On Conventions & Talk & the Power of Listening

This week I head to Las Vegas for NCTE’s annual convention where, along with session Chair Mary Ehrenworth and my fellow speaker and colleague Jessica Cuthbertson, I’ll be presenting at a session on Friday entitled “Unleashing and Harnessing the Power of Talk to Construct and Demonstrate Understanding of Texts, Ourselves, and the World.”

In my part, I’ll be using the lens of talk to share some of the work I’ve written about here and, along with Dorothy Barnhouse, in What Readers Really Do. And I’ll be demonstrating a lesson, using the opening page of Lois Lowry‘s The Giverthat positions students to talk their way from confusion toward insight, with the participants playing the role of typical middle school students—which means that no comment is too literal or far-fetched. Then Jessica will share a clip of “The Giver Geek Squad”—a.k.a. some of her 6th graders—wrestling with some of the patterns and details they’ve noticed in the book.

Our session is based on the premise that, as Grand Conversation authors Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds say, “Dialogue is the best pedagogy.” And it’s informed by the work of Peter Johnston who, in his indispensible books Choice Words and Opening Minds, demonstrates how profoundly our talk affects students. My time in Reggio, however, reminded me of how important it is not just to give students time and space to talk, but to give ourselves time and space to listen. In fact, listening deeply to what students are saying seemed something that many of us wanted to import from Reggio and bring back home to our schools.

This is not to say we don’t already listen. But like the purposes behind the practice of charting, which I explored last week, I think there’s a subtle but significant difference between the purpose of listening in Reggio and here. And that difference seems captured in this quote from Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

In classrooms I think we tend to listen in order to reply instructionally, as we zip from student to student to student, dispensing advice during conferences,  or we squeeze in a required number of small groups in a narrow window of time. In fact, we’re often evaluated by how many students we can get to in a day, which seems to suggest that we value quantity over quality, despite whatever we might say, and, perhaps, are more focused on teaching than learning.

In my own practice with teachers, however, I often try to do what I was pleased to see affirmed in Reggio: to use what precious time I have to try to understand as deeply as possible what students are doing with the texts in front of them by listening to their thinking. Last month, for instance, I worked with a small group of students as a handful of teachers watched. According to their teacher, all five students seemed stuck at level M. And knowing that level M books often require a fair amount of inferring, especially around characters and their relationships to others, I planned a lesson using the following excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff‘s book Fish Face, which, as you can see, is filled with revealing details that both show and tell.

I explained to the students that we were going to read a chunk at a time then share our ideas about what the writer might be trying to tell us through the details that she’s chosen. But while one student was able to read the first chunk and say that he thought Emily was jealous of the new girl because of “the stuff” about the earrings, the other four weren’t so sure. And as we listened to the talk that ensued, it became clear that those four students were really confused about who was who—who had the brown hair, who had the earrings, who thought about begging her mother—and much of that confusion stemmed from their uncertainty about the pronoun ‘she’.

Giving the students the space and time to talk—and listening really closely—allowed us to better understand what was holding those students back. But instead of jumping in to clear up their confusion or offering some on-the-spot instruction, I did something similar to what Reggio teachers do. I took what I’d learned by listening and designed a new lesson—what in Reggio they call a new ‘learning context’—to, in their words, ‘relaunch’ the learning, choosing the following page from Leftover Lily by Sally Warner, which offered similar pronoun challenges.

Gathering the four students who’d struggled last time, I began by making a list of pronouns and acknowledging how confusing these little words could be. Then I invited them to think about how we could figure out who those small words referred to as we read a paragraph at a time and talked. And as I and the observing teachers listened, more things came to light. Some students thought the ‘I’ in the first paragraph had to be the same ‘I’ in the second, though others thought that didn’t make sense. Then one suggested that since there seemed to be a conversation going on, the ‘I’ in the second paragraph had to be the person Daisy was talking to, which she thought was Lily. All the students agreed with that, but that didn’t necessarily mean they knew whose heart was going floop. They needed to talk that through as well, eventually solving the problem by replacing the ‘my’ with each character’s name and deciding whose heart would most likely be bouncing or tied in a knot, which is how they interpreted floop. To do this, they had to go back to the beginning and think about what was happening, while also dealing with the pronoun ‘us’. And through this process they ultimately arrived at the idea that Lily, of the flooping heart, was the one telling the story.

