Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

One of the other things I love to do in summer (beyond institutes) is walk along the East River, watching the boats and the people who come from all over the world to see New York City’s famous skyline. And much of the waterfront in my neck of Brooklyn has become a wonderful park, with soccer fields and volleyball courts built on reclaimed piers, free kayaks and yoga, and an outpost of what in my humble opinion is the best ice cream in the city, Ample Hills, which takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Ample Hills

Every summer, there’s also new art, and this year we have sculptor Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” the neon and steel piece you see above that actually rotates 360 degrees. My partner David and I first noticed it from behind as it was being installed, and it took me a while to realize that the word we were trying to read backward was understanding—and that the workers on the ladders and cranes were literally constructing understanding, which, once I figured that out, delighted me no end. You see, I believe that deep, lasting learning best happens when learners are actively involved in the construction of understanding and knowledge, versus receiving, memorizing—or as Jeff Wilhem says in Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, consuming—information.

I’d say the teachers and coaches I wrote about last week were engaged in constructing an understanding of the different ways fiction stories can go. And in her gorgeous and brilliant new book The Journey is EverythingKatherine Bomer invites her readers to construct an understanding of essays by reading two spectacular examples, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (whose structure she also visually maps!) and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. As Katherine writes,

“The key to teaching essay well is understanding deeply what essay is. We don’t need to invent a definition; we only need to pay attention to what we see, hear and feel as we read essays closely. We can notice for ourselves what essays stir up in the minds and hearts of readers and then make that seeing explicit, naming the features of essay we can use in our own writing or teach to students.”

Of course, developing a vision of what we want students to engage with as writers is true for every genre, not just essay. And the deeper our vision is, the deeper and more meaningful our teaching can be, which I think is captured in this wonderful Japanese proverb which I discovered as I planned for my work in Paramus:


So before Labor Day is upon us and everyone’s back in school, I want to invite you to read a very short story called “A Story About the Body” by the great poet Robert Hass in order to construct a deeper understanding of what realistic fiction is and what it does for us as readers. As Katherine urged, try reading it attending to what it stirs up in your mind and heart and then, based on how it affected you, try to articulate in a more general way what you think the deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be and how writers convey that purpose. (And try to not default to what you already may teach, like saying that realistic fiction is a story about people and events that are made-up but could happen in real life, and it’s purpose is to entertain, which, as I wrote in an earlier post, doesn’t capture the complexity of what writers do.) And since it’s sometimes easier to construct an understanding of a genre by looking at more than one example, consider clicking on the links for two other short stories I’ve shared over the years, “Wallet” by Allen Woodman and “20/20” by Linda Brewer to see how they inform your thinking.

Finally, in the spirit of collaborative learning and community, please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here, by clicking on either the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title, the word ‘reply’ that following the list of tag words at the bottom of the post, or, if you’re a subscriber, on the comment link at the end of the email.

And now here’s Robert Hass’s amazing piece, which comes by way of

A Story about the Body Robert Hass

The Third Annual Celebration of Teacher Thinking

I know many teachers and students around the country are already back in their classrooms, but for the third year I’d like to mark what here in New York City is the start of the school year by sharing some of the incredibly inspiring and thoughtful comments that educators have left on this blog over the last twelve months. Those months have been marked with ongoing conflict about the Common Core Standards, the corporatization of public education, standardized testing and certain literacy practices. Yet, if the comments below are any indication, it’s also been a year in which teachers have increasingly found their voices and are using them to speak out with passion, knowledge, and the conviction that comes from experience about what students—and they, themselves—need in order to be successful. And if I see a trend in this year’s comments, one of the things teachers are speaking out about is the need for a vision of education that’s not straight and simple, but messy and complex.

As happened before, it’s been quite a challenge to choose a handful of comments from the nearly two hundred I received. So if you find yourself hungry for more, you can scroll down and click on the comment bubble that appears to the right of each blog post’s title—and/or go to each responder’s blog by clicking on their name. You can also see the post they’re responding to by clicking on the image that goes with the comment. And for those of you who would love to hear and meet other bloggers and To Make a Prairie readers in person, I’ll be chairing a session at NCTE this year with Mary Lee Hahn, Julieanne Harmatz, Fran McVeigh and Steve Peterson called “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.”

