Toward a Saner View of Text Complexity

sanity-insanity1

As happened a few years ago, when eighth grade students took to Facebook to share reactions to a nonsensical passage about a talking pineapple from the New York State ELA test, this year’s Common Core-aligned test made it into the news again for another Facebook incident. Somehow a group called Education is a Journey Not a Race got their hands on a copy of the fourth grade test and posted over three dozen images of passages and questions on their Facebook page. Facebook quickly took the page down, but they couldn’t stop the articles that soon appeared, such as “New York State Tests for Fourth-Graders Included Passages Meant for Older Students” from the Wall Street Journal and “Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core test” from The Washington Post. 

PG13_rating_WaiAs their titles suggest, these pieces took a hard look at the kind of questions and concerns teachers have been raising since the Standards first appeared. And while it’s great that the press is finally reporting on what students really face on these tests, it seems like they haven’t completely grasped that these exceedingly hard and often age-inappropriate texts and the convoluted, picayune questions that come with them are precisely what the authors of the Common Core had in mind.

As I write in my new book (which Katie Wood Ray, my editor extraordinaire, assures me I’m closing in on), the Common Core seems to have ushered in an age where third grade has become the new middle school, middle school is the new high school, and high school is the new college. And that’s all because of the particular vision the Common Core authors have about what it means to be college and career ready.

According to the Common Core, students need to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction plus have regular practice with academic language to be ready for college and text-complexity-trianglecareers. And as many of us know by now, they determine a text’s complexity by supposedly using a three-part model that considers the following:

  • A text’s Quantitative dimensions, as measure by Lexile Levels;
  • Its Qualitative dimensions, which scores the complexity of a text’s meaning, structure, language features and knowledge demands through a rubric;
  • And the Reader and the Task, which supposedly  involves “teachers employing their professional judgment, experience and knowledge of their students” to determine if a particular text and/or task is appropriate for students.

I say supposedly because if you look at the texts and tasks on the test as well as those in many Common Core-aligned packaged programs, you’ll see some patterns emerge. First there seems to be a preference for texts with high quantitative Lexile levels, regardless of The Clay Marblethe other two factors. And when it comes to the qualitative dimension, tests, packaged programs and even home-grown close reading lessons seem to favor texts that score high in terms of their language features and knowledge demands—i.e., texts with lots of hard vocabulary and references to things students might not know.

These preferences are why a text like Minfong Ho’s The Clay Marblewhich recounts the story of a Cambodian brother and sister who flee to a refuge camp in Thailand in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and comes with a grade equivalent reading level of 6.8—was on New York State’s fourth grade test. And it’s why a text like Behind Rebel Lineswhich tells the true-life story of a young woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Union Army during the Civil War and comes with a grade reading level of 7.2—is part of Pearson’s Ready Gen’s third grade curriculum.You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the Reader and the Task, and that’s because it’s often not considered when it comes to choosing texts. On tests, in packaged programs and even in many home-grown close reading lessons, every child is expected to read the same text and perform the same tasks, which usually consist of answering questions aligned to individual standards. The only adjustment that seems to be made is the amount of scaffolding a teacher provides—and the Common Core Standards specifically direct teacher to “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level [to achieve] the required ‘step’ of growth on the ‘staircase’ of complexity.”

Overly Scaffolded BuildingAs I said last year at NCTE, the problem with this is that some children need so much support in order to read those required complex texts that we can barely see the student beneath all that scaffolding. In fact, when we adopt that “Do whatever it takes” approach to getting kids through those complex texts, we not only risk losing sight of them, but all that scaffolding inevitably limits the amount of thinking we’re letting students do. And in this way, I fear we’ve traded in complex thinking for getting through complex texts—and the ability to think complexly is surely as needed to succeed in college as possessing content knowledge and vocabulary.

And so, in the new book, I propose an alternate route up that staircase of complexity. It’s one that truly takes the reader into account and seeks a different balance between the complexity of a text, as determined by its Lexile level and high scores for its language and knowledge demands, and the complexity of thinking we ask students to do. And I spell out what that could look like in the following chart:

Alternate Complexity Route

Following this alternate route, for example, would mean not choosing a text like Behind Rebel Lines for third grade because, as you can see below, the vocabulary is so daunting, it’s hard to imagine a third grader making much of it without the teacher handing over the meaning (and, as a parent of a third grader writes, its meaning isn’t always age appropriate).

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Instead, you could choose something more like Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say which is also set during the Civil War and explores similar themes. But because it’s far more accessible at the language features level, students who were invited to read closely and deeply could actually think about and construct those themes for themselves. They could even figure out what the Civil War was without the teacher explaining it because the book is full of clues that, if connected, could allow students to actually build that knowledge.

PinkandSayPink and Say Excerpt

Finally, it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one advocating for an alternate route. In a postscript to his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad OnesTom Newkirk makes a case for what he calls “a more plausible road map for creating readers who can handle difficulty”: giving students “abundant practice with engaging contemporary writing that does not pose a constant challenge,” which can help them build the “real reading power” needed to tackle challenging texts. And more recently, in the final post from his great series on literacy, Grant Wiggins called for making what he called “a counter-intuitive choice of texts,” that is, choosing “texts that can be easily read and grasped literally by all students” but which require complex thinking at the level of themes and ideas.

Those seem like incredibly sane ideas to me. And as for what’s insane, I’ll leave that to Einstein:

Einstein Insanity Quote

News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

Hemingway on Writing

I shared this image and quote from Hemingway at a session I chaired at NCTE in November, and between now and then I’ve done a lot of blood-letting as I’ve plugged away at my book. I’ve also experienced jolts of joy, because as Neil Gaiman writes, “The process of writing can be magical.” From nothing but words you can create whole worlds that can move and affect other people. I also learned a thing or two about myself as a writer that have raised some questions about how we teach writing in classrooms, which I’m feeling an itch to share, along with a handful of great writing quotes that could use a good home.

The big thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is to trust my process. I’m not a fast writer in any way. In fact, the whole idea of writing a flash draft is about as unappealing to me as speed dating or dining at Burger King. That’s not to say that I never do it. I can, if I absolutely have to. And I do try to keep my pen or keyboard fingers moving if I’m writing something exploratory, which I do if I’m stuck or want to play around with an idea or image in my notebook or a new document. But that’s writing for me, not writing for a reader. The minute I’m intentionally writing for a reader (versus an assessment or test scorer), I slow down in order to, as Rachel Carson says, “be still and listen to what [my] subject has to tell [me].” And I’m aware that flies right in the face of both many writers’ advice and current classroom trends.

Shitty First DraftsMany writers, for instance, say it’s important to just get a draft down on paper because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird “you need to start  somewhere,” and giving yourself permission to write what she calls a”shitty first draft,” can help. Likewise, John Steinbeck advised would-be writers to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”

Advice like this is part of what drives the flash draft trend in schools, but there’s another writing camp of thought that doesn’t get as much press, which does things differently. Here, for instance, is Annie Dillard making a case for writing carefully and slowly right from the start:

“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a root, may begin a strand of metaphor or even out of which much, or all, will develop.”

This camp believes in letting the words guide you, which for writer Jayne Anne Phillips means that she writes “line by line, by the sound and the weight and the music of the words,” without too much revision.

Of course, for better or worse, I revise a lot, too (which is why this book is taking so long). But while much of my revising has to do with clarifying my focus and meaning, which inevitably involves moving parts around, I also follow Tom Romano‘s advice for revision from his fabulous essay “How to Write”:

 “Read aloud. Feel the words in your mouth. Listen. Your sense of how language should sound is a great ally. You’ll hear when words make music; you’ll hear when they’re discordant. Make adjustments if you need to . . . honing language, tinkering and tuning.”

I just do that in my first draft, too.

So why do we teach students that writers always write their first drafts quickly when actually that’s not true? It may have to do with the fact that some students can feel inhibited or downright scared at the sight of a blank page or screen, and in that they’re not alone. Writer Margaret Atwood, for instance, has said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough?” And writing a flash or a shitty first draft can be a way of tricking our minds into leaving those fears behind. It’s also easier to teach kids to write flash drafts than it is to invite, if not teach, them to love language. But as often happens when we take an easy route, we run the risk of simplifying something complex—and, in the case of writing, really hard.

Don't Try to ThinkI also suspect we ask students to write flash drafts as a way of preparing them for on-demand assessments, though the two are different. When it comes to high-stakes performing, for instance, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” writes that “If you are well-practiced, just let the learning you have done unfold under the force of unconscious rather than conscious thinking.” That is, you’re not supposed to think. But what if all that you’re well-practiced in is writing on-demand? What learning is unfolding then?

I’m not suggesting that everyone follow my process, only that process is as important as products—though in our current product-driven age, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s during the process, after all, that we get to practice and try out things as writers, whether that’s leads, structure, craft moves or even a process itself. We could, for instance, give students more than one strategy for getting words down on the page and then invite them to consider which worked best for for them, using this advice from Tom Romano as a guide.”Whatever helps you come to language, tap, exploit, ride. Whatever hinders you coming to language, avoid, shun, spurn.”

Of course, this means we’d need to value engaging with language as much as getting a job done. But I believe there are students out there who might actually find more joy in the blood-letting by listening to and following their words. And by finding more joy in the process, they’d learn more, which means that they’d come to those high-stakes moments with more that could unconsciously unfold.

blood-letting

All Quiet on the Prairie

All Quiet on the Prairie

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while because life has been just the opposite. Between working, traveling, trying to finish a book and various other fun problems (such as a botched basement floor installation and an email gremlin that tells me that emails I’ve written have been sent but then somehow don’t arrive), my life has been pretty crazy. In fact, it’s been to so crazy that as I read other bloggers posts about the one little word they wanted to hold on to for this (relatively still) new year, I decided that my word this year should be breathe. Just breathe. Then breathe again, in the hopes that by breathing I might get closer to some of those other words I considered—like balance, perspective and simplicity—that simply seem out of my reach right now. And maybe, just maybe, that breathing is working because I’ve found a bit of time and space to share here some of what I’ve been up to.

Complexity-elegance-visualFirst, the book: It’s working title (which is subject to change) is Embracing Complexity, which would be followed by a colon and a still-to-be-determined phrase that has something to do with a problem-based approach to the teaching of reading. It will build on the vision of reading for meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Doas well as the thinking I’ve shared here on the blog and at NCTE in November—in particular how to set students up to do more of the deep thinking work of reading with less teacher scaffolding. And it kicks off with a wonderful quote from M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Traveled, who urged his readers to do exactly what I’ll be asking you to do:

“Abandon the urge to simplify everything, to look for formulas and easy answers, and to begin to think multi-dimensionally, to glory in the mystery and paradoxes of life, not to be dismayed by the multitude of causes and consequences that are inherent in each experience—to appreciated the fact that life is complex.

With any bit of luck and a fair amount of work, the book will be out sometime in the fall—though that means that things will be quiet on the blog front for the next two months. But I will be sharing ideas and work from the new book at two upcoming events.

Reading for the Love of ItThe first is the Reading for the Love of It Conference, which takes place in Toronto on February 9 and 10. I’ll be presenting two sessions—”Helping Students (and Ourselves) Become Critical Thinkers and Insightful Readers” and “What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea: From Scavenger Hunting to Synthesizing in Increasingly Complex Nonfiction Texts.” I’ll be doing both sessions on the 9th and then again on the 10th, which means that there will be lots of time to catch some of the other fabulous speakers from the Conference’s stellar line-up, including Ruth Culham, Pat Johnson, Tanny McGregor, Linda Rief and Jeff Wilhelm.

Then the following month, I’ll be at The Teaching Studio’s Educators’ Institute, which will be held on March 14 at the Rhode Island Convention Center. Along with Sharon Taberski and Cornelius Minor, I’ll be presenting a keynote as well as one of the more than twenty other interactive workshops facilitated by teachers associated with The Learning Community, a Rhode Island charter school that’s been doing ground-breaking work on reading in collaboration with the Central Falls public school district. (And, yes, you read that right: three keynotes and a choice of over twenty workshops in one day!)

Educator's Institute Line-Up

And all that needs to be worked on, too, which is making me feeling the need to breathe again! So I’ll leave you with this old Swedish proverb, which I’m also trying to hold on to in these crazy times:

“Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.

Breathe

Some Thoughts on a Thought-Provoking Trip

Between Thanksgiving, Buffalo, Portland and a book that still needs to get done, I haven’t had much time to post, but I did want to share a link to the blog of the Opal School in Portland, where I was last week, and invite you to join a discussion about reading that we started there. For those of you unfamiliar with Opal, it’s a Reggio-inspired pre-K though grade 5 school (the preschool is private while the elementary school is a public, lottery-based charter) housed in Portland’s Children Museum. And it’s mission is “to strengthen education by provoking fresh ideas concerning environments where creativity, imagination and the wonder of learning thrive.”

