The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.

Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole

The late, great writer Ursula Le Guin believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” I believe this, too, which is why I made a case in my last post for bringing interpretation back into classrooms, as the means through which we can reap reading’s ultimate benefit. But here’s the other thing about interpretation: In addition to helping us develop moral compasses, empathy, and self-awareness, I think academically interpretation also helps us analyze. In fact, I see interpretation as the too often unrecognized behind-the-scene work needed for real analysis.

Think about it for a moment: Interpretation involves putting pieces of a text together to construct an understanding of its deeper meaning. It’s an act of construction, while analysis, on the other hand, deconstructs by separating a whole into its component parts ostensibly to see how the parts affect the whole. But how can readers analyze the function of the parts if they don’t really have a vision of the whole?

I suppose it’s possible to do this if both the whole and its parts are known or familiar, like the dog and its disassembled parts above. But as I wrote in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingreaders who don’t have a vision of the whole beyond the gist can wind up like the blind men in the old Indian tale, who attempted to understand what an elephant was by analyzing a part of it. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was a rope; a third stroked the ear and thought an elephant was a fan. No one was able to make sense of the whole by analyzing a part.

When you have a deeper vision of the whole, however, analysis can be far more insightful. The third graders I wrote about in my last post, for instance, who were reading The Old Woman Who Named Things, didn’t notice every detail or initially understand every word. But once they’d developed an interpretation that encapsulated the whole, they were able to go back to a passage like this and have lots to say about why the writer had decided to have the old woman read this particular book.

In this way, these students were analyzing without explicitly being taught to do so. No learning to use acronyms like RAFT or ACE or sentence starters and templates. Instead, their analysis was a natural out-growth of having meaningfully interpreted the text. And if you’re wondering if what I’m describing is actually analysis, just imagine this example reframed as a question on a standardized Common Core test: “How does this paragraph contribute to the author’s message (or the theme or the character’s development)?”

Questions like this form the bulk of both the multiple choice questions and short constructed responses that students encounter on the PARCC, Smarter Balance and New York State/Engage NY assessments. And in my work with teachers, I’ve been recommending that once students have been able to thoroughly discuss and interpret whatever texts they’ve read as inter-active read alouds, whole class novels, or book club books, you invite them to consider a few analysis questions that either you or the students themselves can create by combining one word or phrase from each column (like the Chinese restaurant menus of my childhood):

I keep finding new words to add to this chart, so it’s a work in progress. But one thing I know for sure is that while students might need to learn the meaning of and nuances between these verbs, they’ll be far more ready to answer these kinds questions if they’ve thought deeply and interpreted what they’ve read, rather than staying on the surface—or, as many students do, only start to think until they hit the questions. And interestingly enough, I’m not the only one who believes this.

Last month, I came across a blog post by Timothy Shanahan called “If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction.” In the early days of the Common Core, Shanahan spent much time promoting the teaching of close reading by having students answer text-dependent questions over the course of three readings, the first to consider what the text says, the second how it says it, and the third what it means. More recently, however, he’s recognized that this has led many teachers to have a warped view of what it means to read. “Simply put,” he writes,

Reading is NOT the ability to answer certain kinds of questions about a text. . .  Not knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis or evaluation questions. Not “right there,” “think and search,” “author and me,” or “on my own” questions. Not main idea, detail, inference, structure or author’s tone questions.

[Instead] reading is the ability to make sense of the ideas expressed in a text [through] the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers of a text” (or what I call ‘the problems’ a given text poses). Students who can make sense of a text’s ideas will be able to answer any kind of question about that text. While students who fail to scale those linguistic and conceptual barriers”—i.e., to solve those problems—will struggle with the simplest of questions.

And how does he propose teaching kids to do this? Basically, once they’ve learned to decode, by teaching them how to interpret.

