Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers


As I did with my first read-along invitational two years ago, I want to try to notice and name some of the great thinking found in the comments left by readers on this year’s read-along, “20/20” by Linda Brewer, in order to consider the instructional implications as well as how that thinking work is connected to critical thinking. And to do the latter, I want to share again what’s become one of my turn-to quotes on critical thinking, Francis Bacon’s definition, which seems to me as good as any:

“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.”

In comment after comment (which you can read too by clicking here and scrolling down), I saw readers seeking, doubting, meditating and considering. By the end, some felt ready to assert and set an interpretation in order, but many wanted to linger and mull over the questions the text raised for them without rushing to make any sort of claim—yet. Or as Victoria wrote, “I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about.”

The instructional implications of this seem huge. We currently live in a climate where making a claim—no matter how simple or undeveloped it is as long as it’s backed up with some evidence—seems to be valued more than developing a carefully considered idea, which can’t happen fast precisely because it’s carefully arrived at. If we’re serious about critical thinking then, it seems to me that we need to give students more time to seek, doubt, mediate and consider, knowing that, if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful. Anything less, I’m tempted to say, is more about test prep than reading.

If You're Not Confused 2

“Dazed and Confused” by Ketna Patel, with quote from Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos”

It’s also worth noticing that these readers were questioning because they were perplexed or wanted more. That is, their questions came directly out of their curiosity and their confusion—and those, in turn, came from the fact that they were paying attention. And here again, the implications seem huge.

Much has been written about the importance of getting to students to ask their own questions. Yet if your experience is anything like mine, when we teach questioning as a skill divorced from confusion and curiosity, we often get questions that seem mechanical and that students aren’t interested in; or worse, we get students raising questions they already know the answers to just to meet an assignment. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.” And we can start doing that by sharing with our students the fact that we’re often confused when we read, and then inviting students to share their confusion, too.

There are also implications in how these readers dealt with their confusion by creating what Steve Peterson called “maybe-stories.” They attempted to fit the pieces together in order to consider what the writer might be trying to show them, with different readers fitting different pieces together to arrive at different ideas. Most readers began that process by thinking about the characters, though people came up with quite different interpretations—from seeing Ruthie, as Julieanne did, as a “seemingly simple soul,” to Mary Jo Wentz who made me rethink my whole take on the story by suggesting that, far from being simple, Ruthie might have been taking Bill for a ride.

Testing VisionMany, such as Susan, also found the title key to their understanding, though again, readers came up with a range of interpretations about what “20/20” meant. Karen, for instance, thought the story suggested that “there is no such thing as 20/20″ vision”, while Emily Rietz thought that 20/20 meant “seeing each other clearly in this world.” Others, found themselves focusing on the idea of a journey, in which Bill might be learning something from Ruthie, whether that’s, as Terri put it, a lesson about “reveling in the moment’ or in a more practical (and humorous) vein “to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures,” as Gail Ballard wryly put it. Meanwhile Pat thought about the story through the lens of assumptions, with Bill going from “lump[ing] people into categories” to “realiz[ing] he needed to look deeper.” And Colette managed to circle many of these ideas by focusing solely on the dialogue!

The instructional implications here seem to be that it doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you notice something and then start questioning and thinking about how it does or doesn’t fit with other details you notice. And that’s a far cry from the text-dependent question approach to close reading, which directs students to something the teacher (or textbook writer) has noticed and then “scaffolds” students until they arrive at the same answer as the teacher or textbook writer. And lest anyone think that students aren’t capable of doing what these readers did without that all that directing and scaffolding, here’s an excerpt from the comment Christina Sweeney left after she took up my invitation to try the text out with her 7th graders:

“I was surprise how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even point out the recurring references to ‘eyes’—Bill resting his, Ruthie’s ‘big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,’ the ‘visions’ she has over the course of the story. . . .

Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing—that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.”

Young Girl Hag Optical IllusionAs for me—though I’ve read this story any number of times, all these comments deepened and enriched my understanding of it. And this time around they enabled me to see the story in more than one way at once, like the optical illusion of the young girl and the hag, or those red spots winking by the side of the road, which could be reflectors or Bigfoot—or both.

This ability to recognize and appreciate more than one way of seeing things seems both integral to the story and to critical thinking. Unfortunately, however, it gets short shrift in curriculum that guides students to a single way of seeing things, which is what too much of the supposedly Common Core aligned programs to. Once again, if we’re serious about critical thinking, we could see these programs as impostures (a word which Merriam-Webster says “applies to any situation in which a spurious object or performance is passed off as genuine”) and look upon them with hatred. Or we could arrive at the same conclusion Brette Locker reached as she looked at the wealth of thinking that was generated by simply paying enough attention to become confused: “I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?”


