Weighing In on Balanced Literacy

weighing in

As the New York Times reported the other week, our new Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina recently gave a big endorsement to balanced literacy, which had been cast aside in many city schools after the previous administration embraced packaged reading programs, such as Pearson ReadyGen, Scholastic Codex and Core Knowledge, that were supposedly Common Core aligned. Many of these programs’ claims have since been called into question, but it’s Carmen Farina’s words that seem to have ushered us into a new stage in the reading wars. And from where I sit it’s gotten kind of ugly.

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, called balanced literacy “an especially irresponsible approach,” while a commentary appearing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog “Flypaper” called it a “hoax” and likened it to “the judo-like Hydrapractice of using terms that appeal to an audience as fig leaves for practices that same audience would find repugnant.” And over at “Used Books in Class,” my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Colette Bennett takes a look at another “Flypaper” writer who’s “recast the phrase ‘balanced literacy’ in mythological terms, as a hydra,” coming to get us. That’s a lot of virulent language for a pedagogical term.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that the New York Times article on Farina’s endorsement begins with an example of balanced literacy in action in a classroom, which is described as follows:

“[The teacher] took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks. But a few sentences in, [she] shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like ‘buoyant’ and identify the book’s structure.”

And here’s an excerpt from “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” a story that appeared on NPR’s education blog, which also includes a classroom anecdote. The NPR piece looks at a ninth grade class that’s beginning to read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which I wrote about earlier. This time, however, we’re told that we’re seeing close reading in action, not balanced literacy:

“First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud . . . Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words [and] . . . after they have gotten to know the story well, students pair up to tease out the meaning of words like  lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Just AlikeI hope I’m not the only one out there who thinks that, in all the really important ways, these two anecdotes are just alike. In the words of the ninth grade teacher quoted by NPR, both teachers are trying to “create content where there is a productive struggle… where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else” rather than “mak[ing] sure they see everything that’s cool about the text.”

Of course I have some questions about whether that struggle should all be spent on vocabulary words instead of a text’s deeper meaning. And I would never begin the class as the ninth grade teacher does by discussing the standards with the students since I think the standards are for us, not for them. But the point I want to make here is that balanced literacy is an instructional structure, just as close reading is (or has become). And while I personally love balanced literacy because giving students a combination of whole class, small group and independent experiences just makes sense to me, what’s really important is not what structure a teacher uses, but how he or she uses it to help students read meaningfully and deeply. And that reminds me of a quote I shared a while ago from the authors of the great book Making Thinking Visible:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels of quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

I think the same is true about teaching approaches and structures: We’d do better to focus on the quality and depth that’s brought to a structure—i.e., what kind of thinking are we asking of students within whatever structure we use—rather than get caught up fighting over which one is better, knowing that a teacher who really listens to students, reflects on her practice and is a critical thinker and learner herself can make almost anything work.

And now that that’s off my chest, I want to share something else: I’m working on a new book on reading that I plan to finish by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I’m bowing out of blogging, if for no other reason than writing a blog post is so much easier than writing a book. And I love the immediacy of it and the connection with other teachers and readers. But while I may be posting less frequently, I’ll still be trying to wrap my mind in words that speak to the things we all care about.


Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers


As I did with my first read-along invitational two years ago, I want to try to notice and name some of the great thinking found in the comments left by readers on this year’s read-along, “20/20″ by Linda Brewer, in order to consider the instructional implications as well as how that thinking work is connected to critical thinking. And to do the latter, I want to share again what’s become one of my turn-to quotes on critical thinking, Francis Bacon’s definition, which seems to me as good as any:

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

In comment after comment (which you can read too by clicking here and scrolling down), I saw readers seeking, doubting, meditating and considering. By the end, some felt ready to assert and set an interpretation in order, but many wanted to linger and mull over the questions the text raised for them without rushing to make any sort of claim—yet. Or as Victoria wrote, “I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about.”

The instructional implications of this seem huge. We currently live in a climate where making a claim—no matter how simple or undeveloped it is as long as it’s backed up with some evidence—seems to be valued more than developing a carefully considered idea, which can’t happen fast precisely because it’s carefully arrived at. If we’re serious about critical thinking then, it seems to me that we need to give students more time to seek, doubt, mediate and consider, knowing that, if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful. Anything less, I’m tempted to say, is more about test prep than reading.

If You're Not Confused 2

“Dazed and Confused” by Ketna Patel, with quote from Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos”

It’s also worth noticing that these readers were questioning because they were perplexed or wanted more. That is, their questions came directly out of their curiosity and their confusion—and those, in turn, came from the fact that they were paying attention. And here again, the implications seem huge.

