Do We Underestimate the Students We Teach?

Last year I shared a story about a fourth grade class that was studying the Middle Ages. Based on formative reading assessments, many of the students had been labeled struggling readers. Yet despite that, they were able to insightfully consider a book about Galileo in a way that allowed them to understand the power and belief systems of that distant and very different time period.

In what seems to me a similar way, teacher and Heinemann Fellow Aeriale Johnson has been tweeting some of the incredibly insightful responses her second graders—many of whom have also been labeled as strugglers—have had to poems and books she’s shared with them.

Here, for instance, is a poem from Tupac Shakur that Aeriale shared with her class:

And here’s what one of her second graders had to say about it:

“I think 2Pac’s duo is his spirit & his body. I think sometimes his body doesn’t do the same thing as his spirit. He says, ‘This is my only regret.’ His regret is his body did something that his spirit didn’t want to do.”

Another poem Aeriale shared with her second graders is Mary Oliver‘s “Wild Geese” (which I didn’t read until my thirties):

Here’s one seven-year-old girl’s response to it:

That same poem also sparked the following exchange on the playground, where one child drew on Oliver’s words to help another deal with a painful interaction:

And finally here’s several of Aeriale’s students considering the meaning of this page of Kwame Alexander’s marvelous book How to Read a Book, with great illustrations by Melissa Sweet:

In all these examples, we see children who’ve been labeled as struggling readers being quite capable of deep thinking and insight. So how do we explain this? For me, it’s connected to something Lilian Katz, the early childhood educator and author of Engaging Children’s Mindsonce said: “We overestimate children academically, while underestimating them intellectually.”

Katz was specifically speaking about young children, but I think this is true right up the grade ladder, from kindergarteners to high school. Some of the fourth graders I worked with, for instance, and the second graders Aeriale teaches, may indeed struggle with academic skills like identifying the main idea of a text or reading without making significant miscues. But intellectually, they are quite capable of thinking deeply and deriving significant meaning from texts. The problem is that too often schools place more value and emphasis on those academic skills than on students’ intellectual lives. And I think we do that to the detriment of students.

First, unlike speaking and understanding speech, human brains are not hard-wired for reading. As you can see below, reading is an extremely complex act that involves many areas of the brain, which is why learning to read can be challenging for many. Yet what better motivation can there be to take on that hard and sometimes frustrating work of learning to read than to feel that books have something important and vital to give you in a way that adds meaning to your life? Stickers? Pizza? A grade? I don’t think so.

And then there’s the question of those academic skills we spend so much time teaching and assessing. In a recent Position Statement, NCTE stated their belief that “Utilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills devoid of meaning can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways. . . . In addition, prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction misidentifies the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.”

And in their wise and wonderful book, Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Bob Probst have this to say about skills:

“In too many places, we ask kids to read (and write) so we can give them a grade that shows they’ve learned some skills someone has decided they need to know. But if we aren’t reading and writing so that we can discover, so that we change—change our thinking, change ourselves, perhaps change the world—then those skills will be for naught.”

The fourth graders I worked with and the second graders Aeriale teaches were engaging with texts in ways that changed how they looked at themselves and the world they lived in. My hunch—and my experience—has led me to believe that if we carve out space for students to show us what they’re intellectually capable of, many who’ve been labeled as struggling have incredibly thoughtful and insightful things to say. So let’s not underestimate them by narrowly focusing on a diet of skills. Instead, let’s nurture, support and celebrate our students’ intellectual lives.

The Skillification of Reading

According to NCTE’s 2014 Position Statement on Reading,

Reading is a complex act of constructing meaning from print. We read in order to better understand ourselves, and the world around us; we use the knowledge we gain from reading to change the world in which we live.

I love this definition for its conciseness and the way it echoes what writers like Ursula Le Guin has to say about the real purpose of reading. But I confess I have a quibble with what NCTE says teachers need to offer students in order to construct that meaning:

1. access to a wide range of texts that mirror the range of students’ abilities and interests;
2. ample time to read a wide range of materials, from the very simple to the very challenging;
3. teachers who help them develop an extensive repertoire of skills and strategies;
4. opportunities to learn how reading, writing, speaking, and listening support each other;
5. and access to the literacy skills needed in a technologically advanced society.

I’m all in with numbers 1, 2, 4 and 5, but number 3 gives me pause. This isn’t because I don’t think readers need skills. I recognize that reading involves a range of skills from decoding and using context clues to evaluating an author’s argument. But too often those skills are taught in ways that can actually undermine, rather than enhance, a reader’s ability to construct meaning.

