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

 

Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: What Does It Mean to Teach Dynamically?

film-reel-countdown

If you’ve seen Heinemann’s Spring Catalog already, you may know that Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading will be out in about six weeks. And as a run up to its release, I’d like to share some of the books’s big ideas and features over the next few weeks, beginning here with the concept of dynamic teaching.

the-education-trust-report At some point as I was writing the book, I started noticing the word dynamic in various articles and blog posts that showed up in my inbox and twitter feed. Most of these talked about a need for teachers to embrace more dynamic practices, such as this study from The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to educational equity, which looked at the kinds of reading-related assignments students were being asked to do to meet the Common Core Standards.

As I share in the book, one of their major findings was that “many—if not most—assignments were over-scaffolded . . . [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them.” In particular, the researchers took aim at close-reading and text-annotation tasks, which they said “were so tightly scripted they actually appeared to interfere with the deep understanding of complex text.” And this led them to ponder whether “the implementation approaches we have chosen are overly mechanical, denying the dynamic nature of teaching needed for strategic thinking.”

comprehension-going-forwardA similar finding is shared by P. David Pearson in his wonderful coda to Comprehension Going Forward“Toward the Next Generation of Comprehension Instruction.” Having taken a hard look at the current state of strategy instruction, he acknowledges that its implementation—especially in classrooms where teachers are using commercial reading programs—often lacks “the dynamic, adaptive and responsive character,” needed for it to be effective and meaningful. And that leads him to conclude that these practices also “stand in need of reform.”

But what precisely might a more dynamic implementation look like? If you go to Google and type in dynamic teaching, you’ll find any number of ways people think about it. For some, it means bringing more technology into classrooms or creating blending learning opportunities. To others, it’s about us, as teachers, being more energetic, enthusiastic and engaging; while still others think it involves making more real world connections between what goes on inside and outside of school. All of these practices are certainly worthwhile, but none of them—even when combined—necessarily capture the essence of the word dynamic, which the Oxford Dictionary says describes a system or process “characterized by constant change, activity or progress.”

For me this means teaching that engages students in a recursive, interactive process that allows their thinking, understanding and sense of agency to actually change, develop and grow as they work together to figure something out—whether that’s the difference between a scene and a summary, which I wrote about recently, or, in the case of reading, what an author might be trying to show us about the human condition.

john-deweyIt’s worth noting that this concept of teaching isn’t new. It goes all the way back to Dewey who believed that learning required thinking, not “a diet of predigested materials” and that “we only think when confronted with a problem.” Therefore, he thought teachers should “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn” (as in strategies or skills), and if “the doing was of such a nature to demand thinking,” (as trying to figure something out is) “learning would naturally result.” And one of Dewey’s colleagues and friend, Michael Vincent O’Shea, even used the word dynamic in his book Problems in Everyday Teachingwhich was published in 1912. According to O’Shea:

“Whenever a pupil is obliged to make things work, he will think as effectively as it is possible for him to do. If in our teaching we can arrange a program of exercises of this concrete, dynamic character, we can keep pupils thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity. Really, the art of teaching consists mainly in realizing this plan to its fullest extend in all studies. . . [as] there can be no effective learning in any class where the pupils are not in a dynamic attitude toward the thing which is being presented. And they can not be dynamic for any considerable length of time unless they are self-active in organizing and setting forth in some way.”

More recently, this vision of dynamic teaching was recommended in a report put out last August by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) called “What Matters Now: A New Compact for Teaching and Learning.”  There they argue for a set of “New Teaching Dynamics” where, in order to “empower students to become self-directed and responsible learners,” teachers need to become learning strategists rather than content providers.

what-matters-now-graphic

As you can see from this graphic, being a learning strategist requires teachers to take on multiple roles, some of which will be new to many. These roles also require us to be flexible, adaptive and responsive thinkers, frequently in the moment, which can also be new—and scary. And here’s where Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading comes in.

Throughout the book, I’ve tried to make the teaching moves involved in this kind of teaching as concrete, explicit and replicable as possible so you can transfer and apply them to different grades, instructional settings and texts. You’ll find chapters that show you how to create and implement dynamic learning opportunities for your students in reading, and each of these ends with a chart, like the one below, that captures and names the specific teaching moves shared in each chapter’s classroom examples.

steering-the-ship_ch-5

From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing

Additionally, you’ll find sections in those chapters that unpack the thinking behind the moves, share ways of providing vital in-the-moment feedback, and show you not only how to plan for this kind of teaching but how to actually be prepared for the various twists and turns a more dynamic approach can take. And with that said, it’s time to begin thinking about next week’s post: What Is Deeper Reading?