Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

Planning for What You Can't KnowThe title and lead picture of this week’s post comes by way of Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, whose article about planning writing units of study by projecting possible teaching points rather than creating a pacing calendar with a prescribed sequence of lessons seemed utterly brilliant to me when I saw it a few years ago. The article and the book it derived from, Projecting Possibilities for Writers, was based on the idea that if we want to be responsive teachers—i.e., teachers who teach students, not curriculum—we can’t always know how a unit will unfold, as it all depends on what our students bring with them and what they do with what we instructionally offer. This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t plan. We have plenty of plans up our sleeves, but we don’t necessarily decide what to teach and when until we see what the students do.

To help teachers wrap their minds around this, Matt and Mary Alice provide what they call “A Process for Projecting”: a template for planning, consisting of steps, that I believe has implications for reading as well. The first few steps, for instance, have teachers gathering and studying a stack of mentor texts then determining the unit’s major goals. For the first step teachers might gather texts connected by genre, author or craft then study them to think about what the authors of those texts are doing that they could invite students to emulate in their writing.

Big_Fresh_Newsletter_logoWhen it comes to reading, we might gather texts to choose a great read aloud to anchor a unit on a genre, author, topic or theme, or to create a text set. Coincidentally enough, this week’s “Big Fresh Newsletter” from Choice Literacy shares several links where phenomenal teachers, such as Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, explain how and why they choose certain texts as read alouds to kick off their year. For my part, I usually look for a text that I anticipate students will love and that’s not too long—a great picture book or a chapter book that’s under 200 pages. I also want one with lots of opportunities for students to think meaningfully and deeply in ways I believe will add to their enjoyment and sense of agency as readers. And since at some point early in the year, I want to engage students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore in What Readers Really Do, I also want a text that requires students to connect details within the text to infer and that uses patterns to develop its big ideas and themes.

I look for that first when I study the texts I’ve gathered. And once I’ve narrowed the stack of books down, I look more closely to better understand the particular demands those texts put on readers, or what we might call the specific kinds of problems readers would need to solve in order to literally and inferentially comprehend and think deeply about the book’s meaning. This is, in fact, exactly what I did with the teacher I wrote about last week, as we sat down together to assess how the textbook section she wanted to use conveyed content concepts and to see if there were any  ‘holes in the cheese‘—i.e., places where students would have to connect facts and details in order to apply the concepts and infer something the writer hasn’t said explicitly.

FreedomSummerStudying texts in this way also helps teachers become more aware of how the writer of a chosen text uses specific details, imagery and patterns to explore ideas, which is how I interpret the Common Core’s reading standards on craft. As I shared in a recent post about craft, my awareness of patterns in Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple helped me move students beyond the surface level. And studying texts helped the teacher in that classroom recognize the craft in other books she hoped to use to continue the work I had started. In Deborah Wiles‘s Freedom Summer, for example, which recounts the friendship of a white and black boy in the 1960’s segregated South, she noticed a pattern around ice pops and nickels that reveals a subtle change in the boys’ relationship after a head on encounter with racism at a town swimming pool.

It’s worth noting that the point of studying texts is not to know which specific details to direct students to, but to become more aware of all a text holds so that we can better respond to students and formatively assess their thinking. It also helps us take the reading Art of Anticipationequivalent of the fifth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s planning process: Anticipating Issues and Possible Small Group Work. In looking closely at the textbook I shared last week, the teacher I worked with anticipated that her students might not catch the tiny but important word ‘in’, which explained the relationship between minerals and rocks. So we anticipated planning some small group lessons to gave students additional time to practice thinking about the relationship or connection between the key words of a text. With One Green Apple, on the other hand, I anticipated that not every student would be able to see the metaphoric connection between the green apple and the main character, Farah. And while those who couldn’t might be able to piggyback on the thinking of others, I anticipated needing to plan some small group lessons of the sort I described in an early post to give them more time to experience that kind of figurative thinking for themselves.

Projecting those needs led me immediately to the sixth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s process: I had to think about materials and resources. If I saw what I anticipated seeing during the read alouds, I’d need some short texts or excerpts, possibly at different levels, that would offer opportunities for students to practice solving the specific kinds of problems that those texts presented. Projecting possibilities in this way, I’d be on the look out for those. But I’d also need to carefully listen to students during the read aloud to see if there were other needs or miscomprehensions I hadn’t anticipated, which I’d want to address in small groups as well, so that individual children had more time to wrestle with with whatever kind of problem they’d hit.

Finally, readers who clicked through to Matt and Mary Alice’s article might have noticed that I omitted a step: Developing a Sequence of Minilessons. With the number of questions I’ve been getting lately about the what, when and how of mini-lessons, I’m saving that for another post. But I hope this one helps with whatever planning for reading you’re doing this summer.

8 thoughts on “Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

  1. Thank you for sharing this article! I’m re-thinking the way I launch my reading workshop, and the first read aloud of the year, too. My goal is to find ways to make my students “aware of all a text holds”, as you mention – the key to which is my own reading, selecting, ruminating, and responding to those very same texts so that I can be responsive to my students. That first read aloud, and what I learn about my sixth graders through the experience, will determine how we move forward in reading workshop. Your post, and the article, reminds me to slow down in my planning process, to make it more organic – to allow my planning to be driven by where my kids are in their reading lives, not just what our district’s curricular map dictates.

    • I fear I’ve been in summer mode, Tara, when it comes to blog maintenance, but I just wanted to affirm all that you’re saying. I so very, very much believe that the key to deeper instruction is our own reading, which allows us to be so much more aware of what readers really have to do to make meaning. And while I fear the NYS’s ELA test results, which are out today, will prompt many to teach to the standards and the test–as in specific lessons on RL1, RL2, RL3, etc–it’s so much more meaningful to have real authentic experiences with text, which if kids are invited to think deeply, will naturally hit on reading standards 1-6. Do let me know, though, what you book you decide on for your first read aloud as I’m curious to know what people are thinking. And glad that Matt & Mary Alice’s work resonated with you!

  2. Truth in advertising: that CL post is several years old (but thanks for the link!!). I have spent the last few weeks closely rereading and reprocessing What Readers Really Do, and so my choices for this year’s beginning of the year read alouds will be made with the filter of “processes of meaning making” that will be integral in the work we do for the rest of the year. Hmm…maybe I just found my “10-for-10 Picture Books” theme…

    As an aside, a big basket of thanks go out to you and Dorothy for writing this amazing and smart book. I’m doing all I can to get as many teachers as possible to read it!

    • As I just wrote to another blog reader, I’ve been trying to limit my time at my desk now that it’s already August, which means I’m behind in all kinds of correspondence! But . . . you’ll see that The Name Jar, which was on your CL list, made an appearance here this week as I love it, too, for all sorts of reasons. And I’m so glad you’re finding the book inspiring! I’d be curious to know what books finally make it to your 10-for-10 theme. And . . . on an entirely different note . . . will you be in Boston for NCTE? Should we try to get together with Jan & Kim since Skyping didn’t quite work this summer?

      • Yes, I’ll be in Boston for NCTE and Yes, let’s get together with Jan and Kim to see if we can sort out a way to take our show on the road!!

      • If all y’all get your show on the road, and get it over toward Iowa, I’d love nothing better than to see that show! Some of my favorite web “colleagues” are mentioned in that comment of yours. 🙂

  3. Pingback: From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons | To Make a Prairie

  4. Pingback: Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray | To Make a Prairie

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