I’m off to Ohio later today to participate in this year’s Dublin Literacy Conference along with authors and educators Ralph Fletcher, Louise Borden, Kate Messner, Sara Kajder and Jarrett Krosoczka. Organized by the Dublin City Schools—where teachers, authors and A Year of Reading bloggers Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn work—the Conference’s motto is “Capture the Joy of Literacy”. And here I’m offering a sneak peak at one of the sessions I’ll be leading tomorrow on Re-Inventing Small Group Instruction in the Age of the Common Core.
At their best, I believe the Common Core Standards offer us a unique opportunity to reflect on our current practices and consider how they do—or don’t—help students become the independent thinkers, readers and meaning makers we all desperately want them to be. And as I look at some of the popular practices involving small groups in classrooms, I’m not sure I always see how they directly help students think more critically and deeply about the texts they’re reading, let alone the more complex ones the Standards expect them to read.
In strategy groups, for instance, students are asked to bring their independent reading books to the group for a lesson on a particular comprehension strategy, which they are then asked to practice whether or not that strategy is needed to get more out of the particular page of the particular book each student is reading. In this way, I think we teach strategies more as habits of good readers than as tools that allow readers to dig deeper. Some strategies, in fact, like predicting and connecting, can actually pull students out of the text instead of drawing them closer. And as I looked at in a recent post, it’s possible to use a strategy like visualizing and actually miscomprehend because you haven’t attended to the textual clues needed to ensure that the movie in your head reflects the words on the page.
In traditional guided reading, on the other hand, the teacher introduces the text and often offers additional supports, such as background knowledge, vocabulary, and with younger students, picture walks. Then the students are asked to read the text by themselves, with the teacher sometimes listening in to check for fluency or word-solving strategies. The students’ comprehension is then checked during the post-reading discussion—not as they read, which is, in fact, when they’re actually constructing whatever meaning they’re making of the text. In this way, traditional guided reading has us assessing our students’ comprehension instead of helping them build it beyond the word-attack level. And while the kinds of complex texts the Standards want students to read are, indeed, filled with vocabulary challenges, they put plenty of other demands on students, especially the need to infer almost everything from a character’s name or situation to the significance of imagery to the theme or author’s message.
Because of this and the vision of reading for meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I map out in What Readers Really Do, I like to use small groups to give students the opportunity to practice the kind of complex thinking they’ll need to engage with complex texts. And this has several implications on both what and how I plan and say in those small group settings. In terms of planning, it means that I don’t just go to the book room and pluck a text from a guided reading level bin. I look instead for texts that operate in a particular complex way that I think certain students will benefit from wrestling with. Here, for instance, is the opening page from Peggy Parish‘s No More Monsters for Me!, which I recently chose for a small group of second grade students who all seemed stuck at Level J.
As you’ll see, Parish throws us into a scene without any background information, relying us to figure out exactly what’s going on. It’s a literary technique that readers frequently encounter as they read more complex books; in fact, it even has a name: in media res, which means “into the middle of things.” Here the characters are in the middle of a conversation that may have happened before (and which we, as proficient readers, might infer has something to do with pets or bringing wild creatures into the house). If we take away the supports we might provide in a typical guided reading lesson—no introduction that would reveal the main character’s name and predicament, no picture walk that would all but give away the whole arc of the story—we open the door, instead, for students to wrestle with a kind of thinking they’ll need to keep growing as readers.
In a different vein, here’s an excerpt from Tony Johnston‘s Any Small Goodness, which uses figurative language and imagery to convey the main character Arturo’s feelings and thoughts on his first day of school in America. A small group of students engaging with this passage would have the opportunity not just to identify the figurative language (which is sometimes where our instruction has ended), but to think about its possible meaning within the context of the story—i.e., what might the writer be trying to show us through her choice of similes and images. And this thinking work is directly related to the Common Core’s Anchor Reading Standard 4 and is needed to understand many complex texts.
In terms of implementation—the how—I combine Peter Johnston and Carol Dweck‘s ideas about the importance of helping students develop growth- or effort-based mind-sets with the notion of ‘productive struggle,’ which is becoming increasingly popular in math. Both Johnston and Dweck have concluded that we serve students best when we allow them to see what they can accomplish through effort and hard work rather than relying on innate talent or intelligence. This means that we must create opportunities for students to potentially succeed through hard work and effort, which is the basis for the productive struggle approach in math, which sets students up to problem solve with a minimum of modeling or guidance.
Importing these ideas into small literacy groups means letting students wrestle with the texts I’ve chosen specifically for their problem solving opportunities with as little intervention as possible—until the end when I wrap up the lesson by naming for them what they were able to do and how. For the second graders reading No More Monsters for Me! that meant not only figuring out what the mother and daughter were fighting about (which they inferred from the word ‘yelled’) but what the words ‘Minneapolis Simpkin’ referred to. It took them six pages, much conversation and much poring over the text to reach a consensus about both of those, but along with way they learned many things about how texts operate. And they left the group with a sense of accomplishment that I believe will help them enormously grow and develop as readers.