Much has been written about the importance of getting to students to ask their own questions. Yet if your experience is anything like mine, when we teach questioning as a skill divorced from confusion and curiosity, we often get questions that seem mechanical and that students aren’t interested in; or worse, we get students raising questions they already know the answers to just to meet an assignment. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.” And we can start doing that by sharing with our students the fact that we’re often confused when we read, and then inviting students to share their confusion, too.

There are also implications in how these readers dealt with their confusion by creating what Steve Peterson called “maybe-stories.” They attempted to fit the pieces together in order to consider what the writer might be trying to show them, with different readers fitting different pieces together to arrive at different ideas. Most readers began that process by thinking about the characters, though people came up with quite different interpretations—from seeing Ruthie, as Julieanne did, as a “seemingly simple soul,” to Mary Jo Wentz who made me rethink my whole take on the story by suggesting that, far from being simple, Ruthie might have been taking Bill for a ride.

Testing VisionMany, such as Susan, also found the title key to their understanding, though again, readers came up with a range of interpretations about what “20/20″ meant. Karen, for instance, thought the story suggested that “there is no such thing as 20/20″ vision”, while Emily Rietz thought that 20/20 meant “seeing each other clearly in this world.” Others, found themselves focusing on the idea of a journey, in which Bill might be learning something from Ruthie, whether that’s, as Terri put it, a lesson about “reveling in the moment’ or in a more practical (and humorous) vein “to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures,” as Gail Ballard wryly put it. Meanwhile Pat thought about the story through the lens of assumptions, with Bill going from “lump[ing] people into categories” to “realiz[ing] he needed to look deeper.” And Colette managed to circle many of these ideas by focusing solely on the dialogue!

The instructional implications here seem to be that it doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you notice something and then start questioning and thinking about how it does or doesn’t fit with other details you notice. And that’s a far cry from the text-dependent question approach to close reading, which directs students to something the teacher (or textbook writer) has noticed and then “scaffolds” students until they arrive at the same answer as the teacher or textbook writer. And lest anyone think that students aren’t capable of doing what these readers did without that all that directing and scaffolding, here’s an excerpt from the comment Christina Sweeney left after she took up my invitation to try the text out with her 7th graders:

“I was surprise how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even point out the recurring references to ‘eyes’—Bill resting his, Ruthie’s ‘big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,’ the ‘visions’ she has over the course of the story. . . .

Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing—that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.”

Young Girl Hag Optical IllusionAs for me—though I’ve read this story any number of times, all these comments deepened and enriched my understanding of it. And this time around they enabled me to see the story in more than one way at once, like the optical illusion of the young girl and the hag, or those red spots winking by the side of the road, which could be reflectors or Bigfoot—or both.

This ability to recognize and appreciate more than one way of seeing things seems both integral to the story and to critical thinking. Unfortunately, however, it gets short shrift in curriculum that guides students to a single way of seeing things, which is what too much of the supposedly Common Core aligned programs to. Once again, if we’re serious about critical thinking, we could see these programs as impostures (a word which Merriam-Webster says “applies to any situation in which a spurious object or performance is passed off as genuine”) and look upon them with hatred. Or we could arrive at the same conclusion Brette Locker reached as she looked at the wealth of thinking that was generated by simply paying enough attention to become confused: “I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?”


What We Can Learn from Our Math Colleagues: A Look at Rich Tasks

This year I’ve had the privilege of doing some work for an amazing organization called Metamorphosis. Founded by the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, Metamorphosis offers content-focused coaching to math—and more recently ELA and science—teachers through an outstanding corps of consultants. And it also operates as a kind of think tank that explores best practices in teaching and coaching, which is where I first heard of rich tasks.

At the first consultants’ meeting I attended, a visiting mathematician Betina Zolkower asked us to form groups to try to solve one of several problems she presented, all of which were examples of rich tasks. Not feeling particularly confident about my math skills (i.e., being terrified), I chose one that seemed relatively easy: to figure out the number of ways you could spell MATH from the following graphic configuration:

MATH Graphic

Different group members approached the problem differently. For me, after staring at it for a while, I took the simple route. I used colored markers to trace the different ways, discovering that there were more ways than I’d initially thought (which is a testament, I think, to what happens when you muck around instead of ponder from afar). And then I doubled the numbers of times each way showed up to account for the bottom.

