Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

According to Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” I completely agree that learning to think should be one of the essential goals of education, but as I wrote in an earlier post, many of the tasks we set for kids and the scaffolds we teach them to use don’t really seem aimed at fostering thinking as much as completing those tasks. In that post, I offered an example of what a lesson focused on actual thinking might look like. And here, I’d like to take a deeper look at what we really mean by thinking and how we actually do it.

One of the most common definitions you’ll find online is that “Thinking is a purposeful organized cognitive process that we use to make sense of our world.” That isn’t bad as definitions go, but it doesn’t offer any clues about how to think or what that process entails. Nor do any of the taxonomies and matrixes we’re often asked to use to ensure rigor. They all focus on the what, not the how in good part, I imagine, because of the fact that not even cognitive neuroscientists fully understand how we think.

So for how to think, I turn to writers, who not only engage in making sense of the world but can express how they do that in ways that, to me, feel more accessible, practical and authentic than the words of reference books or science. And one of the things I’ve noticed about writers is how much value they place on the act of noticing.

Here, for instance, is what Norman Maclean has to say about thinking, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I quoted in What Readers Really Do:

This is what The Fault in Our Stars author John Green thinks about people who notice things:

And here is Mary Oliver’s simple instructions, not just for thinking, but for living life fully:

As I’ve considered the implications of words like these on my own work in schools, I’ve come to think that the essence of thinking is noticing something then making something of what you’ve noticed, which seems implied in each of these quotes. And when it comes to reading, that process can look like this:

When doing read alouds with students,  I usually start out with a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which is a thinking routine that abbreviates the chart above. Unlike K-W-L charts, which ask students to think about what they already know and wonder about a book or topic before they read, then what they learned after they read, a text-based Know/Wonder chart invites students to pay attention to what they know or have figured out about a text as they read and what they’re wondering about. And to get a feel for what that thinking can look and sound like, here’s what happened in a fifth grade classroom that had just embarked on Katherine Applegate‘s wonderful novel in verse Home of the Brave, about a young African refugee named Kek who struggles to make a new home in Minnesota after a civil war erupted in his homeland, as a read aloud.

The class had already experienced how using this thinking routine could empower them as readers and thinkers. And here, without reading the book’s back cover or hearing a summary, they already had figured out much. In the first poem, for instance, they’d figured out that “the flying boat” Kek talks about was, in fact, an airplane, and that he must have come from a place quite different from Minnesota because he’d never seen snow before, nor seen, let alone tried to put on gloves. And they had a ton of questions: Why was Kek there? Where was his family? Where they already there? Would they be coming soon? Or had something happened to them?

Having noticed what was noticeable in that poem and then ‘made’ something of that (i.e., questions), they then noticed something in the next poem below they might otherwise not have noticed, a verb:

Their teacher Karen Bassano had paused here and invited the class to turn and talk about whether they’d figured out anything else or had answered any of their questions, and they zoomed right to the lines “He isn’t tall/like my father was,” where the past tense made them worry that Kek’s father had died.

Similarly, they made much of a punctuation mark they noticed in the third poem, in which Kek responds to a question Dave has asked him about the flying boat:

What they noticed was the dash, which they interpreted in two slightly different ways. One camp thought that Dave had stopped talking because he didn’t want to suggest Kek’s mother might be dead, while the other thought Kek had interrupted Dave because he didn’t want to hear what Dave might say. And those interpretations led them to wonder whether Kek was in a state of denial or if his parents might return in the spring, just as Dave had said the trees that looked dead in winter would do.

To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about. They had, of course, experienced this before—and had found the whole process meaningful enough that many decided on their own to use it for their independent reading books.

To be sure, there were other things Karen had done, especially in terms of creating an environment that valued thinking more than answers, that I’ll explore in another post. But for now, I’ll end with some final words about the power of noticing from the writer, musician and artist Brian Eno, which, I think, have implications for both students and teachers.

To learn more about this way of teaching, take a look at my new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingwhich contains more examples of students reading closely and deeply, plus lots of guidance and tips for implementing it in your classroom.

If We Want to Teach Children to Think . . .

The title of this week’s post was inspired by Bertrand Russell, who wrote,

When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, . . . and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.

