Thursday, May 10, 2012

Just the Right Words

I love Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse.  Lilly is one of the richest picture book characters that I know and I am always excited by the depth of understanding that students arrive at when challenged to consider her as a character.  But getting them to this point always takes a bit of nudging because when they start to think about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, they want to use words like “nice” and “happy” to describe her.  I explain to children that “nice” and “happy” just don’t seem to really capture who Lilly is and I push them to think of more specific words that help them to unpeel the layers that compose Lilly’s character. 

When forced to reconsider their ideas at the beginning of the story, they think to call her “enthusiastic” and “excited.” Those are words that do capture Lilly’s essence when she stands on line for the buses even though she doesn’t ride one and the way that she asks for her own set of deluxe picture encyclopedias. As they move to the middle of the story and Lilly gets her movie star sun glasses and fancy purple purse and wants to share them with the class, they arrive at words like “hyperactive” and “impatient” and “diva-like.” They want to call her “anxious” and we get the opportunity to talk about the difference between “anxious” and “eager.” They decide that she is eager. 

When the students see Lilly stick the nasty picture of Mr. Slinger into his bookbag, their jaws drop and they call her “mean” and “disrespectful.” They begin to consider whether she really means this or if she is just being “impulsive.”  The discussion is animated and rich with ideas as well as precise vocabulary. 

In her article, “Advancing Our Students Language and Literacy” that appeared in American Educator in winter 2010-2011, Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” (p. 8)    As children gaze through the lens of behavior and feelings at Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse, words act as this conduit to meaning-making that Adams hints at in her article,  making me understand the shift toward academic vocabulary in the Common Core. New words means new ideas.  

Friday, May 4, 2012

Thinking Intermissions

Every now and then you read a tidbit here or there that resonates.  Last spring, I read Brain Rules (amazon affiliate link) by John Medina and was particularly struck by the case that he makes for exercise.  He points out that “from an evolutionary perspective, our brains developed while working out, walking as many as twelve miles per day.  The brain still craves that experience…” (p.2) After reading the chapter in this book dedicated to exercise, I really began to think about the amount of time we ask children to sit and started to question the harm in quiet, seated children.  I wondered how learning could be different if we invited children to move more often?

Throughout the course of the school year, I have experimented with having students move about the classroom. While the transitions don’t always meet my expectations, the learning outcomes have been impressive. 

Back in 2009, I wrote a blog titled Not-So-Teachable Moments where I reflected on lengthy read alouds, noticing that in spite of my most animated efforts, some children can’t help but drift off when a books exceed their stamina level for sitting or paying attention.  That experience has stuck with me and I’ve since tried to keep my read alouds focused, always cognizant of the how long it takes to read a book. 

One of my favorite books to read is Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes, but if you know this title, you know it’s a little on the long side especially if you want to stop to talk about any number of the teaching opportunities it presents.  This week, while working with a group of third graders thinking about Lilly’s behavior and feelings, I noticed that in spite of being very interested in the story, they were getting a little restless.  John Medina’s words echoed in my head and halfway through the story, I invited them to stand up and join me for a “thinking intermission.” 

I explained to the children that what we needed was a few moments to walk and contemplate our ideas about this story.  The rule was that they had to walk quietly (they had plenty of opportunity to talk and share ideas during the read aloud) about the room thinking about Lilly and their ideas about her character.  When they returned, I asked about their new thinking and was astonished at how many of them came up with poignant new words to describe her behavior and feelings.  The exercise boost their brain power, just like John Medina promised!

In reflecting on this experience, I am forced to think hard about the beliefs and traditions that prevail in education.  I am thinking that “sit still and think” is not the most efficient and effective way to foster new ideas and it makes me wonder, what else do we do that we should be doing differently? 

Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Seattle, WA: Pear, 2008. Print.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Understanding Bias

Yesterday as I meandered the paths of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum with my husband and my eleven year old son, we got into a conversation about bias and how it’s important when you read to be aware of biases.  This word was new for my son and my husband and I both tried to give him examples but without something tangible, he was curious but lost.  He didn’t quite get what we were saying.

