The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.

14CowsforAmerica_1

In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.

14CowsforAmerica_2

As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?

Hmmm.2

For the New Year: Some Signs of Hope

Crocus in the Snow

It was seven degrees outside when I started writing this, which, with the wind chill, feels like minus six. And while this kind of cold usually sends me into a state of despair, I’m finding myself handling it better than I might because I think I’m feeling heartened by signs that seem to point to a thaw or a shift in the discussion about so-called school reform that has for too long left real educators frozen out in the cold.

The new year, for instance, started out with a bang here in New York City as Bill de Blasio, our new mayor, appointed Carmen Farina as the city’s next School Chancellor. Two of former mayor Bloomberg’s appointees, Joel Klein and Cathy Black, had no experience in public education (beyond that the fact that Klein had attended New York City public schools as a child). But Carmen Farina is one of us. For four decades, she’s worked for the city’s public schools, spending 22 years as a classroom teacher in Brooklyn before Carmen Farinamoving on to become a principal, then a district superintendent, and the deputy chancellor for the DOE’s now defunct division of teaching and learning.

According to Chalkbeat New York, a great site for all city school news, she’s promised “to pursue a ‘progressive agenda’ that would reduce standardized test preparation in classrooms,” and in her own words she’s already talking about the “need to bring joy back” instead of more accountability and data. I know she may have her hands tied a bit by the State’s Education Commissioner John King (whose comments about parents expressing frustration with the State’s Common Core rollout at an Town Hall event rival Arne Duncan’s beyond belief remarks about white suburban soccer moms). But with a vision that she describes as “five Cs and an E“—collaboration, communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency— it’s my dearest hope that she’ll be able to shift the focus here from assessment and data to instruction and students, which is where it needs to be.

I was also excited to hear the news that Kate DiCamillo will become our next national ambassador for young people’s literature. Of course, the previous ambassadors—Jon Scieszka, Katherine Paterson and Walter Dean Myers—have all been great, but I feel a personal tie to DiCamillo. When my daughter was in fourth grade, the librarian at her school chose to read an unknown book by an unknown author to my daughter’s class based on nothing more than the first page. DiCamillo was the author and the book was Because of Winn Dixie, which my daughter and her friends fell in love with, as so many others after them have. In fact, they loved the book so much, they wrote a letter to DiCamillo and received a long and lovely hand-written reply saying that their letter was the very first piece of fan mail she had ever received.

KateDicamilloAs ambassador, DiCamillo has said that her mission will be “to get as many kids and as many adults together reading as [she] can” because she believes that “stories connect us.” I have to believe than anyone reading this passionately believes that, too, and several new studies have come out recently that demonstrate the quantifiable benefits in reading stories.  A New York Times article, for instance, called “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov” reports on a neurological study that found that people who read literary fiction “performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence,” than those who did not. And teacher Collette Bennett’s blog post on the National Assessment of Education Progress Report for 2012 shows that, across demographics, students who read for pleasure outperform those who don’t on standardized tests. Unfortunately, these studies haven’t managed to change certain Common Core-inspired practices, which include all but abandoning fiction for nonfiction, eliminating or cutting back on in-class independent reading, and giving students a steady diet of excerpts and short texts because that’s what’s on the test. My hope here is that, in her new position, Kate DiCamillo will become the perfect spokesperson for the lasting power of stories and real reading.

idea-and-creative-conceptFinally, I spent much too much time over the break reading blog posts by fellow educators, many by the nominators and nominees of this years Sunshine Awards, which celebrate educational bloggers. That meant I didn’t get any drawing done, but I did find another reason to hope that this year might bring some real change. The richness, diversity and depth of thought I encountered on those blogs is mind-boggling. And I believe that the fact that these educators are connecting with each other through blogs, twitter and websites not only qualifies them to teach 21st century literacy, but it makes them a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, virtually every post I read reflected the very same habits of mind, such as curiosity, openness, creativity and persistence, that the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project have identified as being needed for college. 

Like instruction and stories, these habits of mind have a taken a backseat in much of the current conversation about both readiness and schools—probably because no one has figured out yet how to quantify and test them. But these seem as important to me as the ability to analyze a text or write an argument. And given that we, as teachers, need to be who we want our students to be, these blogs also made me incredibly hopeful—despite the freezing cold!

Flower Field

Sharing Some Blogging Love: The Sunshine Awards

Children's drawing - the sun in the blue skyI’d been looking forward to the days between Christmas and New Years to catch up on blog posts I’ve missed. And in addition to reading several great posts, I was surprised to discover that I’d been nominated for the Sunshine Awards by four fantastic bloggers: Dana Murphy at Murphy’s Law: Musings from a Literacy Coach; Tammy Mulligan who, along with Clare Landrigan, writes Assessment in Perspective; Pat Johnston who, with Katie Keier, is behind Catching Readers Before They Fall; and Heather Rader at Coach to Coach.

To be honest, I knew nothing about the Sunshine Awards until now—and despite a fair amount of surfing, I’m still not sure how they got started. But I’ve learned that they were created to give bloggers a chance to recognize other bloggers, as well as to share a bit more about themselves.  I’m incredibly honored to be acknowledged by such admired and respected colleagues, and I so like the idea of nominating other bloggers that I’ve decided to break my blogging break and follow the award rules, which are as follows:

Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
 Share 11 random facts about yourself.
 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
 List 11 bloggers.  They should be bloggers you believe deserve some recognition and a little blogging love!
 Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. (You cannot nominate the blogger who nominated you.)

So first the random facts:

  1. I share a birthday (same day, different year) with Charles Manson & Grace Kelly.
  2. I’m a book abandoner (finishing only about a third of what I start).
  3. My daughter, who’s an illustration major at Pratt, and I have been working on a picture book together.
  4. In every personal narrative or memoir I’ve ever written, I’ve made something up.
  5. My grandfather was a stone carver and mason who helped create the lions in front of the New York Public Library.
  6. I love toe socks (i.e., gloves for your feet).
  7. When my daughter was younger, we had a pet pygmy hedgehog who we buried in our garden in a shoebox covered with hieroglyphics (she was studying Ancient Egypt when the poor hedgehog died).
  8. I met David, my partner of the last nine years, on an online dating site.
  9. My desire to do road trips by bike comes from reading a color-coded SRA reading passage on the American Youth Hostels in 6th grade.
  10. I know how to say the equivalent of ‘eenie, meenie, miney, moe’ in Swedish.
  11. And like Heather Rader, I, too, am a mindless hummer.

And now the answer to 12 of the questions the nominators posed (I added an extra just to keep things even):

Answers to Dana Murphy’s questions:

  1. What is your favorite blog post you’ve ever written? My current favorite is “What Messages Are We Sending Our Students about Reading Revisited” because I figured out a way of combining a tribute to one of my favorite authors, Alice Munro, with a critique of one of the packaged programs that are taking the heart and soul out of reading.
  2. What advice would you give future teachers? Hold on tightly to whatever made you want to be a teacher in the first place and try not to teach out of fear.
  3. PC or Mac? With the guy I live with, it’s Mac all the way.

Answers to Pat Johnson’s questions:

  1. Tell me something about the grandparent who meant a lot to you. I adored my grandfather who, at Sunday dinners, would always say “Chicken ain’t nothin’ but a bird” before sharpening the knives and carving up my grandmother’s beloved roast chicken.
  2. Name a teacher from your past who impressed you and why? My 5th grade teacher Mr. Holt comes to mind here because he made me aware of what I was unaware of. One day, for instance, after saying the pledge, he asked us to write out the words, which clearly proved that I had no idea what I was saying each morning. (I wrote something like, I plejalleegents to the flag.) And in what seems unimaginable these days, he arranged for another teacher to burst into the room one day holding a banana like a gun and then asked us to write about what we saw. Many were convinced he did have a gun and many swore that he was masked, which led us all to understand that sometimes our eyes are unreliable.
  3. If you could invent a holiday, what would it be for? I second the suggestion of Lena Dunham, the star of the HBO show Girls:

Lena Dunham Tweet

Answers to Tammy Mulligan’s questions:

  1. What are you reading right now? The Christmas present I gave to myself: Archangel by another of my favorite writers, Andrea Barrett. It’s a gorgeous collection of historical fiction short stories that all involve characters who are scientists.
  2. Why did you decide to settle in the town you are living in now? Having grown up in the suburbs of New York City, I moved to Colorado when I was twenty positive I’d never come back. Ten years later, graduate school and a sick parent brought me back to the city, and falling in love with Brooklyn made me stay.
  3. Why blogging? Because I don’t really know who I am if I’m not writing—and blog posts are much more forgiving than a book.

Answers to Heather Rader’s questions:

  1. What is a great read aloud book? I read The Doll Bones by Holly Black over the summer and think it would make a marvelous read aloud for a fifth or sixth grade class.
  2. What are titles of compelling documentaries or foreign films you’ve enjoyed? A few weeks ago I saw the Italian film “The Great Beauty,” which I thought was magnificent. It was the next best thing to being in Rome (which, in my book, is just about the best thing there is).
  3. What color is on your living room walls? Do you love it or hate it? Having lived with colored walls for some time, I went back to basic white a few years ago—but I did do an accent wall in the living room I love that’s like the Sherman Williams Goldfinch.

And now for the fun part: I’d like to share some blogging love with some of the wonderful education bloggers I’ve had the privilege to meet through this blog, who in post after post share their thinking, their questions, their minds and their hearts:

Jan Burkins & Kim Yaris at Burkins & Yaris

Tomasen Carey at ConversationEducation

Mary Lee Hahn at A Year of Reading (which she writes with Franki Sibberson)

Steve Peterson at Inside the Dog

Julieanne Harmatz at To Read To Write To Be

Fran McVeigh at Resource-Full

Matt Karlson at the Opal School Blog

Colette Bennett at Used Books in Class

Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core

Carrie Gelson at There’s a Book for That

Tara Smith at A Teaching Life

And here are 11 questions, which, if you’re tempted to bend the rules, feel free to pick & choose from:

  1. What book would you want with you if you were stranded on a deserted island?
  2. What did you learn from your mother?
  3. Where do you write?
  4. Where do you find joy in your classroom or work?
  5. What do you do to recharge?
  6. What was your favorite book as a child and why did you love it?
  7. If you could have dinner (or coffee or drinks) with anyone living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to ask him or her?
  8. Do you have a quote that you keep (in your mind, a notebook, a pocket, your desk, etc.) that captures something that seems important to you? If so, what is it?
  9. What are you afraid of?
  10. How do you feel about being the age you currently are?
  11. If you could go back to one moment in time, when & where would that be & why?

And now, it’s back to my my blogging break . . .

Holiday Break