If We Want to Teach Children to Think . . .

The title of this week’s post was inspired by Bertrand Russell, who wrote,

When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, . . . and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.

I love Russell’s words for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the question he seems to raise at the end: Do we really want to teach kids to think—or not?

My hunch is that most of us would say we’re committed to teaching children to think. But I sometimes wonder if this is one of those values that isn’t always aligned to our actions—like saying we value growth mindsets, which honor approximations and mistakes, while evaluating students through rubrics that score not how close a student came but whether he ‘got’ something or not.

As for thinking, I worry that to make sure students ‘get’ whatever we teach them, we often provide too much scaffolding, breaking down complex skills or tasks into bite size pieces or steps that minimize the need for thinking. Or as fourth grade teacher Jeremy Greensmith pithily put it in his interview with Zoe Ryder White for The Teacher You Want to Be,

The danger with a lot of what gets done at the moment is that there’s so much scaffolding that you end up just teaching the scaffold, and you really don’t teach the way of thinking and the way of reading and writing—you just teach [students] to deliver the tool you taught them.”

Of course, Jeremy also raises questions, such as, What do we really mean by thinking? What are the ways of reading and writing? And how do we effectively teach those? And to consider those questions, let’s take a look at a common unit taught in third grade, reading and writing biographies.

When it comes to reading biographies, many units focus on teaching students things like:

  • The difference between expository and narrative nonfiction
  • The difference between biographies and other kinds of narrative nonfiction
  • The structure of biographies (chronological)
  • How to identify the traits of a biography’s subject (like you would a character in fiction)
  • How to identify the theme, big idea or life lessons of a biography
  • How to learn about a historical period through biographies

While some of these objectives require inferring, many involve the kind of thinking found at the first level of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge: identify, recall, recognize, and match. And thinking is even more limited if we offer additional scaffolds, like providing lists of character traits,

thought prompts,

or common biography theme statements.

As for writing biographies, students are usually taught how to take notes, paraphrase, use transitional sequence words, and craft hooks, topic sentences and conclusions, none of which necessarily involves higher order thinking. But what was the deeper thinking work of biographies for readers and writers?

As an occasional biography reader myself (and author of a historical fiction novel), I recognized that a biography is the biographer’s interpretation of the significance of someone’s accomplishments and life, not just an objective recounting. So the thinking work of reading a biography was to try to figure out what the biographer wanted her readers to understand about the subject’s life, while the writing work was figuring out what story do you, as a biographer, want to tell about your subject.

This is exactly the kind of deeper vision of genre I explored earlier, and I kept it in mind as I planned for a day with third grader teachers working on biographies. For the demo lesson I looked for biographies that conveyed slightly different stories about the same subject through the author’s choice of what events to share (and leave out), what words to use to describe those events, and what message she seemed to want readers to take away. And I hit the jackpot with two biographies of George Washington Carver, one from the “Who Was” series of biographies and the other A Weed is a Flower, by the award-winning writer and illustrator Aliki.


In the classroom, I began by asking the kids what they had already learned about biographies, and it turns out they’d met many of the unit’s objectives already through their whole class study of Jane Goodall and their biography book club books. They also said they’d noticed that biographies of the same subject didn’t always contain the same events—which made them think they had to read multiple biographies of the subject they’d be writing about to be sure they knew everything about him or her. And with that I segued to my lesson.

It was possible, I said, that some biographers didn’t have the same events as others because they hadn’t researched enough, but more likely, it was because biographers choose which events and details to include based on what they want us to understand about their subject. And to help us understand that, we’d look at the opening of two different biographies of George Washington Carver and about what each writer might want us to understand about Carver.

I began with the “Who Was” book, which opens with an anecdote about a woman who “lived in the biggest house in Diamond Grove, Missouri” and was frustrated that her roses weren’t as nice as her friend Susan Carver’s were. So she asked Susan what her secret was and we learn the following:

When the class shared out what they thought the writer wanted them to understand about Carver, they said thinks like, “He was really helpful and hard-working,” “He loved plants,” and “He loved his foster mother.” And with that in mind, we moved on to the opening of A Weed Is a Flower, where the students literally gasped when I read the word slaves.

