Learning by Doing (or What’s Good for the Gosling is Good for the Goose)

Goose & Goslings

I’m a big believer in the idea that what’s good for students is good for teachers as well. If we say, for instance, that students benefit from having choices and a sense of ownership, I think the same should hold true for teachers. If students deserve time to experiment, practice and sometimes even fail as part of the process of learning, then teachers deserve that time, too. And if we think that students learn best when they’re also given opportunities to wrestle with problems in an active, inquiry-based way, then teachers need those opportunities, too, in order to more deeply understand their students, what to teach and how to best teach it.

Supporting and investing in teachers’ ongoing professional development in order to build their capacity as educators is exactly what schools in Finland and Ontario have done to enviable results. And it’s at the heart of two success stories that recently made the news here at home. The first comes from Union City, New Jersey, a community of poor, mostly immigrant families, where three-quarters of the students come from homes where only Spanish is spoken. As reported in the New York Times article “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools,” Union City made a dramatic turn-around over the course of three years from being a system “in need of improvement” to one whose high school graduation rate rose to a whopping 89.5%, with a vast majority of those graduates going on to college.

Success StoryThe second story comes from New Dorp High School in Staten Island, which again serves many poor and working-class students. As Peg Tyre writes in The Atlantic, New Dorp went from being a school where four out of ten students dropped out to one where 80% graduated by developing an academic writing program. In each case, the change was the result of principals supporting teachers in undertaking an in-depth inquiry into what was holding students back and what the teachers might need to learn and do to address those problems. And in each case, scores of educators have attempted to clone and package what these schools have done–which I think misses the point.

As David Kirp writes in “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools”:

“School officials flock to Union City and other districts that have beaten the odds, eager for a quick fix. But they’re on a fool’s errand. These places . . . didn’t become exemplars by behaving like magpies, taking shiny bits and pieces and glueing them together. Instead, each devised a long-term strategy . . . [and] each keeps learning from experience and tinkering with its model.”

Similarly, educators Bob Fecho and Stephanie Jones echo Kirp’s sentiments in their response to Tyre’s piece, which was also published by The Atlantic. “When positive change occurs in schools,” they write,

“there is a tendency to want to treat the experience like a controlled experiment in a lab, latch on to the latest innovation at that school, and then market it to schools everywhere. In the case of New Dorp . . . empowering teachers to engage their professional knowledge and intellect and take charge of their teaching and learning is the revelation we see . . . . “

I, too, believe that empowering teachers as researchers and learners is the real secret to student success, whether it’s at the school or district level or, as most happens in my own work, at the classroom, grade or discipline level. And that means that whenever I have the opportunity, I get teachers reading and writing—and talking about their own process—to better understand from the inside-out what they’re asking students to do and how they, as learners, do it.

IRA ConventionThis Friday, for instance, I’ll be in San Antonio for the International Reading Association (IRA) convention, participating in a full-day workshop organized by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris (of the indispensable blog and website Burkins & Yaris) on ways to revamp balanced literacy to better meet the demands of the Common Core Standards. There, Dorothy Barnhouse and I will facilitate a close reading experience for the participants that will allow them to better understand—and to feel—both what it truly means to read closely within a community of readers and how that enables readers to make deeper meaning of what they read.

We’ll do this not by asking a string of text-dependent questions but by inviting the participants to first pay attention to what they notice and then consider what that might mean—i.e., what the writer might be trying to show them through the details and structure he’s chosen. And if this group is anything like the groups of teachers I’ve worked with before, this will be both challenging and exhilarating—or as a high school student said to her teacher after I’d modeled this same process in her classroom just the other day, “That was hard but fun.”

Book with LightAfter experiences like the one we’ll be facilitating at IRA, many teachers have confessed that they’ve never read like this before—which should come as no surprise given all the different paths people take to wind up in a classroom. Many are also amazed and astounded by how much more they’re able to ‘see’ in a text when they’re given a chance, as well as by the variety of interpretations that different teachers developed. And like teacher Jessica Cuthbertson, who wrote a piece for EdNews about an institute Dorothy and I gave last summer, they often leave committed to giving their students this kind of opportunity, as well.

