Beyond Story Mountains & Arcs: The Many Shapes of Stories

The Shape of Stories

Infographic representation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the Shape of Stories by Maya Eilam

I love working at summer institutes where teachers have enough time and space in their heads to devote themselves to learning. And I love them, too, because they give me a chance to try out new thinking and learning. This happened not only in California, which I wrote about last week, but in Paramus, New Jersey, where one of my educational heroes Tom Marshall runs summer institutes on the teaching of reading and writing that bring both new and seasoned educators together from across the state and beyond.

This summer Tom invited me to lead an advance session on teaching realistic fiction, which I’d spent a chunk of time on this year in another New Jersey district. And one of the things I was still struggling with was how to help students plan their stories in a deep and meaningful way. As it was, many of the teachers I worked with had given their students story mountain graphic organizers as a planning tool, but these came with the same problem I wrote about in an earlier post: Students saw the organizer as a task to complete, not as a tool to think, which meant they were fine for students who were already thinking deeply but not for those who weren’t. And in an age appropriate way, I wanted the students to experience what fiction writer Elizabeth Poliner Alice Munrodescribed in her lovely piece “How Mapping Alice Munro Stories Helped Me as a Writer.”

As Poliner writes, she began mapping out Munro stories because “they [didn’t] seem constructed at all as much as breathed into life,” and she “wondered, on a structural level, what was really going on. How did she do it?” The first story she mapped was “The Progress of Love,” which, like many Munro stories, makes several shifts between a character’s childhood and adult life. And what she learned as a writer from doing that was “that when you move around a lot in time it can be useful to have one part of the story move linearly, like the backstory of the narrator’s youth.” You can see how she arrived at that from her map below, where the backstory’s represented in the boxes at the bottom, with the three scenes from the narrator’s adult life (which happen at different times) in the boxes above where the shifts happen. Mapping Alice Munro story

Of course, this is a quite complex story and Poliner is a serious writer, but the combination of stumbling on this article and preparing for the institute made me recall a seventh grade teacher I’d worked with, Sarah Whitman, who was using the TC Unit of Study, which referred to some comments Kurt Vonnegut had made about the shape of stories. The unit recommended using those comments to introduce story arcs, which in the unit look like story mountains minus the boxes and academic language, not like the variety of shapes in the first image. But Sarah took this one step further. Looking for KurtVonnegut 2Vonnegut’s original comments, she discovered a video in which he talked more about story shapes, and she brought that more complex vision to her classroom.

I urge you to click through to the video, which is definitely worth watching, as Vonnegut is hysterical and explains much more than the TC unit captures. He maps a story’s shape on an axis-chart with the horizontal line representing the span of the story, from the beginning to the end, and the vertical charting the character’s experiences, ranging from ill to good fortune. And below you’ll see a variation that maps Cinderella as she moves across the story from misery to ecstasy, with the specific events of the story identified for each dip and rise.

Mapping Cinderella

I shared both the video and the Cinderella map with my group in Paramus then asked them in groups to try mapping one of the mentor texts I’d shared, which included Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. The book tells the story of Maria who, longing to look and act more grown up on Christmas Eve, slips on her mother’s diamond ring while making the batter for the tamales, only to realize with horror later that she no longer has the ring. She thinks it fell off as she mixed the batter and is now inside one of the tamale, but when she enlists her cousins in eating the tamales to find the ring, it’s still missing.

As the groups started mapping, I walked around the room where I heard teachers and coaches engaged in the kind of meaningful conversations, happy grappling and problem solving I wrote about last week, as they debated where to put events on their maps. And in doing so, I suddenly realized they were also engaged in the work of interpretation and analysis, as can be seen in these two slight different maps of Too Many Tamales: 

Too Many Tamales Chart 1

Too Many Tamales Chart 2

Once they’d finished and had done a gallery walk to see the range of thinking, we talked about the classroom implications. They all thought that this form of mapping better captured the actual movement of stories than one-size fits all arcs or mountains, which compress all the ups and downs characters face through the abstract terms rising and falling action. And they definitely saw the potential of mapping as a planning tool. They thought, though, that students would benefit from mapping a story they’d heard or read before, just as they’d done, before trying to plan their own, and they imagined one done interactively as a whole class collaboration and another done in small groups. And to make sure students saw the map as a thinking tool versus a task to complete, they envisioned letting students work with a buddy, with some questions they could collaborative wrestle with, such as:

  • Where, on the line between bad and good fortune (or a sad and happy faces) might my story begin?
  • If my character begins on a high note, do I want something to happen to indicate a possible problem or trouble? What could that be?
  • How many setbacks do I want my character to have before—or as—things get better? What kind of events could show that?
  • And where on the spectrum should my story end?

