What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

Almost two years ago, when this blog was quite new, I wrote a post about the dangers of students seeing themselves as reading level letters because of all the emphasis placed on levels. I felt compelled to write that post after noticing the artwork of several second graders who claimed that their dearest wish for the year was to achieve a certain reading level. And I’m returning to the same question now because of two things that happened last week: the news that Alice Munro, the great Canadian writer, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a conversation I had with my valued colleague Anna Commitante, which led me to take a second look at a packaged 9th grade ELA unit that uses Karen Russell‘s wonderful short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

The Beggar MaidI was thrilled to hear the Nobel Prize news because I’ve been reading—and adoring—Alice Munro for over thirty years. I’m not sure how I first discovered her way back in my twenties, but I remember clearly the first piece of hers I read, a short story called “Royal Beatings,” from the collection The Beggar Maid. It’s about a young girl named Rose living in rural Ontario in what I took to be the 1940’s, who’s subject to periodic beatings by her father when her step-mother Flo thinks she’s being uppity.

My life was nothing at all like Rose’s, but reading the story I felt a bolt of recognition that I’d never experienced before and a sense of exposure that was both terrifying and deeply reassuring. She put into words all the complicated, ricochetting swings of mood and feelings I often felt—and rather than judging or downplaying them, she celebrated each twinge and stirring. And in doing so she gave me what the writer Maureen McLane says certain poems and stories can provide: “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

Here, for instance, she describes the almost exquisite sense of having been wronged, which Rose feels after a beating:

Never is a word to which the right is suddenly established. She will never speak to them, she will never look at them with anything but loathing, she will never forgive them. She will punish them, she will finish them. Encased in these finalities, and in her bodily pain, she floats in curious comfort, beyond herself, beyond responsibility.

And here she describes the moment when that sense of power collapses as, feeling contrite, Flo leaves a tray of food outside Rose’s door:

She will turn away, refuse to look, but left alone with these eatables will be miserably tempted . . . she will reach out a finger, just to run it around the edge of one of the sandwiches (crusts cut off!) to get the overflow, a taste. Then she will decide to eat one, for strength to refuse the rest. One will not be noticed. Soon, in helpless corruption, she will eat them all. She will drink the chocolate milk, eat the tarts, eat the cookies. She will get the malty syrup out of the bottom of the glass with her finger, though she sniffles with shame. Too late.

To me, this story was a revelation. And I’m so very glad that the Nobel Prize news prompted me to relive that first encounter and reread the story, which was in my mind a few days later when I talked with Anna.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesWe were commiserating about the sorry state we were in, here in New York City, where everything seemed to be conspiring to not allow students to have the kind of reading experience I just described. And at some point she asked me if I’d ever read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” or seen the New York State 9th grade unit on it. I’d read and loved Russell’s story (from the collection of the same name) and had come across the unit at some point, when I looked at it just long enough to note the great choice of text. But Anna said I had to read it because, she said with exasperation and heartache, “They got it all wrong.”

The story itself is wonderfully strange: A group of girls whose parents are werewolves have been sent to the St. Lucy’s Home at the urging of the Home’s nuns in order to become, in the story’s words, “naturalized citizens of human society.” Not all goes well, however, especially for one of the youngest girls who not only can’t but doesn’t seem to want to give up all her wild ways, despite the fact that it may leave her stranded between the worlds of humans and wolves.

Given how adolescents often straddle two worlds, I imagined there might be some 9th graders out there who’d find in the story a “deep sea in which to swim and make a self.” But when I took another look at the unit, I realized there was no room for that. Clocking in at 211 pages, the unit plan was ten times longer than the story itself, comprising 17 lessons with 130 text-dependent questions, almost 40 vocabulary words and lots of formative and summative assessments.

When we all think alike no one thinks very muchThat, in and of itself, seemed bad enough, but when I looked closer at the questions I understood what Anna had meant. Most seemed aimed at checking students’ basic comprehension and ability to cite evidence from the text, while others focused on vocabulary. But there were some like “Why is St. Lucy’s culture better?” that made me realize that what Anna and I took to be a story about conformity and indoctrination had been seen by the unit writers as a story about the need to assimilate. And the questions and prompts pushed students toward that—just as the nuns were pushing the girls to adhere to “civilized” norms.

