What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

I’m not sure who loves snow days more, teachers or kids. But I do know that when I learned that schools in New York City and New Jersey would be closed on Tuesday for what was predicted to be a monster blizzard, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been ready for my work on Tuesday, but I hadn’t had time to wrap my mind about my work for Wednesday, when I’d be back in a middle school whose teachers were struggling to shift from a curriculum of whole class novels to reading workshop. Now I’d have time to plan.

Like many districts, this one began their initiative to implement workshop in their lower schools, where, over the years, it took root. It’s even been embraced by the 6th grade teachers, who’d noticed that their incoming students were arriving with a much greater sense of agency and identity as readers than they used to. But the 7th grade teachers Classic Middle School Booksweren’t so sure. They were deeply attached to the whole class novels they’d been teaching (sometimes for years), and they truly believed that that approach best prepared their students for high school. To me, this meant that they took their jobs seriously and wanted to do right by their students—and I used that as a place to start.

Over several visits, I’d shown them Penny Kittle’s videos where many of her students confess that they’d basically all but stopped reading in middle school. And I’d shared some from their own district’s lower schools that captured local fourth and fifth graders engaged in book club discussions. I’d demonstrated lessons; given workshop on books talks and interactive read alouds; created charts and handouts like the one below, and introduced them to blogs by middle school teachers, like Tara Smith’s and Pernille Ripp’s. But while they were intrigued enough to institute ten minutes of independent reading in their classrooms several times a week, they still struggled letting go of the whole class texts.

Read Alouds vs. Whole Class Novels 2

So I decided to take a new tact. For this visit, I’d committed myself to taking whatever whole-class-book lesson the host teacher had planned and show them how to shift that to a workshop approach by unpacking my thinking. So once I was fully caffeinated and had helped David shovel our sidewalk and stoop, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my desk to take another look at the email the teacher had sent.

The Miracle Worker PlaybillHer plan was to start “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, on Wednesday, using “opening activities focused on understanding Gibson’s use of lighting and stage directions to assist readers in understanding the play.” I’d never read “The Miracle Worker,” nor helped a teacher teach a play in middle school before—and I confess I felt some serious regret about what I’d agreed to take on. But sipping my tea, I knew my first job was to think about how to move this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.

What I needed for that was a mentor text to help me understand how stage directions conveyed meaning and what challenges—or problems—they posed for readers. So I turned to Google to help me find plays that might be engaging to middle schoolers and had meaning-full stage directions. And I came up with a small trove of treasures. Here, for instance, are the opening stage directions for Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” about an eccentric comedy writer who must change his ways in order not to lose custody of his 12-year-old nephew:

One thing I immediately recognized  was how much a reader would need to visualize to make sense of this. But more than that, readers also had to think about the significance of all these details and what they might, both literally and figuratively, suggest about what might unfold. That is, readers not only have to picture Nick sitting my himself in the dark, surrounded by a tsunami of disorder, with his face lit by the screen of a TV that the audience can hear but not see, but consider what the playwright might be trying to convey through all those details. And that requires a lot of thinkingfrom inferring that, at 8:30 on a Monday morning, Nick should be in school to wondering whether the position of the TV, the closed venetian blinds and the scattered, hazy light suggest there’s more that the characters—and us, as readers—can’t see.

All this seemed exciting to me, but also potentially hard. How might I introduce this interpretive thinking to the 7th graders? I could, of course, model a think aloud, but as Dorothy and I wrote in What Readers Really Do, the problem with think alouds is that, while they’re intended to show students how to think, what students often take away is what to think. Instead, as I wrote in my look at dynamic teaching, I wanted to design an opportunity for students to engage in that thinking on their own.

So I made myself another cup of tea and stood by the window, watching the snow silently blanket the street. And suddenly I had what David calls a “brain fart.” What if I began by having students interpret Edward Hopper paintings, which suggest stories in interior spaces that almost feel like stage sets, and then moved from those to “A Thousand Clowns”? With renewed excitement, I headed back to my desk, where once gain Google helped me find images, which seemed perfect for the kind of interpretive thinking I wanted the kids to try on:

Hopper Movie Theater

Hopper Nighthawks

Hooper room-in-new-york

With a text now chosen and a basic plan in mind, I still had to consider the logistics: Should I do the first painting with the whole class then break them into smaller groups to interpret different painting? Would the kids need some kind of protocol or lenses for looking at the paintings? Should I follow the same structure with the stage directions, first look at “A Thousand Clowns” together, then let groups work collaborative on different openings that they then could read in book clubs?

As I pondered these decisions, an email notice popped up on my screen. I had a new message from the middle school. Turns out there was so much snow the school couldn’t open on Wednesday unless the roads, sidewalks and parking lots could be cleared. And even if that happened, there’d be a delayed opening, which meant I’d need to reschedule the day. Given that I couldn’t do that until much later in April, you could say all that work was for naught. But I have to say I found the thinking as exhilarating as The Snowy Day‘s Peter found playing outside in the snow. I didn’t make snow angels, build snowmen or hurl myself down a hill on a sled. But I did hurling myself down a thrilling ride of thought, which led to making something. And who knows? Maybe one of you out there will do something with this!