Consider,for instance, this chart of reading skills (without getting side-tracked in the question of whether they’re actually skills or strategies). Then add to that list these other skills: Scanning, Skimming, Annotating, Note-Taking, Paraphrasing, Drawing Conclusions and Identifying Character Traits, Story Elements, Literary Devices, Point of View, Text Structures, Text Features, Key Details, and Themes.

These skills (along with individual standards) often wind up as the content of the lessons we teach. And whether we teach these in isolation, using worksheets and graphic organizers, or have students practice them in authentic texts, there’s much that’s problematic about skilled-based instruction.

First there’s the problem that Tim Shanahan shares on his blog: “Researchers have shown that, indeed, when you set a specific purpose for reading, students will do a better job of accomplishing that purpose. However, despite more kids getting correct answers, their overall reading comprehension tends to be depressed.” This means that while students may be able to, say, distinguish between fact and opinion or recognize the sequence of a text, their ability to construct meaning may be hampered.

To make this more concrete, let’s imagine we’ve brought a small group of kids together to practice the skill of identifying character traits, using the opening paragraph of Peter Lerangis’s The Sword Thief, the third book in The 39 Clues series:

Asking the group to consider what kind of character Amy is, students might infer from her exchange with her brother that she’s bossy, a know-it-all or stuck-up—and based on these details, they wouldn’t be wrong. But in order to construct meaning of this passage, a reader would need to figure out when and where they are (at the airport in Venice) and what’s happening (they’re worried that a samurai sword they’ve packed in the duffle bag might be found and confiscated in a random luggage search). And all of that could conceivably be missed if they’re only looking for details that suggest a character trait.

And then there’s this problem with skill-based instruction that NCTE notes in another Position Statement: 

[U]tilizing a model of reading instruction focused on basic skills can lead to the mislabeling of some readers as “struggling readers” and “non-readers” because they lack extensive reading experience, depend on different prior knowledge, and/or comprehend differently or in more complex ways . . . [and that] prescriptive, skills-based reading instruction mislocates the problem as the students’ failure to learn, rather than the institution’s failure to teach reading as the complex mental and social activity it is.

I think it’s important to remember this whenever we’re tempted to wring our hands over students who still can’t identify a main idea, despite being taught how to do so for years. This doesn’t mean, however, we should never teach skills. But we need to be mindful of what students may lose when we do—and consider if there are other ways to help them become skillful readers. In my last post, for instance, I suggested that rather than teaching analysis as a discrete skill, we see it as a by-product of the complex act of constructing meaning by interpreting. And many other skills that we teach in isolation can be by-products not only of interpretation, but also of reading for pleasure. According to the educational researcher Stephen Krashen, for instance,

When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: they will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers.

Similarly, at CCIRA’s yearly conference in Denver, I had the privilege of hearing Peter Johnston, the author of Choice Words and Opening Minds, speak about a study he and Gay Ivey had conducted, which showed that when teachers shifted their instruction from teaching skills to socially and emotionally engaging students with high-interest texts, the following can happen:

And as the students developed social imaginations, additional outcomes were found:

So here’s my question: If all of these outcomes are natural outgrowths of students reading to construct meaning, why do we spend so much time and energy on teaching individual skills? Of course, I’m aware that some teachers have no choice, because they’re required to teach packaged programs ‘with fidelity’. Many also are driven to teach skills in isolation because of the role high-stakes test scores play in how they’re evaluated. But I have to wonder if it’s also because it gives us something concrete to teach.

This is something I think many teachers feel, and it’s important to know that you’re not alone. Even Nancie Atwell, one of the most respected reading teachers on the planet, succumbed to the allure of having something to teach when she first heard about comprehension strategies in the 1990’s. As she writes in The Reading Zone:

Despite everything I recognized and celebrated about the impact of frequent, voluminous, enjoyable experiences with books on my students’ abilities as readers, I still harbored a pocket of doubt about the rigor of reading workshop, especially about my role in it. . . I hadn’t yet defined, to my own satisfaction, exactly what I was supposed to do as the teacher in a reading workshop. So the comprehension strategies held immediate appeal: I could give myself a role by teaching these.”

Eventually, though, Atwell recognized that imposing any agenda on her students’ reading, beyond the construction of meaning, interfered with their ability to become the “skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers,” she wanted them to be. So she went back to doing what she’d been doing: giving kids abundant time to read and talk about what they were reading, trusting that reading would teach them how to read, without her needing to skillifying the process. And perhaps, we should do that as well.

