How Powerful Is Content Knowledge?

One of the joys of writing a book—beyond simply finishing it—is getting feedback from readers. And one of the first reader comments I saw came from Rebekah O’Dell, the co-author with Allison Marchetti of the marvelous book Writing with Mentors and the website, who tweeted this soon after the book came out:


Here, Rebekah highlighted a passage from Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading that I imagined might provoke the kind of spirited discourse and cognitive dissonance that Ellin Keene wrote about in her foreword. That’s because, in addition to the still ongoing battles between phonics and whole language and Common Core-style close reading and balanced literacy, there’s another war still underway between knowledge-based and more inquiry and problem-based approaches to reading.

The knowledge-based approach is rooted in a body of research that shows a connection between students’ prior knowledge and their reading comprehension. Based on that, knowledge advocates, like Doug Lemov, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch and the authors of the Common Core, argue that if prior knowledge helps students comprehend more, then teachers should focus on building up students’ store of knowledge.

On the one hand, there is some logic to this, but it raises lots of questions. First and foremost is who gets to choose what knowledge should be taught to whom and when. The Core Knowledge Foundation, of instance, offers a knowledge-based Language Arts Curriculum for grades Pre-K though five that many students schools across the country use—and to my mind at least, many of their choices seem strange.

Among other things, for example, first graders learn about Early World Civilizations, including Mesopotamia and Egypt, which, in New York State, is covered in 6th grade social studies. And during the unit they also learn about the world’s three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam—along with a slew of vocabulary words I doubt a first grader will have much use for in their daily lives.

Second graders, on the other hand, learn about the War of 1812, which I remember virtually nothing about. And fifth graders study the Reformation, which, in case you don’t remember, is, as the unit overview states, “the 16th-century religious and political upheaval that challenged the power of the Catholic Church and led to the creation of Protestantism.”

I have to believe I’m not the only one who thinks these choices are bizarre, if not indoctrinary. Why the Reformation instead of, say, the Underground Railroad, the 1960’s or the schism in Islam between Sunnis and Shiites? Why the War of 1812? And why is the one literature unit at each grade focused only on abridged versions of ‘classics’? Fourth graders, for instance, read Treasure Island, while third graders listen to a read aloud of Kenneth Grahame’s over 100-year-old The Wind in the Willows—the story about the dissolute son of a British aristocrat (who just happens to be a toad) who learns how to become a responsible lord through the help of his friends Mole, Rat and Badger. Why that rather than, say, Because of Winn-Dixie? or The One and Only Ivan? Because there are so many allusions to The Wind in the Willows in the world? I don’t think so. But I have recently spotted several headlines that allude to more contemporary books, like this one from The Washington Post that refers to  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst:

and this one from the Los Angeles Review of Books, that compares and contrasts the villain in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events books Count Olaf with Donald Trump (e.g., they are both liars):

I’m certainly not suggesting that we make all children read these particular books rather than other particular bookssince doing so inevitably involves bias. Nor am I saying that having a rich body of knowledge isn’t important. But the fact is that, as I write in the bookwe simply can’t teach students what’s behind every reference or allusion they might encounter, nor every vocabulary word they might come across.There’s simply too much information in the world—and the volume of knowledge being generated is growing exponentially at an astounding speed, as can been seen in these facts from the video Did You Know? Shift Happens:

With these facts in mind, advocates, such as Linda Darling-Hammond, Michael Fullan, Will Richardson and (no surprise here) yours truly, argue that rather than learning reams of content knowledge, what students in the 21st century need are opportunities to construct and apply knowledge, think critically and creatively, solve problems, and learn how to learn—which knowledge-based proponents have been known to say is simply a “romantic notion.”

Just this week, though, Education Week put out a special report called Schools and the Future of Work: What Will Our Students Need to Know? And in articles with titles like “The Future of Work Is Uncertain, Schools Should Worry Now,” “Stop Teaching Students What to Think. Teach Them How to Think,” and “Learning How to Learn Could Be a Student’s Most Valuable Skill,” the report definitely seems to the constructivist/inquiry/problem-based side of the debate.

But here’s the thing: As Alfie Kohn, another learning-to-think proponent, writes in “What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated?” “No one thinks in a vacuum . . . A classroom whose primary focus is described by phrases such as deep understanding, critical thinking, creativity, and the construction of meaning isn’t one devoid of facts. But it’s purposes go well beyond the transmission of a long list of dates, definitions, and other details.”

