What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

I’m not sure who loves snow days more, teachers or kids. But I do know that when I learned that schools in New York City and New Jersey would be closed on Tuesday for what was predicted to be a monster blizzard, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been ready for my work on Tuesday, but I hadn’t had time to wrap my mind about my work for Wednesday, when I’d be back in a middle school whose teachers were struggling to shift from a curriculum of whole class novels to reading workshop. Now I’d have time to plan.

Like many districts, this one began their initiative to implement workshop in their lower schools, where, over the years, it took root. It’s even been embraced by the 6th grade teachers, who’d noticed that their incoming students were arriving with a much greater sense of agency and identity as readers than they used to. But the 7th grade teachers Classic Middle School Booksweren’t so sure. They were deeply attached to the whole class novels they’d been teaching (sometimes for years), and they truly believed that that approach best prepared their students for high school. To me, this meant that they took their jobs seriously and wanted to do right by their students—and I used that as a place to start.

Over several visits, I’d shown them Penny Kittle’s videos where many of her students confess that they’d basically all but stopped reading in middle school. And I’d shared some from their own district’s lower schools that captured local fourth and fifth graders engaged in book club discussions. I’d demonstrated lessons; given workshop on books talks and interactive read alouds; created charts and handouts like the one below, and introduced them to blogs by middle school teachers, like Tara Smith’s and Pernille Ripp’s. But while they were intrigued enough to institute ten minutes of independent reading in their classrooms several times a week, they still struggled letting go of the whole class texts.

Read Alouds vs. Whole Class Novels 2

So I decided to take a new tact. For this visit, I’d committed myself to taking whatever whole-class-book lesson the host teacher had planned and show them how to shift that to a workshop approach by unpacking my thinking. So once I was fully caffeinated and had helped David shovel our sidewalk and stoop, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my desk to take another look at the email the teacher had sent.

The Miracle Worker PlaybillHer plan was to start “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, on Wednesday, using “opening activities focused on understanding Gibson’s use of lighting and stage directions to assist readers in understanding the play.” I’d never read “The Miracle Worker,” nor helped a teacher teach a play in middle school before—and I confess I felt some serious regret about what I’d agreed to take on. But sipping my tea, I knew my first job was to think about how to move this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.

What I needed for that was a mentor text to help me understand how stage directions conveyed meaning and what challenges—or problems—they posed for readers. So I turned to Google to help me find plays that might be engaging to middle schoolers and had meaning-full stage directions. And I came up with a small trove of treasures. Here, for instance, are the opening stage directions for Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” about an eccentric comedy writer who must change his ways in order not to lose custody of his 12-year-old nephew:

One thing I immediately recognized  was how much a reader would need to visualize to make sense of this. But more than that, readers also had to think about the significance of all these details and what they might, both literally and figuratively, suggest about what might unfold. That is, readers not only have to picture Nick sitting my himself in the dark, surrounded by a tsunami of disorder, with his face lit by the screen of a TV that the audience can hear but not see, but consider what the playwright might be trying to convey through all those details. And that requires a lot of thinkingfrom inferring that, at 8:30 on a Monday morning, Nick should be in school to wondering whether the position of the TV, the closed venetian blinds and the scattered, hazy light suggest there’s more that the characters—and us, as readers—can’t see.

All this seemed exciting to me, but also potentially hard. How might I introduce this interpretive thinking to the 7th graders? I could, of course, model a think aloud, but as Dorothy and I wrote in What Readers Really Do, the problem with think alouds is that, while they’re intended to show students how to think, what students often take away is what to think. Instead, as I wrote in my look at dynamic teaching, I wanted to design an opportunity for students to engage in that thinking on their own.

So I made myself another cup of tea and stood by the window, watching the snow silently blanket the street. And suddenly I had what David calls a “brain fart.” What if I began by having students interpret Edward Hopper paintings, which suggest stories in interior spaces that almost feel like stage sets, and then moved from those to “A Thousand Clowns”? With renewed excitement, I headed back to my desk, where once gain Google helped me find images, which seemed perfect for the kind of interpretive thinking I wanted the kids to try on:

Hopper Movie Theater

Hopper Nighthawks

Hooper room-in-new-york

With a text now chosen and a basic plan in mind, I still had to consider the logistics: Should I do the first painting with the whole class then break them into smaller groups to interpret different painting? Would the kids need some kind of protocol or lenses for looking at the paintings? Should I follow the same structure with the stage directions, first look at “A Thousand Clowns” together, then let groups work collaborative on different openings that they then could read in book clubs?

As I pondered these decisions, an email notice popped up on my screen. I had a new message from the middle school. Turns out there was so much snow the school couldn’t open on Wednesday unless the roads, sidewalks and parking lots could be cleared. And even if that happened, there’d be a delayed opening, which meant I’d need to reschedule the day. Given that I couldn’t do that until much later in April, you could say all that work was for naught. But I have to say I found the thinking as exhilarating as The Snowy Day‘s Peter found playing outside in the snow. I didn’t make snow angels, build snowmen or hurl myself down a hill on a sled. But I did hurling myself down a thrilling ride of thought, which led to making something. And who knows? Maybe one of you out there will do something with this!

The Snowy Day sledding

 

13 thoughts on “What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

  1. Your “brain fart” has led to one of my own this morning, Vicki. We are working on writing fiction now, and this kind of interpretive thinking through paintings is exactly the kind of work that will help my kids “see” what they need to provide the readers of their short stories. Once again, thank you for your wise thinking…and thanks for the kind mention which makes me smile this winter morning.

    • Love it when one ‘brain fart’ leads to another! Just know, though, how much you inspired the 6th grade teachers I wrote about. They came away from your classroom on fire! And I adore your blog–in fact, a recent one sent me back to The Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon, where I deliciously lost myself for several hours!

  2. First of all, I love that cups of tea fueled your thinking. I also love that your “brain fart” occurred while you were staring out the window. Staring is highly undervalued, especially at school. But mostly I love that I felt I was right there with you on your “exhilirating” thinking/learning journey. Using Hopper’s paintings as a way into the teacher’s goals is brilliant. I also appreciate how clearly you articulated the importance of moving “this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.” This is an ongoing challenge for many of us. When a novel has been taught for years, it’s never a bad idea to consider if it’s the right book for a particular group of kids. Thank you so much for sharing your snow day!

    • Don’t know what I would do without tea! And, yes, staring out windows is also important–though I needed to hear Margaret Atwood say it’s an integral part of her process to stop feeling like I was procrastinating. Interestingly, enough, the Opal School in Portland acknowledges that writers often need to step away from their writing in order to actually write, and they let kids decide when they might be better off taking a breather from their writing by doing something else, like painting, trusting that their brains will still keep thinking about what they’re working on.

  3. I really like your instinct to go big and generalize as a FIRST STEP. The gradual release model often starts with teacher modeling, then moves up to independent practice. Generalizing becomes the FINAL step, that sometimes does not happen.

    In addition to that problem, I often wondering if all of the time spent practicing a skill then actually makes generalizing LESS possible because it creates a single model in the learner’s mind, which becomes yet another obstacle to overcome before a learner is able to generalize.

    Your push to find the general ideas FIRST, in a supportive and conversation-filled space, makes it possible LATER to study several examples in a comparative way: Does this fit our initial idea? How might we change what we first thought?

    As always, I gain a lot from your thinking. Thanks!

    • I completely agree, Steve, that focusing so much on practicing parts–be they skills, strategies, individual literary elements or text structures–gets in the way of helping students engage with and see the whole. And I think you’ll love this quote I share in the new book, which comes from Jeremy Smith, a fabulous fourth grade teacher here in Brooklyn, who was interviewed for The Teacher You Want to Be: “The danger with a lot of what gets done at the moment is that there’s so much scaffolding that you end up just teaching the scaffold, and you really don’t teach the way of thinking and the way of reading and writing—you just teach [students] to deliver the tool you taught them.” On the other hand those “Does this fit?” “Might we need to revise?” questions are all about thinking!

      • OMG – YES! It’s all about the tool and so not about the thinking! Bless you! ❤
        It's another "DUH" moment! Thanks for always continuing the conversations with us, Vicki!

  4. Hello Vicki!

    I really appreciated your instinct to help the teacher (& students) move away from the specifics of THIS play (lighting, stage directions, etc.) to more general ideas that could be applied to ANY play.

    What I really appreciated, though, was your sharing with us that you didn’t automatically know what to do with the text. I’m not surprised at your thoughtfulness- that’s one of the things I admire so much about you. But it reassured me that when I don’t automatically know what to do, it’s not JUST because I don’t know enough. Thank you so much for sharing your thought processes with us. It will help me keep in mind what I want my students to know/be able to do with any text, not just the one I’m using in class that day.

    • There definitely was a time in my life, Alison, when not knowing something made me feel incompetent, but while those feelings can still pop up unexpectedly, more often I see not knowing as an opportunity to think, innovate & problem solve. Seems connected to moving away from a fixed mindset to a growth one, which I think is as important for teachers as it is for kids. But my hunch is that in all sorts of insidious ways, the culture of far too many schools don’t see it that way–and are far more interested in products, like test scores and neat lesson plans, than process, which is a shame.

  5. Vicki,
    I LOVE the Edward Hopper paintings and so appreciate all the thinking that you shared in this post. Being deliberate about where we start in instruction and why (moving away from whole class novels) is critical. It may seem “easier” or “kids like them” are the most common reasons, but there is often a fear of “how will I know students understand if I just let them read”?

    And to add to Steve’s thinking . . . I too love the generalizing first. And then, “Let’s find more examples. Do these match or not?

    The students need to do the work, But unless teachers first dig in and do this work themselves, they may easily still be stuck in the “telling” mode or that “one right answer”. That’s not what reading is about!

    THANK YOU for your snow day thinking!

    • You’re absolutely right about teachers needing to dig into this themselves, but I don’t think we give them anywhere near enough time and support to do that. That “What Matters Now” position paper from NCTAF that I shared a Teaching & Learning graphic from a few weeks ago makes a really strong case for carving out more time for teachers to collaboratively dig into this together. It’s what teachers get to do in Finland and Reggio–and what I know you and I both try to offer to teachers in our work, too.

  6. Good Afternoon Vicki!

    I, too, thoroughly enjoyed your snow day thinking! The process we go through as teachers of all things literacy is as important, if not, more than, actual teaching! I think the process and our awareness of the process are what make teaching authentic. When we have gone through a process as you described, kids can feel it as we teach!

    I have been involved with a Summer Visual Literacy Institute at the Yale Center for British Arts for the past four years. It is a four day institute that engages teachers in a similar process to your snow day. Teachers have structured time as well as unstructured time in the galleries exploring art and and the connections to their curriculum. The power of a visual image is underrated and underused in schools! I am energized by your thinking and your willingness to always think out of the box!

    Thanks for spreading the joy in the process!

    dawn sherriff

    • Thanks so much for leaving a comment, Dawn! As I just wrote to Fran McVeigh, the highest performing schools in the world give their teachers time and support to do this exact kind of thinking, knowing that it makes whatever we then teach richer, deeper and more meaningful for kids. And so glad to learn of Yale’s summer institute! I can’t manage to go, but a quick look at their website made me want to at least go to New Haven for a day and walk through the galleries myself!

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