Of course, the title of the blog post suggests that Shanahan sees higher test scores as the end goal of interpreting, whereas I see them as the by-product of more authentic and meaningful work. But just think about it: If we provided students with lots of opportunities to interpret right from the start of the year—with time set aside to regularly practice and experience how to move from interpretation to analysis, we wouldn’t have to drive ourselves and our students crazy with test prep at this point in the year. So let’s trade in all those literary analysis sentence stems, acronyms and worksheets and focus on supporting student interpretations as the backbone of analysis.

 

Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word

Last week I was working with some eighth grade teachers who were getting ready to launch a new reading unit, and to learn a bit more about their students, I asked them how well they thought their kids were able to interpret. They paused for a moment, not sure what to say, until one teacher said that they’d mainly focused on analyzing texts, not on interpreting them.

Given the emphasis that the Common Core standards have placed on analysis, I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I researched for Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingthe words interpret and interpretation only appear 15 times in the ELA Standards, while the words analyze and analysis show up over 150 times.

What’s interesting, too, is that if you look at where those 15 words appear, you’ll find that while students are asked to interpret words, phrases, figurative language, figures of speech and visuals (such as charts and graphs), they’re not asked to interpret whole texts. They are, however expected to analyze other writers’, artists’, and filmmakers’ interpretations of texts and real-life events, which means the authors of the standards recognize that readers can interpret more than words and phrases.

In the real world, however, all sorts of people interpret all sorts of things. Doctors interpret their patients’ symptoms. Scientists interpret data. Historians interpret the causes of conflicts. Judges interpret the law. And as the writer George Eliot said:

So why is there so little mention of interpretation in the standards and many classrooms?

The skeptic in me has wondered if it’s because the powers that be don’t really want students to think for themselves. But I also suspect there’s a feeling out there that interpretation isn’t rigorous. That is, it’s seen as a loosey-goosey, touchy-feely way of reading, where readers are allowed to think whatever they want, based on their own experiences and feelings. This, however, is not at all what Louise Rosenblatt, the originator of the Reader-Response theory of reading, intended. She did believe that readers needed to bring their thoughts, emotions and experience with them in order to transact with a text. But she saw that transaction as part of “an active, self-ordering and self-correcting process, characterized by subtle adjustments and refinements of meaning in an effort to achieve a coherent interpretation,” which took into account all of a text, not just whatever parts might have spoken personally to a reader.

That process can be seen in the journey a third-grade class I wrote about in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading took. They were reading Cynthia Rylant’s picture book The Old Woman Who Named Things, which tells the story of an old woman who’s outlived all of her friends and is so afraid of losing anyone else that she shies away from forming attachments. Instead, she names inanimate objects that she thinks will outlive her, like her house and car, and considers them as friends. At first, this arrangement seems to work, but things get complicated when a puppy keeps appearing at the old woman’s gate. And those complications only gets worse when one day the puppy doesn’t come, and that ultimately forces the old woman to reconsider the decisions she’s made in her life.

I launched the class on that process by inviting them to begin the book using a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which helped them develop a basic understanding of the who, what, when and where (though, you’ll see that not everyone knew what outlive meant.) And highlighted at the bottom, you’ll also see that questioning, they raised a question, which I knew could lead them right to the heart of the story.

To continue that process, I reframed that question as a line of inquiry to explore and invited the class to draft what Dorothy Barnhouse and I first called “maybe statements” in What Readers Really DoAs you can see below, there’s quite a range in these maybe statements, with some students clearly drawing on more of the text than others were (though everyone cited a piece of evidence).

But then comes the moment when the now fully-grown puppy stops coming to the house and the old woman feels sad:

At this point in the story, I paused to ask the students another question that would engage them in that “active, self-ordering and self-correcting process”: Why did the author make the dog stop coming to the gate? What might she want the old woman—or us—to see?

It’s worth noting that the range of thinking here has narrowed, as students started coalescing around that last idea as part of that “self-correcting process.” A few, however, stuck with their initial thinking. But then comes the ending, which in fiction can act like a final reckoning, where reading must reconcile their ideas with what did and didn’t ultimately happen. Here, the ending Rylant fashioned doesn’t include the sudden appearance of the dog’s owner, nor does the old woman suddenly remember that the dog was really hers. And this invited everyone to revisit, revise and refine their thinking one last time to achieve that “coherent interpretation.”

Note that while these three examples of the class’s final interpretation do take into account all of the text, they’re all quite different. Each reflects what the individual reader found most significant, memorable or moving through their transaction with the text. And note, too, that for these third graders, none of these were universal truths nor were they trite aphorisms, like “Try, try again.” Instead they seem to capture what Flannery O’Connor says about the meaning of fiction:

“The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

I’ll have more to say about interpretation and how I see it connected to analysis in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, how do you think about interpretation—and how do you invite students to do it?

Looking Forward to a Rebirth of Literacy Teaching & Learning

As a presenter at this year’s CCIRA Conference in Denver next month, I was invited to write a guest post for the CCIRA blog and was inspired to write something on this year’s Conference theme, Literacy Renaissance. Some of you may have caught this there, but if not, here’s a repost:

Detail from “Lady with an Ermine,” by Leonardo da Vinci, Italy, circa 1490

Like many people, I was more than ready to say good riddance to 2017, which was as disruptive, divisive and depressing a year as any I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yet as I think about 2018, I’ve found myself strangely hopeful that something is stirring in literacy education. And one of the indications of that for me is the theme for this year’s CCIRA conference, where I’ll be presenting two sessions in February.

The theme for this year is Literacy Renaissance, which was inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s life, and I have to say that I found the idea of a literacy renaissance incredibly exciting. You see, way before I ever imagined myself working in classrooms and being a writer, I was on my way to becoming an art history major in college, where I studied and fell in love with Renaissance art—especially frescoes and portraits, like Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine,” whose soulful eyes you see above.

CCIRA 2018 “Literacy Renaissance: Invention, Intention, and Close Study”

Leonardo definitely captures the spirit of the Renaissance and seems as powerful a role model as any I can think of. But knowing a bit more about the Renaissance than your average person might, I found myself thinking about that theme in a slightly different way.

I know, for instance, that the word renaissance literally means rebirth, and the historical period known as the Renaissance was seen as the rebirth of the classical traditions of ancient Greece and Rome, where artists had developed and mastered the skill to paint and sculpt figures that actually seemed life-like, with a range of gestures and expressions that conveyed the whole spectrum of human emotions.

Panel from the Altar of Augustan Peace, celebrating fertility and prosperity, Rome, 9 BC

Those skills, however, were lost or forgotten during what’s alternately called the Medieval, Middle or Dark Ages. In that period artists struggled with perspective and proportions, with people’s heads sometimes as large as their torsos and their bodies as tall as buildings. The subject matter was also much bleaker than Ancient Greek and Roman art, which is characterized by beauty, ease and grace. Medieval art, on the other hand, reflects a time of plague and pestilence, where life was seen as little more than a vale of tears. And that got me wondering: If we’re in or entering a Literacy Renaissance, what was our Classical Age and what were our Dark Ages?

Burning of Heretics Believed to Have Caused the Black Death, Germany, circa 1340

When it comes to the Dark Ages, I think we’ve been living in pretty dark times, where data, accountability and mandates are deemed more important than a teacher’s professional knowledge and judgement—and where teachers and students alike often feel an enormous amount of stress. Unfortunately, though, there are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of teachers in classrooms across the country who came of age during these times. And many of them may simply be unable to imagine an alternative way of teaching because this world of numbers, packaged programs, and rubrics for everything under the sun is the only one they’ve experienced. And that’s why I think it’s so important to consider what our Classical Age was.

Personally, I see it as the period when figures like Don Graves in writing and Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds in reading were developing the concept of readers and writers workshop. Compared to today, where teachers are often overwhelmed by the volume of content they’re expected to cover and the paperwork they’re required to complete, the work of these educators—as can be seen in books like Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Graves, 1983) and Grand Conversations: Literature Groups in Action (Peterson & Eeds, 1983)—can seem almost leisurely. They took time to listen carefully to children, not just to find an opportunity to teach them, but to more deeply understand their thinking. And there’s an authentic, natural feel to the conversations they had with kids, which, in our age of acceleration, we seem to have forgotten or lost.

Here, for instance, is an anecdote that Tom Newkirk and Penny Kittle share in their book about Don Grave’s work. Children Want to Write. Don and his team of researchers were puzzled by a girl named Amy, whose first drafts were so lovely and thoughtful that she never needed to revise. What was her process? they wonder and asked Amy herself. At first, she said she wasn’t sure, but one morning she came to school and shared what she thought was the answer to Lucy Calkins, who was then one of Don’s researchers:

“I think I know how I write. The other night I was lying in bed and I couldn’t get to sleep. I was thinking, “I wonder how I will start my fox piece in the morning.” It was 9:30 at night and Sidney my cat was next to me on the bed. I thought and thought and couldn’t figure how to start it. Finally, about 10:30, my sister came home and she turned on the hall light. Now my door has a round hole where there ought to be a lock. A beam of light came through the hole and struck Sidney in the face. Sidney went squint. Then I knew how I would start my fox piece: There was a fox who lived in a den and over the den was a stump and in the stump was a crack and a beam of light came through the crack and struck the fox full in the face.”

Now just imagine Amy for a moment in a typical classroom today. There’s a good chance she’d be required to write a flash draft first, because supposedly that’s what all writers do (FYI, I don’t), then be presented with a sequence of predetermined lessons—often accompanied by checklists and worksheets—that marched her through a process aimed less at developing her identity as a writer than at completing a task.

In this Classical Age, however, teachers believed in and trusted the capacity of children as meaning makers, which I fear is something we’ve lost. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “Children will continually surprise us if we let them. It’s what happens when we slow down, listen, and let the children lead.” And here’s what Ralph Peterson and Maryann Eeds have to say about this in Grand Conversations:

“If we accept that literature is another way of understanding the world and that it will illuminate our lives, if we accept the value of the interpretations that all children bring to their reading with a heart-to-heartedness that shows we want to understand why they say what they saw, if we trust that making sense of the world is inherent in being human, and if we walk alongside our students in the collaboration of true dialogue, then we can expect that remarkable insights about literature will occur.”

This vision of teachers as learners who “walk alongside their students in the collaboration of true dialogue,” is also something we seem to have lost, though it was a hallmark of that time. Graves, for instance, firmly believed that “the teacher is the chief learner in the classroom.” And like the Greek and Roman artists of the Classical Age—and the Renaissance artists who came after—Graves’s vision of learners encompasses the whole spectrum of human emotion, including uncertainty and vulnerability. “A teacher,” he wrote

who shows what she is trying to learn through writing isn’t afraid to ask children what they are trying to learn through their own writing . . . Truth seekers have a way of helping others to get at the truth. They question children just as they question themselves.

And here’s Peterson and Eeds again echoing that idea:

Teachers need to remember that teaching is easy only when students are asked to become consumers of conventional views. Teachers who use dialogue as a means for [children to] interpret a text must value the dynamic, ever-changing characters of meaning making . . . The words ‘I think I’m changing my mind‘ should come to be valued, whether uttered by students or teachers.

Of course, a learning stance is hard to take if you’re worried about test scores and evaluations. But with Leonardo as inspiration, CCIRA is inviting us to leave the Dark Ages of fear and compliance behind and step into the light of a new Renaissance. And to do that, I think it behooves us to look back and remember those early workshop pioneers from our own Classical Age. There’s much that we can learn from them and much that should be revived. I’m looking forward to it!

“The Creation” by Michelangelo, The Sistine Chapel, Rome, 1512.

Becoming Protagonists in Our Own Learning: An Invitation to Inquire

This past year I’ve had several opportunities to present or run workshops on bringing more inquiry work into ELA classrooms, and one of the first thing I’ve found I need to do is ask people what comes to mind when they think of the word inquiry. Most envision some sort of project that involves investigating an issue, topic, phenomena or question. These kinds of inquiries almost inevitably involve some reading and writing, as students read to research topics and write to convey their findings. And sometimes the inquiry question or topic comes from a reading a text. For instance, a class might read Linda Sue Park’s A Long Walk to Water then decide to delve into an inquiry to learn more about what’s been happening in Sudan and why.

In this vision of inquiry, reading and writing are tools for the inquiry, not the explicit focus, and whatever teaching accompanies that reading and writing is frequently delivered through explicit instruction of strategies and skills. What I’ve been talking about in my work, however, are inquiries into the actual texts that students are reading and writing. It’s the kind of inquiry that Katie Wood Ray writes about in her wonderful book Study Driven, where she shares what a class of first-graders discovered during an inquiry into punctuation and how one of those first graders incorporated that learning into her writing.

Katie Wood Ray. 2006. Study Driven. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Katie Wood Ray. 2006. Study Driven. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

It’s also the kind of inquiry I wrote about in my last post, where fourth grade students explored the many different ways that writers structure dialogue. And now with the holiday break finally here, I thought I’d share an example of this kind of inquiry and invite you to try it on in order to experience what it can feel like to be the protagonist in your own learning. (And while you can certainly try this on your own, it’s fun to invite a family member or friend to collaborate with.)

The focus of this inquiry is haiku, which, as you’ll see below is often all about syllables and structure:

But here are two example of the genre, one by a contemporary practitioner and the other by the 17th century Japanese master Basho. What do you notice about them?

If you’re like many of my workshop participants, you probably noticed that both of these break what you may have been taught about haiku: that it’s a poem with three lines, the first of which contains five syllables, the second seven and the last five. And that leads us to our inquiry question:

To explore and investigate this question, take a look at the following samples. Do you notice anything similar between them, such as how they’re structured or how they effect you? Do you see any patterns, again in structure, effect, features or word choice?

Then once you think you’ve noticed what, in Maxine Greene’s words, there is to be noticed, consider the following:

Now test your idea out with another round of research:

And then . . .

With that in mind, you may want to try to write a haiku yourself—and if so, here’s a few by eighth graders who’d gone through this process themselves:

Screen Shot 2017-12-22 at 8.11.29 AM

On the other hand, if you’d like to compare your ideas with those of an award-winning poet and professor—or learn more about how the 5-7-5 rule came into effect and why it misses the real point of haiku—here’s a link to Michael Dylan Walsh’s “The Discipline of Haiku.”  Also please consider sharing what you think you learned about haiku and how the experience felt—as well as any haikus you may have written—by leaving a comment here, on twitter (#tomakeaprairie) or the Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading group’s Facebook page.

But now go eat a cookie before there’s only a lone red hot on the plate!

Reindeer Christmas biscuits

How Powerful Is Content Knowledge?

One of the joys of writing a book—beyond simply finishing it—is getting feedback from readers. And one of the first reader comments I saw came from Rebekah O’Dell, the co-author with Allison Marchetti of the marvelous book Writing with Mentors and the website movingwriters.org, who tweeted this soon after the book came out:

Here, Rebekah highlighted a passage from Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading that I imagined might provoke the kind of spirited discourse and cognitive dissonance that Ellin Keene wrote about in her foreword. That’s because, in addition to the still ongoing battles between phonics and whole language and Common Core-style close reading and balanced literacy, there’s another war still underway between knowledge-based and more inquiry and problem-based approaches to reading.

The knowledge-based approach is rooted in a body of research that shows a connection between students’ prior knowledge and their reading comprehension. Based on that, knowledge advocates, like Doug Lemov, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch and the authors of the Common Core, argue that if prior knowledge helps students comprehend more, then teachers should focus on building up students’ store of knowledge.

On the one hand, there is some logic to this, but it raises lots of questions. First and foremost is who gets to choose what knowledge should be taught to whom and when. The Core Knowledge Foundation, for instance, offers a knowledge-based Language Arts Curriculum for grades Pre-K though five that many students schools across the country use—and to my mind at least, many of their choices seem strange.