Immediately they realized that Aliki was telling quite a different story about George Washington Carver. Here he was helpful, not simply because he was thoughtful and nice, but because he was committed to helping his people—and his life had been nowhere as pleasant or easy as it seemed in the “Who Was” book. Also they were bursting with questions: Was he still a slave? Did Mrs. Carver own him? What happened to his real mother? and Why did the other author not say he was a slave?

Over the next week they would explore the different choices these authors had made and why, but at that point, I invited them to go back to their tables and think about what story they wanted to tell about their subject by first looking at the books they had read to see what each biographer had emphasized and then to consider what they, as biographers, thought was important. And that required far more thinking than filling in the blanks of a thought prompt or matching a book to a theme statement.

So if we really want to teach children to think, we have to create and give them opportunities to do so—and I’ll share more about that in another post.

The Beliefs Behind the “Shoulds”


It was so exciting to see the responses to The Teacher You Want to Be, the soon-to-be-out collection of essays that are all connected to the Statement of Beliefs drawn up by the Reggio Emilia study group I participated in. Matt Glover and Renée Dinnerstein arranged the trip, and if you want to learn more about the Beliefs before October 22nd, I urge you to check out Renée’s wonderful blog Investigating Choice Time, where she recently shared all thirteen beliefs and regularly writes about early childhood education in ways that will inspire and warm the heart of all of you committed to student-centered learning.

Looking at them, you’ll probably be struck with how rare it is to see beliefs stated so explicitly—and even rarer, perhaps, to see connections made between beliefs and practices, as in “If we say we believe this, we should being doing this.” More frequently instead what gets articulated is what we should or must do—as in have students read shouldsmore complex nonfiction or write more arguments. Sometimes we’re offered reasons to support these ‘shoulds’—like the need to remain globally competitive or close the achievement gap—but usually they’re not explicitly connected with any sort of larger vision or system of beliefs. I do think, though, there are beliefs hidden behind those ‘shoulds,’ and I can’t help but wonder if the kinds of conversations we have about education would be different if we tried to flush them out and put them on the table to look at.

To show you what I mean, here’s two “We should” statements that seem to reflect very different visions and beliefs. The first comes from our soon-to-depart Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, while the other comes from Canada’s Michael Fullan, whose work as a Special Advisor to the Premier of Ontario helped make Ontario’s schools among the best in the world. I invite you to read them thinking about what beliefs about teaching, learning, children and the purpose of education itself each one seems to reveal (and, if the spirit moves you, to share what you think by leaving a comment).

Arne Duncan Quote

Michael Fullan Quote

For me, Duncan’s statement reflects the belief that the purpose of education is to get everyone to the same pre-determined goal at the same pre-determined time. And it also reflects what’s often called the factory or assembly-line model of schooling, with the teacher cast in the role of the foreman whose job it is to ensure that everyone is moving forward as planned. Fullan’s, on the other hand, seems to suggest that the purpose of school is to help students develop a love of learning—and that teachers and students jointly hold and share the responsibility for that.

Duncan also seems to believe in the power of extrinsic motivation—as in shaming or frightening students to get them to work harder—while Fullan seems to believe that if we design experiences students find engaging, they’ll be intrinsically motivated, which is critical if we want students to become life-long learners. Duncan’s statement also seems to reflect a binary fixed mindset, as in you’re either on track or you’re not, versus a growth mindset, which seems to be implied in Fullan’s emphasis on designing versus assessing learning.

These two are clearly extreme examples—and I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money on which set of beliefs readers of this blog think we should embrace. But I think that beliefs are hidden beneath practices that we take for granted. As I wrote in my essay for The Teacher You Want to Be:

In America, we say we value independence, freedom, and innovation; yet too often in schools we engage in practices that seem to promote quite the opposite. We give students prescribed formulas for writing, for instance, which invites, if not enforces conformity and limits innovation. We ask them to use sentence starters, templates and graphic organizers that can box in thinking instead of open it up, as well as foster dependence. And much of the work that happens in reading supports one-right-answer thinking, which is exactly the opposite of what’s needed for innovation to thrive.

values_actions_alignmentThat’s not to say that students don’t sometime need support. But I think it’s worth considering what unspoken beliefs might be hiding behind some of the classroom practices we engage in—and whether we really believe them or not. What, for instance, does it suggest we believe about the purpose of education and learning if we regularly ask students to assess themselves using Standards-based checklists and rubric? That we actually believe what Duncan does? And if not, perhaps we need to rethink the way we ask students to reflect on their learning and establish goals. And what does it say if we’ve institutionalized certain supports as “just the way we do things”, like accompanying every lesson with modeling before we see what students can do? Might it be because we don’t think students can do much without us showing them how? And if not, perhaps we need to better align our practices with what we believe.

