More Thoughts on Craft and Those Pesky Test Questions

CRAFTAfter reading my last post on craft, a friend and colleague emailed me saying how amused she was by the fact that I’d used the phrase ‘make no bones’ in the same sentence in which I’d compared close reading to a mouse dissection. I had, indeed, purposely chosen the simile to evoke the sense of desecration I think happens when we over-analyze a text. But the phrase ‘make no bones’ had just popped into my head, and I used it with no awareness that it echoed the lab mouse dissection until she’d pointed it out. Put another way, I didn’t consciously choose that phrase to create the effect she experienced, though I was tickled by what she’d noticed. And this reminded me of a quote from Samuel Johnson that speaks to the relationship between writers and readers: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

I think this is true for the simple reason that a writer’s words on a page are inert until a reader’s mind brings them to life. And while I do believe that writers make choices about words, details, images, and structure in order to convey what they’re trying to exploring, there’s also something intuitive and uncanny about the process, with writers making unconscious decisions as well as conscious ones as they craft a text. And that opens the door for readers to see even more than the writer might have intended and to come up with a range of interpretations about the words on the page.

Notice and NoteKylene Beers and Robert Probst address this very point in their new book Notice & Notewhere they share an anecdote about the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot. A literary critic who’d seen one of his plays thought the play director had misinterpreted Eliot’s meaning. Eliot agreed that the production conveyed something different than what he’d intended, but he wasn’t really troubled by that. “‘But if the two meanings are contradictory,’” the critic asked, “‘is  not one right and the other wrong. Must not the author be right?’” Eliot replied: “‘Not necessarily, do you think? Why is either wrong?’”

This anecdote suggests that, despite his connection with New Criticism, the literary theory behind the Common Core, Eliot believed that multiple interpretations can, indeed, co-exist and that in the end the writer’s intentions don’t necessarily carry more weight than a reader’s interpretation. And this raises some interesting questions about all those “Why did the author include X in line Y” multiple-choice questions on New York State’s tests.

More questions are raised by the memoirist Patricia Hampl who, in her essay “The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination,” looks at the fallacy and the presumption of those author purpose questions. In the essay she recounts the experience of having an excerpt of a memoir she wrote appear in a college anthology that she, herself, had used in classes. Initially delighted to be included, she had an unexpected and uncomfortable reaction when she received the new edition in which her excerpt appeared and saw the questions that accompanied the piece. “And there, at the end of the selection,” she writes,

in those shivery italic letters reserved for especially significant copy, were the study questions. There were several under the heading “Questions About Purpose.” One will do: “Why does Hampl establish her father’s significance to the family before she narrates the major incident?” Beats me, I thought.

I had no idea what Hampl’s purpose was. All the study questions looked quite mad to me.

These ‘quite mad’ questions are, of course, precisely the kind that appeared on this year’s tests, with four possible answers for students to choose from, only one of which was deemed right. And they’re also the kind of questions that appear on the new Teacher Performance Assessments that Pearson has developed for edTPA, the organization that will be testing pre-service candidates to see if “a new teacher is ready for the job.” Here’s the first paragraph of one of the passages from the sample literacy skills test online:

Gertrude Stein Passage

And here’s the kind of question that’s asked. As in Hampl’s case, one will do:

Gertrude Stein Question

Picasso Portrait of Gertrude SteinThe repetition of the phrase does suggest some intention on the part of the author, but none of those answers seemed ‘right’ to me–including B, which the answer link said was correct. None, for instance, captured my sense that in her own unique and unconventional way, Gertrude Stein had a well-rounded life that was full of friends that were like a family, which might only have been possible because her family was prosperous. And none were connected to other details I’d noticed about her father, which suggested to me that she was repeating in reverse the journey that he had made. And when I re-read the passage, as close readers are supposed to do, I found myself thinking that the repetition had less to do with Gertrude Stein than with the idea that’s embedded in the title: that we cannot predict or control the future because we live in a world that’s disordered, in which the unthinkable happens. But that wasn’t one of the options.

One thing for sure, though, the question and answers forced me to abandon all the thinking I was doing and instead try to guess what the test-makers were thinking. And at that point I stopped being a reader and became a test-taker instead.

This has all made me think that when it comes to craft we might do better by remembering that readers and writers are both engaged in fitting details together to build meaning, with the writer ‘crafting’ the story out of details and the reader then using the details the writer’s chosen to ‘craft’ an interpretation. Any interpretation should be considered valid as long as it’s supportable by the details of the text, even if it veers from the writer’s intention. Most writers I know would agree with that because they respect and value the magic that happens when the words they’ve written interact with the mind of a reader. But one has to wonder what edTPA wants when they think that what demonstrates a teaching candidate’s readiness to become a teacher is the ability to second-guess the test-makers’ interpretations, which is what those answers are. What students really need are teachers who know how to help them craft their own ideas from the details the writer’s crafted the text from.