Teachers also come away from these reading experiences with a deeper understanding of what some of the individual standards mean, especially those in the Craft and Structure band, and a better sense what it looks, sounds and feels like to really engage in that work. And all of this means they’ll go back to their classrooms with a much deeper, more complex and nuanced view of what they’re expected to teach—none of which would happen if they were handed a script, even if it was one that was developed by others who went through a deep learning process.

I’ll be sharing more about what we can discover, as teachers, when we try to write the tasks we assign to students in an upcoming post. But for now I invite you to also take a look at “Teachers, Learners, Leaders” by Ann Lieberman, a wonderful article about the self-designed professional learning projects undertaken by teachers in Ontario, and to remember these words of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard:

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.”

Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters


Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.



Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

SparkNotes Nation

Sparknotes-Fahrenheit 451SparkNotes Their EyesSparkNotes Huck Finn

Amid all the cries that the Common Core Standards are asking too much of us—at least without more time and support—are a smaller but still vocal group of voices that say they’re nothing new. Many of these voices belong to high school teachers who’ve been asking text-based questions for years and requiring students to support whatever claims they make in discussions and essays with evidence. For them, the only new requirement is to add more nonfiction to the mix, which, again, some were doing already, assigning books such as Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Many of these teachers do a fabulous job of engaging their students with great literature and building their capacity for critical thinking. But the emphasis on teaching texts instead of readers—particularly on teaching that attempts to direct students toward a particular, pre-determined and/or widely-accepted interpretation of a text—has also had the effect of sending thousands, if not millions, of students to SparkNotes where they can find out what they ‘should’ think without actually reading the book.

This was, in fact, the sad discovery of the head of a high school English department I worked with several years ago, who had asked his students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire at the end of the year after grades were in. His American Literature class had read a wide range of texts that year—poetry, essays, plays and short stories, along with four book-length texts. And for each of those four books he asked the students to put a check beside one of the following four statements.

I read the entire book on my own.

I read part of the book and then turned to SparkNotes.

I only read SparkNotes.

I read neither the book nor SparkNotes.

graded-paper-300x225What he found gave him serious pause. While over 80% of the students read Angela’s Ashes, the first book-length text he’d assigned, less than 20% actually read the last book, The Grapes of Wrath, with the largest percentage just reading SparkNotes, and some not even doing that. What was almost worse was that every student had passed the class, which meant that they’d either doctored or plagiarized papers they’d found online or were able to figure out what they were supposed to think by attending to the cues the teacher gave during class discussions.

And so on the heels of those dispiriting numbers, we decided to experiment with the idea of choice and book groups the following year, with the students actually reading in class then discussing what they read with their peers. We wanted them to read multiple texts, and so we designed a unit using short stories that all had teenage protagonists and were written by American authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates‘s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Tobias Wolff‘s “The Liar“, and Michael Cunningham‘s “White Angels“. And we asked them to use their groups to consider what the author of each story seemed to be saying about the challenges of growing up in America.

CHOICEWe gave the students a brief description of the stories, let them choose which ones they wanted to read, and formed groups based on those choices. And since it quickly became apparent that many of them had no strategies for talking or thinking about books on their own, we recruited several other English teachers to demonstrate a discussion of Sylvia Plath’s story “Initiation,” which was one of three stories the whole class had read before breaking into groups.

During that discussion, we asked the students to pay attention to what the teachers did—not just their ideas about the story, but how they constructed those ideas. And from what they noticed, we co-created a list of strategies and discussion moves they could use that looked like this:

Text-Based Strategies 2

© 2008 Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant, https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

Noticing and naming what the teachers had done helped many of the students to notice more in the stories they were reading. A group of students, for instance, reading Maxine Swann‘s story “Flower Children,” about a counter-culture couple in the 70’s attempting to raise their brood of children without rules or inhibitions, noticed how often idyllic or utopian exclamations—such as “They’re the luckiest children alive!”—were paired with images of darkness or death. And as they read additional stories, students started noticing patterns across texts, including many characters who longed for the past and many who ultimately felt let down by the people who supposedly cared for them the most. And noticing this, they began to consider what these patterns suggested the different authors might be saying about what it means to grow up.

