It’s All About the Journey: Understanding Nonfiction

© 2012 Opportunity Knocks by Joel Robison, used by permission. http://www.facebook.com/JoelRobisonPhotography

Last month I plunged into nonfiction by first exploring what readers really do when they read it and then looking at some of the challenges it poses at the level of comprehension—i.e., what the words literally and inferentially mean line by line and page by page. There are many challenges for readers at this level, especially when we move from books packaged by educational publishers, like Mondo and Rigby, to trade books. At the risk of over-generalizing, the former tends to maximize the accessibility of the content, with text features that support easy fact retrieval and explicitly state the sub-topics. Trade books, on the other hand, frequently operate in less straightforward ways and often require far more inferring to fully comprehend.

They also have more of what I call an authorial presence. That is, we feel the presence of the author more strongly in trade books, whether it’s Mark Kurlansky who begins his fascinating book The Story of Salt with an anecdote from his own life or Seymour Simon who starts his book Volcanoes not with a standard definition or introduction of words like ‘magma,’ but with the ancient Romans and Hawaiians who worshipped gods of fire they associated with volcanoes.

Like many of the nonfiction authors I’ve looked at this summer—Kathleen V. Kudlinski, Henry Petroski, Eugene Linden, and Neil Degrasse Tyson—these writers take us on the kind of journey of thought I described in my first nonfiction post, in which, as writer Alan Lightman puts it, “the facts are important but never enough.” These writers use facts not just to inform us but to explore ideas, and they’ve deliberately chosen and arranged the facts in a particular way to help us, as readers, ‘see’ and consider those ideas.

Doing this, however, requires a kind of mind work that’s different enough from comprehending a sentence to warrant being called something else—which is why Dorothy Barnhouse and I differentiate this kind of thinking from comprehension by calling it understanding. It’s inferring and interpreting across a whole text, not just with a line or a page, which adds another layer of challenge. So what, as teachers, do we need to do to help our students not just comprehend but engage in understanding as well?

We can begin by sharing what Donna Santman calls in her great book for middle school teachers Shades of Meaning a “reading secret”: that there are issues and ideas hiding in the texts students read and one of their main jobs as readers is to think about the ideas the writer might be exploring and how they develop across a text.

For some students, with some texts, this is enough. In Thinking Through Genre, for instance, Heather Lattimer recounts what happened in a 6th grade classroom studying feature articles when, instead of asking students to find the main idea, she asked them to simply jot down the details that stood out for them and, from that, think about what the writer might be wanting them to understand. Rather than groaning, as they did whenever they heard the words ‘main idea,’ they plunged into the text and came up with an array of fresh, insightful thinking.

Many students, however, need more support to engage in the work of understanding. Unfortunately, though, many of the strategies we offer don’t really help. To see what I mean, let’s look more closely at Mark Kurlansky’s The Story of Salt, with its wonderful illustrations by S. D. Schindler:

A typical read aloud or guided reading lesson might begin with asking the students to predict what they think they’ll discover in the book by looking at the front cover. This might lead some students to say that they were going to learn about salt around the world and through the ages because the people on the cover appear to be from different times and places—though many a student might simply say they were going to learn about salt.

We then might do a picture walk, which might confirm that initial prediction about salt throughout the ages, as students spotted mummies, knights and people dressed in togas. But many of the pictures are baffling, such as this one:

We might also do a text-feature walk, zooming in on the section titles and headings as a way of anticipating the information the text contains. As you can see, though, from the title above, this might not get students very far either because many of the titles are as baffling as the pictures. But the bigger problem is that relying on text features encourages students to see sections as discrete entities, not as parts of a whole, and as such text-feature walks can work against the idea of the text as a journey where the whole point is discovering more than you expected as you pay attention to the turns and twists and connect detail to detail.

We also ask students to scan and skim to find the main idea, which could conceivably yield this sentence from the last page of the book: “Salt shaped the history of the world.”

Like the prediction about the book containing information about salt throughout the ages, this statement does seem to circle what we might call the main idea. But it only goes so far. It doesn’t get to the deeper exploration of why or how salt shaped the world, which can only be gotten by going on the journey and reading closely. We can, though, help students do this by using the same strategy that Dorothy and I offer students when they read fiction: noticing patterns and considering what the writer might be trying to show us through them.

Inviting students to think about patterns—whether it’s a word, a detail, an image, an event or a structural device that repeats—could help students, for instance, notice how many times the word ‘power’ appears. And noticing that, they’d be better positioned to ‘see’ how other sections involve power, even when the word isn’t used. Noticing this might also lead them to discover patterns within the power pattern, as there are several stories about salt being used as a means of control and others where salt is an agent of liberation. And that’s just from noticing one word. There are also recurring stories about how our need for salt led to innovations and stories about things—streets, cities, food—named after salt. There’s even a pattern in the book’s structure, with the book beginning and ending in the present, and the past sandwiched in between.

Any of these patterns would act as an in-road to the deeper ideas that infuse the book, which is why it’s not necessary for students to ‘see’ the exact same patterns that we’ve seen. Just the act of noticing patterns gets students thinking—for as the writer Norman Maclean says, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” And that’s what happens on a journey when we set off into the unknown. Our senses are heightened as we take in the sights and go off on detours that surprisingly lead to places full of meaning. All that’s needed is an open mind—and a strategy that supports close reading.

Taking the Plunge into Nonfiction

It’s true that when I look at the books on my shelves and the stack on my nightstand, fiction outnumbers nonfiction by more than ten to one. That’s because fiction feeds my soul like nothing else I know of. But the following are also true: I rarely go anywhere without a New Yorker (especially when it involves the subway, a.k.a., the Underground New York Public Library); I’m an avid fan of the science program Radiolab; I read all sorts of blogs and online digests (including my new favorite brainpickings); I don’t mind waits in doctors’ offices as long as I can read People magazine; and I’m a bit of a news junkie.