I’m eager to hear what the teachers and coaches who attended my session do with this work as school starts up, and I’d be happy to hear from blog readers as well who try this out with students. More than anything, though, I think this shows the importance of giving teachers the time to actually do and think through the work they’re asking of students to do and to question accepted practices.

The Secret to Teaching Poetry: Focusing on Feelings

Can You Keep a Secret While I’m a firm believer that poetry should be read throughout the year, I fear I tend to wait until April, when it’s National Poetry month, to write about it—just as many a teacher waits until then to dust off the poetry books. This is a shame, if not a crime, as is the fact that too many Common Core interpretations have all but squeezed poetry out of the curriculum or relegated it to a handful of lessons to tick off Reading Literature Standards 4 and 5.

Why this is so, I can’t say for sure–though for me it’s related to the schools where I work doing less poetry. But I’ve wondered whether the reason why poetry is so absent from the Common Core has to do with the fact that, perhaps more than any other genre, poems ask, even beg, to be felt. Poets want us to feel their words in a way that seems almost antithetical to those Common Core close reading approaches that say that the meaning of the text resides, not in a reader’s heart or mind, by within the four corners of the text. Mary Oliver, for instance, talks about the pleasure readers feel when they “enter the rhythmic pattern of a poem:”

“It takes no more than two or three lines for rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.”

And Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry goes straight to feelings as well:

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

My experience in classrooms, however, is that if I begin by asking students what a poem is, I get a list of terms of the things poems can have—stanzas, rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors; I’m sure you know all the culprits. But if we begin instead by reading poems Seeing the Blue Betweenwith the question “What does a poem do for a reader?” in mind, we get closer to Dylan Thomas as students start seeing that poems can make us smile or feel sad or see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Once kids start feeling poems this way, it’s often fun to bring in quotes by poets like Dylan Thomas, which can affirm what students are experiencing and offer new ways of thinking about how a poem affects them—as in, considering which poems make your toe nails twinkle. For younger students I love using quotes from Seeing the Blue Betweenwhich pairs poems with letters of advice to young poets and readers of poetry by 32 renowned children’s poet. And for older students, I have a stash of quotes, such as the ones below:

“What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? . . . When you really feel it, a new part of you happens or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.”  James Dickey

“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.”  Charles Simic

“We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his life, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Amy Lowell

Then and only then do I move from exploring what a poem does for a reader to how it manages to do that. And one of my favorite ways of helping students—and teachers—see how poems work their magic on readers is by asking students to think about how a poem is different than a greeting card, such as this birthday card for a mom: Mom Birthday Card And this poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer:The Way My Mother Walker Judith Ortiz Cofer Many students can readily see that the poem on the card is broader and more general—even, we might say, generic—and it more or less hits one emotional note. Cofer’s poem, on the other hand, is highly specific. She writes about a particular mother who we can picture and hear and who is much more complicated than the every mom of the card. Because Cofer’s mother is so complicated, she and the poem seem more real to me than the ‘always’ mom of the card. And while my mom never wore an amulet or lived in a second-floor walk-up, the poem gets me thinking about all the complicated and confusing messages she sent me through the way she put on her lipstick or clutched my white-gloved hand in hers as we hurried through Grand Central Station.

In this way the poem does exactly for me what Simic says poetry does. I see myself in the specifics of Cofer’s poem, despite the fact that all those specifics are quite foreign to me. And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us.

The poem, though, is harder to understand than the card, which is why some students say initially say that they like the card better. But focusing on feelings can help us here, too. As a strategy for accessing poems that feel hard, we can ask students to think about what feeling the poem evokes for them—even if they’re not sure why—and to locate lines where they think they feel it. This also works as the kind of rich task I wrote about the other week, as different Anchorstudents pick up whiffs of different feelings arising from different lines. In this poem, for instance, many students pick up fear, which they feel in various lines, though some also feel safety or relief in the last few lines or a sense of the daughter’s pride in the line about the “gypsy queen.”