Fast forward to this morning when Newsday ran an article with this headline:

 After reading this tragic story, I called my son in to take a look.  When he finished reading, I asked him what he thought.  He gave me that blank stare that told me that he didn’t quite get what I was getting at so I asked him if we remembered how we were talking about bias. 

He nodded. 

I asked him to go back up to the headline and reread it, this time thinking about what the biases of the writers of this article might be.  What did he think they wanted us to know about this car accident?

He looked again and said, “That a kid on drugs killed his two friends.”

This is when the lightbulb turned on.  His eyes grew wider and he said, “Wait a minute.  In the article it said he had a taken a prescription drug.” He got out his finger and reread the part of the article that said, “Police said a blood test confirmed that Smith was impaired by a prescription drug, which they declined to identify.  Smith told deputies he had a legal prescription.”   He narrowed his eyes and began to think out loud.  “This headline makes us believe that the driver was irresponsible, like he did a bad thing and because he did that, now his friends are dead.  But, from the information in this article, it’s not like he was out snorting cocaine or something.”

We went on to talk about bias and how perhaps, in reporting about accidents involving young drivers, the writers’ bias was to make assumptions that they happen because kids were acting irresponsibly.  While this may be the case with the driver in this particular accident, the facts reported here do not support that conclusion.  

In teaching children to read closely, we need to introduce them to the idea of bias.  Identifying bias means prompting students to think as much about what isn’t written on the page as it requires looking at what is written on the page.  

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Adventures

As many of you know, I have been journeying to learn everything I can about the Common Core.  I have been driven by curiosity to look closely at the new standards to help me understand how best to refine my own instructional practices and consider how these changes will influence the future of literacy instruction.  As it turns out, I haven’t been on this journey alone and am very excited to share with you that I am now collaborating Jan Miller Burkins, author of Preventing Misguided Reading to scrutinize and understand the Common Core State Standards.  We have set up a new website where we are blogging and reporting daily about many important issues surrounding implementation, interpretation, policy, and understanding each of the six shifts.  If you share my concerns and curiosity about literacy and the Common Core, I invite you to visit As I mentioned before, we are committed to daily posts and reports so be sure to subscribe for email updates or add this new site to your RSS feed.  In addition, Burkins & Yaris has a Facebook page and Twitter account where we will be posting important links to valuable information about the Common Core, so be sure to follow us there, too!  We plan to be very busy and we hope that you’ll join us on our journey.  The more you interact and share your concerns with us, the better we will be able to utilize this outlet to address the issues that are paramount to teaching reading and writing in the Common Core era!

I hope to see you at Burkins and Yaris! (But don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging here too!) 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pruning the Educational Landscape

If you’ve been in education long enough, the refrain, “The pendulum swings again,” is not new to you.  With the Common Core State Standards, many teachers have expressed a concern that as we usher in this new era, we’re saying good-bye to our latest and greatest and moving on to yet something else that is new.  I share this concern and I’ve been watching this unfold very closely.  I have a lot questions, and one of my biggest is about the suggestion that all students need to read grade level complex text and the way in which to go about this is through close, careful reads.  I come from the school of strategy instruction.  I’ve taught children how to connect, infer, question, determine importance, visualize, and synthesize with success.  The suggestion that I abandon this practice in exchange for something that seems to be brand new to the educational landscape makes me say, “What gives?”

