What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum

Book of Hours c. 15th century, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Borrowing again from Katie Wood Ray‘s book, What We Know by Heart, which explores how we can develop curriculum from our own experiences as writers, I want to share some of the amazingly thoughtful comments readers left in response to Allen Woodman’s short short story “Wallet” in the other week’s post. In particular, I want to try to notice and name the moves those readers made and the instructional implications of those moves for classrooms.

To begin with, every single reader who responded was deeply engaged in thinking about what particular details might mean, both individually and in relationship to the whole. They considered the significance of the fortune cookie, the father’s comment about “all oyster and no pearl,” the billfold rising up “like a dark fish,” and the puzzling line that several mentioned, “There will be time enough for silence and rest.” Sometimes they had specific ideas about what those details might be revealing about character or even theme, and sometimes they weren’t sure what to do with them. But they all entered the text assuming that the details they encountered weren’t random but had been deliberately chosen by the author to convey something more than, say, the literal contents of a wallet. And as readers, their job was to attend to those details and to question and consider their meaning, which they did by wondering and brainstorming possibilities in a way that seemed less firm or emphatic than an inference or a prediction.

I believe there are instructional implications in what these readers knew about texts and how they used strategies based on that knowledge. Katie Wood Ray calls these “curriculum chunks,” and we can turn these chunks into teaching points, which could sound like this:

  • Readers know that writers choose details deliberately to reveal both characters and the ideas or themes they’re exploring through the story.
  • Because they know that, readers do the following:
    • They attend to the details they notice, asking themselves and wondering: Why is the author telling me this? What could this possibly mean?
    • They hold onto those wonderings as they keep reading, expecting to gain more clarity as they read.
    • They consider the possible meaning of details by brainstorming, using words like ‘maybe’, ‘might’ or ‘could.’

The readers of “Wallet” also brought their knowledge of how stories work to anticipate what some called a “twist”. But interestingly enough, not a single one predicted. Instead they all tried to remain open to whatever twists and turns the writer took, letting the story unfold on its own terms, while keeping their thinking tentative and flexible, knowing that endings are often unpredictable—and are frequently better for that.

There were also none of the literal text-to-self connections we frequently hear in classrooms—that is, no stories about pick-pocketed wallets or aging fathers in Florida. Mostly readers connected with their previous experiences as readers. And the one reader who explicitly made a connection to his grandfather pushed and prodded and probed that connection, connecting it to other details and memories until it yielded an insight about the text.

Similarly while many readers talked about visualizing, they did so for specific reasons. They visualized as a way of monitoring their comprehension and as a tool to infer events that were conveyed indirectly in the text. They visualized to interpret the imagery, like the billfold rising “like a dark wish.” They also visualized as a way of emotionally engaging with the story, with virtually no mental image mentioned without the reader also thinking of what that image made them feel. And along with that inquisitive, wondering stance, “it was,” as one reader put it, “the way the text made me feel that truly supported my meaning making.”

Here, too, there are instructional implications that could be turned into teaching points:

  • Readers know that stories unfold over time in ways that aren’t always predictable, and so they try to keep their minds open and receptive, drafting and revising their understandings as they go, without clamping down on any one idea too early.
  • Readers know that it’s not enough to make a connection with a text. They explore and question their connections, using them as tools to dig deeper.
  • Readers visualize to both monitor and fix breakdowns in their comprehension and to infer events that weren’t made explicit in the text.
  • Readers also visualize to think about the imagery and engage emotionally with the text. And they use their emotional responses and ideas about the imagery to consider what the author might be trying to show them or explore through the vehicle of the story.

It’s also worth noting that no reader made a definitive claim about ‘the theme’ of the story. Perhaps they would have if I’d asked them to; but at the risk of speaking for them, I think that, as readers, they didn’t feel a need to sum up and fit all they were thinking into a single statement—yet. They were, however, all circling ideas that we could call understandings or themes. One, for instance, was trying to “reconcile the complex notion that the father might be embarrassed but also delighted at the same time,” while others kept thinking about that fortune cookie, aware that the events of the story refuted its life-is-always-the-same-old-story message. One thought the story was “at least partly about” our society’s view of the elderly, while others considered what it might be saying about father and son relationships. And having that line about silence and rest brought to my attention by a few readers, I found myself thinking about mortality and death, which seems to hover over the story as yet another layer and lens for thinking about its ideas.

My hunch is that what we each focused on says something about our individual preoccupations and concerns. And the beauty of the story is that it offered so many entryways in less than 300 words, along with the following teaching points:

  • Readers know that even short texts can’t always be boiled down to a single idea, and that there are many ways of accessing and constructing understandings based on which details the reader notices and what they bring to the text.
  • Readers don’t read to identify a theme. Rather their understanding of theme emerges from their engagement and thinking about the details of the text.
  • Readers’ understanding of a text can be enriched and developed by hearing what other readers notice and think.
  • Readers need to live and linger with multiple possibilities before committing themselves to one idea for the purpose of writing a paper.

All of these points are based on these readers’ understanding of how narratives are built. And all set strategies within the context and purpose of searching for meaning. That’s what was in these readers’ hearts. And that’s what I think should be in our teachers’ hearts as we talk to students about reading.

Heart Book c. 1550′s, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

With many thanks to author Allen Woodman and all the readers who shared their thoughts on his story “Wallet.” Their comments can be found by clicking this link and scrolling down to the end of the post.

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.