Consider, for a moment, the fifth graders I wrote about in my last post who had no idea of what a refugee was or a settlement camp before they read Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave. Rather than being taught those words and told about the crisis in Sudan, they figured those things out, and along the way learned many things, not only about the plight of refugees and the tragedy that occurred (and is still occurring) in Sudan. They learned how to see their own country through the eyes of someone quite different; how to discover our shared humanity with others whose lives are nothing like ours; how reading closely and attentively empowered them as readers and thinkers; and how verb tense and punctuation actually matter. And they also learned the deep satisfaction and pleasure that comes from “the curiosity to ask big questions [and] the drive to understand those questions deeply,” which one of the contributors to EdWeek’s report says are traits that are urgently needed in our every changing world.

So why focus so much on content knowledge, when students can gain so much more?

Thinking about Thinking: The Power of Noticing

According to Einstein, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” I completely agree that learning to think should be one of the essential goals of education, but as I wrote in an earlier post, many of the tasks we set for kids and the scaffolds we teach them to use don’t really seem aimed at fostering thinking as much as completing those tasks. In that post, I offered an example of what a lesson focused on actual thinking might look like. And here, I’d like to take a deeper look at what we really mean by thinking and how we actually do it.

One of the most common definitions you’ll find online is that “Thinking is a purposeful organized cognitive process that we use to make sense of our world.” That isn’t bad as definitions go, but it doesn’t offer any clues about how to think or what that process entails. Nor do any of the taxonomies and matrixes we’re often asked to use to ensure rigor. They all focus on the what, not the how in good part, I imagine, because of the fact that not even cognitive neuroscientists fully understand how we think.

So for how to think, I turn to writers, who not only engage in making sense of the world but can express how they do that in ways that, to me, feel more accessible, practical and authentic than the words of reference books or science. And one of the things I’ve noticed about writers is how much value they place on the act of noticing.

Here, for instance, is what Norman Maclean has to say about thinking, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I quoted in What Readers Really Do:

This is what The Fault in Our Stars author John Green thinks about people who notice things:

And here is Mary Oliver’s simple instructions, not just for thinking, but for living life fully:

As I’ve considered the implications of words like these on my own work in schools, I’ve come to think that the essence of thinking is noticing something then making something of what you’ve noticed, which seems implied in each of these quotes. And when it comes to reading, that process can look like this:

When doing read alouds with students,  I usually start out with a text-based Know/Wonder chart, which is a thinking routine that abbreviates the chart above. Unlike K-W-L charts, which ask students to think about what they already know and wonder about a book or topic before they read, then what they learned after they read, a text-based Know/Wonder chart invites students to pay attention to what they know or have figured out about a text as they read and what they’re wondering about. And to get a feel for what that thinking can look and sound like, here’s what happened in a fifth grade classroom that had just embarked on Katherine Applegate‘s wonderful novel in verse Home of the Brave, about a young African refugee named Kek who struggles to make a new home in Minnesota after a civil war erupted in his homeland, as a read aloud.

The class had already experienced how using this thinking routine could empower them as readers and thinkers. And here, without reading the book’s back cover or hearing a summary, they already had figured out much. In the first poem, for instance, they’d figured out that “the flying boat” Kek talks about was, in fact, an airplane, and that he must have come from a place quite different from Minnesota because he’d never seen snow before, nor seen, let alone tried to put on gloves. And they had a ton of questions: Why was Kek there? Where was his family? Where they already there? Would they be coming soon? Or had something happened to them?

Having noticed what was noticeable in that poem and then ‘made’ something of that (i.e., questions), they then noticed something in the next poem below they might otherwise not have noticed, a verb:

Their teacher Karen Bassano had paused here and invited the class to turn and talk about whether they’d figured out anything else or had answered any of their questions, and they zoomed right to the lines “He isn’t tall/like my father was,” where the past tense made them worry that Kek’s father had died.

Similarly, they made much of a punctuation mark they noticed in the third poem, in which Kek responds to a question Dave has asked him about the flying boat:

What they noticed was the dash, which they interpreted in two slightly different ways. One camp thought that Dave had stopped talking because he didn’t want to suggest Kek’s mother might be dead, while the other thought Kek had interrupted Dave because he didn’t want to hear what Dave might say. And those interpretations led them to wonder whether Kek was in a state of denial or if his parents might return in the spring, just as Dave had said the trees that looked dead in winter would do.

To be clear, all this thinking—and close reading, which was what I would say the students were doing—occurred without any teacher modeling, prompting or directing beyond Karen asking them to turn and talk about what they knew or had figured out and what they were wondering about. They had, of course, experienced this before—and had found the whole process meaningful enough that many decided on their own to use it for their independent reading books.

To be sure, there were other things Karen had done, especially in terms of creating an environment that valued thinking more than answers, that I’ll explore in another post. But for now, I’ll end with some final words about the power of noticing from the writer, musician and artist Brian Eno, which, I think, have implications for both students and teachers.

To learn more about this way of teaching, take a look at my new book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingwhich contains more examples of students reading closely and deeply, plus lots of guidance and tips for implementing it in your classroom.

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 Fourth Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

ChalkboardWhile the first day of school is still a week away for schools in my neck of the woods, I know many of you are already back in classrooms with a new bunch of learners — or if you’ve looped up, with familiar faces that have grown over the summer. And as I’ve done for the last four years (yikes!), I’d like to celebrate the start of a new school year, by once again sharing some of the inspiring and probing thoughts that educators have left on this blog over the last twelve months.

As happens each year, it was a challenge to choose a half-dozen comments from those left by members of what I’m convinced is one of the most thoughtful blog readerships out there. And as has also happened before, I think there’s a pattern that runs through many of the comments this year that reflects larger concerns in the field – this year, a renewed attention to process over product and to helping children develop what Mark Condon calls, in his must-read post, each student’s ‘UNcommon core’:

“An UNcommon, TRUE core for every child, is their own intrinsic engine that drives them to learn. If we teachers don’t help our youngsters to develop personal tastes and personal interests and personal goals and a reservoir of personally enriching experiences, then they will be ill equipped to handle the dizzying choices life offers them.”

Here, you’ll see that I’ve set each reader’s comments next to an image that links back to the post they were responding to (and if you click through to the post, you can read other comments by scrolling down to the bottom). And for those readers who also blog, I’ve embedded a link to their blogs in their name, which I urge you to click on as well for more wonderful food for thought. And now, without any more introduction, here are some words that reaffirm my belief in thinking teachers:

Shitty First Drafts“This discussion about process versus product is huge. I love your point about the fear of reducing the art of writing into a flash draft. Like you, my process is slow and thoughtful. I do obsess word by word. On one hand, I can understand the need for assisting our students in getter over the fear of writing by offering them the opportunity to flash draft, but on the other, I am dually concerned about the message we may be sending, and I worry that we are not spending enough time developing the craft of writing.”  Laurie Pandorf

If You Had to Teach Something“There are so many things worth knowing and ways of knowing that cannot be verbalized (and perhaps should not be reduced to words)…a painting, a jazz riff, an equation, an “elegant” line of computer code. But we don’t allow much for this type of knowing. And when we do, we feel the need to verbalize/analyze rather than “know” through the language of color, form, line, rhythm, number or whatever language the creator has used. . . Naturally, the written and verbal word are paramount — that’s our common way of communicating (and the way we expect kids to learn). But there are other ways and levels of understanding perhaps more natural especially for our youngest learners – I’d argue that’s true for all learners but we squelch it earlier and earlier . . . To focus on the child — to focus on multiple ways for students to make meaning and to make their understandings visible would be such a welcome change of pace.” Lisa

Hemingway on Writing“Such a timely post as we’ve had this discussion lately that includes, “How many final published pieces of writing should a student have?” I’m leaning towards the answer from the ‘cheap seats’ – ‘It depends!’ I think there is a definite need for balance when we think of confident, competent writers. Writers themselves need to be aware of their metacognition and how writing plays out for them. Environment? Quiet or Noisy? Handwrite or Keyboard? Think or Draft? But more importantly are the issues about WHAT to do when stuck . . . keep writing, go for a walk, try a different approach. Writing is so complicated. Good writing even more so. It really is not as simple as just putting words on paper!” Fran McVeigh

MIND THE GAP“’…an essay in which the writer inquires into and explores a problem, a question or one or more texts, with the goal of adding his or her own unique perspective and ideas to the ongoing conversation about that problem, question or text.’ I’m trying to remember a time when I either asked a student to engage in an ongoing conversation or was asked to participate in one. Yikes! I love the idea of being part of a grand, ongoing conversation! That really knocks me, as teacher, off center stage and suggests a community of thinkers. Yikes! I am reminded of a student essay I read recently that compares the onset and growth of ideas to drops of water coming together, from creek to stream to ocean, to make something more powerful than their individual selves. A grand conversation! Delicious!” Faynessa Armand

calvin-hobbesLow-stakes writing has such high value in our classrooms, and in reading your piece, I couldn’t help thinking of equating this type of writing to the idea we talk about in reading of “imaginative rehearsals.” When we read material that explores areas of emotion or psychology that we have not fully explored in our lives, it better prepares us for when we have to deal with those events. Writing in low-stakes forms, allows us to explore similar things; we get to practice new ideas in a space that is non-threatening. Essentially, we get to play with thoughts, ideas, and words that may or may not become part of our thinking later on, when it may matter much more. Patrick Higgins