What gives is the need for me to be open minded.  If this is the new educational dictum, then before I can criticize it, I need to really understand it.  I need to carefully consider what I don’t understand about close, careful reading, and I need to understand what’s behind the suggestion that this practice could potentially help solve the problems that ail American schoolchildren when it comes to comprehension. And so, I have been on a quest to learn everything I can about close reading.  I have watched and rewatched the EngageNY videos about the Gettysburg Address and Letters from a Birmingham Jail.  I have scrutinized the Feynman text and I have read and listened as people who know way more than I do about reading explain the rationale and justification behind it and I confess, I have stumbled upon some new understandings. The first being this idea that if children are going to be successful on state assessments, the first time they see grade level text cannot be the day of the test.   Now, I don’t mean to imply that the authors of the Common Core are only about good test scores, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that they are about improving reading proficiency.  The contention is that in our classrooms, we don’t do enough to create dissonance and when students don’t have ample opportunity to puzzle through the complexities of complicated text, they don’t stretch as readers.  Instead of working in zones of proximal development, we create zones of maximum comfort and like an exercise routine that isn’t adjusted when a certain comfort level is achieved, growth stifles.  We don’t get the results we are looking for.

So this idea of stretching a reader is an ideology that I share with the Common Core so I found myself very willing to experiment with close reading. Part of the theory suggests we shouldn’t provide students too much information about the text before actually reading it because doing this takes away the need for students to attend closely and puzzle out what the text is really saying.  This idea intrigued me because I’m so conditioned to preview and provide background knowledge but I decided to suspend what I know best and give it a try. And I have to say, I’ve noticed some interesting things begin to happen.

In the past, as I prepared students to read, I would often invite them to share their experiences and talk about their connections to what they thought they were going to read about.  Students would get super excited and we’d sometimes have interesting conversations, but there were also plenty of occasions when I felt like I was running interference trying to get the students back on track because the conversation had taken a serious detour from what the text was really about.  In addition, these pre-reading conversations would often eat up a lot of time.  Once upon a time, I thought it was time well spent. But since I have backed off from activating schema, I have found myself entertaining far less extraneous conversation about text.  Because there is less idle chatter, there seems to be less “noise” interfering with students’ understanding. On many occasions I’d observe students answering questions based on what they knew rather than what the text actually said.  I’m seeing a lot less of that now and it’s the result of a simple change.

My little experiment has taught me many things, mostly about close reading, but also about change.  Skepticism is a knee jerk reaction to change.  So is dread. Cynicism. Criticism.  When I first encountered the Common Core, I was suspicious that as educators, we were “being forced into a brand new educational landscape.” As I become more familiar with the Common Core, its shifts, and ideals, what I realize is that we’re not creating a brand new landscape so much as we’re pruning the one we already have. While we can hope that the greatest outcome of the Common Core will be better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners; the more immediate outcome will be reflection.  This document will force us to “closely read” our curriculums and teaching practices.  It will force us to try new things and in pruning the landscape, we may actually begin to create a new—and better—landscape for the 21st Century.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reading Volume in the Age of the Common Core

Back in November, I worked with a group of fourth grade students on how to determine the main idea of a passage.  We worked with a passage about forest fires that read as follows:

Some fire is a natural part of the life of a forest.  Fire cleans out dead brush by burning it to ash.  Then animals that live in the forest can find food more easily.  New plants and trees have more room and sunlight to grow.
From Fires and Floods by Kate Waters, p 11

When students finished reading, I gave them the following question:

What is this passage mostly about?
A. How fires destroy forests
B. How fires can be helpful
C. How fires help animals
D. How fires clear away dead brush

The students collaborated and wrestled with each of the responses and then we gathered to sort out which response was the best one. After some debate and discussion, the class decided that the right answer was B. 

Sitting off to the side, there was one little boy who wore a puzzled expression.  He squinted his eyes, tilted his head, raised his hand and voiced his vehement objection, “Mrs. Yaris, there is no way that the answer can be B.  This is about fire and I know that fire makes smoke and when smoke goes up into the sky, it makes holes in the ozone layer and that causes global warming.  Global warming is bad.  Fires aren’t helpful.”

Take a moment to digest this story.  Think about what this child is doing as a reader and then think about what went wrong on his path to answering the question correctly.

As you do that, allow me to tell you one more story. 

