Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Solving Problems as Readers

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One of the most common text features found in professional books are subtitles, and having taken a look the last two weeks at dynamic teaching and deeper reading, I want here to explore and explain what’s behind this book’s subtitle: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach.

Many of you already know something about problem-based teaching and learning (a.k.a. PBL). In fact, PBL may already be in your teaching repertoire. But here’s a little background: Problem-based teaching and learning became established as a specific zombie-based-learning-2teaching practice when medical school professors in the 1960’s shifted from teaching their students through lectures and textbooks to setting them up to solve the kind of complex diagnostic problems they’d experience in the field. And in today’s world, PBL is joined by a plethora of what the Buck Institute for Education dubs “X-based learning” practices, such as project-based learning, game-based learning, design-based learning, brain-based learning—and even zombie-based learning!

Most of these are variations of basic constructivist and inquiry practices that again go back to Dewey and to other great thinkers like Piaget and Einstein, who claimed, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” And while there are some differences between X-based practices, they all share at least some of the features that Dr. Howard Barrows, who adapted these ideas to the teaching of physicians, describes here:

pbl-characteristics

If Google and educational websites are any indication, it seems as if PBL has taken hold in many math, science and STEM classrooms, but it hasn’t gotten much traction in reading, where we tend to think that problem solving is only needed at the word level. But think back to (or catch up on) the students I wrote about last week, who worked their way through “Louisa’s Liberation.” They did, indeed, have to figure out what a word meant, but to do that they had to first figure out what point was being made about the fact that Louisa was playing doctor, not house or even nurse, as Katie and Emily thought. And figuring that out then allowed them to figure out what the author, Jean Little, might be trying to show them about people and life through the story.

All this figuring out was needed because the writer conveyed this information indirectly. direct-vs-indirectAnd in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI propose that we see every instance in which a writer conveys something implicitly, versus explicitly, as a problem that text poses for readers. This can be something as deep and meaningful as what a writer wants us to consider about the human condition to something as seemingly simple as what or who a pronoun refers to. And part of the trick of a problem-based approach is becoming more aware of where, precisely, those problems are in a text.

To build that awareness in the book, I regularly invite readers to look at a short text or excerpt to consider what the writer hasn’t said directly that a reader would have to figure out. And to give you a taste of that, take a look at the text below. It’s the opening of a folktale that a group of 5th grade teachers brought to my attention after it appeared on a state benchmark assessment. How much do you have to figure out just to get the basic who, what, where and when? (And if you’d like a strategy for that, pay attention to when you’re confused.)

a-dispute-in-sign-language

If you’re like the teachers who shared this text with me, your jaw might have dropped at what seems like the unnecessary confusion of this passage. Mostly it’s because the characters are referred to in different ways, which the writer doesn’t explicitly clarify. And just imagine how much your confusion would be compounded if you were a fifth grader who also didn’t know what the words dispute, Zen, monastery and monk meant.

zen-monk-scrollIf we see these, though, as problems to solve and give students a chance to collaboratively wrestle with them, many are able to do what a small group of sixth grade students did. They had no idea what a Zen master was, or a monastery, but they reasoned that the Zen master must be some sort of teacher because he had a student, and that, whatever a monastery was, it was where the Zen master lived. They also recognized that a conversation was going on, and using what they knew about dialogue, they were able to figure out that the Zen master and the old monk were one and the same, as was the wandering and the visiting monk. And while there were questions about whether there was one or two one-eyed characters (one a student and the other a monk), one of the group made a case for them being one and the same, too, because he thought that if the one-eyed monk was a new character, he’d have been introduced with an not the.

