Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars

Challenge

Watching the news these days is depressing as, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson or our dysfunctional Congress, the whole world seems enmeshed with conflicts. And here, on the literacy home front, we seem to be in the midst of a new round of reading wars, with Balanced Literacy and ‘just right’ books being pitted again Achieve-the-Core-style close reading methods and complex texts the same way that phonics was set in opposition to Whole Language way back in the 1970’s.

false_dilemma

© 2013 Alejandro Giraldo, illustrator of The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (New York: Jasper Collins Publishers). Reprinted with the illustrator’s permission. http://www.alejogiraldo.com

Just as then, this either-or mentality isn’t terribly helpful, nor is it always accurate. In fact, all of these this-versus-that positions seem like examples of a particular kind a reasoning flaw called the false dichotomy or dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy. This flaw in logic appears in arguments when an author presents a reader with only two opposing alternatives without any acknowledgement, let alone consideration, of other options or shades of gray. And, in fact, there are all sorts of other options. In many a classroom, for instance, phonics instruction co-exists with various whole language approaches—and no teacher or child has yet died. Balanced Literacy can meet the objectives of the both the Common Core Standards and close reading as the two lessons I compared in “Weighing in on Balanced Literacy” demonstrated. And in both their recent blog post and their fabulous article in this month’s Reading Today, “Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or-Nothing Thinking,” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris push back on what many have framed as a choice between complex texts and ‘just right’ level books with this sound advice:

“To avoid the educational equivalent of scurvy and the whiplash that comes from the constant pendulum shift, we suggest moving from ‘either/or’ conversations about instructional- and frustration level reading to ‘both’ conversations.'”

There’s also something key that’s left out of all these this-text-or-this-approach-versus-that talk: Thinking. What kind of thinking are we asking or setting up students to do regardless of the texts or approach? Is it identifying text structures or using more clues to figure out unknown vocabulary as the two lessons I shared in that earlier post did? Or are we Main Idea Google Searchreally asking students to consider a text’s meaning at both the literal and thematic level, whether it’s a quantitatively measured complex text or a ‘just right’ book? And what kind of thinking are we engaged in ourselves when we create those lessons? Are we filling in the boxes of lesson planning templates with Standard numbers and objectives or searching google for a lesson on, say, the main idea (which yielded 1,770,000 results in .53 seconds)? Or are we thinking deeply about the texts we’re putting in front of our students to better understand how a reader actually determines the themes of that text through its specific details?

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be in this whole Common Core/complex text pickle if we always set students up for deeper thinking instead of practicing skills or strategies that don’t necessarily lead to closer reading and more insightful meaning making. But that means that rather than investing in supposedly Common Core-aligned curriculum and training sessions on creating text-dependent questions, we would have needed to give teachers more time and space to be readers—deep, close and thoughtful readers who authentically think about how specific texts are put together and the kind of demands they place on a reader. And of course, we didn’t.

For a long time now I’ve believed that building our own capacity as readers is the key to helping our students become deeper thinking readers, too. And that belief informs much that I do, from offering occasional read alongs on the blog to starting workshops by asking teachers to read a text not as teachers, but as readers, as I did last week when I had the great privilege of working with coaches and teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s South schools. And so I was utterly thrilled to learn about a keynote speech Lucy Calkins gave at the opening of one of this summer’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institutes, where in her inimitable stirring and raise-the-bar way she said this: “To lift the level of your teaching, you must work on your own reading . . . [you must] try to outgrow yourself as a reader.”

Reading Today CoverWhat’s fascinating, though, is that Timothy Shanahan, one of the key proponents of the Standards and the author of another ‘just right’ book bashing article that also can be found in this month’s Reading Today, says more or less the same thing. In his clearly frustrated post, “Why Discussions of Close Reading Sound Like Nails Scratching on a Chalkboard,” he suggests that rather than “signing up for a workshop in ‘How to Teach the Close Reading Lesson,'” teachers would “be better off signing up for a Great Books discussion group,” which he likens to the a “reading version of the Writer’s Workshop approach to professional development” where teachers write to become better teachers of writing.

And that makes me wonder about what could happen if we focused on what we have in common rather than on how we differ: the need to carve out time and space for teachers to deeply read together and then apply what they learned from those experiences to design instruction that helps students grow into close and thoughtful readers. Perhaps then we wouldn’t need to create these false choices between this or that text or approach because we’d all share a more developed vision of what deep reading really looks and feels like. And who knows, perhaps that would even help us solve some of those other conflicts.

P.S. If you’re looking for more food for thought, here’s three links worth checking out that  are related to this week’s post:

1. To hear more incredibly sane and wise thoughts from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, check out their new book Reading Wellness.

2. To see more fun illustrations and explanations of other logical fallacies, check out The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

3. And to get a taste for some of the work I did last week in Los Angeles, check out this podcast interview I gave with the Instructional Superintendent of LAUSD South schools, Robert Bravo.

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

The Start of a Tradition: Kicking Off the School Year with Teacher Thinking

ChalkboardPart of why I love summer so much is because its full of traditions I’ve developed over the years: nighttime walks to different neighborhoods for ice cream, picnics at the Botantical Gardens, a bike ride to the Cloisters to start the cycling season, morning trips to the Farmer’s Market for peaches, tomatoes and corn. Of course, the first day of school is a tradition, too, which I imagine many mark in special ways (which may or may not include new school supplies). But as we nudge up to that day here, it occurred to me that I could mark the day by starting another tradition here by sharing, as I did last August, some of the amazingly thoughtful comments that teachers have left on this blog over the last twelve months.

As I did last year, I do so in part to counter some of the flack and blame that’s all too often directed at teachers about this country’s educational woes and to celebrate, instead, these educators’ astounding commitment and willingness to raise difficult questions, probe their own thinking and reflect on their practice, knowing that as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and the way he understands it.”

What follows, in no particular order, is a small sampling of the nearly two hundred comments I received this year. In each case, the teacher’s comment is set next to an image that links back to the post he or she was responding to, with another link embedded in the teacher’s name if they’re part of the growing and vibrant community of teachers who also blog. In each case, I also hope you find a voice that affirms, reinvigorates or fuels your own thinking as we all embark on another year that may, yet again, be bumpy. And I invite you to take a look at other comments that can be accessed on each post for more inspiration—and to feel free to join the conversation whenever the spirit moves you.

Hansel and Gretel 2“In our 5th grades we are guiding students at the end of a fantasy unit to decide on themes that are surfacing for them. The difficulty, as you stated, is that the adults guiding them haven’t had enough time to linger themselves with the ‘what’ of theme. They are nervous in the students’ need to linger and try out their thinking around themes that surface for them. As Ginny Lockwood (our consultant) and others caution us, we need to expose, not impose. The demands of the Common Core make it such that the adults guiding the work need a very sophisticated understanding of literature. Without it, the best laid plans could end up fostering the present type of ‘pin the tail’ thinking as we move ahead in this complex work.” Margaret C.

Short Cut Sign“I am always concerned with activities that ask students to ‘hunt’ as you say for specific information which leaves them with a page full of facts – not always correct, and certainly not really understood. The most effective learning experiences that I am part of with my students is when we make time for discussion, sharing our thinking and letting questions lead us to more questions as we making meaning together and understand the text. Yes, this is time consuming, but giving the process time gives value to the fact that it is important to slow down and really read and engage with the text.” Carrie Gelson

“I find that explaining your thinking is a very powerful strategy for deepening understanding. I experience it every time I respond to a blog, blog or present my ideas to others. I really have to think about my thinking in order to explain it, and as a consequence my understanding is stronger. So it goes for our students. By explaining their thinking they not only are demonstrating to us their understanding, but also working out exactly why they think what they think.” Julieanne Harmatz

Old Books with Magnifying Glass“There must be some other reasons, more centered on the learner himself, that provides the enticement to read closely. For me, I know my ‘learner intention’ is honed and refined by being in a community of learners . . .  I love the way my thinking gets sharper while tossing ideas around. I love the ‘cupcakes’ I get from those interactions with people and ideas: a deeper understanding of this beautiful world, new insights into my life and the life of others, all that stuff. . . . It seems to me that my teaching, at the very least, has to make explicit the existence of said ‘cupcakes’ for learners who haven’t savored them yet.” Steve Peterson

Art of Anticipation“I’m re-thinking the way I launch my reading workshop, and the first read aloud of the year, too. My goal is to find ways to make my students ‘aware of all a text holds’, as you mention – the key to which is my own reading, selecting, ruminating, and responding to those very same texts so that I can be responsive to my students . . .Your post, and the article, reminds me to slow down in my planning process, to make it more organic – to allow my planning to be driven by where my kids are in their reading lives, not just what our district’s curricular map dictates.” Tara

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

“I once was told that all good scaffolds must self destruct. So often in our quest to make learning easier and accessible for our students we have allowed the scaffolds to become crutches, leaving little thinking for the student. Pacing has also had a huge impact on students learning deeply; sustained concentration requires time”. Mille Arellano

 And now with these reminders to go slow and let go so that students have more time to think, may your year be filled with fascinating questions, rousing conversation, great reads and new traditions!

Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students

learning_by_doing

For those of us who like to ground our writing instruction in mentor texts—i.e., letting students read and study great examples of the kind of writing they’ll be doing—the Common Core Standards pose some problems, especially when it comes to the kind of textual analysis the Standards seem to emphasize. Writing standard 9, for instance, which begins in the fourth grade, asks students to “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research” with reference to a particular reading literature or information text standard. Many interpret this as pure academic writing of the sort that would address the kind of performance-based task prompts that are listed in the Common Core’s Appendix B. These are specifically aimed at demonstrating proficiency in one or more reading standards, with the teacher usually being the sole audience—and there’s not exactly a ton of great samples of that kind of writing out there.

Default ButtonThis lack of mentor texts frequently leaves students without a clear vision of what this kind of writing might look and sound like. And it often encourages us as teachers to default to some preconceived and often formulaic notions about structure and organization that ConversationEducation blogger and educator Tomasen Carey calls mortifying myths and ridiculous rules in her post on “Miss-Interpretations of the Common Core and Teaching Writing.” So to make this kind of writing more concrete for students and teachers alike, I’ve started asking the teachers I work with (and myself, as well) to try to write the tasks we design to meet particular standards—and virtually every time we do this, we discover that our preconceived notions don’t actually hold much weight.

Hey World Here I Am CoverTake the group of fifth grade teachers I worked with who wanted their students to write an analysis aligned to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.” To try it out ourselves we read two short texts that circled the same feminist theme: “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little‘s Hey World, Here I Am!a deceptively simple text that requires far more thinking to get than its Lexile or reading level might suggest, and The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch‘s gender bending fairy tale that I looked at in my post about theme.

When we first discussed the standard, the teachers all envisioned that the writing would take the form of a four-paragraph essay with the first paragraph introducing the purpose of comparing and contrasting the two texts, the second listing what was similar between them, the third the differences, and the fourth concluding with some final reflection or thoughts about both texts. But as you’ll see from mine below, when we tried it ourselves, both the structure and content looked different than what they’d envisioned.

Compare & Contrast Thematic Essay

In slightly different ways—and without discussing it beforehand—each of us did what I did above. Rather than introducing our purpose, we each went straight to what was thematically similar about the texts, then we each described in more detail how those similarities played out in the two texts, with one paragraph devoted to one text and another to the second. In the limited time we’d given ourselves, we did end with a paragraph that spoke to both texts, but we all kept the focus again on the similarities because they seemed more significant than the differences between the texts. And in that way, we automatically went for what was “deep and penetrating” versus what was “readily apparent” as the Making Thinking Visible authors I quoted in an early post on compare and contrast suggested we do whenever we engage in a particular thinking skill.

Poppleton IllustrationSimilarly, I worked with a group of fourth grade ESL teachers who wanted their students to write an analysis and reflection tied to Reading Literature Standard 2 as part of a unit on overcoming adversity. The standard asks students to “determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text; summarize the test,” and initially the teachers thought that, given how new and potentially challenging the thinking around theme might be, they would only focus on the first half of the standard and let the summary go. When we tried to do it ourselves, however, with the story “Icicles” from Poppleton in Winter, which we thought might be a good entry point for those English Language Learners, every single one of us included what we decided to call a thematically focused summary (as you’ll see again in mine). By writing, we realized that the summary wasn’t actually a separate task; it was the way each of us showed how the theme was conveyed through the details of the story—though the summaries we wrote were different than the summaries we tend to teach.

Poppleton Essay

In each case, we deepened our own understanding of what this kind of writing could look like by doing it ourselves. And in each case we didn’t do what we imagined we’d teach students to do based on our preconceived notions. We also wound up with several mentor texts, which we were excited to share with the students so that they, too, could have a better idea of what this kind of writing could look like. And we had a clearer vision of what our instructional focus might be based on what we’d done as writers.

Of course, I’m still wrestling with how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students. But to do that I think we’d have to breaking yet another mortifying myth and ridiculous rule that I broke myself: That there is no “I” in essays.

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