From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings


A few weeks ago I invited teachers to construct an understanding of the deeper purposes of realistic fiction and then shared their ideas in a follow-up post. And last week I shared a lesson that helped fourth graders construct a deeper understanding of how scenes and details work. In both cases I, in the role of teacher, created opportunities for learners to invent new knowledge, and pedagogically that’s quite different than the kind of direct instruction with modeling associated with writing workshop mini-lessons.

As a teaching practice, creating learning opportunities goes by many names. In his great book Mentor Author, Mentor TextsRalph Fletcher borrows a term from the world of computer programming and calls it an “open source” approach to teaching craft. Instead of teaching a specific craft move through a mentor text—which, as Ralph notes, “runs the risk of reducing a complex and layered text to one craft element”—an open source approach invites students to “look at these texts and enter them on their own terms,” which “gives students more control, more ownership.” While Katie Wood Ray describes this practice in her wonderful book Study Driven as an “inquiry approach” to teaching and learning, where students are similarly invited to notice and discover what writers do then try on the moves they’d like to emulate.

Whatever we call the practice, however, it’s directly connected to the constructive theory of teaching and learning espoused by educators like Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner. With some slight differences, each of these great minds thought that students retain, understand and are more likely to apply and transfer what they’ve actively constructed than what they’ve been more explicitly taught. And these ideas hold many implications for what it means to teach, such as the following:


While there are times I do teach through direct instruction and modeling, I increasingly use constructivist practices with both students and teachers. For students, for instance, who need additional time to wrestle with the concept of scenes versus summaries, I like to share the following two pieces by Lois Lowry about the same event and invite them to consider how they’re different in order to construct a deeper understanding of the purpose and craft of scenes.

The first is from her memoir Looking Back:

lois-lowry-red-plaid-shirt     I was nine years old. It was a man’s woolen hunting shirt. I had seen it in a store window, it’s rainbow colors so appealing that I went again and again to stand looking through the large window pane.             The war had recently ended, and my father, home on leave before he had to return to occupied Japan, probably saw the purchase as a way of endearing himself to a daughter who was a virtual stranger to him.                                                                   If so, it worked. I remember still the overwhelming surge of love I felt for my father when he took me by the hand, entered Kronenburg’s Men’s Story, and watched smiling while I tried the shirt on.

And this is from her autobiographically inspired picture book Crow Call:


Practices like these—which ask students to explore the question, What is a scene and how do writers write them?—are also related to the problem-based approach to teaching math that’s increasingly being embraced, as well as to what I advocate for in my new book on reading. But for reasons I don’t completely understand, these practices haven’t taken much hold in literacy. Perhaps, it’s because they can take more time than a typical mini-lesson does or because, being open-ended, they can be messier than direct instruction. If you believe, though, that the ultimate goal of teaching is the transfer of learning, as the late, great Grant Wiggins does in one of his final blog posts, then we have to consider the findings of a research study that compared the affects of direct instruction (DI) and what they called discovery learning through problem solving practice (PR) over time:

From "Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View" by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

From “Direct Instruction vs. Discovery: Taking the Look View” by David Dean JR. & Deanna Kuhn

As you can see from the chart, students engaged solely in discovery learning—who constructed their own understandings of content through grappling and practice—demonstrated consistent growth in learning over time. The combination of students receiving both direct instruction and discovery learning ultimately reached the same level of learning, despite a somewhat precipitous drop along the way. But those who only received direct instruction were able to transfer less.

For the record, this study involved fourth graders presented with a science problem, not a literacy one. But as I wrote in an earlier post, I think the process of constructing an understanding by developing hypotheses about what you notice that you then test out, refine and revise into theories, can be the same across the disciplines. It’s also worth noting that, whether we call this an open source, inquiry, constructivist or problem-based approach, there’s still lots of teaching to do.

As you can see with my Ruby the Copycat example, I nudged students to deeper thinking by raising probing questions and inviting them to be more specific and precise about what they’d noticed. And from that, I named what they’d noticed in more generalized language so students could apply and transfer it to their own work. And you can see the masterful Kate Roberts do the exact same thing in a video of her working with middle school students studying a mentor argument text.

kate-roberts-inquiry-lessonYou could say that both Kate and I set students up to notice things we might ordinarily teach through direct instruction, which, as Katie Wood Ray says in Study Driven, allowed them to uncover content versus receive it, which can deepen understanding. And finally there’s another reason to add this powerful practice to your teaching repertoire. According to Jerome Bruner, “Being able to ‘go beyond the information’ given to ‘figure things out’ is one of the few untarnishable joys of life.” So if you want to bring more joy to your classroom, consider creating opportunities for students to construct their own understanding, versus always teaching them directly.