Each chapter in the book’s Section Two is grounded in a classroom room example that shows kids grappling with specific kinds of problems texts pose, like figuring out the basics in fiction or understanding the implications of facts in nonfiction. And each comes with a chart that shares some of what readers have to do to solve those problems, like this one on figuring out the basics in fiction and narrative nonfiction:

how-readers-figure-out-the-basics

From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann a caption

Additionally, between the chapters in Section Two, you’ll find a Considering Complexity feature that notes other texts that poses similar problems at different reading levels, so, regardless of what grade you teach or where your students are, you have some place to start:

considering-complexity-sample

From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

My hope is that these features will encourage and inspire you to try out this teaching approach (if you haven’t already). And finally, I think it’s important to remember the benefits of making this shift. Not only will students retain more of what they’ve learned because they’ve figured things out for themselves, but they’ll reap the additional benefit that the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca described:

the-important-thing-about-a-problem

Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading

deeper-reading

So here’s a problem I wrestled with this week: How do I explain something like deeper reading that took me nearly four years, over two hundred pages and countless drafts to describe in a thousand-or-so-word blog post? My solution? Create an opportunity for you to begin to construct your own understanding of it by sharing a classroom example from the book!

In this example, I was working with a small group of fifth graders—Ava, Luce, Antonio and Nick—all of whom, according to their teacher, were having trouble identifying theme. And the text I decided to invite them to read was a short piece called “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little’s wonderful book Hey World, Here I Am!, a collection of poems, journal entries and vignettes written by the lovable narrator Kate. The goal would be for the students to ultimately consider what Little might be trying to show us about people or life through the piece, and I invite you to read it here, too, with that same goal in mind:

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of  HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

As a proficient reader, you may have thought Jean Little was saying something about stereotypes—and you might have even laughed as you realized she was playing a joke on Kate and Emily, who seem in need of liberation themselves. If you considered more specifically what she could be saying about stereotypes, you might have arrived at an idea like this: Even people who think they’re enlightened can fall into stereotyping. And depending on the grade you teach, you might have also have thought your students wouldn’t get that for a variety of reasons. They might lack background knowledge about the women’s rights movement or not know words like liberation, trundling, and preoccupied. Or you might question if they have the maturity to reach a similar conclusion. And you’d be right—at least in terms of what students might not know.

After reading the first section, I asked the students what they thought they’d learned so far and what they were curious or confused about (i.e., what they knew and wondered), which revealed that none of them knew what liberation meant. Nick thought it could be connected to the word library because of what seemed like a common root, but that idea didn’t work out when he tried it on the second line (“It was up to us to make sure Louisa grew up liberated.”) Noticing details about teaching and school, though, Ava and Antonio wondered if liberation might mean education, and because this worked in both the noun and verb form, they used it as a placeholder, as in, they thought Kate and Emily wanted to find Louisa so they could educate her.

What they still didn’t know, though, was what Kate and Emily wanted to teach herchild-playing-doctor-2. Luce thought it might have to do with the words sex stereotypes (which she pointed to rather than said out loud), and the rest thought that was possible. So with this thinking on the table, they were ready to wrestle with the rest of the piece, which continued to puzzled them.

They sensed there was something significant about Louisa playing nurse or doctor rather than playing house, but they didn’t know what to make of that. Nor did they know how it connected to Emily and Kate’s mission to educate her. And so I invited them to try to talk it out, and here’s a taste of their thinking:

Ava: I think it’s important that she’s pretending to be a doctor, not a nurse, because doctors help people and nurses just help doctors.

Luce: Yeah, and one of my aunts is a nurse and she told me doctors get paid lots of money. So they’re sort of more important than nurses.

Antonio: And Louisa thinks she can be anything she wants to be, not just a nurse but a doctor.

Ava: But Kate and Emily thought she was playing nurse, so maybe they didn’t think she could be a doctor.

Luce: And maybe they thought that because lots of women are nurses but only some are doctors.

Antonio: But she didn’t need them to teach her anything. She already thought she could be anything she wanted. And they were just happy she wasn’t in the kitchen.

Nick (who’d been quiet till then): Oh! I think I just figured out what liberation means. It’s like the Statue of Liberty. Louisa’s free to be anything she wants to be because liberty is like freedom.

Ava: Yeah, she’s not in a box, but Kate and Emily sort of are because they only expected her to be a nurse.

