How Vision Can Inform Instruction: Applying a Deep Understanding of Genre


In 1986, a few years before I joined the Teachers College Writing Project, Lucy Calkins published The Art of Teaching Writing, which introduced writing workshop to a generation of teachers. Much has changed in the world of writing since then, but perhaps as a sign the world’s changing again, Lucy returned to the opening paragraph of The Art of Teaching Writing during this year’s summer writing institutes to tell a new generation of teachers that “To teach well, we do not need more techniques and strategies as much as we need a vision of what is essential.”

For writing in general, she said what was essential was for both students and teachers alike to write and read massive amounts so as, as one attendee put it, “develop an identify as a writer who can make sense of the world, and even change it, through writing.” This does seem essential, but I think we also need a vision for what’s essential in the genres we teach, which is why, in my last post, I invited readers to read a short piece of realistic fiction to develop a deeper understanding of that genre’s purposes.

understanding-by-designAs you can see here, their responses were wonderful, with many articulating what you could call an enduring understanding: a big idea that, defined by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Designresides at the heart of a discipline, has enduring value beyond the classroom, and requires the uncovering of abstract or often misunderstood ideas.” Fran McVeigh, for instance, said that, “Good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think/question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.” While Dana Murphy put it this way:

“The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, ‘Yes, I’ve felt that,’ or ‘I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.’ It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.”

Others also used that word human, with Annie Syed writing, “There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway,” and reading and writing helps us with that. And Julieanne Harmatz wrote, “These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide.” Steve Peterson didn’t use the word human per se, but he spoke of realistic fiction as “a way to transform the world, or at least A world [such as the reader’s]—to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective,” which seems directly related to Lucy’s essentials.

These are all great examples of enduring understandings, but unfortunately we don’t always frame our instruction around this kind of big idea, teaching students instead that realistic fiction is a made up story comprised of characters, a setting and events that could be real, whose purpose is to entertain. We might settle for this because we don’t think students are mature enough to write stories with such depth or need to learn the basics first. And even if we want to aim for something deeper, we may not be sure how to do that, which is what happened with some third and fourth grade teachers I worked with.

At the time we first met, they’d already launched the unit by having students develop a character with a problem and then use a story mountain worksheet to plan out the plot—and already the teachers were worried. Many of the students’ story ideas seemed far-fetched or clichéd. They knew their characters’ favorite color and food, but not what made them tick, and the plots were too simple or too convoluted, all of which could be seen in the students’ work. So what could they do beyond march through the unit?

To consider that question we looked at two mentor texts, No More Tamales and Ruby the Copycat to study how those writers created more complex characters and plots that didn’t resolve problems too quickly or simply went on and on. And what we realized was that in each story the characters helped cause the problems they faced and had to change to resolve those—and it was precisely through this transformative journey that the authors invoked our feelings and understanding about the human experience.

Recognizing that the instruction they’d offered so far hadn’t reached that depth, the teachers decided to introduce the concept of character flaws through the mentor texts. Additionally, some decided to create a class character with a flaw and invite their class to collaboratively brainstorm what kind of problems that flaw might create or make worse and how that character might have to character-flawchange. This would involve students with the actual kind of thinking work realistic fiction writers are engrossed in and support another characteristic of enduring understandings: offer potential for engaging students.

In fact, the students were so engaged with the idea of flaws that in one of the classes that was reading Because of Winn-Dixie a student raised an interesting question: Did the main character Opal have a flaw? Rather than answering the question herself, their wonderful teacher Trish Compton suggested they all turn and talk about that. And as the class shared out their ideas, they decided that Opal, whose main problem they thought was loneliness, did have a flaw of sorts: She was so overcome with the loss of her mother, she couldn’t always see that she was making friends, and thus didn’t need to feel lonely. And they were eager to see how that might change.

They also wrote some amazing stories, such as this one by a third grader called “Forgiveness.” I invite you to read it and think about if, in an age-appropriate way, it reflects the kind of enduring understanding vision the teachers articulated above. And as always, feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment here.



What’s the Main Idea of the Main Idea?

Main Idea PosterIn my ongoing belief that we, as teachers, learn much when we try to do the tasks we assign to students, I asked a group of teachers I worked with to do a task that was part of a 5th grade nonfiction reading and writing unit recommended by the NYC Department of Ed. The unit, designed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, asked students to read and watch several texts and videos related to zoos and endangered animals in order to ultimately write an opinion essay. But before they took a stance on the topic, the students had to complete a smaller task for each text and video they studied, one of which the teachers and I agreed to try out ourselves.

For this task, students had to read an adapted excerpt from journalist Thomas French’s book Zoo Story, called “The Swazi Eleven.” The excerpt focused on a group of elephants who were flown from game reserves in Swaziland to two zoos in the States because of a slew of problems. And after reading the piece, the student were prompted to “summarize the main ideas and supporting details,” so that the teacher could see if “you can spot the main ideas and show how they are supported with key details.”

Zoo StoryThe piece is a wonderful choice of text, but when I announced the task to the teachers, anxiety filled the air. Clearly we all felt the pressure to perform what turned out to not be such a simple task. If you click through to the piece, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated; it explores multiple points of view about multiple problems and solutions that have multiple causes and effects, and some of these aren’t explicitly stated—which meant that we couldn’t simply look for a main idea sentence, which is something we teach students to do.

Additionally, as we tried to write we wrestled with another problem: What was the prompt really looking for? One teacher used a strategy she’d taught her students to use: she identified the who, what, when, where, and why. But in doing so, she feared she’d reduced the complexity of the piece to a single perspective. Another felt that writing a summary of the main ideas was something of an oxymoron, with summaries sticking to the surface of the text and main ideas going deeper. Several of us, on the other hand, sought to capture what we saw as the big picture, which had to do with how human beings had messed things up for animals. But in trying to do that in a timed setting, we left out critical details. I, for one, neglected to mention elephants, while a colleague forgot to note zoos.

As we debriefed the experience—which began with relief that we weren’t getting graded—we acknowledged how challenging this was with a complex text and how inadequate much of the instruction we offer to students is. Too often, for instance, we model finding the main idea with a text that’s simply too simple—e.g., one in which the main idea is explicitly stated in the text. Or we model in ways that are, frankly, confusing, with the supporting details not really connected to the supposed main idea.

All these problems and more were on display in the student work I recently looked at with a 7th grade teacher. She’d decided to supplement her students’ reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with several nonfiction articles about unusual traditions around the world. And in addition to considering the thematic connection to “The Lottery,” she wanted to use these nonfiction pieces to give her students practice in finding the main idea.

To do this, she broke the class into small groups and gave each group an article to look at, including one about a small town in Spain that celebrates the town’s patron Saint Goat Throwing in SpainDay by throwing a live goat from the church’s bell tower. Then she asked each group to read their text, discuss it, then create a chart that noted the main idea and supporting details.

Several groups cited the topic (which was usually the name of the tradition) as the main idea, writing down, for instance, “The Day of the Dead” at the top of their charts. That made us suspect that some students weren’t sure about the difference between a topic and an idea. And while, as you can see below, the group that read the goat throwing article was able to do more than that, we weren’t sure there if they understood the difference between a fact and an idea (which we had to wrestle with ourselves) or if they realized that a main idea could be implicit, rather than explicit, which meant that they might have to do more than chose a sentence to quote.


What seemed interesting, though, was that the supporting details this group cited did all seem to point to an idea: that this tradition was quite controversial. Recognizing this allowed the teacher and I to formulate a way of talking about ideas versus facts. As I suggested in an earlier post, ideas often explore a fact or event through one or more of the following lenses: compare and contrast, problem and solution, cause and effect, and/or claim and support. And as I wrote about theme, we might do better if, rather than asking students what the text is about, we asked, “What about what it’s about?”

We also thought that whether that group was aware of it or not, they had, in fact, noticed a pattern: a handful of details about what people thought about the tradition. And if they considered what the writer might be trying to show them through that pattern, they might be able to construct a main idea, rather than identify or find it. But that would require a change in the kind of thinking we ask students to do.

Deduction InductionWhether they’re in the shape of a flower, a table, a fishbone or a hamburger, most of the graphic organizers we have kids fill out ask them to think deductively—that is, to come up with a large generalized idea first then think about what supports that. Starting with the details, however, and then thinking about what ideas they might point to involves inductive thinking. And while deductive thinking often works in texts where a general idea is spelled out, many students simply have no idea how to ‘spot’ a main idea when it’s not right there for the spotting, and they need to see how use details to build those bigger ideas.

Finally, I noticed another pattern in the goat throwing piece that seemed to have implications for thinking about main ideas: recurring references to how no one really knew the origin or purpose of the custom. The same, I think, is true of the way we tend to teach the main idea. We do it the way it’s traditionally been done, with the same old strategies and worksheets, without necessarily questioning why or assessing the strategies’ effectiveness. And in this new world we find ourselves in, with its emphasis on complex texts, perhaps it’s time to think more complexly about the main idea.

Keeping It Real in Test Prep Season: Some Thoughts about Nonfiction Text Structure

After an amazing weekend at the Dublin Literacy Conference, which was all about real reading and writing, I arrived back home to find many schools plunging into test prep. The New York State tests aren’t until April, but many schools are already worried about this year’s ELA test, which supposedly has been aligned to the Standards. The New York City Schools Chancellor has already said that he expects scores to plummet, and the sample tests the state has posted on their engageny website have done nothing to allay fears. Third graders are expected to read a story by Tolstoy, which a parent of a city third grader called “excruciatingly dull and confusing.” And fifth graders are asked to compare two passages written from an animal’s point of view—one from The Secret Garden, the other from Black Beauty—and discuss how “the animal’s perspectives influence how events are described.”

Given that teachers are being evaluated by test scores in New York and other states, the apprehension seems justified. And so the test prep workbooks have come out. These workbooks, too, have supposedly been aligned to the Common Core, and at least in the ones I’ve seen, a whole new crop of questions are being asked about the text structure of nonfiction texts in order to assess whether students are meeting Reading Informational Texts Standard 5. These include questions not just about the structure of the entire passage, but also the structure of individual paragraphs and sentences, as can be seen below.

Here, for instance, is a 4th grade text-structure question about an article on the history of film making:

History of Film Making Question 2

And here is another on an excerpt from the autobiography of one of the first climbers to reach the top of Mount Everest:

Tiger in the Snow Question

dok-wheelEach of these questions ask students to identify or match a sentence with a text structure type, which, in terms of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, is only Level 1 thinking. Each can also be answered without actually reading the passage, which surely is not what the Standards intended. And all this has led to  a new crop of test-taking strategies being taught—such as looking for text-structure signal words—which, in turn, is taking time away from authentic reading.

Ironically, these text-structure questions also fly in the face of some of the pronouncements of David Coleman, chief architect of the Common Core. I rarely agree with Coleman’s solutions to the problems he sees in classrooms, especially when it comes to overly prompted models of close reading, but I often agree with his diagnoses. Here, for instance, in a presentation he gave to the New York State Department of Education, he comes down hard on what he calls “the strategy of the week”—i.e., using texts to practice a skill or strategy, such as identifying cause and effect—which I, too,  believe is problematic in the way he describes:

“Nothing could be more lethal to paying attention to the text in front of you than such a hunt and seek mission. . . . When have you read a difficult text ever in your life and said, ‘I’ve got it now. It’s a cause and effect text not a problem and solution text.’ We lavish too much attention on these strategies in the place of reading. I would urge us to instead read.”

But all this does raise the question: Does knowing about concepts such as cause and effect, problem and solution and compare and contrast actually help us, as authentic readers, understand what an author of a nonfiction text might be trying to say? I think it can, but not as reflected in the above kind of questions. To see how, let’s look at one of the ‘one-page wonders’ Harvey Daniels and Nancy Steineke share in their great resource Text Lessons for Content-Area Reading: “Vampire Bat Debate: To Kill or Not to Kill” by Chris Kraul.


If identification is the name of the game, the title alone lets us know that this is a compare-and-contrast piece. But if we want to truly understand the complexity of the debate, not just identify the text-structure, we need to remember what we instinctively know as readers: that nonfiction authors frequently explore problems and solutions, causes and effects, and different perspectives in the pieces they write. And so as readers, we enter the text on the look out not only for the different points of view alluded to in the title but for the problems that sparked the debate, the causes and effects of those problems, and the real and possible effects of whatever solutions have been undertaken or proposed.

Vice ClampIn this way, we use our understanding of those concepts to dig deeper into the text; they expand our understanding, rather than reduce it, which happens when we try to fit a text that explores virtually anything complicated into a text-structure vise. And so beyond test prep, I don’t spend a lot of time explicitly teaching text structures. Instead, with the vampire bat article, I’ve been asking students to consider how each paragraph adds to their understanding of the title’s debate and how each is connected to the next. This has allowed them to construct their understanding of the complexity of the issue as they make their way through the text—and for problem and solution and cause and effect to rise up naturally as they read and discuss it, not because I’ve sent them on a hunt and seek mission.

I’ve also been asking students whether they think the author has an opinion, and many have said that they think he does—that he sides with the scientists, not the cattlemen, because he devotes more words and space to the scientists’ side and lets them have the last word. That seems a far more insightful analysis of the text’s structure than anything the workbook questions ask for. And it involves much higher levels of thinking than those multiple choice questions demand.

Keep It RealI truly believe that this kind of real reading can ultimately prepare students for the test as well as any short-cut strategies, such as hunting for signal words, can. And it produces none of the negative effects—the narrowing of curriculum, the stressful climate in classrooms, and the lack of critical thinking—that a coalition of Massachusetts college professors recently cited as reasons why their state should abandon high-stakes standardized testing. And so I find myself in the surprising position of echoing David Coleman: Let’s try as much as humanly possible to keep it real by really reading.