On Beliefs, Books & Being True to Yourself

What Needs to Happen

From Read, Write, Lead by Reggie Routman

While preparing for a leadership workshop I led this summer for a district embarking on a new literacy initiative, I dipped into Regie Routman‘s great book Read, Write, Lead and discovered this nifty chart which captures what she thinks often happens when we try to implement change at a district, school, or even classroom level. According to Routman—and seen first-hand by me—districts, schools and sometimes teachers themselves often begin discussing change by exploring resources. And that Read, Write, Leadoften leads many to gravitate to programs that promise things, such as alignment with the Standards, increased student achievement, research-proven practices or ease of implementation. Every resource, in turn, comes with its own prescribed practices, whether it’s lists of text-dependent questions to ask (along with the answers to look for), scripts of mini-lessons to follow or protocols to use for instructional approaches like reciprocal or guided reading.

Rarely she notes, though, do we think about change by first defining for ourselves what we believe—about children, how they learn, what it means to be literate and the purpose of education itself. And this is critical because as Routman writes: “Practices are our beliefs in action.”

I share this story for two reasons. First, in an age where everyone seems to be clamoring for quick fixes or some magical way to reach unrealistic (and sometimes questionable) goals, it reaffirmed my own belief that for practices to be truly effective, they need to be The Teacher You Want to Berooted in some deeper understanding about children, learning and reading and writing. And secondly, it seemed like a nice way to announce that while my book on reading is still being fine-tuned, I’ll have an essay in another book coming out this fall from Heinemann called The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning and Teaching.

The book grew out of the study tour I went on to Reggio Emily in 2012 (which you can read about here, here and here). Our ostensible aim was to see what we could learn about the teaching of literacy from their world-renown schools, but we came away with a much larger mission: to publicly share what we’d seen and learned in order to promote serious conversations about the state of education here at home.

To begin that work, we collaboratively created a Statement of Beliefs, a document that captures a baker’s dozen of tenets that reflect the group’s jointly held beliefs about how children best learn and how, therefore, teachers and schools need to approach teaching. And as you’ll see in the example below, for each of these thirteen beliefs we provided a more in-depth explanation as well as a description of practices we currently see in many schools that reflect a very different—and we think problematic—set of beliefs. Then with the help of Heinemann, we invited educators and thinkers from across the field to write essays that would in someway connect to one or more of these beliefs.

Reggio Belief #13

As will appear in a slightly different form in The Teacher You Want to Be, coming from Heinemann in Fall 2015

The book that resulted is edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene, and it’s graced with a forward by one of my personal educational heroes, Alfie Kohn. Some of the essays were written by study group members, such as me, Kathy Collins and Stephanie Jones; some are by those who couldn’t make the trip but were there with us in spirit, like Katherine Bomer and Heidi Mills; while others come from great educators and thinkers who saw their own beliefs reflected in ours, such as Sir Ken Robinson, Peter Johnston and Tom Newkirk. And while we’ll all have to wait till October 22nd to get our hands on the book, I’m sure you’ll agree that’s quite a line-up.

I also suspect that many of you will find your own beliefs reflected in this book. While for others it may be an opportunity to clarify and define what it is you believe or to consider how your beliefs (may or may not) align to your actions and practices. And for those of you who know what you believe but often find yourself teaching, as I write in my essay, “against the backdrop of a system I often feel at odds with,” I, along with Matt, Ellin and all the essay writers hope you find in this book the strength, support and inspiration to keep your teaching true to those beliefs—and to be aware of when your practices are out of step with what you believe.


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

Making Room for Thinking in the New Reading Wars


Watching the news these days is depressing as, whether it’s Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza, Ferguson or our dysfunctional Congress, the whole world seems enmeshed with conflicts. And here, on the literacy home front, we seem to be in the midst of a new round of reading wars, with Balanced Literacy and ‘just right’ books being pitted again Achieve-the-Core-style close reading methods and complex texts the same way that phonics was set in opposition to Whole Language way back in the 1970’s.


