Rethinking Readiness

Are You Ready

The results of this year’s New York State assessments—the first to supposedly be aligned to the Common Core—were released the other week, and as expected scores plummeted. Only 26% of New York City students passed the English exam, which means that, in the parlance of the day, 74% of city students are off-track for being college and career ready. The results have rekindled the blame game that’s replaced real discussion about public education, and they’ve reopened all sorts of questions about the tests themselves. And for me, they’ve also raised questions about what it means to be ready and how to help students get there.

As most of us know, the Common Core Standards were designed by identifying the academic skills students would need to be ready for college and careers and then working back from there. We could see it, in a sense, as a large-scale example of backwards planning where, having determined the desired outcome, the Standards writers created a scope and sequence of skills for getting there. But as many early childhood experts have pointed out—such as those who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the Standards when they were first unveiled—this backward planning process neglected to take into account a slew of cognitive, developmental and neuroscience research about how children learn.

College and Career Ready CartoonWith those concerns unheeded, a recent survey conducted by the nonprofit project Defending the Early Years shows that a whopping 85% of the public school pre-K to third grade teachers who responded believes that they’re being required to engage students in developmentally inappropriate activities. What seems ironic, if not tragic, to me is that while learning through the developmentally appropriate methods of exploration and play may not help children identify the setting of a story (as RL.K.3 requires), it actually lays the foundation for them to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. Or put another way, exploration and play may be a more effective path for becoming college and career ready than teaching young children to become pint-size literary critics through skills-based direct instruction.

From One Experience to AnotherIt probably comes as no surprise that I think older students learn best as well when they’re given opportunities to explore and solve problems. But several other issues impact readiness in reading, which I found myself thinking about during a shared reading demo I did with a class of seventh graders as part of an institute Dorothy Barnhouse and I facilitated in June. I’d chosen a short text, “Dozens of Roses: A Story for Voices” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, from the short story anthology From One Experience to AnotherAs you can see from the opening below, the text puts few demands on students at the vocabulary or syntax level—i.e., there aren’t many word or syntax problems a reader would need to solve. But beyond the play-like format, figuring out what’s going on and why requires a ton of complex thinking as the author never directly comes out and tells us what has happened.

Dozens of Roses

Some of you reading this might already have a hunch about where the story’s going—there’s abuse involved—but despite lots of great talk and great participation, none of the students could ‘see’ that. As I met with the teachers who’d been observing to think about the instructional implications of what we’d seen, we wondered whether part of the problem was that the possibility of abuse was something they couldn’t imagine. That is, it was a conclusion they weren’t yet ready to reach.

CrossroadAnd here we hit a crossroads: On the one hand, if we believe that one of the great gifts reading offers is the way it extends our understanding of human nature—and that seventh grade is an appropriate place for students to be aware of abuse—we head in one direction. On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for those seventh graders who couldn’t imagine anyone inflicting harm on someone they supposedly love? Might not that be something to celebrate—just as we might celebrate the kind of imaginative or magical thinking young children are capable of, knowing that they’ll grow out of it quickly without us pushing them?


Illustration by Blanche Sims, from Fish Face by Patricia Reilly Giff

Aware that there were a handful of students who’d been circling the idea without quite getting there, we decided in this case to pursue the first course and design a small group lesson that might push their thinking. But rather than battering them with more prompts and loaded questions to pull the answer out, I took a path that might feel counter-intuitive to those who think that the way to prepare students to read complex texts is to have them read more complex texts: I gave them all copies of an easier text that posed the same kind of problem, an excerpt from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which I often use. And I asked them to consider this question: How can we figure out something that’s happened that the writer doesn’t tell us directly?

Without too much trouble the students figured out what the author hadn’t explicitly said—that Emily lied about her middle name in order to impress Dawn, whom she envied. And as they explained how they arrived at that conclusion, I turned their thinking into an equation, showing them how they’d added up various details from the text to come up with what hadn’t been said:

Emily admires/is envious of Dawn’s things

+ Emily wants to be Dawn’s friend

+ Emily also admires Dawn’s middle name

+ Emily doesn’t have a middle name but says it’s Tiffany to Dawn

= Emily lied to impress Dawn

And with that experience under their belts, they took a second look at “Dozens of Roses” and ‘saw’ what they hadn’t before—which led one student to exclaim, “Oh, that’s really creepy!”

