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, 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, 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:



Don’t Box Me In: More Thoughts on Worksheets & Graphic Organizers

Alice in Wonderland

Several weeks ago I was in a 6th grade class that was reading Rick Riordan‘s The Lightning Thief, a book that has brought the Greek gods back to life for a generation of readers. The sixth grade team had decided to look at the book through the lens of conflict, knowing that the book was rife with conflicts as Percy Jackson struggles to not only slay monsters and navigate the worlds of both men and gods, but to figure out who he actually is. To help students keep track of their thinking around conflict the teachers had designed a graphic organizer, which asked the students to think about the kind of conflict they saw in each chapter and cite a quote from the text that revealed it. And that day, as the teacher handed out the worksheet, she said that the chapter they’d just read was great because it was full of conflicts.

“But there’s only one box,” a student said as he looked down the organizer.

Fortunately the teacher jumped right back and said they could use the boxes below that, which had been intended for subsequent chapters. But the moment raised a troubling question: How often do the supports we give students actually limit, not encourage, their thinking.

The_Lightning_Thief-1In this case we wanted the students not just to identify the type of conflict—which, whether we use Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, isn’t exactly higher order thinking. Instead, in our planning sessions, we talked about wanting the students to think more deeply about conflicts, exploring their causes, how they might be connected, how Percy dealt with them or not, which would ultimately give us a window on whatever Rick Riordan was trying to explore about the human condition (a.k.a., the themes) through Percy’s experiences. But unfortunately the organizer didn’t capture all that thinking; it fact, it limited how deeply students could go simply by not giving them room to write more than a word or a sentence. It also limited the students’ ability to talk more about their own thoughts by wrestling and exploring questions like, Which did they think was more challenging for Percy, fighting the minotaur or discovering that his mother had lied to him his whole life—and, of course, how and why? 

That’s not to say that we should go out and banish all worksheets and graphic organizers. But we do have to be aware of the kind of thinking they’re asking for and if they’re actually instructional tools meant to support and push students thinking or assessments of what’s been taught. The organizer below, for instance, asks students to record what they’ve already thought, not develop new thinking, and as such, I’d say it’s an assessment, not a tool. And it leaves the harder thinking work—how you figure out the main idea in the first place, especially in a text where it isn’t explicit—invisible.

Think You Know the Main Idea

This other one, however, from the National Archives online Teacher’s Resources page, actually invites students to notice more than they have at first when it asks them to “divide the photo into quadrants and study each section to see what new details become visible.” And then it asks them to make something of what they’ve notice—i.e., to grow new thinking—by asking them to “list three things you might infer from this photograph,” based on what they noticed.

National Archives Worksheet

This one seems far more useful to me because it offers a process of thinking that can lead to new thoughts and insight. And it also gives teachers a window on how students think, which the first graphic organizer doesn’t. We might see there who could identify a main idea and supporting details, but for those that couldn’t, we can’t really see where the thinking might have broken down.

No Child Has Ever WorksheetBut even the best graphic organizers can be problematic because they feel disposable. In fact, my hunch is that if we collected all the graphic organizers and worksheets that wind up crumpled in trash cans, students’ cubbies, lockers and desk, as well as those that have fallen like dead leaves out of folders and binders, they might, strung together, circle the earth as many times as discarded plastic bottles do. And they seem disposable because, even when we try to make them fun—using silly shapes or metaphors like the paragraph hamburger—they don’t really belong to the students. And because of this whatever learning might be captured in those graphic organizers might be discarded along with the paper.

So what’s a teacher to do? As I did with the students in last week’s post, we can let them determine how they want to represent whatever thinking they’ve done, which I think inherently makes it more memorable and meaningful. It certainly helped with the students I wrote about last week who were digging into metaphors. And let’s compare a graphic organizer for poetry that, by including questions, wonderings and feelings, seems much better than most, with a chart a group of students created to share the thinking they had done after reading and discussing the poem “Ode to Stone” from Nikki Grimes‘s great book Bronx Masquerade:

Poetry Worksheet

Ode to Stone Chart

Granted, the students didn’t identify the poetic devices that Grimes’s used. But they definitely got the poem—which raises another question: What’s the more critical and higher order thinking work, identifying a metaphor or thinking about what it means within the context of the poem?