A story this rich will inevitably spark multiple interpretations. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a writer who, in her own words, “mashes” genres together with such abandon and glee, would want readers to think that the central idea was “that girls who were raised by wolves must assimilate or adapt to human culture,” as the unit claims. But then again I’m not really sure the unit wants readers to think. The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.

Of course, I think it’s possible to meet the standards within the context of non-standardized reading and thinking. But we need to be mindful of both the direct and indirect messages we’re sending. And we might begin that by considering these words about stories from Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.”

Alice Munro

Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray

Study DrivenMost writers I know have moments of envy when they wish with every fiber in their being that they, themselves, had written a line that another writer did. Katie Wood Ray‘s line, “Before revision, vision,” from her marvelous book Study Drivenis one of those lines for me. I love it for its succinctness and simplicity and, of course, for the emphasis on vision, which the line reminds us we should keep in our heads whenever we attempt to revise anything, just as it’s kept, like a Russian nesting doll, within the word revision.

In this case, Katie was talking about helping students develop a vision of what they’re hoping to write, just as real writers do. In fact, Study Driven wound up on my desk because, in wrestling with how to structure what I’m currently working on, I was poring over professional books and found myself inspired by the way that Study Driven was divided into three main sections, one that explored and unpacked understandings, one that looked at practice, and a third the offered resources so that teachers could put those understandings into practice. But as I flipped through the pages, I noticed something else. As has happened before when I revisited the work of Don Murray or Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, I found myself reading a book on writing that seemed to have all sorts of implications for the teaching of reading as well, starting with that line, “Before revision, vision.”

I believe that readers need a vision as well, whether they’re students or teachers: a vision of what it looks, sounds and feels like to enter a text knowing virtually nothing and end it Visionwith a deep of understanding of what they think the author is exploring. And they need a vision of how readers do that by noticing and connecting details that develop and change across the text. The question is when and how to provide that—and Study Driven had ideas about that, too.

In writing, students develop a big picture vision during a period of immersion, a time when students read and get a feel for the kind of writing they’ll be doing. That immersion period is also the first part of what Katie calls a whole-part-whole framework for instruction: Students get a feel for the whole first, then they closely study and practice the parts (leads, transitions, dialogue, etc., depending on what they’re writing) in order to eventually create a whole themselves.

That whole-part-whole framework stands in contrast, she thinks, to how we tend to teach writing, which, as she explains below, frequently involves teaching the parts:

“I believe part-to-whole is still the most prevalent curriculum orientation in the teaching of writing, and my theory about why is because with this orientation, curriculum feels more manageable . . . . Having parts to teach makes us feel safe because, quite simply, it makes us feel like we have something to teach.

But, she warns, that kind of teaching risks leaving students “with a part-to-whole understanding of writing that I fear never adds up.” On the other hand, she says,

“if teaching begins with the wholeness of vision, the parts won’t go away . . . [but they'll] mean much more to the students because they know where they came from, they know what they are parts of.

When it comes to reading, I think we also tend to teach parts, with lessons framed around specific skills, strategies and, increasingly, individual standards. And like the risk Katie cites in writing, this teaching of parts often never adds up, as attested to by the number of teachers who confess to wanting to pull out their hair because their students can’t seem to infer despite repeated lessons.

So what would an immersion period, in which students develop a vision of the whole, look like in reading? For me, it’s exactly the kind of read aloud experience (or shared reading hybrid) that I shared in my “From Demonstration to Orchestration” post. There students were getting a feel for how readers make meaning from a text, using the meaning making process that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Do. And in addition to practicing the first main teaching point—how readers begin a text by keeping track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about—the students also uncovered other things that readers do, such as stay alert for small, subtle clues that can signal a flashback as well as a return to the present narrative moment.

In this way, students are doing precisely what Katie describes as the purpose of immersion: “They are making notes of the things they notice” with a focus on the process, which in reading is how readers read closely to construct an understanding. And through that process, students, themselves, also “develop curriculum,” such as how readers recognize and navigate flashbacks.

