Friday, January 8, 2010

Show Me…How I Can Teach You

Following a whole class lesson on thinking about characters we meet in stories that we like and dislike, I gathered a small group of strugglers at the bean shaped table in the back of the classroom. I presented them a short text with six characters. Before reading the text, I introduced them to each of the six characters in the story. I gave them information about how the characters were related. After feeling like I had adequately supported these readers, I sent them off to read the text independently. I pulled up alongside students one-by-one to see how things were going. Did they have questions about the characters? Were they thinking about who they liked and disliked? Things were going great until…Thomas finished reading and blurted out, “Emily’s dead!”

When Thomas spoke these words, I was startled. Emily was a character in the story but she did not die. The old woman who ran the corner store was the one who died. What is he talking about? I wondered.

My gut reaction was to say, “Thomas, stop messing around.”

But I didn’t. Instead, I looked at him and said, “Show me the part where Emily dies.”

Now don’t go thinking that this was a brilliant teaching move. In my head, I was having one of those “Okay smarty pants” moments and intended to reprimand Thomas’ outburst in a dignified way.

But, lucky for me, asking Thomas to “show me” morphed into a moment of divine intervention. You can imagine my shock when a serious-faced Thomas took me back to the text and pointed to the paragraph that convinced him that Emily died. As I listened to him read, I could hear the meaning break down. In that moment, I understood how he didn’t get who was who in the story and how he wasn’t understanding how the punctuation communicated to him when a character was speaking. I understood that he wasn’t being fresh. He was genuinely confused.

And as I talked to him, a child sitting next to him meekly confessed, “I thought Emily died, too.”

As I sit here typing this, I am grateful at the outcome of this exchange but humbled by my initial reaction. What would have happened if I had reprimanded Thomas? In one breath I profess that reading is meaning, but in the other, would I have communicated that if you’re not getting it, you’re a troublemaker? Ouch.

From now on, instead of instinctively thinking that kids are messing around when they say seemingly absurd things, I will reach for the words “show me” to inform my next move.

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