I love Russell’s words for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the question he seems to raise at the end: Do we really want to teach kids to think—or not?

My hunch is that most of us would say we’re committed to teaching children to think. But I sometimes wonder if this is one of those values that isn’t always aligned to our actions—like saying we value growth mindsets, which honor approximations and mistakes, while evaluating students through rubrics that score not how close a student came but whether he ‘got’ something or not.

As for thinking, I worry that to make sure students ‘get’ whatever we teach them, we often provide too much scaffolding, breaking down complex skills or tasks into bite size pieces or steps that minimize the need for thinking. Or as fourth grade teacher Jeremy Greensmith pithily put it in his interview with Zoe Ryder White for The Teacher You Want to Be,

The danger with a lot of what gets done at the moment is that there’s so much scaffolding that you end up just teaching the scaffold, and you really don’t teach the way of thinking and the way of reading and writing—you just teach [students] to deliver the tool you taught them.”

Of course, Jeremy also raises questions, such as, What do we really mean by thinking? What are the ways of reading and writing? And how do we effectively teach those? And to consider those questions, let’s take a look at a common unit taught in third grade, reading and writing biographies.

When it comes to reading biographies, many units focus on teaching students things like:

  • The difference between expository and narrative nonfiction
  • The difference between biographies and other kinds of narrative nonfiction
  • The structure of biographies (chronological)
  • How to identify the traits of a biography’s subject (like you would a character in fiction)
  • How to identify the theme, big idea or life lessons of a biography
  • How to learn about a historical period through biographies

While some of these objectives require inferring, many involve the kind of thinking found at the first level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge: identify, recall, recognize, and match. And thinking is even more limited if we offer additional scaffolds, like providing lists of character traits,

thought prompts,

or common biography theme statements.

As for writing biographies, students are usually taught how to take notes, paraphrase, use transitional sequence words, and craft hooks, topic sentences and conclusions, none of which necessarily involves higher order thinking. But what was the deeper thinking work of biographies for readers and writers?

As an occasional biography reader myself (and author of a historical fiction novel), I recognized that a biography is the biographer’s interpretation of the significance of someone’s accomplishments and life, not just an objective recounting. So the thinking work of reading a biography was to try to figure out what the biographer wanted her readers to understand about the subject’s life, while the writing work was figuring out what story do you, as a biographer, want to tell about your subject.

This is exactly the kind of deeper vision of genre I explored earlier, and I kept it in mind as I planned for a day with third grader teachers working on biographies. For the demo lesson I looked for biographies that conveyed slightly different stories about the same subject through the author’s choice of what events to share (and leave out), what words to use to describe those events, and what message she seemed to want readers to take away. And I hit the jackpot with two biographies of George Washington Carver, one from the “Who Was” series of biographies and the other A Weed is a Flower, by the award-winning writer and illustrator Aliki.

 

In the classroom, I began by asking the kids what they had already learned about biographies, and it turns out they’d met many of the unit’s objectives already through their whole class study of Jane Goodall and their biography book club books. They also said they’d noticed that biographies of the same subject didn’t always contain the same events—which made them think they had to read multiple biographies of the subject they’d be writing about to be sure they knew everything about him or her. And with that I segued to my lesson.

It was possible, I said, that some biographers didn’t have the same events as others because they hadn’t researched enough, but more likely, it was because biographers choose which events and details to include based on what they want us to understand about their subject. And to help us understand that, we’d look at the opening of two different biographies of George Washington Carver and about what each writer might want us to understand about Carver.

I began with the “Who Was” book, which opens with an anecdote about a woman who “lived in the biggest house in Diamond Grove, Missouri” and was frustrated that her roses weren’t as nice as her friend Susan Carver’s were. So she asked Susan what her secret was and we learn the following:

When the class shared out what they thought the writer wanted them to understand about Carver, they said thinks like, “He was really helpful and hard-working,” “He loved plants,” and “He loved his foster mother.” And with that in mind, we moved on to the opening of A Weed Is a Flower, where the students literally gasped when I read the word slaves.