Antonio: It’s like she’s more liberated and mature than they are. But maybe Louisa can liberate them.

girl-in-a-boxGiven time to question, ponder and think, these students arrived at the same implicit and nuanced idea that you, yourself, may have had. And as they talked about what they had learned about people and life through the story, some said that Jean Little had shown them that age doesn’t always determine maturity, while others thought she had shown them that sometimes you might be in a box even if you think you’re not. They also had lots of strong opinions about people who thought women couldn’t do the same jobs as men. And when I asked if they thought they’d learned anything as readers from this experience, here’s what they had to say:

Ava: “Yeah, it’s like there was a story inside the story and we figured it out.”

Nick: “It’s really important to figure out words, especially if they’re in the title.”

Antonio: “We also had to think about what we didn’t know, not just what we did.”

Luce: “That was really hard, but fun!”

If we go back to the words I shared last week from John Dewey’s contemporary Michael O’Shea, you can see that by framing the students’ reading around what the author might be showing them about people or life, I put them in “a dynamic attitude toward the thing being presented,” which helped them “keep thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity.” Or as Dewey said, by giving these students “something to do, not something to learn,” that demanded thinking, “learning would naturally result.” And here that learning included expanding their understanding of human beings as well as realizing there can be an implicit message in a story, that much can be gained by paying attention to what you don’t know, and that thinking hard can actually be fun.

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that, if you take a look at the Common Core Anchor Standards below, you’ll see that they were also engaged in the work of standards 1-6. That’s because when we invite students to dynamically read deeply for meaning, they automatically—and authentically—engage in the work of the standards.

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So now the question is, what’s your understanding of deeper reading now?

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Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: What Does It Mean to Teach Dynamically?

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If you’ve seen Heinemann’s Spring Catalog already, you may know that Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading will be out in about six weeks. And as a run up to its release, I’d like to share some of the books’s big ideas and features over the next few weeks, beginning here with the concept of dynamic teaching.

the-education-trust-report At some point as I was writing the book, I started noticing the word dynamic in various articles and blog posts that showed up in my inbox and twitter feed. Most of these talked about a need for teachers to embrace more dynamic practices, such as this study from The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to educational equity, which looked at the kinds of reading-related assignments students were being asked to do to meet the Common Core Standards.

As I share in the book, one of their major findings was that “many—if not most—assignments were over-scaffolded . . . [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them.” In particular, the researchers took aim at close-reading and text-annotation tasks, which they said “were so tightly scripted they actually appeared to interfere with the deep understanding of complex text.” And this led them to ponder whether “the implementation approaches we have chosen are overly mechanical, denying the dynamic nature of teaching needed for strategic thinking.”

comprehension-going-forwardA similar finding is shared by P. David Pearson in his wonderful coda to Comprehension Going Forward“Toward the Next Generation of Comprehension Instruction.” Having taken a hard look at the current state of strategy instruction, he acknowledges that its implementation—especially in classrooms where teachers are using commercial reading programs—often lacks “the dynamic, adaptive and responsive character,” needed for it to be effective and meaningful. And that leads him to conclude that these practices also “stand in need of reform.”

But what precisely might a more dynamic implementation look like? If you go to Google and type in dynamic teaching, you’ll find any number of ways people think about it. For some, it means bringing more technology into classrooms or creating blending learning opportunities. To others, it’s about us, as teachers, being more energetic, enthusiastic and engaging; while still others think it involves making more real world connections between what goes on inside and outside of school. All of these practices are certainly worthwhile, but none of them—even when combined—necessarily capture the essence of the word dynamic, which the Oxford Dictionary says describes a system or process “characterized by constant change, activity or progress.”

For me this means teaching that engages students in a recursive, interactive process that allows their thinking, understanding and sense of agency to actually change, develop and grow as they work together to figure something out—whether that’s the difference between a scene and a summary, which I wrote about recently, or, in the case of reading, what an author might be trying to show us about the human condition.

john-deweyIt’s worth noting that this concept of teaching isn’t new. It goes all the way back to Dewey who believed that learning required thinking, not “a diet of predigested materials” and that “we only think when confronted with a problem.” Therefore, he thought teachers should “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn” (as in strategies or skills), and if “the doing was of such a nature to demand thinking,” (as trying to figure something out is) “learning would naturally result.” And one of Dewey’s colleagues and friend, Michael Vincent O’Shea, even used the word dynamic in his book Problems in Everyday Teachingwhich was published in 1912. According to O’Shea:

“Whenever a pupil is obliged to make things work, he will think as effectively as it is possible for him to do. If in our teaching we can arrange a program of exercises of this concrete, dynamic character, we can keep pupils thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity. Really, the art of teaching consists mainly in realizing this plan to its fullest extend in all studies. . . [as] there can be no effective learning in any class where the pupils are not in a dynamic attitude toward the thing which is being presented. And they can not be dynamic for any considerable length of time unless they are self-active in organizing and setting forth in some way.”

More recently, this vision of dynamic teaching was recommended in a report put out last August by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) called “What Matters Now: A New Compact for Teaching and Learning.”  There they argue for a set of “New Teaching Dynamics” where, in order to “empower students to become self-directed and responsible learners,” teachers need to become learning strategists rather than content providers.

what-matters-now-graphic

As you can see from this graphic, being a learning strategist requires teachers to take on multiple roles, some of which will be new to many. These roles also require us to be flexible, adaptive and responsive thinkers, frequently in the moment, which can also be new—and scary. And here’s where Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading comes in.

Throughout the book, I’ve tried to make the teaching moves involved in this kind of teaching as concrete, explicit and replicable as possible so you can transfer and apply them to different grades, instructional settings and texts. You’ll find chapters that show you how to create and implement dynamic learning opportunities for your students in reading, and each of these ends with a chart, like the one below, that captures and names the specific teaching moves shared in each chapter’s classroom examples.

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From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing

Additionally, you’ll find sections in those chapters that unpack the thinking behind the moves, share ways of providing vital in-the-moment feedback, and show you not only how to plan for this kind of teaching but how to actually be prepared for the various twists and turns a more dynamic approach can take. And with that said, it’s time to begin thinking about next week’s post: What Is Deeper Reading?

 

Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat

Skinning a Cat

By now, we all know the emphasis the Common Core has placed on writing about texts, and we’re also aware of the effects that has had on writing: The writing of poetry has vanished in far too many schools while the five-paragraph essay has become institutionalized as the way to respond to what the Common Core says is “the special place” argument holds in the Standards. And too often this has resulted in writing that’s functional and mechanical but not terribly meaningful or interesting to read.

Patrick Sullivan, the author of the NCTE piece “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom,” connects these results with “the kind of reductionism promoted by the Common Core Standards and the powerful, entrenched interest of the testing consortia,” And to push back on these forces, I want to offer some alternative ways for writing about reading. As in my first “Skinning the Writing Cat” post, each is grounded in a mentor text that students can study for structure and craft. And each promotes what Sullivan argues is needed to combat those trends and entrenched interests: “a more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing.”

Book Reviews: Real Writing for a Real Audience

stone-soup-coverIn the age of the Common Core, book reviews seem to have taken a back seat to analytic literary essays. This seems a shame to me—especially when students are invited to aspire to the kinds of student-written book reviews that regularly appear in the magazine Stone SoupIf you dip into their archives, you’ll find many examples of children writing about books with insight, voice and a deeply rhetorical, cognitive and creative understanding about writing, such as this review of Kevin Henkes‘s Olive’s Ocean written by 12-year-old Isabel:

“I’ve read so many books that are supposed to touch your heart and are just boring and predictable. This is not the case with Olive’s Ocean. You see, Kevin Henkes is a true writer, not some sappy poetic writer wannabe. He has this way of writing that’s plain but still very powerful—and I’m not talking about the Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse Kevin Henkes. . . [But] one thing that Kevin Henkes did take with him on the path from a world of five-year-old mice to this tear-jerking read is his fabulous understanding of a kid’s brain. Only Henkes can capture the feeling of the last day of a trip. Haven’t we all experienced that sensation of “this is the last time I’ll sleep on this pillow, the last time I’ll walk through this door, the last glass of orange juice here”?

Letters About Literature: Getting Personal

letters-about-literatureEvery year the Library of Congress sponsors a writing contest for grade 4-12 students called “Letters About Literature.” The contest asks students “to read a book, poem or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally.” To the best of my knowledge it’s the only writing contest for grade school students sponsored by the Federal government—the same government that sponsored the development of nationwide standards that ask readers to banish personal responses in order to stay “within the four corners of the text.” Here, though, students are applauded for personally connecting with a text, and the winning letters are filled with deep and often poignant insights and questions, such as this one from Charlie Boucher to Kathryn Erskine, the author of Mockingbirdabout a girl named Caitlin who has Aspergers.

Charlie begins his letter with an anecdote about passing a strange homeless man on the street who seemed so confused and off-kilter that his father told him to avoid people like that—which he did until he read Mockingbird:

I fell in love with that book. No other book has ever made me cry. But I did more than cry. I thought, I visualized, I feared. When I finished your book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that man I had seen. Did he have Aspergers? Rather than avoiding him, should my father and I have helped him? What about the countless other Caitlins in the world? I felt sympathy for them, but I felt something else. Later I realized that was guilt. . . . I was a hypocrite, ridiculing those who did not help others but not actually helping. The very core of my being, kindness, was in question. But I reread your book and I felt more a sense of understanding. You weren’t trying to frown upon those who bullied, but rather encourage people to be more open, to promote empathy. I did.

Writing to Think Before Writing to Convey Thinking

It’s easy to image that these two students and others you’ll find in the links are simply precocious or are privileged to come from homes full of books with parents who read to them. That, of course, is possible. But beyond their personal circumstances, one thing I’d bet on is those weren’t their first drafts.

Just as I do when thinking about a blog post, these writers probably started by simply exploring their ideas and thought without worrying about structure or even if what they were writing made sense. This kind of low-stakes or low-risk writing is incredibly valuable but often underusedthe-thing-about-luck—so much so that students may have no idea what it could look and sound like. Teacher modeling, of the sort shared at NCTE last month, can help, but so can an excerpt from Cynthia Kadohata‘s National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck.

The book tells the story of a Japanese-American girl named Summer whose family has seemingly run out of luck. First Summer contracts malaria from an infected mosquito in an airport, then her parents have to fly to Japan to care for a dying relative right before the harvest season starts. And with them gone, her aging grandparents must come out of retirement to get the wheat harvest in, taking Summer and her younger brother with them. Amid all these upheavals, Summer also must read and write a thematic essay on A Separate PeaceJohn Knowles’s classic about two boys’ tragic friendship during World War II.

Summer begins by trying to explain her experience of reading the book:

I thought A Separate Peace was a strange and kind of amazing book. It was very quiet, and then suddenly, it was not quiet at all. So then the parts that are not quiet make all the quiet parts seem like they are not quiet after all.

She then notes the odd structure of the book—how it starts at the end not the beginning with most of it taking place fifteen years earlier than the first and final chapters—before launching into a long text-to-self connection about how she and the main character Gene both live with fear.

Eventually, though, she gets to the book’s crucial scene where Gene shakes the branch of a tree his friend Finny has climbed, which causes Finny to fall:

Finny used to be a great athlete, but now his leg is broken so bad from the fall that he cannot be an athlete anymore. Later in the book Finny falls down a set of stairs. Then, he dies during surgery on his leg. The problem is, I do not really understand if Gene could have possibly shook the branch on purpose. I mean, who would do that to their best friend? Gene was jealous of how good an athlete Finny is, so I guess Gene, shakes the branch on purpose to hurt Finny?

Before Finny dies, Gene starts to dress like Finny. Finny trains Gene to be an athlete like Finny used to be. Gene becomes like Finny because Finny cannot be himself anymore. This is insane behavior in my opinion. Their relationship is so intense that it is insane.