And now, without any more ado and in no particular order, are some words to hold on to as we enter another year that I hope will be exciting for all:

Preparation of Life QuoteYes, it should be about the complexity of thought for our students. This is what they will carry with them into college and career—not a Lexile level. Spending time with a text and analyzing it through all those lenses to get the big picture should be our goal. I think many teachers are stuck on the standards, which to my mind is the old way of teaching. They want to create assessments for standards that they can easily grade and check off as ‘done’. We need to step back and think about how to teach our students to delve into a book and use multiple ways to explore the text, to come up with big ideas and original thinking. It begins with teaching them to love books and reading. We need to expose them to many kinds of texts with lots of opportunities to talk and write about what they’ve read. Not teach a skill, provide a worksheet, give an assessment and call it ‘done’. Annabel Hurlburt

Bernini's fountain of the four rivers, Piazza Navona, Rome, Ital“I too wrestle with how much to scaffold for students, and for adult learners and for how long. It seems the sooner we can remove the scaffold, the better. Sending learners off to inquire and grow their theories and ideas on their own, and to find their own answers is certainly always the goal—independence! . . . Seems that teaching students and adults as well to ask the big questions is also important, letting us grapple with new concepts and ideas grows us as learners. Less scaffolding supports this type of inquiry.” Daywells

Word Choice Matters“Another subtle nuance to a word is when we refer to schools as ‘buildings.’ A school is much more holy than that, because that’s where learning happens that shapes the future of the world. We don’t call houses of worship ‘building.’ We call them by their true names: church, synagogue, temple, mosque. These indicate that something spiritual is happening in them. When we call school a building, unless we’re talking about the physical plan, we’re helping them in the battle in lowering the value in what we do. These word choices seep into our daily work and shape our daily work into something we don’t want it to be!” Tom Marshall

“A point that stood out especially is that the inquiry process is not straight and easy. It isPuzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem messy, and so we must let our students safely enter the muck. It can be difficult to know how much to intervene, especially when students seem to be veering far off course. The questioning you adapted from Jeff Wilhelm’s book seemed like a nice way to gently guide students toward considering more details before drawing conclusions, thus allowing them to arrive to more logical conclusions on their own. Anna Gratz Cockerille

Steering wheel of the ship“I would add that a culture of looking at many viewpoints from the earliest ages can add to the abilities of students when they arrive at the more sophisticated levels like you’ve shared. Even kindergarten students can begin to look at other points of view through mentor text stories and through problem solving in their classroom communities when students bring their own experiences into conversations. Part of this means that teachers must be open to NOT asking for the ‘one right answer,’ [and instead] inviting possibilities.” Linda Baie

Pinky and the Brain Pondering Critical Thinking2“‘Trainings’ operate with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of teachers—and, in turn, support a model of education that operates with a limited vision of the competence and capabilities of children. Standing against that tendency means living in the tension between people desperately seeking simple answers to complicated questions and messy lived experience. I think that [the Opal School has] been siding with keeping it complicated, which seems to have the combined effect of deeply connecting with the learning of the educators who find us and limiting the number of people who do so. A real paradox! Matt Karlsen

And with these words in mind, let’s get messy! And here’s hoping that I get a chance to see some of you in D.C. this November!

NCTE Convention 2014

The Secret to Teaching Poetry: Focusing on Feelings

Can You Keep a Secret While I’m a firm believer that poetry should be read throughout the year, I fear I tend to wait until April, when it’s National Poetry month, to write about it—just as many a teacher waits until then to dust off the poetry books. This is a shame, if not a crime, as is the fact that too many Common Core interpretations have all but squeezed poetry out of the curriculum or relegated it to a handful of lessons to tick off Reading Literature Standards 4 and 5.

Why this is so, I can’t say for sure–though for me it’s related to the schools where I work doing less poetry. But I’ve wondered whether the reason why poetry is so absent from the Common Core has to do with the fact that, perhaps more than any other genre, poems ask, even beg, to be felt. Poets want us to feel their words in a way that seems almost antithetical to those Common Core close reading approaches that say that the meaning of the text resides, not in a reader’s heart or mind, by within the four corners of the text. Mary Oliver, for instance, talks about the pleasure readers feel when they “enter the rhythmic pattern of a poem:”

“It takes no more than two or three lines for rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.”

And Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry goes straight to feelings as well:

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

My experience in classrooms, however, is that if I begin by asking students what a poem is, I get a list of terms of the things poems can have—stanzas, rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors; I’m sure you know all the culprits. But if we begin instead by reading poems Seeing the Blue Betweenwith the question “What does a poem do for a reader?” in mind, we get closer to Dylan Thomas as students start seeing that poems can make us smile or feel sad or see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Once kids start feeling poems this way, it’s often fun to bring in quotes by poets like Dylan Thomas, which can affirm what students are experiencing and offer new ways of thinking about how a poem affects them—as in, considering which poems make your toe nails twinkle. For younger students I love using quotes from Seeing the Blue Betweenwhich pairs poems with letters of advice to young poets and readers of poetry by 32 renowned children’s poet. And for older students, I have a stash of quotes, such as the ones below:

“What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? . . . When you really feel it, a new part of you happens or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.”  James Dickey

“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.”  Charles Simic

“We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his life, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Amy Lowell

Then and only then do I move from exploring what a poem does for a reader to how it manages to do that. And one of my favorite ways of helping students—and teachers—see how poems work their magic on readers is by asking students to think about how a poem is different than a greeting card, such as this birthday card for a mom: Mom Birthday Card And this poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer:The Way My Mother Walker Judith Ortiz Cofer Many students can readily see that the poem on the card is broader and more general—even, we might say, generic—and it more or less hits one emotional note. Cofer’s poem, on the other hand, is highly specific. She writes about a particular mother who we can picture and hear and who is much more complicated than the every mom of the card. Because Cofer’s mother is so complicated, she and the poem seem more real to me than the ‘always’ mom of the card. And while my mom never wore an amulet or lived in a second-floor walk-up, the poem gets me thinking about all the complicated and confusing messages she sent me through the way she put on her lipstick or clutched my white-gloved hand in hers as we hurried through Grand Central Station.

In this way the poem does exactly for me what Simic says poetry does. I see myself in the specifics of Cofer’s poem, despite the fact that all those specifics are quite foreign to me. And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us.

The poem, though, is harder to understand than the card, which is why some students say initially say that they like the card better. But focusing on feelings can help us here, too. As a strategy for accessing poems that feel hard, we can ask students to think about what feeling the poem evokes for them—even if they’re not sure why—and to locate lines where they think they feel it. This also works as the kind of rich task I wrote about the other week, as different Anchorstudents pick up whiffs of different feelings arising from different lines. In this poem, for instance, many students pick up fear, which they feel in various lines, though some also feel safety or relief in the last few lines or a sense of the daughter’s pride in the line about the “gypsy queen.”

Anchoring themselves in the poem through these lines, students can then begin to think how these lines and feelings are connected with others by wrestling with the sort of open-ended questions I shared in January. This will ultimately allow them to interpret the poem and then—and only then—to hit Reading Standards 4 and 5. Or put another way, before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.

Of course the words ‘feel’, ‘feelings’ and ‘pleasure’ are nowhere to be found in the  Standards. But if we hold on to what the Standards do say—that they “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”—it seems we’re in the all clear. Or we could just keep it our little secret to share with our colleagues and friends.

Sharing Secrets

In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

Milton Avery Reclining Reader

“Reclining Reader” by Milton Avery

Last week third through eighth grade students across New York State took the three-day marathon known as the Common Core English Language Arts Test. And if the feedback left on, the website set up by some of the best literacy minds in the country, is any indication, it was not a pretty sight. Words like travesty and debacle—and even sadistic—appear with some regularity as do many stories from both teachers and parents about student acting out in various ways to deal with the pressure and stress, such as the parent who came home to find her son beating a bush with a stick.

Many questions were also raised about what these test were actually testing, since careful close reading simply wasn’t possible given the time constraints and few, if any, questions required critical thinking, if for no other reason than that they were incredibly narrow and myopic. Additionally, as I wrote in an early post, many of the teachers leaving feedback spoke about the convoluted and confusing nature of the questions themselves and the fact that many of those questions asked students to discern insignificant or minor differences between several possible ‘right’ answers. And all that reminded me of this  quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Applied to our current situation, I interpret this as meaning that the whole one-right-answer approach to testing is a function of the vise-grip that powerful corporate interests have over education these days, not on some unequivocal truth. And in addition to adding my voice to, I decided to push back this week by reviving an idea I tried out in my first year as a blogger: inviting readers to read a short text, this time 20/20 by author Linda Brewer, and share what they made of it, knowing that it’s the diversity—not the conformity—of our interpretations and the particular way we express them that enriches our understanding of ourselves, the text and the world.