The Snowy Day sledding

 

What’s in a Word: Some Thoughts on Learning & Achievement

whats-in-a-word-1

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to work with teachers at the American School in Doha, which is located in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar. The school belongs to an organization called NESA (the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools), whose mission is to “serve member schools by facilitating sustainable and systemic school improvement to maximize student learning.” And whenever I work in a NESA school I’m struck by their use of the word learning, rather than achievement, which is far more often the world of choice in Stateside schools’ mission statements.

As I’ve written about other words (such as rigor, grit and productive struggle and evidence and claim), I think there’s something worth exploring about these words. To me, learning has to do with truly understanding something deeply enough to be able to apply and transfer the concepts from one setting to another, while achievement is focused on skill-based goals that can be measured by grades or scores. And Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus echoes this distinction, with enlightenment popping up as a synonym for learning, while words like performance, execution and success show up for achievement.

To see how this difference can play out in life—and why it’s important to think about—consider this anecdote from Elizabeth Green’s Building a Better TeacherAt some point the fast-food chain A&W attempted to compete with McDonald’s Quarter Pounder by offering a burger with a third-pound of beef. Strangely though, customers “snubbed” it, wheres-the-beefdespite the fact that it was cheaper than McDonald’s Quarter Pounder and preferred in blind taste tests. Turns out the problem was that customers believed they were getting more beef for their money at McDonald’s, because they’d reasoned that one-fourth was greater than one-third since four was larger than three.

My hunch is that in grade school many of these customers had been able to answer questions about fractions well enough not to fail math. That is, they managed to achieve a passing grade without having understood the concept of fractions. And unfortunately this doesn’t just happen in math. In Doha, for instance, I worked with teachers on ways to more deeply teach grammar and conventions, and right off the bat, the teachers acknowledged something Mary Ehrenworth and I had shared in The Power of Grammar: Students could often correctly punctuate or fix grammatical mistakes on worksheets, but they weren’t transferring that to their own writing. So before we headed into classrooms, we looked at some ways of helping students not just learn rules but the concept behind them in more meaningful ways.

When it came to punctuation, for instance, I shared something I’ve been doing for years: showing students a retyped unpunctuated chunk of text, like the one below from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. Then I ask them to read it, as I invite you to, paying attention to when you’re confused or do a double take because there’s no punctuation to guide you.

the-watsons-go-to-birminghami couldnt believe it the door opened in the middle of math class and the principal pushed this older raggedy kid in mrs cordell said boys and girls we have a new student in our class starting today his name is rufus fry now i know all of you will help make rufus feel welcome wont you someone giggled good rufus say hello to your new classmates please he didnt smile or wave or anything he just looked down and said real quiet hi a couple of girls thought he was cute because they said hi rufus why dont you sit next to kenny and he can help you catch up with what were doings mrs cordel said

This activity brings home to students the concept that punctuation isn’t just about rules; it serves a vital purpose, helping readers navigate uncharted seas of words that otherwise might not make sense. And that, in turn, invites students to consider what might happen to their readers if they failed to include these signposts.

Similarly, to more deeply learn—and understand—the role of verb tense in writing, I shared the following two versions of a nonfiction text, one in the present tense and the other in the past, and asked the teachers to consider if and how the tense affected them as readers:

octopus-verb-tenses

 

As you may have felt, the present tense seems more immediate and suspenseful—or, as kids often say it makes you feel like you’re there. The past, on the other hand, can feel more authoritative but also more distant. With students, once students have noticed and felt this, you can then give them a choice: Which effect do they want their readers to experience, the suspense of the present or the authority of the past? And once they’ve decided, their job as writers is to make sure the tense is consistent.

alfie-kohnLike the inquiry work I shared earlier, these kinds of lessons help students not just know the rules, but more deeply understand their purpose in ways that support the transfer of learning. Of course, letting students wrestle with concepts takes longer than explicitly teaching rules through direct instruction, which might not make it seem like the most expedient path to achievement. But as Alfie Kohn wrote in a blog post, there are costs to focusing on achievement over learning, beyond forgetting what was learned. According to Kohn, when we overemphasize achievement, five things tend to happen: “Students

  • come to regard learning as a chore;
  • try to avoid challenging tasks;
  • tend to think less deeply;
  • may fall apart when they fail; and
  • value ability more that effort.”

It’s worth noting that Kohn wrote this post before the concept of growth mindsets took hold. But a survey taken just last year by The Princeton Review shows that high achievement-vs-learningschool students care far more about achieving good grades than they do about learning. This is truly unfortunate because the thing about learning and achievement is this: If we focus on deeper learning, achievement tends to happen as a natural by-product. So why would we choose the word achievement when learning supports application and retention and increases the likelihood of achievement?

My hunch is that it has to do with our fear and obsession about competing globally, in a way that’s also tied to our culture of testing. Most American overseas schools, however, have adopted the Common Core Standards but not the standardized test apparatus that comes it here, which helps them to focus on the higher goal of learning. But I think it would do us good to remember these words of Marilyn French (as quoted by Kohn) and consider which word we want to embrace:

Only extraordinary education is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite.