Amplifying the Light: Some Thoughts on NCTE & Beyond

amplify-the-light

From “Blind Light” by Antony Gormley, 2007, http://www.antonygormley.com

My hunch is that last December when NCTE announced this year’s convention theme, “Faces of Advocacy,” few of us imagined we’d wind up here, with ethical questions erupting almost daily and hatred running rampant—even here in my liberal corner of Brooklyn, where swastikas were painted on the playground equipment of a neighborhood park just a few weeks ago and a few grade school boys started a club that you could join if you pushed a girl and told her she was fired.

But here we are, and there was NCTE, offering sessions that not only shared powerful and practical ways to advocate for the children, but also attempted “to settle our souls,” just as Penny Kittle said poetry does. And for the days I was in Atlanta, I did feel more settled in my soul. I felt the power and purpose of the teaching profession and drew strength from being part of a community I deeply respect and admire. And I also felt affirmed as I noticed patterns and trends both within and across the sessions that echoed and pushed my own thinking.

small-storyThe word light,or instance, cropped up in several sessions, with Margaret Simon sharing the phrase “Amplify the light,” which inspired this post’s title, in a session called “Writing for a Better World: Poetry as an Agent of Change.” In that same session, Amy Vanderwater urged us all to “look for places where there is light,” then showed us precisely what she meant by sharing a poem she’d written about a brother and sister who’d offered her light through a small act of kindness. Meanwhile. in another session, Ernest Morrell also spoke of light, when he insisted that “classrooms have to be spaces of light. That’s our revolution.” And the word revolution also kept popping up, most notably when Cornelius Minor took the stage at a breakfast honoring the legacy of Don Graves, and after sharing his own poignant story of growing up in war-torn Liberia, urged us to “teach for revolution” and “passionate disruption.”

Additionally there was much talk about the need for us, as teachers, to take risks and be vulnerable, with another “Writing for a Better World” presenter, Irene Latham challenging us to “risk vulnerability.” This was very visibly on display in a session I missed but caught up with online called “Risking Writing,” where Mary Lee Hahn, Heidi Mordhort, Shanetia Clark and Patricia Hruby Powell collaboratively brainstormed, drafted and revised a poem inspired by a photograph of vegetables in real time in front of a live audience:

vegetable-poem-revision-2

vegetable-poem-final

Risk taking was also at the heart of a session on “Advocating for Essay: Students, Teachers, Coaches, and an Entire District Take a Journey to Discover the Complexity of Thinking,” which was inspired by Katherine Bomer‘s great book The Journey Is Everything. There teacher Allyson Smith shared how she modeled for her fourth graders how essayists take risks and explore ideas to ultimately arrive at some deeper truth by taking a risk herself. To ensure that her demo was authentic, she asked a student to volunteer an idea and was momentarily stymied when the student said, “Candy is Cool.” But with all eyes watching, she gamely dug in and showed the class how a riff on Swedish fish could lead to a memory of sharing some with a stranger on a plane, which in turn led her to consider the power of chance encounters in her life.

As Allyson said, taking these kinds of risks help “create safe spaces for students to take risks.” And creating spaces and opportunities for students was yet another pattern. Tom Newkirk spoke of “creating opportunities for students to try on and explore different identities”; Pernille Ripp talked of “creating opportunities for students to try on and explore different identities”; and Amy Vanderwater reminded us of the need to “give students opportunities to write about what’s happening in the world.”

Given that most of the chapters in my new book all start with the words Creating Opportunities, this was music to my ears. But risking my own vulnerability now, I have to say that while all these words inspired and nourished me those three days in Atlanta, the feeling was short lived. Yes, I believe in creating spaces of light so students can explore and forge identities, take risks and experience, in Ernest Morrell’s words “the power of language and the language of power.” Yes, I believe in small acts of kindness and of holding on tightly to hope. But I’ve found that the words that have  stayed with me most from NCTE came from teacher and Heinemann Teaching Fellow Kim Parker. She was one of the bonfirepanelists at the Don Graves breakfast, and when asked to share her credo, she said, “I believe in rage.”

