Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

fresh crime scene with yellow tape at night

I’ve thought about writing this post for a while but was finally inspired—and emboldened—by a wonderful article I recently read called “Reading Is About More Than Evidence” by educator Mia Hood. Her work in classrooms led her to observe and question many of the same practices I’d noticed, too, but before I launch into that, I first want to be crystal clear: I dearly want students to have deep and meaningful text-based discussions that are rooted in the details they’ve noticed and what they think the author might be exploring about the human condition and life through the details she’s woven across the text. And I want them to write their ideas about that in the most thoughtful, insightful and text-based way possible.

Claim DefinitionBut to be frank, I don’t like the word evidence. It’s a word I associate with courtrooms, crime scenes and forensic labs, not really with reading and writing. And when I look up the noun form of the word claim in the dictionary (as I did in my earlier post about rigor), the word has some strange connotations, which can also be seen in the thesaurus where words like pretense, right, assertion and declaration are listed as synonyms. There’s something a little aggressive about these words; they invite challenge, dispute and/or concession, not consideration and reflection—and for me, they conjure up visions of miners staking claims to land they then protect with rifles and baited traps.

Mia Hood worries that the word evidence has “seeped into our students’ ways of thinking about [texts]” in ways that are making them “think that a text’s raison d’etre is to serve as War Dancesevidence.” And this is often reinforced by the tasks we set students up to do as they read. I’m reminded, for instance, of a high school teacher I worked with who had his students read Sherman Alexie‘s intriguing and complex (in terms of ideas, if not Lexile levels) story “Breaking and Entering” from his collection War DancesIt’s about a Native American film editor—whose job, as he sees it, is to “omit all necessary information” in the films he edits—who recounts how he came to kill an unarmed black teenager who had broken into his basement to steal things. The story raises all kinds of questions about race, identity, power, and the manipulation of information; yet the teacher was using the text not to deeply explore these ideas, but to help students hone their argument skills by having them debate whether or not the character was guilty of murder or had acted in self-defense. And after a first read to get the gist—and have a brief talk about the story—they were then asked to reread it in order to collect evidence for their debate position.

I wasn’t there when the debates took place, but I’m often in classrooms where students argue two sides of an issue either in response to a prompt or assignment, as in the case What Do Fish Have To Do With Anythingabove, or to students’ ideas. The latter happened in another classroom I worked in where students were reading Avi’s odd but compelling story “What Do Fish Have To Do With Anything.” In this story, the main character Willie is intrigued with a homeless man who appears across the street from the apartment house where he lives with his depressed mother who doesn’t want Willie to go near the man. Wille’s father had abandoned the two of them six months previously, and as happens with many students I’ve read this story with, some think the homeless man is Willie’s father. In fact, some hold on to that idea right up till the end, at which point, with no further clues appearing to support it, they have to shift and consider instead what the writer might be trying to show if the homeless man was just that.

This particular class, however, had also been practicing ‘grand conversations’, which their teacher described as student-led discussion in which students make differing claims about a text. Shortly after they encountered the homeless man in the story, she suggested that rather having me facilitate their discussion, we let them have a grand conversation, which the students enthusiastically leapt into. The problem was that the students seemed to think that the point of the conversation was not, as Grand Conversations authors Ralph Dr. Seuss Arguing CreaturesPeterson and Maryanne Eeds wrote, to “experience in a dramatic way what it means to construct meaning,” and the students “take note of the shifts in thinking that occur as the interpretation of a text evolves,” but win an argument. And as the students started to argue their claim, their voices rose, they stopped listening to each other and seemed intent on only making their point.

These students would have benefitted much more by reading forward with their minds still open, attending closely to all the text held rather than hunting only for details that would support their prematurely made claim. But by focusing our teaching on how to make claims and back them up with evidence, we sometimes neglect teaching them how to construct an insightful and supportable idea in the first place. And I think this is in part because of our word choice. We talk about claims instead of interpretations and evidence instead of details and this has several effects. One is that, intentionally or not, we often ask students to make claims before they’ve really had a chance to think deeply about a text, which often leads to superficial or shallow claims. And sometimes we accept those so long as they’re backed up with evidence. But the other consequence is even more troubling.

In a thought-provoking piece from The New York Times called “Young Minds in Critical Condition” author Michael S. Roth explores what college students stand to lose if they—and we—value their critical and arguing skills over their interpretive ones. According to Roth:

“In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. [And in doing so] they may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in classrooms.”