Mind the Gap: What Are Colleges Really Looking for in Student Writing


This past week I had the opportunity to speak to New York City high school principals about writing. And as I did a while ago when I looked at how colleges view close reading, I decided to do a bit of research into what colleges were actually looking for in writing for my presentation. As happened then, when I found a significant difference between what colleges expect students to do as close readers and the often formulaic “three goes” at a text with text-dependent questions approach that I see in many schools, I discovered some significant gaps between how we teach writing—especially argument—and what colleges are looking for. And these gaps have enough implications for lower and middle school, as well as high school, that I thought I’d share what I found.

Here, for instance, are some timely tweets I discovered in a blog post written by a Canadian high school teacher title “Are We Teaching Students to Be Good Writers?” He’d attended a presentation by a college professor on the gaps between high school and college writing, and as part of the presentation, the professor shared a survey he gave to this third year college students, asking them what they wished they’d learned about writing in high school that would have better prepared them for college. And many of his students had this to say:

Tweet on Organizing vs. Growing Ideas

I wish I could say things were different in the States, but we, too, seem to spend a lot of time teaching students how to organize and structure their writing without spending equal, if not more, time in teaching them how to develop ideas in the first place. And from about third grade right up to twelfth, much of the teaching around organization and structure is focused Writing Analyticallyon the five-paragraph essay, where some students are taught not only how many paragraphs their essays should have but how many sentences each of those paragraphs should contain as well as the content of each.

For the record, you should know that I’ve helped teachers teach the five paragraph essay myself. And while I do see that it can be a useful strategy for some students some of the time, we need to be aware that most college professors hate it—so much so that many explicitly un-teach it in freshman composition classes. According to the authors of Writing Analyticallya book that’s used in many of those college freshman writing classes, the five-paragaph essay commits the following offenses:

“It’s rigid, arbitrary and mechanical scheme values structure over just about everything, especially in-depth thinking . . . [and it’s] form runs counter to virtually all of the values and attitudes that students need to grow as writers and thinkers—such as a respect for complexity, tolerance of uncertainty and the willingness to test and complicate rather than just assert ideas.”

The thesis statement, too, which seems custom-made to assert versus test and complicate, gets a beating by many college professors, too. In his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education Let’s End Thesis Tyranny,” for instance, Bruce Ballenger writes that “Rather than opening doors to thought, the thesis quickly closes them . . . [because] the habit of rushing to judgment short-circuits genuine academic inquiry.”

This all seems to suggest that even with the Common Core Standards’ focus on college and career readiness, we might not be doing such a great job at preparing students for Mind the Gap 2college writing. To close that gap, though, we need a clearer vision of what colleges do expect, and coincidentally—or serendipitously—enough, Grant Wiggin’s shared one of his college freshman son’s writing assignments in his recent blog post on argument, which does just that.

If you click through here you’ll see that the professor gives a brief summary of the assignment, which he/she calls a “Conversation Essay”. Then he/she provides some tips on college writing that are meant “to dispel some common and often paralyzing misconceptions about the nature of academic debate itself.” In particular, the professor targets what he/she calls an “ineffective” model for college writing: the “combat model.” That model, the professor writes,

“. . . suggests that academic debate consists of experts trying to tear down each other’s theories in the hope of proving that their own theory is actually correct. It suggests an aggressive approach and a battle zone in which people ‘advance’ arguments, ‘attack’ each other’s claim’s, and ‘stake out’ and ‘defend’ their own positions.”

Instead the professor is looking for an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text. I think that means that whatever claims the writer makes need to be an outgrowth of his or her exploration, not what leads and determines the whole focus of the essays. And this vision of an essay seems quite close to what writer Alan Lightman says he was looking for in the essays he read as editor of The Best American Essays of 2000There in the introduction, he writes:

“For me, the ideal essay is not an assignment, to be dispatched efficiently and intelligently, but an exploration, a questioning, an introspection . . . I want to see a mind at work, imagining, spinning, struggling to understand. If the essayist has all the answers, then he isn’t struggling to grasp, and I won’t either.”