As for our new incoming Secretary, the former controversial New York State Commissioner of Education, John King: What does he say we should do that speaks to his deeper beliefs? Here’s a glimpse. In a speech the great educator and author Pedro Noguera gave shortly after King became Commissioner, he shared this anecdote about King. Noguera had visited a charter school King had founded, and he’d noticed that children weren’t allowed to talk in the hallway and were punished for the most minor infractions. And so he asked King a question, which revealed both Norguera’s and King’s beliefs about children and the purpose of education:

“‘Are you preparing these kids to be leaders or followers? Because leaders get to talk in the hall. They get to talk over lunch, they get to go to the bathroom, and people can trust them. They don’t need surveillance and police officers in the bathroom.’ And he looked at me like I was talking Latin, because his mindset is that these children couldn’t do that.'”

I’ll save other comments about King for Twitter. But do consider what might be behind the practices you implement as a matter of course. And if they don’t align with your real beliefs, think about what else you could do that reflects what you truly believe in.


Toward a Saner View of Text Complexity


As happened a few years ago, when eighth grade students took to Facebook to share reactions to a nonsensical passage about a talking pineapple from the New York State ELA test, this year’s Common Core-aligned test made it into the news again for another Facebook incident. Somehow a group called Education is a Journey Not a Race got their hands on a copy of the fourth grade test and posted over three dozen images of passages and questions on their Facebook page. Facebook quickly took the page down, but they couldn’t stop the articles that soon appeared, such as “New York State Tests for Fourth-Graders Included Passages Meant for Older Students” from the Wall Street Journal and “Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core test” from The Washington Post. 

PG13_rating_WaiAs their titles suggest, these pieces took a hard look at the kind of questions and concerns teachers have been raising since the Standards first appeared. And while it’s great that the press is finally reporting on what students really face on these tests, it seems like they haven’t completely grasped that these exceedingly hard and often age-inappropriate texts and the convoluted, picayune questions that come with them are precisely what the authors of the Common Core had in mind.

As I write in my new book (which Katie Wood Ray, my editor extraordinaire, assures me I’m closing in on), the Common Core seems to have ushered in an age where third grade has become the new middle school, middle school is the new high school, and high school is the new college. And that’s all because of the particular vision the Common Core authors have about what it means to be college and career ready.

According to the Common Core, students need to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction plus have regular practice with academic language to be ready for college and text-complexity-trianglecareers. And as many of us know by now, they determine a text’s complexity by supposedly using a three-part model that considers the following:

  • A text’s Quantitative dimensions, as measure by Lexile Levels;
  • Its Qualitative dimensions, which scores the complexity of a text’s meaning, structure, language features and knowledge demands through a rubric;
  • And the Reader and the Task, which supposedly  involves “teachers employing their professional judgment, experience and knowledge of their students” to determine if a particular text and/or task is appropriate for students.

I say supposedly because if you look at the texts and tasks on the test as well as those in many Common Core-aligned packaged programs, you’ll see some patterns emerge. First there seems to be a preference for texts with high quantitative Lexile levels, regardless of The Clay Marblethe other two factors. And when it comes to the qualitative dimension, tests, packaged programs and even home-grown close reading lessons seem to favor texts that score high in terms of their language features and knowledge demands—i.e., texts with lots of hard vocabulary and references to things students might not know.

