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

Letting Students Be the Protagonists in Their Own Learning

Like many literacy educators, last year I found myself reading Visible Learning for Literacyby Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. The book breaks down the process of teaching and learning into three phases: teaching for surface learning, deeper learning and ultimately for transfer. And for each phase, it recommends specific teaching practices based on their effect size, i.e., “the impact a given a approach has” on accelerating student learning.

Being someone who tends to want to get to the deep stuff right away, I was curious about what the authors had to say about surface learning, along with what practices pack the greatest punch. They believe that surface learning is the foundation on which deeper learning is built, and among the recommended practices for that phase, I saw direct instruction, which comes with an effect size of 0.59.

That led me to watch one of the videos that can be found on Corwin’s resource page for the book. If you go to the link, you’ll see a teacher providing direct instruction on how to punctuate dialogue to her 9th grade class. Clearly, she adheres to the features of direct instruction as stated in the book, but I couldn’t help thinking that something was wrong here. These were 9th graders who, I’d be willing to bet, had been taught to punctuate dialogue ever since third or second grade.

This seemed to be another case of students having been taught something they didn’t fully learn, which can happen for a number of reasons. They might not have had enough time to practice for the learning to take hold. They might not have found “correctness” important. Or, as I suggested last week, there might have been something in the top-down teaching practice that didn’t fully engage them because it didn’t positioning them to be protagonists in their own learning.

But what would that look like when it comes to something like punctuating dialogue?

It just so happens that I wrestled with that very question last year, as I worked with several schools whose upper grade teachers wanted to teach writing and punctuating dialogue in their narrative units. In each case, the teachers had noticed that their students didn’t know how to punctuate dialogue, despite it having been taught the year before.

So here’s what we did: I asked the teachers to gather up the mentor texts they’d used to help their students develop a vision of narrative writing. And among them was Maribeth Boelt’s popular book Those Shoesabout a boy who longs for the expensive sneakers that all the popular kids were wearing. Immediately we noticed that Boelt constructed her dialogue, using a variety of sentence structures— as in, it wasn’t always “___________,” I or a character said. That variety, which we recognized as a craft move, helped give the book its voice, and we also recognized that it presented the potential for an inquiry into how writers write dialogue.

To implement that, we decided to invite everyone to the rug to look at the following four samples from the book, which we projected on the SMART Board. I read each of the sentences out loud, then invited the kids to turn and talk, using the basic thinking routine I shared in another post, What do you notice and what do you make of what you noticed?

In a sense, you could call this a rich task, as it offered multiple points of entry for students to engage in their thinking. Of course, some students at first only noticed what seemed the most obvious to them: that what was being said made the sentences different. In those cases, I acknowledged that was true, but then asked them to take another look at just the first two sentences to consider if there was anything else different between them. That led students to notice that the writer didn’t say who was talking in the first one (though they knew it was the narrator), while in the second the writer clearly told us. Noticing that, I then invited them to compare those two with the last two.

The first thing most of the students noticed was that, like the second sentence, the writer said who was speaking, but many also noticed that where the writer named the speaker was different in each sentence. That made them think that in addition to writers not always telling you exactly who was talking, they could also decide to name the speaker before, in the middle or at the end of the dialogue. And noticing that, they also noticed that the writer shared additional information in the last two sentences. In the first, she gave us more information about who the speaker was (as in their job), while the last shared where the person was when they spoke.

With that all charted, we sent the students back to their desks and asked them to pull out the drafts of their narratives. Then in groups of two and three, we gave them a packet of sentence strips with other sentences from Those Shoes that including dialogue, such as these:

And we invited them to sort and categorize the sentences to see if there were even more ways that writers set up dialogue.

That led them to even further discoveries. They noticed that sometimes writers used boldface for dialogue if the speaker was saying something urgent or forceful. They sometimes used words like asks and announces, instead of always using say. And they sometimes told where the speaker was AND what they were doing, in addition to the dialogue

With these new understandings added to the chart, we then invited the students to make some decisions about how they might revise the dialogue in their own drafts to reflect what they’d learn—and everyone was eager to do that. Many, for instance, wanted to add boldface to underscore a line of dialogue’s importance, while many others wanted to try placing the dialogue tag in the middle of the sentence because they thought that was cool.

Feeling empowered by being the protagonists in their own learning, no one blinked an eye when we added a final direction: Once they made those revisions, they needed to go back and find a sentence that was similar to one in Those Shoes, and then punctuate theirs the same way Maribeth Boelt had done. And as the students got to work, the teachers decided to start the next day by revisiting all those sentences to co-construct another chart about how dialogue was punctuated.

To be sure, this lesson took much longer than the one from Visible Learning for Literacy. But here’s the thing: If you go to the book’s appendix, you’ll find a list of practices arranged according to their effect size, from the most impactful to the least. And there you’ll see that Number 2 is Piaget’s approach. Hattie describes those as focusing “on the thinking processes rather than the outcomes and do not impose the adult thinking process on to children,” which is precisely what happened here. And Piagetian practices come with an effect size of 1.28, which means they have more than twice the impact on student learning as direct instruction does. And if you believe the words of Piaget I shared last week, you have to also think that these students will understand and retain far more by discovering how dialogue works on their own.

From Visible Learning for Literacy. Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Hattie. 2016. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy

I’ll surely have more to say about this approach in future posts. But if you want more bang for your instructional buck, consider letting your students be the protagonists of their own learning by letting them discover and explore.

My First Chapter: Aligning Our Practices with Our Beliefs

Last week I had the privilege of attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual convention. The theme this year was “The First Chapter,” which suggested that, as literacy educators, we were leaving an old story behind and embarking on a new one. And different speakers and sessions addressed that theme in a variety of ways.

Many, for instance, spoke about leaving the teaching of ‘safe’ content behind to embrace a more social and political agenda by directly tackling controversial issues and inviting their students to take action. Others addressed specific practices, like the need to replace deficit language (as in, “Those students can’t ________.”) for more asset- or strength-based words; while still others explored how teachers could reclaim their own voice and agency, in an environment that often dismisses them, by sharing their own reclamation stories.

I think the session I facilitated with Ellin Keene and Donna Santman touched on all three of these. Donna shared her own personal journey to reclaim those parts of herself she felt she had lost when she compromised her values to address an administrator’s worry about test scores. Ellin shared work she’s been doing around creating systemic school and district change by focusing on teachers’ and schools’ assets, not their deficits. And I kicked off the session by inviting all those present to try to articulate what they believed about children, how they learn and the purpose of education in order to see if their teaching practices aligned to those beliefs.

On the one hand, my piece was quite different from those where teachers shared classroom stories about what happened when they designed curriculum around social justice issues and activism. But consider these words from the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire:

If we acknowledge at least some truth in this statement—and believe that, like students, we need to be more socially aware and active—I think we have to examine what assumptions about children, learning and education lie beneath our practices. And to that end I want to invite you to go through an abbreviated version of the process our NCTE audience did.

I began by sharing this from Regie Routman (by way of Judy Wallis), which shows that when educators want to start a new chapter to implement change, we tend to think about resources first and then follow the practices those resources dictate. Most packaged Common Core curriculum, for instance, require teachers to ask students text-dependent questions and follow a prescribed three-read protocol for close reading.  And whether we’re aware of it or not, those practices reflect a set of beliefs we may not fully agree with.

So to start us thinking about our own beliefs, I shared an example of “This I Believe” statements from a wonderful post by Kari Yates:

And I shared a few of my own beliefs, many of which, like the statement below, were informed my study group trip to Reggio Emilia to consider the implications of their approach to early childhood on literacy across the grades.

From there I invited everyone to think more specifically about what they believed the purpose of education was. And to jump start that process I shared these examples for people to chew on:

Interestingly enough, when I asked for a show of hands, no one in the audience felt any single one of these captured what they believed; though some borrowed some language from one or more of them and then added words like confidence and soul that they felt were missing. Those sorts of words formed a natural segue to considering what they believed about children—and it did not go unnoticed that at least one of the purpose of education statements revealed some beliefs about children and teaching, which suggested this:

I then contrasted the empty vessel view of children with what teachers in Reggio Emilia believe:

And I shared the story behind a video I saw in Reggio Emilia about a toddler named Laura that demonstrated each of these crucial beliefs:

As can be seen in these stills from the video, Laura’s teacher first noticed that Laura had been looking at a page spread of watches in a magazine. Observing that, the teacher leaned closer and extended her arm, which brought her watch into Laura’s line of sight. After a few moments in which Laura’s eyes went back and forth between the watches in the magazine and the one her teacher wore, the teacher lifted her arm and held the watch to Laura’s ear. In the video you can see how Laura’s eyes widened with wonder as she listened to the watch, then she put her head, ear down, on the page to see if those watches ticked, too.

The story of Laura shows how even young children are capable of constructing an understanding of the world through their own explorations. It also shows a masterful teacher who, rather than seizing on that moment to transmit some knowledge, like the word watch, instead built on what Laura had already noticed by inviting her to notice more in a way that stoked both her curiosity and her desire to learn. Clearly this teacher does not believe children are empty vessels but rather are meaning makers who have within them the capacity to make sense of the world. And her practice is aligned with that as well as with Piaget’s belief that:

With this example of how beliefs and practices can align, I then shared several slides that represent some common classroom practices and asked people to think about whether they actually matched their own beliefs about children and how they learn:

If you’re like our NCTE audience, you may have thought that at least some of these practices don’t really reflect your beliefs, But then I shared this slide and the room went silent:

For decades now explicit instruction accompanied by teacher modeling has been the gold standard of literacy practice, as has the gradual release of responsibility model, which was first articulated by P. David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher in 1983. Yet almost seven years ago, in his coda to Comprehension Going Forward, Pearson had this to say: 

To be clear, I’m not saying we should abandon these practices. Never say never is one of my mottos, and here that means that I keep direct instruction and modeling in my toolkit to take out if it’s needed. But I think we do have to acknowledge that mini-lessons are much more in sync with the transmission view of teaching and learning than the constructivist one and the gradual release of responsibility model suggests that kids can’t do much on their own. And for many of us this can be what I shared in my last slide:

But perhaps it’s uncomfortable truths like this that help us turn a new page and write a first chapter for the story we want to embark on. Let me know what you think!