In my next post, I’ll share some of the ideas and practices I explored with the principals last week, including the use of low-risk writing to help students take on that more exploratory stance and of mentor texts to give them both a vision and some choices about how their writing could look like based on what they have to say. But for now I want to offer one more reason why we might want to reconsider giving students a one-size-fits form-contentall structure for academic writing. As I wrote about earlier, when we offer students scaffolds, we often inadvertently deprive them of something—in this case, the opportunity to engage and wrestle with one of the big concepts in reading and writing: how form informs content and how content can shape form.

This concept is what lies underneath the Common Core’s Craft and Structure Standards in reading, and by inviting students to think about what form might best suit and convey what they’re trying to say, we’d helped them become more aware of the purposefulness of a writer’s choice of structure. And in that way, too, they’d reap what Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says is the big reward of writing: “Becoming a better writer is going to help you become a better reader, and that is the real payoff.” It will also ensure that students won’t have to un-learn what we’ve taught them once they get to college.

Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers


As I did with my first read-along invitational two years ago, I want to try to notice and name some of the great thinking found in the comments left by readers on this year’s read-along, “20/20” by Linda Brewer, in order to consider the instructional implications as well as how that thinking work is connected to critical thinking. And to do the latter, I want to share again what’s become one of my turn-to quotes on critical thinking, Francis Bacon’s definition, which seems to me as good as any:

“Critical thinking is a desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order, and hatred for every kind of imposture.”

In comment after comment (which you can read too by clicking here and scrolling down), I saw readers seeking, doubting, meditating and considering. By the end, some felt ready to assert and set an interpretation in order, but many wanted to linger and mull over the questions the text raised for them without rushing to make any sort of claim—yet. Or as Victoria wrote, “I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about.”

The instructional implications of this seem huge. We currently live in a climate where making a claim—no matter how simple or undeveloped it is as long as it’s backed up with some evidence—seems to be valued more than developing a carefully considered idea, which can’t happen fast precisely because it’s carefully arrived at. If we’re serious about critical thinking then, it seems to me that we need to give students more time to seek, doubt, mediate and consider, knowing that, if we give them that time, what they eventually assert as a claim will be more nuanced and insightful. Anything less, I’m tempted to say, is more about test prep than reading.

If You're Not Confused 2

“Dazed and Confused” by Ketna Patel, with quote from Tom Peters, author of “Thriving on Chaos”

It’s also worth noticing that these readers were questioning because they were perplexed or wanted more. That is, their questions came directly out of their curiosity and their confusion—and those, in turn, came from the fact that they were paying attention. And here again, the implications seem huge.

Much has been written about the importance of getting to students to ask their own questions. Yet if your experience is anything like mine, when we teach questioning as a skill divorced from confusion and curiosity, we often get questions that seem mechanical and that students aren’t interested in; or worse, we get students raising questions they already know the answers to just to meet an assignment. If we’re serious about questioning then, it seems to me that we have to welcome confusion into our classrooms, knowing that, as Socrates said, “Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.” And we can start doing that by sharing with our students the fact that we’re often confused when we read, and then inviting students to share their confusion, too.

There are also implications in how these readers dealt with their confusion by creating what Steve Peterson called “maybe-stories.” They attempted to fit the pieces together in order to consider what the writer might be trying to show them, with different readers fitting different pieces together to arrive at different ideas. Most readers began that process by thinking about the characters, though people came up with quite different interpretations—from seeing Ruthie, as Julieanne did, as a “seemingly simple soul,” to Mary Jo Wentz who made me rethink my whole take on the story by suggesting that, far from being simple, Ruthie might have been taking Bill for a ride.

Testing VisionMany, such as Susan, also found the title key to their understanding, though again, readers came up with a range of interpretations about what “20/20” meant. Karen, for instance, thought the story suggested that “there is no such thing as 20/20″ vision”, while Emily Rietz thought that 20/20 meant “seeing each other clearly in this world.” Others, found themselves focusing on the idea of a journey, in which Bill might be learning something from Ruthie, whether that’s, as Terri put it, a lesson about “reveling in the moment’ or in a more practical (and humorous) vein “to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures,” as Gail Ballard wryly put it. Meanwhile Pat thought about the story through the lens of assumptions, with Bill going from “lump[ing] people into categories” to “realiz[ing] he needed to look deeper.” And Colette managed to circle many of these ideas by focusing solely on the dialogue!

The instructional implications here seem to be that it doesn’t really matter where you start, so long as you notice something and then start questioning and thinking about how it does or doesn’t fit with other details you notice. And that’s a far cry from the text-dependent question approach to close reading, which directs students to something the teacher (or textbook writer) has noticed and then “scaffolds” students until they arrive at the same answer as the teacher or textbook writer. And lest anyone think that students aren’t capable of doing what these readers did without that all that directing and scaffolding, here’s an excerpt from the comment Christina Sweeney left after she took up my invitation to try the text out with her 7th graders:

“I was surprise how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even point out the recurring references to ‘eyes’—Bill resting his, Ruthie’s ‘big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,’ the ‘visions’ she has over the course of the story. . . .

Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing—that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.”

Young Girl Hag Optical IllusionAs for me—though I’ve read this story any number of times, all these comments deepened and enriched my understanding of it. And this time around they enabled me to see the story in more than one way at once, like the optical illusion of the young girl and the hag, or those red spots winking by the side of the road, which could be reflectors or Bigfoot—or both.

This ability to recognize and appreciate more than one way of seeing things seems both integral to the story and to critical thinking. Unfortunately, however, it gets short shrift in curriculum that guides students to a single way of seeing things, which is what too much of the supposedly Common Core aligned programs to. Once again, if we’re serious about critical thinking, we could see these programs as impostures (a word which Merriam-Webster says “applies to any situation in which a spurious object or performance is passed off as genuine”) and look upon them with hatred. Or we could arrive at the same conclusion Brette Locker reached as she looked at the wealth of thinking that was generated by simply paying enough attention to become confused: “I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?”


Looking at the Elephant in the Room: Our Fear of Losing Control

The Elephant in the Room

I recently heard about a study from the masterful math teacher and coach Lucy West, who, along with Antonia Cameron, is the author of the great new book on coaching Agents of Change. The study looked at the use of open-ended questions, of the sort that can deepen, stretch and expand student thinking, in 500 classrooms across five countries (the U.S., England, France, Russia and India). All those countries supposedly place great value on critical thinking and discourse, whether it takes the form of accountable talk, Socratic seminars or your basic turn and talk. Yet, in those 500 classrooms, open-ended questions accounted for only 10% of the questions posed by teachers. And in 15% of classrooms no open-ended questions were asked at all. Additionally the study found that only 11% of the teachers in those classrooms asked follow-up questions to probe student thinking in ways that might develop and extend both the ideas and the discussion. And when students asked questions that were relevant to the day’s topic but weren’t on the lesson plan (which the study called ‘uptake’ questions), only 4% of teachers actually addressed them. They rest just let them hang there.

This seems to suggest that while we may talk the talk about talk, we don’t always walk the walk, and that leads me to the elephant in the room. While there may be many reasons why open-ended questions weren’t used more in those classrooms (including teachers being evaluated on standardize test scores), I suspect that the discrepancy between what we say and do is at least in part due to our fear of losing control of our rooms.

Panic ButtonFear, of course, is a powerful thing, and in this case the fear isn’t totally irrational. Teachers are, after all, just one person in charge of thirty or more children whose minds and bodies and moods can go off in a zillion different directions. And so in the belief that it’s better to acknowledge what scares us than pretend it doesn’t exist, I want to share the fact that I’ve never helped a teacher implement a writing unit without feeling a moment of panic in the middle, when things are at their messiest and I’m not quite sure how I’ll ever get us out of what I’ve gotten us into. Nor have I ever sat down with students to read—whether it’s for a whole class read aloud, a small group or individual conference—and not been aware that, by asking open-ended questions, I’m opening myself up to the possibility of encountering something I hadn’t expected and might not know how to deal with, which is precisely what happened with that class of third graders I wrote about earlier who were ready to jump on the idea that the Maasai were giving 14 cows to America in order to fight Al Qaeda.

Having some teaching moves up my sleeves, like the ones I’ve been sharing, definitely helps, as does giving myself permission to abandon my plans and exit the small group, read aloud or conference as gracefully and quickly as possible in order to give myself time to think about how to address whatever problem I’ve uncovered. And I hold on, as well, to the belief that if we don’t open up our lessons to encounter the unexpected, we limit the opportunities for students to show us what they’re capable of doing without us as well as where their thinking breaks down.