Among other things, for example, first graders learn about Early World Civilizations, including Mesopotamia and Egypt, which, in New York State, is covered in 6th grade social studies. And during the unit they also learn about the world’s three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—along with a slew of vocabulary words I doubt a first grader will have much use for in their daily lives.

Second graders, on the other hand, learn about the War of 1812, which I remember virtually nothing about. And fifth graders study the Reformation, which, in case you don’t remember, is, as the unit overview states, “the 16th-century religious and political upheaval that challenged the power of the Catholic Church and led to the creation of Protestantism.”

I have to believe I’m not the only one who thinks these choices are bizarre, if not indoctrinary. Why the Reformation instead of, say, the Underground Railroad, the 1960’s or the schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites? Why the War of 1812? And why is the one literature unit at each grade focused only on abridged versions of ‘classics’? Fourth graders, for instance, read Treasure Island, while third graders listen to a read aloud of Kenneth Grahame’s over 100-year-old The Wind in the Willows—the story about the dissolute son of a British aristocrat (who just happens to be a toad) who learns how to become a responsible lord through the help of his friends Mole, Rat and Badger. Why that rather than, say, Because of Winn-Dixie? or The One and Only Ivan? Because there are so many allusions to The Wind in the Willows in the world? I don’t think so. But I have recently spotted several headlines that allude to more contemporary books, like this one from The Washington Post that refers to  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst:

and this one from the Los Angeles Review of Books, that compares and contrasts the villain in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books Count Olaf with Donald Trump (e.g., they are both liars):

I’m certainly not suggesting that we make all children read these particular books rather than other particular bookssince doing so inevitably involves bias. Nor am I saying that having a rich body of knowledge isn’t important. But the fact is that, as I write in the bookwe simply can’t teach students what’s behind every reference or allusion they might encounter, nor every vocabulary word they might come across.There’s simply too much information in the world—and the volume of knowledge being generated is growing exponentially at an astounding speed, as can been seen in these facts from the video Did You Know? Shift Happens:

With these facts in mind, advocates, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Will Richardson and (no surprise here) yours truly, argue that rather than learning reams of content knowledge, what students in the 21st century need are opportunities to construct and apply knowledge, think critically and creatively, solve problems, and learn how to learn—which knowledge-based proponents have been known to say is simply a “romantic notion.”

Just this week, though, Education Week put out a special report called Schools and the Future of Work: What Will Our Students Need to Know? And in articles with titles like “The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now,” “Stop Teaching Students What to Think. Teach Them How to Think,” and “Learning How to Learn Could Be a Student’s Most Valuable Skill,” the report definitely seems to the constructivist/inquiry/problem-based side of the debate.

But here’s the thing: As Alfie Kohn, another learning-to-think proponent, writes in “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” “No one thinks in a vacuum . . . A classroom whose primary focus is described by phrases such as deep understanding, critical thinking, creativity, and the construction of meaning isn’t one devoid of facts. But it’s purposes go well beyond the transmission of a long list of dates, definitions, and other details.”

Consider, for a moment, the fifth graders I wrote about in my last post who had no idea of what a refugee was or a settlement camp before they read Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave. Rather than being taught those words and told about the crisis in Sudan, they figured those things out, and along the way learned many things, not only about the plight of refugees and the tragedy that occurred (and is still occurring) in Sudan. They learned how to see their own country through the eyes of someone quite different; how to discover our shared humanity with others whose lives are nothing like ours; how reading closely and attentively empowered them as readers and thinkers; and how verb tense and punctuation actually matter. And they also learned the deep satisfaction and pleasure that comes from “the curiosity to ask big questions [and] the drive to understand those questions deeply,” which one of the contributors to EdWeek’s report says are traits that are urgently needed in our every changing world.

So why focus so much on content knowledge, when students can gain so much more?

Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

According to Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” I completely agree that learning to think should be one of the essential goals of education, but as I wrote in an earlier post, many of the tasks we set for kids and the scaffolds we teach them to use don’t really seem aimed at fostering thinking as much as completing those tasks. In that post, I offered an example of what a lesson focused on actual thinking might look like. And here, I’d like to take a deeper look at what we really mean by thinking and how we actually do it.

One of the most common definitions you’ll find online is that “Thinking is a purposeful organized cognitive process that we use to make sense of our world.” That isn’t bad as definitions go, but it doesn’t offer any clues about how to think or what that process entails. Nor do any of the taxonomies and matrixes we’re often asked to use to ensure rigor. They all focus on the what, not the how in good part, I imagine, because of the fact that not even cognitive neuroscientists fully understand how we think.

So for how to think, I turn to writers, who not only engage in making sense of the world but can express how they do that in ways that, to me, feel more accessible, practical and authentic than the words of reference books or science. And one of the things I’ve noticed about writers is how much value they place on the act of noticing.

Here, for instance, is what Norman Maclean has to say about thinking, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I quoted in What Readers Really Do:

This is what The Fault in Our Stars author John Green thinks about people who notice things:

And here is Mary Oliver’s simple instructions, not just for thinking, but for living life fully:

As I’ve considered the implications of words like these on my own work in schools, I’ve come to think that the essence of thinking is noticing something then making something of what you’ve noticed, which seems implied in each of these quotes. And when it comes to reading, that process can look like this:

When doing read alouds with students,  I usually start out with a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which is a thinking routine that abbreviates the chart above. Unlike K-W-L charts, which ask students to think about what they already know and wonder about a book or topic before they read, then what they learned after they read, a text-based Know/Wonder chart invites students to pay attention to what they know or have figured out about a text as they read and what they’re wondering about. And to get a feel for what that thinking can look and sound like, here’s what happened in a fifth grade classroom that had just embarked on Katherine Applegate‘s wonderful novel in verse Home of the Brave, about a young African refugee named Kek who struggles to make a new home in Minnesota after a civil war erupted in his homeland, as a read aloud.

The class had already experienced how using this thinking routine could empower them as readers and thinkers. And here, without reading the book’s back cover or hearing a summary, they already had figured out much. In the first poem, for instance, they’d figured out that “the flying boat” Kek talks about was, in fact, an airplane, and that he must have come from a place quite different from Minnesota because he’d never seen snow before, nor seen, let alone tried to put on gloves. And they had a ton of questions: Why was Kek there? Where was his family? Where they already there? Would they be coming soon? Or had something happened to them?

Having noticed what was noticeable in that poem and then ‘made’ something of that (i.e., questions), they then noticed something in the next poem below they might otherwise not have noticed, a verb:

Their teacher Karen Bassano had paused here and invited the class to turn and talk about whether they’d figured out anything else or had answered any of their questions, and they zoomed right to the lines “He isn’t tall/like my father was,” where the past tense made them worry that Kek’s father had died.

Similarly, they made much of a punctuation mark they noticed in the third poem, in which Kek responds to a question Dave has asked him about the flying boat:

What they noticed was the dash, which they interpreted in two slightly different ways. One camp thought that Dave had stopped talking because he didn’t want to suggest Kek’s mother might be dead, while the other thought Kek had interrupted Dave because he didn’t want to hear what Dave might say. And those interpretations led them to wonder whether Kek was in a state of denial or if his parents might return in the spring, just as Dave had said the trees that looked dead in winter would do.

To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about. They had, of course, experienced this before—and had found the whole process meaningful enough that many decided on their own to use it for their independent reading books.

To be sure, there were other things Karen had done, especially in terms of creating an environment that valued thinking more than answers, that I’ll explore in another post. But for now, I’ll end with some final words about the power of noticing from the writer, musician and artist Brian Eno, which, I think, have implications for both students and teachers.

To learn more about this way of teaching, take a look at my new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingwhich contains more examples of students reading closely and deeply, plus lots of guidance and tips for implementing it in your classroom.