The-part-can-never-beAfter the immersion period, where students are in engaged in the whole work of reading, they hunker down for what Katie calls “Close Study”. This involves the class revisiting texts to investigate the parts. And here there are parallels, too. In reading, this revisiting could take several forms: Students might return to a passage in the immersion text that puzzled them for a second look; they could gather up specific lines connected to a pattern they’d noticed, as the third grade Winn-Dixie readers from last week’s post did, to see what else they might reveal; or after finishing the immersion text, they could return to the beginning to better ‘see’ how the writer planted details and clues that would be developed throughout the text, as another group of third graders I wrote about earlier did with The Blue Ghost

That close study time could also take the shape of the kind of small group work I’ve written about, where students have time to practice—or study—excerpts of other text whose parts operate in a similar way. The students in the “Orchestration” post who were confused by the shifts in time in The Name Jar, for instance, might look at Cynthia Rylant’s story “A Bad Road for Cats,” from Every Living Thing, which contains a flashback that rejoins the present moment through subtle textual clues, in order to be more aware of the way writers signal those shifts.

Finally, in Katie’s whole-part-whole writing framework, students are “Writing Under the Influence” of the study, where they apply all they have learned through both the immersion and close study time to their own piece of writing. And this seems exactly what we want the readers in our classrooms to do: to apply all that they’ve learned about how readers read closely to construct meaning to their own independent reading books.

Of course to do this, we, as teachers, need a vision as well. So here’s hoping that this helps both you and your students develop an inner vision of the whole complex work of reading that you can tuck inside your minds like that little wooden doll.

Matrioska Russian Doll

Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

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Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students

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For those of us who like to ground our writing instruction in mentor texts—i.e., letting students read and study great examples of the kind of writing they’ll be doing—the Common Core Standards pose some problems, especially when it comes to the kind of textual analysis the Standards seem to emphasize. Writing standard 9, for instance, which begins in the fourth grade, asks students to “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research” with reference to a particular reading literature or information text standard. Many interpret this as pure academic writing of the sort that would address the kind of performance-based task prompts that are listed in the Common Core’s Appendix B. These are specifically aimed at demonstrating proficiency in one or more reading standards, with the teacher usually being the sole audience—and there’s not exactly a ton of great samples of that kind of writing out there.

Default ButtonThis lack of mentor texts frequently leaves students without a clear vision of what this kind of writing might look and sound like. And it often encourages us as teachers to default to some preconceived and often formulaic notions about structure and organization that ConversationEducation blogger and educator Tomasen Carey calls mortifying myths and ridiculous rules in her post on “Miss-Interpretations of the Common Core and Teaching Writing.” So to make this kind of writing more concrete for students and teachers alike, I’ve started asking the teachers I work with (and myself, as well) to try to write the tasks we design to meet particular standards—and virtually every time we do this, we discover that our preconceived notions don’t actually hold much weight.

Hey World Here I Am CoverTake the group of fifth grade teachers I worked with who wanted their students to write an analysis aligned to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.” To try it out ourselves we read two short texts that circled the same feminist theme: “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little‘s Hey World, Here I Am!a deceptively simple text that requires far more thinking to get than its Lexile or reading level might suggest, and The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch‘s gender bending fairy tale that I looked at in my post about theme.

When we first discussed the standard, the teachers all envisioned that the writing would take the form of a four-paragraph essay with the first paragraph introducing the purpose of comparing and contrasting the two texts, the second listing what was similar between them, the third the differences, and the fourth concluding with some final reflection or thoughts about both texts. But as you’ll see from mine below, when we tried it ourselves, both the structure and content looked different than what they’d envisioned.

Compare & Contrast Thematic Essay

In slightly different ways—and without discussing it beforehand—each of us did what I did above. Rather than introducing our purpose, we each went straight to what was thematically similar about the texts, then we each described in more detail how those similarities played out in the two texts, with one paragraph devoted to one text and another to the second. In the limited time we’d given ourselves, we did end with a paragraph that spoke to both texts, but we all kept the focus again on the similarities because they seemed more significant than the differences between the texts. And in that way, we automatically went for what was “deep and penetrating” versus what was “readily apparent” as the Making Thinking Visible authors I quoted in an early post on compare and contrast suggested we do whenever we engage in a particular thinking skill.

Poppleton IllustrationSimilarly, I worked with a group of fourth grade ESL teachers who wanted their students to write an analysis and reflection tied to Reading Literature Standard 2 as part of a unit on overcoming adversity. The standard asks students to “determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text; summarize the test,” and initially the teachers thought that, given how new and potentially challenging the thinking around theme might be, they would only focus on the first half of the standard and let the summary go. When we tried to do it ourselves, however, with the story “Icicles” from Poppleton in Winter, which we thought might be a good entry point for those English Language Learners, every single one of us included what we decided to call a thematically focused summary (as you’ll see again in mine). By writing, we realized that the summary wasn’t actually a separate task; it was the way each of us showed how the theme was conveyed through the details of the story—though the summaries we wrote were different than the summaries we tend to teach.

Poppleton Essay

In each case, we deepened our own understanding of what this kind of writing could look like by doing it ourselves. And in each case we didn’t do what we imagined we’d teach students to do based on our preconceived notions. We also wound up with several mentor texts, which we were excited to share with the students so that they, too, could have a better idea of what this kind of writing could look like. And we had a clearer vision of what our instructional focus might be based on what we’d done as writers.

Of course, I’m still wrestling with how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students. But to do that I think we’d have to breaking yet another mortifying myth and ridiculous rule that I broke myself: That there is no “I” in essays.

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

Remembering the Power of Writing & Reading: Reflections from Jordan

Mary, Katherine & Me 2

A few days after putting up my last post mourning what feels like the dashed dreams of the Standards and the return of scripted reading programs, I found myself on a plane bound for Jordan with two remarkable women: Mary Ehrenworth, the Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project and co-author of numerous books on teaching including Pathways to the Common Core and (with yours truly) The Power of Grammar, and Katherine Bomer, consultant extraordinaire and the author of Writing a Life and Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.

AmmanOnce there I had the incredible opportunity to work alongside Mary and Katherine and three amazing Jordanian educators from the Queen Rania Teacher Academy, Taraf Ghanem, Jumana Jabr, and Maysoon Massoud, as they, in turn, worked with teachers from schools in and around Amman. All were committed to bringing writing workshop to the children of Jordan. And all took on that work with a passion and dedication that was moving and inspiring to see–though, sadly, for me it was also ironic. Here was a country embarking on a journey which the U.S. is seemingly turning away from: helping students feel the power of language to move hearts and change minds by empowering them to become authors whose words and voice and subject matter were of their own making and choosing.

Jordanian students face the same kind of high-stake tests that American students do. In fact, the tests they take as they finish high school will determine whether they can go on to college, thus fixing the paths of their lives. And they will have to complete much of that test in a second language, English. Yet these educators believe, as Mary, Katherine and I do, that they will serve their students best if, rather than drilling them for the test from an early age, they invite them to feel what Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey, describes as the magic of writing. “Just think,” he writes:

We can make a few abstract marks on a piece of paper in a certain order and someone a world away and a thousand years from now can know our deepest thoughts . . . . Our stories have the power to heal, to make the world new again, to give people metaphors by which they can better understand their own lives.

We could feel the students harnessing that magic in the pieces students shared in their classrooms and their teachers brought to our sessions, such as this excerpt from a beautifully written and illustrated narrative from one of the students in teacher Nawal Qawasmeh’s class:

NarrativePage01

NarrativePage02

NarrativePage03

You can feel it, too, in this persuasive essay from another one of Nawal’s students who, without being taught what an argument was, let alone a claim or a stance, expressed herself in a second language with passion and poignancy:

Essay01

Essay02

These students will eventually have to learn how to cite evidence and elaborate more, as well as develop a repertoire of other craft and rhetorical moves. But I believe those skills can be mastered more easily once they have felt how the words of their hearts can transcend the particulars of time and place to affect a reader deeply. They will also benefit by reading more widely–or as Gary Paulsen says in a quote I shared with many of the teachers, they must learn “to read like the wolf eats.”

The DotUnfortunately, in Jordan that is a challenge because books in public schools are in short supply, both in Arabic and English. And to try to address that in some small way, Mary, Katherine and I all brought books along with us. Mary shared Eve Bunting’s Fly Away Home and poems by Rachel Pastan and Naomi Shihab Nye as a way of introducing teachers to the idea of close reading. Katherine read—and acted out—The Dot by Peter Reynolds, the story of a little girl who develops an identity and sense of agency as an artist when her teacher elevates the dot she drew to a work of art, in order to demonstrate the power of conferences that are built on student strengths, not deficits. And I brought a few dozen child-size board books about animals, dinosaurs and elves, which I passed out to the Bedouin children who worked with their families at the ancient site of Petra.

Boy on DonkeyThe Gift of Books (Boy Walking)

Seeing the children’s reactions to the books brought home in the simplest but most profound way that while reading and writing are, indeed, skills, they are also priceless gifts. They bind us together. They keep us alive. They nourish our minds and our souls, giving voice to our deepest dreams and desires and reminding us both of the marvels of the world and what it means to be human. Having students practice those skills without feeling the power and magic they hold, as some of the Common Core programs seem to do, drains the life out of reading and writing and risks turning those vital, life-sustaining acts into something mechanical and dry. The teachers in Jordan, however, are working hard to set those skills within that deeper, more meaningful context–and you could see the pay-off of that hard work in their students’ faces as they proudly showed us their writing.