Anchoring themselves in the poem through these lines, students can then begin to think how these lines and feelings are connected with others by wrestling with the sort of open-ended questions I shared in January. This will ultimately allow them to interpret the poem and then—and only then—to hit Reading Standards 4 and 5. Or put another way, before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.

Of course the words ‘feel’, ‘feelings’ and ‘pleasure’ are nowhere to be found in the  Standards. But if we hold on to what the Standards do say—that they “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”—it seems we’re in the all clear. Or we could just keep it our little secret to share with our colleagues and friends.

Sharing Secrets

Cracking Open the Word Craft

Cracking Open Nuts

For those of us who have taught writing workshop over the years, we tend to think of craft as the particular moves a writer makes that we can invite students to emulate in their own writing, such as using sensory details or repeating a line as structural device or refrain. Writers, we tell students, make these moves to engage their readers and bring whatever they’re writing about more vividly to life, which is indeed true. But that concept of craft is very different, I think, from what’s meant by the word in the Common Core Standards, where three “Craft and Structure” reading standards exist for both literary and information texts from kindergarten up to twelfth grade.

Those standards require students to consider the significance of, say, the particular sensory details a writer has chosen and to analyze how those choices contribute to the overall meaning or tone of a text. And if New York City is any indication, there’s a fair amount of contention brewing around those standards—especially in the way they were tested in the recent state ELA exams where students faced a barrage of multiple choice questions that asked them why an author used a particular word, detail or phrase in a given text. Many of the over 600 parents, principals and teachers who left comments on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project ELA feedback site, for instance, saw this as a troubling emphasis on minutia over big understandings, with Lucy Calkins, the Project Director, summing up those sentiments this way:

“. . . I think the test makers are interpreting the standards, even for 9 and 10 year olds, to be all about ultra-ultra-law-school-literary-criticism-level-close analytic reading, asking ‘why did the author include (mean by) X in line Y?’ and not at all about reading to acquire knowledge or construct big ideas about a comprehensible story. How will a test like this alter reading and writing curriculum, and will that yield a generation of engaged, curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers and writers?”

Rat DissectionI’ve made no bones about my fears of where curriculum is headed, and have questioned how certain models of close reading, which encourage students to dissect texts, like science lab mice, through teacher-driven text-dependent questions, can possibly yield those curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers that I, too, want students to be. But for all the questions and worries I have about analysis as the end goal of reading, I do think it’s important to ask students to consider the possible significance of details for authentic reasons.

Every time, for instance, that we infer a feeling or motivation from a detail a writer gives us, we’re engaged in thinking about the writer’s choices, automatically but invisibly asking ourselves, Why is the author telling me this? What is she trying to show me? That’s because thoughtful and knowledgeable readers know that, as I wrote in an earlier post about the writing mantra ‘show don’t tell,’ writers actually show and tell, through details they’ve purposefully chosen.

One Green AppleFrom a reader’s perspective then we can think of craft as how writers use and arrange specific details, words, images, and figurative language to convey their story’s meaning—i.e., to show and tell. And readers construct those desired big ideas by attending to and interpreting those choices.  Here, for instance, is a group of fifth graders I worked with recently reading Eve Bunting‘s great book One Green Apple, which tells the story of a girl named Farah who, having recently moved to America, takes a giant step toward belonging during a class field trip to an orchard.

If we stick to some of the common methods of thinking about theme or the gist of a story, such as thinking about what a character learned or using a Somebody Wanted Something But So chart, students may think that this is a story about the challenges of learning a new language. That certainly is something Bunting explores, but when I asked the students if they noticed any patterns—recurring words, details, images, ideas that the writer had purposely woven into the story—their thinking got much deeper.

As they made their way the first time through the story, they noticed how many details were about things that were different. There was Farah, herself, who was different from the others, the language she spoke, the head scarf she wore, the way boys and girls sat together, and the green apple of the title, which came from a tree that was different than the others. And as the story progressed, they noticed a shift, with fewer details about things that were different and more about things that were the same. The green apple was “small and alone” like Farah, and lots of sounds were described as being the same in America and Farah’s homeland, such as people laughing, sneezing and belching and dogs crunching on apples.