Basic CMYKYour task, should you choose to accept it, is not to focus on, say, how paragraph four develops the main character’s point of view or why the author used the word ‘choked’ in line six. Instead I ask you to do what the test-makers seem to consider Mission Impossible: to think about the meaning of the whole story, which will almost inevitably entail looking at the story through the eyes of the characters, the eyes of the author and ultimately your own eyes, as you consider what you think and feel about what you think the author might be trying to show us about people, the world, or life through the particulars of this story. And I invite you to do that by simply paying attention to what you notice in the text and what you make of that.

Then in the spirit of collaborative learning, real reading and community, I invite you to share your thoughts about the story, how you arrived at them and what the experience felt like by either clicking on the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title or on the word ‘reply’ at the bottom of the post, right after the list of tag words. (Email subscribers can used the comment link at the end of the email.) And if anyone wants to try it out on some students, please go right ahead!

Just remember, though, there is no right answer! There is only interpretation and what happens between the mind of the reader and the words on the page. And now here is 20/20 by Linda Brewer:

20:20 by Linda Brewer

Now follow these simple instructions from the poet Mary Oliver:



SWBAT Read the Learning Targets from the Board

Hit the target

As other educational bloggers, such as Grant Wiggins and the teacher behind “TeachingTweaks,” have noticed, lesson plans are filled these days with learning objectives and targets, which spell out what students supposedly will be able to (SWBAT) do by the end of the lesson. These objectives and targets, most of which refer to specific standards, are also often written on white boards or posted on classroom charts, and teachers and/or students often read them aloud before the lesson starts.

In addition to proving to the powers that be that we’re aligning our instruction to the Standards—and have clear objectives in mind—I think this practice is intended to make the work of reading more visible to students. As anyone who’s read What Readers Really Do knows, I think it’s critical to make the invisible work of reading visible. But saying that you can do something doesn’t necessarily ensure that you can, as I’ve been recently seeing. Or put another way, talking the talk doesn’t mean that you can walk the walk.

Esperanza_Rising CoverHere, for instance, is what happened in a school that was thinking the same very same thing. They’d adopted Expeditionary Learning, which was one of the reading programs New York City had recommended last year as being Common Core ready. But while the teachers loved some things about it (especially some of the protocols), they weren’t sure what the kids were really getting. And so one day I found myself in a 5th grade class that was reading Esperanza RisingPam Munoz Ryan‘s wonderful book about a young, pampered Mexican girl whose life is completely turned upside down when, after her father is killed, she and her mother flee to California where they become farm laborers. The class was up to Lesson 10, which focused on the chapter called “Las Papas (Potatoes)” and included the following learning targets:

Esperanza Rising Targets 10

According to the lesson plan, the students would meet these targets through the following activites:

  • taking a short comprehension quiz
  • summarizing the chapter
  • discussing the meaning of the title
  • reviewing their “Inferring by Using Text Clues” and “Metaphors and Themes in Esperanza Rising” chart
  • rereading a passage in the chapter using evidence flags to answer and discuss, both in triads and whole class, nine right-or-wrong-answer text-dependent questions
  • adding notes to the character T-charts in their workbooks, and
  • writing a short constructed response to a prompt about how Esperanza was changing

As you may have found yourself thinking as you read that, I thought there was simply too much going on, with too much of it disconnected. And having been invited to take liberties with the lesson, I decided to focus it instead on how writers use and develop metaphors to show us how characters change. And rather than following the lesson script, which instructed me to begin the class by “reviewing the learning targets with students by reading them out loud,” I instead simply asked the class what they thought a metaphor was.

Pin DroppingYou could hear the proverbial pin drop in the room, so I asked everyone to think about a metaphor in the book they’d talked about before, then to turn and talk to share with a partner what they thought a metaphor could be, even if they weren’t quite sure. This at least got everyone talking, and amid their uncertainty we did hear a few students say something about comparing.