As the teachers and I thought about what we’d heard, we decided that these students needed much more time practicing this exact kind of thinking in order to truly internalize and learn it, and that they also needed time thinking about how dialogue, narrators and paragraphs worked since they also weren’t sure that the ‘she’ in the last paragraph meant Daisy. The teachers were eager to try and create additional ‘learning contexts’ for them to experience these concepts—and to continue to listen closely to better understand their students’ thinking.

I’m eager to listen in Las Vegas as well, where I’m sure there will be much to learn. And I’m eager to meet blog readers in person if any of you are there. Just know, though, that what happens in Vegas might not necessarily stay there . . . .

More Thoughts on the Journey: Helping Students—and Ourselves—Understand Nonfiction

Recently I looked at how inviting students to notice patterns across a nonfiction text can help them consider the large and often invisible—i.e., not explicitly stated—ideas a writer is exploring. Raising students’ awareness of patterns and how writers use them to explore and develop ideas can ultimately help students meet many of the Reading Informational Text Standards of the Common Core, especially RI2 and RI5. It also helps students reap the full benefits of reading nonfiction, which is not always just about learning new facts but considering a writer’s unique take or perspective on those facts in a way that can deepen a reader’s understanding of the world and the people in it.

To introduce your students to how writers use patterns to develop their ideas—and how readers, in turn, build their ideas about a text by noticing the patterns the writer’s laid down and considering what they might mean—you’d follow the same process that I engaged in to plan the blog post on patterns: I pulled out a handful of books from my shelves and asked myself the following questions as I looked through and read each book:

  • Does this seem like a text in which the writer is using facts to explore one or more ideas—or put another way, is it a text that I’d want students not just to comprehend but also understand?
  • Do I notice patterns in the book—words, images, events, even structural devices that somehow keep repeating?
  • Does asking myself what the writer might be trying to show me through those patterns help me dig deeper into the text?

My hunch is that we don’t always ask ourselves the last two questions—and we might not ask the first one either because of the way we’ve traditionally used nonfiction in the classrooms. We have students read nonfiction, for instance, to learn facts about specific content, whether it’s to know the names of the great explorers or the process of photosynthesis. We have them read nonfiction to learn about text features or different text structures, or to find facts for research projects. But unless we’re looking squarely at bias, we may not think about the writer at all when we’re reading nonfiction, at least not to think about why she’s chosen and arranged whatever facts she’s sharing in a certain way.

I think that all this has to change in light of the Common Core Standards, which, in standard after standard, ask students to think about how the parts of a text are related to the whole. Noticing patterns and thinking about what the writer might be trying to show us through them automatically helps students do that—without the kind of teacher-directed prompting that comes with the text-dependent questions approach. And again and again I’ve discovered that, just as with students, we, too, as teachers start noticing patterns when we look for them, as an instructional coach and teacher in Georgia attests to in her blog post “Confessions of a Plot Junkie.”

But what happens when you don’t notice patterns, which certainly happens to me sometimes when I read nonfiction? As experienced readers, we know that nonfiction writers often use facts to explore ideas they sometimes have an opinion about, and they unfold those ideas in more complicated, subtle and indirect ways than thesis-driven five-paragraph essays. Because of this we enter a text on the look-out for glimmers of ideas and opinions, asking ourselves, consciously or not, what the writer might want us to understand, as we both read forward and think backwards to draft and revise our ideas.

Unless we’re in a text outside our comfort zone, we tend to do this work automatically, barely aware of how we process and arrive at our sense of what the writers is up to. But to make this more visible for students, we can ask them to be trackers, reading the text paragraph by paragraph to sniff out possible ideas, and then reading forward and thinking backwards to consider how those might—or might not—be connected to what came before and comes after.

To show a group of K-12 educators what this approach could look like during a workshop on reading nonfiction, I searched for another text that, like many of the Common Core exemplars, took readers on a journey of thought that couldn’t be fully anticipated or deeply understood by most of the strategies we currently give students. To provide some common ground across grades, we decided to focus on a single topic, food, and for this activity I chose a short piece from The New Yorker called “The Big Heat,” by Elizabeth Kolbert, which begins with the grabbing and provocative lead, “Corn sex is complicated,” before taking all sorts of twists and turns whose purpose and logic aren’t immediately apparent.