OneGreenApple2OneGreenApple3

Noticing all this allowed them to move beyond the lesson about learning English to something deeper that Eve Bunting seemed to be exploring through these patterns: how our similarities might be more important than our differences. And with this in mind, we revisited the story to develop and refine that idea, with the students noticing even more. They noticed that the day, itself, was different; that among the three dogs, one was different; that the words belong and blend were repeated; and that there were differences among the other children, with some being friendly and some smiling “cruel smiles.”

They also took another look at a page that had puzzled them before where one of the boys attempts to stop Farah from dropping her green apple into the cider press. On their first read they had developed two ideas about why the boy tried to stop her: that he may have feared that the apple, being green, wasn’t ripe and would spoil the cider, and that he might have wanted the apple for himself because it was unique. Each idea was somewhat grounded in the text—the apple was green and it was unlike the others—but with a heightened awareness of the patterns Bunting had crafted and the link between Farah and the apple, they now wondered if perhaps the boy didn’t want the green apple—and by extension Farah—mixing with the others.

OneGreenApple1

Paying more attention to the details of the story and how the author used them helped these students consider something they never had before: that bigotry can exist among children even now. And like the students discovering the gender issues in The Paper Bag Princess earlier, they had much to say about that. And that brings us to another authentic reason for thinking about craft: It helps us reap one of the great gifts of reading—to expand and enrich our understanding of people and the world.

The Blue GhostIt also helps students become more aware of the intentionality of details, as two third graders of teacher and blogger Steve Peterson discovered when they returned to the beginning of a book they’d finished, The Blue Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer. As Steve recounts in his post “Re-reading to Discover Author Choices,” going back to the first chapter helped these readers see how the author had planted all sorts of clues they hadn’t noticed the first time around. This could, of course, help them analyze the text. But more importantly it will help them enter the next book they read with a greater awareness of how writers craft a text by arranging and using details that develop everything from character to theme. And, in the end, I believe that will make them more college and career ready than any multiple choice questions will.

So let’s not discount the importance of craft. Let’s just be sure that both we and students see how thinking about it really helps readers.

Keeping It Real in Test Prep Season: Some Thoughts about Nonfiction Text Structure

After an amazing weekend at the Dublin Literacy Conference, which was all about real reading and writing, I arrived back home to find many schools plunging into test prep. The New York State tests aren’t until April, but many schools are already worried about this year’s ELA test, which supposedly has been aligned to the Standards. The New York City Schools Chancellor has already said that he expects scores to plummet, and the sample tests the state has posted on their engageny website have done nothing to allay fears. Third graders are expected to read a story by Tolstoy, which a parent of a city third grader called “excruciatingly dull and confusing.” And fifth graders are asked to compare two passages written from an animal’s point of view—one from The Secret Garden, the other from Black Beauty—and discuss how “the animal’s perspectives influence how events are described.”

Given that teachers are being evaluated by test scores in New York and other states, the apprehension seems justified. And so the test prep workbooks have come out. These workbooks, too, have supposedly been aligned to the Common Core, and at least in the ones I’ve seen, a whole new crop of questions are being asked about the text structure of nonfiction texts in order to assess whether students are meeting Reading Informational Texts Standard 5. These include questions not just about the structure of the entire passage, but also the structure of individual paragraphs and sentences, as can be seen below.

Here, for instance, is a 4th grade text-structure question about an article on the history of film making:

History of Film Making Question 2

And here is another on an excerpt from the autobiography of one of the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest:

Tiger in the Snow Question

dok-wheelEach of these questions ask students to identify or match a sentence with a text structure type, which, in terms of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, is only Level 1 thinking. Each can also be answered without actually reading the passage, which surely is not what the Standards intended. And all this has led to  a new crop of test-taking strategies being taught—such as looking for text-structure signal words—which, in turn, is taking time away from authentic reading.

Ironically, these text-structure questions also fly in the face of some of the pronouncements of David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core. I rarely agree with Coleman’s solutions to the problems he sees in classrooms, especially when it comes to overly prompted models of close reading, but I often agree with his diagnoses. Here, for instance, in a presentation he gave to the New York State Department of Education, he comes down hard on what he calls “the strategy of the week”—i.e., using texts to practice a skill or strategy, such as identifying cause and effect—which I, too,  believe is problematic in the way he describes:

“Nothing could be more lethal to paying attention to the text in front of you than such a hunt and seek mission. . . . When have you read a difficult text ever in your life and said, ‘I’ve got it now. It’s a cause and effect text not a problem and solution text.’ We lavish too much attention on these strategies in the place of reading. I would urge us to instead read.”