Immediately they realized that Aliki was telling quite a different story about George Washington Carver. Here he was helpful, not simply because he was thoughtful and nice, but because he was committed to helping his people—and his life had been nowhere as pleasant or easy as it seemed in the “Who Was” book. Also they were bursting with questions: Was he still a slave? Did Mrs. Carver own him? What happened to his real mother? and Why did the other author not say he was a slave?

Over the next week they would explore the different choices these authors had made and why, but at that point, I invited them to go back to their tables and think about what story they wanted to tell about their subject by first looking at the books they had read to see what each biographer had emphasized and then to consider what they, as biographers, thought was important. And that required far more thinking than filling in the blanks of a thought prompt or matching a book to a theme statement.

So if we really want to teach children to think, we have to create and give them opportunities to do so—and I’ll share more about that in another post.

After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry

Last week I had the privilege of leading a three-day workshop on the Foundations of Writing Workshop in Bangkok for middle school teachers from NESA schools. We explored the structure mini-lessons, the role of mentor texts, the thinking behind unit planning and the art of conferring. We also looked at writer’s notebooks, where I introduced the participants to the idea of quickwrites as a strategy for generating notebook entries.

For those of you unfamiliar with quickwrites, it’s a practice whereby a teacher reads aloud a short projected text then invites students to write something inspired by it for no more than three minutes. Like flash drafts, which they’re often confused with, the point is to write fast, though the purpose of quickwrites is not to get a first draft of something you’re planning to write down on paper in one fell swoop. Rather, as Linda Rief explains in Read Write Teach, a quickwrite “is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper. It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.” And to give the teachers a feel for the power of quickwrites, I shared the poem “After English Class,” from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am!, then asked them to write about whatever it brought to mind.

The range of writing this poem inspired was nothing short of stunning. Some wrote about themselves as teachers and wondered if they’d inadvertently killed poetry for their students. Some wrote about texts they’d decided to “drive by” because they’d grown complicated, too. Some wrote about the stillness of winter, others about the magic of snow. And I wrote about my mother, who, for reasons I couldn’t remember, once shared with me the moment she felt defeated by a poem. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” which she was required to read in high school—and it seemed so impenetrable to her that she stopped reading poetry.

Ancient Mariner & AlbatrossThat made me remember my own undoing with poetry in high school, which came by way of Mr. Loudon and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” First there was all the thee‘s, thy‘s, may’st‘s and haths‘s, and then there was the albatross—a symbol of Jesus, Mr. Loudon said—which was tied like a weight around the Mariner’s neck, like the poem felt tied around mine.

Fortunately, though, at some point in my thirties, I discovered poems by poets who spoke to me, like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye. That made me realized how important it is for kids to be able to find poems that speak to them and to follow Billy Collins’s advice in “Introduction to Poetry,” and ask students “to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” rather than “tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

But . . . as is clear from the title of my new book, I also believe in helping students become deeper readers and thinkers. And that makes me think that the problem for Jean Little’s narrator, my mother, and me wasn’t that the poem we each read had hidden meaning, but that the meaning didn’t belonged to us. It belonged to the teacher.

Consider, for instance, what happened in a fifth grade class who’d been studying poetry. The students had had lots of opportunities to find poems that delighted or spoke to them, but instructionally, we focused on interpreting poems that used figurative language to convey their meaning, using a strategy I wrote about in “Figuring Out Figurative Language.” At this point, they’d read several poems that used a central metaphor, including Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” which uses the metaphor of a crystal stair. And you can see the class’s thinking about the crystal stair below:

Crystal Stair K:W Chart

We’d also focused on using talk to deepen the students’ understanding of poems and decided to celebrate the end of the unit with a formal grand conversation that the kids would conduct themselves. And for that, we chose the poem “Inside” from Nikki Grime’s wonderful Bronx Masquerade, which also uses a central metaphor.

Inside Bronx MasqueradeAfter reading the poem out loud twice and giving each student their own copy, we invited the kids to turn and talk first to ensure that everyone was thinking. Then they formed a circle for a whole class discussion.

Right from the get-go everyone agreed that the coconut was figurative, not literal, and many thought that, as one student put it, “this is a bullying poem.” Building on that, another student said the poem reminded him of the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” which made him think that the bullying involved name calling, not pushing or hitting, because of the phrases “booted words” and “wicked whispers shaped like knuckles.”