© 2013 Alejandro Giraldo, illustrator of The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments (New York: Jasper Collins Publishers). Reprinted with the illustrator’s permission. http://www.alejogiraldo.com

Just as then, this either-or mentality isn’t terribly helpful, nor is it always accurate. In fact, all of these this-versus-that positions seem like examples of a particular kind a reasoning flaw called the false dichotomy or dilemma or the black-and-white fallacy. This flaw in logic appears in arguments when an author presents a reader with only two opposing alternatives without any acknowledgement, let alone consideration, of other options or shades of gray. And, in fact, there are all sorts of other options. In many a classroom, for instance, phonics instruction co-exists with various whole language approaches—and no teacher or child has yet died. Balanced Literacy can meet the objectives of the both the Common Core Standards and close reading as the two lessons I compared in “Weighing in on Balanced Literacy” demonstrated. And in both their recent blog post and their fabulous article in this month’s Reading Today, “Break Through the Frustration: Balance vs. All-or-Nothing Thinking,” Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris push back on what many have framed as a choice between complex texts and ‘just right’ level books with this sound advice:

“To avoid the educational equivalent of scurvy and the whiplash that comes from the constant pendulum shift, we suggest moving from ‘either/or’ conversations about instructional- and frustration level reading to ‘both’ conversations.'”

There’s also something key that’s left out of all these this-text-or-this-approach-versus-that talk: Thinking. What kind of thinking are we asking or setting up students to do regardless of the texts or approach? Is it identifying text structures or using more clues to figure out unknown vocabulary as the two lessons I shared in that earlier post did? Or are we Main Idea Google Searchreally asking students to consider a text’s meaning at both the literal and thematic level, whether it’s a quantitatively measured complex text or a ‘just right’ book? And what kind of thinking are we engaged in ourselves when we create those lessons? Are we filling in the boxes of lesson planning templates with Standard numbers and objectives or searching google for a lesson on, say, the main idea (which yielded 1,770,000 results in .53 seconds)? Or are we thinking deeply about the texts we’re putting in front of our students to better understand how a reader actually determines the themes of that text through its specific details?

Personally, I can’t help but wonder whether we’d be in this whole Common Core/complex text pickle if we always set students up for deeper thinking instead of practicing skills or strategies that don’t necessarily lead to closer reading and more insightful meaning making. But that means that rather than investing in supposedly Common Core-aligned curriculum and training sessions on creating text-dependent questions, we would have needed to give teachers more time and space to be readers—deep, close and thoughtful readers who authentically think about how specific texts are put together and the kind of demands they place on a reader. And of course, we didn’t.

For a long time now I’ve believed that building our own capacity as readers is the key to helping our students become deeper thinking readers, too. And that belief informs much that I do, from offering occasional read alongs on the blog to starting workshops by asking teachers to read a text not as teachers, but as readers, as I did last week when I had the great privilege of working with coaches and teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District’s South schools. And so I was utterly thrilled to learn about a keynote speech Lucy Calkins gave at the opening of one of this summer’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project Institutes, where in her inimitable stirring and raise-the-bar way she said this: “To lift the level of your teaching, you must work on your own reading . . . [you must] try to outgrow yourself as a reader.”

Reading Today CoverWhat’s fascinating, though, is that Timothy Shanahan, one of the key proponents of the Standards and the author of another ‘just right’ book bashing article that also can be found in this month’s Reading Today, says more or less the same thing. In his clearly frustrated post, “Why Discussions of Close Reading Sound Like Nails Scratching on a Chalkboard,” he suggests that rather than “signing up for a workshop in ‘How to Teach the Close Reading Lesson,'” teachers would “be better off signing up for a Great Books discussion group,” which he likens to the a “reading version of the Writer’s Workshop approach to professional development” where teachers write to become better teachers of writing.

And that makes me wonder about what could happen if we focused on what we have in common rather than on how we differ: the need to carve out time and space for teachers to deeply read together and then apply what they learned from those experiences to design instruction that helps students grow into close and thoughtful readers. Perhaps then we wouldn’t need to create these false choices between this or that text or approach because we’d all share a more developed vision of what deep reading really looks and feels like. And who knows, perhaps that would even help us solve some of those other conflicts.

P.S. If you’re looking for more food for thought, here’s three links worth checking out that  are related to this week’s post:

1. To hear more incredibly sane and wise thoughts from Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, check out their new book Reading Wellness.

2. To see more fun illustrations and explanations of other logical fallacies, check out The Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments by Ali Almossawi and Alejandro Giraldo.

3. And to get a taste for some of the work I did last week in Los Angeles, check out this podcast interview I gave with the Instructional Superintendent of LAUSD South schools, Robert Bravo.

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

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

Almost two years ago, when this blog was quite new, I wrote a post about the dangers of students seeing themselves as reading level letters because of all the emphasis placed on levels. I felt compelled to write that post after noticing the artwork of several second graders who claimed that their dearest wish for the year was to achieve a certain reading level. And I’m returning to the same question now because of two things that happened last week: the news that Alice Munro, the great Canadian writer, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a conversation I had with my valued colleague Anna Commitante, which led me to take a second look at a packaged 9th grade ELA unit that uses Karen Russell‘s wonderful short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

The Beggar MaidI was thrilled to hear the Nobel Prize news because I’ve been reading—and adoring—Alice Munro for over thirty years. I’m not sure how I first discovered her way back in my twenties, but I remember clearly the first piece of hers I read, a short story called “Royal Beatings,” from the collection The Beggar Maid. It’s about a young girl named Rose living in rural Ontario in what I took to be the 1940’s, who’s subject to periodic beatings by her father when her step-mother Flo thinks she’s being uppity.

My life was nothing at all like Rose’s, but reading the story I felt a bolt of recognition that I’d never experienced before and a sense of exposure that was both terrifying and deeply reassuring. She put into words all the complicated, ricochetting swings of mood and feelings I often felt—and rather than judging or downplaying them, she celebrated each twinge and stirring. And in doing so she gave me what the writer Maureen McLane says certain poems and stories can provide: “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

Here, for instance, she describes the almost exquisite sense of having been wronged, which Rose feels after a beating:

Never is a word to which the right is suddenly established. She will never speak to them, she will never look at them with anything but loathing, she will never forgive them. She will punish them, she will finish them. Encased in these finalities, and in her bodily pain, she floats in curious comfort, beyond herself, beyond responsibility.

And here she describes the moment when that sense of power collapses as, feeling contrite, Flo leaves a tray of food outside Rose’s door:

She will turn away, refuse to look, but left alone with these eatables will be miserably tempted . . . she will reach out a finger, just to run it around the edge of one of the sandwiches (crusts cut off!) to get the overflow, a taste. Then she will decide to eat one, for strength to refuse the rest. One will not be noticed. Soon, in helpless corruption, she will eat them all. She will drink the chocolate milk, eat the tarts, eat the cookies. She will get the malty syrup out of the bottom of the glass with her finger, though she sniffles with shame. Too late.

To me, this story was a revelation. And I’m so very glad that the Nobel Prize news prompted me to relive that first encounter and reread the story, which was in my mind a few days later when I talked with Anna.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesWe were commiserating about the sorry state we were in, here in New York City, where everything seemed to be conspiring to not allow students to have the kind of reading experience I just described. And at some point she asked me if I’d ever read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” or seen the New York State 9th grade unit on it. I’d read and loved Russell’s story (from the collection of the same name) and had come across the unit at some point, when I looked at it just long enough to note the great choice of text. But Anna said I had to read it because, she said with exasperation and heartache, “They got it all wrong.”

The story itself is wonderfully strange: A group of girls whose parents are werewolves have been sent to the St. Lucy’s Home at the urging of the Home’s nuns in order to become, in the story’s words, “naturalized citizens of human society.” Not all goes well, however, especially for one of the youngest girls who not only can’t but doesn’t seem to want to give up all her wild ways, despite the fact that it may leave her stranded between the worlds of humans and wolves.

Given how adolescents often straddle two worlds, I imagined there might be some 9th graders out there who’d find in the story a “deep sea in which to swim and make a self.” But when I took another look at the unit, I realized there was no room for that. Clocking in at 211 pages, the unit plan was ten times longer than the story itself, comprising 17 lessons with 130 text-dependent questions, almost 40 vocabulary words and lots of formative and summative assessments.