But all this does raise the question: Does knowing about concepts such as cause and effect, problem and solution and compare and contrast actually help us, as authentic readers, understand what an author of a nonfiction text might be trying to say? I think it can, but not as reflected in the above kind of questions. To see how, let’s look at one of the ‘one-page wonders’ Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke share in their great resource Text Lessons for Content-Area Reading: “Vampire Bat Debate: To Kill or Not to Kill” by Chris Kraul.

VampireBatDebate

If identification is the name of the game, the title alone lets us know that this is a compare-and-contrast piece. But if we want to truly understand the complexity of the debate, not just identify the text-structure, we need to remember what we instinctively know as readers: that nonfiction authors frequently explore problems and solutions, causes and effects, and different perspectives in the pieces they write. And so as readers, we enter the text on the look out not only for the different points of view alluded to in the title but for the problems that sparked the debate, the causes and effects of those problems, and the real and possible effects of whatever solutions have been undertaken or proposed.

Vice ClampIn this way, we use our understanding of those concepts to dig deeper into the text; they expand our understanding, rather than reduce it, which happens when we try to fit a text that explores virtually anything complicated into a text-structure vise. And so beyond test prep, I don’t spend a lot of time explicitly teaching text structures. Instead, with the vampire bat article, I’ve been asking students to consider how each paragraph adds to their understanding of the title’s debate and how each is connected to the next. This has allowed them to construct their understanding of the complexity of the issue as they make their way through the text—and for problem and solution and cause and effect to rise up naturally as they read and discuss it, not because I’ve sent them on a hunt and seek mission.

I’ve also been asking students whether they think the author has an opinion, and many have said that they think he does—that he sides with the scientists, not the cattlemen, because he devotes more words and space to the scientists’ side and lets them have the last word. That seems a far more insightful analysis of the text’s structure than anything the workbook questions ask for. And it involves much higher levels of thinking than those multiple choice questions demand.

Keep It RealI truly believe that this kind of real reading can ultimately prepare students for the test as well as any short-cut strategies, such as hunting for signal words, can. And it produces none of the negative effects—the narrowing of curriculum, the stressful climate in classrooms, and the lack of critical thinking—that a coalition of Massachusetts college professors recently cited as reasons why their state should abandon high-stakes standardized testing. And so I find myself in the surprising position of echoing David Coleman: Let’s try as much as humanly possible to keep it real by really reading.

Superficial or Significant: The Challenge of Comparing

Compare Contrast Vegas+Reggio

When a friend and colleague heard I was going to Las Vegas for NCTE so soon after being in Reggio Emilia, she thought it might be interesting for me to compare the two places. My initial thought was no, that’s too easy. The light, the noise level, the language—all different. The money, the history—all different as well, with Las Vegas, as we know it, a virtual newborn in the span of human time and some buildings in Reggio standing in place for more than one thousand years.

making-thinking-visible-ritchhart-ron-9780470915516But then I thought of quote another friend and colleague recently sent me from Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church and Karin Morrison’s book Making Thinking Visible. Here the authors take a look at skills and thinking, like comparing, that appear in classification charts such as Bloom’s Taxonomy and Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, and they offer this advice:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels or quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

With Las Vegas and Reggio, I think I was simply ticking off “readily apparent features” without being terribly insightful, just as I described many students doing in last spring’s post on the limits of graphic organizers. Of course, sometimes a student will come up with something that does seem “deep and penetrating.” But I don’t think we always teach toward that, aiming instead at just teaching the skill without that attention on quality. Or put another way, we teach the concept of comparing without teaching the concept of significance.

The Common Core Standards, however, have dramatically upped the ante in ways that I think are important. In the case of comparing, for instance—a.k.a. Anchor Reading Standard 9—the focus should be on significant, not superficial, comparisons. But how can we instructionally help students move beyond what’s readily apparent to what’s more penetrating but often less visible—a step which often requires readers to look beyond the specifics of any one text to something that’s more abstract and general? Thinking about this, I’ve developed a theory that, when comparing, it’s often useful to focus exclusively on similarities between two things or texts that, on the surface, seem different, and explore differences when similarities are more apparent. Then once those have been mapped out, the next step is to dig into the differences within the similarities or the similarities within the differences.

