Sharing My Signature Dish: Some Wise Words for the New Year

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Over the summer I had the great privilege of working at the Paramus Summer Institute for the Teaching of Writing along with Amy Ludwig VanDerwater, Dan Feigelson, and the Institute’s founder and guiding light Tom Marshall. And among the many things I heard there that got me thinking was the gorgeous keynote Amy gave on “What’s Your Signature Dish?”

By a signature dish, she didn’t literally mean a recipe you’re known for and bring to gatherings, like her husband’s salsa or her grandmother’s pineapple cake. But it should be something you’re famous for—in the way that Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem “Famous”: “The river is famous to the fish” and “The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.” Additionally, she said that a signature dish should do the following:

  • Help us make daily decisions
  • Be a gift we give to others
  • Help us focus in choppy waters
  • Give us permission not to be perfect
  • Make us memorable

Amy thought her signature dish was challenging herself to commit to doing a single, crazy thing, like writing a poem every day for a year, which definitely meets her criteria. But I wasn’t really sure what mine could be—until, that is, during my time in Paramus, I found myself sharing quotes with the teachers in my session that held some particular meaning for me, like this Japanese proverb I used to introduce the concept of backwards planning:

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

And these pithy words from the writer Saul Bellow, which, to make a clear and powerful case for always grounding our writing instruction in wonderful mentor texts:

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And so as the New Year approaches, I’d like to bring my signature dish to the table by sharing these words from the wonderful Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline and The Graveyard Book, in the hope that it helps you make daily decisions in the choppy, troubled waters of our times and gives you permission not to be perfect, as it does for me:

neil-gaiman-make-mistakes-1a9j

 

 

Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat

Skinning a Cat

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

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

Book Reviews: Real Writing for a Real Audience

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

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

Letters About Literature: Getting Personal

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

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

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

Writing to Think Before Writing to Convey Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If It’s November . . . It’s NCTE!

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Over the years, Carl Anderson and I have often found ourselves working at the same New York City schools, with Carl supporting the same teachers in writing that I support in reading. Frequently in those schools, a teacher will respond to something I’ve said with, “That’s just like what Carl was saying about writing,” which suggests she’s seeing a powerful reading-writing connection. Rarely, though, do Carl and I find ourselves in the same school on the same day. So I’m thrilled to be presenting with him at NCTE this year, where we’ll look at conferring with readers and writers and as an act of advocating for students’ agency, thinking and voice.

ncte-session-summary

While we’re still finalizing plans for the session, we’ll both be setting conferring within the context of students meaning making. In writing, this means ensuring that students have time to really explore and think about both what they want to say and how they might say it—which is precisely what I think my daughter, who I wrote about last week, didn’t get. The carls-research-questionsprimacy of meaning is why it’s at the top of Carl’s assessment of writing traits check list from his great book Assessing Writerswhich I always share with teachers whenever I’m working on writing, along with the chart from the same book on specific research questions you can ask students during a conference.

I think of this charts as a hierarchy (and a great crib sheet for teachers to keep in their conferring toolkits), with meaning as the most important trait. This means that you wouldn’t want to teach something in a conference about any of the other traits unless a student really knew what they wanted to convey. And that could be revealed in either the student’s draft or their answers to your research questions.

Similarly, I put meaning making at the heart of reading conferences, using a framework for thinking about meaning that Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. There, in the chapter “What We Mean by Meaning,” we adapt the work of the literacy scholar Robert Scholes to the language of K-12 classrooms and break down the thinking work of meaning making into the following three components or strands:

meaning-making-strands

Adapted from What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Heinemann, 2012).

As the braiding graphic suggests, readers weave these different strands of thinking together as they read in order to construct meaning. But it’s hard, as a reader, to engage in the work of understanding if you haven’t comprehended something basic, like the identity of a first person narrator or how certain characters are related. So one of the challenges in reading conferences is figuring out what kind of thinking students are already doing and where they might need some support—and this challenge is compounded by two facts: You may not know the book a student is reading and you won’t have the same kind tangible draft of student work to look at as you do in writing.