Analyzing Analysis: How the Parts Contribute to the Whole

The late, great writer Ursula Le Guin believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” I believe this, too, which is why I made a case in my last post for bringing interpretation back into classrooms, as the means through which we can reap reading’s ultimate benefit. But here’s the other thing about interpretation: In addition to helping us develop moral compasses, empathy, and self-awareness, I think academically interpretation also helps us analyze. In fact, I see interpretation as the too often unrecognized behind-the-scene work needed for real analysis.

Think about it for a moment: Interpretation involves putting pieces of a text together to construct an understanding of its deeper meaning. It’s an act of construction, while analysis, on the other hand, deconstructs by separating a whole into its component parts ostensibly to see how the parts affect the whole. But how can readers analyze the function of the parts if they don’t really have a vision of the whole?

I suppose it’s possible to do this if both the whole and its parts are known or familiar, like the dog and its disassembled parts above. But as I wrote in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingreaders who don’t have a vision of the whole beyond the gist can wind up like the blind men in the old Indian tale, who attempted to understand what an elephant was by analyzing a part of it. One man touched the trunk and thought an elephant was a snake; another felt the tail and concluded it was a rope; a third stroked the ear and thought an elephant was a fan. No one was able to make sense of the whole by analyzing a part.

When you have a deeper vision of the whole, however, analysis can be far more insightful. The third graders I wrote about in my last post, for instance, who were reading The Old Woman Who Named Things, didn’t notice every detail or initially understand every word. But once they’d developed an interpretation that encapsulated the whole, they were able to go back to a passage like this and have lots to say about why the writer had decided to have the old woman read this particular book.

In this way, these students were analyzing without explicitly being taught to do so. No learning to use acronyms like RAFT or ACE or sentence starters and templates. Instead, their analysis was a natural out-growth of having meaningfully interpreted the text. And if you’re wondering if what I’m describing is actually analysis, just imagine this example reframed as a question on a standardized Common Core test: “How does this paragraph contribute to the author’s message (or the theme or the character’s development)?”

Questions like this form the bulk of both the multiple choice questions and short constructed responses that students encounter on the PARCC, Smarter Balance and New York State/Engage NY assessments. And in my work with teachers, I’ve been recommending that once students have been able to thoroughly discuss and interpret whatever texts they’ve read as inter-active read alouds, whole class novels, or book club books, you invite them to consider a few analysis questions that either you or the students themselves can create by combining one word or phrase from each column (like the Chinese restaurant menus of my childhood):

I keep finding new words to add to this chart, so it’s a work in progress. But one thing I know for sure is that while students might need to learn the meaning of and nuances between these verbs, they’ll be far more ready to answer these kinds questions if they’ve thought deeply and interpreted what they’ve read, rather than staying on the surface—or, as many students do, only start to think until they hit the questions. And interestingly enough, I’m not the only one who believes this.

Last month, I came across a blog post by Timothy Shanahan called “If You Really Want Higher Test Scores: Rethink Reading Comprehension Instruction.” In the early days of the Common Core, Shanahan spent much time promoting the teaching of close reading by having students answer text-dependent questions over the course of three readings, the first to consider what the text says, the second how it says it, and the third what it means. More recently, however, he’s recognized that this has led many teachers to have a warped view of what it means to read. “Simply put,” he writes,

Reading is NOT the ability to answer certain kinds of questions about a text. . .  Not knowledge, comprehension, analysis, synthesis or evaluation questions. Not “right there,” “think and search,” “author and me,” or “on my own” questions. Not main idea, detail, inference, structure or author’s tone questions.

[Instead] reading is the ability to make sense of the ideas expressed in a text [through] the ability to negotiate the linguistic and conceptual barriers of a text” (or what I call ‘the problems’ a given text poses). Students who can make sense of a text’s ideas will be able to answer any kind of question about that text. While students who fail to scale those linguistic and conceptual barriers”—i.e., to solve those problems—will struggle with the simplest of questions.

And how does he propose teaching kids to do this? Basically, once they’ve learned to decode, by teaching them how to interpret.

Of course, the title of the blog post suggests that Shanahan sees higher test scores as the end goal of interpreting, whereas I see them as the by-product of more authentic and meaningful work. But just think about it: If we provided students with lots of opportunities to interpret right from the start of the year—with time set aside to regularly practice and experience how to move from interpretation to analysis, we wouldn’t have to drive ourselves and our students crazy with test prep at this point in the year. So let’s trade in all those literary analysis sentence stems, acronyms and worksheets and focus on supporting student interpretations as the backbone of analysis.