All this qualifies me as a reader of nonfiction, though as I said in my last post, I hadn’t spent much time thinking about what I do as a nonfiction reader until this year when nonfiction became the big, hot topic. So I began to explore nonfiction reading by asking myself two critical questions: Why do we read nonfiction? And how do we actually do it?

Taking on the why question allows us to consider what we might call the enduring understandings about nonfiction—that is, the lasting value of reading it throughout life, not just in the classroom, that we want students to get. My hunch is that most students would say we read nonfiction to learn new information or facts. And while that’s certainly part of why I read nonfiction—to find out the Supreme Court’s decision, for instance, on the Affordable Care Act or know what to do with the butterfly bush I fear I killed in my garden—I don’t think that’s the whole story.

Beyond gathering information I think I need to garden, to travel, to work in schools and to generally be an informed citizen, I read nonfiction for many of the same reasons that I read fiction: to engage with the ideas an author is exploring in a way that will enrich, expand and illuminate my sense of how people and the world work. In fiction, the writer explores those ideas through the vehicle of the story, while nonfiction writers do it through the facts they present and what they see as the implications of those facts. And in this way, I read nonfiction for the reasons that author and guest editor Alan Lightman describes in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2000:

I want to see a mind a work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand . . . to feel that I’m going on a journey. The [writer] is searching for something and taking me along. That something could be a particular idea, an unraveling of identity, a meaning in the wallow of observation and facts. The facts are important but never enough. An essay, for me, must go past the facts, an essay must travel and move.

Of course, Lightman is talking about essays here, which are only one form nonfiction takes. Yet when I look at the exemplar texts in Appendix B of the Standards, I see many texts in which facts are not the whole story—where there is, in fact, a mind at work, taking us on a journey, whether it’s Kathleen V. Kudlinski exploring the evolution of thinking about dinosaurs in the grade 2-3 exemplar Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs or Henry Petroski, author of the grade 6-8 exemplar “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” using facts about the development of the paper bag to explore the idea of perfectability in design, which he has an opinion about.

And here’s where the why leads into the how: Whether we’re fully conscious of this or not, I think we read nonfiction with an awareness that it’s not a single entity, requiring a single way of thinking, but, in fact, has as many sub-genres as fiction does, including essays, feature articles, all-about books, editorials, biographies, memoirs, reviews and, of course, textbooks. All of these sub-genres traffic in facts, though I think that, as readers, we’re also aware that facts are used slightly differently in these various sub-genres. All-about books and most textbooks, for instance, mainly use facts to inform—that is, they give us facts for facts’ sake. Feature articles, on the other hand, along with essays and texts like Boy, Were We Wrong about Dinosaurs use facts to explore ideas or issues. And editorials, arguments and texts like “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag,” mainly use facts to explore ideas or issues the writer has an opinion about. And knowing this as readers, we automatically come to nonfiction texts wondering what the author might be exploring through the facts she presents.

Unfortunately, in addition to sometimes teaching nonfiction as a single entity, we also don’t always make clear to our students what we mean by an idea, which the Merriam-Webster online thesaurus says is a near antonym to a fact. Of course, the word ‘idea’ has other meanings beyond the one stated here. But an idea is not the same as a fact. It is bigger than any single fact and usually contains some kind of judgement or observation about the facts, such as “Boy, were we wrong about dinosaurs.” That idea is stated explicitly, but most ideas are not, and they often can’t be accessed through many of the strategies we currently give students for reading nonfiction, such as skimming or scanning a text or looking for key words.

We also, I fear, make matters worse by emphasizing the notion of the ‘main idea.’ Like themes in fiction, many texts explore more than one idea, and reducing the complexity of a writer’s exploration into a tidy statement doesn’t always serve readers well. Also, we don’t always mean an idea when we talk about the main idea. Instead, we use the term either as a synonym for a topic sentence, the aspect of a topic focused on in a paragraph, or a single-sentence summary of the who, what, where, when and why of a text—none of which are necessarily the same as an idea.

I’ll share more thoughts about the how of reading nonfiction in my next post. But for now I think it’s important to remember that as the Common Core asks students to read more complex texts and engage in more critical thinking, it also invites us to think more deeply about what and how we teach. But before we start revising our practice, we need to know what we’re teaching toward—or as Katie Wood Ray puts it in a phrase I wish I’d coined myself: “Before Revision, Vision.” She uses it in Study Driven to stress how important it is for students to have a vision of what they’re aiming for in writing before they jump in and revise. But I think the same holds true for us. Before we revise how we teach nonfiction, let’s develop a deeper, more complex vision of what it really is, so we know more precisely what our instruction needs to aim for in order to better hit the mark.

It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Some Reflections on the Year

Illustration from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Between teacher effectiveness rubrics, performance-based tasks and text complexity bands—not to mention testing scandals and the growing concerns about the privatization of public education—it hasn’t exactly been an easy year. Yet when I give myself some time to look back, what strikes me most is how much I learned. And that learning helped to balance out the challenges of the year.

So what did I learn? For one, I learned that I can sometimes be wrong, which is always good to know. In this case, I was wrong about the nonfiction performance-based tasks the New York City Department of Ed required every teacher in the city to implement as part of their drive to bring schools up to speed on the Common Core. As someone who cut her teeth at the Teachers College Writing Project, I’ve always believed that the best writing comes from a process that gives students time to draft and revise with feedback from both teachers and peers. And so I questioned the ‘on demand’ aspect of the tasks. Also, the sample text-sets and tasks, which came to be known as ‘bundles,’ that the DOE posted online seemed a little too test-like to me, with administration guidelines and actual scripts like those found in standardized test packets.

I also worried that yet again the emphasis was being placed on assessment not instruction, which seems problematic to me. But here’s where I was wrong. While some teachers chose to use the DOE ‘bundles,’ many designed their own tasks as a final assessment of a meaningful content unit that was already on their curriculum. They did this by setting aside one last aspect of the unit topic for students to read and write about on their own, without the same level of scaffolding they’d provided throughout the unit. Second graders, for example, who’d been studying plants and learning to write All About Books, were asked to read two final pieces about carnivorous plants then write an information piece on demand to share what they had learned. And two impassioned first grade teachers extended a unit they’d developed that combined a study of social activists with writing reading responses by having students listen to one last book, Wangari’s Trees of Peace  by Jeanette Winter, about the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai, and then write a response. And, as can be seen, the results were stupendous (though I do think they’re a testament to the thoughtful, well-planned instruction that proceeded the task more than the assessment design):

I also learned much about reading nonfiction, which I dove into deeply this year to help the schools I work with make the first two Instructional Shifts required by the Standards. Of course, I’d ‘done’ nonfiction before. I’d taught students how to use text features to both anticipate the information they’d encounter and locate facts they might want to use for the nonfiction pieces they were writing. And I’d brought in feature articles and creative nonfiction books like Atlantic and Bat Loves the Night for students to study as mentor texts to learn about structure and craft.

© 2012 D. A. Wagner, http://dawagner.com

But I hadn’t thought much about what readers really do to comprehend and understand nonfiction. And so I tried to do what Dorothy Barnhouse and I did when we explored the reading of fiction in What Readers Really Do: “peer into the recesses of our own reader’s mind, attending to the work we do internally that frequently goes unnoticed or that happens so quickly that it feels automatic.” I also studied some of the Standards’ exemplar texts to see what sorts of demands they put on readers in order to better understand what students might need instructionally to read these kinds of texts. And for better or worse, I discovered that much of what passes as conventional wisdom about teaching nonfiction reading, like the practices listed above, don’t always help students move from plucking facts to deeply understanding what they read.

I’ll be sharing more specifics about reading nonfiction over the next few months, along with more of what I learned as I helped teachers implement a second Author Study unit in the age of the Common Core. But I’ll also be taking some time off to recharge my batteries and reconnect with myself as a reader and writer, which may mean not posting quite so frequently. In addition to finally getting to the stack of books sitting on my nightstand, I also plan on spending time reading new children’s and YA books and on joining write Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak and Fever 1793in her annual “Write Fifteen Minutes a Day Challenge,” which she hosts in August.

I also want to update this blog to include a list of the wonderful blogs I discovered this year. For this is something else I learned: There are so many smart, dedicated thinkers among us, putting themselves out there week after week, raising questions we all need to consider, sharing their invaluable resources and experiences, and making me, for one, feel less alone. They’ve taught me much in this challenging year that I’ll be mulling over as I sit beneath my own tree that grows in Brooklyn and reap the joys of a literate life.

Illustrations from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Jumping into the Fray: Some Thoughts on the Common Core Standards

The first chapter of Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman‘s Pathways to the Common Core suggests that educators tend to view the Standards in one of two opposing ways: They either see them negatively, taking the stance of what the Pathways authors dub a curmudgeon, or they embrace the Standards positively as if, as they put it, they’re “gold.”

The authors thoroughly map out the reasons behind each side’s point of view, with ample evidence provided for both. Then they take the high-road and offer readers pro-active ways of working within the Common Core’s framework regardless of their take. But reading that chapter the other week, I found myself wondering which one I was, a curmudgeon or a happy camper who saw the Standards as gold.

Certainly there are many things I like about the Common Core. There’s a kind of elegance in its design and the way it builds and develops key skills as students move and spiral up the grades. And as readers of this blog might already suspect, I like the way the Publishers Criteria pulls back from some common classroom practices, such as automatically pre-teaching background knowledge and engaging in generic strategy instruction, in favor of close, attentive reading.

But here’s where my inner curmudgeon kicks in—though I think what prompts her to make an appearance is less about grumpiness than fear. I do see the Common Core as a positive corrective to instruction that has been focused on strategies that too often have been severed from the strategic end of meaning and that pull readers away, not deeper into, texts. But I worry that the Common Core shifts too far the other way, by virtually ignoring what the reader brings and, as seems evident from the Curriculum Exemplars which can now be found online, suggesting that a definitive ‘correct’ interpretation of a text can be arrived at through objective—and exhaustive—analysis.

As Pathways explains, this view of reading is based on a particular literary theory called New Criticism. Developed in the 1930’s and mostly taught in upper-level college English classes, New Criticism is one of a group of critical approaches and theories that includes Gender Studies and Reader-Response Criticism, among others. Some of these schools of thought have filtered down to primary and secondary classrooms where students use critical lenses to consider what a text might have to say about issues of power, stereotypes and fairness. A watered-down version of Reader-Response Theory also can been seen in many rooms where students are asked to connect to texts at a personal level. My hunch is, in fact, that the Standards also stand as a corrective to this watered-down version of Readers-Response, which often fails to adhere to the close reading aspect of the theory. But again, I fear, it goes too far in the other direction.

I’ll save some of my specific reservations about the New Criticism-based approach for another post. But I will say here that in sanctioning one approach over all others, the authors of the Standards seem to be violating one of the characteristics of college and career ready students: “Students appreciate that the twenty-first century classrooms and workplace are settings in which people from often widely divergent cultures and who represent diverse experiences and perspectives must learn and work together.”

Additionally a close reading of the Common Core material by a reader who “works diligently to understand precisely what an author is saying but also questions an author’s assumptions and premises” (as college and career ready students also must do) might come to the same conclusions I have: that the authors of the Common Core value dispassion over passion, analyzing over creating, product over process, and reason and logic over qualities like intuition and imagination.

That’s not to say that reason and logic aren’t important, but as writer and educator Tom Romano reminds us:

No matter what professions students enter, facts and analysis are not enough. If our decisions are to be both sound and humane, we need to understand emotion and circumstance, as well as logic and outcome.

I believe that weighing the scales so heavily in favor of analysis and logic risks turning schools into places that may support the future lawyers in our midsts, as they move from writing opinions to legal briefs, but do little to nourish the budding artists, social activists, scientists and inventors that fill our classrooms—let alone the readers and writers.

In “The Text Itself,” Tom Newkirk, author of the glorious book The Art of Slow Reading, thinks that the model of reading promoted in the Publishers Criteria and now embodied in the Curriculum Exemplars “creates a sterile and, in my view, inhumanly fractured model of what goes on in deep reading.” For my own part, I find myself also wondering where the next generation of exemplar text writers will come from if we revere arguments over all other kinds of writing and offer analysis as the only way of engaging with texts. And I don’t see how that model builds the kind of life-long readers who, according to the National Endowment of the Arts’ study Reading at Risk, are much more likely than non-readers to participate in the sort of civic life needed for a democracy to thrive.

Over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be periodically looking at some specific aspects of the Common Core along with the instructional model it’s spawned in the Curriculum Exemplars. And I’ll try to offer alternative ways of meeting the Standards through a humane version of close reading that honors different perspectives without taking on the narrow and reactionary spirit that seems to inform some of the Standards’ auxilliary documents.

In the meantime, though, it’s worth recalling what Pathways to the Common Core reminds usthat embedded in the Standards “is the right for the teachers across a school or district to make decisions” about implementation. And we might also do ourselves a service to remember these words of Albert Einstein:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Figuring Out Figurative Language

April is National Poetry Month, and in honor of that it only seems fitting to share some thoughts about poetry. In general, I want students to enjoy poetry—to be moved, delighted, heartened, or tickled by a poet’s rhythms and words—rather than to dissect it. Or as Billy Collins puts it in his wonderful poem “Introduction to Poetry,” I want them to:

. . . to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a colored slide

rather than to:

. . . tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

But I also know that sometimes it’s hard to enjoy what you don’t understand, and many students are simply perplexed when they hit figurative language, especially poems that hinge on metaphors, like this one from Eve Merriam, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really Do:

© 1986 by Eve Merriam. Reprinted by permission of Marian Reiner in What Readers Really Do. © 2012 by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann)

In the book, we use the poem as an example of a text whose meaning cannot easily be accessed through the usual line-up of comprehension strategies. Predicting, questioning, connecting, inferring: none of them used by themselves would yield much. And as for visualizing, here’s what happened the other day when I shared Merriam’s poem with a class of fifth graders for a lesson on figurative language.

When I read the poem most of the students responded with a dumbfounded “Huh?” And when I asked them to turn and talk about what they thought the poet might be trying to say, almost all of them came up with an idea borne from visualizing: They pictured the narrator lying on the ground with a blade of grass behind her. And from the right angle they imagined it could look like the grass was coming out of her head like a unicorn’s horn.

What they did here was use a strategy to make sense of the poem on a literal level—that is, they envisioned the narrator and a real blade of grass that, through a kind of optical illusion, appeared to be emerging from the narrator’s forehead. But they couldn’t get beyond the literal level, which is hardly ever where deeper meaning lies. So I pulled out the following teaching point, which I had tucked up my sleeve:

Sometimes, I said, poets don’t literally mean what they say, and  one of our first jobs as readers is to consider whether something in the poem might not mean exactly what it says. I then asked them to turn and talk again about whether they thought anything in the poem might not be meant literally, and as the teacher and I moved around the room, we overhead the word ‘metaphor’ coming up in the students’ discussions.

When we shared out, everyone agreed that the narrator of the poem hadn’t really become a unicorn (though there still was some disagreement about the blade of grass). They could identify it as a metaphor, but they didn’t know, as readers, what to do with it. So I offered the following instruction: Once readers have decided that something might not literally mean what it says—i.e., that it might be a metaphor—they try to brainstorm words associated with the metaphor, thinking about the characteristics or qualities of the thing being compared. Then they take those words back to the poem to see they can help them understand more.

You could say I was asking them to make a connection, though it wasn’t of the “I once had a unicorn lunchbox” variety. I asked them to make a particular kind of connection for a particular purpose that was based on how some particular poems worked. And when I gave them another chance to turn and talk, they came up with words like this:

                    • Magical
                    • Beautiful
                    • Mythic
                    • Amazing
                    • Glittery
                    • Sparkling
                    • Girlie
                    • One of a Kind
                    • Special

They then took these words back to the poem (discarding girlie, which they decided didn’t fit) and came up with new interpretations. This time around they thought the poet might be trying to say that the first day of spring was magical or that it can make you feel sparkling and special—or tingly in a good way. Then to give them more chance to practice this, we divided the class up into groups and gave them each another poem to look at that required the same kind of thinking, along with a piece of chart paper on which they could share what they came up with. And the thinking they did was great.

One group, for instance, looked at “Black Box” from Nikki Grimes‘s novel Bronx Masquerade, which pairs prose monologues with poems by different characters. The poem begins with the lines “In case I forgot to tell you/I’m allergic to boxes,” and after wrestling with it for a while, they decided that the narrator wasn’t literally allergic to boxes but rather had a bad reaction (i.e., was allergic) to being contained or packaged (the boxes) with words like jock or geek.

And here’s the chart of the group that looked at Lindamichellebaron‘s poem “Even Weeds Have Needs,” which begins:

Even weeds have needs, you know,

Don’t make me creep through cracks,

or race for space to grow.

Poet feels as if she is "weed"→ unwanted, but she still needs someone to take care of her.

Poet feels as if she is being stamped on.

These students engaged in exactly the kind of thinking experienced readers do invisibly all the time. And I have no doubt that eventually these students will be able to do so invisibly as well, provided they have additional opportunities to engage in what a New Yorker article on coaching calls “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.”

According to the article’s author Atul Gawande, expertise “requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence.” This lesson helped students first become aware of what they couldn’t do and then of what they could do through deliberate effort. And having made that visible for them, the students are now better positioned to do the work automatically, without the need of charts.

It will also allow them to enjoy poems more, which is, after all, the whole point. So for students who struggle with metaphors, remember:

Snowflake vs. Snowdrift Metaphors from http://www.toothpastefordinner.com

What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum

Book of Hours c. 15th century, Bibliotheque Nationale de France

Borrowing again from Katie Wood Ray‘s book, What We Know by Heart, which explores how we can develop curriculum from our own experiences as writers, I want to share some of the amazingly thoughtful comments readers left in response to Allen Woodman’s short short story “Wallet” in the other week’s post. In particular, I want to try to notice and name the moves those readers made and the instructional implications of those moves for classrooms.

To begin with, every single reader who responded was deeply engaged in thinking about what particular details might mean, both individually and in relationship to the whole. They considered the significance of the fortune cookie, the father’s comment about “all oyster and no pearl,” the billfold rising up “like a dark fish,” and the puzzling line that several mentioned, “There will be time enough for silence and rest.” Sometimes they had specific ideas about what those details might be revealing about character or even theme, and sometimes they weren’t sure what to do with them. But they all entered the text assuming that the details they encountered weren’t random but had been deliberately chosen by the author to convey something more than, say, the literal contents of a wallet. And as readers, their job was to attend to those details and to question and consider their meaning, which they did by wondering and brainstorming possibilities in a way that seemed less firm or emphatic than an inference or a prediction.

I believe there are instructional implications in what these readers knew about texts and how they used strategies based on that knowledge. Katie Wood Ray calls these “curriculum chunks,” and we can turn these chunks into teaching points, which could sound like this:

  • Readers know that writers choose details deliberately to reveal both characters and the ideas or themes they’re exploring through the story.
  • Because they know that, readers do the following:
    • They attend to the details they notice, asking themselves and wondering: Why is the author telling me this? What could this possibly mean?
    • They hold onto those wonderings as they keep reading, expecting to gain more clarity as they read.
    • They consider the possible meaning of details by brainstorming, using words like ‘maybe’, ‘might’ or ‘could.’

The readers of “Wallet” also brought their knowledge of how stories work to anticipate what some called a “twist”. But interestingly enough, not a single one predicted. Instead they all tried to remain open to whatever twists and turns the writer took, letting the story unfold on its own terms, while keeping their thinking tentative and flexible, knowing that endings are often unpredictable—and are frequently better for that.

There were also none of the literal text-to-self connections we frequently hear in classrooms—that is, no stories about pick-pocketed wallets or aging fathers in Florida. Mostly readers connected with their previous experiences as readers. And the one reader who explicitly made a connection to his grandfather pushed and prodded and probed that connection, connecting it to other details and memories until it yielded an insight about the text.

Similarly while many readers talked about visualizing, they did so for specific reasons. They visualized as a way of monitoring their comprehension and as a tool to infer events that were conveyed indirectly in the text. They visualized to interpret the imagery, like the billfold rising “like a dark wish.” They also visualized as a way of emotionally engaging with the story, with virtually no mental image mentioned without the reader also thinking of what that image made them feel. And along with that inquisitive, wondering stance, “it was,” as one reader put it, “the way the text made me feel that truly supported my meaning making.”

Here, too, there are instructional implications that could be turned into teaching points:

  • Readers know that stories unfold over time in ways that aren’t always predictable, and so they try to keep their minds open and receptive, drafting and revising their understandings as they go, without clamping down on any one idea too early.
  • Readers know that it’s not enough to make a connection with a text. They explore and question their connections, using them as tools to dig deeper.
  • Readers visualize to both monitor and fix breakdowns in their comprehension and to infer events that weren’t made explicit in the text.
  • Readers also visualize to think about the imagery and engage emotionally with the text. And they use their emotional responses and ideas about the imagery to consider what the author might be trying to show them or explore through the vehicle of the story.

It’s also worth noting that no reader made a definitive claim about ‘the theme’ of the story. Perhaps they would have if I’d asked them to; but at the risk of speaking for them, I think that, as readers, they didn’t feel a need to sum up and fit all they were thinking into a single statement—yet. They were, however, all circling ideas that we could call understandings or themes. One, for instance, was trying to “reconcile the complex notion that the father might be embarrassed but also delighted at the same time,” while others kept thinking about that fortune cookie, aware that the events of the story refuted its life-is-always-the-same-old-story message. One thought the story was “at least partly about” our society’s view of the elderly, while others considered what it might be saying about father and son relationships. And having that line about silence and rest brought to my attention by a few readers, I found myself thinking about mortality and death, which seems to hover over the story as yet another layer and lens for thinking about its ideas.

My hunch is that what we each focused on says something about our individual preoccupations and concerns. And the beauty of the story is that it offered so many entryways in less than 300 words, along with the following teaching points:

  • Readers know that even short texts can’t always be boiled down to a single idea, and that there are many ways of accessing and constructing understandings based on which details the reader notices and what they bring to the text.
  • Readers don’t read to identify a theme. Rather their understanding of theme emerges from their engagement and thinking about the details of the text.
  • Readers’ understanding of a text can be enriched and developed by hearing what other readers notice and think.
  • Readers need to live and linger with multiple possibilities before committing themselves to one idea for the purpose of writing a paper.

All of these points are based on these readers’ understanding of how narratives are built. And all set strategies within the context and purpose of searching for meaning. That’s what was in these readers’ hearts. And that’s what I think should be in our teachers’ hearts as we talk to students about reading.

Heart Book c. 1550’s, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark

With many thanks to author Allen Woodman and all the readers who shared their thoughts on his story “Wallet.” Their comments can be found by clicking this link and scrolling down to the end of the post.

From No to Yes: Making Meaning with Read Alouds

Over the years my thinking about read alouds has evolved as I’ve tried to hone in on the essential experience of how readers make meaning as they read. And at some point along the way, my partner David, whose pictures frequently grace these posts, introduced me to the photographer Richard Avedon and his ‘Series of No’s’. In his attempt to make his work more authentic, simple and direct, Avedon said, “No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narratives.” All these no’s, he said, forced him to yes: to the subject on a plain white background and “the thing that happens between us.”

I loved the less-is-more sensibility in this. And using it as a kind of mentor text, I’ve developed my own series of no’s for read alouds, which I believe support getting to the essential yes of what can happen between a reader and the page:

To see this series of no’s in action, here’s a read aloud I did the other week in a first-third grade special-ed bridge class, using Jon Klassen‘s delightful new picture book I Want My Hat Back and the What We Know/What We Wonder chart that I use to support students’ meaning making from kindergarten right up through twelfth grade. (And spoiler alert: I share the end of the book.)

The teacher, Christine LaPlume, and I gathered the children on the rug, where instead of engaging in any pre-reading activities, such as picture walks or front cover predictions, I introduced the chart to the class and said that we’d be using it to do what readers usually do in their heads: keep track of what we’re learning and wondering in order to think deeply about the story. Then I turned to the first page spread, which consisted of a picture of the bear on the cover and read the following two lines:

My hat is gone.

I want it back.

We tried out the chart with those first two sentences, with the students saying that they learned that there was a bear whose hat was missing and they wondered what happened to the hat. I continued reading then, with the students learning that neither a fox nor a snake had seen the hat. Then we came to this page spread and immediately several students called out, “The rabbit’s got the hat!”

After reading the page, however, there was some disagreement. Some of the children thought the hat was the bear’s because the one the rabbit had on was the same as the hat on the back cover. But another group took the rabbit at his word, not even reconsidering when a student named Alay said, “But you know the way the rabbit’s talking? It’s like the way you talk when you’ve done something you’re not supposed to. Like maybe he did steal the hat.”

And here was the tricky moment. Here was a student who’d picked up the clues the writer had deliberately left, and there were the students who were having none of it. In the past I might have leapt on Alay’s comment and helped everyone see what he saw. Or I might not have even left Alay’s insight up to chance and directed the students to the rabbit’s words with a loaded question prompt. But remembering my series of no’s—and trusting the process to weed out missteps by offering multiple on-ramps for meaning—I reframed some of the thinking as questions and added two wonderings to the chart: “Did the rabbit take the hat?” and “Could the rabbit be lying?”

Then we kept on going, keeping track of our learning, until finally a deer asks the bear what the hat looks like, and as the bear describes the hat, he suddenly remembers that he saw it somewhere and rushes back to find the rabbit.

At that point, even the most pro-rabbit readers agreed that the rabbit took the hat, though as we came to the next to last page, which showed the bear happily wearing the hat without any sign of the rabbit, a final burning question came up: What happened to the rabbit?

So I turned the page and read this exchange between the bear and a squirrel, after which all the students literally gasped. “The bear ate the rabbit!” they said virtually in unison. And when I asked them what made them think that, every single student pointed to the fact that the bear was talking just the way the rabbit had when he denied having seen the hat.

Christine and I both applauded the students for the amazing thinking work they’d done, and as we debriefed, she shared that she’d been struggling with teaching some of the very same strategies the students had actually used here. Questioning came up automatically here, as did predicting (though I deliberately reframed their predictions as questions to avoid the kind of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thinking predictions sometimes engender.) Most notably, they also inferred, with Alay additionally making a connection that enabled him to consider that the rabbit might be lying. And they did so as a natural outgrowth of readers trying to make meaning of a text, not through a typical strategy lesson.

Of course, many of the students will need more specific instruction and time to practice the kind of work Alay did, which laid the groundwork for the students’ insight at the end. The whole class might benefit, for instance, by returning to this text to become more aware of the clues the author planted (not all of which they caught this first time). And they could use additional practice in thinking specifically about the possible subtext in a character’s dialogue, using books like Ruby the Copycat by Peggy Rathmann or any number of books from the wonderful Elephant and Piggie series by Mo Willems. These could be done in a subsequent read aloud or in a more targeted small group. But either way, I’d begin by reminding them of what they were able to see and understand in I Want My Hat Back.

And that reminds me of another no: No to the deficit model of learning—and yes to building on strengths.

Unraveling the Process of Meaning Making

Last week in “Seeing the Forest Through the Trees,” I attempted to set the strategies and skills we need to teach our students and the assessment we design to monitor their growth within the context of a larger enduring understanding. And to help with that, I shared the process of meaning making I explore in depth in What Readers Really Do, which breaks down the thinking work of reading into three distinct but related modes: comprehension, understanding and evaluation.

I defined each term in that post. But to demonstrate what I mean and hopefully provide a clearer, more concrete sense of each, let’s look at an excerpt from one of my all-time favorite books for teaching both reading and writing, Hey World, Here I Am! It’s ostensibly the notebook of a feisty but sensitive middle school girl named Kate Bloomfield, written by Jean Little with illustrations by Sue Truesdell, and it comprises short vignettes and prose poems like this:

If we define comprehension as the literal and inferential meaning a reader makes on a line-by-line or page-by-page basis, we can see that this piece doesn’t put a lot of demands on readers at the literal level, as Jean Little tells us explicitly how each character peels an orange.

At the inferential level, however, things get a little trickier. The details seem to suggest something about each character that is only accessible through inferring: that Kate may be a neat person more generally and Emily an impulsive one as shown through the way each handles an orange. We might also infer that Emily admires Kate from her exclamatory comment. But what are we to do with the last line? Why would Kate say what she does? Does it mean that she wants to be admired or be better at something than Emily? Does she wish she wasn’t such a perfectionist? Does she idolize Emily, no matter what she does? What, oh what, does it mean?

As readers entertain these questions, they move from comprehension to the realm of understanding—that is, from the surface level of the text to those deeper layers where ideas and themes reside. And they make that move, unconsciously or not, because they’re aware that this piece is about more than just oranges. Jean Little is revealing something here about each girl and their relationship to each other and perhaps even something more universal about the idea or theme of friendship.

To understand that, we’d have to take what we comprehended in this section and connect it to other pages and sections, holding all those questions in our heads and reading closely to see if we noticed any patterns in the way the girls interacted. Are there other times, for instance, when the two girls compete? Are they opposites in more ways than peeling oranges? Is their admiration mutual or lopsided? Do the seemingly neat and impulsive streaks that we’ve noticed here reappear? And if so, do they impact the two girls’ friendship in any way?

In this way, readers fit parts of a text together, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, in order to ‘see’ something they couldn’t in any single piece. Based on what patterns they noticed and how they fit them together, readers would draft an understanding (which we also can call an interpretation) of what they think Jean Little might be trying to say about Kate and Emily’s friendship, which, in turn, says something about friendship in general.

This kind of thinking seems too different from the work of comprehending a single line or page to use the same word to describe it, which is why it seems helpful for both students and teachers to name them as separate but connected modes of thinking. And while experienced readers and even some students engage in the work of understanding automatically, many need our help in making it visible in order to partake in it, too, with instruction provided that encourages students to be on the look-out for patterns and to make connections within the text in order to interpret.

Additionally, many readers need to have the last step in the process made visible as well. For once readers have constructed an understanding of what they think the author is saying across the whole text, not just on one page, they consider whether that understanding holds any real weight for them in their lives. Does it affirm, expand, inform, refute or challenge what they already know about friendship? Is it something they want to hold on to and remember? Is it something they want to discard or disagree with, which is every reader’s right?

Dorothy and I call this part of the process evaluation, and I believe it’s as vital for readers to engage in as comprehension and understanding because it’s in the act of evaluating that we truly take stock of what reading gives us. We draft and revise our understanding of a text as we fit the pieces we notice together. Then we take what we have come to understand to draft and revise our understanding of ourselves as we fit the text into our lives. As Kate of the perfectly peeled oranges says to her guidance counselor near the end of Hey World, Here I Am!:

I’m putting myself together, Miss McIntyre. But it is like a jigsaw puzzle. I keep on finding new pieces.

Reading helps us put ourselves together by offering us new takes on the world and the human condition. But this can only happen if we acknowledge that purpose and have both an instructional framework and a vision of reading that explicitly supports it.  Breaking the complicated process of meaning-making into these three components helps. It also allows us, as teachers, to assess how much time and instruction we really spend on each part of the process—and to try to redress any imbalance as we continue to plan and move forward, tying whatever strategies we offer to these more meaning-full strategic ends.

Comprehension + Understanding + Evaluation = Meaning

Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: Reflecting on the Big Picture

New Years always prompts me to reflect as I look both backwards at the year just finished and forward to the one gearing up. And this year, with so many new terms in the air, like performance-based tasks and complexity bands, and more assessments than ever before, I’ve been feeling a need to set all those terms and assessments into the context of a bigger, more meaningful picture—what Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, the authors of the great backwards planning book Understanding by Design, might call an ‘enduring understanding’.

According to Wiggins and McTighe, an enduring understanding is an idea or concept that offers lasting value throughout life, not just in the classroom. Additionally, it should reside at the heart of the discipline, require uncovering or unpacking through inquiry, and be engaging to students. Enduring understandings abound on the internet, with a quick search on google yielding ELA samples like this: “Reading is a process by which we construct meaning about the information being communicated by an author within a print or non-print medium,” and “Language captures and records human aspirations and imagination, evoking both emotion and reason.”

Both statements do seem like big, enduring ideas that reside at the heart of English Language Arts. But neither, I fear, are particularly good examples of the way that language captures aspirations, imagination and meaning. As I’ve suggested before, I think we might do better by turning to writers like Anne Lamott who in Bird by Bird, her wonderful advice book to aspiring writers, speaks to both the power of language and the process of reading like this:

For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfold world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die . . . . My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?

For me, this goes to the heart of the discipline of English Language Arts. And as part of the backwards planning approach to curriculum development that Wiggins and McTighe prescribe, this understanding about the purpose and power of reading can be turned into essential questions that can frame students’ practice and exploration.

To be both engaging and authentic, I believe that essential questions should be truly open-ended and not loaded—that is, they should allow for real debate and disagreement, not just be our teaching points or agendas masquerading as questions. With that and Anne Lamott’s understanding in mind, those questions might sound like this:

  • Can a book really comfort us or make us feel less alone?
  • Can a narrative about someone else’s life really help us understand our own?
  • Can a book really tell us how we might behave? Can it show us how to live and die?
  • And if so, how does it do that?

The next step in the backwards planning approach would be to design assessments that would give students the opportunity to share what they thought about those questions, with evidence drawn from their reading experience as well as from texts. These assessments could take a variety of forms, from book reviews to podcasts to accountable talk circles, as well as the more traditional literary essay. But they’d all ask students to transact with a text to ultimately consider what meaning it held for them.

Of course, to do this, students will need strategies and skills, scaffolding and instruction that both models and allows them to experience for themselves how a reader enters a text knowing virtually nothing and emerges pages later with a deeper sense of what it means to be human. And this is where all those other terms and assessments come in. Knowing a students’ reading level, for instance, gives us some sense of what kind of text they have the best chance of transacting with; while instruction that provides the kind of concrete text-based strategies needed for navigating complexity bands allows students to access books that reflect the increasingly complexity of their own lives and world.

To help teachers facilitate this work, Dorothy Barnhouse and I also map out a process of reading in What Readers Really Do that helps students draft and revise their sense of what a text means as they make their way through it, with strategies and skills directly tied to meaning. We also adapt the work of the literary theorist Robert Scholes and break down the process into three distinct but related modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation, which we define like this:

  • Comprehension is the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line-by-line and page-by-page.
  • Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes.
  • Evaluation occurs when, having constructed an understanding of a text, a reader considers whether it has any personal or social value for him.

In the next few weeks I’ll put those words into action by using them with a short text, and I’ll share some ideas for meaningful assessments. But for now what seems important to remember is that reading levels and strategies and skills are the means to an end, not the end itself. And assessments need to be aligned to what we truly value, not just what’s easy to measure, with students asked to apply strategies and skills to some meaningful, enduring end. Only then, I think, can both we and our students begin to see the forest through the trees. And only then are we truly able to benefit from the insight reading can give us.

‘Tis the Season

 Earlier this month I received what seemed like a gift from a Secret Santa. Somehow, some way, through facebook posts and tweets, my post, “What Messages Are We Sending Students About Reading,” went viral, bringing over 1,000 readers to this blog in less than three full days.

Clearly it struck a chord in readers who treasure books and want to give children authentic and meaningful experiences as readers. And it struck a chord in those of us who sometimes fear that in our data-obsessed and -driven age, where logic and analysis seem to be valued over wonder and imagination, we risk losing what we most cherish.

I was both humbled and heartened to know how many of us are out there. And so in the spirit of gift-giving, I’d like to give something back to all of you who hold on to the dream of not only helping the students we work with be college- and career-ready, but become passionate readers and writers. Here are three texts that speak to those higher purposes and callings by three wise writers whose words seem more precious to me than frankincense, gold and myrrh. In each case I share an excerpt and a link, which will take you to the full piece where you may also want to poke around for more inspiration and solace.

The first piece is called “The Place of Books in Our Lives,” by the great children’s and young adult book author Julius Lester. In this essay, he looks at the origins of the words book, read, and knowledge, and he makes a powerful, persuasive case for letting children choose what to read without interference or judgment, while exploring what the written word gives us:

Books invite us into realms of the soul by asking us to imagine that we are someone other than who we are. Books require that we temporarily put our egos in a box by the door and take on the spirit of others. Books are the place where the possibility of blacks and whites and men and women experiencing each other is created. I am convinced that if I can bring you into my being through words, I create the possibility that you and I will see that we are more alike than we may have thought. When we can imagine the hurt and anger of another person, we have an understanding in the heart. When we understand in the heart, each of us is less alone.

The second is the preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writer by Vicki Spandel, one of the key developers of the 6-Trait model for writing instruction and assessment. Here she looks squarely at what assessments can and cannot give us, while urging us, as teachers, to hold on to and embrace what is most meaningful and significant about writing, not just what can be easily measured:

In this book, I touch on what I believe to be the most worthwhile goals of writing: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward, to be whole comfortable with the act and process of writing. These are all hard things to measure. Moreover, they take time. Significant time. Heavy emphasis on assessment can rob us of that precious time. It can also make us afraid.

The third is a poem called “Revolution for the Tested” by former teacher and award-winning author Kate Messner, which has been making its way around my corner of the cybersphere. It’s an impassioned call-to-arms for both students and teachers to resist the forces of standardization that threaten to rob us of the vital lifeblood of real reading and writing that I’ve been carrying with me every day I walk into a school. Here are two sample stanzas:

Read.

But don’t read what they tell you to.

Don’t read excerpts, half-poems,

Carefully selected for lexile content,

Or articles written for the sole purpose

Of testing your comprehension . . . .

Read for the world.

Read to solve its problems.

Read to separate reality from ranting

Possibility from false promise,

And leaders from snake oil peddlers.

Read so you can tell the difference,

Because an educated person is so much harder

To enslave.

Finally, whether you’re lighting candles on a menorah, reconnecting with the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, trading presents beside a tree, or just curling up with a good book, I wish you well this holiday season and hope that these offerings fill your heart and spirit with good tidings of comfort and joy.

Till next year . . . .