Their memory banks kicking in more when I clicked on the following slide, which represented some of the metaphors that appeared on their “Metaphors and Themes” chart. They were sure that the image on the top left was Abuelita’s blanket, whose zigzag pattern was like mountains and valleys that represented the ups and downs of life.

Esperanza Rising Metaphors

This is stated pretty explicitly earlier in the book, when Esperanza’s grandmother Abuelita says,

“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of the mountain again.”

And for me that raised the question: Had they learned that the blanket was a metaphor for life either because it was so explicit or the teachers had led them there, or had they really learned how to think about metaphors in a deeper way?

Since the blanket featured prominently in Chapter 10, I wanted to see if the students could think more deeply about its role in the story. And to do that, I put the students in groups and gave each group a piece of chart paper (wanting also to break out from the workbooks with their worksheets and graphic organizers). I then read the following page in two chunks, asking the students to talk about what Pam Munoz Ryan might be trying to show them about the meaning the blanket, then to write down some of their thoughts on the paper and illustrate it in some fashion.

Esperanza Rising excerpt

For the first chunk, which ended with the words “Mama’s lungs,” different groups noticed different things. Some, for instance, thought about what the blanket must mean to Mama, who was so ill she barely could speak. Others thought it might be important that Esperanza had seemingly forgotten about it, while still others noted that the dust had gotten into both Mama’s lungs and the trunk and they talked about what that might mean, which led them to consider how the blanket and Mama’s lungs might be similar.

CrochetingWith the second chunk, many were reminded of how Abuelita would weave her own hair into the blanket, which made it seem to mean even more—almost like a stand-in for Abuelita herself. And some noted how the blanket held the scents of both smoke and peppermint, as if it contained both the good and bad memories from their life in Mexico. And all this made them feel the significance of the moment when Esperanza, who’d expressed no interest in crocheting before, takes up her grandmother’s crochet needles and starts to finish the blanket.

Of course, with all the thinking, talking, writing, drawing and sharing out, this took a fair amount of time. But there was just time enough to ask one more question: “Do you think you learned anything about metaphors today?” And this time the kids had lots to say:

“We learned that sometimes things mean more than they are.”

“A metaphor can mean more than one thing and its meaning can change.”

“A metaphor is a thing that means more than what it is.”

“Sometimes the writer tells you what it means, but sometimes you have to figure it out by thinking about other parts of the book.”

I think the truth is that if we’re truly asking for deeper thinking and understanding, we can’t know we’ll get it for sure until we see or hear it. And we can’t expect to hit our targets without giving students lots of time to practice. If we thinking otherwise, we’re fooling ourselves—and we’re misleading our students.

Looking at Complex Texts More Complexly (or What’s Wrong with this Picture?)

Clifford Loves Me -SunAlsoRises

By now many of us have experienced or heard about the effects of using Lexile levels as the sole arbiter of text complexity. In her wonderful post “Guess My Lexile,” for instance, Donalyn Miller looks at the absurdity of putting book with widely different reader appeal and age appropriateness in the same book bin because they share a Lexile level (as my own favorite Lexile odd couple, Clifford and Hemingway, do, with both clocking in at 610L). And for those of us who strongly believe in the power of choice and interest-based reading, young adult writer Mike Mullin shares a chilling story in a blog post about a mother frantically searching for a book that her dystopian-loving 6th grade daughter, whose Lexile level was 1000, would be allowed to read for school. The Giver—out. Fahrenheit 451—out. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—out, all because of Lexile levels which, in its arbitrariness and control, seems like something out of those dystopian books.

text complexity triangleWhile I can’t vouch for the intentions of the Common Core authors (as I can’t for any writer without direct communication), this is not what’s stated in the Standards themselves. In Appendix A’s “Approach to Text Complexity,” the Common Core authors offer a three-part model for measuring text complexity, which they capture with a now familiar graphic. This model, they clearly state, “consists of three equally important parts”—the qualitative dimensions, the quantitative dimensions, and the reader and the task—all of which must be considered when determining a text’s complexity in order to address “the intertwined issues of what and how students read.” Yet how often does that actually happen?