 

Interpreting Interpretation: A Look at an Overlooked Word

Last week I was working with some eighth grade teachers who were getting ready to launch a new reading unit, and to learn a bit more about their students, I asked them how well they thought their kids were able to interpret. They paused for a moment, not sure what to say, until one teacher said that they’d mainly focused on analyzing texts, not on interpreting them.

Given the emphasis that the Common Core standards have placed on analysis, I wasn’t surprised to hear this. As I researched for Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingthe words interpret and interpretation only appear 15 times in the ELA Standards, while the words analyze and analysis show up over 150 times.

What’s interesting, too, is that if you look at where those 15 words appear, you’ll find that while students are asked to interpret words, phrases, figurative language, figures of speech and visuals (such as charts and graphs), they’re not asked to interpret whole texts. They are, however expected to analyze other writers’, artists’, and filmmakers’ interpretations of texts and real-life events, which means the authors of the standards recognize that readers can interpret more than words and phrases.

In the real world, however, all sorts of people interpret all sorts of things. Doctors interpret their patients’ symptoms. Scientists interpret data. Historians interpret the causes of conflicts. Judges interpret the law. And as the writer George Eliot said:

So why is there so little mention of interpretation in the standards and many classrooms?

The skeptic in me has wondered if it’s because the powers that be don’t really want students to think for themselves. But I also suspect there’s a feeling out there that interpretation isn’t rigorous. That is, it’s seen as a loosey-goosey, touchy-feely way of reading, where readers are allowed to think whatever they want, based on their own experiences and feelings. This, however, is not at all what Louise Rosenblatt, the originator of the Reader-Response theory of reading, intended. She did believe that readers needed to bring their thoughts, emotions and experience with them in order to transact with a text. But she saw that transaction as part of “an active, self-ordering and self-correcting process, characterized by subtle adjustments and refinements of meaning in an effort to achieve a coherent interpretation,” which took into account all of a text, not just whatever parts might have spoken personally to a reader.

That process can be seen in the journey a third-grade class I wrote about in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading took. They were reading Cynthia Rylant’s picture book The Old Woman Who Named Things, which tells the story of an old woman who’s outlived all of her friends and is so afraid of losing anyone else that she shies away from forming attachments. Instead, she names inanimate objects that she thinks will outlive her, like her house and car, and considers them as friends. At first, this arrangement seems to work, but things get complicated when a puppy keeps appearing at the old woman’s gate. And those complications only gets worse when one day the puppy doesn’t come, and that ultimately forces the old woman to reconsider the decisions she’s made in her life.

I launched the class on that process by inviting them to begin the book using a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which helped them develop a basic understanding of the who, what, when and where (though, you’ll see that not everyone knew what outlive meant.) And highlighted at the bottom, you’ll also see that questioning, they raised a question, which I knew could lead them right to the heart of the story.

To continue that process, I reframed that question as a line of inquiry to explore and invited the class to draft what Dorothy Barnhouse and I first called “maybe statements” in What Readers Really DoAs you can see below, there’s quite a range in these maybe statements, with some students clearly drawing on more of the text than others were (though everyone cited a piece of evidence).

But then comes the moment when the now fully-grown puppy stops coming to the house and the old woman feels sad:

At this point in the story, I paused to ask the students another question that would engage them in that “active, self-ordering and self-correcting process”: Why did the author make the dog stop coming to the gate? What might she want the old woman—or us—to see?

It’s worth noting that the range of thinking here has narrowed, as students started coalescing around that last idea as part of that “self-correcting process.” A few, however, stuck with their initial thinking. But then comes the ending, which in fiction can act like a final reckoning, where reading must reconcile their ideas with what did and didn’t ultimately happen. Here, the ending Rylant fashioned doesn’t include the sudden appearance of the dog’s owner, nor does the old woman suddenly remember that the dog was really hers. And this invited everyone to revisit, revise and refine their thinking one last time to achieve that “coherent interpretation.”

Note that while these three examples of the class’s final interpretation do take into account all of the text, they’re all quite different. Each reflects what the individual reader found most significant, memorable or moving through their transaction with the text. And note, too, that for these third graders, none of these were universal truths nor were they trite aphorisms, like “Try, try again.” Instead they seem to capture what Flannery O’Connor says about the meaning of fiction:

“The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of the story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

I’ll have more to say about interpretation and how I see it connected to analysis in an upcoming post. But in the meantime, how do you think about interpretation—and how do you invite students to do it?

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.

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