This process invited students to independently engage in the kind of close reading that is now being promoted by the Standards and to construct their own interpretations based on what they’d noticed. It also allowed them to develop a new appreciation for literature and of themselves as readers, as can be seen in this student reflection:

Student Response 2

BookCaps Study GuideFast-forward now to our present moment when, if search engine terms that bring people to this blog are any indication, close reading and text-dependent questions are on lots of teachers’ minds. Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes—though they now offer apps for IPhones and Androids, which many students manage to use, despite prohibitions, in class. And lest this seems just like a high school problem, it’s worth noting that new companies like BookCaps are cropping up, selling study guides to books like Because of Winn-DixieBridge to Terabithia and Sign of the Beaver for, as SparkNotes’s motto puts it, “When your books and teachers don’t make sense.”

I believe that unless we make room for diverse interpretations built from what students notice—and focus as much on teaching readers as texts and on thinking as much as on answers—it’s highly probably that students will continue to rely on SparkNotes or find alternatives to beat the system, because they’re actually resourceful and smart. They read us as closely as we’d like them to read texts, trying to figure out what we want in order to give it to us. And I think that means that if we truly want to students to construct their own meaning and not just take on established ideas that are available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we may need to take a closer look at what messages we’re sending out about what we really want from them.

Auld Lang Syne: Some New Year’s Thoughts by Way of Don Murray

Crafting a LifeFor reasons that made sense at the time, I decided to renovate my office in September, which meant moving all my books to the bedroom and stacking them up on the floor. I thought the project would take three weeks, with everything neatly back in place before I left for Italy. But as anyone who’s remodeled anything knows, stuff inevitably happens—in my case, the discovery that beneath the old carpet lay an unlevel floor with a few rotting floorboards.

Needing to put a whole new floor down meant that I didn’t get my books back on the shelves until last week. But while I had definitely grown tired of navigating the stacks of books in the bedroom, the timing turned out to be lucky, for over the break I had the time not just to put the books back on the shelves, but to pause, reconnect and re-acquaint myself with some I hadn’t read for a while, including Don Murray‘s Crafting a Life in Essay, Story, Poem.

Along with his fellow New Hampshire-ite Donald Graves, Don Murray was one of the founding fathers of the writing workshop approach, which invited students to follow the same process that actual writers used—pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing their way to a published piece. I’d bought Crafting a Life when it first came out, when most of the work I was doing in schools centered around writing, and I was curious to see what I’d think of it now, having focused so much recently on reading. I was even more curious when I opened it up and discovered that I’d read the book with a yellow highlighter in hand. Would what had struck me as important back then still seem important to me now? Would I see more than I saw before? Would I discover new insights?

Highlighter and word ideaI doubt I would be writing this if the answer was no. As it was, as I read the lines I’d highlighted, I found myself thinking that I’d stumbled on a whole new way of articulating the reading-writing connection, for on page after page I found parallels between the work of a writer, as Murray describes it, and the work of a reader. Of course, some of these parallels weren’t exactly new. Murray talks, for instance, about the need to form communities where “we share who we are, what we feel, what we think,” which many teachers try to do, too, for both he writers and the readers in their rooms. And he talks about “cultivating a writing habit,” which seems similar to how we help students plan a reading life by setting aside time, creating goals and thinking about what they’ll read next.

But what struck me the most were the parallels I saw in his descriptions of a writer’s purpose and attitude. Here, for instance, is a passage where Murray explains why he writes that could just as easily explain why we read:

“The reason I write is simple: to surprise myself. I want to discover what I know that I didn’t know I knew, to see a familiar subject in an unfamiliar way, to contradict my most certain beliefs, to burst through expectation and intent to insight and clarity, to hurt and laugh and understand and be confused in a way that I have not experienced before.” (p. 47)

Writing to surprise yourself, according to Murray, requires a particular attitude or stance, which he says begins with paying attention, just as reading to surprise yourself does. It also requires openness and a flexible mind, as he describes below:

“It is dangerous for the writer to know exactly where he or she is going . . . . The writer has to become receptive, open to gesture, to slight adjustments in a tone of voice, to what is different from yesterday, to what will be different tomorrow, to fleeting thought and changes in feelings as subtle as an off-shore breeze that hints of rain.” (p. 29)

Surprise Box Shipped Cardboard PackageIt seems unadvisable to me, as well, for a reader to know where he or she’s going (at least the first time through a text); for if we did know, there wouldn’t really be any need to keep turning the pages. Not knowing is what keeps us engaged; it’s what propels us forward. And it’s what helps us keep our minds open and receptive to whatever surprises the text holds. If you think, after all, that you know where you’re going, there’s little incentive to attend to the words, especially to those subtle shifts and hints that herald change—until, perhaps, you find yourself lost, which happens to students all the time.

Unfortunately, however, many of the strategies we teach children to use, such as predicting and picture walks—and even connecting and accessing schema—work against this open mindset by encouraging students to form ideas before they even start reading. And as Murray says in yet another line that has implications for readers: “Beginning writers make the mistake of looking for ideas before beginning to write.” Far better, I think, would be to teach students to ask the very same questions that Murray asks himself as he writes:

“What are the most specific details I can spot? What do they reveal? Which specifics connect? What does their pattern reveal? What specifics repel others? What does that lack of pattern reveal? (p. 47)

Murray poses these questions as he drafts and revises, with each successive draft becoming what he calls “an adventure into meaning.” As readers of What Readers Really Do know, I believe that reading is as much an adventure into meaning as writing is, and it’s also a process of drafting and revising, with this important difference. “During revision,” Murray says, “I re-see the subject, developing clues into understanding, hints into insights, reordering to produce clearer patterns.” As readers, however, we can’t revise the clues or patterns the writer has laid down; what we have to keep revising instead is what we think those patterns and clues reveal and what insights they might be leading us to. And to do this, once again, we have to apply Murray’s writing words to readers: “You discover what [the text has] to say by letting go of preconceptions.”

“Writing should have led you to a new understanding—or, at least, a new confusion,” Murray writes, which is true for reading as well. Rereading Murray deepened my understanding of the reading-writing connection and what it means to read like a writer, and it helped me discover what I didn’t know I already knew. Reconnecting with him over the break was also a great way to start the new year.

Now I wonder what other surprises I’ll find waiting for me on my bookshelves . . .


My Christmas Wish List


I began thinking about this post last Thursday after I’d spent the day with some teachers who were trying to wrap their minds around what makes a nonfiction text complex beyond background knowledge and vocabulary. I’d brought a sampling of books with me, many from the list of text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Standards, and as the teachers began to pour through them, they noticed many things. They noticed, for instance, that most of these books disrupted much of what we teach students about nonfiction; many had illustrations, for instance, instead of photographs, and many had no text features to speak of—no table of contents, no index, no subheadings, to make fact retrieval easy. And rather than the dry, utilitarian language we often find in nonfiction, these books were filled with the kind of language more often associated with poetry, as can be seen from this gorgeous page from Nicola Davies‘s book Big Blue Whale:

Big Blue Whale 2

“I wish I could find a teacher who’d do an author study of Nicola Davies with me,” I said as I imagined children writing ‘information’ texts that explored content through beautiful language that made facts come alive and were structured as creatively as these text exemplars were, rather than by drearily following the Writing Standards bullet points like a formula.

That, in turn, gave birth to several wishes that Thursday afternoon. I wished that in this current climate of argument, analysis and evidence, we could find the time not just to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings,” but to relish and delight in language and feel its power to move us. And to do this, I wished, as Tom Newkirk does in his wonderful piece “Reading Is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading Movement‘”, that we could stop equating proficient reading with speed and right answers and instead, “not put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible—’This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.'”

walt-whitmanI also found myself wishing that we could crack open those first three writing Standards and acknowledge how truly powerful writing doesn’t always fit comfortably and neatly into those opinion, information, and narrative categories—even when we’re writing about texts. Here, for instance, is a link and an excerpt to writer, professor and educator Tom Romano‘s glorious essay “A Relationship with Literature,” which combines personal narrative, literary analysis and deeply held convictions to explore his life-long relationship with Walt Whitman:

“Through their essays students have shown me that literature matters to them for many reasons: because of their search for identity, their spiritual needs, their desire to escape to imaginative worlds, their evolving sense of justice. . . . No students yet have written that what won them over to literature was the arc of the Victorian novel, or the qualities of Romanticism, or what a green light symbolized at the end of a dock. This doesn’t surprise me. Literature matters to my students because of their wild and precious lives. They want them to make sense, to be meaningful. They want to find their way. And I understand. ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ (Whitman).”

And then, of course, came last Friday, when yet another unimaginable act of violence occurred, destroying 27 wild and precious lives. Tom Romano notes that some of his students “have come through slaughter, and a book helped them understand that pain, fear and despair.” I do wish that at some point the families of Newtown, Connecticut, will find some shred of solace in a writer’s words. But right now I wish that literature will fail us, that it actually won’t help us make sense of what happened, because if understanding begets acceptance and tolerance, I wish to never understand what happened that day and to never, ever have to see the words massacre and school in the same sentence again.

Finally, as we head into the holidays, I wish that we might find the strength and courage to to change a world that seems bent on discounting creativity, beauty and the slow accretion of meaning, that seems to care more for the rights of gun owners than the rights of children, and that narrowly evaluates the value of a teacher in ways that fail to acknowledge the valor and sacrifice of the teachers in Newtown. Of course, doing that will not be easy. But for that we might want to hold on to the words of Anais Nin‘s poem “Risk”:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

Pine Tree in Snow

Revisiting the Reading-Writing Connection: A Deeper Look at Show, Don’t Tell

We all know that reading and writing are intrinsically connected: Readers need writers and writers need readers, and each supports the other. When asked to give aspiring writers advice, for instance, many writers point to the importance of reading—or as Gary Paulson so wonderfully puts it, if you want to write, “read like a wolf eats!“And as I quoted in an earlier post, Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott believes that “becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.”

For those of us who implement some variety of writing workshop, this connection usually leads us to teach students to ‘read like a writer,’ in order to be more aware of the craft moves writers make. And we use mentor texts to explicitly teach craft, with lessons focused on demonstrating such things as how writers ‘hook’ their readers through engaging leads, how they use dialogue to bring a scene alive, and perhaps most frequently how they ‘show, don’t tell.’

Like ‘Write what you know,’ ‘show, don’t tell’ is a kind of writing mantra that teachers tend to teach students again and again. And like ‘write what you know,’ there’s some truth to it, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Many writers, for instance, balk at the idea of writing what you already know—or as children’s book author Richard Peck says, “We don’t write what we know. We write what we wonder about.” But what about the merits of ‘show, don’t tell’? On the one hand, it reflects a general call for students to be writing scenes, instead of summaries, in which events and moments dramatically unfold, and as such it’s good advice. It’s also a call to write with more descriptive and sensory details—or as Chekhov advised, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” And to help students add more sensory description, we often ask them to brainstorm lists of details for each of the five senses—which sometimes leads them to binge on adjectives.

Both of these aspects of ‘show, don’t tell’ are directly related to the powerful way narratives work on us as readers. Vividly rendered dramatic scenes allow us to viscerally and emotionally feel what the writer is writing about in ways that can deeply affect us. In fact, neuroscientists have been able to document these affects through brain scans, as The New York TImes article “Your Brain on Fiction,” recently explored. Some scientists even report that “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective,” which is one of the characteristics of Common Core Standards college and career ready students.

Inviting students to harness this power through showing, not telling, is wonderful. But I think there’s something else writers do with scenes and details to affect us so deeply that isn’t always captured in the call to ‘show, don’t tell’—though I think it’s hiding right there in Chekhov’s sentence. As a writer whose stories and plays explore dashed dreams and diminished expectations, it seems telling that Chekhov chose to explain what he meant through an image involving broken glass rather than, say, a crystal goblet. That is, he may have purposely chosen that detail not to be descriptive for description’s sake, as many student writers seem to do, but to echo the themes he tends to explore in his plays and stories.

In this way, we could say that writers actually show AND tell. They give us details we can see, hear, smell, taste or feel in order to bring their scenes alive so we can experience them, too. But those details often tell us something as well—about a character’s situation or feelings, their relationships to people and places, and sometimes even about themes. Of course, to figure out what those details are telling, we, as readers, have to infer. But we infer because at some level we know that those details are more than descriptive window dressing. They actually mean something, and the inferences and hunches we make are answers to the question we invisibly ask: “What is the author trying to tell me through this choice of detail?”

To see this in a text we might use in a classroom, let’s look at the first page of Cynthia Rylant‘s story “Spaghetti” from the wonderful collection Every Living Thing, which two third grade ICT teachers I worked with used as a mentor text last year to push into show and tell.

Having read and enjoyed the story earlier, the students were able to return to the opening and see what we, as experienced readers, probably can on a first read: that Rylant has described the setting in a way that seems to accentuate and mirror the loneliness that Gabriel feels, with the things he remembers in the next paragraph ‘telling’ us something as well—that Gabriel is smart and probably poor and longs to have a different sort of life than he’s currently leading, one that’s filled with companionship and light. And seeing how Rylant deliberately used description and detail not just to appeal to our senses but to evoke and reveal both the character’s feelings and his situation, they went back to the narratives they were working on and tried to do the same. One of the third graders, for instance, was working on a story about the time he had to kill a spider in the bathtub because his mother was sick. Rather than focusing on describing the bathroom—the color of the walls and tiles, the smell of shampoo in the air—he focused on the spider instead and tried to describe it in a way that conveyed all the fear he felt.

Adding show and tell to our repertoire of craft lessons helps students engage in what Annie Dillard describes as one of the critical aspects of writing. “The writer of any work,” she says in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, “must decide two crucial points: what to put in and what to leave out.” And deciding what to put in, she continues, requires the writer to ask “What is this about?” at the deepest level: what do I want my reader to understand about people and life through this story?

Asking students to experiment with show and tell, instead of ‘show, don’t tell’, requires that they also wrestle with what’s at the heart of their stories, which results in more meaningful writing. And it helps them be more critical readers. For if they know that writers show and tell by choosing their details deliberately to underscore their deeper meaning, they’re more apt, as readers, to wonder and consider what an author is trying to convey through those details by asking themselves the very same question the writer asked herself: “What is this about?” And that’s where the reading-writing connection becomes even more powerful.

Applying the Process of Meaning Making to Nonfiction: A Look at Comprehension

In What Readers Really DoDorothy Barnhouse and I break down the work of meaning making into three strands or modes of thinking: comprehension, understanding and evaluation. We define comprehension as the literal and inferential sense a reader makes of a text line by line and page by page. Understanding, by comparison, happens when a reader takes what she’s comprehended on each page to draft and revise her sense of a text’s bigger ideas or themes. And evaluation occurs when a reader critiques a text and/or considers what personal or social value it has for him.

What Readers Really Do explores what these modes look like in fiction, but readers engage in them in nonfiction, too. And in both fiction and nonfiction, readers move between these modes fluidly and often recursively; that is, they don’t wait until they’ve comprehended everything to engage in understanding. Instead they braid their comprehension, understanding and evaluation together as they read to construct meaning.

It is, however, useful to explore each mode of thinking separately to get a feel for the challenges of each. And so this week, I want to explore what’s involved in comprehending nonfiction. Some of my own awareness of the comprehension challenges students face comes from the educator and writer Tony Stead, whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. In Reality Checks, for instance, Tony explores how students can answer questions without fully comprehending what they’ve read, demonstrating how this happens through the following text, which I’ll ask you to read then answer some questions:

My hunch is that you answered those questions ‘correctly’ by automatically drawing on your knowledge of syntax—despite the fact that the words were all nonsense. And students frequently do the same, using their syntactical knowledge to provide us with answers they don’t really comprehend.