Don't Try to Think“Your discussion of writing as an unfolding event is resonant. Writers need to trust the process, the struggles, the to-ing, fro-ing, ebbs and flows which lead to breakdowns and breakthroughs. Sometimes the biggest challenges produce the most rewarding products (as I am discovering with my PhD). . .  I think the struggle is what results in good writing and robust ideas. Deb (a.k.a. The Edu Flaneuse)

Of course now that I (Vicki) have typed this up, I see another pattern: I seem to have unconsciously chosen quotes that I, as a writer who’s had her fair share of breakdowns and breakthroughs over the last year, need to hold on to and remember. I’ll share more about that journey in an upcoming post, but for now here’s hoping that whether you’ve already started or are still gearing up, the new school year will be filled with lots of joyful learning, fascinating questions, delicious thinking and regular celebrations of all of our UNcommon cores!

First Day of School


Writing Meaningfully About Meaningful Reading Part 1: A Look at Low Stakes Writing

So here’s a true confession: I was one of those high school students who sometimes handed in book reports about books I hadn’t read. I’m not really sure when my fudging began, but I distinctly remember the time when my 10th grade teacher Miss Ingersoll assigned the class John Hershey’s Hiroshima to read and write about over a break. I meant to read it, I really did, just as soon as I finished the unassigned book I was secretly reading at home—John Fowles’s The Collector, which my parents disapproved of but I found riveting.

Unfortunately, however, I didn’t finish The Collector until the night before the book report was due. And so, without the benefit of Spark Notes or sites like, I read the blurbs, grabbed a thesaurus and scanned a few pages for quotes. Then I cobbled and strung together what I had well enough to earn a B- and to learn the same lesson Calvin shares here with Hobbes:

In the age of the Internet when a Google search for “free high school English essays” yields over 19 million results in less than a second, I don’t know how many students learned the same lesson that Calvin and I did. But I do see a lot of writing these days that doesn’t seem terribly meaningful—as my book report wasn’t—and I think that’s directly connected to the college student’s comment I shared the other week: that across the grades, from first up through twelfth, we focus too much on teaching students how to organize ideas and not enough on how to build them.

Many colleges address this imbalance by assigning what the great writing professor and author Peter Elbow calls “low stakes writing”—i.e., writing that’s undertaken “not so much to produce excellent pieces of writing as to get students to think, learn and understand more of the course material.” In his essay “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing,” Elbow enumerates the benefits of low stakes writing, which include the following:

  • Low stakes writing helps students be active learners [rather than] merely passive receivers.
  • Low stakes writing helps students find their own language for the issues of the course; they work out their own analogies and metaphors for academic concepts . . . in their own lingo.
  • Low stakes writing gives us a better view of how students are understanding the course material and reacting to their teaching. We get a better sense of how their minds work.
  • Low stakes writing improves the quality of high stakes writing [because] with frequent low stakes writing we ensure that students have already done lots of writing before we grade a high stakes piece.

This sort of low stakes writing does crop up in grade schools, though not as much in high schools as I think it should. Harvey Daniels, Steven Zemelman and Nancy Steineke, for Low Stakes Writinginstance, devote close to half their book Content-Area Writing to low stakes “Writing to Learn” strategies. Middle school teacher, blogger and Two Writing Teachers contributor Tara Smith shares how she helps students use their reading notebooks to push and develop thinking in her recent posts “Setting Up the Reading Journal For a Year of Writing About Reading” and “Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading.” And in her book Writing about Reading,” Janet Angelillo offers a great list of low stakes “Ways to Think, Talk and Writing About Books,” which includes options such as “Finding places in the text where a light goes on in my mind and signals me to pay attention” and “Finding an idea thread to follow throughout the text or building a theory about the text.”

In my own practice, I’ve been inviting students to consider some open-ended questions about details, lines, patterns or scenes, such as Why might the author be showing you Basic CMYKthis? How might this be connected to that? And why and how has this changed your thinking—or not? I’ve also invited them to consider questions that engage them in viewing the text through more than one lens of the Character-Author-Reader eye. With a class of fifth graders, for instance, who just finished the first chapter of Kate DiCamillo’s marvelous Tiger Rising, I asked students what they thought was making the main character’s life hard, how he was dealing with that, and whether or not they thought his ways of coping were effective. As you’ll see below, this led students to focus on different aspects of the text and voice a wide range of ideas, which they revisited, developed and revised as they kept on reading.

Tiger Rising Responses

 I’ve also had wonderful opportunities to work with teachers who are eager to experiment with different ways of writing about reading, such as Ede Blabec and Rachel Kovach who wanted to bring more meaningful writing back to their eighth grade students’ reading notebooks. To do this, they decided to have students keep a separate notebook dedicated to their next read-aloud A Wrinkle in Time. And they made a brilliant decision to provide the class with simple, unadorned notebooks that were small enough to fit in a pocket. This made the notebooks seem both personal and unintimidating, and to personalize them even more, the students were invited to illustrate their thinking, which as you can see below allowed some students to unleash their inner artist.

Wrinkle 01Wrinkle 02

All these ways of writing about reading seem different from the menus or lists of reading response options I frequently find stapled into students’ reading notebooks. These low risk ways of writing focus on the reader as much as on the text and on what Dorothy Barnhouse and I call “the process of meaning making,” where students are invited to question, dig deeper, explore ideas and consider how the text affects them. The reading response menus, on the other hand, seem more like performance-based tasks or short-constructed responses—and they’re often evaluated with rubrics that emphasize structure, mechanics and the citing of evidence over depth of thought.

Of course, students who engage in low stakes writing may still have to learn a thing or two about structure. And so in Part 2, I’ll share ways they can do that by studying mentor texts rather than by using a formula. But at least when it’s time to write more formally, students will have something meaningful to say. And they’ll also have experienced for themselves how writing, like talk, can be used as a tool not only to present and demonstrate thinking but to actually grow ideas.

Embed from Getty Images


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.

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.

Weighing In on Balanced Literacy

weighing in

As the New York Times reported the other week, our new Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina recently gave a big endorsement to balanced literacy, which had been cast aside in many city schools after the previous administration embraced packaged reading programs, such as Pearson ReadyGen, Scholastic Codex and Core Knowledge, that were supposedly Common Core aligned. Many of these programs’ claims have since been called into question, but it’s Carmen Farina’s words that seem to have ushered us into a new stage in the reading wars. And from where I sit it’s gotten kind of ugly.

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, called balanced literacy “an especially irresponsible approach,” while a commentary appearing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog “Flypaper” called it a “hoax” and likened it to “the judo-like Hydrapractice of using terms that appeal to an audience as fig leaves for practices that same audience would find repugnant.” And over at “Used Books in Class,” my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Colette Bennett takes a look at another “Flypaper” writer who’s “recast the phrase ‘balanced literacy’ in mythological terms, as a hydra,” coming to get us. That’s a lot of virulent language for a pedagogical term.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that the New York Times article on Farina’s endorsement begins with an example of balanced literacy in action in a classroom, which is described as follows:

“[The teacher] took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks. But a few sentences in, [she] shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like ‘buoyant’ and identify the book’s structure.”

And here’s an excerpt from “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” a story that appeared on NPR’s education blog, which also includes a classroom anecdote. The NPR piece looks at a ninth grade class that’s beginning to read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which I wrote about earlier. This time, however, we’re told that we’re seeing close reading in action, not balanced literacy:

“First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud . . . Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words [and] . . . after they have gotten to know the story well, students pair up to tease out the meaning of words like  lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Just AlikeI hope I’m not the only one out there who thinks that, in all the really important ways, these two anecdotes are just alike. In the words of the ninth grade teacher quoted by NPR, both teachers are trying to “create content where there is a productive struggle… where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else” rather than “mak[ing] sure they see everything that’s cool about the text.”

Of course I have some questions about whether that struggle should all be spent on vocabulary words instead of a text’s deeper meaning. And I would never begin the class as the ninth grade teacher does by discussing the standards with the students since I think the standards are for us, not for them. But the point I want to make here is that balanced literacy is an instructional structure, just as close reading is (or has become). And while I personally love balanced literacy because giving students a combination of whole class, small group and independent experiences just makes sense to me, what’s really important is not what structure a teacher uses, but how he or she uses it to help students read meaningfully and deeply. And that reminds me of a quote I shared a while ago from the authors of the great book Making Thinking Visible:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels of quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

I think the same is true about teaching approaches and structures: We’d do better to focus on the quality and depth that’s brought to a structure—i.e., what kind of thinking are we asking of students within whatever structure we use—rather than get caught up fighting over which one is better, knowing that a teacher who really listens to students, reflects on her practice and is a critical thinker and learner herself can make almost anything work.

And now that that’s off my chest, I want to share something else: I’m working on a new book on reading that I plan to finish by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I’m bowing out of blogging, if for no other reason than writing a blog post is so much easier than writing a book. And I love the immediacy of it and the connection with other teachers and readers. But while I may be posting less frequently, I’ll still be trying to wrap my mind in words that speak to the things we all care about.