Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow

Shame

For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

During my week in Reggio Emilia, my fellow study group members and I had several opportunities to speak through translators to our Italian colleagues to share observations and ask questions about some of the incredible practices we saw. I was also curious to know what our hosts thought about some of the practices we hold dear and whether or not they confronted some of the problems that we faced, which prompted me to ask questions.

Reggio AtelierHaving visited one of their new elementary schools, for instance, where there was much writing on display, I asked what they thought about craft lessons. This necessitated a bit of back and forth between me, the translator and the teachers who wanted to make sure they understood what I meant by craft. When that was clarified they said that, yes, they would invite students to study craft. But they reminded us of something else they’d said when we’d all marveled at the magnificent ateliers or art studios that are at the center of each school: “[They] do not offer art and technique in order for children to become artists, but in order for them not to become slaves.”

It’s a line I’ve pondered about a lot, along with their answer to another question I posed. I asked if they ever saw children, like the ones I described in my two last posts, who are able to read a text fluently but seemingly don’t understand what it says. And if so, what do they do. Again the question caused some back and forth between the translator and the teachers, though finally they said that they do occasionally see that, and when they do, they refer the child to specialists in order to determine the root cause.

At the time, the answer seemed insufficient—and having been astounded by so much of what we saw, some of us wondered whether here, in the States, we’d actually done more thinking about reading and all that’s involved in comprehending than our Italian colleagues, who were just embarking on lower schools, had. But increasingly I found myself thinking of all the stories and videos they’d shared of students wrestling with ideas, whether it was the existence of negative numbers or how to write certain letters. In each case, the students passionately, thoughtfully—and sometimes even heatedly—shared their own provisional theories about whatever was being explored, which they then would test out, revise and develop as they dug deeper into their study and listened to their classmates.

No Judgment ZoneReminded of that, I found myself wondering whether their constructivist approach to learning—where students don’t consume information but actually build their own knowledge—made some of what we see here moot. Every single child in Reggio was engaged in questioning and developing theories about whatever it was they were exploring, and children were confidently  voicing ideas without fear of the teacher’s judgement. In those rooms, it seems possible that no one without some cognitive glitch would read without wondering what the author might be saying, and no one would be passively calling out words without thinking about what those words meant. And the teachers would both expect and trust that even if the students’ initial theories were far-fetched or even faulty, the process of sharing and revising ideas would eventually lead everyone to understand more in an age-appropriate way.

I wonder, though, if we expect the same. We certainly expect students to learn and know things, and we expect them to perform. But in our race to meet the Standards, move students up levels and complexity bands, and answer our close reading questions, do we really care how deeply they understand as long as they get the right answer? And do we really trust and expect they can get there without our firm, directing hand?

If You Lived with the Iroquois CoverWith these questions in mind, a group of fourth grade teachers I’ve been working with decided to put understanding front and center by inviting students to acknowledge what they didn’t understand as a place from which to start learning. To do this we chose a nonfiction text, If You Lived with the Iroquois by Ellen Levine, aware that, particularly with nonfiction, there was a big difference between knowing the facts and truly understanding them. Then gathering a small group of students on the rug, we gave each child a copy of the book, asked them to turn to the following page and to read thinking about not what they learned but what they’d didn’t fully understand.

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

Right away a student said that he didn’t understand the sentence about the Iroquois using what nature provided, and once he’d revealed that, the others all agreed. They also didn’t know what a ‘kilt-like skirt’ was, and when I asked about the word ‘tanned,’ they said they weren’t so sure about that either—unless it meant laying the skins in the sun to tan. We then invited the students to look through the book, seeing if there were any places, either in the text or the pictures, that might help them understand what they hadn’t. This led one girl to discover a whole section on tanning a few pages later and several students to develop an understanding of a kilt-like skirt from the illustrations.

We went on then to read the section about tanning, which was hard for them to fully grasp. But at some point the boy who’d originally cited the line about using what nature provided said he now thought he knew what that meant: The Iroquois used material they could find outside, like deer skin and brains, moss and corncobs to make what they needed. And another student, going back to the previous page, added on that porcupine quills, which they used for decoration, also came from nature.

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

That led one girl to ask, “Did they have stores back then?” “What do you think?” we asked, and after flipping through the pages one last time to see if they spotted any sign of stores or manufactured goods, they all decided they didn’t think so, which they thought was pretty amazing and made them curious to learn more.

The teachers and I all believed that the students left the group that day with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Iroquois than they’d had if we’d set them up to take notes, gather facts, or fill out a worksheet. And we sent out a message to them that I fear students don’t always hear: We care more about your thinking than your answers, and we truly want you to understand—so much so that we’ll honor what you don’t understand as the place to begin exploring and will carve out time to give everyone the chance to reveal their fledgling thinking and then use talk, not to prove a claim, but to grow and develop ideas. And by trusting and expecting you to understand, you will come to expect that, too, and accept nothing less. And that means you’ll never be a slave to someone else’s thinking.

Reveal, Listen, Understand