Using Text Sets to Help Students Build an Understanding of the World of a Book

Last week’s post, which looked at the way that well-intentioned scaffolds can sometimes undermine students’ ability to make meaning, reminded me of a 7th grade teacher I worked with several years ago. She’d designed her humanities curriculum around questions of power and how and why governments do or don’t control their citizens, and she decided to kick-off the class that year by having the students read Lois Lowry‘s The Giver.

The book was a great choice for the year’s themes. But many of her students read way below grade level, and after a day of being met by blank stares when she asked a question about the reading assignment, the teacher shifted into read-aloud mode, hoping that a fluent, dramatic reading would allow the class to comprehend a text they couldn’t navigate on their own.

The students loved the read aloud, quickly convening and settling down in the back of the room to listen. But when the teacher paused to ask questions, she was still met with blank stares. They had no ideas about what it might mean to be ‘released’, no thoughts about the rituals of sharing feelings at night and all the talk about assignments and rules. And so with discomfort, she began doing what I imagine each and every one of us has done at some point in a classroom: she kept prompting them with leading questions, pulling answers out of them like teeth. And if the answers still didn’t come, she’d tuck what she was looking for into a question—like, “Do you think it’s possible that released means killed?”—at which point you’d see light bulbs going off in the students’ heads as they entertained the idea she’d put out that they hadn’t been able to access themselves.

In my own evolution as a literacy coach, I was still a few years away from the Know/Wonder chart that Dorothy Barnhouse and I developed which, by helping students pay more attention to what they’re figuring out from a text and what they’re wondering or confused about, encourages them to read more closely and pick up more detail clues. That tool, I believe, would have helped those students focus on the questions the first page raises, such as “Why is Jonas beginning to be frightened?” and “Why was everyone so scared of a plane?” It would also have positioned them to be more attentive to details that begin to repeat and form patterns—e.g., the capitalization of jobs, like Pilots; the emphasis on naming feelings precisely; the loudspeaker voice that tells people what do; and the many, many references to rules. And those questions and patterns would, in turn, help them develop lines of inquiry and hunches about the kind of world they were in.

Back then, though, what the teacher and I both realized was that the students needed more than a fluent reader’s voice to make meaning of the text. If she wasn’t going to push and prod them—or simply spoon-feed them what they couldn’t infer—they needed time to practice the kind of thinking I shared in last week’s post as I drafted an understanding of the world of The Hunger Games and Number the Stars from the details the author gives.  And so we gathered up a handful of books, like the ones below, that were set in some future time and place, and we created stations the students would visit and rotate among. At each station they’d read a few pages with a small group or partner and consider the following questions, which we modeled with one of the books. Then they shared their ideas on chart paper to compare with other groups’ and partner’s findings.

  • Do you notice any differences between this world and ours?
  • Are there words that seem to mean something special or are capitalized or used strangely? What do you think they might mean?
  • Are there different groups of people in this world? If so, can you tell anything about them or their relationship to each other?
  • Is there anything that gives you a sense of the worlds’ rules or what they seem to believe in—even if you don’t fully understand yet?

   

At this point in my practice, I like giving students more room to attend to what they notice in a text rather than direct them to specific details through prompts like the questions above. But I continue to use text sets like this to help students see and practice how readers infer the world of a book through the author’s details—whether the text is futuristic, historical, fantasy or realistic. (And for students who need even more support, I’d use them in the kind of ‘stepped-up’ guided small group I shared in an earlier post.)

This kind of close reading inevitably makes students want to keep reading the books. And when they do, they read with more engagement and depth because they’re no longer dependent on someone else’s questions to uncover what’s suggested on the page. They also read with more confidence and sense of agency because they know what it feels like to catch the little clues that reveal the text’s deeper meaning.

Text Set Books: The House of the Scorpion by Nancy FarmerFeed by M. T. Anderson, The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbreck, The Copper Elephant by Adam Rapp, Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.

Tying Means to Ends, or Making Sure Our Strategy Instruction is Strategic

Last summer a friend sent me a link to a pair of documents written by two of the authors of the Common Core Standards, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel. Titled “Publishers’ Criteria for the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literary” for Grades K-2 and Grades 3-12, respectively, they aimed to establish guidelines for designing instructional material aligned to the Common Core. The intended audience was publishers, yet the documents seemed to have major implications for teachers and schools as well, especially those that develop and design curricula and lessons in-house.

Both documents talk at length about the need for instruction to be text-based, not strategy-based, a distinction that sometimes calls into question practices currently found in many classrooms. The Criteria for Grades 3-12, for instance, states that “Reading strategies must take their right place in service of reading comprehension . . . rather than being taught as a separate body of material.”

This section, along with others, has sparked much discussion and debate, especially over whether these documents have veered too far into pedagogy, by telling teachers how they should teach, not just what the outcomes of their teaching should be. But the fact is there’s been controversy brewing over strategy instruction for a while, beginning perhaps with Nancie Atwell‘s 2007 book The Reading Zone, in which she raised some provocative questions about the role of strategies, seeing them too often as distractions or as test prep study skills.

Like Atwell, I’ve noticed how strategies like connecting can pull students out of a text, sending them off on recollections or tangents that sometimes have little to do with what they’re reading beyond the surface level. And I’m mindful of the cautionary story a colleague once shared with me. When she asked her fourth-grade son about homework, he told her he had to write some connections. “Well, you better start reading then,” she said, to which he replied, “No, I don’t have to read. I just have to make connections.”

I think this happens because we do sometimes teach strategies as a separate body of material—or as I tend to put it, we teach them as ends unto themselves, not as the means to an end. We ask students, for instance, to make connections seemingly for the sake of doing so, not explicitly in order to understand something they couldn’t have without using the strategy. And we often choose books for the express purpose of teaching inferring or determining importance, not because they’re books that do what books do best, expand and enrich our notions of the world and the human experience. In this way, we severe strategies from the strategic end of meaning making, and we risk students thinking that ‘doing’ the strategy is more important than arriving at insight.

To rectify this, I’ve tried various ways to reconnect strategies more explicitly to meaning making. In addition to focusing on meaning while conferring, I’ve created charts over the years like the ones below that ask students to think about how the connections they were making were or weren’t helping them as readers (with the second one from a high school demonstration using the opening of Peter Orner‘s short story “The Raft”):

 And with a third-grade teacher who was reading aloud Beverley Naidoo’s moving story of life under apartheid Journey to Jo’Berg, I designed this chart to help the students ground their predictions in the details of the text while still honoring what they hoped would happen if the world was a better place:

Eventually, though, I discovered that if I simply asked students to more deliberately keep track of what meaning they were making as they were reading and what they were confused or wondered about (using the KNOW/WONDER chart I shared in an earlier post to make that visible), many students automatically made connections, inferences, predictions and asked questions without my needing to explicitly teach them to do so.

It’s what, in fact, I did last week as I looked at the excerpt from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am! I acknowledged that I wasn’t completely sure I knew what that last line really meant, which led me to generate a slew of questions about what it might mean. To do that, I unconsciously drew on my own experience and knowledge of human nature (that is, I made some connections) to entertain some possible scenarios, which also involved some predicting and inferring. But I didn’t set out to connect or predict or question or infer for the sake of doing so. Instead, I set out to comprehend and understand what the author might be exploring, knowing that the details I encountered had been purposely chosen and carried some significance or meaning I needed to consider. And I used those strategies to help me think about the meaning those details might hold.

Most students I’ve shared this passage with, in grades four through seven, have done the exact same thing. They’ve developed questions and made connections to infer and develop hunches and drafts of understanding, without an explicit lesson on questioning, connecting, predicting or inferring. And those students who seem hesitant or reluctant are almost inevitably able to get better at it when given more time and encouragement to practice in a small group setting.

Finally, I and the teachers I’ve worked with have found that when we shift the focus of our lessons from the practice of strategies to the quest for meaning, students read more actively, with more engagement and excitement because they’re actually thinking. And thinking, as the writer Goethe said, “is more interesting than knowing.” It’s exhilarating, electric and thrilling. It’s the mind igniting with the sparks of insight and discovered meaning.

The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut

Last week I heard from my friend and fellow teacher Debora St. Claire. She’d tried using the What I Know/What I Wonder strategy I shared in a recent post with her 8th grade students as they embarked on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and she said that it worked quite well. But what was really remarkable was what her students had to say when she asked them whether it made them do anything differently as they read.

“I can get lost in a text and then I get frustrated and quit paying attention,” one student said. “Seeing my questions on the page helped me keep focus and keep reading.”

“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in having questions and being confused,” said another.

“It forced me to reflect more about the story instead of just reading it,” said a third.

As these students attested, this simple tool helps make the process of meaning making visible, with students drafting and revising their way from confusion to understanding and reading on with more purpose and intention. But if we truly want students to make their own meaning and not ape or take on ours, we, as teachers, have to do something that’s hard: we have to keep our mouths shut.

