Still Writing

still-writingLast month I read Dani Shapiro‘s book Still Writinga memoir/writing advice hybrid that fellow educator and blogger Catherine Flynn had recommended after we discovered we both were fans of Shapiro’s novels. Of all the things I’ve been meaning to read—from the mountain of books stacked up on my nightstand to the dozens of titles on my amazon wish list—I wasn’t quite sure why I decided to pick that one at that time. But as I started reading, it became clear to me that this was a book my soul needed.

You see, I’m still writing the book I’ve been working on for two years—still wrestling, struggling, wildly swinging back and forth between exhilaration, frustration and despair, and often kicking myself for making the fact that I was writing another book so public. And so I needed to be reminded that what I was trying to do was, in fact, really hard, which Dani Shapiro did. As she writes:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed . . . [and] all we can hope is that we will fail better.

I also needed to do what Shapiro does herself: “to remember that the job—as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy—of the [writer] is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it.”

Of course, that’s easier said that done. And why I ever thought that writing a book I was hoping to call Embracing Complexity (alas, that title’s now been taken, which is yet another thing that derailed me) would be easy is beyond me. But I share this now to answer the “When will the book be coming out?” questions (the answer is simply not yet), and because working on it for as long as I Failurehave—and feeling like it’s still not quite there—has made me have to stare something in the face that’s been getting a lot of press lately: failure.

As you may have noticed, there’s been much touting of the benefits of failure lately, whether it’s in posts like “What Do Students Lose by Being Perfect? Valuable Failure” on the educational site Mind/Shift or in articles like “What If the Secret to Success is Failure?” in the New York Times. Posts and articles like these suggest that failure is good for us because because when we fail “we’re forced to adapt and change” and we learn important life lessons, like success rarely comes without lots of hard work and the importance of not giving up.

I’m not saying these aren’t true—nor that a fear of failing can’t destroy a love of learning, which it can. But I’m here to tell you, if you don’t already know, that feeling like you’ve failed really sucks. And the idea of creating scenarios in classrooms that actually set students up to fail (as some of these pieces suggest teachers should do) in order to teach them these lessons seems almost sadistic to me.

What looking at failure in the eye, however, has made me do is to think about how I cope with and manage it. And I have to say it’s not because I’ve embraced what Psychology Today says is the “magical properties of failure [to] rewire the brain and get the creative juices flowing.” Nor do I think it’s because I’ve got grit.

Certainly there are things I persevere with, whether it’s cycling up a hill to reach a stunning vista or plugging away at trying to learn French and Italian. But I’m also someone who regularly abandons books rather than forging on to the end of something I’ve heard is great but doesn’t quite strike my fancy. And I’ve been known to give up on those hills and just walk my bike to the top, despite the fact that my partner David always tells me that I’m capable of making it but I psyched myself out.

PassionNo, what I’ve come to realize is that I only persevere in things I feel passionate about. I’m passionate about moving through a landscape on two wheels propelled by my own two legs. I’m passionate about French and Italian and the soul-stirring places where those languages are spoken. I’m passionate about words and the power of language to change hearts and minds and actions. And I’m passionate about supporting teachers to help their students experience the beauty and power of language, too, whether it’s in the texts they read or the ones they write.

What’s interesting, however, is that passion rarely comes up in discussions about grit—though even Angela Duckworth, whose work inspired the whole grit obsession, concedes the importance of it. In an NPR piece, for instance, called “Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead,” she says:

I don’t think people can become truly gritty and great at things they don’t love. So when we try to develop grit in kids, we also need to find and help them cultivate their passions. That’s as much a part of the equation here as the hard work and the persistence.”

Why we focus so much on grit and so little on passions speaks, I think, to a belief system that’s much more comfortable with the old puritan nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic than anything as extravagant and potentially unruly as passion. But passion, not grit, is definitely what keeps me going—as well as the intrinsic rewards that Trevor Bryan shared recently on his wonderful blog (and you can see below):


And so I keep writing, believing in what Dani Shapiro says: that writing

has been a privilege. It has whipped my ass. It has burned into me a valuable clarity. It has made me think about suffering, randomness, good will, luck, memory, responsibility, and kindness, on a daily basis—whether I feel like it or not.