8 thoughts on “Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers

  1. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.”
    …to which, borrowing from the Bad, one returns to: “Aye, there’s the rub.” For many of us, pursuing the messiness of confusion in our test-driven world, is something that seems to have become devalued. It is time consuming and difficult to explain to administrators who expect to pop in and see that we are teaching the objective which is clearly written on the board; how to explain in a SWBAT this essential idea that thinking is about muddling through confusion, not checking among bubbles a through d? Thanks for another thoughtful post, Vicki – and I love that it falls on Sunday, my day to think about what I want to accomplish in the week ahead. Hooray for confusion!

    • Don’t know how you manage to blog almost every day, Tara! I can’t even keep up with comments! The pressure that comes down from state to district to admin to teachers to check off standards and bubbles is definitely real, but I feel the winds of change stirring—whether it’s NYC re-embracing TCRWP, the amazing thoughtfulness of everyone who participated in #wrrdchat, the growing body of research on how we really learn or the persistence of Diane Ravitch. I wonder, though, what would happen if principal’s had Francis Bacon on their clipboards when they went in to observe classrooms. Some, I know, would be able to hear the breadth and depth of thinking in the muddle—and that gives me some hope as well.

  2. I agree with Tara. This was a treat to read as we think toward the week ahead.
    What we readers did makes me wonder about the stance we take when we approach a text. Is it to determine an answer, or do we live with maybe. Do we allow for questions, or do we expect to have things wrapped up. I notice that my students have trouble with stories that end without clear resolutions. That is their stance as readers now. This could be part developmental, but it could also be how they are trained to think. And I suppose many of us feel the same way. There is so much value in promoting the “patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider.” I know that is not how we teach, yet.
    To Tara’s point of real world expectations in our test crazy world, if we can get students to a stance of interpretation with this process of consideration, reflection, and questioning perhaps the answers they give might be enough to satisfy the data seekers.
    As for those administrators who pop in, I’d love to see their thinking on that passage!

    • I think that last sentence is so important, Julieanne. What might happen if we sat down and read—really read—a qualitatively complex text with administrators who, due to pressure not always of their own making, are looking for boxes to check off. Whenever I’ve done that, they’re able to see the messiness of the process. And it helps them to better appreciate the thinking in rooms where things aren’t always neat. But that’s not built into the system—yet. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep in my mind that Sunday might actually be a good day to post!

  3. Vicki, I am trying to name what I love about this post.

    Maybe when someone else tries to name what I value about true inquiry and give it context that speaks to a wide audience, I have reason to celebrate? Maybe comfort in confusion isn’t discussed often enough? And how interesting that even you say,

    “if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful.”

    that a conclusion will eventually come. The gift of seeing ideas as living, breathing, ever changing beings that live as possibility in our minds throughout our lives and inform every new thought that we encounter is the path of what I see as true “comprehension.” And that “teaching critical thinking” is teaching the habits of mind that keep your thinking alert to a world of connected possibilities at all times.

    Thank you!

    • Hello Levia! Love what you said about “ideas as living, breathing, ever changing beings.” You could see that in your kids’ thinking in the video you shared in Boston—and how insightful their ideas were when they had time to truly meditate & ponder. There’s such a push now to get kids to make a claim and argue in ways which it makes it hard to listen and consider. It reminds me of this quote by the South African painter William Kentridge that I couldn’t quite manage to squeeze into the post. His parents were both lawyers who fought for Mandela and Stephen Biko, and while he certainly respected their work, he said this in an interview: “I think having parents who were lawyers pushed me to find an activity in which I could find meaning with a different kind of logic that was impervious to cross-examination.” Can’t wait to see that kind of logic at work at Opal in December!

  4. Thanks again for a wonderful post. I appreciate the time you took to read and reflect on all of our responses and then put them together in a way that makes us all think deeper about the way we teach. I picked out the same quote that Tara did… “If we are serious about questioning, then it seems we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms…” It’s sitting on an index card right next to my computer so I can keep rereading it.

    • I forgot how much fun reading a text together online could be! And I love how all the comments enriched my own understanding of the story, as I think they did for other readers as well. Now if we could just get the powers that be to recognize the power inherent in confusion and how it’s connected to paying attention!

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