The poem also reminded many students of Rob in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Risingwhich they’d read earlier in the year. Rob, they recalled, was physically bullied, and he tried to deal with that and other problems by holding all his feelings inside, locked in an imaginary suitcase. But there was disagreement about whether the poem’s narrator was also holding her feelings inside, with some thinking she does because she keeps her sweetness inside, while others thought not because she expresses her feelings directly to the bully.

Amid all this, though, one student shared that she was confused about how a coconut compared to bullying—and hearing her admit that helped others acknowledge Coconutthat they were also confused. This opened the door to others to explain how they made sense of that. One student, for instance, said, “Bullying isn’t like a coconut, she is. Outside she’s hard but inside she’s soft. You could push her and she won’t get hurt but on the inside she might be hurting.” Another saw it slightly differently. “Everything like the outside of the coconut,” she said, “keeps her from being bullied, but inside she’s sweet. So when she’s bullied she doesn’t care because in her heart she knows she’s sweet.” And that led another student to this ‘aha’ moment: “And when she says ‘Your loss is someone else’s gain’, she means that she could have shared her sweetness with the bully if he hadn’t been so mean.

With the period almost over and everyone nodding as they let these ideas sink in, I drew the conversation to a close and noticed and named what the class had done. Right away they’d gotten that the coconut was figurative, but they had to keep talking to figure out what it truly meant. They also connected this text to another, which also helped them out, for by comparing how Rob and the poem’s narrator handled a bully, they’d realized that the authors had different things to say about how to deal with bullying.

Finally, I asked them how they thought it went, and many said just what the students who’d read “Louisa’s Liberation” did, “That was hard, but fun.” Many also wanted to keep the poem, because they liked it so much. So perhaps what happens after English class depends not just on what poem you choose, but how you choose to teach it—and who truly owns the meaning.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 5.14.17 PM

What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

I’m not sure who loves snow days more, teachers or kids. But I do know that when I learned that schools in New York City and New Jersey would be closed on Tuesday for what was predicted to be a monster blizzard, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been ready for my work on Tuesday, but I hadn’t had time to wrap my mind about my work for Wednesday, when I’d be back in a middle school whose teachers were struggling to shift from a curriculum of whole class novels to reading workshop. Now I’d have time to plan.

Like many districts, this one began their initiative to implement workshop in their lower schools, where, over the years, it took root. It’s even been embraced by the 6th grade teachers, who’d noticed that their incoming students were arriving with a much greater sense of agency and identity as readers than they used to. But the 7th grade teachers Classic Middle School Booksweren’t so sure. They were deeply attached to the whole class novels they’d been teaching (sometimes for years), and they truly believed that that approach best prepared their students for high school. To me, this meant that they took their jobs seriously and wanted to do right by their students—and I used that as a place to start.

Over several visits, I’d shown them Penny Kittle’s videos where many of her students confess that they’d basically all but stopped reading in middle school. And I’d shared some from their own district’s lower schools that captured local fourth and fifth graders engaged in book club discussions. I’d demonstrated lessons; given workshop on books talks and interactive read alouds; created charts and handouts like the one below, and introduced them to blogs by middle school teachers, like Tara Smith’s and Pernille Ripp’s. But while they were intrigued enough to institute ten minutes of independent reading in their classrooms several times a week, they still struggled letting go of the whole class texts.

Read Alouds vs. Whole Class Novels 2

So I decided to take a new tact. For this visit, I’d committed myself to taking whatever whole-class-book lesson the host teacher had planned and show them how to shift that to a workshop approach by unpacking my thinking. So once I was fully caffeinated and had helped David shovel our sidewalk and stoop, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my desk to take another look at the email the teacher had sent.

The Miracle Worker PlaybillHer plan was to start “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, on Wednesday, using “opening activities focused on understanding Gibson’s use of lighting and stage directions to assist readers in understanding the play.” I’d never read “The Miracle Worker,” nor helped a teacher teach a play in middle school before—and I confess I felt some serious regret about what I’d agreed to take on. But sipping my tea, I knew my first job was to think about how to move this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.