Fitting Pieces Together

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 2)

Last week I shared a story from my own reading life to explore ways of helping students negotiate texts with challenging vocabulary without automatically pre-teaching a long list of words in order to ensure that students don’t become overly dependent on us or think that meaning hinges on knowing every single word. There are, of course, times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. What’s important, though, is finding the right balance between teaching students vocabulary and giving them time to build their reading muscle, which is what a group of high school teachers I worked with recently tried to do as part of a workshop on incorporating more complex texts in the content areas.

To get a feel for the kinds of complex texts the Common Core Standards are asking us to integrate into our curricula, I turned once again to the exemplar texts listed in Appendix B. As I said in a previous post, I don’t think we have any obligation to use those particular texts (and I can’t imagine ever having a whole class of New York City 8th graders read Little Women as the Appendix suggests). But we do need to be aware of how they differ from the texts we typically expose students to in order to make sure that we’re providing students with a rich and diverse reading diet.

When it comes to nonfiction, one thing seems clear: The exemplars tend to present information in far more varied and indirect ways than many a classroom’s standard fare. They mix-up modes, moving back and forth between narrative, exposition, description and persuasion, and they use the kind of literary techniques and devices more often associated with fiction and even poetry. In addition—or perhaps because—of all that, many of the texts defy the strategies we frequently offer students, such as scanning and skimming, identifying keywords, using text features to predict the content and, when it comes to vocabulary, thinking about prefixes, suffixes and roots and looking for context clues. This was certainly true of the text I decided to use for the workshop, “Gravity in Reverse: The Tale of Albert Einstein’s ‘Greatest Blunder’” by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which was first published in the journal Natural History and subsequently included in both The Best American Science Writing 2004 and the CCS Grade 11-12 list of  Informational Texts for Science, Mathematics, and Technical Subjects. As you’ll see below, it begins with a song, speaks directly to the reader and is chock full of metaphors, allusions and challenging vocabulary.

After reading and discussing it first as readers to share what we made of it and how, we moved into teacher mode and began to talk about instruction by first thinking about which words we’d want to pre-teach and why. Here’s the beginning, which I invite you to read considering the same question:

Initially teachers came up with a long list of words—phobes, cosmology, “negative gravity”, exponentially, theorist, model, “thought experiment” and tantamount—which they said they’d need to pre-teach because the students wouldn’t already know them. Then I asked them to try to sort the words by considering the following three questions:

1. Which words might not be critical to a first draft understanding?

2. Which words might they want to have students hold on to and wrestle with as part of the meaning making process (paying particular attention to those that we, as readers, had to grapple with ourselves)

3. Which would be truly necessary or serve a larger academic purpose?

With those questions in mind, we whittled the list down to two: cosmology, because of its importance in the disciplineand phobes so that English Language Learners wouldn’t feel adrift right at the start. Exponentially and tantamount weren’t really necessary for a first draft understanding, they decided, though they were good words (or in the lingo of vocabulary instruction, “Tier Two” words) to return to later on, using some of the strategies offered by educators like Isabel Beck, Janet Allen, and Robert Marzano.

Negative gravity”, theorist, model, and “thought experiment,” on the other hand, were all words or phrases that the non-science teachers among us (including me) had to really think about. How, we wondered, did a theorist differ from an experimenter and how did that affect the scientific method? What did a ‘model’ in this context look like? And if “negative gravity” was the “mysterious and universal pressure that pervades all space,” where did it come from? How did it operate? And what did it have to do with Einstein?

These were also all words that seemed to lie at the heart of Tyson’s exploration and view of both Einstein and cosmology in general, and in each case we were able to construct those words’ meaning by connecting them to other details in the text. You could say that we used context clues, as we did with “negative gravity” above, but we did so on a grander scale than we usually teach students to do. That is, we didn’t just look at the sentence before or after the unknown words; instead we kept revising, refining and deepening our understanding of those terms as we continued reading, with some of us—i.e., me—not really ‘getting’ all the physics until much later on.

Thinking about those words across the whole text—and acknowledging our uncertainty about them—allowed us, as readers, to dig deeper into the piece. And we thought that if we let students wrestle with them, too, rather than just handing them over, they’d come away with both a deeper understanding of the content and a stronger sense of agency as readers. Plus they’d pick up some vocabulary words that they were likely to retain because they’d discovered their meaning.

A different group of teachers might have made different choices because, in the end, there’s no right or wrong. It’s all about knowing your texts and your students, considering your purpose and embracing productive struggle—and finding that balance between teaching words and meaning making, knowing the two aren’t  the same.

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

Revisiting The Power of Grammar

Three articles came my way the other week that reminded me of The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language, the book I co-authored with Mary Ehrenworth of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project several years ago. All three pieces were published by the New York Times, and all three had to do with sentences: “My Life’s Sentences” by the marvelous writer Jhumpa Lahiri, “The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative” by Constance Hale, and finally “Sense, Sensibility and Sentences: Examining and Writing Memorable Lines”  by Shannon Doyle and Holly Epstein Ojalvo.

Each piece puts the humble sentence in the spotlight to explore not only its grammatical parts but its power to move and delight us, to quicken or quiet our heartbeats and pulse through its rhythm, its arrangement, its use of words and choice of punctuation. Each also encourages us to become more aware of the sentence—or as Constance Hale puts it, to become “sentence connoisseurs”—which Doyle and Ojalvo suggest we can do by inviting students to collect and look at sentences alongside us.

Interestingly enough, collecting sentences was exactly how Mary and I began the work that ultimately led to The Power of Grammar. We gathered sentences that had stayed in our minds, like this one from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Lolita, which does, indeed, contain a whole narrative between the first word and the period:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightening) when I was three.

And we revisited favorite children’s books to cull wonderful sentences from authors like William Steig, Roald Dahl and Sandra Cisneros.

In terms of study, we didn’t focus on nomenclature or academic vocabulary—that is, we didn’t teach the difference between phrases or clauses or ask students to identify simple versus compound sentences. Instead we asked students to use great sentences as mentor texts, apprenticing themselves to master sentence craftsmen. And what happened when they did that seemed like magic.

In a fourth grade room, for instance, we brought in these two sentence from Leo Lionni‘s picture book Swimmy:

But the sea was full of wonderful creatures, and as he swam from marvel to marvel Swimmy was happy again. He saw a medusa made of rainbow jelly . . . a lobster, who walked about like a water-moving machine . . .  strange fish, pulled by an invisible thread . . . a forest of seaweeds growing from sugar-candy rocks . . . an eel whose tail was too far away to remember . . . and sea anemones, who looked like pink palm trees swaying in the wind.

We studied these sentences closely, just as we’d study craft moves like leads, to see what the writer was up to, using the language the students came up with. The first sentence, the class decided, gave us a sense of where the character was, what he was doing and how he felt. The second sentence was like a list that described what the character was seeing, with the ellipses suggesting that he was moving through both time and place.

We then asked students to look through their writer’s notebooks to see if they had any lists or journeys they might revise using Lionni’s sentence as a mentor, and a student named Mariah found this, which she had written in response to a prompt:

Things I saw on the way to school:

my mom’s face – 2 times

my room

the number 6 train

the gates of the school

my teacher

Apprenticing herself to Lionni’s sentence, Mariah began revising in a way that ultimately allowed her to craft these two sentences, which she later turned into a poem:

The trip to school was full of things to look at, and as I looked from one thing to another I became full of sad-loneliness. I saw my mommy’s face with a sort of funny smile when I woke . . . my room, full of all the things I wasn’t allowed to take with me . . . the train, rushing everyone away from their homes and the people who knew them and loved them inside and out . . . the gates of the school that locked my mommy out . . . my mommy’s face turning away from me and leaving me . . . and the arms of my teacher in a green sweater, who wrapped around me like a living tree.

The shift from her initial notebook entry to her final revision seems breathtaking. She moved from being a recorder of information to a writer who’s using grammatical structures, language and punctuation to fully render an experience in a way that moves and engages her readers. And as readers of The Power of Grammar can see, she was far from the only one.

Unfortunately, though, with genre studies ruling writing workshop these days and the Common Core Standards taking root, it’s been a while since I’ve had the luxury to do this kind of work. But on the heels of these recent articles, I’ve found myself wondering if perhaps there’s an opportunity here to engage in sentence apprenticeship again.

Those of us who’ve been looking at text complexity, for instance, know that one factor that makes a text complex is sentence structure, with texts on the high end of the complexity band increasingly employing sentences with more subordinate phrases and clauses, more intricate details and imagery, along with subtle shifts in reasoning, mood and tone, and sometimes parenthetical asides. Inviting students to apprentice themselves to such sentences and emulate them with their own material can help them better navigate complex sentences as they move into more complex texts. For as Anne Lamott says to aspiring writers in her inspirational handbook Bird by Bird, “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader and that is the real payoff.”

Working with sentences this way also opens the door to students falling in love with language (without which literacy risks remaining merely functional). It also helps students feel the enchantment Jhumpa Lahiri describes when she writes: “For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time . . . To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.”

So perhaps it’s time to start collecting sentences again and inviting our students to do the same, not to identify things like appositives or gerunds, but to attend to their power and beauty and think about how they affect us. I’m attaching a few I’ve found recently that in different ways all stood out for me. Please feel free to share them and to share as well any wonderful sentences you or your students discover.