In my session with Carl, though, I’ll share how you can get a window into students’ thinking by having them orally ‘draft’ an understanding of a passage from whatever book they’re reading as you read it alongside them. Then I’ll show you how to use the three-strand framework for meaning, your own draft of the passage, and specific research questions to decide what to teach, all of which can be seen in this flowchart from the new book, which captures the different common paths meaning-based reading conferences can take.

reading-conference-flow-chart

© 2016 by Vicki Vinton from Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

I’m hoping that some of you will be able to join me and Carl in Atlanta. And if not, here’s some other places I’ll be in the upcoming months:

•   The Hong Kong International School’s Literacy Institute, January 21 & 22, 2017.

•   The Wisconsin Reading Association’s 2017 Convention, Reading Our Worlds, Composing Our Lives, Realizing Our Humanity, February 9-11, 2017.

•   The Morris-Union Jointure Commission (MUJC) Professional Development Center, New Providence, NJ, “Using Mentor Texts to Deepen Students’ Understanding of Genre, Structure & Craft, February 15, 2017.

•   The Morris-Union Jointure Commission (MUJC) Professional Development Center, New Providence, NJ, “Close Reading Skills Through Interactive Read Alouds,” March 24, 2017.

•   NESA’s Spring Educators Conference, Bangkok, Thailand, March 31-April 2017.

•   New Hampshire Literacy Institutes at the University of New Hampshire, July 3-14, 2017.

And for those of you who are unable to travel, you can hunker down with me at home or in school or join me online after March 23, 2017, when Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading comes out, with this incredible cover image created by my partner, the photographer David Wagner and his special effects friend Robert Bowen

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

My Daughter Reminds Me Why I Write (and Why She Doesn’t)

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October 20th was National Writing Day, which many teachers celebrated on twitter and blogs by sharing why they write. I couldn’t quite finish this by then, but I’d been thinking about that why-i-write question ever since I had a conversation with my 25-year-old daughter who professes to hate writing.

This doesn’t mean that she can’t write. She wrote a great college application essay that helped get her into every school she applied to, and over the summer she crafted a knock-out cover letter that helped her land a job in Philadelphia as an assistant buyer for Urban Outfitters. But when I reminded her of this, she just shook her head no. “Maybe you’re like Dorothy Parker,” I suggested, “who said, ‘I hate writing. I love having written'” but again she said no. Then she heaved a sigh and said she was sorry if I was disappointed by that.

I rushed in then to assure her I wasn’t. The fact is I’m thrilled she’s found something she loves that she can make a living from, which took me years to do. But I am saddened that she hates writing, especially because she didn’t always. Like me, she wrote stories as a jaguar-girlchild, such as “Jaguar Girl,” about a girl who gets lost in the Amazon and is befriended by a young jaguar who shows her how to live in the jungle. It’s in my basement in a box filled with other stories and drawings by my daughter. But when I mention “Jaguar Girl” to her, she just shrugged in a way that let me know that the story’s more important to me than to her.

I, on the other hand, lovingly recall some of the stories I wrote at that age. One was about a lonely penny that kept being passed from one empty pocket to another, until it was dropped into a child’s Unicef box on Halloween, where it found a home and a purpose. I also vividly remember trying to write a mystery with my best friend who, like me, was a Nancy Drew lover. We began with the line, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which we didn’t know was considered a cliche. To us, it created just the right mood of suspense and intrigue, especially when we added a dimly lit lamppost beneath which stood a man in a trench coat.

