The Sixth Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

The summers of my childhood seemed long and slow and languorous to me, with nothing more important to do than round up some of the neighborhood kids for a game of Kick the Can or find a mom to take us to the pool.

Now, though, summers seem to zoom by—and this one was no exception. For better or worse I spent more time at my desk this summer than I did at the pool. And while there were definitely some highlights—some great cycling and hiking, lovely time with my daughter and a personal writing project that’s been challenging but fun—there was also the daily assault of the news, which often left me anxious and drained, along with enough sweltering 90+ degree days to make me long for September.

Of course, it’s September now and the news horrors continue. But my spirits picked up over Labor Day as I reread all the comments blog readers had left from last September in order to share a handful here for my annual celebration of teacher thinking. So many were asking big important questions and fearlessly reflecting on their practice to arrive at new understandings and insights, which I found inspiring. And so, as I’ve done before (see here, here, here, here and here), I’ve set each reader’s comment next to an image that links back to the the post they were responding to, so you can have some context for their thoughts as well as see what others think. And if the author of the comment is a blogger or on twitter, I’ve embedded a link in their name to their blog or twitter account, so you can learn more about their work and connect.

“How do teachers find that balance between offering true, authentic choice, alongside the responsibility for the ‘teaching’ of reading? I don’t know the answer, but I do believe that building a community of readers and writers begins with a teacher who is passionate and who supports a learning environment where empathy is honored, so that risk taking can occur. I always wanted to structure my 7th grade classroom like Atwell’s, where kids can read or write whatever they want, and community is built through poetry. Maybe that’s why her students win so many writing awards… Less structure + More choice = Abundant Learning!”  Laurie Pandorf

“My students and I were considering endings of short stories and interpreting what the writer might want us to understand about the ending and beyond that, the larger story. When I asked them to pose some theories about why Roald Dahl might have ended “Lambs to the Slaughter” as he did, some of their early responses were ‘because he ran out of things to say’ or ‘because he wanted to wrap it up.’

I wanted students to go further, and they did. With some prompting, they got to saying things like ‘there may be moments that are so devastating, that you can’t hold back your anger’ (yes!) and ‘maybe we are all capable of the kind of crime Mary commits’ (beautiful!). I love where their interpretations ended up, but I wondered about those early responses. Were students thinking about their own reasons for ending a piece of writing? How often have they been asked to write a story, and ended it because they ran out of steam and/or ideas and/or interest? Are students aware that writers make choices in attempt to say something to the reader, not because they’ve run out of things to say? I know where I need to go next.”    Brian Weishar

“I always go back to Donald Graves when I find myself getting mired in nearby talk that reveres units of study packaged programs, rubrics and numbers as a way of determining learning. Our students are not any of those things, which is what makes teaching so challenging and exciting. You never know what’s going to happen in the classroom. What a student will say and do will just make you stop in your tracks to consider something you hadn’t thought about before. It’s what I love about teaching and what I see as important to keep front and center so I don’t lose my way.” Elisa Waingort

“In so many ways, we need to see the interactions with our students and our interactions with text as part of a bigger whole–ways we can live together in our world today. I think we and our students can see the world as a part, not apart, from the wonders and the issues and the insights we have together. Honoring these moments, supporting the ideas of the students, and stretching the ideas beyond the beginnings, to see connections, to value the ways we can get smarter by listening to each other–in our words and deeds.” Kathy Doyle

I used to lament that “kids these days just don’t know how to think! Now I realize, of course, that “I” was the problem: I wasn’t providing a space or opportunities for them to do that. I think I was also not so subtly sending the message that their thinking wasn’t valued. I’m working hard to change all of that now, and am trying to learn to shut my mouth and let them open theirs more, and then to sit back and wonder at all they have to say.”  Allison Jackson