I asked the participants to read it with a partner (as I invite to to do, too, on your own or with a colleague), stopping at every paragraph to share both what they thought the writer might want them to understand and how that might or might not be connected to whatever had come before. Interestingly enough in the beginning, several found the piece so disjointed they were tempted to deem it ‘bad’ writing. But by the middle of the second page, everyone began to see that there was a method to Kolbert’s seeming madness. And at that point they had to revise their understanding of what the piece was ‘about,’ which they had to do yet again as they reached the final two paragraphs.

The participants left the workshop that day with a deeper understanding of both what, beyond obvious measures like lexiles, makes a text complex and what readers need to do to navigate that complexity in a way that allows them to understand the ideas and the train of thought that holds the facts together. They also came away understanding that food has many implications, beyond health and nutrition. And when, after reading this text together, they explored ones that were at their students’ grade levels (some of which there are links for below), they were far more aware that there were ideas and opinions lurking in them. They saw more because they were looking for more—and they were eager to invite their students to look for more than text features and facts when they got back to their classrooms, as well.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line by line and page by page. Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Some Reflections on the Year

Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Between teacher effectiveness rubrics, performance-based tasks and text complexity bands—not to mention testing scandals and the growing concerns about the privatization of public education—it hasn’t exactly been an easy year. Yet when I give myself some time to look back, what strikes me most is how much I learned. And that learning helped to balance out the challenges of the year.

So what did I learn? For one, I learned that I can sometimes be wrong, which is always good to know. In this case, I was wrong about the nonfiction performance-based tasks the New York City Department of Ed required every teacher in the city to implement as part of their drive to bring schools up to speed on the Common Core. As someone who cut her teeth at the Teachers College Writing Project, I’ve always believed that the best writing comes from a process that gives students time to draft and revise with feedback from both teachers and peers. And so I questioned the ‘on demand’ aspect of the tasks. Also, the sample text-sets and tasks, which came to be known as ‘bundles,’ that the DOE posted online seemed a little too test-like to me, with administration guidelines and actual scripts like those found in standardized test packets.

I also worried that yet again the emphasis was being placed on assessment not instruction, which seems problematic to me. But here’s where I was wrong. While some teachers chose to use the DOE ‘bundles,’ many designed their own tasks as a final assessment of a meaningful content unit that was already on their curriculum. They did this by setting aside one last aspect of the unit topic for students to read and write about on their own, without the same level of scaffolding they’d provided throughout the unit. Second graders, for example, who’d been studying plants and learning to write All About Books, were asked to read two final pieces about carnivorous plants then write an information piece on demand to share what they had learned. And two impassioned first grade teachers extended a unit they’d developed that combined a study of social activists with writing reading responses by having students listen to one last book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace  by Jeanette Winter, about the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and then write a response. And, as can be seen, the results were stupendous (though I do think they’re a testament to the thoughtful, well-planned instruction that proceeded the task more than the assessment design):

I also learned much about reading nonfiction, which I dove into deeply this year to help the schools I work with make the first two Instructional Shifts required by the Standards. Of course, I’d ‘done’ nonfiction before. I’d taught students how to use text features to both anticipate the information they’d encounter and locate facts they might want to use for the nonfiction pieces they were writing. And I’d brought in feature articles and creative nonfiction books like Atlantic and Bat Loves the Night for students to study as mentor texts to learn about structure and craft.

© 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

But I hadn’t thought much about what readers really do to comprehend and understand nonfiction. And so I tried to do what Dorothy Barnhouse and I did when we explored the reading of fiction in What Readers Really Do: “peer into the recesses of our own reader’s mind, attending to the work we do internally that frequently goes unnoticed or that happens so quickly that it feels automatic.” I also studied some of the Standards’ exemplar texts to see what sorts of demands they put on readers in order to better understand what students might need instructionally to read these kinds of texts. And for better or worse, I discovered that much of what passes as conventional wisdom about teaching nonfiction reading, like the practices listed above, don’t always help students move from plucking facts to deeply understanding what they read.

I’ll be sharing more specifics about reading nonfiction over the next few months, along with more of what I learned as I helped teachers implement a second Author Study unit in the age of the Common Core. But I’ll also be taking some time off to recharge my batteries and reconnect with myself as a reader and writer, which may mean not posting quite so frequently. In addition to finally getting to the stack of books sitting on my nightstand, I also plan on spending time reading new children’s and YA books and on joining write Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Fever 1793in her annual “Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge,” which she hosts in August.

I also want to update this blog to include a list of the wonderful blogs I discovered this year. For this is something else I learned: There are so many smart, dedicated thinkers among us, putting themselves out there week after week, raising questions we all need to consider, sharing their invaluable resources and experiences, and making me, for one, feel less alone. They’ve taught me much in this challenging year that I’ll be mulling over as I sit beneath my own tree that grows in Brooklyn and reap the joys of a literate life.

Illustrations from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

All Inferences Are Not Created Equal

Here in New York City, we’ve been thinking a lot about text complexity, especially about what makes a text complex. School networks have traded professional articles. Consultants have helped teachers create rubrics to assess the degree of complexity in a text. Yet oddly enough there’s been far less discussion about how we can instructionally support students to meet the demands of those texts.

My own sense is that, beyond denser print and more complicated syntax, text complexity is directly linked to how a writer conveys information, with complex texts revealing more information—about everything from the characters and themes to shifts in time and setting—indirectly. And this means that in order to access that information readers need to infer.

Given how critical inferring is, you’d think we’d have a boatload of strategies up our sleeves to help students do it. But all too often we rely on a variation of “It Says, I Know, and So,” which asks students to connect something in the text to their own experience or prior knowledge in order to infer what the writer might be saying indirectly. This will, indeed, work some of the time. But it doesn’t always work because inferences aren’t actually all made the same way and no single strategy will do.

To illustrate this, let’s go back to the text I shared in last week’s post, Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness: A Novel of the Barrio, which I used with a small group of students who struggled with reading increasingly complex texts. The book is dedicated to “Everyone who gives up a part of himself,” and the first chapter is titled “American Names.” Here’s the passage from that first chapter that gave the students so much trouble:

The passage requires an enormous amount of inferring to simply figure out what’s happened, let alone to start thinking about why. When the students first read it, they were able to infer that Miss Pringle was the teacher by connecting what it said in the text to what they knew from their own lives—i.e., that teachers usually have titles like Miss and often address students as ‘Class’. But the same “It Says, I Know, and So” kind of thinking also led them to infer that Arthur Rodriquez was another boy in the class, not the narrator. And visualizing, which we often teach as another strategy for inferring, wouldn’t have made things better.

Experienced readers, however, make sense of the passage by doing something else: They make connections within the text, not outside of it, connecting one detail to another like the dots in those old Connect the Dots games. Some readers, for instance, might work backwards to connect Miss Pringle’s line to the chapter title, the dedication and the first page, which focuses on the legacy of Arturo’s name. Others might work forward, through the rest of the paragraph, inferring what was done by whom to make things easier, who wasn’t asked about what, and how a person could be erased like a ‘used-up word on a chalkboard,’ in order to figure out what happened. These inferences would require readers to connect those lines to their prior knowledge of a highly specific sort. They’d need to draw on their understanding of how pronouns, sentence fragments and similes work to infer what each line meant. And then they have to connect each of the fragments to Miss Pringle’s statement to arrive at an understanding of what, exactly but indirectly, Miss Pringle did.

In this way, experienced readers infer by a process that could be expressed like this:

Text Detail + Text Detail + Text Detail = Meaning

rather than like this:

Text Detail + Prior Knowledge or Experience = Meaning

The students actually used the former process when, after realizing that Arthur was Arturo by making an intra-text connection, they inferred that Miss Pringle had changed many students’ names and that Alicia wasn’t happy about it. Had they used the latter process instead and connected those dark bruises to their prior knowledge, the chances are good that they would have inferred that Alicia had two black eyes. And had they not been connecting the detail dots to draft and revise their understanding as they read, they might also have been mystified by the exchange between Arturo and Alicia, not only not getting who was talking to whom but why Alice would say Alicia’s gone.

So if we want students to read complex texts—not just for the sake of doing so, but to fully engage in rich reading experiences that can inform and enhance their lives—we need to deepen the way we teach inferring and offer more precise strategies. We need to teach them how readers use their knowledge of pronouns and dialogue to steer through dramatized scenes, how they figure out what figurative language suggests, how they make sense of sentence fragments, and how they might use a title as a lens to interpret some of what follows.

Most importantly, though, we need to teach our students this: While they sometimes can figure out what a writer might be saying indirectly by connecting a detail to their own experience, that strategy alone might not help them know what that detail means in the context of the text. The only way to figure that out is to teach them to connect one detail to another, dot by dot by dot, until they see something they couldn’t see before—and they let out the ‘Oh’ sound of insight.