These preferences are why a text like Minfong Ho’s The Clay Marblewhich recounts the story of a Cambodian brother and sister who flee to a refuge camp in Thailand in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide and comes with a grade equivalent reading level of 6.8—was on New York State’s fourth grade test. And it’s why a text like Behind Rebel Lineswhich tells the true-life story of a young woman who disguised herself as a man to join the Union Army during the Civil War and comes with a grade reading level of 7.2—is part of Pearson’s Ready Gen’s third grade curriculum.You may have noticed that I didn’t mention the Reader and the Task, and that’s because it’s often not considered when it comes to choosing texts. On tests, in packaged programs and even in many home-grown close reading lessons, every child is expected to read the same text and perform the same tasks, which usually consist of answering questions aligned to individual standards. The only adjustment that seems to be made is the amount of scaffolding a teacher provides—and the Common Core Standards specifically direct teacher to “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding and supports so that it is possible for students reading below grade level [to achieve] the required ‘step’ of growth on the ‘staircase’ of complexity.”

Overly Scaffolded BuildingAs I said last year at NCTE, the problem with this is that some children need so much support in order to read those required complex texts that we can barely see the student beneath all that scaffolding. In fact, when we adopt that “Do whatever it takes” approach to getting kids through those complex texts, we not only risk losing sight of them, but all that scaffolding inevitably limits the amount of thinking we’re letting students do. And in this way, I fear we’ve traded in complex thinking for getting through complex texts—and the ability to think complexly is surely as needed to succeed in college as possessing content knowledge and vocabulary.

And so, in the new book, I propose an alternate route up that staircase of complexity. It’s one that truly takes the reader into account and seeks a different balance between the complexity of a text, as determined by its Lexile level and high scores for its language and knowledge demands, and the complexity of thinking we ask students to do. And I spell out what that could look like in the following chart:

Alternate Complexity Route

Following this alternate route, for example, would mean not choosing a text like Behind Rebel Lines for third grade because, as you can see below, the vocabulary is so daunting, it’s hard to imagine a third grader making much of it without the teacher handing over the meaning (and, as a parent of a third grader writes, its meaning isn’t always age appropriate).

Behind-Rebel-Lines-Reit-Seymour-9780152164270Behind Rebel Lines 2A

Instead, you could choose something more like Patricia Polacco’s Pink and Say which is also set during the Civil War and explores similar themes. But because it’s far more accessible at the language features level, students who were invited to read closely and deeply could actually think about and construct those themes for themselves. They could even figure out what the Civil War was without the teacher explaining it because the book is full of clues that, if connected, could allow students to actually build that knowledge.

PinkandSayPink and Say Excerpt

Finally, it’s worth noting that I’m not the only one advocating for an alternate route. In a postscript to his book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad OnesTom Newkirk makes a case for what he calls “a more plausible road map for creating readers who can handle difficulty”: giving students “abundant practice with engaging contemporary writing that does not pose a constant challenge,” which can help them build the “real reading power” needed to tackle challenging texts. And more recently, in the final post from his great series on literacy, Grant Wiggins called for making what he called “a counter-intuitive choice of texts,” that is, choosing “texts that can be easily read and grasped literally by all students” but which require complex thinking at the level of themes and ideas.

Those seem like incredibly sane ideas to me. And as for what’s insane, I’ll leave that to Einstein:

Einstein Insanity Quote

When Is a Scaffold Not a Scaffold?

Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012, dawagner.com

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on how much has changed in the educational landscape and my own thinking since What Readers Really Do came out two and a half years ago. And having also spent some time last month working with Lucy West, Toni Cameron and the amazing team of math coaches that form the Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities, I want to share some new thoughts I’ve been having about the whole idea of scaffolding.

From what I could gather from a quick look at (yes, I admit it) Wikipedia, the idea of scaffolding goes back to the late 1950’s when the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner used it to describe young children’s language acquisition. And by the 1970’s Bruner’s idea of scaffolding became connected with Vygotsky’s concept of a child’s zone of proximal development and the idea that “what the child is able to do in collaboration today he will be able to do independently tomorrow.”

Even before the Common Core Standards, teachers have been encouraged to scaffold by using scaffolding moves like those listed below (which were culled from several websites):

  • Activating students’ prior knowledge
  • Introducing a text through a short summary or synopsis
  • Previewing a text through a picture walk
  • Teaching key vocabulary terms before reading
  • Creating a context for a text by filling in the gaps in students’ background knowledge
  • Offering a motivational context (such as visuals) to pique students interest or curiosity in the subject at hand
  • Breaking a complex task into easier, more “doable” steps to facilitate students achievement
  • Modeling the thought process of students through a think aloud
  • Offering hints or partial solutions to problems
  • Asking questions while reading to encourage deeper investigation of concepts
  • Modeling an activity for the students before they’re asked to complete the same or similar one
Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital

© D. A. Wagner 2012, dawagner.com

As I looked at in last year’s post on Common Core-aligned packaged programs, scaffolding these days has been ratcheted up even more, with teachers more or less being asked to do almost anything (including doing a think-aloud that virtually hands over the desired answer) to, in the words of one program, “guide students to recognize” and “be sure students understand” something specific in the text. And, for me, that raises the question: What is all that scaffolding really helping to erect or construct? Is it a strong, flexible and confident reader who’s able to independently understand all sorts of texts? Or is it a particular understanding of a particular text as demonstrated by some kind of written performance-based task product?

If we think about what’s left standing when the scaffolding is removed, it seems like we’re erecting the latter, not the former—though in What Readers Really Do, Dorothy Barnhouse and I attempted to change that by making a distinction between what we saw as a prompt and a scaffold, which can be seen in this chart from the book:

Prompt vs. Scaffold 2

Most of the scaffolding moves listed above don’t, however, follow this distinction. Many solve the problems for the students and are also intended to lead students to the same conclusion—Sisyphusa.k.a. answer—as the teacher or the program has determined is right. I’m all for reclaiming or rehabilitating words, but given that the Common Core’s Six Shifts in Literacy clearly states that teachers should “provide appropriate and necessary scaffolding” (italics mine) so that students reading below grade level can close read complex texts, redefining the word scaffold may be a bit like Sisyphus trying to push that boulder uphill. So I’ve been thinking (and here’s where the math folks come in) about recasting the kinds of scaffolds Dorothy and I shared in our book as what my math colleagues call models.

Models in math are used not only as a way of solving a problem but of understanding the concepts beneath the math (which Grant Wiggins has just explored in a great “Granted, and. . . ” blog post). Here, for instance, are two models for multiplication: The first is a number line which shows how multiplication can be thought of as particular quantity of another quantity (in this case, three groups of five each), and the second the Box Method, or an open array,  shows how large numbers can broken down into more familiar and manageable components and their products then added up. Each model is being used here to solve a particular problem, but each can be immediately transferred and applied to similar problems:

Number Line Model

Open Array

And here’s a text-based Know/Wonder chart that records the thinking of a class of 5th graders as they read the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful The Tiger Rising (and—sneak peak—will be appearing in my next book):


© Vicki Vinton 2013, adapted from What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse (Heinemann, 2012)

Like the math models, it references the specifics of a particular text, but it’s also a model for solving certain kinds of problems—in this case, how readers figure out what’s going on at the beginning of a complex texts and develop questions they can use as lines of inquiry as they keep reading. In effect, the chart makes visible what those students were “able to do in collaboration” that day that they’ll “be able to do independently tomorrow,” because, whether we call it a scaffold or a model, it’s directly and immediately transferrable to other texts that pose the same problem.

In the end I don’t think it really matters what we call this kind of support, but I do think we have to ask ourselves what, exactly, we’re scaffolding or modeling. Are we helping students get a particular answer to a particular problem or text in order to produce a particular assignment? Or are we, instead, really offering a replicable process of thinking that’s tied to the concepts of a discipline, which can start being transferred tomorrow not an at indeterminate point in the future? Of course, that raises the question of what the underlying concepts in reading are, which we don’t talk about as much as my math colleagues do for math. But that I’ll need to save for another day . . . .

Rome Piazza Navona Fountain of the Four Rivers 2


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?”