As a classroom teacher who feels surrounded by TPT and Pinterest projects galore, I wonder…where has our respect for ourselves as professionals gone? By blindly following one curriculum, program, cute project after another, we have lost the voices of children. I frequently ponder, what have we “done” to reading? As Beers and Probst offer in Disrupting Thinking, “Skills are important. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can grow, so that we can discover, so that we can change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world—then those skills will be for naught.”  Lisa Osterman

“Getting our students to habituate to the idea that interpretation requires opportunities to “revisit, revise and refine” is a deliberate and yet messy process, because there will be many theories as to meaning, many with equal validity. As teachers, we often want some neat “one answer” that can then become the anchor of a thesis statement or PARCC answer, for that is what teachers have come to think of as teaching. In actuality, as you and Dorothy so brilliantly posit in your books, the “answer” to the meaning of any particular book is less important than the intellectual journey there – the habits of thinking that allow us to pause, re-read, wonder, and reframe idea,” Tara Smith

So here’s to a new school year. May yours be filled with big questions, insightful reflection, messiness and the joy of thinking with your students!

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

As a featured speaker at this year’s upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, I was invited to write a guest post for the Lesley University Literacy blog. Some of you may have caught this there, but if not, here’s a repost:

Recently I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.” A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

“Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

• To become a more empathetic human being
• To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
• To help us understand how we fit into our world
• To feel more understood and accepted
• To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, could and maybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferring meant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings
+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings
+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)
Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.”

When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

open-door

 

 

With Appreciation

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while, mostly because I’ve been working on several challenging projects, one of which involves writing copy for a new website that will house the blog and a variety of other resources (and hopefully be up next month)> But aware that this has been Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking about how much both past and present teachers have impacted and contributed to my life and feeling a need to share that.

From my own days in grade school, for instance, there was the English teacher I wrote about in “My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)”. She chose a story I’d written to submit to Scholastic’s Writing Contest—despite the fact that she was surprised that the quiet, meek girl who hardly ever spoke in class had actually written it. And last year for Teachers Appreciation Week, Heinemann shared a video of me sharing the story of how another high school teacher made me realize that, despite failing to get into AP English, I could, indeed, write insightfully about books if it’d connected to them deeply.

And then there’s the art teacher who instilled in me a love for visual images, the legacy of which you can see here on the blog. I took after-school art classes from her for years, first in her attic (which had sloping ceilings just like an artist’s atelier in Paris) and then in the incredible studio that extended from the back of her house. Frequently she’d create a still life for us to paint—a bowl or plate filled with apples and grapes, a jug overflowing with poppies—and in spring she’d have us take our easels outside to her garden to paint the flowers, “en plein air,” just as the Impressionists had done.

From her, I learned that looking and seeing are actually two different things, and that as poet Mary Oliver put it, in words I only discovered years later, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” But perhaps, most importantly, she made me feel that I had the sensibility of an artist, with a unique way of seeing the world—which, I think, is exactly what those English teachers did, too. They noticed something in me despite all those despites. And even though my medium turned out to be words, not markers or watercolors, each of these teachers empowered me in ways that have shaped my life.

More recently, though, I find myself inspired and impacted by teachers in a different way. Whether it’s the teachers I work with in schools, the many colleagues I have who’ve become dear friends, or those I’ve never (yet) met in person but feel like I know through twitter, it’s teachers that keep me thinking and learning—and reflecting on the question I often feel compelled to write down in my notebook:

Sometimes, this happens when a teacher says or tweets something that pushes me to reflect (in ways that aren’t always comfortable, but needed):

Sometimes it’s when an educator writes something that makes me realize that I hadn’t fully understood something that I thought I had. Recently, for instance, in his blog post, “Confronting the Disimagination Machine,” the Opal School’s Matt Karlson made me realize that worksheets are even more insidious than I’d previously thought: Not only are they not meaningful to kids, but they standardize children’s experiences and thinking in ways I hadn’t, until then, considered.