Students from Soof

Finally once I got back home, I serendipitously stumbled on these words of advice from Barry Lopez‘s wonderful children’s book Crow and Weasel

“The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

The stories I had the privilege to read and hear from the teachers and children of Jordan fed me as much as the wonderful platters of hummus and kabobs did. And having those stories come to me, I’m passing them on because I think that we need them in these challenging times. We need them because they remind us that reading and writing can do more than make students ready for college or jobs. They can help us find meaning in whatever we do as we try to forge meaningful lives. And they can connect us, beyond culture and place, to the humanity we all hold in common.

Lunch

SparkNotes Nation

Sparknotes-Fahrenheit 451SparkNotes Their EyesSparkNotes Huck Finn

Amid all the cries that the Common Core Standards are asking too much of us—at least without more time and support—are a smaller but still vocal group of voices that say they’re nothing new. Many of these voices belong to high school teachers who’ve been asking text-based questions for years and requiring students to support whatever claims they make in discussions and essays with evidence. For them, the only new requirement is to add more nonfiction to the mix, which, again, some were doing already, assigning books such as Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Many of these teachers do a fabulous job of engaging their students with great literature and building their capacity for critical thinking. But the emphasis on teaching texts instead of readers—particularly on teaching that attempts to direct students toward a particular, pre-determined and/or widely-accepted interpretation of a text—has also had the effect of sending thousands, if not millions, of students to SparkNotes where they can find out what they ‘should’ think without actually reading the book.

This was, in fact, the sad discovery of the head of a high school English department I worked with several years ago, who had asked his students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire at the end of the year after grades were in. His American Literature class had read a wide range of texts that year—poetry, essays, plays and short stories, along with four book-length texts. And for each of those four books he asked the students to put a check beside one of the following four statements.

I read the entire book on my own.

I read part of the book and then turned to SparkNotes.

I only read SparkNotes.

I read neither the book nor SparkNotes.

graded-paper-300x225What he found gave him serious pause. While over 80% of the students read Angela’s Ashes, the first book-length text he’d assigned, less than 20% actually read the last book, The Grapes of Wrath, with the largest percentage just reading SparkNotes, and some not even doing that. What was almost worse was that every student had passed the class, which meant that they’d either doctored or plagiarized papers they’d found online or were able to figure out what they were supposed to think by attending to the cues the teacher gave during class discussions.

And so on the heels of those dispiriting numbers, we decided to experiment with the idea of choice and book groups the following year, with the students actually reading in class then discussing what they read with their peers. We wanted them to read multiple texts, and so we designed a unit using short stories that all had teenage protagonists and were written by American authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates‘s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Tobias Wolff‘s “The Liar“, and Michael Cunningham‘s “White Angels“. And we asked them to use their groups to consider what the author of each story seemed to be saying about the challenges of growing up in America.

CHOICEWe gave the students a brief description of the stories, let them choose which ones they wanted to read, and formed groups based on those choices. And since it quickly became apparent that many of them had no strategies for talking or thinking about books on their own, we recruited several other English teachers to demonstrate a discussion of Sylvia Plath’s story “Initiation,” which was one of three stories the whole class had read before breaking into groups.

During that discussion, we asked the students to pay attention to what the teachers did—not just their ideas about the story, but how they constructed those ideas. And from what they noticed, we co-created a list of strategies and discussion moves they could use that looked like this:

Text-Based Strategies 2

© 2008 Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant, http://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

Noticing and naming what the teachers had done helped many of the students to notice more in the stories they were reading. A group of students, for instance, reading Maxine Swann‘s story “Flower Children,” about a counter-culture couple in the 70’s attempting to raise their brood of children without rules or inhibitions, noticed how often idyllic or utopian exclamations—such as “They’re the luckiest children alive!”—were paired with images of darkness or death. And as they read additional stories, students started noticing patterns across texts, including many characters who longed for the past and many who ultimately felt let down by the people who supposedly cared for them the most. And noticing this, they began to consider what these patterns suggested the different authors might be saying about what it means to grow up.

This process invited students to independently engage in the kind of close reading that is now being promoted by the Standards and to construct their own interpretations based on what they’d noticed. It also allowed them to develop a new appreciation for literature and of themselves as readers, as can be seen in this student reflection:

Student Response 2

BookCaps Study GuideFast-forward now to our present moment when, if search engine terms that bring people to this blog are any indication, close reading and text-dependent questions are on lots of teachers’ minds. Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes—though they now offer apps for IPhones and Androids, which many students manage to use, despite prohibitions, in class. And lest this seems just like a high school problem, it’s worth noting that new companies like BookCaps are cropping up, selling study guides to books like Because of Winn-DixieBridge to Terabithia and Sign of the Beaver for, as SparkNotes’s motto puts it, “When your books and teachers don’t make sense.”

I believe that unless we make room for diverse interpretations built from what students notice—and focus as much on teaching readers as texts and on thinking as much as on answers—it’s highly probably that students will continue to rely on SparkNotes or find alternatives to beat the system, because they’re actually resourceful and smart. They read us as closely as we’d like them to read texts, trying to figure out what we want in order to give it to us. And I think that means that if we truly want to students to construct their own meaning and not just take on established ideas that are available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we may need to take a closer look at what messages we’re sending out about what we really want from them.

Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

Crafting a LifeFor reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to renovate my office in September, which meant moving all my books to the bedroom and stacking them up on the floor. I thought the project would take three weeks, with everything neatly back in place before I left for Italy. But as anyone who’s remodeled anything knows, stuff inevitably happens—in my case, the discovery that beneath the old carpet lay an unlevel floor with a few rotting floorboards.

Needing to put a whole new floor down meant that I didn’t get my books back on the shelves until last week. But while I had definitely grown tired of navigating the stacks of books in the bedroom, the timing turned out to be lucky, for over the break I had the time not just to put the books back on the shelves, but to pause, reconnect and re-acquaint myself with some I hadn’t read for a while, including Don Murray‘s Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.

Along with his fellow New Hampshire-ite Donald Graves, Don Murray was one of the founding fathers of the writing workshop approach, which invited students to follow the same process that actual writers used—pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing their way to a published piece. I’d bought Crafting a Life when it first came out, when most of the work I was doing in schools centered around writing, and I was curious to see what I’d think of it now, having focused so much recently on reading. I was even more curious when I opened it up and discovered that I’d read the book with a yellow highlighter in hand. Would what had struck me as important back then still seem important to me now? Would I see more than I saw before? Would I discover new insights?

Highlighter and word ideaI doubt I would be writing this if the answer was no. As it was, as I read the lines I’d highlighted, I found myself thinking that I’d stumbled on a whole new way of articulating the reading-writing connection, for on page after page I found parallels between the work of a writer, as Murray describes it, and the work of a reader. Of course, some of these parallels weren’t exactly new. Murray talks, for instance, about the need to form communities where “we share who we are, what we feel, what we think,” which many teachers try to do, too, for both he writers and the readers in their rooms. And he talks about “cultivating a writing habit,” which seems similar to how we help students plan a reading life by setting aside time, creating goals and thinking about what they’ll read next.

But what struck me the most were the parallels I saw in his descriptions of a writer’s purpose and attitude. Here, for instance, is a passage where Murray explains why he writes that could just as easily explain why we read:

“The reason I write is simple: to surprise myself. I want to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew, to see a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way, to contradict my most certain beliefs, to burst through expectation and intent to insight and clarity, to hurt and laugh and understand and be confused in a way that I have not experienced before.” (p. 47)

Writing to surprise yourself, according to Murray, requires a particular attitude or stance, which he says begins with paying attention, just as reading to surprise yourself does. It also requires openness and a flexible mind, as he describes below:

“It is dangerous for the writer to know exactly where he or she is going . . . . The writer has to become receptive, open to gesture, to slight adjustments in a tone of voice, to what is different from yesterday, to what will be different tomorrow, to fleeting thought and changes in feelings as subtle as an off-shore breeze that hints of rain.” (p. 29)

Surprise Box Shipped Cardboard PackageIt seems unadvisable to me, as well, for a reader to know where he or she’s going (at least the first time through a text); for if we did know, there wouldn’t really be any need to keep turning the pages. Not knowing is what keeps us engaged; it’s what propels us forward. And it’s what helps us keep our minds open and receptive to whatever surprises the text holds. If you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.

Unfortunately, however, many of the strategies we teach children to use, such as predicting and picture walks—and even connecting and accessing schema—work against this open mindset by encouraging students to form ideas before they even start reading. And as Murray says in yet another line that has implications for readers: “Beginning writers make the mistake of looking for ideas before beginning to write.” Far better, I think, would be to teach students to ask the very same questions that Murray asks himself as he writes:

“What are the most specific details I can spot? What do they reveal? Which specifics connect? What does their pattern reveal? What specifics repel others? What does that lack of pattern reveal? (p. 47)

Murray poses these questions as he drafts and revises, with each successive draft becoming what he calls “an adventure into meaning.” As readers of What Readers Really Do know, I believe that reading is as much an adventure into meaning as writing is, and it’s also a process of drafting and revising, with this important difference. “During revision,” Murray says, “I re-see the subject, developing clues into understanding, hints into insights, reordering to produce clearer patterns.” As readers, however, we can’t revise the clues or patterns the writer has laid down; what we have to keep revising instead is what we think those patterns and clues reveal and what insights they might be leading us to. And to do this, once again, we have to apply Murray’s writing words to readers: “You discover what [the text has] to say by letting go of preconceptions.”

“Writing should have led you to a new understanding—or, at least, a new confusion,” Murray writes, which is true for reading as well. Rereading Murray deepened my understanding of the reading-writing connection and what it means to read like a writer, and it helped me discover what I didn’t know I already knew. Reconnecting with him over the break was also a great way to start the new year.

Now I wonder what other surprises I’ll find waiting for me on my bookshelves . . .

Bookshelves

My Christmas Wish List

christmas-star-gradient-8r

I began thinking about this post last Thursday after I’d spent the day with some teachers who were trying to wrap their minds around what makes a nonfiction text complex beyond background knowledge and vocabulary. I’d brought a sampling of books with me, many from the list of text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Standards, and as the teachers began to pour through them, they noticed many things. They noticed, for instance, that most of these books disrupted much of what we teach students about nonfiction; many had illustrations, for instance, instead of photographs, and many had no text features to speak of—no table of contents, no index, no subheadings, to make fact retrieval easy. And rather than the dry, utilitarian language we often find in nonfiction, these books were filled with the kind of language more often associated with poetry, as can be seen from this gorgeous page from Nicola Davies‘s book Big Blue Whale:

Big Blue Whale 2

“I wish I could find a teacher who’d do an author study of Nicola Davies with me,” I said as I imagined children writing ‘information’ texts that explored content through beautiful language that made facts come alive and were structured as creatively as these text exemplars were, rather than by drearily following the Writing Standards bullet points like a formula.

That, in turn, gave birth to several wishes that Thursday afternoon. I wished that in this current climate of argument, analysis and evidence, we could find the time not just to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings,” but to relish and delight in language and feel its power to move us. And to do this, I wished, as Tom Newkirk does in his wonderful piece “Reading Is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading Movement‘”, that we could stop equating proficient reading with speed and right answers and instead, “not put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible—’This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.'”

walt-whitmanI also found myself wishing that we could crack open those first three writing Standards and acknowledge how truly powerful writing doesn’t always fit comfortably and neatly into those opinion, information, and narrative categories—even when we’re writing about texts. Here, for instance, is a link and an excerpt to writer, professor and educator Tom Romano‘s glorious essay “A Relationship with Literature,” which combines personal narrative, literary analysis and deeply held convictions to explore his life-long relationship with Walt Whitman:

“Through their essays students have shown me that literature matters to them for many reasons: because of their search for identity, their spiritual needs, their desire to escape to imaginative worlds, their evolving sense of justice. . . . No students yet have written that what won them over to literature was the arc of the Victorian novel, or the qualities of Romanticism, or what a green light symbolized at the end of a dock. This doesn’t surprise me. Literature matters to my students because of their wild and precious lives. They want them to make sense, to be meaningful. They want to find their way. And I understand. ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ (Whitman).”

And then, of course, came last Friday, when yet another unimaginable act of violence occurred, destroying 27 wild and precious lives. Tom Romano notes that some of his students “have come through slaughter, and a book helped them understand that pain, fear and despair.” I do wish that at some point the families of Newtown, Connecticut, will find some shred of solace in a writer’s words. But right now I wish that literature will fail us, that it actually won’t help us make sense of what happened, because if understanding begets acceptance and tolerance, I wish to never understand what happened that day and to never, ever have to see the words massacre and school in the same sentence again.