I also think it’s useful to acknowledge the worst that could happen if we loosen the reins in order to see that those worst-case scenarios aren’t really as bad as we imagined. Last week, for instance, I showed how we could turn a student’s “I don’t know” into an inquiry the-worst-case-scenario-little-book-for-survivalquestion rather than a dead end. And what’s really the worst that can happen if we don’t know something or have all the answers?

I think we fear that our authority or expertise might be called into question, but I believe that students actually gain much by seeing us not know everything. First and foremost, it demonstrates that learning is life long, and that we are learners, too. And admitting that we’re unsure of something often helps students take more risks in their thinking, as happened in a fourth grade classroom I worked in earlier this year. I bungled my way through the scientific name of a frog we were reading an article about, and the teachers observing me were convinced that my willingness to admit that I had no idea how to pronounce the frog’s name encouraged the students to share thoughts and ideas they weren’t completely certain about either.

And if you hit one of those ‘I don’t know what to do next’ moments, you can always follow the advice that the educational writer and speaker Alfie Kohn gives in his list of twelve core principles that he thinks will create the kind of schools our children deserve. Along with “Learning should be organized around problems, projects and students’ questions,” and “Thinking is messy; deep thinking is really messy. Therefore beware of prescriptive standards and outcomes that are too specific and orderly,” he offers this:

“When we aren’t sure how to solve a problem relating to curriculum, pedagogy or classroom conflict, the best response is often to ask the kids.”

We can also stand up to the elephant by holding on to the pay-offs that come with letting go of control. Getting a clearer look at what’s going on in students’ head is certainly a big one. But I think there’s an even bigger pay-off, which was summed up by a teacher I worked with last year who, as we shared our take-aways at our final session said, “I no longer believe that there’s anything that my students can’t do.”

100th PostAnd last but not least, I want to share this: For quite some time after starting this blog, I couldn’t hit the key to publish a post without momentarily shuddering. What in the world was I thinking of, sending my thoughts out into the world? What if no one read them or didn’t like what I had to say? That fear hasn’t completely gone away, but as I send this, my 100th post, out into the world, it doesn’t have the same hold on me. I think that’s because I learned something that writer Erica Jong speaks about in her contribution to the wonderful anthology of essays The Writer on Her Work:

“I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you’ll die if you venture too far.”

I think this means making peace with the elephant instead of ignoring or avoiding it and, more importantly, trading fear in for trust—trust in ourselves, trust in our students, trust in the meaning making process and the fact that the very worst that might happen is that we create some more space to learn.

Making Friends with the Elephant

Steering the Ship: More Teaching Moves to Support Critical Thinking & Meaning Making

Steering wheel of the ship

Last post I looked at what can happen when we dig into the huh‘s and hmm‘s students make as they read. I like to think of these as authentic reading responses, which, if we pay attention to them, can open the door to deeper thinking. Like giggles, groans, ah‘s and oh‘s, these are all reactions to something students have read or heard in a text, and as such they’re the outward manifestation of something going on in students’ heads, whether it’s insight, disappointment or confusion.

Probing these responses is one of the teaching moves I always keep in my toolbox, knowing that it serves several purposes. For one, it acknowledges students’ responses as being valuable, which, in turn, conveys other messages to children: that we care about their ????????????????????????????????????thinking, not just their answers, and that it’s okay to be unsure or tentative because that’s where learning starts. It also gives students an opportunity to practice attaching more language to fledgling thoughts in a way that makes visible the messy way we actually develop ideas as well as the chance to orally practice elaborating and explaining, which almost every students needs. And the worst that can happen when we probe these responses is that a student says, “I don’t know,” which provides us with another opportunity for normalizing not knowing as a natural part of the learning process and either opening the response up for discussion or reframing it as an inquiry, such as, “Why did that line, scene or sentence give us pause?”

The other move I shared last week was one that helped students move away from what, with thanks to fellow blogger Steve Peterson, I’ve started calling text-to-self conclusions. These are often the first ideas students gravitate to in order to answer a question or explain something they’ve noticed. And while they may cite a detail from the text (as in last week’s example), these conclusions are mostly based on something outside the text, as students draw from their background knowledge or their own experience to make sense of something.

frustrated woman with hands in hair screaming against chalkboardThese text-to-self conclusions are also the ones that we, as teachers, can feel frustrated with because they’ve missed the mark. And they can spark those “Why can’t they (fill in the blank)?” questions and sometimes even hair pulling. But we have some choices here about what teaching moves to make, especially if we’re trying to promote thinking, not fish for a pre-determined answer. Here, for example, is what happened in a seventh grade room I was recently in, where the teachers had set up a gallery walk of images to kick off a unit that would explore how class and economic differences can lead to conflict and change.