I was reminded of this just the other day as I met with a small group of middle school students who were stuck at level S. They were able to get the gist of what they read on the literal level, but they missed many of the smaller clues that revealed feelings, attitudes, even glimmers of themes that the author didn’t spell out directly. And that impaired their ability to read more complex texts.

To support them, I selected a short passage from Tony Johnston’s Any Small Goodness, a level T book about a Mexican boy newly arrived in Los Angeles. Then I gathered them together to explain that we were going to do something out loud today that readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we were learning from the text along with what we’re confused or wondering about. And to help us deal with our confusion and questions, we were going to think and talk about the details the writer gives us, because readers know that writer often leave clues about what’s going on through those details, especially about how the characters feel or why they do the things they do.

We read the first page, beginning with the chapter title and the epigraph, and the students shared out what they’d learned—that the narrator was named Arturo, or Turo, and that he has a grandmother—along with what they were confused or wondering about—the epigraph and the part about the bricks. Then I asked them then to reread the passage and see if the details offered any clues that might clear up their confusion or give them a sense of what Turo or his grandmother felt or said what they did. That led them to think that the grandmother thought Turo’s name was good and strong—like the stack of bricks—and that she might have felt proud of the name. They couldn’t quite tell, though, what Turo felt about his name, so we left that as a question.

So far, so good, I thought to myself, as we read on to learn how Turo’s family had come to Los Angeles. But then we hit this passage and the trouble began:

I asked if they’d learned anything new in this paragraph, and one of the students said, “Yeah, Miss Pringle’s probably the teacher because it’s the first day of school and she says, ‘Class’. And there’s someone named Arthur Rodriquez.”

Oops. As a reader I had immediately inferred that Miss Pringle had introduced Arturo as Arthur, for reasons I had a hunch about. But while this student had caught that Miss Pringle was the teacher, he’d missed the other clues that connected Arthur to Arturo. In the past I might have prompted him more or shared my own take on the text in the guise of a think-aloud, but putting my faith in the process of reading, which I knew often included missteps, I stuck instead to the strategy and asked, “So we think that Miss Pringle’s the teacher because of what she says, but do we have any clues about Arthur Rodriquez?”

“He’s probably another kid in the class,” one of the students said as the rest nodded in agreement. “Okay,” I said then, biting my tongue, “is anything confusing?”

Lots, the students said. They pointed to the rubbery-dolphin smile and everything that followed Arthur Rodriquez. I reminded them what they’d done on the first page: they went back and took a closer look at the details, which gave them a whole bunch of new ideas about those confusing bricks. And so I asked them to do that again—to reread and look for clues—and this time one of the students, Kaliv, had a new idea.

“Miss Pringle seems nice because she’s smiling, but it says her smile is rubbery, which sort of sounds, you know, fake. So maybe she’s not so nice. And maybe,” he said, then stopped himself, “maybe she called Arturo Arthur to make things easier for herself.”

Relief passed through me, though it was short lived, for none of the other students agreed. “No way,” they said, “it’s another kid.”

And so I bit my tongue again and recapped where we were: “It seems like we’ve got two ideas at this point. Some of us think Arthur Rodriquez is one of Miss Pringle’s students, while Kaliv thinks it might really be Arturo and maybe Miss Pringle said that because Arthur was easier to say than Arturo or because she’s not really so nice.” Then I suggested we read the next paragraph to see if we could figure out any more.

 A collective ‘oh’ rose up from the group as they read the next line. When I asked why, they all said they now thought Kaliv was right. Arthur was Arturo. And they also thought he didn’t mind the new name because it might help him fit in. And so they revised their understanding of the text.

Then they read the rest of the passage to see what else they might learn. And this time they didn’t even need a reminder about the strategy to get that Miss Pringle had changed lots of names to make them sound more American and that not everyone thought that was cool. Alicia didn’t because, they said, her eyes were like two dark, hurting bruises, which they thought meant she was either angry or sad.

I ended the session by naming for them the work they’d done as readers: They’d considered the significance of small details to help them navigate through their confusion and dig into the less visible layers of the text. And I named for myself what I had done: I’d let the students find their own route to meaning by trusting the process and keeping my mouth shut when they took a wrong turn. Doing that wasn’t easy, but each student left the group that day feeling more accomplished as a reader, and two of the students asked afterwards if they could read the whole book.

Not stepping in was a small price to pay for such an enormous payback.