When we all think alike no one thinks very muchThat, in and of itself, seemed bad enough, but when I looked closer at the questions I understood what Anna had meant. Most seemed aimed at checking students’ basic comprehension and ability to cite evidence from the text, while others focused on vocabulary. But there were some like “Why is St. Lucy’s culture better?” that made me realize that what Anna and I took to be a story about conformity and indoctrination had been seen by the unit writers as a story about the need to assimilate. And the questions and prompts pushed students toward that—just as the nuns were pushing the girls to adhere to “civilized” norms.

A story this rich will inevitably spark multiple interpretations. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a writer who, in her own words, “mashes” genres together with such abandon and glee, would want readers to think that the central idea was “that girls who were raised by wolves must assimilate or adapt to human culture,” as the unit claims. But then again I’m not really sure the unit wants readers to think. The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.

Of course, I think it’s possible to meet the standards within the context of non-standardized reading and thinking. But we need to be mindful of both the direct and indirect messages we’re sending. And we might begin that by considering these words about stories from Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.”

Alice Munro

What’s the Difference Between a Teacher & a Packaged Program?

Now that most of us have settled into the new school year, my corner of the blogosphere is buzzing with the first student responses to curricula designed to meet the Common Core through a steady diet of close reading. Last week, for instance, Chris Lehman shared some of the trove of tweets he discovered, like the one I found below, from students who were flummoxed, frustrated and furious with their close reading assignments. Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan over at Teachers for Teachers shared the notebook entry of a student who confessed, “I find myself so focused on how to annotate that I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading.” And Kim Yaris, of Burkins & Yaris, shared a cautionary tale of her own after her fifth grade son came home from school, brought to the brink of despair and tears by a two-week-long close reading of a document that Kim’s research suggest is actually more college than lower school fare.

Close Reading Tweet2

I can’t verify that all these tweets and confessions are connected with packaged programs, though Kim’s son’s story definitely is. But I seriously suspect that in one way or another they reflect the effects and consequences of a document written by the authors of the Standards known as “The Publisher’s Criteria.” According to the authors, “These criteria [were] designed to guide publishers and curriculum developers” in creating Common Core aligned instructional material “to ensure that teachers receive effective tools.” And it’s here that some of the ideas and language that have taken over classrooms first appear, such as:

  • Whole class instruction should be focused on short texts on or above a grade’s complexity band throughout the year 
  • Students should be engaged in close reading of those texts, which include multiple readings
  • Those close readings should be guided by a set and sequence of text-dependent questions

What’s important to remember is that these criteria weren’t aimed at teachers, only those in the business of marketing products. Yet many a teacher has been forced, persuaded or enticed to follow, having been told, perhaps, that they’re the only way to raise test scores or meet the Standards. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t expose their students to challenging texts, nor have some text-dependent questions up their sleeves that encourage reading closely for deeper meaning. But providing texts, questions to ask, answers to look for and worksheets to pass out is pretty much all a program can do. And because teachers are living human beings, with active minds and hearts, they can do things programs cannot, beginning with the most obvious: A program cannot not know the students, only a teacher can.

Teachers know which students come from families who struggle and which come to school sleepless or hungry. They know which ones are wizards at math but feel defeated by reading and which are precocious but avoid taking risks. They know which don’t talk because they’re shy and which don’t because they’re lost. And knowing all this, they also know that not every student needs every question the program tells them to ask, nor will every student manage to read complex texts by the end of the year (which is what the Standards actually say) by constantly being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Teachers know all this because they watch and listen to their students, which leads to another critical distinction between a program and a teacher: A program can tell you what to say, but it cannot tell you what you’ll hear if you’re listening for more than what the program deems an acceptable answer. I think this kind of listening is just like the way we want students to read, attending closely to the details of the text to think about what the author might be trying to show them, not just to ‘get’ a particular answer but to understand more deeply. And that close, attentive listening allows teachers to make all sorts of moves that programs simply can’t capture in scripts, let alone actually make. Teachers can, for instance, do all of the following, none of which a program can:

  • Seize a teaching moment when it presents itself
  • Tuck what you’ve heard into your pocket to consider its instructional implications
  • Probe student thinking to better understand what’s behind their responses
  • Respond in a way that helps students build identity and agency as readers
  • Welcome and value out-of-the-box thinking

Several of these moves were visible in a classroom I worked in last week, where teachers were using some of the scaffolds that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really DoA seventh grade ICT class, for instance, began reading Shirley Jackson‘s story “The Lottery”—in which a community engages in an annual tradition of stoning the winner The Lotteryof a lottery to death—by asking students to fill out their own text-based Know/Wonder charts. As the teachers and I walked around the room, we were thrilled to see how many students had noted the odd details about stones in the first three paragraphs and had wondered why characters were putting them in their pockets and stacking them in piles.

But I also saw this: One of the boys had copied a sentence from the second paragraph in full: “School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of [the children].” Aware of how many of these students had plucked lines from texts for evidence on the test without seemingly understanding them, I asked him what he thought that meant. “They’re not comfortable with the freedom they have now that school’s out,” he said in a way that allayed my concern. And when I then asked him what he thought about that, he said he thought it was weird. No kids he knew were uneasy with summer. And thinking that, he decided to add a new question to his chart: “Why did most of the kids feel uneasy when school was out?”

Probing this student’s thinking this way not only revealed that he understood more than I first suspected; he was, in fact, the only one who picked up on the current of unease that runs throughout the story. But it also allowed me to name for him both the way that texts operate and the work he’d done as a reader, which increased his confidence.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there was this: As the teacher asked the class to share what they’d learned and wondered about, one student said she learned that the children were talking about planting, rain, tractors and taxes, from this line in the text:

“Soon the men began to gather, watching their children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes.”

Clearly she’d miscomprehended the sentence because of its construction, and initially I saw this as an opportunity to seize a teaching moment by asking the class who they thought was speaking and why. But when I debriefed that moment with the teacher, who’d noticed the mistake as well, she said she didn’t want to call her out in front of the class because it was the very first time that student had shared her thinking. Rather, in what I thought was a wise move, she wanted to think about how to address it in a way that would empower, not deflate, the student, and so she tucked what she’d heard in her pocket to think about her next steps.

And this leads to one final difference between a program and a teacher: Packaged programs teach curriculums and texts. Teachers teach real, live students. And I wonder, if we kept that distinction in mind, whether we’d stope feeling as frazzled and frustrated as the students sometimes do when we march them through a series of pre-determined questions in an achingly hard text.

Reading Closely versus Close Reading: A Cautionary Tale

Caution Tape

Since I first wrote about close reading last fall, the practice seems to have settled into one of two prescribed methods. The first, which I looked at in an earlier post, is modeled on Achieve the Core’s original unit exemplars, which many of the new packaged programs are emulating. The second comes by way of Timothy Shanahan, who demonstrates the planning process behind his approach in a PowerPoint presentation, using the picture book The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater.

In this example, students read a text three time to answer three sets of text-dependent questions that correlate to the bands of the Common Core reading standards. Thus the first time round, students answer questions about Key Ideas and Details, as aligned to RL.1-3, in order to comprehend what the text says. The second read is guided by questions related to the Craft and Structure standards (RL.4-6), which ask students to consider how the text works or says what it did. And in the third read students are asked Integration of Knowledge and Idea questions (RL.7-9) in order to evaluate the worth of the text and compare it with others.

It’s a nifty and rather elegant construct: three reads of a text, three bands of reading standards, with each read devoted to a band. And I love the idea that’s implicit in this: that when we read for deep understanding, we actually engage in all the reading standards, not just one or two. But it’s also something of a formula, which Shanahan, himself, has cautioned against. And below is another reason to be wary of overly prompted and structured close readings.

