The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.

14CowsforAmerica_1

In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.

14CowsforAmerica_2

As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?

Hmmm.2

Holding On & Letting Go: Some Last Thoughts from NCTE

balloons

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

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

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

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

KKK-Burning-cross

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

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

Vicki at NCTE

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

Dragon Girl illustrationBeaver Astronauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarlet Letter 3Scarlet Letter 1Scarlet Letter 2

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

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

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

A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE

Cornucopia

Once again I couldn’t quite get this out before the turkey was done. But as I did last year, this Thanksgiving weekend I’d like to share some inspiring words and ideas from NCTE as a way of giving thanks to all the educators out there whom I consider to be part of my professional leaning community, especially all you blog readers who, week after week, renew my faith in teachers. The theme of this year’s convention was (Re)Inventing the Future of English, and as happened last year, I detected what seemed to me to be a pattern in the sessions I attended: that the future we’re in the process of reinventing is one of “wholeness and possibility,” not data points and accountability, where the act of teaching children entails “being passionate together.”

Opal School InvitationThe words quoted above were spoken by Susan Mackey of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, in a session on “Playful Literacy” that I participated in, along with three of Susan’s colleague from Opal, Mary Gage Davis, Levia Friedman and Kerry Salazar. The session was filled with stories (more of which can be found on their blog) about children and teachers who were given the time, the space and, most critically, the trust to follow their curiosity, seek connections and wonder, imagine and dream, knowing that whatever came out of that time would ultimately be more lasting and meaningful than anything that was rushed.

This included the story of a fifth grade boy whose class had just returned from a trip to a rock and ropes challenge course. Back at school his teacher Levia had set out some materials, including some slabs of clay, which she invited the students to use to explore their feelings about their adventure before they turned to writing. And this particular boy discovered that if he put his finger in the slab of clay and then pulled it out quickly, it would make a popping noise, which, delightfully to some classmates, sounded just like fart. He also discovered that the sound became louder if he added some slip to the clay, and soon a whole corner of the room was consumed with creating a chorus of farts.

Focus Daniel GolemanMost of us—including me—would be tempted to see this as a case of a disruptive student leading others to be off task, which, in turn, could lead Levia to losing control of the room. But the gift that Opal teachers give their students—and those of us willing, as Susan said, to trust the process and embrace uncertainty—is the belief that that play was actually important. Not only does it support students becoming authors of their own learning, it puts them into what Daniel Goleman calls in his great book Focus a state of open awareness, which as he describes below, is critical for developing new ideas:

“The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s ‘full catastrophe’—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open time it flourish . . . Open time lets the creative spirit flourish; tight schedules kill it.”

In this case, rather than stopping the silliness and having students get down to work, Levia let it run its course. And her faith that that time was important was affirmed when, after his slab of clay fell apart from too much water and fart pops, the same student created this:

Opal School Clay Sculpture2Once—and only once that was done—was he ready to pick up a pencil and his writer’s notebook and write this amazing entry: “It’s like a hollow feeling when you fall down. You fall into this pit and you start to swing. You’re in a hole, it’s slippery inside and you have no idea what’s going on. My body shut itself down and I close my eyes and I thought it was dreaming. I was super happy after I did it. You have to face you fears.”

I believe that something was getting processed in this student’s mind as he played. Feelings and ideas were coalescing into powerful images and words, just as his fear transformed into triumph after that incredible fall. And none of that would have happened, I suspect, if he’d been given an onslaught of worksheets and graphic organizers and told to write down, say, some sensory details in boxes labeled ‘sounds’ ‘tastes’ and ‘feel’. Instead Levia gave him the time, space and trust to “encounter the unexpected,” which is a phrase Tom Romano, author of the new book Fearless Writing, shared in a packed-to-the-gills session I attended called “Keeping Poetry Central to Our Core.”

Fearless WritingChaired by the ever-gracious Maureen Barbieri, the session also included Georgia Heard and Linda Rief who, along with Tom, reminded the audience again and again that reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job but the means by which we can, in Tom’s words, bring “ourselves into realization.”

Tom also shared his attempt to rewrite the Common Core’s Production and Distribution of Writing standards in a more meaningful and gutsy way. Rather than requiring students to “produce clear, coherent writing; develop and strengthen writing; and use technology to produce and publish writing,” he urged us instead to first invite students to:

“Write expansively, trusting the language in them, letting it gush, leading them to surprise and insights that enables them to craft writing of substance, vision and voice.”

Georgia Heard pushed back as well on the reading standards, suggesting that before we ask students to analyze the craft, structure and meaning of a poem as the Common Core requires, we need to invite them to connect to poetry “by guiding them toward finding themselves and their lives inside the poem.” She showed what this could look like with a group of young readers who, in a month’s time, came to truly understand what Robert Frost meant when he said that “poetry provides the one permissible way to say one thing and mean another.” And she shared this quote by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox, which I’m, in turn, sharing with every teacher I work with:

“Knowledge that is not passed through the heart

is dangerous.”

Finally, teacher and author Linda Rief shared how she set up her class of eighth graders to do precisely what Georgia recommended: to find themselves inside a poem. She brought out every anthology and collection of poems that she had in her classroom and invited her students Awakening the Heart 2to browse through and read some in order to find poems “that speak to your heart.” Once they found one, Linda asked them to write out the poem in the their own hand, forming each word themselves, then illustrate the poem, write a response about why you chose it, and research the poet to find out what he might have to say about reading and writing.

This led students to read more poems than they ever had before and to spend more time with those that spoke to them. One girl, for instance, loved the poem “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye, though she couldn’t quite say why. Something about the images and language struck a chord in her, and in order to understand that better, she went back to the poem again and again, reading it carefully and closely and, as she put it in her response “sleeping on her confusion,” until she discovered something about both herself and the poem.

Inspired by Georgia’s idea of heart maps, Linda’s students eventually created heart books: collections of hand-written, illustrated poems that spoke to their hearts, accompanied by their responses to the poems and the poets thoughts on reading and writing. These books were similar to ones I saw in another session, though that will have to wait for another post, as this one has gotten long. But I hope these words and ideas have awakened something in your own heart, as they did for me, and that perhaps in the words of the Opal School, you’ve begun to “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

Imagine Mosaic

What Are We Asking Students and Why: Exploring the Difference Between a Prompt and a Scaffold

Last week I raised some questions about text dependent questions, the instructional approach approved by the Common Core Standards authors, which many states and school districts are starting to adopt. Clearly I worry that this approach may decrease, not increase, students’ ability to truly become independent, as College and Career Ready Students should be, because the method hinges on us directing students to what we, from our own reading of a text, have determined to be important.

At its heart, the text dependent question approach seems to embrace the ‘straight road’ vision of reading that I looked at in my post on teaching uncertainty, with the questions acting as signposts that tell students what to pay attention to in order to reach a designated and pre-determined meaning. And it puts us, as teachers, back in the authoritative role of  the “curator or gatekeeper of content,” as Randy Bomer puts it in his great book Time for Meaningrather than in the role of a facilitator who’s, “less concerned with what students are supposed to get and more concerned with what the students can make with the materials they already have.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t ask questions. But if we truly want our students to be independent meaning makers, we need to think about what we’re asking and how we can craft questions that are open-ended enough for students to find their own way into a text and are framed in a way that makes them transferable from one text to another. And here’s where I think it’s useful to explore the difference between a prompt and a scaffold.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I spelled out what we see as the difference between the two in a chart that looks like this:

To make these concepts more concrete, let’s return to the excerpt from the Curriculum Exemplar on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave that I shared in last week’s post to see the differences in the teaching moves and outcomes more clearly. Here, for example, is the first question the Exemplar directs teachers to ask, with the aim—i.e., the answer—printed below it:

The question leads students to notice what the teacher (or in this case the Exemplar writer) has noticed and to draw the same conclusion from that detail that he or she did. It also anticipates what some students might miss (that this is, in fact, a slave narrative), and it seeks to ‘correct’ that by directing those students to the title in a way that solves a problem for the students rather than letting them solve it themselves as they keep on reading. The question also does nothing to teach the thinking around the text in a way that might be transferable to other similar texts, all of which makes it a prompt.

A scaffold, on the other hand, teaches the thinking around the text by offering students some instruction on how texts like this generally operate and what readers do because of that, along with a more open-ended invitation to notice what there is be noticed and consider what that might mean. That kind of scaffolded question, introduced by what I call a teaching point, could look and sound like this:

One of the things readers always do when they read a first-person narrative is to try to get a first impression of the narrator and his situation. And they do this by paying close attention to the details the narrator gives them in order to begin to get a sense of who he is and what’s going on with him. So take a look at these first few sentences. What kind of person might do and say the things that this narrator does? And what might we begin to understand about his situation from the details the narrator gives us?

Unlike the more tightly focused prompt which aims at a single answer, this scaffold might allow students to not only think about the world Douglass is describing but, depending on the details different students latched on to and what they made of them, to develop a first draft impression of Douglass as someone who’s industrious, persistent, generous or even crafty. They might also begin to question some of the assumptions they might have about slaves—such as slaves live only on plantations or slaves don’t speak to whites unless they’re spoken to—in a way that might position them to be more open to whatever Douglass might be saying overall about slavery. And they’d come away with a way of thinking they could apply and transfer to almost any first-person narrative they read.

Creating a scaffold instead of a prompt requires us to consider the knowledge and experience we have with texts and reading, which I believe we automatically—and often invisibly—draw on to make meaning of what we read. Then we teach to that underlying knowledge, sharing what we know about the act of reading and texts, rather than to the specific meaning we make of a given text. Thus we teach what we know about first-person narratives and the role that details play, not the particular importance of any single detail. (See “What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum” along with What Readers Really Do for more examples.) The scaffold method also means trusting that there’s more than one way to think deeply about a text and that students don’t need to catch every detail that we do.

Text-based Know/Wonder charts also act as scaffolds, and they’re always a good place to start as they’ll give you a sense of what students can do with a minimum of support. The teaching point behind them is that readers keep track of what they’re learning from a text while holding on to details and a slew of questions that they expect they’ll learn more about as they actively keep on reading. And this knowledge about what readers do yields the questions “What are you learning from the text?” and “What are you wondering about?”

All of this makes me think that the difference between a prompt and a scaffold is a bit like the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a student a prompt and he feeds you an answer. Teach a student through a scaffold and you build a close reader—often for a lifetime.

Providing Background Knowledge: Effective Scaffold or Spoon-feeding?

Two weeks ago I looked at one of the recommendations found in the Common Core Standards Publisher’s Criteria for Grades K-2 and 3-5, which attempt to lay out some guidelines for designing Standards-based reading curriculum. In addition to questioning strategy instruction, both Criteria also offer caveats against front-loading information or engaging students in pre-reading activities that provide them with access to a text’s ideas without actually grappling with the text itself.

Like the criteria about comprehension strategies, questioning front-loading is a ‘biggie,’ especially when it comes to providing background knowledge which students might not have. No less an expert than Doug Lemov, for instance, the author of the hugely popular Teach Like a Champion, cites pre-teaching background material as one of the techniques effective teachers use. “If students don’t really know what a Nazi is when they start reading ,” he writes as an example, “they’re not going to get what they need to out of Number the Stars or The Diary of Anne Frank.” And so he advocates providing students with that information before they crack open those books “because it prevents misunderstandings before they crop up rather than remediating them afterward.”

There are certainly times when I front-load information. I give students vocabulary words, for instance, when I want them to practice a particular kind of thinking without getting hung-up on unknown words—though more often I don’t because I want students to see and experience how they’re still able to construct meaning without knowing every word. But I’m not sure I ever front-load information to circumvent misunderstandings because I believe that confusion and uncertainty are part of the reading process.

Students need to experience how readers work their way from confusion to understanding, and that process can get short-changed if we front-load too much. I also want students to see that if they read closely and attentively, connecting the dots of details together and considering what significance they might hold, they’re capable of comprehending and understanding without extensive prior knowledge. That’s because most narrative texts are what I call ‘self-contained worlds’—that is, they provide the context and knowledge readers need to understand them, provided they read carefully enough and attend to the details they encounter.

To show you what I mean, let’s see what could happen if we don’t front-load information about Nazis before opening Lois Lowry‘s Number the Stars by first looking at the opening of a book I doubt we’d provide background knowledge for: Suzanne Collins‘s YA dystopian novel The Hunger Games. Here’s a slightly abridged version of the book’s opening, which I invite you to read, setting aside what you might already know to see what you can make of the world you’ve just entered by connecting and fitting details together.

Provided we’ve managed to ignore all the hype about the book and movie, we won’t know for several pages what ‘the reaping’ is, but by connecting details in the first paragraph, we can infer it’s a source of bad dreams. And while it may be an occasion for gifts, as evidenced by the goat cheese, it’s also associated with shuttered houses, empty streets and sleepless nights, which doesn’t make it sound like fun.

We also don’t know where we are, other than some place called District 12. But the clues give us the sense that it’s a dreary, bleak place, where people sleep on rough canvas sheets and walk down black streets with hunched shoulders. And with the word ‘hunger’ from the title in mind, we might also infer that it’s a place where there might not be enough food to feed even a mangy cat. There is, though, something sweet and heart-warming about the siblings’ relationship that stands in stark contrast to the other details. And the tension between that bleakness and sweetness, along with our desire to learn more about what’s happening, is what keeps us turning the page.

Now let’s look at the opening of Number the Stars and think about what a reader who knows nothing about the Nazis or World War II might be able to make of it, using the exact kind of thinking we just applied to get an initial feel for the world of The Hunger Games. 

Without any knowledge of geography or history, we can infer here that we’re in a place called Copenhagen and that, at least in the first half of the passage, it seems like a nice-enough place, where girls race and laugh on their way home from school down streets lined with shops and cafés. But then something happens and the whole mood changes as the girls encounter two soldiers with rifles, tall boots and cold, glaring eyes who speak a language that’s different than theirs despite the fact that the soldiers have been in the girls’ country for three years. We do not need to know that they’re Nazis to comprehend the fear they inspire. Nor do we need to know the word ‘contempt,’ since there will be other places in the book to pick up the fact that many people in this place called Copenhagen feel something else about these soldiers that eventually leads them to great acts of courage.

In fact, not knowing who the soldiers are and why they are in this place allows us as readers to feel and experience the full horror of what’s happening, as that awareness dawns on us slowly, as it does on Annemarie. And it’s not knowing that keeps us reading and makes us want to learn more, just as it does in The Hunger Games. For that’s what narratives give us: the opportunity to not just ‘know’ what happened in Denmark in the 1940′s but to emotionally and empathetically experience it ourselves as we enter a world that the author has created through carefully chosen details that give us what we need to know in order to make meaning. That’s not to say that, as teachers, we shouldn’t bring history in at some point to expand and enrich our students understanding, only that we might benefit by waiting till the students are curious and engaged in the book and have something to attach that information to.

In the end, I think it all comes down to purpose and what we want students ‘to get.’ If we want them to ‘get’ information about the Holocaust, there’s far more expedient ways to do that than reading a novel. But if we want them to get how readers construct an understanding of everything from the setting to the theme from the details the author provides, while also experiencing the power of narratives to move our hearts, not just our minds, we’d do better by teaching them the process of meaning making than by front-loading facts.

That’s the gift and enlightenment we can give to students—not facts, but the tools to make meaning.

© 2011 D.A.Wagner - http://dawagner.com

Teaching Uncertainty in Reading

In my last post I called for honoring uncertainty and confusion as the place from which understanding starts. Interestingly enough, it seems like a theme I’ve been encountering a lot lately. In the last few weeks my inbox has been full of links to articles with titles like “The Role of Mistakes in the Classroom,” “The Pedagogy of Uncertainty,” and “Helping Students Deal with Uncertainty in the Classroom,” in which Ben Johnson suggests that teachers should “inject a little uncertainty into their lessons” to help students build resilience, confidence and problem-solving skills.

But how do we do that in reading? How do we explicitly acknowledge the confusion and uncertainty readers naturally face while providing students with the strategies and skills they need to navigate that?

In What Readers Really Do, my co-author and I share a simple tool: a basic T-chart that helps students clearly see and keep track of what they’re grasping from a text (from direct information they’ve comprehended or from what they’ve been able to figure out, frequently by inferring), along with what they’re uncertain or curious about. We label the left side “What We Know” and the right side “What We Wonder,” and we read very slowly so that everyone can see both the uncertainty and what readers do to deal with that as they read.

We share many classroom examples in the book, noticing and naming the moves we make both as readers and as teachers. But to get a taste and feel for how we use the chart here, let’s look at the opening page of Bound to Be Bad, a Level M book from the Ivy +  Bean series by Annie Barrows, and see how a KNOW/WONDER T-chart might help make uncertainty and problem-solving more visible.

As experienced readers we come away from this passage with a clear understanding of what’s literally happening along with some ideas about what kind of person Bean is and how her family relates to her. If we look closely, though, we can see that even this brief passages presents many challenges to readers, especially around inferring. And while some students might be able to navigate it with ease, others—even those above Level M—might feel a little confused. And even fewer will engage in thinking about the character more deeply without prompting.

If we slow down the process, however, and read the text sentence by sentence, doing some light modeling right at the start then letting the students take over, our T-chart might wind up looking something like this:

Whether using it in a whole class, small group or a one-on-one conference setting, the T-chart captures the uncertainty of reading while also yielding a slew of great questions. When we help children acknowledge what they don’t know in this way, they’re more likely to become active problem-solvers, picking up the kind of small textual clues—like the pronoun that lets us know Bean’s a girl—they might otherwise have missed. Also some of the questions speak to deeper concerns—like what kind of people the characters are, what motivates them and how they relate—and these questions can act as lines of inquiry that help students read on with more purpose and intention, attending to details they might have glossed over because they’re now searching clues. And in their quest for answers, they’re more likely to infer without us pulling our hair out.

All this and more can happen when we embrace uncertainty. As the philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm says, “The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.” And so we must not only honor uncertainty; we must directly teach it.

The Messy Work of Reading

Here’s a question I found myself thinking about as I prepared for a presentation that I thought could use some visuals. What does reading look like? Not the act of opening the covers of a book and scanning the lines with your eyes, but the path a mind takes as it tries to make meaning of both the words on a single page and the pages of an entire book? And what does the teaching of that journey look like?

I decided that too often our vision of reading looks like this: a straight road that leads over time and many pages to a particular meaning we want our students to ‘get’ that we, as teachers, have gotten from our repeated reading and teaching of a book or from a teacher’s guide.

Of course, we don’t simply set our students on the road and expect them to arrive there without support. We ask them questions. We direct them to passages we know are important from our own prior reading or the teacher’s guide. We invite them to make predictions and connections, latching on to those we think will help nudge them down that predetermined road so that ultimately they ‘see’ what we saw in the text and ‘get’ whatever we got.

Whether we do this explicitly or not, you could say we offer students a route map, like the highway sign below, with page numbers posted instead of mileage and literary features as destinations. Foreshadowing, we convey through our questions and prompts, coming up on page 23. Significant scene on page 57. Important image on page 104.

              These practices might help some students read more closely, as the Common Core Standards ask them to, but I’m not sure how it helps them reach the Standards’ overarching goals as captured in the “Students Who are College and Career Ready” descriptors−particularly the goal of demonstrating independence “without significant scaffolding.” That’s because I believe that the road of meaning making is only straight when we’ve already read a text before and can see retroactively how the pieces fit together to form a meaningful whole−and even then there’s usually no single road, since whatever meaning we’ve made of the whole is open to interpretation, which depends on who we are, what we’ve noticed, and how we fit that together.

Instead, when we enter a text for the first time, we often have no idea where it’s going nor what the writer might be exploring. If we did, there would be no point in reading on; we’d know everything right from the start. But not knowing means that, on a first read, we can’t know which passages are significant. We can’t know which scenes are pivotal, which details will reverberate later, beyond a general understanding and awareness that everything we encounter in a text−from the tiniest detail to the overall structure−potentially carries meaning and has been deliberately chosen by the author for some purpose that will eventually become clearer as we keep on reading.

In this way, I think the path of meaning making as we make our way the first time through a text actually looks like this: a messy tangle of highways and side roads, with on-ramps and off-ramps, dead-ends and detours, and lanes that merge or diverge and divide or sometimes go round in circles−all of which we must navigate on our own by paying attention to the details we encounter and considering what they might mean, while remaining open and flexible enough to revise our understanding as we go.

My co-author Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore what it means to teach with this vision of reading in our new book, What Readers Really Do, which will come out next year. I’ll be sharing out-takes and ideas from it here. But for now I think it’s important to consider that if we want to support and nurture readers who are able to enter a text knowing nothing and emerge pages later with a deep understanding of a text’s ideas and themes, we need to let them know that this is what reading looks like. It’s not a beeline to a given, accepted meaning that either you get or you don’t. It’s a messy, complicated and confusing process that’s filled with wrong turns, false starts and uncertainty. And I believe we serve our students better if we acknowledge and honor that messiness and confusion as the place from which learning and understanding starts.