The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

I was inspired this week by another series of blog posts I stumbled on recently, which (if I’ve gotten the chain of inspiration right) Stacey Shubitz and Ruth Ayres of the original Two Writing Teachers adapted several years ago from the wonderful scrapbooking blogger Ali E. The posts were all in response to a challenge called One Little Word, which asks teachers to think about a single word they want to hold on to in the new year to help them stay focused and grounded. And whether it’s Dana Murphy sharing how the word float found her or Tara Smith recounting the journey that led her to embrace the word pause, these posts once again demonstrate the richness and depth of teachers’ thinking. They also reminded me of a word I’d been meaning to write about for a while: huh. It’s a word that’s often accompanied by a scrunched up face or a quizzical look indicating disbelief or confusion. And like the word yet, which I wrote about before, I think it’s an under-rated but powerful word.

14 Cows for America coverIt came up, for instance, in a demonstration lesson I was doing with a class of third graders in Staten Island reading the book 14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy. The book, which is listed as an exemplar text for grades 2-3 in the Common Core’s Appendix B, is about a Maasai village in Kenya which gives fourteen cows to America as a gift of friendship and compassion after hearing about 9/11. And I’d chosen it specifically to see how much students could get of out of a text deemed complex without the kind of prompting and scaffolding that’s offered in many a teacher’s guide and online lesson plans.

The teacher’s guide the book’s publisher puts out, for example, tells teachers to ask a series of before-reading questions to ascertain how much students already know about 9/11 and Kenya, and then to transition to the book by saying, “Today we’re going to learn about a small village in Africa and how they were affected by the events of 9/11.” Setting a context for reading this way by helping students access their background knowledge then giving them a quick introduction to the book is a common practice. And the teachers observing me were a bit worried about what the class might not know. As it was, Staten Island had borne many losses on September 11, but it happened before these third graders were born. And while the class would be studying Kenya later that year, the teachers all thought the students’ geographic knowledge might be limited at best.

But wanting the students to learn not only about the content of the book, but how readers make meaning, I skipped the pre-reading activities and just held up the book and read the title, at which point I heard a huh. It came from a boy sitting in the front whose face was, Huh? 2indeed, all scrunched up, and seeing him it seemed to me that huh was actually an appropriate response for a book with that title and cover. I said so to the boy and then asked if others felt the same, at which point hands went up in the air. I then I asked them to say more about the huh, and they spoke to the fact the title mentioned America but the cover illustration didn’t look like that to them. Plus there were no cows anywhere to be seen.

Unpacking the huh led the class to form their first two questions, Why is the book called 14 Cows for America? and Where does the book take place? They thought they’d found the answer to the second question when we got to the title page where two giraffes had been added to the cover’s scene, and that made them think the book took place in Africa. And when, having already noticed a reference to New York and September, we came to the following page, several children found themselves wondering whether the story the main character tells his tribesmen had to to do with 9/11.


In each case, the students drew on their background knowledge not because we’d explicitly asked them to but because they’d been trying to sort through their confusion. Put another way, they’d drawn on the strategy strategically in order to understand what had puzzled them. And the huh was the engine that drove them to both notice those details and reach for the strategy, confirming what the writer and thinker Tom Peters said: “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention.”

With the connection between Africa and America now established, the students turned their attention to the cows. By the end of the book they felt they finally understood the title, but they continued to wrestle with why the tribesmen gave the cows and especially what purpose the cows were meant to serve. And that confusion drove them deeper into the heart and the message of book.

Their path there, however, was not straight and easy. The first student who attempted to answer those questions drew on his background knowledge again to wonder if the tribesman thought that the cows could be used in the war on terror. When I asked if there was anything in the text that made him think that, he cited the line from the page below about the Maasai having once been fierce warriors, and many other students agreed, pointing out that in some of the illustrations the cows were shown with horns, which they thought could be used as weapons.


As this idea took hold of the room, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to think of what move I could make that would avoid everyone getting stuck on that idea without me suggesting it was wrong. I wound up asking a variation on one of the questions Jeff Wilhelm offers in his great book Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry: “Did anyone notice any other details that might suggest another reason for the Maasai to give the cows to America?” The students turned and talked about this, and when we came back together to share out, one girl said she still wasn’t sure what the reason could be, but she didn’t think they’d send the cows to war, because, as she put it, “They love their cows. Why would they want them to get hurt or killed?” And at this point another powerful word could be heard in the room as the class mulled over this student’s words and added her thoughts to the group’s thinking: hmm.