Those four words allowed me to fully own and embrace the rage I’ve been feeling since the election. I am outraged at the very thought of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Steve Bannon as Chief Strategist; Tom Price as the Head of Health and Human Services; climate denier Myron Eball as the head of the EPA’s transition team; and, of course, Trump as President.

Those four words also made me realize that I didn’t really want to settle my soul as much as to spur it into action. So since NCTE, I’ve been signing petitions, supporting organizations like the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center, sending letters to my senators, and with Cathy Mere, adopting the hashtags #NotDeVos and #PublicEd4Kids. It’s my hope that those hashtags can create a space where we, as teachers, can constructively amplify the light of both our rage and our hope, take risks not just in our classrooms but the world, and share whatever inspires or outrages us. And I believe we need to do that because as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently writes in her piece “Now Is the Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About“:

“Now is the time to resist the slightest extension in the boundaries of what is right and just. . . Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism . . . Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it . . . Now is the time to discard that carefulness that too closely resembles a lack of conviction. . . Now is the time to be precise about the meaning of words. . . Now is the time to counter lies with facts, repeatedly and unflaggingly, while also proclaiming the greater truths: of our equal humanity, of decency, of compassion.”

door-w-amplified-light

If It’s November . . . It’s NCTE!

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Over the years, Carl Anderson and I have often found ourselves working at the same New York City schools, with Carl supporting the same teachers in writing that I support in reading. Frequently in those schools, a teacher will respond to something I’ve said with, “That’s just like what Carl was saying about writing,” which suggests she’s seeing a powerful reading-writing connection. Rarely, though, do Carl and I find ourselves in the same school on the same day. So I’m thrilled to be presenting with him at NCTE this year, where we’ll look at conferring with readers and writers and as an act of advocating for students’ agency, thinking and voice.

ncte-session-summary

While we’re still finalizing plans for the session, we’ll both be setting conferring within the context of students meaning making. In writing, this means ensuring that students have time to really explore and think about both what they want to say and how they might say it—which is precisely what I think my daughter, who I wrote about last week, didn’t get. The carls-research-questionsprimacy of meaning is why it’s at the top of Carl’s assessment of writing traits check list from his great book Assessing Writerswhich I always share with teachers whenever I’m working on writing, along with the chart from the same book on specific research questions you can ask students during a conference.

I think of this charts as a hierarchy (and a great crib sheet for teachers to keep in their conferring toolkits), with meaning as the most important trait. This means that you wouldn’t want to teach something in a conference about any of the other traits unless a student really knew what they wanted to convey. And that could be revealed in either the student’s draft or their answers to your research questions.

Similarly, I put meaning making at the heart of reading conferences, using a framework for thinking about meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. There, in the chapter “What We Mean by Meaning,” we adapt the work of the literacy scholar Robert Scholes to the language of K-12 classrooms and break down the thinking work of meaning making into the following three components or strands:

meaning-making-strands

Adapted from What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Heinemann, 2012).

As the braiding graphic suggests, readers weave these different strands of thinking together as they read in order to construct meaning. But it’s hard, as a reader, to engage in the work of understanding if you haven’t comprehended something basic, like the identity of a first person narrator or how certain characters are related. So one of the challenges in reading conferences is figuring out what kind of thinking students are already doing and where they might need some support—and this challenge is compounded by two facts: You may not know the book a student is reading and you won’t have the same kind tangible draft of student work to look at as you do in writing.

In my session with Carl, though, I’ll share how you can get a window into students’ thinking by having them orally ‘draft’ an understanding of a passage from whatever book they’re reading as you read it alongside them. Then I’ll show you how to use the three-strand framework for meaning, your own draft of the passage, and specific research questions to decide what to teach, all of which can be seen in this flowchart from the new book, which captures the different common paths meaning-based reading conferences can take.

reading-conference-flow-chart

© 2016 by Vicki Vinton from Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

I’m hoping that some of you will be able to join me and Carl in Atlanta. And if not, here’s some other places I’ll be in the upcoming months:

•   The Hong Kong International School’s Literacy Institute, January 21 & 22, 2017.

•   The Wisconsin Reading Association’s 2017 Convention, Reading Our Worlds, Composing Our Lives, Realizing Our Humanity, February 9-11, 2017.

•   The Morris-Union Jointure Commission (MUJC) Professional Development Center, New Providence, NJ, “Using Mentor Texts to Deepen Students’ Understanding of Genre, Structure & Craft, February 15, 2017.

•   The Morris-Union Jointure Commission (MUJC) Professional Development Center, New Providence, NJ, “Close Reading Skills Through Interactive Read Alouds,” March 24, 2017.

•   NESA’s Spring Educators Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, March 31-April 2017.

•   New Hampshire Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire, July 3-14, 2017.

And for those of you who are unable to travel, you can hunker down with me at home or in school or join me online after March 23, 2017, when Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading comes out, with this incredible cover image created by my partner, the photographer David Wagner and his special effects friend Robert Bowen

dynamic-teaching-for-deeper-reading

And now I’ve got to check out the NCTE app and start planning for what I’m sure will be an amazing convention!

My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)

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October 20th was National Writing Day, which many teachers celebrated on twitter and blogs by sharing why they write. I couldn’t quite finish this by then, but I’d been thinking about that why-i-write question ever since I had a conversation with my 25-year-old daughter who professes to hate writing.

This doesn’t mean that she can’t write. She wrote a great college application essay that helped get her into every school she applied to, and over the summer she crafted a knock-out cover letter that helped her land a job in Philadelphia as an assistant buyer for Urban Outfitters. But when I reminded her of this, she just shook her head no. “Maybe you’re like Dorothy Parker,” I suggested, “who said, ‘I hate writing. I love having written'” but again she said no. Then she heaved a sigh and said she was sorry if I was disappointed by that.

I rushed in then to assure her I wasn’t. The fact is I’m thrilled she’s found something she loves that she can make a living from, which took me years to do. But I am saddened that she hates writing, especially because she didn’t always. Like me, she wrote stories as a jaguar-girlchild, such as “Jaguar Girl,” about a girl who gets lost in the Amazon and is befriended by a young jaguar who shows her how to live in the jungle. It’s in my basement in a box filled with other stories and drawings by my daughter. But when I mention “Jaguar Girl” to her, she just shrugged in a way that let me know that the story’s more important to me than to her.

I, on the other hand, lovingly recall some of the stories I wrote at that age. One was about a lonely penny that kept being passed from one empty pocket to another, until it was dropped into a child’s Unicef box on Halloween, where it found a home and a purpose. I also vividly remember trying to write a mystery with my best friend who, like me, was a Nancy Drew lover. We began with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which we didn’t know was considered a cliche. To us, it created just the right mood of suspense and intrigue, especially when we added a dimly lit lamppost beneath which stood a man in a trench coat.

What I remember most from those early forays into writing was the satisfaction it offered: the satisfaction of finding the perfect ending for my poor, lonely penny and of using words to create a dark, sinister mood. In fact, I’m not sure my best friend and I got any further than the opening, nor do I remember if anyone ever read my penny story. The satisfaction was in the creation, not the aftermath. And that’s something I can still feel whenever I give myself permission to play around with language for the sheer delight of pinning down a moment or a sensation in precise, evocative words.

joan-didionAt some point, however, I started craving more than the joy of creation. I wanted what I wrote to be read and, even more than that, admired. Even now, saying that so baldly makes me cringe, as if wanting to be admired is shameful. But I began to recognize what Joan Didion wrote in her own great take on “Why I Write,” that, for me, writing is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act… an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

What I wanted, in effect, was to have a voice, which I didn’t always feel I had, especially in high school when I entered a new school half-way through ninth grade when groups and cliques had already formed—and seemed, to me, impenetrable. And while I did make friends, I was one of those students who rarely spoke in class but was well-behaved and got good enough grades not to worry about. But when my tenth grade teacher invited anyone who was interested to write a short story for Scholastic’s Writing Award contest, I hunkered down and wrote one.

spin-art-sampleThe story was about two suburban New York girls who had a crush on the man who ran the spin-art booth at the Central Park Zoo. They saw him as a grand, romantic figure, the only real person in a world of phonies and people preoccupied with status—until, that is, they saw him scream at a child who’d knocked over some paint. Then they had to acknowledge that they’d been deluded; he was simply a character they’d created from their own idealistic longings.

My teacher could submit two stories, and she was considering mine. But first she needed to ask me a question: Had I really written it? Seems she couldn’t quite match the voice in the story with the meek, quiet girl in her class. And even after I said I had, she felt compelled to tell me that if she or Scholastic found out I hadn’t, I’d be disqualified and suspended.

I assured her once again that I had, at which point she handed me the contest’s entry form (where she’d already typed in my name, age, and address) and had me sign on the line that attested to the story’s originality. Then she signed it herself and sent the story off. Unfortunately, I didn’t win a prize, but the moment was significant nonetheless. I felt recognized and valued for my take on the world—Didion’s “writer’s sensibility”—which was what I’d wanted. But when I think back to my daughter, I’m not sure that, when it came to writing, she felt that much in school.

By third grade, she had weekly writing homework, which was assigned on Monday but not due till Friday. Most came with a prompt, which in those pre-Common Core days, were mostly about her personal experiences, which she had no interest in. In fact, we both came to dread the Thursday nights before the homework was due, when there often were battles and tears. But occasionally there’d be an open choice week when she could write whatever she wanted, and on those weeks, she’d dive into writing on Monday, creating stories about mermaids and unicorns that rarely made it to the bulletin board.

wild-horsesThen there was fourth grade when she had to write her first research report on an animal of her choice. She picked wild horses and jumped into the research with energy and passion, but the writing itself was painful. She was expected to write in paragraph form, with separate paragraphs about the animal’s habitat, adaptions, reproduction, etc. Perhaps if she’d been writing a booklet, with illustrations on each page, she might have been more engaged. But she found the writing so hard to do that I went to her teacher and asked if she could use a different structure, writing something, say, more like a Byrd Baylor reverie than a Seymour Simon book. The answer was no, and when I asked why, I was told that organization was the most important aspect of writing, and she had to learn it.

It’s no surprise that, by high school, English was her least favorite subject—though she did get an A for creating a playlist for each scene in Euripides’ Medea. And she has found a strong, unique voice in the medium of her choice that people she respects want to hear, which is ultimately what’s important. But still, I’m haunted by that word hate. How many other children, I wonder, might come to hate writing as well because they never experience what made me want to write: not just the pleasure in creating something out of words, but the sense that my perceptions and perspective were valued? I actually shudder to think. So let’s remember why we write: not just to master a set of skills but to give voice to our unique take on a text, a topic, an issue, the world.

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What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

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Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:

octopus-verb-tenses

 

As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings

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A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:

jean-piaget-quote

While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:

crow-call-excerpt

Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.

joy

 

Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance

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Last week I shared how a group of third and fourth grade teachers deepened their students’ understanding of realistic fiction by introducing the concept of character flaws. Framing instruction around this vision definitely helped make the students’ stories more powerful. But once they began to develop ideas in which characters were complicit in the problems they faced and had to change to solve them, there was still lots of teaching to do. And we determined that teaching not just by returning to the unit plan but by using the critical practice of looking at student work.

looking-at-student-workTeachers, of course, look at student work all the time, often on their own, as they check assignments or pre- and post assessments for the purpose of evaluating or seeing if the students got something or not (which, if they haven’t, usually means the next step is reteaching). Writing in Educational Leadershipauthors Angie Deuel, Tamara Nelson, David Slavit and Anne Kennedy call this “the proving approach” to looking at student work, which is guided by the question, Did the students get it or not? And that’s different, they write, from what they call “the improving approach,” which teachers should ideally do collaboratively in order to explore a different question: What are students thinking?

According to the authors, using an improving approach to looking at work supports

“more generative conversations about student work. Teachers’ discussions yielded different questions that teachers wrestled with; those questions led to additional questions and sometimes to spirited debates about what teaching and learning should look like. Teachers sharpened their thinking about instruction, learning styles, content, formative assessment, the role of the teacher, and student engagement.”

This approach to looking at student work was precisely what led the teachers I worked with to rethink the way students were planning their stories. And studying the students’ work, we also realized that we needed to think deeper about what we teaching them not just about planning but drafting and revising.

To see what I mean, take a look at both this fourth grade student’s story mountain along with his initial draft and consider what the student reveals about his understanding of both planning and writing stories—that is, what do you think is going on in his head? story-mountain-sample-2

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In a sense this student did exactly what he’d been asked to do: He filled in all the story mountain boxes and used that to create a first draft. He also revealed an understanding of the concept of a climax and, perhaps, that characters need to change in order to solve their problems. But if you looked carefully at the first three event boxes, you may have noticed that he seems to have broken down one event into three, which suggests he has a fuzzy idea of what a story event is and how stories tend to complicate things before they resolve them. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to have a vision of the difference between planning and drafting, as he seemed to rewrite what he wrote in the boxes for his draft with only a few added details.

ruby-the-copycat-coverRecognizing these misconceptions, we then had to think about how to address them, which is one of the challenges of an improving approach. That’s because, as the Educational Leadership authors write, “taking an improving stance often unearths the formidable complexities of teaching and learning that stay hidden when the focus is on making cutoff scores.” We considered, for instance, offering a lesson on dialogue or leads, but while those would provide students with a strategy for drafting, it might not give them that deeper understanding of the difference between planning and drafting and of summaries and scenes. So we returned to one of our mentor texts and designed a lesson, which I then taught, that explicitly addressed those misconceptions while also providing a vision of craft.

To implement the lesson, I first created a chart that showed what Ruby the Copycat author Peggy Rothman might have put int the Event #1 box if she’d filled out a story mountain worksheet:

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Then once the students had gathered on the rug, I introduced the chart then read the following from Rothman’s book, asking them to consider this question (which I invite you to think about, too): How are these pages different from what’s in the box?  ruby-the-copycat-1

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Of course, kids being kids, the first thing they noticed was the book said Ruby sat behind Angela, not next to her as I’d written. But as you’ll see below, they went on to notice much more, beginning with the fact that there were more descriptive words.

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Because I didn’t want them to arbitrarily add more descriptive words to their pieces for the simple sake of being more descriptive, I asked if they could give me an example, which brought out the lines about Ruby tiptoeing and looking at Angela’s bow. Building on that, I then asked if they thought those details did more than just describe what Ruby was doing, and the students all said yes. Those details gave them clues about Ruby—that she might be shy or want to ‘lay low’ and that she admired Angela’s bow and might want to copy it.

imageIn this way the students were grasping another concept I wrote about in an earlier post on show, don’t tell: that writers actually show and tell, conveying information through the details they choose. And the students thought the dialogue was doing this as well. It gave the reader a hint about Ruby’s problem which, to the delight of the observing teachers, one of the students named as foreshadowing.

Studying the beginning of a mentor text this way definitely gave the students a deeper vision of a scene versus a summary and of planning versus drafting. But having a vision doesn’t automatically mean being able to replicate it on your own. For that learners, be they children or adults, need additional practice, and I’ll share how we offered that in another post. For now, though, try to keep that distinction in mind: Are you proving or improving when you look at student work?

How Vision Can Inform Instruction: Applying a Deep Understanding of Genre

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In 1986, a few years before I joined the Teachers College Writing Project, Lucy Calkins published The Art of Teaching Writing, which introduced writing workshop to a generation of teachers. Much has changed in the world of writing since then, but perhaps as a sign the world’s changing again, Lucy returned to the opening paragraph of The Art of Teaching Writing during this year’s summer writing institutes to tell a new generation of teachers that “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.”

For writing in general, she said what was essential was for both students and teachers alike to write and read massive amounts so as, as one attendee put it, “develop an identify as a writer who can make sense of the world, and even change it, through writing.” This does seem essential, but I think we also need a vision for what’s essential in the genres we teach, which is why, in my last post, I invited readers to read a short piece of realistic fiction to develop a deeper understanding of that genre’s purposes.

understanding-by-designAs you can see here, their responses were wonderful, with many articulating what you could call an enduring understanding: a big idea that, defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Designresides at the heart of a discipline, has enduring value beyond the classroom, and requires the uncovering of abstract or often misunderstood ideas.” Fran McVeigh, for instance, said that, “Good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think/question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.” While Dana Murphy put it this way:

“The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that,’ or ‘I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.’ It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.”

Others also used that word human, with Annie Syed writing, “There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway,” and reading and writing helps us with that. And Julieanne Harmatz wrote, “These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide.” Steve Peterson didn’t use the word human per se, but he spoke of realistic fiction as “a way to transform the world, or at least A world [such as the reader’s]—to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective,” which seems directly related to Lucy’s essentials.

These are all great examples of enduring understandings, but unfortunately we don’t always frame our instruction around this kind of big idea, teaching students instead that realistic fiction is a made up story comprised of characters, a setting and events that could be real, whose purpose is to entertain. We might settle for this because we don’t think students are mature enough to write stories with such depth or need to learn the basics first. And even if we want to aim for something deeper, we may not be sure how to do that, which is what happened with some third and fourth grade teachers I worked with.

At the time we first met, they’d already launched the unit by having students develop a character with a problem and then use a story mountain worksheet to plan out the plot—and already the teachers were worried. Many of the students’ story ideas seemed far-fetched or clichéd. They knew their characters’ favorite color and food, but not what made them tick, and the plots were too simple or too convoluted, all of which could be seen in the students’ work. So what could they do beyond march through the unit?

To consider that question we looked at two mentor texts, No More Tamales and Ruby the Copycat to study how those writers created more complex characters and plots that didn’t resolve problems too quickly or simply went on and on. And what we realized was that in each story the characters helped cause the problems they faced and had to change to resolve those—and it was precisely through this transformative journey that the authors invoked our feelings and understanding about the human experience.

Recognizing that the instruction they’d offered so far hadn’t reached that depth, the teachers decided to introduce the concept of character flaws through the mentor texts. Additionally, some decided to create a class character with a flaw and invite their class to collaboratively brainstorm what kind of problems that flaw might create or make worse and how that character might have to character-flawchange. This would involve students with the actual kind of thinking work realistic fiction writers are engrossed in and support another characteristic of enduring understandings: offer potential for engaging students.

In fact, the students were so engaged with the idea of flaws that in one of the classes that was reading Because of Winn-Dixie a student raised an interesting question: Did the main character Opal have a flaw? Rather than answering the question herself, their wonderful teacher Trish Compton suggested they all turn and talk about that. And as the class shared out their ideas, they decided that Opal, whose main problem they thought was loneliness, did have a flaw of sorts: She was so overcome with the loss of her mother, she couldn’t always see that she was making friends, and thus didn’t need to feel lonely. And they were eager to see how that might change.

They also wrote some amazing stories, such as this one by a third grader called “Forgiveness.” I invite you to read it and think about if, in an age-appropriate way, it reflects the kind of enduring understanding vision the teachers articulated above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.

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