I believe that potential to find or create meaning in books is the greatest gift reading gives us as it impacts not only our understanding of a text, but of ourselves, others and the vladimir-nabokov-caress-the-detail-the-divineworld we live in. I don’t, however, think that we have to stake a claim and argue over which is more important. If we help students see how readers make meaning and construct interpretation by, as the writer Vladimir Nabokov says, “caressing” details and connecting them together to consider whatever nuggets of wisdom they reveal across the entire text, they can then turn those more informed and nuanced interpretations into claims, using the very details they noticed to build their interpretations as evidence.

Of course, teaching students to construct interpretations is much harder than teaching them to support claims with evidence, which is perhaps the other reason why we don’t always go there. But isn’t it worth the time if it helps students build not just one but two capacities to think and understand deeply, as well as gives them a more meaningful—and accurate—vision of what it really means to read?

23 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

  1. Thank you for writing this, Vicki. Even though I believe that an open, inquiring approach to a text can be not only more “productive” in the long run, but more personally meaningful than a claim-evidence reading stance, I confess that I sometimes struggle with nurturing that interpretive stance in the classroom. Your post reminds me to move more slowly and deliberately into the “thesis” stage.

    • Tom Newkirk’s work always reminded that a good thesis is not made but grown. And it’s a little scary how many kids have never had an opportunity to really experience how you grow an idea and then shape it into a thesis—though I have to believe your kids at least know that’s possible even if they have to grow a little to be able to do that.

  2. Thanks Vicki for sharing your and Mia Woods concerns … Makes me stop and think about our purposes as we read and the ways in which we share and teach these understandings to our students. Of course I am always wondering when we seem to get on a ‘band wagon’ who is being positioned and for what purpose? My critical literacy flags are flying high right now!

    • Hello Maureen! I never run into you anymore, so it’s good to touch base here! My literacy flags have been flying high for quite some time, as the last few years have seemed to be all about jumping from one band wagon to another. But it does seem like more people are questioning the purposes behind what we’re doing and really wondering if those are actually in line with our belief systems about the value of reading, how children learn and what that word education really means. And, as a true child of the sixties, questioning authority is a good thing to me.

  3. This thoughtful post illuminates how subtleties in language and moving through what we think we are being directed to do, instead of remaining reflective about the process and outcome, can cause intent to go awry. Thanks!.

    • You’re so very welcome, Julie. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages we unintentionally send out to students, not just through our words but what we spend time on—and how often, as you say, our intent goes awry. We say we value conferring, but spend too much of independent reading time checking homework. We say we value quality over quantity but our rubrics are too focused on the latter. But you’re absolutely right, the key is reflection, ideally with colleagues in real or virtual time. And glad that your comment led me to your blog, as I’m a New Yorker who spent eleven years in Colorado and know what it’s like to see a place through a lens.

  4. Thank you, Vicki, for reminding us to stop and think about what we know and believe about reading instruction as we work to implement the Common Core. Your blog posts always make me think and reflect!

    • I think there’s many, many ways to meet the Common Core and too much of what’s out there takes the straight and sometimes simplistic route. But we need to give ourselves some time to reflect back on how what we’re being asked to do connects—or doesn’t—to what we know about best practice. So glad the post provided some time & space for that!

      • I love that idea of growing a thesis, which, I suppose, is really what happens. And going with that metaphor, one of my roles might be the gardener who tills the earth and clears space and time for the growth to happen. The tilling? I’m okay at that. But it’s a constant struggle to find the space and time to grow ideas. Weeds encroach, and strip malls spring up in the fields.

      • Oh, metaphors! I never think of myself as tilling, but I think that’s more because I live in Brooklyn, not Iowa, as I like the idea of the work of planning being tilling, clearing and planting seeds, rather than writing those SWBAT statements and aligning a lesson with the standards. But oh, those strip malls! Is a formulaic thesis versus a hand-grown one the difference between a strip mall and a garden? Maybe the kind that has benches, gazebos and pergolas where you can sit down for a while and ponder as you smell the roses.

      • Oh, Vicki, I love a good metaphor (and what fun that you went and played around with it yourself!)

