Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

fresh crime scene with yellow tape at night

I’ve thought about writing this post for a while but was finally inspired—and emboldened—by a wonderful article I recently read called “Reading Is About More Than Evidence” by educator Mia Hood. Her work in classrooms led her to observe and question many of the same practices I’d noticed, too, but before I launch into that, I first want to be crystal clear: I dearly want students to have deep and meaningful text-based discussions that are rooted in the details they’ve noticed and what they think the author might be exploring about the human condition and life through the details she’s woven across the text. And I want them to write their ideas about that in the most thoughtful, insightful and text-based way possible.

Claim DefinitionBut to be frank, I don’t like the word evidence. It’s a word I associate with courtrooms, crime scenes and forensic labs, not really with reading and writing. And when I look up the noun form of the word claim in the dictionary (as I did in my earlier post about rigor), the word has some strange connotations, which can also be seen in the thesaurus where words like pretense, right, assertion and declaration are listed as synonyms. There’s something a little aggressive about these words; they invite challenge, dispute and/or concession, not consideration and reflection—and for me, they conjure up visions of miners staking claims to land they then protect with rifles and baited traps.

Mia Hood worries that the word evidence has “seeped into our students’ ways of thinking about [texts]” in ways that are making them “think that a text’s raison d’etre is to serve as War Dancesevidence.” And this is often reinforced by the tasks we set students up to do as they read. I’m reminded, for instance, of a high school teacher I worked with who had his students read Sherman Alexie‘s intriguing and complex (in terms of ideas, if not Lexile levels) story “Breaking and Entering” from his collection War DancesIt’s about a Native American film editor—whose job, as he sees it, is to “omit all necessary information” in the films he edits—who recounts how he came to kill an unarmed black teenager who had broken into his basement to steal things. The story raises all kinds of questions about race, identity, power, and the manipulation of information; yet the teacher was using the text not to deeply explore these ideas, but to help students hone their argument skills by having them debate whether or not the character was guilty of murder or had acted in self-defense. And after a first read to get the gist—and have a brief talk about the story—they were then asked to reread it in order to collect evidence for their debate position.

I wasn’t there when the debates took place, but I’m often in classrooms where students argue two sides of an issue either in response to a prompt or assignment, as in the case What Do Fish Have To Do With Anythingabove, or to students’ ideas. The latter happened in another classroom I worked in where students were reading Avi’s odd but compelling story “What Do Fish Have To Do With Anything.” In this story, the main character Willie is intrigued with a homeless man who appears across the street from the apartment house where he lives with his depressed mother who doesn’t want Willie to go near the man. Wille’s father had abandoned the two of them six months previously, and as happens with many students I’ve read this story with, some think the homeless man is Willie’s father. In fact, some hold on to that idea right up till the end, at which point, with no further clues appearing to support it, they have to shift and consider instead what the writer might be trying to show if the homeless man was just that.

This particular class, however, had also been practicing ‘grand conversations’, which their teacher described as student-led discussion in which students make differing claims about a text. Shortly after they encountered the homeless man in the story, she suggested that rather having me facilitate their discussion, we let them have a grand conversation, which the students enthusiastically leapt into. The problem was that the students seemed to think that the point of the conversation was not, as Grand Conversations authors Ralph Dr. Seuss Arguing CreaturesPeterson and Maryanne Eeds wrote, to “experience in a dramatic way what it means to construct meaning,” and the students “take note of the shifts in thinking that occur as the interpretation of a text evolves,” but win an argument. And as the students started to argue their claim, their voices rose, they stopped listening to each other and seemed intent on only making their point.

These students would have benefitted much more by reading forward with their minds still open, attending closely to all the text held rather than hunting only for details that would support their prematurely made claim. But by focusing our teaching on how to make claims and back them up with evidence, we sometimes neglect teaching them how to construct an insightful and supportable idea in the first place. And I think this is in part because of our word choice. We talk about claims instead of interpretations and evidence instead of details and this has several effects. One is that, intentionally or not, we often ask students to make claims before they’ve really had a chance to think deeply about a text, which often leads to superficial or shallow claims. And sometimes we accept those so long as they’re backed up with evidence. But the other consequence is even more troubling.

In a thought-provoking piece from The New York Times called “Young Minds in Critical Condition” author Michael S. Roth explores what college students stand to lose if they—and we—value their critical and arguing skills over their interpretive ones. According to Roth:

“In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. [And in doing so] they may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in classrooms.”

I believe that potential to find or create meaning in books is the greatest gift reading gives us as it impacts not only our understanding of a text, but of ourselves, others and the vladimir-nabokov-caress-the-detail-the-divineworld we live in. I don’t, however, think that we have to stake a claim and argue over which is more important. If we help students see how readers make meaning and construct interpretation by, as the writer Vladimir Nabokov says, “caressing” details and connecting them together to consider whatever nuggets of wisdom they reveal across the entire text, they can then turn those more informed and nuanced interpretations into claims, using the very details they noticed to build their interpretations as evidence.

Of course, teaching students to construct interpretations is much harder than teaching them to support claims with evidence, which is perhaps the other reason why we don’t always go there. But isn’t it worth the time if it helps students build not just one but two capacities to think and understand deeply, as well as gives them a more meaningful—and accurate—vision of what it really means to read?

Learning vs. Training: The Power of Real Professional Development

Pinky and the Brain Pondering Critical Thinking2Last Friday I had the honor of presenting at the annual fall conference of the University of New Hampshire’s Learning through Teaching Program, and as I looked out at the audience excitedly talking, I was reminded that it was exactly a year ago that I had sat in a room, not all that dissimilar from the one I was currently standing in, in Reggio Emilia, Italy. Last year I was the one listening as the teachers and pedogogistas from Reggio shared the utterly amazing work they were doing with children, and rarely a day passes that I don’t think back to the experience I had there as a learner.

As I wrote about on my return, seeing and hearing the work that both teachers and students were doing in Reggio made me question all sorts of things I had taken as givens, such as helping students build stamina in reading, creating charts to help students hold on to learning, and equating engagement with students being ‘on task.” For me it was the best sort of professional development, the kind that left me reflecting on my practice, questioning my assumptions and coming away with a vision of teaching and learning that I wanted to work toward—despite the fact that I didn’t fully know exactly how I’d get there.

What passes as professional development these days, however, is often simply training for the implementation of a program. That’s not to say that kind of PD is inherently bad; I’ve been trained in many things over the years that I’ve found some use in—from how to take a running record to how to do guided reading. And God only knows how many times I’ve been trained to use a particular rubric to evaluate everything from a standardized test essay to a complex text. But to use a distinction made by the educator and writer David Warlick in a wonderful blog post titled “Are They Students or Learners?“, I think I was a student in those training session, not an actual learner.

What Are You Measuring?As Warlick says students do, I came away equipped “with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge [through] prescribed and paced learning” rather than “with tools for exploring a variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding and constructing knowledge,” which is what learners do. And like students at the end of a lesson, the success of those training-like PD sessions could be assessed by “measuring what has been learned,” not by “measuring what the learner can do with what’s been learned,” which can only happen over time with much thought and often many mistakes.

a_whole_new_mindThis shift from professional development that invites teachers to discover and construct their own knowledge to PD that trains them to implement a program seems unfortunate in many, many ways. All the highest performing schools, for instance, from Finland to Ontario to Singapore, have invested in the very kind of PD that we seem not to value much here, where teachers are given time to explore and collaborate. And if David H. Pink, the author of the best-selling book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Futureis even half-way right, we need to be able to do much more than deliver a script. As he writes in the introduction to his book:

“The last few decades have belonged to a certain kind of person with a certain kind of mind—computer programmers who could crank code, lawyers who could craft contracts, MBAs who could crunch numbers. But the keys to the kingdom are changing hands. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers. These people—artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers—will now reap society’s richest rewards and share its greatest joys.”

Making meaning, recognizing patterns, and seeing the big picture were all on display in the work I did with the teachers in New Hampshire, where I designed what the teachers in Reggio would call a “context for learning.” Rather than training the group to teach the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I describe in What Readers Really Dowe read one of my favorite short stories together,”The Raft” by Peter Orner, which allowed them to experience and construct an understanding of both the story and the process of thinking that supported that.

Using the simplest and most adaptable of tools—a T-chart that kept track of what we each noticed and what we each made of that (i.e., a question, an inference, a hunch, a connection or an interpretation), we shared out our ideas and talked in a way that allowed us to do the following:

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We then explored how we might engage students in the exact same process we’d experienced by setting them up to explore a text by attending to what they noticed and discovering what they could make from that. And to better understand the thinking that involved, we explored a number of texts to notice what kinds of problems they posed for readers and how a student could solve those. We then ended the day with the participants sharing out what they wanted to hold on to—which as you can see from the take-away charts below were as varied as the ideas they’d constructed about “The Raft”:

UNH chart 3

UNH Chart 4

Of course, the real measure of their learning will be what they discover as they explore and experiment with what they learned back in their own classrooms. And my hunch is that, just as with readers, that will depend on who they are, what they notice about themselves, their students and the texts they read, and how they fit those pieces together to create  a meaningful classroom.

And as for me, I learned something, too. As happens every time I’ve used “The Raft,” a few teachers made something from what they noticed that I’d never considered before, which expands and enriches my own understanding of this wonderful story. Also seeing the power of these take-away charts, I was reminded of the kind of pedagogical documentation I saw in the Reggio schools, where the walls were adorned not only with student products but with quotes that captured the students’ thinking as they engaged in the process. I want to work on that more this year, since quotes like these seem as much evidence of learning as any score on a rubric. In fact, I think I may have discovered the next step on my own learning journey.

And that’s the power of real professional development and real, authentic teaching: the teacher always discovers something, too, because she or he is a learner.

Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.

PaperBagPrincessThemes

As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg, http://www.natascharosenberg.com