Here, for instance, if nothing else, struggling with writing this book has made me remember the power of passion, without which I simply wouldn’t keep going. And writing this blog has renewed that passion, which is getting those creative juices flowing in ways that just grit never has.

And so, as I turn from the blog to the book that is still there waiting for me, I ask you this: What are you doing to cultivate passion in the readers and writers in your rooms? And what passions are you cultivating and nurturing in yourself, knowing that they will fuel and sustain you far more than failure and grit?

Creative Passion

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


News from the Writing Front: Some Thoughts on Process

Hemingway on Writing

I shared this image and quote from Hemingway at a session I chaired at NCTE in November, and between now and then I’ve done a lot of blood-letting as I’ve plugged away at my book. I’ve also experienced jolts of joy, because as Neil Gaiman writes, “The process of writing can be magical.” From nothing but words you can create whole worlds that can move and affect other people. I also learned a thing or two about myself as a writer that have raised some questions about how we teach writing in classrooms, which I’m feeling an itch to share, along with a handful of great writing quotes that could use a good home.

The big thing I learned (or had to re-learn) is to trust my process. I’m not a fast writer in any way. In fact, the whole idea of writing a flash draft is about as unappealing to me as speed dating or dining at Burger King. That’s not to say that I never do it. I can, if I absolutely have to. And I do try to keep my pen or keyboard fingers moving if I’m writing something exploratory, which I do if I’m stuck or want to play around with an idea or image in my notebook or a new document. But that’s writing for me, not writing for a reader. The minute I’m intentionally writing for a reader (versus an assessment or test scorer), I slow down in order to, as Rachel Carson says, “be still and listen to what [my] subject has to tell [me].” And I’m aware that flies right in the face of both many writers’ advice and current classroom trends.

Shitty First DraftsMany writers, for instance, say it’s important to just get a draft down on paper because, as Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird “you need to start  somewhere,” and giving yourself permission to write what she calls a”shitty first draft,” can help. Likewise, John Steinbeck advised would-be writers to “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on.”

Advice like this is part of what drives the flash draft trend in schools, but there’s another writing camp of thought that doesn’t get as much press, which does things differently. Here, for instance, is Annie Dillard making a case for writing carefully and slowly right from the start:

“The reason to perfect a piece of prose as it progresses—to secure each sentence before building on it—is that original writing fashions a form. It unrolls out into nothingness. It grows cell to cell, bole to bough to twig to leaf; any careful word may suggest a root, may begin a strand of metaphor or even out of which much, or all, will develop.”

This camp believes in letting the words guide you, which for writer Jayne Anne Phillips means that she writes “line by line, by the sound and the weight and the music of the words,” without too much revision.

Of course, for better or worse, I revise a lot, too (which is why this book is taking so long). But while much of my revising has to do with clarifying my focus and meaning, which inevitably involves moving parts around, I also follow Tom Romano‘s advice for revision from his fabulous essay “How to Write”:

 “Read aloud. Feel the words in your mouth. Listen. Your sense of how language should sound is a great ally. You’ll hear when words make music; you’ll hear when they’re discordant. Make adjustments if you need to . . . honing language, tinkering and tuning.”

I just do that in my first draft, too.

So why do we teach students that writers always write their first drafts quickly when actually that’s not true? It may have to do with the fact that some students can feel inhibited or downright scared at the sight of a blank page or screen, and in that they’re not alone. Writer Margaret Atwood, for instance, has said, “The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough?” And writing a flash or a shitty first draft can be a way of tricking our minds into leaving those fears behind. It’s also easier to teach kids to write flash drafts than it is to invite, if not teach, them to love language. But as often happens when we take an easy route, we run the risk of simplifying something complex—and, in the case of writing, really hard.

Don't Try to ThinkI also suspect we ask students to write flash drafts as a way of preparing them for on-demand assessments, though the two are different. When it comes to high-stakes performing, for instance, science writer Elizabeth Svoboda, author of “How to Avoid Choking under Pressure,” writes that “If you are well-practiced, just let the learning you have done unfold under the force of unconscious rather than conscious thinking.” That is, you’re not supposed to think. But what if all that you’re well-practiced in is writing on-demand? What learning is unfolding then?

I’m not suggesting that everyone follow my process, only that process is as important as products—though in our current product-driven age, it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. It’s during the process, after all, that we get to practice and try out things as writers, whether that’s leads, structure, craft moves or even a process itself. We could, for instance, give students more than one strategy for getting words down on the page and then invite them to consider which worked best for for them, using this advice from Tom Romano as a guide.”Whatever helps you come to language, tap, exploit, ride. Whatever hinders you coming to language, avoid, shun, spurn.”

Of course, this means we’d need to value engaging with language as much as getting a job done. But I believe there are students out there who might actually find more joy in the blood-letting by listening to and following their words. And by finding more joy in the process, they’d learn more, which means that they’d come to those high-stakes moments with more that could unconsciously unfold.


Giving Thanks in a Time of Sorrow


For years, Thanksgiving has been connected in my mind with NCTE, which holds its annual convention the weekend before turkey day. And for the third year in a row, I’ve sat at my desk after Thanksgiving to give thanks to all the people I heard at NCTE who inspired and energized me. This year, however, feels different because between NCTE and Thanksgiving something else happened: Ferguson. It’s become a word that stirs up a whole battery of feelings for me—from sadness to outrage to shame. Shame that we live in a country where people seem more expendable than guns. Shame that we can’t seem to bring ourselves to have the kind of hard conversations we desperately need to have about guns, race, poverty, inequality and what’s going on in our schools.

These feelings hovered over my Thanksgiving, but I still want to share some of the voices I heard last weekend because, as writer Roxane Gay writes in her heart-wrenching essay about Ferguson: “Only Words”:

“I have to believe we are going to be better and do better by one another even if I cannot yet see how. If I don’t believe that, I, we, have nothing.”

NCTE helps me believe this in many ways. I might not have read Roxane Gay’s essay, for instance, were it not for my friend and fellow presenter Katherine Bomer, who shared some of Gay’s writing in her presentation last week. Then in one of those synergetic NCTE moments that Burkins & Yaris write about, I spotted Gay’s name in a tweet from another NCTE presenter Paul Thomas, who writes the thought-provoking blog The Becoming Radical. I checked out Gay’s essay, as I urge you to do, and was moved by her powerful words. And I was moved as well to make a donation to the Ferguson Library, which you can do by following the link at the end of the essay.

Story as the Landscape of KnowingThen there was the Convention itself. This year’s theme was “Story as the Landscape of Knowing,” but as happened before, I noticed a pattern in the sessions I attended, which suggested another related theme: the need for us, as teachers, to focus our work first and foremost on helping students build strong identities as readers, writers and thinkers who are able to raise their voices with confidence, conviction and compassion.

The first session I attended addressed this directly, as educators Justin Stygles, Kara DiBartolo and Melissa Guerrette joined authors Lynda Mullaly Hunt and Liesl Shurtliff to talk about “Revising the Story: Reluctant Readers Overcoming Shame.” In different ways each speaker looked at what Justin called ‘contra-literacy’ practices—those things we do in classrooms which, while often well-intentioned, not only can kill a love of reading but breed a sense of shame. Each also shared personal and classroom stories of students who’ve shed the stigma of shame through teachers and books that helped them develop a sense of agency. And I left with two new must-reads:  Lynda’s new book Fish in a Tree and Liesl’s re-imagining of Rumpelstiltskin, Rump, both of which have main characters who overcome a sense inadequacy to triumph.

Fish in a TreeRump

Next up was for me was Sheridan Blau, author of the great book The Literature WorkshopHe, too, looked at practices that turn kids off of reading, including ones that promote what he called “inattentional blindness”—tasks that, by narrowing students focus to hunt for a particular thing in a text, blinds them to other things that might be more meaningful. He demonstrated this by showing us a video we later learned was called “The Invisible Gorilla,” and asking us to count how many times a ball was being passed—and intent on counting the passes, I completely missed the gorilla! And he proposed an alternative to those tightly focused tasks: giving students opportunities to bring their whole self to a text so that they can experience and feel a text before they’re asked asked to analyze it.