Finally, as we head into the holidays, I wish that we might find the strength and courage to to change a world that seems bent on discounting creativity, beauty and the slow accretion of meaning, that seems to care more for the rights of gun owners than the rights of children, and that narrowly evaluates the value of a teacher in ways that fail to acknowledge the valor and sacrifice of the teachers in Newtown. Of course, doing that will not be easy. But for that we might want to hold on to the words of Anais Nin‘s poem “Risk”:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

Pine Tree in Snow

A Feast of Inspiration: Some Choice Morsels from NCTE

While I couldn’t quite manage to get this out before the turkey was carved, I’d like to give my thanks this week to the amazing educators I had the privilege of hearing at last week’s NCTE convention and to share some of their incredible thinking with those who couldn’t be there. The theme of this year’s convention was Dream, Connect, Ignite, but in most of the sessions I attended there seemed to be another theme lying just below the surface: a dream that by connecting we could ignite a movement to push back against the forces of standardization that threaten to engulf us.

This came through loud and clear in the keynote address by educator and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, who expanded on the ideas from his famous Ted Talk on “Changing Education Paradigms” (which can be seen in this wonderful animated version by RSA Animates). According to Robinson, our current educational system is not only out-dated, it’s built on three principles—conformity, compliance, and linear thinking—which are diametrically opposed to the very qualities that make human beings vibrant and vital: creativity, diversity, and ways of thinking that are organic and highly personal. And it’s precisely these last three qualities that he thinks schools need to foster and embrace.

Creativity, diversity and personalized thinking were on center stage in a knock-out (and hilarious) session by Kathy Collins, Stephanie Parsons, Matt Glover and Ginny Lockwood, who explored different aspects of choice and ownership. Kathy looked at how, even in an education system narrowed by the confines of conformity, we, as teachers, still have some choice in what we attend to and ask students to do. And Ginny, picking up on that thread, made a passionate plea for choosing to create classrooms in which students are not simply ‘doing’ school—i.e., compliantly completing our assignments—but are truly and deeply ‘being’ in school, with mind, body and soul fully present.

To see what that could actually look like, Stephanie shared clips of her fourth grade students discussing topics of their own choice (in this case, whether money solved problems or made them worse) in what they had dubbed the “Circle of Talkingness”. And she celebrated what she called the “little healthy chaos”—i.e., the messiness that inevitably comes when we choose not to make our students conform to linear ways of thinking. Then Matt shared the amazingly diverse and highly personal ways second grade students incorporated what they had learned from an author study of Cynthia Rylant into writing pieces whose genre they had chosen themselves; and he offered other ways of giving students more choice in what they were going to make within the framework of non-genre specific units. Then the session ended with a rousing reading of my new favorite picture book Prudence Wants a Pet by Cathleen Daly, whose main character, as you can see below, is the epitome of a creative, unique thinker.

I also had the opportunity to hear Randy and Katherine Bomer speak along with professor Allison Skerrett and high school teacher Deb Kelt in a session entitled “Building on Strengths: Teaching English as if Adolescents Already Knew What They Were Doing.” In each speaker’s own unique, diverse way, they shared examples of “appreciative” curricula and teaching, which acknowledges, honors and builds on the experience and capabilities of students, instead of seeing them as deficient because they don’t conform to some norm. Kicking off the session, Randy looked at how deficit language, which sends out the subliminal message to students that they’re lacking or unable, can creep into our teaching talk even when we don’t intend it to; while Katherine suggested a writing conference move inspired by improvisational comedian Stephen Colbert: saying “Yes, and . . . ” to students instead of “No, but . . .” as a way of framing whatever follows around student strengths instead of deficits.

And finally, in perhaps the most subversive talk, I saw middle school teacher and cartoonist David Finkle share a comic strip presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” which used the scene from The Wizard of Oz to question the bluster and wisdom of the wizard behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards. My favorite part? After hearing the wizard, a.k.a. David Coleman, say that “people don’t really give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” (as he actually did during a presentation to the New York State Department of Education), a puzzled student asks his teacher, “But don’t authors want us to feel something?”

Needless to say, I came away inspired to focus on what both we and the students we work with can do, instead of what they can’t, in ways that push back on the conformity, compliance and linear thinking that this David Finkle cartoon so brilliantly captures. And for that, I’m astoundingly thankful.