The Arrival coverThe sad fact is that too many schools, reading programs and test makers rely on quantitative measures such as Lexiles to make text selections for students because it’s simple and easy. Lexiles can be found with a click of a mouse, while assessing the qualitative measures is harder and much more time consuming, even when we use rubrics. That’s because the rubrics are often filled with abstract words that are open to interpretation, and they use what seems like circular logic—e.g., saying that “a text is complex if its structure is complex—which doesn’t seem terribly helpful. And how do you deal with a wordless book like Shaun Tan‘s The Arrivalwhich I recently explored with teachers from two schools that were looking at text complexity? Ban it from classrooms because, without words, there’s nothing to quantitatively measure?

Like other short cuts and quick fixes I’ve shared, dismissing a book like The Arrival, based on a non-existent Lexile level, risks short-changing students. The book requires an enormous amount of thinking, as the teachers I worked with discovered. And interestingly enough, their thinking mirrored that of the students of fourth grade teacher Steve Peterson, who wrote about his class’s journey through the book on his blog Inside the Dog. Both the fourth graders and the teachers had to make sense of what the author presented them by attending carefully to what they noticed and what they made of that. And while some of the initial ideas they came up with were different (the teachers thought the portraits on the page below were of immigrants, not terrorists, as some of Steve’s kids first did), the process was the same.


Both students and teachers had to constantly revise their understanding as they encountered new details and images that challenged or extended their thinking. And both debated the meaning of certain details in very similar ways. The teachers, for instance, argued whether the dragon-like shadow that first appeared in the picture below was real or a metaphor for something like oppression, while in a second post, Steve recounts how his kids debated whether the bird-like fish that appear later in the book were real or a metaphor for wishes.


The teachers only read the first part of the book, after which I passed out the rubric below, which many states seem to be using, and asked them how they’d qualitatively assess this text. Being wordless, the text couldn’t be scored for its Language Features, but for every other attribute on the rubric—Meaning, Text Structure and Knowledge Demands—the teachers all decided it was very complex, especially in terms of meaning.

Literary Text Complexity Rubric

If we give equal weight to both the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of this text, we have to say that even with a zero Lexile level, it’s at least moderately complex. And what happens when we add in the Reader and the Task, which sometimes feels like the forgotten step-child in text complexity discussions?

Steve and I used the text for different purposes—Steve to launch a unit on immigration, me for a workshop on text complexity. But we each set up our readersNCTE Logo to engage in critical thinking, which the National Council of Teachers of English defines as “a process which stresses an attitude of suspended judgment, incorporates logical inquiry and problem solving, and leads to an evaluative decision or action.” Both the teachers and students engaged in this process not because they’d had a lesson on suspending judgment or logical inquiry, but because they were curious about what the writer might be trying to show them. And to answer that question, both the students and the teachers automatically and authentically engaged in the work the Common Core’s Reading Standards 1-6.

Unfortunately many of the tasks we set for students aim much lower than that, including some of those found in the Common Core’s Appendix B, such as the following:

Students ask and answer questions regarding the plot of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, explicitly referring to the book to form the basis for their answers. (RL.3.1)

Students provide an objective summary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby wherein they analyze how over the course of the text different characters try to escape the worlds they come from, including whose help they get and whether anybody succeeds in escaping. (RL.11-12.2)

Each of these tasks are aimed at a particular standard, and frequently the instruction that supports them (plus the worksheets, graphic organizers and sentence starters) focuses the students’ attention on that single standard, rather than on a more holistic way of reading, which would naturally involve multiple standards. And while the Gatsby task is certainly harder than the third grade one, the prompt takes care of the hardest thinking by handing over a central idea instead of asking students to determine one.

But what if the reading task we set for students in every text they read is to think critically about what the writer is trying to explore or show them, through the details, story elements, word choice, structure—all those words that litter the Standards. Wouldn’t that, in addition to a complex qualitative measure, off-set a high Lexile level, if all three truly held equal weight?

I’ll share more thoughts on the reader and the task in an upcoming post. But for now I can’t stop thinking that if instead of ramping up the complexity of texts, we ramped up the complexity of thinking we aim for—trading in, say, some of the hardness of texts for deeper and more insightful thinking—we might, in fact, prepare students better for colleges, careers and life.

Preparation of Life Quote

The Power of the Word ‘Huh’

Puzzled Confused Lost Signpost Showing Puzzling Problem

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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