Students also often impose their own knowledge—or what they think they know—on a text without reading attentively enough to see how that does or doesn’t match up to what the writer is saying. Last year, for example, I worked with a group of fifth grade boys who were researching and writing opinion pieces about the benefits of video games. They’d found a great article that explained how video games helped build their users’ visual skills. But when asked what they thought visual skills meant, they said it was the ability to read the smallest line on an eye exam chart. They’d plucked the fact, correctly recognizing they could use it to support their opinion, without really comprehending it. And having gotten what they wanted, they glossed over the part where the writer explored those skills more.

On top of all that, nonfiction texts often require a lot of inferring, which I noticed as I began to explore the demands that some of the Standards’ Text Exemplars place on students. Here, for example is an excerpt of the grade K-1 exemplar Starfish by Edith Thacher Hurd:

Starfish live in the sea. Starfish live deep down in the sea. Starfish live in pools by the sea.

Some starfish are purple. Some starfish are pink.

. .  . Starfish have many arms. The arms are called rays. Starfish have arms, but no legs. Starfish have feet, but no toes. They glide and slide on tiny tube feet. They move as slowly as a snail.

The basket star looks like a starfish, but it is a little different. It doesn’t have tube feet. It moves with its rays. It has rays that go up and rays that go down.

Tiny brittle stars are like the basket star. They hide under rocks in pools by the sea.

The mud star hides in the mud. It is a starfish. It has tiny tube feet.

Setting aside the use of the word ‘pool’ and the puzzling thought of arms having feet, readers must infer that basket stars aren’t actually starfish. Then they must infer that, being like basket stars, brittle stars aren’t starfish either because they don’t have tube feet, which—another inference—is part of what distinguishes a starfish. Only through those inferences would students be able to meet the Reading Information Standard 3, which asks that first graders “Describe the connection between two pieces of information in a text.” And none of the standard comprehension strategies would help them, beyond a generic call to infer.

So the question for teachers is, what are we to do? We don’t, of course, have to use the exemplars; they are there as examples of the kinds of texts we should be exposing students to, not as an actual reading list. Nor do we have to meet Standard RI3 with every text we share. Instead, we could use a book like this to complicate and deepen students’ understanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction, since many young students think that nonfiction always has ‘real’ photographs and only fiction has illustrations.

But if we want students to truly comprehend texts like this, we need instruction that helps them be more inquiring and aware of what they don’t get. And this is how a text-based Know/Wonder chart can be as useful in fiction as in nonfiction, as it encourages students to acknowledge their confusion and connect details of a text together in order to infer. Thus students might wonder if starfish really lived in swimming pools, if basket and brittle stars were or weren’t starfish, and why their limbs were called arms, not legs. And they’d be reading forward and thinking backward to consider possible answers.

As I wrote in “The Trick to Teaching Meaning Making: Keeping Our Mouths Shut,” the challenge for us, as teachers, is in letting students wrestle with this, trading ideas and going back to the text to look for evidence and clues, instead of intervening in order to clear their confusion up. Letting students wrestle with the text like this engages them in what my math colleagues sometimes call a “productive struggle.” Kay Merseth, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes productive struggle this way:

. . . it’s not about guessing what the teacher wants to hear or about finding a particular answer. It is about the process of thinking, making sense, and persevering in the fact of not knowing exactly how to proceed.

The worst that might happen if we didn’t step in is continued confusion, which could be remedied by inquiring further and reading another text (as I, myself, actually felt compelled to do just to make sure my inference was right). And the benefits of struggling are huge. Researchers at the Learning Sciences Lab at the National Institute of Education of Singapore have discovered that students who struggle with problem solving actually retain what they learn far more than those who haven’t. That means that students might comprehend Starfish more than we comprehended “The Dodlings.” And if, in the end, we do ask students questions, their answers will add up to more than the equivalent of “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”

What Are We Asking Students and Why: Exploring the Difference Between a Prompt and a Scaffold

Last week I raised some questions about text dependent questions, the instructional approach approved by the Common Core Standards authors, which many states and school districts are starting to adopt. Clearly I worry that this approach may decrease, not increase, students’ ability to truly become independent, as College and Career Ready Students should be, because the method hinges on us directing students to what we, from our own reading of a text, have determined to be important.