As the students made their way around the room in small groups, they were asked to discuss and jot down what they thought were the important details and from that to consider what connected the images in order to make a text-based prediction about the unit’s theme. The students would be reading Katherine Paterson‘s Lyddie as an anchor text, which recounts the story of a young girl whose desperate financial circumstances lead her to work in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the mid-1800’s, and so there were a few images, like this one, depicting children in factories:

Child Working in Factory

But there were also other images like these, in which no children or factories were in sight:

Labor Conflict Image 2


Despite this, every student in the room came to the same conclusion. They all recalled having read the book Iqbal by Francesco D’Adamo in sixth grade, which is a fictionalized account of a Pakistani boy who was sold as a child into a life of bonded labor. And making that text-to-self connection, they concluded that factories were the most important detail and the unit was about child labor.

While the teachers were thrilled that the students remembered a book they had read last year, they were disappointed with their conclusions. They’d asked the students, in effect, to notice patterns, which can be a powerful and accessible way to get students to think more deeply. But in this case, rather than stretching their thinking, the students here focused on selective details that fit into what they already knew, which precluded any new discoveries—and any real critical thinking.

why_dont_students_like_school1In a great article called “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”, Daniel T. Willingham, the cognitive scientist and author of books such as Why Don’t Students Like School, looks at a term that’s often bandied about in order to more clearly define it. According to him, critical thinking comprises three types of thinking—reasoning, making judgements, and problem solving—which, to truly be critical, must  involve “three key features: effectiveness, novelty, and self-direction.” And he unpacks each of these feature as follows.

Critical thinking is effective, he says, because,

“it avoids common pitfalls, such as seeing only one side of an issue, discounting new evidence that disconfirms your ideas, reasoning from passion rather than logic . . . and so on.”

It’s novel because, “you don’t simply remember a solution or a situation that is similar enough to guide you.” And it’s self-directed in the sense that,

“the thinker must be calling the shots: We wouldn’t give a student much credit for critical thinking if the teacher were prompting each step he took.”

If we embrace this definition, we have to say that the students weren’t thinking critically. They’d jumped to a conclusion without considering all the evidence by remembering a similar situation (or, in this case, a book). And they wouldn’t be critically thinking either if we prompted them with some text-dependent questions—such as “What’s the setting of the second image?”—that forced them to notice something they hadn’t that we’d deemed important.

We could, though, ask more open-ended questions of the sort I did last week, to invite the students to take in more before coming to a conclusion. And these could take a variety of forms, such as:

  • Do you notice any details that don’t fit the pattern you’ve seen?
  • Are there other ways in which the images might be connected, or other patterns you notice?
  • Do you think there are any differences or similarities in the patterns you’ve noticed—i.e., are there patterns within the patterns?
  • Could you revise your ideas in a way that take these new noticings into account?

These questions steered these seventh graders back to look more closely at the images and to question and bat around each other’s ideas more. That, in turn, led them to steer away from their original conclusion to ideas that had to do with human rights and fairness, especially among groups of people, like children, women and African-Americans, who, they thought, might not have much power. And that made us teachers smile.

I’ll share a few more teaching moves with a printed text another time. But if you’ve got a few moves up your sleeve that help students become critical thinkers and meaning makers, too, please feel free to share them. And in the meantime, tuck these in your sleeve.

Ace under your sleeve

From Demonstration to Orchestration: Some Thoughts on Mini-Lessons


Last week I read a piece in The New Yorker titled “Slow Ideas” by the surgeon and writer Atul Gawande, whose articles about medicine seem full of implications about teaching and learning to me. In this piece, for instance, Gawande looks at how to speed the spread of important innovations, such as institutionalizing hygienic hospital practices in order to avoid infections, and along the way he discovers something that I think has implications for mini-lessons: that people are most prone to lastingly learn things not if they’ve seen it demonstrated by an expert but if they’ve had the chance to try to do it themselves.

Rockin' Reading WorkshopThe by-now standard structure of a mini-lesson has the teacher explicitly naming a teaching point that’s connected to the unit of study, then modeling it as students watch. This is followed by a few minutes of active engagement, where students are invited to participate, sometimes by trying out the teaching point themselves or sharing what they saw the teacher doing. Then there’s a link that acts as a segue to independent reading, where students are explicitly or implicitly expected to apply what’s been taught in their independent reading book.