I’ve know about Opal since I had the great fortune to meet Susan Mackay, the Director of the Museum Center for Learning, and Mary Gage Davis, the school’s Curriculum Director, Reggio Emilia Outsidetwo years ago in Reggio-Emilia where we were fellow participants in a study group exploring the implications of the Reggio approach on literacy instruction across the grade. (To read more about that experience, click here, here and here.) And I’d come to know Matt Karlson, the Center for Learning Administrator who also writes many of the Opal School blog posts, through the perceptive and thoughtful comments he’s left here on this blog. But I’d never been to Opal before. So when Matt invited me to join them for a workshop on “New Possibilities for Readers,” I jumped at the opportunity. And what an opportunity it was! Inspiring, energizing and incredibly thought-provoking, as the staff and I shared ideas and questions about the role and place of reading.

You can learn more about the workshop itself and the ideas and questions we’re still puzzling over in Matt’s recent blog post. But in a nutshell, we realized that while we share many of the same visions, beliefs and hopes for children and schools, we saw the role of books and the purpose of reading slightly differently.

My belief in the power of books and reading are perhaps best captured by author Julius Lester in his wonderful piece “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” where he looks at the origins of the words book, read, imagine, and knowledge and explores the implications of each word’s root. The word read, for instance,

“comes from an Old Teutonic root and means ‘to fit together, to consider, to deliberate, to take thought, to attend to, to take care or charge of a thing.’ To read is to fit together, to attend to. It is to take care of something, to take charge of something. So, what is being attended to? What is being fit together?”

Lester believes that ultimately it’s the reader who is being fit together. And he thinks this because

“. . . books are the royal road that enable us to enter the realm of the imaginative. Books enable us to experience what it is like to be someone else. Through books we experience other modes of being. Through books we recognize who we are and who we might become.”

For this magic to happen, however, he says, “Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others.” And I wonder if it’s this idea of putting ourselves in a box by the door to take on the spirit of another—whether that’s a character, an author, or the subjects of facts—that raised the questions we posed.

At the risk of trying to speak for Opal, I think the conversation for them always begins, not with the word book, read, or even imagine (as it often does with me), but with the word child. They believe strongly in the power of children to make sense of the world around them in ways that can also illuminate for us, the adults who are privileged to spend time with them, the wonder, beauty and heartache of our world. It’s certain something I believe in, too. In fact, here’s a sentence from the same piece by Lester:

“When we read we discover and rediscover the power of words, the power to express thoughts and feelings, the power to touch another, the power to express love, the power to take care,”

If I recast it with children at the center, I see an equally powerful truth: When we listen to children we discover and rediscover the power of their words to express Opal_What Happens When You Look Closelythoughts and feelings, to care for and touch one another. And given that our current educational climate tends to value data points over children’s words, I understand and applaud Opal’s commitment to seeing literacy education as first and foremost concerned with offering “experiences that lead [children] to understand that they have something worth saying before caring about what others have to say.” In fact, seeing the amazing work the children and teachers were doing at Opal made me wonder if my work with reading was really big enough—and if perhaps I’m too pious and staunch in my reverence for books. But then the book lover in me kicks in again, wanting to say it’s enough, especially when students have other opportunities in other kinds of settings to recognize who they are and who they might become, as they do at Opal.

And that in turn reminds me of words Susan Mackay shared from Toni Morrison: “The words on the page are only half the story. The rest is what you bring to the party.” My visit to Opal raised all sorts of questions for me and the teachers there about why, how and when to balance—or not—the words on the page with the words of the child, and what agendas might be served by the choices we make. It’s not an either/or proposition, rather, as Matt said, a question of emphasis. But if we believe, as Jerome Bruner does, that “pedagogy is never innocent,” these questions are worth considering.

So if you have your own thoughts, ideas or questions, Matt and I both hope you’ll consider leaving a comment here or on the Opal School’s blog to keep the conversation going. And I promise that I’ll be back soon with Writing Meaningfully about Meaningful Reading Part 2!

Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow

Shame

For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

So here’s a true confession: I was one of those high school students who sometimes handed in book reports about books I hadn’t read. I’m not really sure when my fudging began, but I distinctly remember the time when my 10th grade teacher Miss Ingersoll assigned the class John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read and write about over a break. I meant to read it, I really did, just as soon as I finished the unassigned book I was secretly reading at home—John Fowles’s The Collector, which my parents disapproved of but I found riveting.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t finish The Collector until the night before the book report was due. And so, without the benefit of Spark Notes or sites like iEssay.com, I read the blurbs, grabbed a thesaurus and scanned a few pages for quotes. Then I cobbled and strung together what I had well enough to earn a B- and to learn the same lesson Calvin shares here with Hobbes:

In the age of the Internet when a Google search for “free high school English essays” yields over 19 million results in less than a second, I don’t know how many students learned the same lesson that Calvin and I did. But I do see a lot of writing these days that doesn’t seem terribly meaningful—as my book report wasn’t—and I think that’s directly connected to the college student’s comment I shared the other week: that across the grades, from first up through twelfth, we focus too much on teaching students how to organize ideas and not enough on how to build them.

Many colleges address this imbalance by assigning what the great writing professor and author Peter Elbow calls “low stakes writing”—i.e., writing that’s undertaken “not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn and understand more of the course material.” In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Elbow enumerates the benefits of low stakes writing, which include the following:

  • Low stakes writing helps students be active learners [rather than] merely passive receivers.
  • Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course; they work out their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts . . . in their own lingo.
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to their teaching. We get a better sense of how their minds work.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of high stakes writing [because] with frequent low stakes writing we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we grade a high stakes piece.

This sort of low stakes writing does crop up in grade schools, though not as much in high schools as I think it should. Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke, for Low Stakes Writinginstance, devote close to half their book Content-Area Writing to low stakes “Writing to Learn” strategies. Middle school teacher, blogger and Two Writing Teachers contributor Tara Smith shares how she helps students use their reading notebooks to push and develop thinking in her recent posts “Setting Up the Reading Journal For a Year of Writing About Reading” and “Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading.” And in her book Writing about Reading,” Janet Angelillo offers a great list of low stakes “Ways to Think, Talk and Writing About Books,” which includes options such as “Finding places in the text where a light goes on in my mind and signals me to pay attention” and “Finding an idea thread to follow throughout the text or building a theory about the text.”

In my own practice, I’ve been inviting students to consider some open-ended questions about details, lines, patterns or scenes, such as Why might the author be showing you Basic CMYKthis? How might this be connected to that? And why and how has this changed your thinking—or not? I’ve also invited them to consider questions that engage them in viewing the text through more than one lens of the Character-Author-Reader eye. With a class of fifth graders, for instance, who just finished the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s marvelous Tiger Rising, I asked students what they thought was making the main character’s life hard, how he was dealing with that, and whether or not they thought his ways of coping were effective. As you’ll see below, this led students to focus on different aspects of the text and voice a wide range of ideas, which they revisited, developed and revised as they kept on reading.

Tiger Rising Responses

 I’ve also had wonderful opportunities to work with teachers who are eager to experiment with different ways of writing about reading, such as Ede Blabec and Rachel Kovach who wanted to bring more meaningful writing back to their eighth grade students’ reading notebooks. To do this, they decided to have students keep a separate notebook dedicated to their next read-aloud A Wrinkle in Time. And they made a brilliant decision to provide the class with simple, unadorned notebooks that were small enough to fit in a pocket. This made the notebooks seem both personal and unintimidating, and to personalize them even more, the students were invited to illustrate their thinking, which as you can see below allowed some students to unleash their inner artist.

Wrinkle 01Wrinkle 02

All these ways of writing about reading seem different from the menus or lists of reading response options I frequently find stapled into students’ reading notebooks. These low risk ways of writing focus on the reader as much as on the text and on what Dorothy Barnhouse and I call “the process of meaning making,” where students are invited to question, dig deeper, explore ideas and consider how the text affects them. The reading response menus, on the other hand, seem more like performance-based tasks or short-constructed responses—and they’re often evaluated with rubrics that emphasize structure, mechanics and the citing of evidence over depth of thought.

Of course, students who engage in low stakes writing may still have to learn a thing or two about structure. And so in Part 2, I’ll share ways they can do that by studying mentor texts rather than by using a formula. But at least when it’s time to write more formally, students will have something meaningful to say. And they’ll also have experienced for themselves how writing, like talk, can be used as a tool not only to present and demonstrate thinking but to actually grow ideas.

 

Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing

MIND THE GAP

This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it’s] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.