What I remember most from those early forays into writing was the satisfaction it offered: the satisfaction of finding the perfect ending for my poor, lonely penny and of using words to create a dark, sinister mood. In fact, I’m not sure my best friend and I got any further than the opening, nor do I remember if anyone ever read my penny story. The satisfaction was in the creation, not the aftermath. And that’s something I can still feel whenever I give myself permission to play around with language for the sheer delight of pinning down a moment or a sensation in precise, evocative words.

joan-didionAt some point, however, I started craving more than the joy of creation. I wanted what I wrote to be read and, even more than that, admired. Even now, saying that so baldly makes me cringe, as if wanting to be admired is shameful. But I began to recognize what Joan Didion wrote in her own great take on “Why I Write,” that, for me, writing is “the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even hostile act… an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.”

What I wanted, in effect, was to have a voice, which I didn’t always feel I had, especially in high school when I entered a new school half-way through ninth grade when groups and cliques had already formed—and seemed, to me, impenetrable. And while I did make friends, I was one of those students who rarely spoke in class but was well-behaved and got good enough grades not to worry about. But when my tenth grade teacher invited anyone who was interested to write a short story for Scholastic’s Writing Award contest, I hunkered down and wrote one.

spin-art-sampleThe story was about two suburban New York girls who had a crush on the man who ran the spin-art booth at the Central Park Zoo. They saw him as a grand, romantic figure, the only real person in a world of phonies and people preoccupied with status—until, that is, they saw him scream at a child who’d knocked over some paint. Then they had to acknowledge that they’d been deluded; he was simply a character they’d created from their own idealistic longings.

My teacher could submit two stories, and she was considering mine. But first she needed to ask me a question: Had I really written it? Seems she couldn’t quite match the voice in the story with the meek, quiet girl in her class. And even after I said I had, she felt compelled to tell me that if she or Scholastic found out I hadn’t, I’d be disqualified and suspended.

I assured her once again that I had, at which point she handed me the contest’s entry form (where she’d already typed in my name, age, and address) and had me sign on the line that attested to the story’s originality. Then she signed it herself and sent the story off. Unfortunately, I didn’t win a prize, but the moment was significant nonetheless. I felt recognized and valued for my take on the world—Didion’s “writer’s sensibility”—which was what I’d wanted. But when I think back to my daughter, I’m not sure that, when it came to writing, she felt that much in school.

By third grade, she had weekly writing homework, which was assigned on Monday but not due till Friday. Most came with a prompt, which in those pre-Common Core days, were mostly about her personal experiences, which she had no interest in. In fact, we both came to dread the Thursday nights before the homework was due, when there often were battles and tears. But occasionally there’d be an open choice week when she could write whatever she wanted, and on those weeks, she’d dive into writing on Monday, creating stories about mermaids and unicorns that rarely made it to the bulletin board.

wild-horsesThen there was fourth grade when she had to write her first research report on an animal of her choice. She picked wild horses and jumped into the research with energy and passion, but the writing itself was painful. She was expected to write in paragraph form, with separate paragraphs about the animal’s habitat, adaptions, reproduction, etc. Perhaps if she’d been writing a booklet, with illustrations on each page, she might have been more engaged. But she found the writing so hard to do that I went to her teacher and asked if she could use a different structure, writing something, say, more like a Byrd Baylor reverie than a Seymour Simon book. The answer was no, and when I asked why, I was told that organization was the most important aspect of writing, and she had to learn it.

It’s no surprise that, by high school, English was her least favorite subject—though she did get an A for creating a playlist for each scene in Euripides’ Medea. And she has found a strong, unique voice in the medium of her choice that people she respects want to hear, which is ultimately what’s important. But still, I’m haunted by that word hate. How many other children, I wonder, might come to hate writing as well because they never experience what made me want to write: not just the pleasure in creating something out of words, but the sense that my perceptions and perspective were valued? I actually shudder to think. So let’s remember why we write: not just to master a set of skills but to give voice to our unique take on a text, a topic, an issue, the world.

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What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

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Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:

octopus-verb-tenses

 

As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.

From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings

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A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:

jean-piaget-quote

While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:

crow-call-excerpt

Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.