Sometimes, too, a teacher will share a project online that helps me see possibilities I’d never imagined before, which makes me incredibly happy). For example, just recently I stumbled on the work kindergarten teacher Faige Meller‘s kids’ did when she invited them to go outside and, inspired by the installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, create art from nature (which seems like the perfect antidote to the disimagination machine):

And then there’s Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, who always gets me thinking (as do Rebecca O’Dell, Alison Marchetti and the other teachers who share ideas at movingwriters.org). This year for National Poetry Month, Amy challenged herself to write 30 poems, one for each day of April, about a single subject (#1Subject30Ways), using a different poetry technique from her book Poems Are Teachers for each poem. And she invited teachers and students to join her. Amy’s subject was the constellation Orion, which inspired three of teacher Emily Callahan‘s students to write poems about Greek Mythology, like this one:

And here’s a gorgeous poem from teacher Kate Rodger, whose subject was poems about home:

Finally, there’s the teachers who invite me into their classrooms and schools to help them puzzle through problems that perplex them. Recently, for instance, I got an email from a school I’ll be starting to work with in June on embedding more meaningful grammar instruction into their middle and upper schools. And the email included the following questions, which were on their mind:

  • What might a grammar curriculum across the grades look like? How do we build in inquiry/apprenticeship work from one grade to the next – should we cover the same concepts/techniques but with different (increasingly sophisticated?) mentor texts?
  • How do we address student errors in addition to focusing on teaching grammar in terms of craft? How best to address grammatical errors when giving feedback on student writing?
  • How do we find time to integrate inquiry grammar lessons into our curricula?
  • Is there a place for direct instruction? Does it matter whether students can distinguish between a helping verb and a linking verb or a clause and a phrase? Should students learn grammar definitions, and if so, when in the process should terms be introduced? Is there ever a place for testing or quizzing students on grammar?
  • How can a teacher tell if inquiry/apprenticeship instruction is effective? How do teachers encourage students to try new grammatical/stylistic techniques in their writing without having it feel forced?

I have some answers up my sleeve already, but I actually relish the opportunity to wrap my mind around these questions again and see if anything new pop up. It fact, it’s partly what keeps me going—along with remembering that paying attention is our endless and proper work.

Thinking Routines for Authentic Discussion

This week, as I recover from jet lag, I’m sharing a blog post by one of the amazing students I had at UNH’s Summer Literacy Institute last year, Megan Dincher. Here Megan beautifully captures what can happen when we shift our teaching focus from seeking answers to thinking and hand over the role of “question master” to students.

Taking the Time

I used to provide discussion questions for my students.  I would spend time thinking about book-specific questions that I could ask, questions that I thought would prompt complex discussion and make them really think about the text at hand.  Sometimes, they did have really complex discussions, and I’m sure they spent time thinking about said text.  But the discussion wasn’t as authentic as I wanted it to be, because I was telling them what to talk about.

Now, there are always going to be things that we want students to talk about, and there’s a time and place for helping them understand things about a book that they might not have discovered for themselves.  When I want my students to discuss a book–not necessarily analyze the book, but discuss it, I now have a different approach.

Last summer, I took a class with Vicki Vinton at the New Hampshire Literacy…

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The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.

Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole

The late, great writer Ursula Le Guin believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” I believe this, too, which is why I made a case in my last post for bringing interpretation back into classrooms, as the means through which we can reap reading’s ultimate benefit. But here’s the other thing about interpretation: In addition to helping us develop moral compasses, empathy, and self-awareness, I think academically interpretation also helps us analyze. In fact, I see interpretation as the too often unrecognized behind-the-scene work needed for real analysis.

Think about it for a moment: Interpretation involves putting pieces of a text together to construct an understanding of its deeper meaning. It’s an act of construction, while analysis, on the other hand, deconstructs by separating a whole into its component parts ostensibly to see how the parts affect the whole. But how can readers analyze the function of the parts if they don’t really have a vision of the whole?