MATH with Markers2

This method worked but I was aware that there might be a more mathematical way of approaching it, which wound up being needed when Betina upped the ante by asking, “What if the word were OCTOPUS instead of MATH?” Immediately I realized the limits of my method, envisioning a tangle of colored markers too confusing to count. But fortunately one of my group members shared what she’d done. She showed me how each letter (except for the H) could form the word by going two ways, which she was able to express mathematically as 2 to the 3rd power. My conceptual understanding of that still needed a lot of work, but I cannot tell you how excited I was when I realized I could apply what she’d done to the word OCTOPUS without making a magic marker mess. And for one wonderfully energizing moment, I felt smart in math.

MATH with Markers3

If I asked you to think about what a rich task was based on this example, my hunch is that you’d come up with some of the same descriptors found in these links to Metamorphosis and an educational blogger in Victoria, Australia—or in my words here:

  • RICH TASKS are open-ended problems or projects that offer students multiple points of entry and multiple ways of solving, from simple to complex (e.g., my route versus my group-mate’s, which means they offer built-in differentiation).
  • RICH TASKS invite creative and critical thinking as well as reasoning and meta-cognition as students explore the problem and explain how they worked through it to each other.
  • RICH TASKS throw the spotlight on both process and product in a way that helps students better see the connection between means and ends.
  • RICH TASKS promote student ownership, self-direction and engagement while maintaining academic rigor (or as several students I’ve worked with have said, “That was hard but fun!”).

What’s interesting, though, was that when I googled ‘rich task’, all I came up were math sites. And adding the word literacy didn’t really help. There were plenty of links about rich tasks for mathematical or media literacy, and lots that looked at “literacy-rich environments.” But the only one I found that specifically discussed rich tasks in ELA equated them with the kind of performance-based tasks designed by PARCC and Achieve the Core, which are anything but open-ended. In fact, those tasks do exactly what my new friend in Victoria, Australia, says rich tasks do not: They put students in the position of “simply trying to crack the code to predict an answer/solution that has been predetermined as correct by the teacher.”

AfterSo what would a truly rich task in literacy look like? For me, it seems to be a new way of talking about the kind of problem solving I often ask kids to do, which, in one way or another, involves thinking about what an author might be trying to show us or asking us to consider in a scene, a passage, a line, a whole text. Depending on the text, this might also be framed in a slightly more specific way, as I’ve been doing with one of my favorite finds of the year, Gregory Maguire‘s short story “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by haplessjoey@homeskool.guv” from the anthology After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and DystopiaWhether with a 10th grade class that was reading dystopian novels or the participants at one of my sessions for the Literacy Promise Conference, I’ve asked everyone to read the first page and consider the following question: What do you think is happening and why?


Considering that question requires all kinds of problem solving: What does the title mean? Why all the misspellings? Who’s Big Ant and Hapless Joey? And where and when is this taking place? Like my math group, different people—whether they were 10th graders or conference attendees—took different paths to come up with different possible answers. I, for instance, along with the 10th graders, didn’t figure out the word Th’Irth until the second page, while some of the teachers in Salt Lake figured it out more quickly. Everyone agreed that the time wasn’t now, some from the detail about the old-timey pen and others from the next page, where Big Ant called homeskool.guv “Brite-time writing. From back in the days of internet and puters.”

As for what happened, many wondered at this point whether there had been some catastrophe (like an atomic war, which, as one of the Conference attendees said, might account for Hapless Joey’s “hairliss skalp”) and/or whether our dependence on technology had come to the point where people no longer knew how to spell. But no matter how readers interpreted this text, everyone was engaged. And just as I felt with the math problem, everyone had a moment when they felt really smart.

I’ll try to share more ideas for creating rich tasks (or enriching tasks you have) later on. But given all these benefits—and the fact that those 10th graders were actually enjoying reading closely—I don’t fully understand why the idea of rich tasks hasn’t had as much traction in literacy as in math. My hunch is that it has to do with narrow interpretations of the Standards and our obsession with outcomes and products—plus the fact that it’s hard to package such open-ended curriculum. But if ELA students can meet the Standards through rich tasks as well as more teacher-directed methods, why wouldn’t we want them to experience the thrill of independently figuring things out?


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

Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

Steering wheel of the ship

Last post I looked at what can happen when we dig into the huh‘s and hmm‘s students make as they read. I like to think of these as authentic reading responses, which, if we pay attention to them, can open the door to deeper thinking. Like giggles, groans, ah‘s and oh‘s, these are all reactions to something students have read or heard in a text, and as such they’re the outward manifestation of something going on in students’ heads, whether it’s insight, disappointment or confusion.