ClaudetteColvinCoverI tested this theory out last spring with a group of middle school teachers who had gathered for two days to explore ways of helping students read complex nonfiction texts on a common topic or theme. To make this concrete, I asked them to read an excerpt of Philip Hoose‘s Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, which combines transcripts of interviews with Colvin with more expository text, using a text-based Know/Wonder chart to see how it could help students connect details within the text (e.g., figure out why the number ten was detested, which is mentioned on the first page below).

Claudette Colvin Excerpt

Then we read an excerpt of Ann Petry‘s biography Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroadwhich appears in the Standards Appendix B as a middle school informational exemplar text. Here’s the beginning of the excerpt:

Harriet Tubman Excerpt

HarrietTubmanCoverRather than handing out Venn Diagrams, I asked the teachers to take out their notebooks and jot down as many similarities they could think of or patterns that recurred across the books, without judging any of their ideas—that is, nothing should be deemed too obvious or, conversely, too far-fetched. This helped them move beyond the most apparent similarities that both books were about African-American girls who as children experienced inequality based on race, to more insightful noticings such as these:

    • Both girl’s parents were addressed by their first name by white people.
    • Both girls learned lessons about the social structure they lived in very early in life.
    • The social structure was enforced through threats of violence, insults and humiliation.
    • Both girls felt fear, uncertainty and confusion.
    • Both girls saw the adults around them afraid.
    • Both girls were expected to take responsibility for something that was done to them, not by them.
    • Neither girl’s parents could protect them.
    • Both girls felt that there were unstated rules “in the air”.

As these were shared, I invited teachers to add ideas they hadn’t thought of before to their list. Then I asked them to look at their expanded list and think about which similarity seemed the most  important or significant to them and on another page of their notebook to briefly explain why. Using another think-to-write strategy, the Write-Around, from Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke‘s Content Area Writing, I then had everyone pass their notebook to the person on their right. That person would then read what the other person wrote then write a quick response, extending, commenting, questioning, and probing what the writer before them had said, before passing the notebooks yet again to the right.

After several passes, the notebooks were returned to their owners who were eager to see how their original thinking had traveled and evolved. And at that point, they felt they would be prepared to have a more formal discussion or even to begin planning out a piece of writing. But perhaps, most importantly, they saw how this process could help lift their students’ thinking beyond the obvious or the superficial in ways that would help them, not just meet the Standards, but understand the undercurrents of a topic in that deep, more penetrating way.

Which brings me back to Vegas and Reggio. After giving myself some time to brainstorm, I did come up with something that was similar and more significant than the fact that both cities had two-word names that were often shortened to one. Both cities revolved around public spaces where people congregated and socialized. In Las Vegas, it was the casinos; in Reggio, the piazzas. And what seemed different within this similarity was the purpose of those spaces. In Reggio the piazzas helped the community connect and strengthen their social bonds, while the casinos were there to make money—with visitors like me forced to walk through the casinos just to get water or coffee.

These differences led to a final similarity: The purpose of these spaces reflected the cultural values of each of the cities, with those values again being different. Anyone want to place a bet on which one I liked best?

Reggio Piazza Las Vegas Casino

A Close Look at Close Reading

As teachers and schools continue to wrestle with implementing the Common Core Standards, I hear more and more talk—and more and more questions—about the term ‘close reading’. Interestingly enough, the term doesn’t appear in the actual Standards, though it crops up repeatedly in many Standards-related material, including the now famous—or infamous—videos of Standards author David Coleman dissecting Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” And Text Complexity co-author Douglas Fisher has said that close reading is “the only way we know how students can . . . really learn to provide evidence and justification,” as the Common Core requires.

So what exactly do we mean by ‘close reading’? According to Timothy Shanahan, who’s become something of a spokesman for the Standards, close reading is “an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it and what it means.” I agree completely that close reading allows a reader to understand what a text says and what it means, with what it means directly related to the author’s decisions about detail and language and structure—i.e., how it says what it says. But for me, analysis is an off-shoot of close reading, something I can produce, if I’m asked to do so, after I’ve read closely.

I think this because, by definition, analysis involves thinking about how the parts contribute to the whole, which presupposes an understanding or vision of the whole. Putting analysis in front of understanding seems a bit like putting the cart before the horse. And asking students through a text-dependent question to analyze a part before they’ve had a chance to consider the whole risks putting them in the position of the blind men in the old Indian tale who sought to understand what an elephant was by attending to its parts. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was like a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was like a rope; while a third stroked the ear and thought it was a fan. None was able to make sense of the whole when asked only to consider a part.

My own vision of close reading is better captured in some of the guidelines colleges provide students. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, for instance, advises ‘tracking’ your understanding of a text through margin notes that often consist of questions, with an example that bares more than a passing resemblance to the kind of questions that come up when students are using a Know/Wonder chart, noticing patterns across a text, and wondering what the writer might be trying to tell them through the details he’s chosen.

Example of close reading annotation using Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof,” from the Purdue Online Writing Lab

Harvard also provides a “How to Do a Close Reading” guide to students, which breaks close reading down into a two-part process: First the reader observes facts and details in the text, then he interprets what he’s observed through inductive reasoning—that is, he builds an interpretation bottoms-up from the details, rather than by deductively starting with a claim and then finding evidence to support it. And they offer the following tips, which sound similar to the kind of thinking the fifth graders I described in a recent post engaged in (with the teacher transcribing their thoughts in lieu of annotating the text):

1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text, noting anything that strikes you as surprising or significant, or that raises questions.

2. Look for patterns in the things you’ve noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.

3. Ask questions about the patterns you’ve noticed—especially the how and why.

This two-pronged process has always seemed to me a lot like the scientific method. The reader attends to the details an author gives just as a scientist attends to the details of whatever phenomena he’s studying. And from those observations, each develops a hunch that attempts to explains what they’ve noticed, which in science we call a hypothesis. Then just like the scientist, the reader continues to probe and observe, testing her hunch out as she encounters new details and looks back on ones she’s read, revising, refining and developing her ideas until all the pieces fit—at which point she comes to a final understanding, which is like a scientist’s theory. Only then, I would argue, can the reader’s thinking be turned into a claim whose validity can be proved in a deductive fashion using many of the same details that helped her understand as evidence.

Unfortunately, however, some of the approaches that aim to support close reading rob students of the opportunity to notice and to develop ideas of their own—which, as Harvard says, “is central to the whole academic enterprise.” Take Achieve the Core’s 8th grade Close Reading Exemplar for “Long Night of the Little Boats” by Basil Heatter, which recounts an incident from the Battle of Dunkirk when a ragtag flotilla crossed the English channel to rescue soldiers who were stranded on a beach during World War II.

My hunch is that the exemplar writers followed a process similar to Harvard’s to arrive at their own understanding of the piece (noticing, questioning, and interpreting, perhaps, automatically in their heads). They then rephrased their understanding as a question for the final writing task: “How did shared human values, both on the part of the little boat rescuers and the soldiers, play a part in the outcome of Dunkirk?” With that in place they then designed a series of questions and steps that would focus the students’ attention on details that were key to their own understanding’s development, such as:

The students neither own the noticings here, nor the development of the ideas. And the ‘help’ that teachers are asked to provide in order that students ‘see’ what they’re supposed to runs the risk of being as much an act of spoon-feeding as some of the pre-teaching practices that have come under fire are. Of course, it does increase the likelihood that students will meet the Standards. But they’ll do so by plugging in someone else’s language about details someone else has noticed to support an idea someone else has formulated. And that’s a far cry from the independent thinking that colleges want students to have.

To support that kind of independence, we have to design instruction that engages students in both components of the close reading process: to first be observers and questioners and then to use their observations and questions to, as Harvard puts it,  “reason toward our own ideas.” That may, indeed, involve asking students questions, but those questions need to be open enough for students to engage in real close reading, not an overly-prompted knockoff.

And so to ensure that we don’t put the cart before the horse, let’s remember this when it comes to close reading:

Questions before Answers

Hunch before Claim

Understanding before Analysis

Don’t Throw the Baby Out with the Bathwater: Some Thoughts on Teaching to the Standards

As we head into the final year before full implementation of the Common Core Standards is required by those states that are ‘racing to the top’, I sense some anxiety in the air. In meetings with teachers and in educators’ blogs questions keep popping up: Is there still a place for read aloud? Or genre studies? Or writers’ notebooks? And what about guided and independent reading? What about essential questions?

With all this uncertainty and a deadline pending (not to mention federal money), it’s tempting to jettison everything we’ve done and teach directly to the Standards, with specific lessons aimed, for instance, at determining the theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text (RL2 for 5th grade). Or we could follow the same route that has led New York City and 19 other urban school districts to sign a pact stating that since “80 to 90 percent of the Reading Standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis . . . aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions.”

On the one hand, I suppose there’s some logic to this. But beyond the questions I’ve already raised about Achieve the Core’s brand of text-dependent questions—and the fact that the actual road to success is rarely a straight, direct path—the phrase ‘teach to the Standards’ sounds eerily like ‘teach to the test’ to me. And we all know how real learning suffers when we teach to the test.

I’m also reminded of these wise words from the developer of the 6 Traits approach to writing and the author of The 9 Rights of Every Writer, Vicki Spandel:

“The problem with standards is not that they aim too 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—to help our children write with passion and touch the hearts of readers—the little things tend to fall into place anyway. We get the topic sentences and details and strong verbs we hoped to see because those little things help the writer reach her loftier goals. What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said she should, but because these writer’s skills took her where she wanted to go all along, to a place where her writing became powerful.”

I believe the same is true for readers. When we teach students to read for the ‘right reasons’—to deeply engage with a text in a way that “deepens and widens and expands our sense of life,” in the words of Anne Lamott—the Standards tend to fall into place. We get the inferences we hoped to see, not because we’ve pulled our hair out trying to teach students to infer, but because they’re actively looking for clues that might help them answer the burning questions the text has raised for them. And we get them valuing evidence, not because we told them they should, but because they’ve experienced for themselves how attending to details leads to insight .

We can see this in action in the classroom examples that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Dolike the fifth graders reading Patricia Reilly Giff‘s Pictures of Hollis WoodsBy keeping track of what they were figuring out and what they were confused or wondering about in the beginning of the book, these students developed a first draft impression of Hollis as an angry, misunderstood girl who desperately wanted a family—which, as you can see from the excerpt below, required a lot of inferring. And as they explained what made them think that, they met Reading Literature Standard 1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from it.”

They also had a slew of why questions about Hollis’s behavior and circumstance, which fueled their reading and became what we might call lines of inquiry. Following these lines as they read forward, they also began to notice patterns. They saw a pattern in the way the book was structured, with italicized sections describing a picture before each actual chapter. They saw patterns formed by lines that were repeated, like “I’ll show you tough,” and patterns in the character’s actions and feelings, such as “Hollis always imagines talking to Steven in her head,” and “Hollis always thinks about the mountain—even though she tells herself not to.” And all those patterns led them again to that critical question, “Why?”

Tracking those patterns, they also noticed that some of them broke or changed, at which point they began to have hunches about what the writer might be trying to show them through those changing patterns. These hunches, which they kept revising as they read, eventually developed into interpretations of the book’s big ideas or themes. And as they considered the implication of those ideas for their own lives, they deepened and widened and expanded their sense of what makes people tick. They also incidentally met the fifth grade Reading Standards for Literature 2-6, without us teaching the Standards per se or directing them via questions to lines or passages we’d deemed important.

Given all the questions about instructional approaches stirred up by the Standards, it seems important to note that this work was grounded in balanced literacy and reading workshop. The book was done as a read aloud, with students receiving additional support through small group instruction and conferences that helped them transfer the thinking to their independent reading.

What was different was what, in the language of the Standards, we might call instructional shifts. We shifted the purpose of the read aloud from building community and enjoying a great read to exploring how readers make meaning—which inevitably created a highly engaged community of readers. We shifted the way we talked about details from asking students to distinguish important from unimportant details to asking them to consider the possible importance and meaning of the details they noticed. And we shifted our instruction from generic comprehension strategies, which too often draw students away from the text, to strategies that drew them deeper in, such as these:

© Copyright 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton from What Readers Really Do (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

What we held on to was what I like to think is the ‘baby’ in the bath: The belief that we should be teaching readers and the thinking involved in meaning making, not texts, trusting that if we do that, the students will plumb the depths of a text, read deeply and meet the Standards—and possibly even become lifelong readers who value the printed word. And that’s what I think we shouldn’t throw out, no matter what else gets tossed, if we’re serious about empowering students to truly be independent.