Additionally letting students decide how to represent their thinking lets them practice creating organizing structures, which the Common Core writing standards require students to do as early as grade four—and which can be done even earlier as educational blogger Tomasen Carey shows in her great post “You Got the MOVES! Writing Nonfiction with Voice, Choice, Clarity and Creativity.” And finally, as students share out what they created, they can offer their classmates a vision of different ways both of thinking about the text and conveying that thinking, which is just what happens in this lovely passage about two students, Daphne and Henrietta, in Andrea Barrett‘s story “The Island” from her collection Archangel:

Archangel CoverIn the laboratory, where she and Henrietta worked at the same dissections and experiments, their notebooks looked like they were taking two different courses. Henrietta did as she’d learned in Oswego: neat ruled columns, numbered lists of observations, modest questions framed without any trace of personality, and in such a way that they might be answered. The “I,” Mr. Robbins had said, has no place in scientific study. Daphne’s pages seemed, in contrast, to be filled with everything Henrietta had expunged. Scores or drawings filled the margins, everything from fish eggs to the fringed feelers of the barnacle’s waving legs. Describing a beach plum’s flowering parts, she broke into unrelated speculations, circled these darkly, and then drew arrows from there to cartoons of the professor.

We can say that by taking on her former teacher’s ideas, Henriette put herself in a box, while Daphne made the information her own, which seems to me one of the hallmarks of true independence, which should always be our ultimate goal. So let’s be careful and more aware of when we put students in boxes—lest we inadvertently stifle and stunt their growth and thinking, which I’m sure we don’t want to do.

Thinking Outside of the Box

SWBAT Read the Learning Targets from the Board

Hit the target

As other educational bloggers, such as Grant Wiggins and the teacher behind “TeachingTweaks,” have noticed, lesson plans are filled these days with learning objectives and targets, which spell out what students supposedly will be able to (SWBAT) do by the end of the lesson. These objectives and targets, most of which refer to specific standards, are also often written on white boards or posted on classroom charts, and teachers and/or students often read them aloud before the lesson starts.

In addition to proving to the powers that be that we’re aligning our instruction to the Standards—and have clear objectives in mind—I think this practice is intended to make the work of reading more visible to students. As anyone who’s read What Readers Really Do knows, I think it’s critical to make the invisible work of reading visible. But saying that you can do something doesn’t necessarily ensure that you can, as I’ve been recently seeing. Or put another way, talking the talk doesn’t mean that you can walk the walk.

Esperanza_Rising CoverHere, for instance, is what happened in a school that was thinking the same very same thing. They’d adopted Expeditionary Learning, which was one of the reading programs New York City had recommended last year as being Common Core ready. But while the teachers loved some things about it (especially some of the protocols), they weren’t sure what the kids were really getting. And so one day I found myself in a 5th grade class that was reading Esperanza RisingPam Munoz Ryan‘s wonderful book about a young, pampered Mexican girl whose life is completely turned upside down when, after her father is killed, she and her mother flee to California where they become farm laborers. The class was up to Lesson 10, which focused on the chapter called “Las Papas (Potatoes)” and included the following learning targets:

Esperanza Rising Targets 10

According to the lesson plan, the students would meet these targets through the following activites:

  • taking a short comprehension quiz
  • summarizing the chapter
  • discussing the meaning of the title
  • reviewing their “Inferring by Using Text Clues” and “Metaphors and Themes in Esperanza Rising” chart
  • rereading a passage in the chapter using evidence flags to answer and discuss, both in triads and whole class, nine right-or-wrong-answer text-dependent questions
  • adding notes to the character T-charts in their workbooks, and
  • writing a short constructed response to a prompt about how Esperanza was changing

As you may have found yourself thinking as you read that, I thought there was simply too much going on, with too much of it disconnected. And having been invited to take liberties with the lesson, I decided to focus it instead on how writers use and develop metaphors to show us how characters change. And rather than following the lesson script, which instructed me to begin the class by “reviewing the learning targets with students by reading them out loud,” I instead simply asked the class what they thought a metaphor was.

Pin DroppingYou could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room, so I asked everyone to think about a metaphor in the book they’d talked about before, then to turn and talk to share with a partner what they thought a metaphor could be, even if they weren’t quite sure. This at least got everyone talking, and amid their uncertainty we did hear a few students say something about comparing.

Their memory banks kicking in more when I clicked on the following slide, which represented some of the metaphors that appeared on their “Metaphors and Themes” chart. They were sure that the image on the top left was Abuelita’s blanket, whose zigzag pattern was like mountains and valleys that represented the ups and downs of life.

Esperanza Rising Metaphors

This is stated pretty explicitly earlier in the book, when Esperanza’s grandmother Abuelita says,

“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of the mountain again.”

And for me that raised the question: Had they learned that the blanket was a metaphor for life either because it was so explicit or the teachers had led them there, or had they really learned how to think about metaphors in a deeper way?

Since the blanket featured prominently in Chapter 10, I wanted to see if the students could think more deeply about its role in the story. And to do that, I put the students in groups and gave each group a piece of chart paper (wanting also to break out from the workbooks with their worksheets and graphic organizers). I then read the following page in two chunks, asking the students to talk about what Pam Munoz Ryan might be trying to show them about the meaning the blanket, then to write down some of their thoughts on the paper and illustrate it in some fashion.

Esperanza Rising excerpt

For the first chunk, which ended with the words “Mama’s lungs,” different groups noticed different things. Some, for instance, thought about what the blanket must mean to Mama, who was so ill she barely could speak. Others thought it might be important that Esperanza had seemingly forgotten about it, while still others noted that the dust had gotten into both Mama’s lungs and the trunk and they talked about what that might mean, which led them to consider how the blanket and Mama’s lungs might be similar.

CrochetingWith the second chunk, many were reminded of how Abuelita would weave her own hair into the blanket, which made it seem to mean even more—almost like a stand-in for Abuelita herself. And some noted how the blanket held the scents of both smoke and peppermint, as if it contained both the good and bad memories from their life in Mexico. And all this made them feel the significance of the moment when Esperanza, who’d expressed no interest in crocheting before, takes up her grandmother’s crochet needles and starts to finish the blanket.

Of course, with all the thinking, talking, writing, drawing and sharing out, this took a fair amount of time. But there was just time enough to ask one more question: “Do you think you learned anything about metaphors today?” And this time the kids had lots to say:

“We learned that sometimes things mean more than they are.”

“A metaphor can mean more than one thing and its meaning can change.”

“A metaphor is a thing that means more than what it is.”

“Sometimes the writer tells you what it means, but sometimes you have to figure it out by thinking about other parts of the book.”

I think the truth is that if we’re truly asking for deeper thinking and understanding, we can’t know we’ll get it for sure until we see or hear it. And we can’t expect to hit our targets without giving students lots of time to practice. If we thinking otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves—and we’re misleading our students.

Looking at Complex Texts More Complexly (or What’s Wrong with this Picture?)

Clifford Loves Me -SunAlsoRises

By now many of us have experienced or heard about the effects of using Lexile levels as the sole arbiter of text complexity. In her wonderful post “Guess My Lexile,” for instance, Donalyn Miller looks at the absurdity of putting book with widely different reader appeal and age appropriateness in the same book bin because they share a Lexile level (as my own favorite Lexile odd couple, Clifford and Hemingway, do, with both clocking in at 610L). And for those of us who strongly believe in the power of choice and interest-based reading, young adult writer Mike Mullin shares a chilling story in a blog post about a mother frantically searching for a book that her dystopian-loving 6th grade daughter, whose Lexile level was 1000, would be allowed to read for school. The Giver—out. Fahrenheit 451—out. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—out, all because of Lexile levels which, in its arbitrariness and control, seems like something out of those dystopian books.

text complexity triangleWhile I can’t vouch for the intentions of the Common Core authors (as I can’t for any writer without direct communication), this is not what’s stated in the Standards themselves. In Appendix A’s “Approach to Text Complexity,” the Common Core authors offer a three-part model for measuring text complexity, which they capture with a now familiar graphic. This model, they clearly state, “consists of three equally important parts”—the qualitative dimensions, the quantitative dimensions, and the reader and the task—all of which must be considered when determining a text’s complexity in order to address “the intertwined issues of what and how students read.” Yet how often does that actually happen?

The Arrival coverThe sad fact is that too many schools, reading programs and test makers rely on quantitative measures such as Lexiles to make text selections for students because it’s simple and easy. Lexiles can be found with a click of a mouse, while assessing the qualitative measures is harder and much more time consuming, even when we use rubrics. That’s because the rubrics are often filled with abstract words that are open to interpretation, and they use what seems like circular logic—e.g., saying that “a text is complex if its structure is complex—which doesn’t seem terribly helpful. And how do you deal with a wordless book like Shaun Tan‘s The Arrivalwhich I recently explored with teachers from two schools that were looking at text complexity? Ban it from classrooms because, without words, there’s nothing to quantitatively measure?

Like other short cuts and quick fixes I’ve shared, dismissing a book like The Arrival, based on a non-existent Lexile level, risks short-changing students. The book requires an enormous amount of thinking, as the teachers I worked with discovered. And interestingly enough, their thinking mirrored that of the students of fourth grade teacher Steve Peterson, who wrote about his class’s journey through the book on his blog Inside the Dog. Both the fourth graders and the teachers had to make sense of what the author presented them by attending carefully to what they noticed and what they made of that. And while some of the initial ideas they came up with were different (the teachers thought the portraits on the page below were of immigrants, not terrorists, as some of Steve’s kids first did), the process was the same.


Both students and teachers had to constantly revise their understanding as they encountered new details and images that challenged or extended their thinking. And both debated the meaning of certain details in very similar ways. The teachers, for instance, argued whether the dragon-like shadow that first appeared in the picture below was real or a metaphor for something like oppression, while in a second post, Steve recounts how his kids debated whether the bird-like fish that appear later in the book were real or a metaphor for wishes.


The teachers only read the first part of the book, after which I passed out the rubric below, which many states seem to be using, and asked them how they’d qualitatively assess this text. Being wordless, the text couldn’t be scored for its Language Features, but for every other attribute on the rubric—Meaning, Text Structure and Knowledge Demands—the teachers all decided it was very complex, especially in terms of meaning.

Literary Text Complexity Rubric

If we give equal weight to both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of this text, we have to say that even with a zero Lexile level, it’s at least moderately complex. And what happens when we add in the Reader and the Task, which sometimes feels like the forgotten step-child in text complexity discussions?

Steve and I used the text for different purposes—Steve to launch a unit on immigration, me for a workshop on text complexity. But we each set up our readersNCTE Logo to engage in critical thinking, which the National Council of Teachers of English defines as “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action.” Both the teachers and students engaged in this process not because they’d had a lesson on suspending judgment or logical inquiry, but because they were curious about what the writer might be trying to show them. And to answer that question, both the students and the teachers automatically and authentically engaged in the work the Common Core’s Reading Standards 1-6.

Unfortunately many of the tasks we set for students aim much lower than that, including some of those found in the Common Core’s Appendix B, such as the following:

Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers. (RL.3.1)

Students provide an objective summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wherein they analyze how over the course of the text different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping. (RL.11-12.2)

Each of these tasks are aimed at a particular standard, and frequently the instruction that supports them (plus the worksheets, graphic organizers and sentence starters) focuses the students’ attention on that single standard, rather than on a more holistic way of reading, which would naturally involve multiple standards. And while the Gatsby task is certainly harder than the third grade one, the prompt takes care of the hardest thinking by handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.

But what if the reading task we set for students in every text they read is to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure—all those words that litter the Standards. Wouldn’t that, in addition to a complex qualitative measure, off-set a high Lexile level, if all three truly held equal weight?

I’ll share more thoughts on the reader and the task in an upcoming post. But for now I can’t stop thinking that if instead of ramping up the complexity of texts, we ramped up the complexity of thinking we aim for—trading in, say, some of the hardness of texts for deeper and more insightful thinking—we might, in fact, prepare students better for colleges, careers and life.

Preparation of Life Quote

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

Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE


My last post shared some words and ideas from two of the sessions I attended at this year’s NCTE convention, both of which powerfully demonstrated the deep and insightful work students can do if they’re given enough space and time. Those students also benefited from teachers who trusted them enough to let go, which isn’t always easy. We can fear, for instance, that if we let go we’ll lose control of the room. We can fear that students won’t learn what they need to, which will reflect on us badly. Or we can fear that if we veer away from our lesson plans or scripts, students may start to ask us questions we don’t have the answers for, which will reveal perhaps our other deepest fear—that we don’t always know enough.

Dropping the MaskThose fears and what can happen when we move beyond them were explored in a session called “Reading the Visual and Visualizing the Reading” that I also wanted to share because the ideas were simply too inspiring not to spread around. Chaired by Tom Newkirk and presented by a dynamite trio all connected to the Learning Through Teaching program in New Hampshire, Louise Wrobleski, Tomasen Carey and Terry Moher, the session kicked off with a quote from yours truly and another from Tom Newkirk who, in an article called “Looking for Trouble: A Way to Unmask Our Readings,” suggests that

“‘opening up’ the discourse to allow for the expression of confusion and difficulty . . . allows us all, teachers and students, to drop the masks that can inhibit learning. We can all act as the fallible, sometimes confused, sometimes puzzled readers that we are. We can reveal ourselves as learners, not always the most graceful of positions.”

To help us feel the power of those words, Louise invited us to look at some of the iconic photographs she’s been sharing with students, such as the one below, and to consider the same three questions that she asks students to ponder: What does it say? What does it mean? and What does it matter?


Those simple questions compelled us to look closely, ‘reading’ the details of the picture as closely as we want students to read the details of a text, and ‘suspending conclusions’, as John Dewey advises in order to share the different things we noticed and consider what they might mean.

Then Tomasen put us all in that ‘not always graceful position’ of learners by asking us to choose one of the images of faces she’d placed on each table and add to the drawing, which led many in the audience to say that the didn’t know how to draw. But draw we did, with most of adding a body and clothing to the head that seemed in keeping with the kind of person we imagined that face to be.

Vicki at NCTE

Next she shared some images from a blog post called “Collaborating with a 4-year Old,” which was written by an illustrator whose daughter commandeered her new sketchbook, much to the mother’s chagrin, to ‘finish’ the drawings she’d started:

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

After laughing at the mother’s story and marveling at the drawings, Tomasen asked us to turn our own drawing over, where we found the same disembodied face, and to try to add to it again. With no more than that we all started to draw, this time capturing who we thought the person was in much more creative ways than before as we instinctively moved from the literal to the figurative. And we picked up our pens with none of the hesitation or protest we voiced before, drawing the way the mother described her daughter doing: “insistent and confident that she would of course improve any illustration I might have done.”

This was possible, I believe, because we used the blog post drawings as a mentor text—a text that opened up what had been until then unimagined possibilities of how we could convey our thinking. Terry then took this one step further when she shared what happened when she used a visual mentor texts to a room of high school students who were reading The Scarlet Letter, a text that many students I know have considered to be the bane of their existence.

Having snagged a used class set of the book, Terry invited her students to mark up the text in any way they wanted, and rather than holding on to any of the practices we use to hold students accountable for reading—entrance slips, chapter summaries, pop quizzes—she gave them the option to not read sections provided they explained why in writing.

Moby-Dick in Pictures CoverAll by themselves, these choices helped her students read more than they otherwise might have, but things got even more interesting when she brought in what would be their mentor text, Moby-Dick in Pictures by the self-taught artist Matt Kish, which I bought as soon as I got home. As Kish explains in the book’s forward, Moby-Dick had fascinated him since he first saw the movie with Gregory Peck, and also being obsessed with images, he decided to create an image for a quote from each and every page of the book. And as you can see from the images below, he used a wide range of materials and techniques to capture what he describes in his forward as his desire and goal: “to make a version of Moby-Dick that looks like how I see it.”

"Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed." (p. 48)

“Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” (p. 48)
From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

“For when three days flow together in one continuous intense pursuit; be sure the first is the morning, the second the noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing – be the end what it may.” (p. 544) From Moby-Dick in Pictures by Matt Kish

With this text as a mentor, Terry asked her students to choose one quote from each chapter of the book and create an image for it. And just as happened with us in the room completing the drawings of those heads, the students images started out quite literal—think cut out pictures of Demi Moore in a white puritan cap—before they became more figurative. What was fascinating, though, was that, as some students ventured beyond the literal, the whole class decided that their pictures should attempt to capture something deeper about the characters’ psyche. And that class-wide decision yielded images like these, which I think are simply amazing:

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

Terry, herself, was surprised by the depth of the students’ thinking and how, once she’d gotten them started, they took full ownership of the book, the assignments and the whole process. And that made me think that something Tom Romano had said in his poetry session—”No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader”—applies to teachers and students as well: If there’s no surprise for the teachers, there can be no surprise for the students. Of course that means that we need to be willing to live with uncertainty—or as Cynthia Merrill, another amazing educator from New Hampshire, said in another session, “We need to be sure enough to be unsure.”

To do that, I think, we have to trust not just our students but ourselves and hold on to the belief that it may, in fact, be that willingness to be unsure that makes us, not only learners, but professionals—unless, of course, it’s something in the water in New Hampshire.

Edublog Finalist LogoP.S. Click through to vote for To Make a Prairie, a finalist for this year’s Edublog Award. Voting ends on December 18, 2013. THANKS!

What’s the Difference Between a Teacher & a Packaged Program?

Now that most of us have settled into the new school year, my corner of the blogosphere is buzzing with the first student responses to curricula designed to meet the Common Core through a steady diet of close reading. Last week, for instance, Chris Lehman shared some of the trove of tweets he discovered, like the one I found below, from students who were flummoxed, frustrated and furious with their close reading assignments. Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan over at Teachers for Teachers shared the notebook entry of a student who confessed, “I find myself so focused on how to annotate that I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading.” And Kim Yaris, of Burkins & Yaris, shared a cautionary tale of her own after her fifth grade son came home from school, brought to the brink of despair and tears by a two-week-long close reading of a document that Kim’s research suggest is actually more college than lower school fare.

Close Reading Tweet2

I can’t verify that all these tweets and confessions are connected with packaged programs, though Kim’s son’s story definitely is. But I seriously suspect that in one way or another they reflect the effects and consequences of a document written by the authors of the Standards known as “The Publisher’s Criteria.” According to the authors, “These criteria [were] designed to guide publishers and curriculum developers” in creating Common Core aligned instructional material “to ensure that teachers receive effective tools.” And it’s here that some of the ideas and language that have taken over classrooms first appear, such as:

  • Whole class instruction should be focused on short texts on or above a grade’s complexity band throughout the year 
  • Students should be engaged in close reading of those texts, which include multiple readings
  • Those close readings should be guided by a set and sequence of text-dependent questions

What’s important to remember is that these criteria weren’t aimed at teachers, only those in the business of marketing products. Yet many a teacher has been forced, persuaded or enticed to follow, having been told, perhaps, that they’re the only way to raise test scores or meet the Standards. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t expose their students to challenging texts, nor have some text-dependent questions up their sleeves that encourage reading closely for deeper meaning. But providing texts, questions to ask, answers to look for and worksheets to pass out is pretty much all a program can do. And because teachers are living human beings, with active minds and hearts, they can do things programs cannot, beginning with the most obvious: A program cannot not know the students, only a teacher can.