What I needed for that was a mentor text to help me understand how stage directions conveyed meaning and what challenges—or problems—they posed for readers. So I turned to Google to help me find plays that might be engaging to middle schoolers and had meaning-full stage directions. And I came up with a small trove of treasures. Here, for instance, are the opening stage directions for Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” about an eccentric comedy writer who must change his ways in order not to lose custody of his 12-year-old nephew:

One thing I immediately recognized  was how much a reader would need to visualize to make sense of this. But more than that, readers also had to think about the significance of all these details and what they might, both literally and figuratively, suggest about what might unfold. That is, readers not only have to picture Nick sitting my himself in the dark, surrounded by a tsunami of disorder, with his face lit by the screen of a TV that the audience can hear but not see, but consider what the playwright might be trying to convey through all those details. And that requires a lot of thinkingfrom inferring that, at 8:30 on a Monday morning, Nick should be in school to wondering whether the position of the TV, the closed venetian blinds and the scattered, hazy light suggest there’s more that the characters—and us, as readers—can’t see.

All this seemed exciting to me, but also potentially hard. How might I introduce this interpretive thinking to the 7th graders? I could, of course, model a think aloud, but as Dorothy and I wrote in What Readers Really Do, the problem with think alouds is that, while they’re intended to show students how to think, what students often take away is what to think. Instead, as I wrote in my look at dynamic teaching, I wanted to design an opportunity for students to engage in that thinking on their own.

So I made myself another cup of tea and stood by the window, watching the snow silently blanket the street. And suddenly I had what David calls a “brain fart.” What if I began by having students interpret Edward Hopper paintings, which suggest stories in interior spaces that almost feel like stage sets, and then moved from those to “A Thousand Clowns”? With renewed excitement, I headed back to my desk, where once gain Google helped me find images, which seemed perfect for the kind of interpretive thinking I wanted the kids to try on:

Hopper Movie Theater

Hopper Nighthawks

Hooper room-in-new-york

With a text now chosen and a basic plan in mind, I still had to consider the logistics: Should I do the first painting with the whole class then break them into smaller groups to interpret different painting? Would the kids need some kind of protocol or lenses for looking at the paintings? Should I follow the same structure with the stage directions, first look at “A Thousand Clowns” together, then let groups work collaborative on different openings that they then could read in book clubs?

As I pondered these decisions, an email notice popped up on my screen. I had a new message from the middle school. Turns out there was so much snow the school couldn’t open on Wednesday unless the roads, sidewalks and parking lots could be cleared. And even if that happened, there’d be a delayed opening, which meant I’d need to reschedule the day. Given that I couldn’t do that until much later in April, you could say all that work was for naught. But I have to say I found the thinking as exhilarating as The Snowy Day‘s Peter found playing outside in the snow. I didn’t make snow angels, build snowmen or hurl myself down a hill on a sled. But I did hurling myself down a thrilling ride of thought, which led to making something. And who knows? Maybe one of you out there will do something with this!

The Snowy Day sledding

 

Beyond Story Mountains & Arcs: The Many Shapes of Stories

The Shape of Stories

Infographic representation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the Shape of Stories by Maya Eilam

I love working at summer institutes where teachers have enough time and space in their heads to devote themselves to learning. And I love them, too, because they give me a chance to try out new thinking and learning. This happened not only in California, which I wrote about last week, but in Paramus, New Jersey, where one of my educational heroes Tom Marshall runs summer institutes on the teaching of reading and writing that bring both new and seasoned educators together from across the state and beyond.

This summer Tom invited me to lead an advance session on teaching realistic fiction, which I’d spent a chunk of time on this year in another New Jersey district. And one of the things I was still struggling with was how to help students plan their stories in a deep and meaningful way. As it was, many of the teachers I worked with had given their students story mountain graphic organizers as a planning tool, but these came with the same problem I wrote about in an earlier post: Students saw the organizer as a task to complete, not as a tool to think, which meant they were fine for students who were already thinking deeply but not for those who weren’t. And in an age appropriate way, I wanted the students to experience what fiction writer Elizabeth Poliner Alice Munrodescribed in her lovely piece “How Mapping Alice Munro Stories Helped Me as a Writer.”

As Poliner writes, she began mapping out Munro stories because “they [didn’t] seem constructed at all as much as breathed into life,” and she “wondered, on a structural level, what was really going on. How did she do it?” The first story she mapped was “The Progress of Love,” which, like many Munro stories, makes several shifts between a character’s childhood and adult life. And what she learned as a writer from doing that was “that when you move around a lot in time it can be useful to have one part of the story move linearly, like the backstory of the narrator’s youth.” You can see how she arrived at that from her map below, where the backstory’s represented in the boxes at the bottom, with the three scenes from the narrator’s adult life (which happen at different times) in the boxes above where the shifts happen. Mapping Alice Munro story

Of course, this is a quite complex story and Poliner is a serious writer, but the combination of stumbling on this article and preparing for the institute made me recall a seventh grade teacher I’d worked with, Sarah Whitman, who was using the TC Unit of Study, which referred to some comments Kurt Vonnegut had made about the shape of stories. The unit recommended using those comments to introduce story arcs, which in the unit look like story mountains minus the boxes and academic language, not like the variety of shapes in the first image. But Sarah took this one step further. Looking for KurtVonnegut 2Vonnegut’s original comments, she discovered a video in which he talked more about story shapes, and she brought that more complex vision to her classroom.

I urge you to click through to the video, which is definitely worth watching, as Vonnegut is hysterical and explains much more than the TC unit captures. He maps a story’s shape on an axis-chart with the horizontal line representing the span of the story, from the beginning to the end, and the vertical charting the character’s experiences, ranging from ill to good fortune. And below you’ll see a variation that maps Cinderella as she moves across the story from misery to ecstasy, with the specific events of the story identified for each dip and rise.

Mapping Cinderella

I shared both the video and the Cinderella map with my group in Paramus then asked them in groups to try mapping one of the mentor texts I’d shared, which included Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto. The book tells the story of Maria who, longing to look and act more grown up on Christmas Eve, slips on her mother’s diamond ring while making the batter for the tamales, only to realize with horror later that she no longer has the ring. She thinks it fell off as she mixed the batter and is now inside one of the tamale, but when she enlists her cousins in eating the tamales to find the ring, it’s still missing.

As the groups started mapping, I walked around the room where I heard teachers and coaches engaged in the kind of meaningful conversations, happy grappling and problem solving I wrote about last week, as they debated where to put events on their maps. And in doing so, I suddenly realized they were also engaged in the work of interpretation and analysis, as can be seen in these two slight different maps of Too Many Tamales: 

Too Many Tamales Chart 1

Too Many Tamales Chart 2

Once they’d finished and had done a gallery walk to see the range of thinking, we talked about the classroom implications. They all thought that this form of mapping better captured the actual movement of stories than one-size fits all arcs or mountains, which compress all the ups and downs characters face through the abstract terms rising and falling action. And they definitely saw the potential of mapping as a planning tool. They thought, though, that students would benefit from mapping a story they’d heard or read before, just as they’d done, before trying to plan their own, and they imagined one done interactively as a whole class collaboration and another done in small groups. And to make sure students saw the map as a thinking tool versus a task to complete, they envisioned letting students work with a buddy, with some questions they could collaborative wrestle with, such as:

  • Where, on the line between bad and good fortune (or a sad and happy faces) might my story begin?
  • If my character begins on a high note, do I want something to happen to indicate a possible problem or trouble? What could that be?
  • How many setbacks do I want my character to have before—or as—things get better? What kind of events could show that?
  • And where on the spectrum should my story end?

I’m eager to hear what the teachers and coaches who attended my session do with this work as school starts up, and I’d be happy to hear from blog readers as well who try this out with students. More than anything, though, I think this shows the importance of giving teachers the time to actually do and think through the work they’re asking of students to do and to question accepted practices.

Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

So here’s a true confession: I was one of those high school students who sometimes handed in book reports about books I hadn’t read. I’m not really sure when my fudging began, but I distinctly remember the time when my 10th grade teacher Miss Ingersoll assigned the class John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read and write about over a break. I meant to read it, I really did, just as soon as I finished the unassigned book I was secretly reading at home—John Fowles’s The Collector, which my parents disapproved of but I found riveting.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t finish The Collector until the night before the book report was due. And so, without the benefit of Spark Notes or sites like iEssay.com, I read the blurbs, grabbed a thesaurus and scanned a few pages for quotes. Then I cobbled and strung together what I had well enough to earn a B- and to learn the same lesson Calvin shares here with Hobbes:

In the age of the Internet when a Google search for “free high school English essays” yields over 19 million results in less than a second, I don’t know how many students learned the same lesson that Calvin and I did. But I do see a lot of writing these days that doesn’t seem terribly meaningful—as my book report wasn’t—and I think that’s directly connected to the college student’s comment I shared the other week: that across the grades, from first up through twelfth, we focus too much on teaching students how to organize ideas and not enough on how to build them.

Many colleges address this imbalance by assigning what the great writing professor and author Peter Elbow calls “low stakes writing”—i.e., writing that’s undertaken “not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn and understand more of the course material.” In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Elbow enumerates the benefits of low stakes writing, which include the following:

  • Low stakes writing helps students be active learners [rather than] merely passive receivers.
  • Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course; they work out their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts . . . in their own lingo.
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to their teaching. We get a better sense of how their minds work.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of high stakes writing [because] with frequent low stakes writing we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we grade a high stakes piece.

This sort of low stakes writing does crop up in grade schools, though not as much in high schools as I think it should. Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke, for Low Stakes Writinginstance, devote close to half their book Content-Area Writing to low stakes “Writing to Learn” strategies. Middle school teacher, blogger and Two Writing Teachers contributor Tara Smith shares how she helps students use their reading notebooks to push and develop thinking in her recent posts “Setting Up the Reading Journal For a Year of Writing About Reading” and “Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading.” And in her book Writing about Reading,” Janet Angelillo offers a great list of low stakes “Ways to Think, Talk and Writing About Books,” which includes options such as “Finding places in the text where a light goes on in my mind and signals me to pay attention” and “Finding an idea thread to follow throughout the text or building a theory about the text.”

In my own practice, I’ve been inviting students to consider some open-ended questions about details, lines, patterns or scenes, such as Why might the author be showing you Basic CMYKthis? How might this be connected to that? And why and how has this changed your thinking—or not? I’ve also invited them to consider questions that engage them in viewing the text through more than one lens of the Character-Author-Reader eye. With a class of fifth graders, for instance, who just finished the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s marvelous Tiger Rising, I asked students what they thought was making the main character’s life hard, how he was dealing with that, and whether or not they thought his ways of coping were effective. As you’ll see below, this led students to focus on different aspects of the text and voice a wide range of ideas, which they revisited, developed and revised as they kept on reading.

Tiger Rising Responses

 I’ve also had wonderful opportunities to work with teachers who are eager to experiment with different ways of writing about reading, such as Ede Blabec and Rachel Kovach who wanted to bring more meaningful writing back to their eighth grade students’ reading notebooks. To do this, they decided to have students keep a separate notebook dedicated to their next read-aloud A Wrinkle in Time. And they made a brilliant decision to provide the class with simple, unadorned notebooks that were small enough to fit in a pocket. This made the notebooks seem both personal and unintimidating, and to personalize them even more, the students were invited to illustrate their thinking, which as you can see below allowed some students to unleash their inner artist.

Wrinkle 01Wrinkle 02

All these ways of writing about reading seem different from the menus or lists of reading response options I frequently find stapled into students’ reading notebooks. These low risk ways of writing focus on the reader as much as on the text and on what Dorothy Barnhouse and I call “the process of meaning making,” where students are invited to question, dig deeper, explore ideas and consider how the text affects them. The reading response menus, on the other hand, seem more like performance-based tasks or short-constructed responses—and they’re often evaluated with rubrics that emphasize structure, mechanics and the citing of evidence over depth of thought.

Of course, students who engage in low stakes writing may still have to learn a thing or two about structure. And so in Part 2, I’ll share ways they can do that by studying mentor texts rather than by using a formula. But at least when it’s time to write more formally, students will have something meaningful to say. And they’ll also have experienced for themselves how writing, like talk, can be used as a tool not only to present and demonstrate thinking but to actually grow ideas.

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Some Thoughts on the Words Evidence and Claim

fresh crime scene with yellow tape at night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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