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


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.

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook https://www.facebook.com/CantScareATeacher/photos_stream

Making Strategic Decisions about When, How & Why to Teach Vocabulary (Part 1)

A few years ago I had the privilege of hearing the writer Junot Diaz give the keynote address at NCTE. His speech was a fierce and impassioned testament to both the power of the written word and of teachers to change student lives, and I left the hall determined to read his novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which re-invents the American immigrant experience through the eyes of a nerdy Dominican boy who’s landed in New Jersey.

I wouldn’t be writing this, however, if I simply read the book. As it was, it sat unopened on my shelf for more weeks than I care to admit to because I was nervous about reading it. I’d heard that it was filled with Spanish, and not knowing Spanish, I was afraid I’d be frustrated by my inability to understand. And so the book sat there until I decided not to let fear rule my reading life. I cracked it open and immediately fell in love with the characters and Diaz’s sentences. And as for the Spanish, it wasn’t a problem. I could often get the gist from the context, and when that failed, I simply read on, so engaged and enamored with the voice and the story that those unknown words didn’t matter.

I share this because I think there’s a lesson about vocabulary here. Of course, we want to build our students’ word banks and foster an appreciation of language, especially for those learning English. But if we also want to build resilient readers who feel confident of their ability to tackle a text, we may want to reconsider how much vocabulary we introduce up front, aware that too much pre-teaching may actually undermine our students’ ability to become strong, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning unless we know all the words.

What’s needed, I think, is a balance between helping students acquire vocabulary  and helping them become stronger readers—and a recognition that those two things are not exactly the same. In a recent post, for instance, I looked at the opening of the nonfiction book Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd, which uses the word ‘pool’ on the very first page in a way I suspect many children are unfamiliar with. We could, of course, pre-teach the word so they don’t think starfish live in swimming pools. But if we use a text-based Know/Wonder chart and model its use with the first page, we could question the word instead of pre-teach it—as in “I know that starfish live in pools because the writer says that right here, but I wonder if this means swimming pools since I’ve never seen a starfish in a pool.” This would invite students to look out for clues in both the text and the pictures, with a dictionary consulted afterwards if more clarification was needed. And that hunt for clues would greatly increase the likelihood of them remembering the other meaning of the word.

To help students discover what I did when I finally dove into Oscar Wao, I also recommend that teachers give students the opportunity to see how much they can figure out from the words they do know, without getting hung up on the ones they don’t. Here, for instance, is the beginning of an article, “Can Animals Think” by Eugene Linden, that a 6th grade English Language Learner teacher was preparing to have her class read as part of a unit on animal intelligence:

The teacher worried there were too many words the students didn’t know and that those words would bog them down and impact their comprehension. But rather that pre-teaching them, we decided to see what would happen if we asked the students to work with a partner and highlight all the parts they could understand, which looked something like this:

She then asked the partners to re-read the paragraph with just the highlighted words, and in virtually every case, the students ‘got’ what was being described in a way that allowed them to continue engaging with the larger ideas in the article—and they were even able to posit the meaning of some of the unknown words. Then after they’d finished the article and discussed what they thought the writer had to say about the intelligence of animals, the teacher asked the class to vote on a handful of words they’d like to know, and those words became the focus of their vocabulary work for the week.

Depending on the word, this vocabulary work might include one or more of the strategies and tools Janet Allen offers in her wonderful book Inside Words, such as the Frayer Model, which asks students to think about how a new vocabulary word is similar and different to other words they know, and concept ladders, which invite students to dig into an abstract noun to better understand its causes, effects, uses and nuances. In this way, students have strategies that both help them learn vocabulary in a deep, more lasting way and to navigate texts with unfamiliar words with more resilience and confidence, knowing that that happens to every reader every once in a while.

Of course, there are times when we do want to introduce vocabulary before students read. And so in Part 2 I’ll share how a group of high school teachers I recently worked with made decisions about which words to pre-teach and why as they prepared to incorporate more diverse complex texts into their curriculum. For now, though, I think what’s important to remember is that teaching students words is not the same as teaching them how to read—and that students need strategies and tools for both, along with lots of time to practice.

Beyond All About Books (Part 1)

We live in a golden age of children’s books, especially of engaging nonfiction picture books that manage to both inform and entertain children by borrowing techniques from poetry and fiction. Joanna Cole‘s Magic School Bus books, where the indomitable science teacher Miss Frizzle packs her students into a bus to explore everything from the human body to the earth’s substrata, are the classics of these genre-bending hybrids. But there are many others.

Bat Loves the Night by Nicola Davies is part of the Read and Wonder series, which uses various narrative techniques to reveal the behavior and life cycle of all sorts of animals.

Diary of a Worm is one of several hilarious and clever books by Doreen Cronin that offers readers all sorts of factual information in the guise of an insect- or bug-written diary.

Postcards from Pluto by Loreen Leedy teaches readers about the solar system through the postcards a group of space-traveling kids send back to their family and friends on Earth.

And Explorers News by Michael Johnstone is part of the History News series, which brings history alive and accessible through a newspaper format that even includes ads and gossip pages.

Students devour books like these, but oddly enough when we study nonfiction writing, we typically ask them to write All About books or the even more generic Report of Information, which can all too often lead to plagiarism, indiscriminate fact plucking and, in my pre-google-image-search days, the ransacking of National Geographics with scissors.

There’s much to be gained by writing All About books, especially in the way that using and manipulating nonfiction text features—e.g., tables of contents, headings and pictures with labels and/or captions—helps students understand how those features support your comprehension as a reader. But clearly that’s not the only way nonfiction writers convey information.

And so, with excitement and some trepidation, I embarked on a unit of creative nonfiction with the third grade teachers from a school in Brooklyn’s Chinatown that has a high percentage of English language learners in both ESL and bilingual classrooms. Many of the students had already written All About books before. And many had struggled with both the writing and the research component, with the teachers often having to spoon-feed information that the students couldn’t access on their own and sometimes pulling the writing out of them, word by painful word. We were curious to see if this kind of writing would allow the students to have a different relationship to both the material and writing, building their identity and sense of agency as more independent writers.

As our mentor text, we chose G. Brian Karas‘s book Atlantic, which uses poetic devices, including personification, to teach readers about the ocean. And we used the countries they were studying in their social studies curriculum for our content.

Karas’s book begins with a single un-nonfiction-like sentence:

I am the Atlantic Ocean.

But it goes on to convey nonfiction-like information in pages such as these:

Studying the text in depth allowed students to create whole class and individual creative nonfiction books on China, Egypt, Brazil and South Africa, with pages that looked like this:

They also studied the different layout of pages in the mentor text, such as these:

which inspired them to create pages like this:

 and this:

Who is the Sinai Mountain wearing orange dress when sun shines on it? I am the Sinai Mountain who looks so beautiful. And I have a important job from people who lives on me. My job is to help people to talk to gods. Also I am 7491 feet tall like a skyscraper.

Of course, the process wasn’t always as simple as looking at the mentor text then emulating what you noticed. Students needed lots of modeling and scaffolds to move past the kind of fact stringing they’d been used to from writing All About books. In Part 2, I’ll share some of the specific supports and scaffolds we offered students, especially those who struggled with English. Those supports ultimately allowed these third graders to more fully own both the content and the writing than their other nonfiction outings had. But we, as teachers, needed to be as creative as the text we were studying.