At its heart, the text dependent question approach seems to embrace the ‘straight road’ vision of reading that I looked at in my post on teaching uncertainty, with the questions acting as signposts that tell students what to pay attention to in order to reach a designated and pre-determined meaning. And it puts us, as teachers, back in the authoritative role of  the “curator or gatekeeper of content,” as Randy Bomer puts it in his great book Time for Meaningrather than in the role of a facilitator who’s, “less concerned with what students are supposed to get and more concerned with what the students can make with the materials they already have.”

This doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t ask questions. But if we truly want our students to be independent meaning makers, we need to think about what we’re asking and how we can craft questions that are open-ended enough for students to find their own way into a text and are framed in a way that makes them transferable from one text to another. And here’s where I think it’s useful to explore the difference between a prompt and a scaffold.

In What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I spelled out what we see as the difference between the two in a chart that looks like this:

To make these concepts more concrete, let’s return to the excerpt from the Curriculum Exemplar on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave that I shared in last week’s post to see the differences in the teaching moves and outcomes more clearly. Here, for example, is the first question the Exemplar directs teachers to ask, with the aim—i.e., the answer—printed below it:

The question leads students to notice what the teacher (or in this case the Exemplar writer) has noticed and to draw the same conclusion from that detail that he or she did. It also anticipates what some students might miss (that this is, in fact, a slave narrative), and it seeks to ‘correct’ that by directing those students to the title in a way that solves a problem for the students rather than letting them solve it themselves as they keep on reading. The question also does nothing to teach the thinking around the text in a way that might be transferable to other similar texts, all of which makes it a prompt.

A scaffold, on the other hand, teaches the thinking around the text by offering students some instruction on how texts like this generally operate and what readers do because of that, along with a more open-ended invitation to notice what there is be noticed and consider what that might mean. That kind of scaffolded question, introduced by what I call a teaching point, could look and sound like this:

One of the things readers always do when they read a first-person narrative is to try to get a first impression of the narrator and his situation. And they do this by paying close attention to the details the narrator gives them in order to begin to get a sense of who he is and what’s going on with him. So take a look at these first few sentences. What kind of person might do and say the things that this narrator does? And what might we begin to understand about his situation from the details the narrator gives us?

Unlike the more tightly focused prompt which aims at a single answer, this scaffold might allow students to not only think about the world Douglass is describing but, depending on the details different students latched on to and what they made of them, to develop a first draft impression of Douglass as someone who’s industrious, persistent, generous or even crafty. They might also begin to question some of the assumptions they might have about slaves—such as slaves live only on plantations or slaves don’t speak to whites unless they’re spoken to—in a way that might position them to be more open to whatever Douglass might be saying overall about slavery. And they’d come away with a way of thinking they could apply and transfer to almost any first-person narrative they read.

Creating a scaffold instead of a prompt requires us to consider the knowledge and experience we have with texts and reading, which I believe we automatically—and often invisibly—draw on to make meaning of what we read. Then we teach to that underlying knowledge, sharing what we know about the act of reading and texts, rather than to the specific meaning we make of a given text. Thus we teach what we know about first-person narratives and the role that details play, not the particular importance of any single detail. (See “What We Knew by Heart: Turning Our Own Reading Practices into Curriculum” along with What Readers Really Do for more examples.) The scaffold method also means trusting that there’s more than one way to think deeply about a text and that students don’t need to catch every detail that we do.

Text-based Know/Wonder charts also act as scaffolds, and they’re always a good place to start as they’ll give you a sense of what students can do with a minimum of support. The teaching point behind them is that readers keep track of what they’re learning from a text while holding on to details and a slew of questions that they expect they’ll learn more about as they actively keep on reading. And this knowledge about what readers do yields the questions “What are you learning from the text?” and “What are you wondering about?”

All of this makes me think that the difference between a prompt and a scaffold is a bit like the old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a student a prompt and he feeds you an answer. Teach a student through a scaffold and you build a close reader—often for a lifetime.

More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.

Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.

As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.