Tuesday, May 4, 2010

To the Left of the Box

I admit it. When kids read, I am always wondering what is going on in their heads. Do they get it? How can I know for sure?

I know that I am not alone in this concern. Teachers everywhere worry about comprehension and that’s why if you visit reading workshop while teachers are quietly conferring, you will hear murmurs of the inquisition. What’s your story about? Where does it take place? Who’s the main character? What’s the problem? Has it been solved yet? How?

When kids read, we want proof—are they getting it or aren’t they? When I was a classroom teacher, I had my kids keep a reading response journal. I’d have them jot a few notes—EVERY DAY—about their thinking about their book. I shudder to think how many kids I might have turned off to reading because they hated writing. Ugh.

That said, I do think that writing in response to reading is a good thing to do in moderation. It teaches kids to reach deeper into their thinking. Many teachers have wisely adopted the practice of reading response letters where students reflect on their books in a letter to the teacher and the teacher writes back. Children are invited into a dialogue about reading and write for a real response. Literacy utopia.

But, there are those kids whose writing seems uninspired no matter whether they jot down a thought or write a letter. Are THEY getting it? Do their responses lack depth because their reading lacks depth? Or is it simply a matter of not wanting to write? These are the times when I wish I had a window into kids’ heads so that I could see what is going on. I need to know—do they understand?

My colleague, Danielle Erardy, has found just that window. Inspired by a strategy that was shared at a recent Teacher’s College reunion day, Danielle invited her students to fill a page of their reading response journals in an interesting way. She modeled by sharing a flow chart that she created for their class read aloud, A Dog’s Life by Ann Martin. Then, with little guidance, she asked the students to try it. Their insight was astounding. Hunter gave a glimpse of how he saw Squirrel’s heart. Emma illustrated Squirrel’s voyage, including the significant events that allowed Squirrel to grow. Throughout the journey, Squirrel’s voyage was represented by isolated paw prints. Once Squirrel met her final caregiver, Emma drew footprints alongside the paw prints to indicate that the two had bonded.

Trying this out reminded Danielle, and in turn, me, that sometimes we need to think outside of our box. Writing letters and stopping to jot might work for the masses but what about the Hunters and the Emmas? There may be amazing thinking going on in their minds but unless we change the box a little, we may never know.

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