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How Vision Can Inform Instruction: Applying a Deep Understanding of Genre

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In 1986, a few years before I joined the Teachers College Writing Project, Lucy Calkins published The Art of Teaching Writing, which introduced writing workshop to a generation of teachers. Much has changed in the world of writing since then, but perhaps as a sign the world’s changing again, Lucy returned to the opening paragraph of The Art of Teaching Writing during this year’s summer writing institutes to tell a new generation of teachers that “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.”

For writing in general, she said what was essential was for both students and teachers alike to write and read massive amounts so as, as one attendee put it, “develop an identify as a writer who can make sense of the world, and even change it, through writing.” This does seem essential, but I think we also need a vision for what’s essential in the genres we teach, which is why, in my last post, I invited readers to read a short piece of realistic fiction to develop a deeper understanding of that genre’s purposes.

understanding-by-designAs you can see here, their responses were wonderful, with many articulating what you could call an enduring understanding: a big idea that, defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Designresides at the heart of a discipline, has enduring value beyond the classroom, and requires the uncovering of abstract or often misunderstood ideas.” Fran McVeigh, for instance, said that, “Good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think/question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.” While Dana Murphy put it this way:

“The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that,’ or ‘I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.’ It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.”

Others also used that word human, with Annie Syed writing, “There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway,” and reading and writing helps us with that. And Julieanne Harmatz wrote, “These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide.” Steve Peterson didn’t use the word human per se, but he spoke of realistic fiction as “a way to transform the world, or at least A world [such as the reader’s]—to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective,” which seems directly related to Lucy’s essentials.

These are all great examples of enduring understandings, but unfortunately we don’t always frame our instruction around this kind of big idea, teaching students instead that realistic fiction is a made up story comprised of characters, a setting and events that could be real, whose purpose is to entertain. We might settle for this because we don’t think students are mature enough to write stories with such depth or need to learn the basics first. And even if we want to aim for something deeper, we may not be sure how to do that, which is what happened with some third and fourth grade teachers I worked with.

At the time we first met, they’d already launched the unit by having students develop a character with a problem and then use a story mountain worksheet to plan out the plot—and already the teachers were worried. Many of the students’ story ideas seemed far-fetched or clichéd. They knew their characters’ favorite color and food, but not what made them tick, and the plots were too simple or too convoluted, all of which could be seen in the students’ work. So what could they do beyond march through the unit?

To consider that question we looked at two mentor texts, No More Tamales and Ruby the Copycat to study how those writers created more complex characters and plots that didn’t resolve problems too quickly or simply went on and on. And what we realized was that in each story the characters helped cause the problems they faced and had to change to resolve those—and it was precisely through this transformative journey that the authors invoked our feelings and understanding about the human experience.

Recognizing that the instruction they’d offered so far hadn’t reached that depth, the teachers decided to introduce the concept of character flaws through the mentor texts. Additionally, some decided to create a class character with a flaw and invite their class to collaboratively brainstorm what kind of problems that flaw might create or make worse and how that character might have to character-flawchange. This would involve students with the actual kind of thinking work realistic fiction writers are engrossed in and support another characteristic of enduring understandings: offer potential for engaging students.

In fact, the students were so engaged with the idea of flaws that in one of the classes that was reading Because of Winn-Dixie a student raised an interesting question: Did the main character Opal have a flaw? Rather than answering the question herself, their wonderful teacher Trish Compton suggested they all turn and talk about that. And as the class shared out their ideas, they decided that Opal, whose main problem they thought was loneliness, did have a flaw of sorts: She was so overcome with the loss of her mother, she couldn’t always see that she was making friends, and thus didn’t need to feel lonely. And they were eager to see how that might change.

They also wrote some amazing stories, such as this one by a third grader called “Forgiveness.” I invite you to read it and think about if, in an age-appropriate way, it reflects the kind of enduring understanding vision the teachers articulated above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.

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