This stepping-backwards-to-step-forward approach—with its emphasis on complex thinking, rather than on Lexile levels—seems, to me, like a better path to help students become ready. But here’s one last thought about readiness: Whenever I facilitate a reading experience with teachers, where we read and talk about a complex text together, I’m reminded of how often we don’t feel ready to make a claim about the author’s message—at least not right away. Instead we want to talk more and ponder in a way that seems akin to how the 16th century philosopher Francis Bacon defined the work of critical thinking:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

This description of critical thinking seems almost diametrically opposed to how students are supposed to demonstrate readiness for college and careers, especially as gauged by standardized tests where speed and right answers rule. But I have to wonder whether we’d do better by giving students more time to doubt, consider, seek and meditate rather than rushing straight through to making claims. Granted, it would be a slower path, though it might be one that’s more durable. And while it would be harder to measure on a standardized test, maybe those tests aren’t really ready to assess readiness.

I'm just not yet ready

10 thoughts on “Rethinking Readiness

  1. An excellent post! As educators we need to keep talking and reflecting on CCSS and the new assessments to be sure we are doing what is best for students. Thank you for provoking my thoughts. (Would this be considered “close reading” under CCSS? Hmmm….)

    • Thanks, Mary. Being thought-provoking is just about the best thing someone could say. And I do believe that it’s our job to make sure that what we’re doing is really good for students. And we may need to do that by applying Bacon’s definition of critical thinking to the CCSS–seek, doubt, meditate, consider and be wary (if not hate) of all kinds of imposture.

  2. Vicki,
    This is brilliant!! You bring out so many of the important points that are being ignored everywhere!! LOVE the last visual to bring it all home. I have been on summer vacation from blogging and am SO glad to be back and thinking…although I am still in summer mode on many levels.
    How do we bring your thinking to teachers? How can we help them to see that perhaps honoring where a student is, even if in their “magical thinking” can be a beautiful thing!! It makes me think of the roses that I just included in my blog post this morning.
    I am all for the slower path!

    • Hello Tomasen! And welcome back to the blogosphere!

      Both you post & mine remind me of the research that came out years ago about the connection between crawling and reading–i.e., that kids who don’t crawl before walking often wind up with reading problems later on. If we apply the CCSS mentality to walking, we’d dismiss crawling and get kids on their feet as fast as possible, propping them up rather than letting them use their own locomotion–which would entail all sorts of consequences. Unfortunately, we’re so anxious and fearful as a nation that I think we try to speed everything up, believing that the surest way between two points is a straight line, which it rarely is. So here’s to slow & steady–and smelling those roses whenever they bloom!

  3. Vicki,
    You are both brilliant and eloquent. Schools need a path to increased thinking, reading and writing for all students. And as you pointed out, it is not about “force-feeding harder” material to students. Teachers need to be careful listeners in order to know when “thinking” breaks down so that students can have a “do-over opportunity” that will help build that background knowledge. This also means that teachers have to have clear and deep understanding of texts to use with students!

    We use the readers theater version of “Dozens of Roses” with struggling adolescent readers. Some of them identify the big idea faster than their teachers. Thanks for sharing how to “push” students to INDEPENDENTLY “think” is exactly what students need. Many teachers would have felt compelled to “rescue” their students or provide more “scaffolds” on the text with ever-increasing teacher work and lessening student independence. Our students deserve better because they CAN do the thinking needed – with time, instruction, and two steps back in order to gain one forward step!


    • Hello Fran! I, too, have used “Dozens of Roses” in rooms where students see it coming right from the gate. But there’s plenty of texts where those very same students have to really stretch themselves to connect the dots to contemplate something they haven’t encountered before. That’s why teachers need to be careful listeners–and also be entrusted to make thoughtful decisions about which path to take. They also need that deep understanding about texts, which takes time and lots of practice, which teachers aren’t always given. So bravo to you and all the other WWRD book club members for carving out that critical time to read together & think deeply. It’s teacher-led PD at its finest!

  4. Vicki,
    Beautiful. Stepping back to step forward is so necessary when dealing with difficult concepts. Meeting students where they are –maybe even a step or two back from where they are — helps clear the path for complex ideas. I keep thinking, patience. It is not just the lexile, that makes the challenge, its the task.

    Thank you for this gorgeous lesson.

    • Thanks, Julieanne! I always think that if we really reflect on how we learn things ourselves, we’ll see that it’s hardly ever a straight path–especially when it’s something that’s as complicated as reading. It’s always more of a forward-backwards-forward dance, which does, indeed, require patience, both on the part of the teacher and the learner. And amen to it not being about lexile levels! It should be about the thinking that’s required to truly understand what we’re reading.

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