I can’t say enough about how important it was to me, in my own practice, to become adept at articulating a clear, concise teaching point, which this mini-lesson structure forced me to do. I learned an incredible amount doing that—sometimes, I believe, more than the students watching those lessons did. For while there are certainly stellar exceptions, I often see students zoning out as teachers—including me—demonstrate, and too often I don’t really see students transferring what’s been taught into independent reading.

As I explored in an earlier post on the pros and cons of modeling, this may be because of the passive nature of watching someone else do something—especially if it’s not something you’re burning to know. It might also be that the time allotted to active engagement simply isn’t enough for many students to get the teaching point—let alone to see what it can do for them as readers, which might motivate more students to transfer the thinking. Furthermore I think that all of this is compounded by the practice of teaching a new mini-lesson every day, regardless of whether students got what was previously taught or not, which may unintentionally send out the message that we don’t really expect you to understand.

Confucius Quote 2The ideas I explored last week from Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry’s “Planning for What You Can’t Know,” specifically address this last issue by encouraging teachers to be flexible and responsive to student needs. But what about the mini-lesson itself? For a while now I’ve done my most critical teaching not during independent reading but during read aloud (or a hybrid of read aloud and shared reading, where I project or provide students with a copy of the text). And while I often begin that with a teaching point, I’m more likely to set students up to practice it, rather than demonstrate it myself—knowing that, as Gawande (and Confucius) said, the learning will be more meaningful and lasting that way.

IThe Name Jarn the example I shared in that post about modeling, I set the students up to read The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi by asking them to try to do what readers usually do in their heads whenever they begin a book: They try to keep track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about both because beginnings can be confusing and because they know that some of what they’re curious about will be answered as the story unfolds. And to help them make that work visible, I used a text-based Know/Wonder chart to keep track of their thinking.

Unlike the teaching points found in many mini-lessons, this wasn’t exactly a strategy or skill, though it positioned the students to employ many strategies and skills we might otherwise teach separately as they automatically—and authentically—started questioning, monitoring their own comprehension, and connecting details within the text to infer everything from the character’s nationality to the problems she faced. And moving the main teaching point from independent reading to the read aloud gives students more time and space to wrestle with meaning by engaging in what Gawande calls in another great article “‘deliberate practice’—sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires.” It also gives us a window into different students’ minds, which can help us and students in several ways.

By studying The Name Jar, for instance, I was aware that there were several problems readers had to tackle in the first few pages, including navigating a flashback, which, as you can see below, is signaled only by small textual clues that include a subtle shift in verb tense.

TheNameJar 1

TheNameJar 2

TheNameJar 3

I anticipated that that might be tricky for some students, which it proved to be, as students had different views on where and when things were happening. But rather than solving the problem for them by either confirming the ‘right’ answer or explaining the time shift myself, I asked a student to explain her thinking, which accomplished several things. The student who walked the class through her thinking benefited in ways that are described in a recent Education Week article called “Students Can Learn By Explaining,” which cites new research that shows that “students who can verbally explain why they arrived at a particular answer [are] more able to catch their own incorrect assumptions and generalize what they learn to other subjects”—or, in this case, other texts. The number of ‘ah’s’ heard in the room also meant that other students were listening and now saw what she had seen (though anticipating that here might be problems here, I already had a small group lesson up my sleeve that would give the students I could now identify more time to practice this kind of thinking).

Additionally as I noticed and named what that student had done in more general terms, we’d arrived, as a class, at another teaching point: that writers sometimes signal a shift from the present to the past through small words and clues like “had said” and “remembered,” and so readers try to attend to those clues in order to not get lost. This teaching point and the other about keeping track of what we’re learning and wondering about could now be imported to independent reading where, instead of modeling, we could remind students of what they’d already done, how they’d done it, and how it had helped them as readers. Building the mini-lesson around student thinking this way not only builds on strengths instead of deficits, it also ensures that time-wise the lesson stays mini so that students have more time to read, without being shortchanged on the time really needed to experience the thinking work first hand.

And if and when I do see the need to model, the students are more apt to see the need for it, too, because they’ve developed a different sense of themselves as thinkers and readers—having played the notes of the symphony themselves.

Student Orchestra

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook