Learning by Doing: What We Discover When We Do the Tasks We Assign to Students

learning_by_doing

For those of us who like to ground our writing instruction in mentor texts—i.e., letting students read and study great examples of the kind of writing they’ll be doing—the Common Core Standards pose some problems, especially when it comes to the kind of textual analysis the Standards seem to emphasize. Writing standard 9, for instance, which begins in the fourth grade, asks students to “draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research” with reference to a particular reading literature or information text standard. Many interpret this as pure academic writing of the sort that would address the kind of performance-based task prompts that are listed in the Common Core’s Appendix B. These are specifically aimed at demonstrating proficiency in one or more reading standards, with the teacher usually being the sole audience—and there’s not exactly a ton of great samples of that kind of writing out there.

Default ButtonThis lack of mentor texts frequently leaves students without a clear vision of what this kind of writing might look and sound like. And it often encourages us as teachers to default to some preconceived and often formulaic notions about structure and organization that ConversationEducation blogger and educator Tomasen Carey calls mortifying myths and ridiculous rules in her post on “Miss-Interpretations of the Common Core and Teaching Writing.” So to make this kind of writing more concrete for students and teachers alike, I’ve started asking the teachers I work with (and myself, as well) to try to write the tasks we design to meet particular standards—and virtually every time we do this, we discover that our preconceived notions don’t actually hold much weight.

Hey World Here I Am CoverTake the group of fifth grade teachers I worked with who wanted their students to write an analysis aligned to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to “compare and contrast stories in the same genre on their approaches to similar themes and topics.” To try it out ourselves we read two short texts that circled the same feminist theme: “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little‘s Hey World, Here I Am!a deceptively simple text that requires far more thinking to get than its Lexile or reading level might suggest, and The Paper Bag Princess, Robert Munsch‘s gender bending fairy tale that I looked at in my post about theme.

When we first discussed the standard, the teachers all envisioned that the writing would take the form of a four-paragraph essay with the first paragraph introducing the purpose of comparing and contrasting the two texts, the second listing what was similar between them, the third the differences, and the fourth concluding with some final reflection or thoughts about both texts. But as you’ll see from mine below, when we tried it ourselves, both the structure and content looked different than what they’d envisioned.

Compare & Contrast Thematic Essay

In slightly different ways—and without discussing it beforehand—each of us did what I did above. Rather than introducing our purpose, we each went straight to what was thematically similar about the texts, then we each described in more detail how those similarities played out in the two texts, with one paragraph devoted to one text and another to the second. In the limited time we’d given ourselves, we did end with a paragraph that spoke to both texts, but we all kept the focus again on the similarities because they seemed more significant than the differences between the texts. And in that way, we automatically went for what was “deep and penetrating” versus what was “readily apparent” as the Making Thinking Visible authors I quoted in an early post on compare and contrast suggested we do whenever we engage in a particular thinking skill.

Poppleton IllustrationSimilarly, I worked with a group of fourth grade ESL teachers who wanted their students to write an analysis and reflection tied to Reading Literature Standard 2 as part of a unit on overcoming adversity. The standard asks students to “determine a theme of a story, drama or poem from the details in the text; summarize the test,” and initially the teachers thought that, given how new and potentially challenging the thinking around theme might be, they would only focus on the first half of the standard and let the summary go. When we tried to do it ourselves, however, with the story “Icicles” from Poppleton in Winter, which we thought might be a good entry point for those English Language Learners, every single one of us included what we decided to call a thematically focused summary (as you’ll see again in mine). By writing, we realized that the summary wasn’t actually a separate task; it was the way each of us showed how the theme was conveyed through the details of the story—though the summaries we wrote were different than the summaries we tend to teach.

Poppleton Essay

In each case, we deepened our own understanding of what this kind of writing could look like by doing it ourselves. And in each case we didn’t do what we imagined we’d teach students to do based on our preconceived notions. We also wound up with several mentor texts, which we were excited to share with the students so that they, too, could have a better idea of what this kind of writing could look like. And we had a clearer vision of what our instructional focus might be based on what we’d done as writers.

Of course, I’m still wrestling with how to make this particular kind of writing more meaningful for students. But to do that I think we’d have to breaking yet another mortifying myth and ridiculous rule that I broke myself: That there is no “I” in essays.

Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters

the-heart-of-the-matter1

Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.

OldWomanWho1

OldWomanWho2

Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

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.