Probing these responses is one of the teaching moves I always keep in my toolbox, knowing that it serves several purposes. For one, it acknowledges students’ responses as being valuable, which, in turn, conveys other messages to children: that we care about their ????????????????????????????????????thinking, not just their answers, and that it’s okay to be unsure or tentative because that’s where learning starts. It also gives students an opportunity to practice attaching more language to fledgling thoughts in a way that makes visible the messy way we actually develop ideas as well as the chance to orally practice elaborating and explaining, which almost every students needs. And the worst that can happen when we probe these responses is that a student says, “I don’t know,” which provides us with another opportunity for normalizing not knowing as a natural part of the learning process and either opening the response up for discussion or reframing it as an inquiry, such as, “Why did that line, scene or sentence give us pause?”

The other move I shared last week was one that helped students move away from what, with thanks to fellow blogger Steve Peterson, I’ve started calling text-to-self conclusions. These are often the first ideas students gravitate to in order to answer a question or explain something they’ve noticed. And while they may cite a detail from the text (as in last week’s example), these conclusions are mostly based on something outside the text, as students draw from their background knowledge or their own experience to make sense of something.

frustrated woman with hands in hair screaming against chalkboardThese text-to-self conclusions are also the ones that we, as teachers, can feel frustrated with because they’ve missed the mark. And they can spark those “Why can’t they (fill in the blank)?” questions and sometimes even hair pulling. But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer. Here, for example, is what happened in a seventh grade room I was recently in, where the teachers had set up a gallery walk of images to kick off a unit that would explore how class and economic differences can lead to conflict and change.

As the students made their way around the room in small groups, they were asked to discuss and jot down what they thought were the important details and from that to consider what connected the images in order to make a text-based prediction about the unit’s theme. The students would be reading Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie as an anchor text, which recounts the story of a young girl whose desperate financial circumstances lead her to work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, and so there were a few images, like this one, depicting children in factories:

Child Working in Factory

But there were also other images like these, in which no children or factories were in sight:

Labor Conflict Image 2


Despite this, every student in the room came to the same conclusion. They all recalled having read the book Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo in sixth grade, which is a fictionalized account of a Pakistani boy who was sold as a child into a life of bonded labor. And making that text-to-self connection, they concluded that factories were the most important detail and the unit was about child labor.

While the teachers were thrilled that the students remembered a book they had read last year, they were disappointed with their conclusions. They’d asked the students, in effect, to notice patterns, which can be a powerful and accessible way to get students to think more deeply. But in this case, rather than stretching their thinking, the students here focused on selective details that fit into what they already knew, which precluded any new discoveries—and any real critical thinking.

why_dont_students_like_school1In a great article called “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”, Daniel T. Willingham, the cognitive scientist and author of books such as Why Don’t Students Like School, looks at a term that’s often bandied about in order to more clearly define it. According to him, critical thinking comprises three types of thinking—reasoning, making judgements, and problem solving—which, to truly be critical, must  involve “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction.” And he unpacks each of these feature as follows.

Critical thinking is effective, he says, because,

“it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic . . . and so on.”

It’s novel because, “you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you.” And it’s self-directed in the sense that,

“the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

If we embrace this definition, we have to say that the students weren’t thinking critically. They’d jumped to a conclusion without considering all the evidence by remembering a similar situation (or, in this case, a book). And they wouldn’t be critically thinking either if we prompted them with some text-dependent questions—such as “What’s the setting of the second image?”—that forced them to notice something they hadn’t that we’d deemed important.

We could, though, ask more open-ended questions of the sort I did last week, to invite the students to take in more before coming to a conclusion. And these could take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Do you notice any details that don’t fit the pattern you’ve seen?
  • Are there other ways in which the images might be connected, or other patterns you notice?
  • Do you think there are any differences or similarities in the patterns you’ve noticed—i.e., are there patterns within the patterns?
  • Could you revise your ideas in a way that take these new noticings into account?

These questions steered these seventh graders back to look more closely at the images and to question and bat around each other’s ideas more. That, in turn, led them to steer away from their original conclusion to ideas that had to do with human rights and fairness, especially among groups of people, like children, women and African-Americans, who, they thought, might not have much power. And that made us teachers smile.

I’ll share a few more teaching moves with a printed text another time. But if you’ve got a few moves up your sleeve that help students become critical thinkers and meaning makers, too, please feel free to share them. And in the meantime, tuck these in your sleeve.

Ace under your sleeve