Reading Projects Reimagined 2I noticed the theme, too, in Matt Glover, Kathy Collins and Dan Feigleson‘s session on engaging and inspiring readers. Matt began by showing us how easy it is to help our youngest readers develop identities as readers. All we need to do is honor their approximations, give them some choice and listen. But he cautioned that it was just as easy to destroy those identities if we evaluate students’ choices and attempts. Next Kathy shared the idea of turning readers notebooks into scrapbooks that record students’ personal journey as readers—which, as a scrapbook lover, I adored. And Dan ended the session by sharing some of the ideas he explores in his new book Reading Projects Reimagined: Student-Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinkingand showing us the thinking that emerges if, in a conference, we simply keep asking students to say more.

readers-front-and-centerDorothy Barnhouse and Charlotte Butler also addressed this theme in their session, “Story as Identity: How Reading Conferences ‘Write’ the Stories Students Tell Themselves,” as each shared ways of turning what could be seen as a student’s deficits into a positive strength. Dorothy, for instance, shared one of the conferences she writes about in Readers Front and Centerwhere a student’s apparent inability to infer becomes an opportunity to show him—and us—that it’s less important to ‘get’ something right away than to read forward with an open mind and a willingness to revise his thinking, which the student was able to do. Charlotte, on the other hand, shared work she’d done with Ken and Yetta Goodman on Retrospective Miscue Analysis, which also helped students recast what could be seen as mistakes into something more positive—in this case, minds striving to make meaning.

Coincidentally or not, these themes were also present in the two sessions I participated in. As chair of “It’s Not Just for the Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity & Wonder,” I had the honor of introducing my session presenters, Fran McVeigh, Julieanne Harmatz, Steve Peterson and Mary Lee Hahn, all of whom met each other through this blog and only came to together in person last week. (They also each wrote about the session in their respective blogs, which you can read by clicking on their names). I’d asked them each to think of a question they were curious about and invited them to pursue that question and present what they discovered. And in each case they found that children can do far much more than we sometimes think they can, if only we open the door wide enough.

What Do You Need:Want to Learn

Finally in “Embracing Complexity,” I presented alongside Mary Ehrenworth and Katherine Bomer who also focused on empowering students. Mary, for instance, shared the work she’s been doing to help students see multiple layers of ideas in nonfiction texts, which they can talk back to. And Katherine made a passionate plea for us to leave behind formulaic structures and cutesy metaphors like hamburgers when we teach writing essays and instead return the the root of the word—’to try’ or ‘attempt’ not ‘to claim’ and ‘prove’—in order to create something that’s more exploratory than declarative and raises more questions than answers.

And that brings me back to Roxane Gay, who asks this critical question: “How do we see one another as human, as having lives that matter, as people deserving of inalienable rights?” I believe the answer lies in part in classrooms and in people like the ones I heard at NCTE who are trying to help children revise, rewrite, recast and reimagine the stories of their lives so that we can all be and do better. And that makes me both hopeful and thankful in a time of sorrow.

clasped hands

What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice Munro

Before Revision, Vision & Other Words of Wisdom from Katie Wood Ray

Study DrivenMost writers I know have moments of envy when they wish with every fiber in their being that they, themselves, had written a line that another writer did. Katie Wood Ray‘s line, “Before revision, vision,” from her marvelous book Study Drivenis one of those lines for me. I love it for its succinctness and simplicity and, of course, for the emphasis on vision, which the line reminds us we should keep in our heads whenever we attempt to revise anything, just as it’s kept, like a Russian nesting doll, within the word revision.

In this case, Katie was talking about helping students develop a vision of what they’re hoping to write, just as real writers do. In fact, Study Driven wound up on my desk because, in wrestling with how to structure what I’m currently working on, I was poring over professional books and found myself inspired by the way that Study Driven was divided into three main sections, one that explored and unpacked understandings, one that looked at practice, and a third the offered resources so that teachers could put those understandings into practice. But as I flipped through the pages, I noticed something else. As has happened before when I revisited the work of Don Murray or Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, I found myself reading a book on writing that seemed to have all sorts of implications for the teaching of reading as well, starting with that line, “Before revision, vision.”

I believe that readers need a vision as well, whether they’re students or teachers: a vision of what it looks, sounds and feels like to enter a text knowing virtually nothing and end it Visionwith a deep of understanding of what they think the author is exploring. And they need a vision of how readers do that by noticing and connecting details that develop and change across the text. The question is when and how to provide that—and Study Driven had ideas about that, too.

In writing, students develop a big picture vision during a period of immersion, a time when students read and get a feel for the kind of writing they’ll be doing. That immersion period is also the first part of what Katie calls a whole-part-whole framework for instruction: Students get a feel for the whole first, then they closely study and practice the parts (leads, transitions, dialogue, etc., depending on what they’re writing) in order to eventually create a whole themselves.

That whole-part-whole framework stands in contrast, she thinks, to how we tend to teach writing, which, as she explains below, frequently involves teaching the parts:

“I believe part-to-whole is still the most prevalent curriculum orientation in the teaching of writing, and my theory about why is because with this orientation, curriculum feels more manageable . . . . Having parts to teach makes us feel safe because, quite simply, it makes us feel like we have something to teach.

But, she warns, that kind of teaching risks leaving students “with a part-to-whole understanding of writing that I fear never adds up.” On the other hand, she says,

“if teaching begins with the wholeness of vision, the parts won’t go away . . . [but they’ll] mean much more to the students because they know where they came from, they know what they are parts of.

When it comes to reading, I think we also tend to teach parts, with lessons framed around specific skills, strategies and, increasingly, individual standards. And like the risk Katie cites in writing, this teaching of parts often never adds up, as attested to by the number of teachers who confess to wanting to pull out their hair because their students can’t seem to infer despite repeated lessons.

So what would an immersion period, in which students develop a vision of the whole, look like in reading? For me, it’s exactly the kind of read aloud experience (or shared reading hybrid) that I shared in my “From Demonstration to Orchestration” post. There students were getting a feel for how readers make meaning from a text, using the meaning making process that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explored in What Readers Really Do. And in addition to practicing the first main teaching point—how readers begin a text by keeping track of what they’re learning and what they’re wondering about—the students also uncovered other things that readers do, such as stay alert for small, subtle clues that can signal a flashback as well as a return to the present narrative moment.

In this way, students are doing precisely what Katie describes as the purpose of immersion: “They are making notes of the things they notice” with a focus on the process, which in reading is how readers read closely to construct an understanding. And through that process, students, themselves, also “develop curriculum,” such as how readers recognize and navigate flashbacks.

The-part-can-never-beAfter the immersion period, where students are in engaged in the whole work of reading, they hunker down for what Katie calls “Close Study”. This involves the class revisiting texts to investigate the parts. And here there are parallels, too. In reading, this revisiting could take several forms: Students might return to a passage in the immersion text that puzzled them for a second look; they could gather up specific lines connected to a pattern they’d noticed, as the third grade Winn-Dixie readers from last week’s post did, to see what else they might reveal; or after finishing the immersion text, they could return to the beginning to better ‘see’ how the writer planted details and clues that would be developed throughout the text, as another group of third graders I wrote about earlier did with The Blue Ghost

That close study time could also take the shape of the kind of small group work I’ve written about, where students have time to practice—or study—excerpts of other text whose parts operate in a similar way. The students in the “Orchestration” post who were confused by the shifts in time in The Name Jar, for instance, might look at Cynthia Rylant’s story “A Bad Road for Cats,” from Every Living Thing, which contains a flashback that rejoins the present moment through subtle textual clues, in order to be more aware of the way writers signal those shifts.

Finally, in Katie’s whole-part-whole writing framework, students are “Writing Under the Influence” of the study, where they apply all they have learned through both the immersion and close study time to their own piece of writing. And this seems exactly what we want the readers in our classrooms to do: to apply all that they’ve learned about how readers read closely to construct meaning to their own independent reading books.

Of course to do this, we, as teachers, need a vision as well. So here’s hoping that this helps both you and your students develop an inner vision of the whole complex work of reading that you can tuck inside your minds like that little wooden doll.

Matrioska Russian Doll

Looking Backwards, Thinking Forward: Some Thoughts at the End of the Year

Another Wild Ride

It was another wild ride this year as districts and schools like New York City’s ramped up their efforts to implement the Common Core Standards and the Instructional Shifts, and to my mind at least, the speed of change was astounding—if not downright terrifying. In what often felt like one fell swoop, Fountas & Pinnell reading levels were out, and Lexile levels were in. Just right books were out, complex texts were in. Genre-based units seemed to be out, while theme-based units were in. And structures and practices I personally believe in, like balanced literacy and writing workshop, suddenly seemed under siege.

Additionally contradictions and mixed messages abounded. New York City, for instance, adopted a teacher evaluation system based on Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching—which, among other things, scores teachers on their ability to design high-level, coherent instruction—at the same time they recommended that schools adopt a scripted packaged reading program. And while the Common Core asks students to demonstrate self-directed independence, self-directed independent reading based on student choice risked becoming an endangered species as whole class novels made a comeback and differentiation, as we’ve known it, was like a dirty word.

school-segregationAll this led to an unprecedented level of uncertainty, and not just here in New York. According to an Education Week article titled “Rifts Deepen Over Direction of Ed. Policy,” “Not since the battles over school desegregation has the debate about public education been so intense and polarized . . . . ” And a piece in the mainstream publication The Atlantic called “The Coming Revolution in Public Education” made a Common-Core-worthy argument for “Why the current wave of reforms, with its heavy emphasis on standardized tests, may actually be harming students” (which was the piece’s subtitle).

This turmoil also left many teachers unsure of exactly how to proceed as we gathered together for the annual ritual that’s known as June planning days—i.e., grade-level and across-grade collaborative meetings to revise and align curriculum maps and unit plans for next year. To get a sense of what was coming down the pike, I began some of these sessions by looking at the Model Content Frameworks for ELA/Literacy put out by PARCC, one of the two consortiums awarded grants to design what purports to be the next generation of Common Core assessment as well as the assessments that will eventually evaluate how well schools are addressing the Standards.

PARCC Model Content Framework

As you can see in the 8th Grade sample above, PARCC divides the year into modules, with specific numbers of texts and tasks specified for each module and grade. And while many of us, including me, were intrigued by the idea of theme- or topic-based units, I worried about the emphasis on texts instead of readers—or on what we read, not how we read—as I believe that understanding how we read is critical if want students to be able to transfer learning from one text to another. And as much as humanly possible, I wanted to keep the writing authentic and not turned it into a string of assignments.

That meant we had to figure out how to preserve and build in some kind of genre-based inquiry work, which would give students opportunities to practice the particular kind of thinking a reader does in particular kinds of texts, into the content framework. And after wrestling with this for a while, I came up with a unit template that looked like this:

Theme-Topic Graphic w copyright

The template is built on an idea I borrowed from Heather Lattimer‘s great book Thinking Through Genre: that rather than balancing reading and writing on a daily basis, we can balance them over the course of a unit by beginning with an emphasis on reading and ending with a focus on writing. Within a designated topic or theme, we would also identify a particular genre to study in depth in reading and in writing, and while that study work went on in reading, students could be doing lots of quickwrites and responses connected to their reading across the three writing modes of the Standards. Then as the unit became more writing heavy with a specific genre focus, they could be reading some texts in a variety of genres that added to their understanding and discussion of the topic or theme. This means that in the kind of author study I’ve written about before, students might be reading fiction to see, practice and experience for themselves how readers construct an understanding of an author’s themes. Then as the instructional focus shifted to writing, they’d read some biographies and/or interviews with the author or books the author’s written in other genres.

The hope is that this kind of blending and balancing of topics or themes with genre studies will allow students to both build the kind of content knowledge through texts that the Common Core calls for while developing students’ capacity to independently make meaning, which can only happen when we focus on readers and ways of thinking more than texts. Of course, it’s still a work-in progress, which I’m sure will grow and change. But it helped some teachers enough that I feel ready to move on to other projects—which includes starting a new book on reading, which I’ll share more about over the summer—and to trade in what often felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride for a nice, slow boat down a river.