The Pity Party CoverSome fifth grade teachers I worked with had used both methods with their students in preparation for New York’s now infamous test, and after watching their classes struggle on the test, they wondered how well those close readings had helped them and whether or not the students were transferring that thinking to their independent books. To explore that second question, we decided to confer with students to look for evidence of transfer. And given that I’ve billed this a cautionary tale, you can probably guess the answer: not much. Here, for instance, is what happened with a student named Jade who was just beginning Alison Pollet‘s The Pity Party.

As Jade opened the book and thumbed to the first chapter, I noticed that she’d passed a page that may have been a prologue. Curious to know both what the page was and what made her decide to skip it, I asked to see the book for a moment and took a look at this page:

The Pity Party Excerpt 1

Beyond recognizing this as a reading list, a thoughtful reader who’s reading closely—versus ‘doing’ a close reading via text-dependent questions—might notice that all the annotations include references to orphans, which would naturally lead to the question, “Why?” What’s with all the notes about orphans? Is the character who wrote them an orphan? And could that be connected somehow to the pity party of the title?

Those questions, in turn, would position a reader to read forward with intention. But when I gave the book back back to Jade, she once again opened it to Chapter One. Then looking at me, she did flip back, and when I asked what she made of the page, said, “It’s just a book list.” Then she turned the page and started the first chapter, with no questions or seeming awareness of orphans.

A Cautionary TaleOf course, if the word orphan is important (as it turns out to be) there will be other opportunities for a reader to realize that the main character is one and to think about the impact of that. But Jade’s cursory read of the book’s first few pages made both me and the teachers think that all that close reading work they’d done hadn’t led this students to read more attentively or engage in the thinking work readers do from the beginning as they notice, connect and fit details together to draft their understanding of the text. And while there may be many reasons why the thinking didn’t transfer, as Nancy Boyles writes in “Closing in on Close Reading,” “If all we’re doing is asking questions about [a book], readers will probably have a solid understanding of that book by the last page. But those questions . . . don’t inform the study of subsequent books.”

So what’s a teacher to do? The answer, I think, is to make a shift from ‘doing’ close reading to inviting students to attend more closely to what they’ve noticed and consider what it might mean, as two third grade ICT teachers I worked with did. Here’s a chart that records their students’ thinking when they asked them if they had noticed any patterns a quarter the way through Kate DiCamillo‘s now classic Because of Winn-Dixie:

Winn-Dixie Patterns

And here’s a chart that captures what they noticed within the pattern of lonely characters, which the class decided to track, with details that explained why a character was lonely above the horizontal line and those that showed how the pattern was changing listed underneath that:

Winn-Dixie Patterns 2

What I think is interesting in both these charts is that students are paying attention not only to what the text says but how it says it. They’ve noticed, for example, the motif of storytelling that runs throughout the book and the way Kate DiCamillo has described the Preacher as being “in his shell”. And they’ve even begun the process of interpreting by thinking about why he’s described that way, with the idea that he might be shy in parentheses.

In this way the students are doing what Tim Shanahan, in his close reading warning post, describes as “telescoping”: They’re engaging in the second Craft and Structure read concurrently with the first read. “To get immature readers to pay attention to the craft and structure issues,” he writes, “while they were first making sense of the plot would be an accomplishment.” Yet here are third graders, some of whom have special needs, doing exactly that.

Of course they’re not ready to make claims yet. But that’s because there’s still much to read and much to think about. And to help them keep thinking—and reading closely—we asked the class to gather up all the lines in which the Preacher’s shell had been mentioned to consider what else it could mean. In addition to their initial idea, the students connected the Preacher’s shell to another pattern they’d noticed—that he’s always doing work. And by looking closely at the last two lines, they arrived at a brand new idea they hadn’t before entertained: that maybe the Preacher goes into his shell to avoid talking about Opal’s mother.


Connecting these patterns and seeing how they change and develop over the course of the book will eventually allow students to consider what the author might be trying to show them about loneliness, friendship, storytelling and loss. And because it’s based on a process of meaning making, not on text-dependent questions, the thinking is actually transferable from one text to another. Furthermore, if we see close reading as an outcome or goal, as Tim Shanahan requests, not as a teaching technique, these students are, in fact, engaged in close reading. They’re just doing it with more independence—which is just what the Common Core asks for.