Teachers know which students come from families who struggle and which come to school sleepless or hungry. They know which ones are wizards at math but feel defeated by reading and which are precocious but avoid taking risks. They know which don’t talk because they’re shy and which don’t because they’re lost. And knowing all this, they also know that not every student needs every question the program tells them to ask, nor will every student manage to read complex texts by the end of the year (which is what the Standards actually say) by constantly being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Teachers know all this because they watch and listen to their students, which leads to another critical distinction between a program and a teacher: A program can tell you what to say, but it cannot tell you what you’ll hear if you’re listening for more than what the program deems an acceptable answer. I think this kind of listening is just like the way we want students to read, attending closely to the details of the text to think about what the author might be trying to show them, not just to ‘get’ a particular answer but to understand more deeply. And that close, attentive listening allows teachers to make all sorts of moves that programs simply can’t capture in scripts, let alone actually make. Teachers can, for instance, do all of the following, none of which a program can:

  • Seize a teaching moment when it presents itself
  • Tuck what you’ve heard into your pocket to consider its instructional implications
  • Probe student thinking to better understand what’s behind their responses
  • Respond in a way that helps students build identity and agency as readers
  • Welcome and value out-of-the-box thinking

Several of these moves were visible in a classroom I worked in last week, where teachers were using some of the scaffolds that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really DoA seventh grade ICT class, for instance, began reading Shirley Jackson‘s story “The Lottery”—in which a community engages in an annual tradition of stoning the winner The Lotteryof a lottery to death—by asking students to fill out their own text-based Know/Wonder charts. As the teachers and I walked around the room, we were thrilled to see how many students had noted the odd details about stones in the first three paragraphs and had wondered why characters were putting them in their pockets and stacking them in piles.

But I also saw this: One of the boys had copied a sentence from the second paragraph in full: “School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of [the children].” Aware of how many of these students had plucked lines from texts for evidence on the test without seemingly understanding them, I asked him what he thought that meant. “They’re not comfortable with the freedom they have now that school’s out,” he said in a way that allayed my concern. And when I then asked him what he thought about that, he said he thought it was weird. No kids he knew were uneasy with summer. And thinking that, he decided to add a new question to his chart: “Why did most of the kids feel uneasy when school was out?”

Probing this student’s thinking this way not only revealed that he understood more than I first suspected; he was, in fact, the only one who picked up on the current of unease that runs throughout the story. But it also allowed me to name for him both the way that texts operate and the work he’d done as a reader, which increased his confidence.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there was this: As the teacher asked the class to share what they’d learned and wondered about, one student said she learned that the children were talking about planting, rain, tractors and taxes, from this line in the text:

“Soon the men began to gather, watching their children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes.”

Clearly she’d miscomprehended the sentence because of its construction, and initially I saw this as an opportunity to seize a teaching moment by asking the class who they thought was speaking and why. But when I debriefed that moment with the teacher, who’d noticed the mistake as well, she said she didn’t want to call her out in front of the class because it was the very first time that student had shared her thinking. Rather, in what I thought was a wise move, she wanted to think about how to address it in a way that would empower, not deflate, the student, and so she tucked what she’d heard in her pocket to think about her next steps.

And this leads to one final difference between a program and a teacher: Packaged programs teach curriculums and texts. Teachers teach real, live students. And I wonder, if we kept that distinction in mind, whether we’d stope feeling as frazzled and frustrated as the students sometimes do when we march them through a series of pre-determined questions in an achingly hard text.