Meeting Students Where They Are: Building Lessons Around Student Thinking

Last year, I had the privilege of working with a wonderful teacher named Keren who taught fourth grade at a small, progressive school in New York City. Every year, students engage in what the school calls a “Big Study”: an inquiry into a topic that was both engaging and broad enough for every child to find a focus of interest. And for several years, the fourth grade’s Big Study was the Middle Ages.

Keren had shown me the illustrated nonfiction books her students had created the year before—and they were absolutely stunning. Last year, though, she was a little worried, as this class was different than the one she’d had before. Reading level-wise, they almost spanned the alphabet. And they were a fidgety bunch who often interrupted each other. They had, though, seemed engaged with the handful of picture books she’d shared to launch the study. But she feared they wouldn’t grasp the big ideas around power, values and beliefs the way her last class had—and when she’d asked them to write about who they thought had power in the Middle Ages, many of the responses were like this one from a child who seems to have superimposed her own beliefs on a far different era:

“I think people had the power. They believed that wherever they went. This is what was going on with the power.”

My hunch is that many of us have experienced this before: What worked well with one group of students doesn’t really fly with another—or it works for some but not the rest. And when this happens we need to make some decisions. We can continue full-steam ahead and follow our lesson plans and pacing guides. Or we can keep scaffolding until the students get it (which, if all else fails, means telling them what we want them to get—then feeling relieved when they parrot that back.)

But if we truly believe it’s our job to teach students, not curriculum—and we take full responsibility for our students’ learning—we have to be willing to rethink what we’re doing and consider different ways of making big ideas and content accessible to students.

To do that, I asked Keren to gather all the work her students had done so far in the study and bring it to our next meeting. Our job would be to look at the work to see if we spotted any signs or glimmers of emerging understands that we could build on. And we hit the jackpot when we looked at the notes Keren’s colleague had taken during a read aloud of Bonnie Christensen’s I, Galileo, a picture book biography of the medieval astronomer who discovered that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the universe—and was condemned for that.

By that point in the year, the class was quite used to sharing their thoughts and questions in a read aloud. And as you’ll see below, after hearing the opening pages, they had lots of questions and lots of strong reactions to how Galileo was treated:

  • Just because you don’t understand another person’s ideas, it’s not right to shut them down and dismiss them.
  • Was he in prison in the beginning? Was it a “figurative” prison because he was blind? Or was it the kind of prison they put people in in those days?
  • Why did they treat someone who has good ideas, who’s clever and a hard worker who can figure out the “mysteries of life” so badly?
  • Does this still happen today? Do we treat people badly for ideas other may not understand?

Looking at these notes, Keren and I recognized that the children’s reactions were directly connected to their own beliefs and values, and we began to brainstorm how we might use these responses to first help them see how very different medieval values and beliefs were from their own and, from there, consider the role of power.

To begin with we decided to make a chart that captured some of the children’s thinking, which Keren would use to explain how hard it can be to understand people who lived in a very different time because they didn’t always see things the way we do. And we also decided to record the students’ thinking through a three-column chart that would help consider what they valued, what they thought Galileo valued, and what they thought people of the time valued.

Based on their first discussion about the book, they could easily identify what they valued—and were pretty sure Galileo valued those things, too. But before we tackled the final column,  we read a few more pages from the book. And when we paused so the students could talk, the conversation took an interesting turn: they tried to wrap their minds around the perspective of a person in the Middle Ages:
  • I wonder why at the time they thought the Earth was in the middle?
  • It might have been hard for them to believe something else, because look at the sun, and the moon- it seems like they’re moving.
  • Yeah, they didn’t feel themselves moving, so they had no evidence.
  • And it probably seemed like a crazy idea to think that the sun was the middle of things.

Once that discussion ended, we asked the students to get into small groups to look at a packet of pages we’d printed from I, Galileo and Peter Sis’s book on Galileo, Starry Messengerwhich we thought would push their thinking.

