On Rigor, Grit, Productive Struggle and What Our Word Choice Means

Word Choice Matters

As happened last year, many of the teachers, administrators and parents who left feedback on last month’s English Language Arts test at testingtalk.org pointed to what they felt were questions that focused on minutiae which, as Brooklyn principal Liz Phillips said “had little bearing on [children’s] reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.” Most of those questions were aimed at assessing the Common Core’s Reading Standards 4-6, which are the ones that look at word choice and structure. Having not seen this year’s tests, I’m not in a position to comment—though if the questions were like the ones I shared from some practice tests earlier, I can see what the concern was about.

Most of the practice test questions associated with those standards were, indeed, picayune and disconnected from the text’s overall meaning. But I don’t think that means that thinking about word choice and structure isn’t important—only that the test questions weren’t very good. Word choice and structure can, in fact, be windows onto a text’s deeper meaning. Or as my colleagues Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have suggested, thinking about Reading Standards 4-6 can get us to Standards 1-3, which are all about meaning. And so this week, I’d like to apply Reading Anchor Standard 4—”Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choice shape meaning or tone”—to three key buzzwords attached to the Standards—rigor, grit and productive struggle.

Rigor DefinitionTo me, all three seem to have strangely negative connotations. And in that, I’m not alone. Many educators have pointed out that, if we look up the word rigor in the dictionary, we find definitions that suggest something downright punishing. That’s why some educational writers, such as Stevi Quate and John McDermott, the authors of Clock Watchersdeliberately decided to use the word challenge instead of rigor in their most recent book The Just-Right ChallengeOthers, such as former NCTE president Joanne Yatvin prefer the word vigor, which turning to the thesaurus this time, lists synonyms such as energy, strength, gusto and zing. Either or both of those words seem better than one connected to stiff dead bodies—i.e., rigor mortis. Yet rigor is the word that’s most in vogue.

The word grit is also popular today and is frequently touted as “the secret to success.” Yet it, too, has a whiff of negativity about it. Grit is what’s needed to get through something
Child Refusing Dinnerunpleasant, boring or even painful that someone else has said is good for you—like eating your vegetables or sitting through days and days of standardized testing. And as Alfie Kohn notes in his great piece “Ten Concerns about the ‘Let Them Teach Grit’ Fad,” grit seems connected to a slew of other terms, like self-discipline, will power and deferred gratification, all of which push students to “resist temptation, put off doing what they enjoy in order to grind through whatever they’ve been told to do—and keep at it for as long as it takes.”

Here, too, we could choose another word, like resilience, without the same connotations as grit, but we don’t. According to Merriam-Webster again, resilience focuses on “the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change,” not just the stamina or toughness to trudge through it. And as former principal and speaker Peter DeWitt notes in his EdWeek blog post “Should Children Really Be Expected to Have Grit?“, resilience “can coincide with empathy and compassion,” whereas grit seems more about sheer doggedness—and in the case of vegetables and tests, compliance, which may be the word’s hidden agenda.

And then there’s the term productive struggle, which I confess I’ve embraced in the past, as an earlier blog post attests to. I believe completely in giving students time to explore and wrestle with a text in order to arrive at their own meaning because whatever is learned through that process—about that text, texts in general, and the reader himself—will stick much more than if we overly direct or scaffold students to a pre-determined answer. But that word struggle comes with the same negative connotations as the two other words do. The thesaurus, for instance, lists battle and fight as synonyms for struggle, with pains and drudgery as related words. And while I think we can reclaim words—such as turning the word confusion into something to celebrate rather than avoid—I’ve recently started to wonder if we shouldn’t choose a more positive word to get at the same concept, as you’ll see in the twitter exchange I had with two teachers after reading a blog post by the wonderful Annie PaulTwitter Inquiry vs. Struggle

Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as “a systematic search for the truth or facts about something” and unlike the word struggle, which seems mostly connected to hardship and conflict, the word inquiry is connected to questioning, challenge and self-reflection. In fact, it seems to embrace the very habits of mind that NCTE has identified in their Framework for Postsecondary Success:

NCTE Habits of Mind Framework

So what does it say about our culture that the words we’ve chosen to latch on to the most all seem to carry connotations of hardship, toughness and forbearance? Some writers, like Alfie Kohn, see this as simply a new manifestation of the Puritan work ethic—in a time in which it’s become much harder to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. Others, like P. L. Thomas of Furman University, sees in the “‘grit’ narrative” something much more insidious: “a not-so-thinly masked appeal to racism”, with students of color being tagged as the ones most in need of more rigor, grit and time spent struggling.

In addition to these troubling implications, these three words also focus on student deficits, not on student strengths. And they suggest that we, as teachers, should be like Catwoman with her scowl and her whip, rather than like the Cat Lady who invites children to get to know the kitties. And I can’t help thinking that if, as a society, we chose some of those other words from the NCTE Framework instead—such as curiosity, openness, creativity and engagement—students would engage in productive struggle, even with something deemed rigorous, without explicit lessons on grit. And that’s because . . .

Word Choice Matters 2

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant

Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.

Wind-in-the-Willows-logo

Learning by Doing (or What’s Good for the Gosling is Good for the Goose)

Goose & Goslings

I’m a big believer in the idea that what’s good for students is good for teachers as well. If we say, for instance, that students benefit from having choices and a sense of ownership, I think the same should hold true for teachers. If students deserve time to experiment, practice and sometimes even fail as part of the process of learning, then teachers deserve that time, too. And if we think that students learn best when they’re also given opportunities to wrestle with problems in an active, inquiry-based way, then teachers need those opportunities, too, in order to more deeply understand their students, what to teach and how to best teach it.

Supporting and investing in teachers’ ongoing professional development in order to build their capacity as educators is exactly what schools in Finland and Ontario have done to enviable results. And it’s at the heart of two success stories that recently made the news here at home. The first comes from Union City, New Jersey, a community of poor, mostly immigrant families, where three-quarters of the students come from homes where only Spanish is spoken. As reported in the New York Times article “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” Union City made a dramatic turn-around over the course of three years from being a system “in need of improvement” to one whose high school graduation rate rose to a whopping 89.5%, with a vast majority of those graduates going on to college.

Success StoryThe second story comes from New Dorp High School in Staten Island, which again serves many poor and working-class students. As Peg Tyre writes in The Atlantic, New Dorp went from being a school where four out of ten students dropped out to one where 80% graduated by developing an academic writing program. In each case, the change was the result of principals supporting teachers in undertaking an in-depth inquiry into what was holding students back and what the teachers might need to learn and do to address those problems. And in each case, scores of educators have attempted to clone and package what these schools have done–which I think misses the point.

As David Kirp writes in “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools”:

“School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places . . . didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and glueing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy . . . [and] each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.”

Similarly, educators Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones echo Kirp’s sentiments in their response to Tyre’s piece, which was also published by The Atlantic. “When positive change occurs in schools,” they write,

“there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp . . . empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see . . . . “

I, too, believe that empowering teachers as researchers and learners is the real secret to student success, whether it’s at the school or district level or, as most happens in my own work, at the classroom, grade or discipline level. And that means that whenever I have the opportunity, I get teachers reading and writing—and talking about their own process—to better understand from the inside-out what they’re asking students to do and how they, as learners, do it.

IRA ConventionThis Friday, for instance, I’ll be in San Antonio for the International Reading Association (IRA) convention, participating in a full-day workshop organized by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (of the indispensable blog and website Burkins & Yaris) on ways to revamp balanced literacy to better meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. There, Dorothy Barnhouse and I will facilitate a close reading experience for the participants that will allow them to better understand—and to feel—both what it truly means to read closely within a community of readers and how that enables readers to make deeper meaning of what they read.

We’ll do this not by asking a string of text-dependent questions but by inviting the participants to first pay attention to what they notice and then consider what that might mean—i.e., what the writer might be trying to show them through the details and structure he’s chosen. And if this group is anything like the groups of teachers I’ve worked with before, this will be both challenging and exhilarating—or as a high school student said to her teacher after I’d modeled this same process in her classroom just the other day, “That was hard but fun.”

Book with LightAfter experiences like the one we’ll be facilitating at IRA, many teachers have confessed that they’ve never read like this before—which should come as no surprise given all the different paths people take to wind up in a classroom. Many are also amazed and astounded by how much more they’re able to ‘see’ in a text when they’re given a chance, as well as by the variety of interpretations that different teachers developed. And like teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, who wrote a piece for EdNews about an institute Dorothy and I gave last summer, they often leave committed to giving their students this kind of opportunity, as well.

Teachers also come away from these reading experiences with a deeper understanding of what some of the individual standards mean, especially those in the Craft and Structure band, and a better sense what it looks, sounds and feels like to really engage in that work. And all of this means they’ll go back to their classrooms with a much deeper, more complex and nuanced view of what they’re expected to teach—none of which would happen if they were handed a script, even if it was one that was developed by others who went through a deep learning process.

I’ll be sharing more about what we can discover, as teachers, when we try to write the tasks we assign to students in an upcoming post. But for now I invite you to also take a look at “Teachers, Learners, Leaders” by Ann Lieberman, a wonderful article about the self-designed professional learning projects undertaken by teachers in Ontario, and to remember these words of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard:

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”