Summer takes a break here to ponder what she’s written. Then she grabs her pencil and starts writing again to capture the thought all this writing has spawned:

People are very complicated, and I do not think even a really smart psychiatrist can truly figure out what is in your brain and what is in your heart or stomach. You might not even realize it, but maybe you would shake a branch your best friend is on, although I personally do not think I would ever do that. My brain and heart might be mixed up and tangled, and inside of me there are both good and bad things. The lesson of A Separate Peace is that it might take fifteen years to untangle all those things inside of me.

To me, this is a wonderful example of how a writer doesn’t craft a thesis as much as arrive at one through a process of thinking. Granted, an experienced, skilled writer actually wrote this, but I can’t begin to count the times I haven’t discovered what I’ve wanted to say until I reached the end. So if we truly want students to write meaningfully about reading and develop that “more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing,” let’s be sure to give them a vision of what both the process and the product could look like by using great mentor texts.

process-product

 

 

 

If It’s November . . . It’s NCTE!

ncte-2016

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

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

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.

forgiveness_realistic-fiction

 

Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

One of the other things I love to do in summer (beyond institutes) is walk along the East River, watching the boats and the people who come from all over the world to see New York City’s famous skyline. And much of the waterfront in my neck of Brooklyn has become a wonderful park, with soccer fields and volleyball courts built on reclaimed piers, free kayaks and yoga, and an outpost of what in my humble opinion is the best ice cream in the city, Ample Hills, which takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Ample Hills

Every summer, there’s also new art, and this year we have sculptor Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” the neon and steel piece you see above that actually rotates 360 degrees. My partner David and I first noticed it from behind as it was being installed, and it took me a while to realize that the word we were trying to read backward was understanding—and that the workers on the ladders and cranes were literally constructing understanding, which, once I figured that out, delighted me no end. You see, I believe that deep, lasting learning best happens when learners are actively involved in the construction of understanding and knowledge, versus receiving, memorizing—or as Jeff Wilhem says in Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, consuming—information.

I’d say the teachers and coaches I wrote about last week were engaged in constructing an understanding of the different ways fiction stories can go. And in her gorgeous and brilliant new book The Journey is EverythingKatherine Bomer invites her readers to construct an understanding of essays by reading two spectacular examples, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (whose structure she also visually maps!) and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. As Katherine writes,

“The key to teaching essay well is understanding deeply what essay is. We don’t need to invent a definition; we only need to pay attention to what we see, hear and feel as we read essays closely. We can notice for ourselves what essays stir up in the minds and hearts of readers and then make that seeing explicit, naming the features of essay we can use in our own writing or teach to students.”

Of course, developing a vision of what we want students to engage with as writers is true for every genre, not just essay. And the deeper our vision is, the deeper and more meaningful our teaching can be, which I think is captured in this wonderful Japanese proverb which I discovered as I planned for my work in Paramus:

vision-without-action-is-a-day-dream-japanese-poverb

So before Labor Day is upon us and everyone’s back in school, I want to invite you to read a very short story called “A Story About the Body” by the great poet Robert Hass in order to construct a deeper understanding of what realistic fiction is and what it does for us as readers. As Katherine urged, try reading it attending to what it stirs up in your mind and heart and then, based on how it affected you, try to articulate in a more general way what you think the deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be and how writers convey that purpose. (And try to not default to what you already may teach, like saying that realistic fiction is a story about people and events that are made-up but could happen in real life, and it’s purpose is to entertain, which, as I wrote in an earlier post, doesn’t capture the complexity of what writers do.) And since it’s sometimes easier to construct an understanding of a genre by looking at more than one example, consider clicking on the links for two other short stories I’ve shared over the years, “Wallet” by Allen Woodman and “20/20” by Linda Brewer to see how they inform your thinking.

Finally, in the spirit of collaborative learning and community, please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here, by clicking on either the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title, the word ‘reply’ that following the list of tag words at the bottom of the post, or, if you’re a subscriber, on the comment link at the end of the email.

And now here’s Robert Hass’s amazing piece, which comes by way of genius.com:

A Story about the Body Robert Hass