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

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

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.


Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.


Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.

Shoptalk for Readers

Among the many books on the shelves behind my desk is a worn copy of Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by the master writing teacher Donald Murray. The book is a collection of quotes by writers that describe their habits and process, organized in chapters with wonderful titles like “Being Found by a Subject,” “Riding the Flow” and “Planning for Surprise.”

I discovered the book many years ago when I was working for the Teachers College Writing Project, and like other books by Donald Murray, Shoptalk became a kind of gospel, offering guidance, inspiration and a vision to those of us who wanted to ground our writing instruction in the work that real writers do. I’d bring in quotes to teachers I worked with, and together we’d create charts and mini-lessons, sharing, for example, Mark Twain’s injunction, “Don’t say the old lady screamed—bring her on and let her scream,” for a lesson on show, don’t tell, and using Edward Albee’s assertion that “I write to find out what I’m thinking about,” as an invitation to students to use writing to explore, not just record, what’s on their mind. Then we’d return to those quotes when it came time to share, asking who in the room had used Mark Twain’s advice or who had discovered something new by exploring their experience and perceptions.

I loved Shoptalk for the way that even the chapter titles brought depth and life and soul to the words typically found on classroom charts outlining the steps in the writing process. And when my work began to encompass reading, too, I longed for words that would give soul and meaning to the often simplistic and reductive language I found in the charts that were everywhere in classrooms, listing comprehension strategies, the habits of good readers and the author’s purpose.

And so I turned to writers and began collecting quotes that seemed to more vividly capture the purpose and the craft of reading. Many found their way into What Readers Really Do, and some I’ve brought into classrooms. But here’s one that I recently discovered. It’s from a poem by the amazing poet Marie Howe that explores both the challenges and consolations of reading novels. I’m sharing part of it here, but if you click on the poem, it will open up in a new tab where you can read the poem as published in Boston Review in its entirety.

                                How much richer might our students’ notions of reading be if we shared this kind of shoptalk with them and learned to read from writers? For here’s the question: What is Marie Howe’s purpose?

A. To persuade

B. To inform

C. To entertain

D. All of the above

E. None of the above

The answer seems not quite as easy as pie. Nor should it be, I think, if we want our students to read thoughtfully and deeply, not just match a text up with a word.