One of the things many of them noticed was a quote from the Bible beneath this illustration in Peter Sis’s book:

“God fixed the Earth upon its foundation, not to be moved forever.”

Many also noticed—and were struck by the fact—that the Church did not pardon Galileo for what they considered to be his crimes until 1992.

And when we came back together again, they had much to say about that:

  • I don’t think they valued what can be seen with their own eyes- only the word of God.
  • I think people valued other people who had the same ideas.
  • Just who shared the same beliefs- they didn’t value those that didn’t share their beliefs.
  • The Church wanted their beliefs be what everyone believed.
  • It was only like 25 years ago when the Church finally pardoned Galileo and admitted his ideas were correct. I find that shocking.
  • It seems what was valued was more the words of old history. They used the word “tradition” everywhere.
  • It was traditions, because maybe they were scared of change.
  • Change wasn’t something they valued- it was disbelief basically. I mean Galileo proved it, but they still didn’t believe him.
  • Yeah, people weren’t believing Galileo-they held on and valued old traditions.
  • Maybe it would embarrass the Church so they decided to burn people at the stake who had other ideas about the Earth not being the center of the universe.
  • Maybe they thought it would disrespect God. So they couldn’t allow it.

With all these ideas, they were ready to add their thoughts to the final column of the chart:

From there it was an easy step to consider who had power in the Middle Ages. All it took was a little innovation to plan a learning opportunity that began with the children’s own thinking— and a classroom culture that valued students’ feelings, opinions, reactions and thoughts.

To read more about looking at student work to consider a child’s understanding and thinking, see

A New Year with an Old Friend: Some Thoughts on My One Little Word

I first learned of the tradition of choosing one little word to guide you across a year in 2015, when I started noticing blog posts by colleagues and friends who’d all picked a word for themselves. Being a word lover, I adored the concept and immediately started searching for a word to embrace that would support and inspire me.

There were many I was tempted by that year, like balance, simplicity and presence. But I wasn’t quite sure I was ready for those yet. I was coming off of a super busy year, which seemed to be barreling straight into another one, and I worried that those words might require too much of me. What I needed was a word that would help me feel less overwhelmed and stressed, but that also seemed realistic. And so I chose the word breathe. Surely I could breathe without a whole lot of effort.

Breathe turned out to be a good word for me. It kept me centered. It slowed me down. It calmed me when I felt frazzled. In fact, it was so effective and helpful, I felt ready to move on to a new word when 2016 rolled around.

So once again I started considering words, beginning by clicking on a link my friend Julieanne Harmatz shared on her blog. The link sent me to another great list of words, but as I quickly scrolled through the list to envision the possibilities, one word seemingly leapt out and grabbed me:

To be honest, at that point, I wasn’t quite sure what drew me to the word. In fact, it felt more as if the word had claimed me rather than me claiming it. I didn’t feel, for instance, that I needed to seek something—at least not the usual suspects, like  peace, love, God, fame, truth, or the meaning of life. But I definitely felt that this was it. I didn’t have to seek any further. And so seek became my one little word for 2016. And when I look at my life and work for that year, I see its influence everywhere.

Each time I write a blog post for instance, I seek images that somehow connect to what I’m writing about. And I’m always seeking texts that will serve a particular purpose I have in mind, whether it’s two biographies on the same subject that convey very different author messages, mentor texts that would help students see that writers do more work in the beginning of a narrative than write an engaging lead, or just the right quote to kick-off a new year (which I’ll share again here, just because it’s so wonderful):

That one little word was so useful for me in 2016 that I decided to hold onto it for 2017 and again in 2018, when, among many other things, it helped me discover:

In each of these cases, I was seeking something that would be good for something I was working on, be it a lesson, a unit, a blog post or a presentation. And the fact that I rarely came up empty-handed makes me believe what the great Persian poet Rumi said—which is exactly what I experienced when the word seek seemed to claim me.

But I also seek for other reasons. I seek to understand what’s going on in students’ heads as they read—and in the head’s of the teachers I coach. And I sometimes seek without a goal in mind. That is, I seek for the sheer fun of seeking.

As I thought about writing this post, for instance, I did a little seeking about the word seek, and not only did I discover the Rumi quote, I found this wonderful poem by Langston Hughes:

And just the other day, my eye caught the name Tove Jansson in an online journal I subscribe to. Jansson is the Finnish writer and illustrator of the Moomin books, which both my daughter and I loved as children. But when I clicked through the link I discovered that she was also a painter of some renown. Here, for instance, is a gorgeous mural she painted for a restaurant in Helsinki:

And here is a photograph of her and her assistant actually working on the mural:

Immediately I felt the sense of delight, which seeking often sparks in me. There was something delightful about the idea that the woman who created the Moomins was the same one in those Katharine Hepburn gaucho pants with a cigarette (or palette knife) dangling from her mouth—just as there was something delightful in stumbling on that poem, when it seemed, for a moment, as if Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and I were connected across time.

The Janssen piece was a reminder that people are complex and multi-layered, with lives that often take surprising twists and turns, which I found comforting and hopeful. And that somehow triggered a synapse in my brain that made me remember that way before Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who, he drew political cartoons, like the one I subsequently discovered, which, well, I’ll leave the reaction to you!

And so I’ve decided to hold on to seek again. You see, when I seek, many other things happen. I notice more. I’m open more. I appreciate more. I’m present more. I trust myself more to solve the many problems responsive teaching poses. And I feel the joy and thrill that comes with serendipitous discovery, the act of stumbling onto something delightful that you didn’t know your heart or mind needed until suddenly it appeared.

The word seek also helps me stay in a life-long learning stance, which is just what we want our students to take. What other word could do all that? If you’ve got one, let me know! And in the meantime . . .

The Sixth Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

The summers of my childhood seemed long and slow and languorous to me, with nothing more important to do than round up some of the neighborhood kids for a game of Kick the Can or find a mom to take us to the pool.

Now, though, summers seem to zoom by—and this one was no exception. For better or worse I spent more time at my desk this summer than I did at the pool. And while there were definitely some highlights—some great cycling and hiking, lovely time with my daughter and a personal writing project that’s been challenging but fun—there was also the daily assault of the news, which often left me anxious and drained, along with enough sweltering 90+ degree days to make me long for September.

Of course, it’s September now and the news horrors continue. But my spirits picked up over Labor Day as I reread all the comments blog readers had left from last September in order to share a handful here for my annual celebration of teacher thinking. So many were asking big important questions and fearlessly reflecting on their practice to arrive at new understandings and insights, which I found inspiring. And so, as I’ve done before (see here, here, here, here and here), I’ve set each reader’s comment next to an image that links back to the the post they were responding to, so you can have some context for their thoughts as well as see what others think. And if the author of the comment is a blogger or on twitter, I’ve embedded a link in their name to their blog or twitter account, so you can learn more about their work and connect.

“How do teachers find that balance between offering true, authentic choice, alongside the responsibility for the ‘teaching’ of reading? I don’t know the answer, but I do believe that building a community of readers and writers begins with a teacher who is passionate and who supports a learning environment where empathy is honored, so that risk taking can occur. I always wanted to structure my 7th grade classroom like Atwell’s, where kids can read or write whatever they want, and community is built through poetry. Maybe that’s why her students win so many writing awards… Less structure + More choice = Abundant Learning!”  Laurie Pandorf

“My students and I were considering endings of short stories and interpreting what the writer might want us to understand about the ending and beyond that, the larger story. When I asked them to pose some theories about why Roald Dahl might have ended “Lambs to the Slaughter” as he did, some of their early responses were ‘because he ran out of things to say’ or ‘because he wanted to wrap it up.’

I wanted students to go further, and they did. With some prompting, they got to saying things like ‘there may be moments that are so devastating, that you can’t hold back your anger’ (yes!) and ‘maybe we are all capable of the kind of crime Mary commits’ (beautiful!). I love where their interpretations ended up, but I wondered about those early responses. Were students thinking about their own reasons for ending a piece of writing? How often have they been asked to write a story, and ended it because they ran out of steam and/or ideas and/or interest? Are students aware that writers make choices in attempt to say something to the reader, not because they’ve run out of things to say? I know where I need to go next.”    Brian Weishar

“I always go back to Donald Graves when I find myself getting mired in nearby talk that reveres units of study packaged programs, rubrics and numbers as a way of determining learning. Our students are not any of those things, which is what makes teaching so challenging and exciting. You never know what’s going to happen in the classroom. What a student will say and do will just make you stop in your tracks to consider something you hadn’t thought about before. It’s what I love about teaching and what I see as important to keep front and center so I don’t lose my way.” Elisa Waingort

“In so many ways, we need to see the interactions with our students and our interactions with text as part of a bigger whole–ways we can live together in our world today. I think we and our students can see the world as a part, not apart, from the wonders and the issues and the insights we have together. Honoring these moments, supporting the ideas of the students, and stretching the ideas beyond the beginnings, to see connections, to value the ways we can get smarter by listening to each other–in our words and deeds.” Kathy Doyle

I used to lament that “kids these days just don’t know how to think! Now I realize, of course, that “I” was the problem: I wasn’t providing a space or opportunities for them to do that. I think I was also not so subtly sending the message that their thinking wasn’t valued. I’m working hard to change all of that now, and am trying to learn to shut my mouth and let them open theirs more, and then to sit back and wonder at all they have to say.”  Allison Jackson

As a classroom teacher who feels surrounded by TPT and Pinterest projects galore, I wonder…where has our respect for ourselves as professionals gone? By blindly following one curriculum, program, cute project after another, we have lost the voices of children. I frequently ponder, what have we “done” to reading? As Beers and Probst offer in Disrupting Thinking, “Skills are important. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can grow, so that we can discover, so that we can change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world—then those skills will be for naught.”  Lisa Osterman

“Getting our students to habituate to the idea that interpretation requires opportunities to “revisit, revise and refine” is a deliberate and yet messy process, because there will be many theories as to meaning, many with equal validity. As teachers, we often want some neat “one answer” that can then become the anchor of a thesis statement or PARCC answer, for that is what teachers have come to think of as teaching. In actuality, as you and Dorothy so brilliantly posit in your books, the “answer” to the meaning of any particular book is less important than the intellectual journey there – the habits of thinking that allow us to pause, re-read, wonder, and reframe idea,” Tara Smith

So here’s to a new school year. May yours be filled with big questions, insightful reflection, messiness and the joy of thinking with your students!

Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

As a featured speaker at this year’s upcoming Literacy for All Conference in Providence, I was invited to write a guest post for the Lesley University Literacy blog. Some of you may have caught this there, but if not, here’s a repost:

Recently I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.” A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

“Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

• To become a more empathetic human being
• To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
• To help us understand how we fit into our world
• To feel more understood and accepted
• To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Giff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

Screen Shot 2018-07-24 at 12.26.34 PM

When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, could and maybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferring meant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings
+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings
+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)
Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.”

When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.




With Appreciation

Things have been quiet on the blog for a while, mostly because I’ve been working on several challenging projects, one of which involves writing copy for a new website that will house the blog and a variety of other resources (and hopefully be up next month)> But aware that this has been Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking about how much both past and present teachers have impacted and contributed to my life and feeling a need to share that.

From my own days in grade school, for instance, there was the English teacher I wrote about in “My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)”. She chose a story I’d written to submit to Scholastic’s Writing Contest—despite the fact that she was surprised that the quiet, meek girl who hardly ever spoke in class had actually written it. And last year for Teachers Appreciation Week, Heinemann shared a video of me sharing the story of how another high school teacher made me realize that, despite failing to get into AP English, I could, indeed, write insightfully about books if it’d connected to them deeply.

And then there’s the art teacher who instilled in me a love for visual images, the legacy of which you can see here on the blog. I took after-school art classes from her for years, first in her attic (which had sloping ceilings just like an artist’s atelier in Paris) and then in the incredible studio that extended from the back of her house. Frequently she’d create a still life for us to paint—a bowl or plate filled with apples and grapes, a jug overflowing with poppies—and in spring she’d have us take our easels outside to her garden to paint the flowers, “en plein air,” just as the Impressionists had done.

From her, I learned that looking and seeing are actually two different things, and that as poet Mary Oliver put it, in words I only discovered years later, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” But perhaps, most importantly, she made me feel that I had the sensibility of an artist, with a unique way of seeing the world—which, I think, is exactly what those English teachers did, too. They noticed something in me despite all those despites. And even though my medium turned out to be words, not markers or watercolors, each of these teachers empowered me in ways that have shaped my life.

More recently, though, I find myself inspired and impacted by teachers in a different way. Whether it’s the teachers I work with in schools, the many colleagues I have who’ve become dear friends, or those I’ve never (yet) met in person but feel like I know through twitter, it’s teachers that keep me thinking and learning—and reflecting on the question I often feel compelled to write down in my notebook:

Sometimes, this happens when a teacher says or tweets something that pushes me to reflect (in ways that aren’t always comfortable, but needed):

Sometimes it’s when an educator writes something that makes me realize that I hadn’t fully understood something that I thought I had. Recently, for instance, in his blog post, “Confronting the Disimagination Machine,” the Opal School’s Matt Karlson made me realize that worksheets are even more insidious than I’d previously thought: Not only are they not meaningful to kids, but they standardize children’s experiences and thinking in ways I hadn’t, until then, considered.

Sometimes, too, a teacher will share a project online that helps me see possibilities I’d never imagined before, which makes me incredibly happy). For example, just recently I stumbled on the work kindergarten teacher Faige Meller‘s kids’ did when she invited them to go outside and, inspired by the installation artist Andy Goldsworthy, create art from nature (which seems like the perfect antidote to the disimagination machine):

And then there’s Amy Ludwig Vanderwater, who always gets me thinking (as do Rebecca O’Dell, Alison Marchetti and the other teachers who share ideas at This year for National Poetry Month, Amy challenged herself to write 30 poems, one for each day of April, about a single subject (#1Subject30Ways), using a different poetry technique from her book Poems Are Teachers for each poem. And she invited teachers and students to join her. Amy’s subject was the constellation Orion, which inspired three of teacher Emily Callahan‘s students to write poems about Greek Mythology, like this one:

And here’s a gorgeous poem from teacher Kate Rodger, whose subject was poems about home:

Finally, there’s the teachers who invite me into their classrooms and schools to help them puzzle through problems that perplex them. Recently, for instance, I got an email from a school I’ll be starting to work with in June on embedding more meaningful grammar instruction into their middle and upper schools. And the email included the following questions, which were on their mind:

  • What might a grammar curriculum across the grades look like? How do we build in inquiry/apprenticeship work from one grade to the next – should we cover the same concepts/techniques but with different (increasingly sophisticated?) mentor texts?
  • How do we address student errors in addition to focusing on teaching grammar in terms of craft? How best to address grammatical errors when giving feedback on student writing?
  • How do we find time to integrate inquiry grammar lessons into our curricula?
  • Is there a place for direct instruction? Does it matter whether students can distinguish between a helping verb and a linking verb or a clause and a phrase? Should students learn grammar definitions, and if so, when in the process should terms be introduced? Is there ever a place for testing or quizzing students on grammar?
  • How can a teacher tell if inquiry/apprenticeship instruction is effective? How do teachers encourage students to try new grammatical/stylistic techniques in their writing without having it feel forced?

I have some answers up my sleeve already, but I actually relish the opportunity to wrap my mind around these questions again and see if anything new pop up. It fact, it’s partly what keeps me going—along with remembering that paying attention is our endless and proper work.

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.