        I need to write more about my struggles with the world of SWBAT statements…and the constant (and micro, I believe) alignment with standards that can sometimes feel like the emergence of a big box store where prairie once grew. One seems so…er…useful and productive. The other? It depends on what you value, I suppose…

        And there’s the rub. If some, say, “strip mall developer” asked what the kids can do now that they couldn’t do before, I’d say they can think better and more deeply, their roots extend more deeply into the soil and, besides, many creatures live here. The developer might ask, How do you know? And I would say, in myriad ways, let me count them. And I would set off counting and recounting, reflecting and describing. The developer’s eyes might glaze over and say, but cut to the chase, how do you measure these changes? With my new box store that occupies the place the prairie once stood, you can easily count sales and that will tell you the value of the land. You see, my goals are SMART. And I might reply, yes, I can also count the value of the prairie and the deep connections the plants and animals have with it, but not very simply, and it might require a mixture of numbers and very, very thick description. And, I might ask under my breath and behind closed doors, how can it be that thoughtfulness is sometimes the enemy of SMART?

      • Not sure whether this actually came from Einstein or just was a quote he kept by his desk, but: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” I just don’t know why some of us get that and some of us don’t—or maybe why some of us are comfortable with that and some of us aren’t.

  5. Vicki,

    I use the terms claim, evidence, and reasoning frequently with my students. I can see where it would be a problem if students made claims that weren’t interpretations that considered the whole text. Students simply cannot cling to a few details that support an idea without considering other details that seem to point in a different direction. I agree that we should not jump too quickly to a claim until we have had time to develop and test a theory across the text.

    • Hello Pam! For the record, I actually like the word reasoning because it’s a thinking word. And how I would love to get a chance to go back to Aurora and see you & your kids in action again. Best to you & all my other APS friends!

  6. I’ve read this post and the replies several times, meaning to come comment. Love Steve’s metaphors. A great reflection on smart!
    Your words, as always have influenced the words that have come out of my mouth when teaching the past few days. When I first read this, I thought on how it has been a struggle in some ways to get my students to really go on that journey of thought. To let their ideas simmer and grow. Many of these potential thinkers are so accustomed, programmed for the right answer that they don’t believe in the journey. I think back to my own schooling and know that growing to believe in the journey took time. I’m still on that journey, growing my thinking daily. Thank you for keeping me on the path.

    • And I’ve been behind on responding because I was so busy this week, most of it spent on planning a keynote & session for NYC high school principals. I’m going to try to churn out a post on it today because I spent a lot of time looking at the kinds of thinking and writing colleges want and it’s exactly that journey of thought, not thesis- or claim-driven arguments. The question for me is what could that look like in the lower grades? And of course I think it’s about moving away from right answer thinking to something more open-ended, which will take more time because it’s more complicated. But the benefits seem huge. And, yes, I’ve done the Avi story with kids from 5th grade right up through 9th and there’s always a contingent that thinks that the homeless man is Willie’s father—which seems quite possible to me. It’s just not where Avi was going.

  7. Thanks for another great, reflective post, Vicki.
    I have a question for you: I’ve been trying to be careful of the words I use with my students since beginning Choice Words by Peter Johnson. I’ve also been trying to build a foundation for grounding our thinking with details from the text, especially after reading What Readers Really Do. I especially remember the point you and Dorothy made about how sometimes “text-to-self connections” actually contradict what the text says, and that we need to make sure we are also making connections between details WITHIN the text. So, for lower grades, such as 3rd, what word should I use instead of “evidence” or “proof”? Maybe, “What did you read that SUPPORTS your claim?”? I’d appreciate your thoughts as I want to help my students be more reflective readers but I don’t want to inadvertently constrict their thinking. Thanks!

    • Oops! Still thinking about this, and just realized even the word “claim” may not be best word to use with 3rd graders. Maybe “idea” instead???

      • See, you’ve started to answer your question already, Allison. I definitely think idea is a much more user-friendly (and less territorial) word than claim, and I often tend to sidestep both claims, evidence & proof by simply asking kids what they’re thinking, with the follow-up can you share what made you think that if they’re not automatically grounding their thinking in details. It does mean that sometimes you get kids whose ideas are coming from their heads or experience, not the text, but that means you have an opportunity to make a distinction between those without students feeling shut down if they don’t have any evidence.

        Also, FYI, there’s a really nice transcript of a teacher facilitating a class or small group discussion of Stealing Home, the Jackie Robinson book, at the back of Peter Johnston’s latest book, Opening Minds, which I’m sure you’d like.

  8. Pingback: Saving The Heart of Reading: Why We Should Transplant Close Reading | : the readiness is all

    • Thanks for the link back, David. I LOVED that post—especially the postcards and the page from Barry Lopez. In fact, I loved it so much I’m wondering if you’d be okay if I reblogged it? Let me know, and having just subscribed to The Readiness of All, I’m eager to read more!

  9. Pingback: What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement | To Make a Prairie

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