy ad campaign” explaining the drop to parents through posters that appeared in the subway and on ferries.

What all that money couldn’t buy, however, was any peace of mind, as reports from parents and teachers attest to on sites such as WNYC’s Schoolbook, the New York City Public School Parents blog, and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s “Responses to the NYS ELA Exam” page. There you’ll find stories of students in tears, vomiting and even soiling themselves as their stress and anxiety levels mounted. And you’ll hear many tales of students running out of time, which was in short supply. According to testing expert Fred Smith, whose piece on the New York State tests appeared in the Washington Post’s “The Answer Sheet,” students had 7% less time per item than last year when the passages and questions weren’t as difficult. Not only does this make no sense, it’s also profoundly ironic: One of the Standards’ Six Instructional Shifts specifically tells teachers to be “patient [and] create more time in the curriculum for close and careful reading,” yet this year’s tests seemed to value speed over thoughtfulness and depth. And students had to waste what precious time they had on passages and questions that Pearson was field testing—that is, trying out for use on future tests—which served Pearson’s purposes, not students’.

As Smith says, such field testing “raises legal and ethical questions about forcing children to serve as subjects for commercial research purposes without their parents’ knowledge and informed consent.” And this wasn’t the only ethical question this year’s test brought up. As reported in the New York Post, At the Chalk Face and Diane Ravitch’s blog, several teachers noticed passages on the 6th and 8th grade tests that were in Pearson textbooks, giving students who’d read those texts in class an unfair advantage—and perhaps encouraging schools to buy additional Pearson products to up their students’ chances of scoring well.

Trademark SymbolThere were also reports of other kinds of product placement, with brand names, such as Nike, IBM and Mug Root Beer, appearing in many of the passages. Pearson has said this is an inevitable consequence of using ‘authentic’ texts. But while brand names do, of course, appear in lots of books and articles, you usually don’t see trademark symbols or footnotes such as the one that supposedly explained that “Mug Root Beer is the leading brand of Root Beer” beneath a passage that referred to the brand.

I say supposedly because the tests are kept under lock and key with teachers jeopardizing their careers by revealing specific details of the contents. This lack of transparency again raises questions about corporate versus citizens’ rights—though parents exercised their right to have their children ‘opt out’ of the test in record number this year, and a petition has started circulating online demanding that the State cancel its contract with Pearson.

The lack of transparency also means that parents and other taxpayers who have financed the tests cannot judge for themselves how well, or not, they lived up to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s claim:

“For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills but support good teaching in the classroom.”

ELA Test BookletThe full battery of what Duncan calls these “game-changer” tests are not due out until the 2014-15 school year, but New York State and Pearson have said that this year’s assessments are in line with what’s to come—and Pearson’s in a position to know. They’ve been deeply involved in developing test items for PARCC, one of the two consortia that have received $360 million in federal funds to create the new assessments. Yet according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, these ‘game-changer’ exams will be “only marginally better than current tests” and will waste an enormous amount of time and money for everyone except Pearson.

As for IRA, it was heartening to hear (at least in the sessions I attended) more emphasis placed on best practice than data and more talk about meeting the needs of students than the needs of the test. There was even a little insurrection going on with those Pearson name badges: My fellow presenter Mary Lee Hahn of the A Year of Reading blog bought some clear packing tape and used it cover Pearson’s logo with her own business card, and several people used magic markers and editing marks to change PEARSON to A PERSON.

All that and the volume of online chatter I discovered about New York’s tests once I got home made think that there might still be a chance to raise our voices, flex our muscles, and reclaim the conversation from Pearson about where education is going.

Barry Lane at IRA

Educator, author and songwriter Barry Lane pushing Pearson out of the way at the 2013 International Reading Association Convention