Like the seventh graders I wrote about earlier who wrestled with what really happened in Virginia Euwer Wolff’s story “Dozens of Roses,” I think these students initially latched on to an explanation that was in their reach, and the huh’s and hmm’s opened the door to a possibility they’d never envisioned before—that the Masaai gave America the cows as a symbollic gift of compassion. Of course, to fully get that, they had to read the text again. But they did that not because of some pre-determined close reading protocol, but once again because they wanted to answer the questions their huh’s and hmm’s raised. And while that second read also wasn’t neat and easy, neat and easy doesn’t always get us where we need to be—or as high school teacher Joshua Block writes in an edutopia post on “Embracing Messy Learning,” “If [we] don’t allow learning to be messy, [we] eliminate authentic experience for students as thinkers and creators.” And why would we ever want to do that?


Beyond All About Books (Part 2)

So how did the teachers and I help students write the wonderful creative nonfiction books I shared in Part 1 of Beyond All About Books? And how did we support those children who struggled with writing and English in general?

We began the way I start every writing unit, by reading the kind of text the students would be writing, in this case our mentor text Atlantic by G. Brian Karas. We’d return to the book many, many times before the unit was through, but the first time we shared it our goal was to help the students get a feel for the genre and think about how it was and wasn’t like other nonfiction they’d encountered.

To help them do that we initially asked each class to tell us what they already knew about nonfiction. Then we read a few pages of Atlantic, stopping frequently to consider how it was similar or different, using a Venn Diagram as a tool to hold on to the students’ thinking.

  Sample Venn Diagram comparing and contrasting types of nonfiction            

That part was not too difficult, nor was helping students grasp the idea of personification, which they took to quickly, ultimately personifying not just the country but rivers, mountains and even monuments like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids. What was challenging, though, was getting them to be more descriptive–or, in one class’s words, to paint pictures in words. They had plenty of facts but none of the sensory details they’d noticed in the mentor text. And so, short of buying everyone plane tickets to Cairo or Beijing, I brought in pictures that would help them see what a place looked like, and in some cases allow them to infer what it might smell, sound, taste or feel like.

While searching for pictures, I was lucky enough to stumble on an amazing creative commons photography website called Pixdaus, where I found stunning pictures from various countries, like these of China:

In small groups, students studied the pictures, trying out ways to capture what they saw—or imagined what they might hear, smell, taste or feel—in words. Then they returned to the rug to share out what they’d come up with, projecting their picture with a document camera so that everyone could see. Using the details and language they’d come up with, I then modeled how to turn those into a page that sounded something like one of the pages we saw in our mentor text.

I am the green of bamboo forests and rice fields built into my hillsides like stairs.

I am the sparkling lights of cities filled with people, shops and tall buildings.

The sound of people making wishes for lanterns and the smell of good food cooking in woks is me, too.

For some of the children, this was enough to get them going—especially after we showed them how they could use the pictures in the books they had in their classrooms to help them get that sensory feel. But the most reluctant writers in the room needed more scaffolding. I gathered three or four of them at a time on the rug with white boards and markers, two pictures of animals and a syntactical sentence template I designed based on a pattern I noticed in both the mentor text and some of the writing I’d modeled:

(Name the animal you see)   (Say what they’re doing)  (Tell when and/or where).

The first one we did together as a group, with the children talking about what they saw and me writing the sentence down using the template. Then they looked at the second picture and once again spent some time talking to share the various ways they might describe what they were looking at. But this time I asked them to each use their white board, and with the syntax template visible, write their own sentences, using any of the words or details the group had shared. Here’s a sample of what they came up with:

Pandas make a big mess eating bamboo in my green bamboo forest.

Pandas lie on their backs to eat bamboo on the green floor of my forest.

Pandas use their big white tummies as plates in my bamboo forest.

This kind of scaffolding allowed every student in the room to feel successful and contribute to pages that ultimately looked like this:

 But what made me know that the unit was a success was when the students, on their own, noticed something in the mentor text we hadn’t discussed at all and used it as a model for the ending of their books:

 And mentoring myself to the students’ text, I’ll end this post this way:

Don’t forget me. I am Creative Nonfiction.