I suppose it’s possible to do this if both the whole and its parts are known or familiar, like the dog and its disassembled parts above. But as I wrote in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingreaders who don’t have a vision of the whole beyond the gist can wind up like the blind men in the old Indian tale, who attempted to understand what an elephant was by analyzing a part of it. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was a rope; a third stroked the ear and thought an elephant was a fan. No one was able to make sense of the whole by analyzing a part.

When you have a deeper vision of the whole, however, analysis can be far more insightful. The third graders I wrote about in my last post, for instance, who were reading The Old Woman Who Named Things, didn’t notice every detail or initially understand every word. But once they’d developed an interpretation that encapsulated the whole, they were able to go back to a passage like this and have lots to say about why the writer had decided to have the old woman read this particular book.

In this way, these students were analyzing without explicitly being taught to do so. No learning to use acronyms like RAFT or ACE or sentence starters and templates. Instead, their analysis was a natural out-growth of having meaningfully interpreted the text. And if you’re wondering if what I’m describing is actually analysis, just imagine this example reframed as a question on a standardized Common Core test: “How does this paragraph contribute to the author’s message (or the theme or the character’s development)?”

Questions like this form the bulk of both the multiple choice questions and short constructed responses that students encounter on the PARCC, Smarter Balance and New York State/Engage NY assessments. And in my work with teachers, I’ve been recommending that once students have been able to thoroughly discuss and interpret whatever texts they’ve read as inter-active read alouds, whole class novels, or book club books, you invite them to consider a few analysis questions that either you or the students themselves can create by combining one word or phrase from each column (like the Chinese restaurant menus of my childhood):

I keep finding new words to add to this chart, so it’s a work in progress. But one thing I know for sure is that while students might need to learn the meaning of and nuances between these verbs, they’ll be far more ready to answer these kinds questions if they’ve thought deeply and interpreted what they’ve read, rather than staying on the surface—or, as many students do, only start to think until they hit the questions. And interestingly enough, I’m not the only one who believes this.

Last month, I came across a blog post by Timothy Shanahan called “If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction.” In the early days of the Common Core, Shanahan spent much time promoting the teaching of close reading by having students answer text-dependent questions over the course of three readings, the first to consider what the text says, the second how it says it, and the third what it means. More recently, however, he’s recognized that this has led many teachers to have a warped view of what it means to read. “Simply put,” he writes,

Reading is NOT the ability to answer certain kinds of questions about a text. . .  Not knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis or evaluation questions. Not “right there,” “think and search,” “author and me,” or “on my own” questions. Not main idea, detail, inference, structure or author’s tone questions.

[Instead] reading is the ability to make sense of the ideas expressed in a text [through] the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers of a text” (or what I call ‘the problems’ a given text poses). Students who can make sense of a text’s ideas will be able to answer any kind of question about that text. While students who fail to scale those linguistic and conceptual barriers”—i.e., to solve those problems—will struggle with the simplest of questions.

And how does he propose teaching kids to do this? Basically, once they’ve learned to decode, by teaching them how to interpret.

Of course, the title of the blog post suggests that Shanahan sees higher test scores as the end goal of interpreting, whereas I see them as the by-product of more authentic and meaningful work. But just think about it: If we provided students with lots of opportunities to interpret right from the start of the year—with time set aside to regularly practice and experience how to move from interpretation to analysis, we wouldn’t have to drive ourselves and our students crazy with test prep at this point in the year. So let’s trade in all those literary analysis sentence stems, acronyms and worksheets and focus on supporting student interpretations as the backbone of analysis.

 

Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word

Last week I was working with some eighth grade teachers who were getting ready to launch a new reading unit, and to learn a bit more about their students, I asked them how well they thought their kids were able to interpret. They paused for a moment, not sure what to say, until one teacher said that they’d mainly focused on analyzing texts, not on interpreting them.

Given the emphasis that the Common Core standards have placed on analysis, I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I researched for Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingthe words interpret and interpretation only appear 15 times in the ELA Standards, while the words analyze and analysis show up over 150 times.

What’s interesting, too, is that if you look at where those 15 words appear, you’ll find that while students are asked to interpret words, phrases, figurative language, figures of speech and visuals (such as charts and graphs), they’re not asked to interpret whole texts. They are, however expected to analyze other writers’, artists’, and filmmakers’ interpretations of texts and real-life events, which means the authors of the standards recognize that readers can interpret more than words and phrases.

In the real world, however, all sorts of people interpret all sorts of things. Doctors interpret their patients’ symptoms. Scientists interpret data. Historians interpret the causes of conflicts. Judges interpret the law. And as the writer George Eliot said:

So why is there so little mention of interpretation in the standards and many classrooms?

The skeptic in me has wondered if it’s because the powers that be don’t really want students to think for themselves. But I also suspect there’s a feeling out there that interpretation isn’t rigorous. That is, it’s seen as a loosey-goosey, touchy-feely way of reading, where readers are allowed to think whatever they want, based on their own experiences and feelings. This, however, is not at all what Louise Rosenblatt, the originator of the Reader-Response theory of reading, intended. She did believe that readers needed to bring their thoughts, emotions and experience with them in order to transact with a text. But she saw that transaction as part of “an active, self-ordering and self-correcting process, characterized by subtle adjustments and refinements of meaning in an effort to achieve a coherent interpretation,” which took into account all of a text, not just whatever parts might have spoken personally to a reader.

That process can be seen in the journey a third-grade class I wrote about in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading took. They were reading Cynthia Rylant’s picture book The Old Woman Who Named Things, which tells the story of an old woman who’s outlived all of her friends and is so afraid of losing anyone else that she shies away from forming attachments. Instead, she names inanimate objects that she thinks will outlive her, like her house and car, and considers them as friends. At first, this arrangement seems to work, but things get complicated when a puppy keeps appearing at the old woman’s gate. And those complications only gets worse when one day the puppy doesn’t come, and that ultimately forces the old woman to reconsider the decisions she’s made in her life.

I launched the class on that process by inviting them to begin the book using a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which helped them develop a basic understanding of the who, what, when and where (though, you’ll see that not everyone knew what outlive meant.) And highlighted at the bottom, you’ll also see that questioning, they raised a question, which I knew could lead them right to the heart of the story.

To continue that process, I reframed that question as a line of inquiry to explore and invited the class to draft what Dorothy Barnhouse and I first called “maybe statements” in What Readers Really DoAs you can see below, there’s quite a range in these maybe statements, with some students clearly drawing on more of the text than others were (though everyone cited a piece of evidence).

But then comes the moment when the now fully-grown puppy stops coming to the house and the old woman feels sad:

At this point in the story, I paused to ask the students another question that would engage them in that “active, self-ordering and self-correcting process”: Why did the author make the dog stop coming to the gate? What might she want the old woman—or us—to see?

It’s worth noting that the range of thinking here has narrowed, as students started coalescing around that last idea as part of that “self-correcting process.” A few, however, stuck with their initial thinking. But then comes the ending, which in fiction can act like a final reckoning, where reading must reconcile their ideas with what did and didn’t ultimately happen. Here, the ending Rylant fashioned doesn’t include the sudden appearance of the dog’s owner, nor does the old woman suddenly remember that the dog was really hers. And this invited everyone to revisit, revise and refine their thinking one last time to achieve that “coherent interpretation.”

Note that while these three examples of the class’s final interpretation do take into account all of the text, they’re all quite different. Each reflects what the individual reader found most significant, memorable or moving through their transaction with the text. And note, too, that for these third graders, none of these were universal truths nor were they trite aphorisms, like “Try, try again.” Instead they seem to capture what Flannery O’Connor says about the meaning of fiction:

“The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

I’ll have more to say about interpretation and how I see it connected to analysis in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, how do you think about interpretation—and how do you invite students to do it?