Last week, in my post titled The Reading Advantage, I wrote about the importance of reading volume and it sparked a lot of conversation in the twitterverse and among my local colleagues.  As I chatted with classroom teachers about what gets in the way of allowing ample time for students to read, the conversation kept coming back to “the curriculum” and concerns about being in compliance with “the Common Core State Standards.”  One teacher even shared that in “shifting curriculum and instruction to meet the new demands of the CCSS,” she felt like she was sacrificing what she “innately knew was good teaching and learning.”  She felt like the Common Core didn’t allow room for creativity in teaching and certainly there would be no room for reading volume.

When she said this, it surprised me.  My reading of the Common Core had led me to believe that reading volume was central to achieving the goals of this document but yet she planted enough doubt to force me to go back to look again.  As I reread, I encountered line after line, paragraph after paragraph that spoke both directly and indirectly to this issue of reading volume: 

From the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading:
“Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems and myths…”

Appendix B, page 3:
“There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practices have not done enough to foster independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts.”

The bottom of page 3 of Appendix A discusses the “general lack of reading” and goes on to attribute the “deterioration of overall reading ability” to “the problem of lack of reading.”

Also on page 4 of Appendix A:
“To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.”

Surely, if I looked hard enough, I could cite other examples but in going on this quest, I began to wonder if some educators are reading the CCSS in much the same way that my fourth grade student read the text about fire.

His response to the question about main idea was rooted in his background knowledge.  While extensive and impressive, he wasn’t using what he knew to support what he was learning. His response was based on his reaction to the topic. And because of that, he got it all wrong. 

In thinking about implementing the CCSS, we need to carefully consider the way in which we have read this document.  Are our understandings of the Common Core based on what we know?  Or, are they based on close, thorough readings of the text itself?  If we allow our background knowledge to drive our understanding, like my fourth grader, we run the risk of getting it all wrong. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Reading Advantage

During a recent teacher training with a group of middle school teachers, I shared a video titled Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class. 

In this video, high school students come clean about what they have and haven’t read in high school.  When left to read “according to the curriculum,” some students admitted to reading only a couple of books that were assigned. Some read only one.  Others said they didn’t do a single bit of the reading that was assigned.  As I watched, I wasn’t surprised by these admissions, because after all, I was once one of these very same high school students doing the very same thing—reading Cliff Notes and faking it.  It’s discouraging to think that things haven’t changed in 25 years. We know so much more about engaging teaching practices.  We have barrels of evidence about how reading volume improves proficiency. Yet, we still churn out generations of kids who don’t read.  Why is this?

Still mulling over these heady questions of reading volume and curriculum, I went home to  poke around the web, and as I did, I came across a new manifesto by Seth Godin about changing education titled Stop Stealing DreamsIn the opening pages, Seth writes:

We invest thousands of hours exposing millions of students to fiction and literature, but end up training most of them never to read again for fun (one study found that 58% of all Americans never read for pleasure after they graduate school).

There it was again: this idea that in our schools, we don’t create readers.

And I began to think about why this bothers me so much and in the deep recesses of my mind, I heard the echo of Mark Twain’s famous words:

 “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

During the days when our economy was based on factories and a good worker was one who could follow and execute instructions and provide brawn to perform manually difficult tasks, I suppose this was fine.  But now, success in a global economy means being one step ahead of competitors; it requires innovation. Reading inspires ideas.  It spreads knowledge that leads to new and deeper understandings.  Never has the need for an informed and literate citizenry been more important, yet, we are in the same place that we have been for years and years with kids who barely read…

When I talk with teachers about what they believe lies at the root of this problem, they cite things like “curriculum demands” and “getting them ready for the test.” But what I’m wondering is this: Are these “demands” a distraction from what really matters?   In “getting ready for the test,” do we sacrifice a more pressing need: getting them ready for life?   And if that is indeed the case, what can we do to change this?  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Everything in Moderation

Today I visited a fourth grade classroom.  In this fourth grade classroom, there is a girl who is currently reading below grade level at approximately a Level L/M.  We’ll call her Danielle.   During today’s lesson, I presented Danielle with a grade level complex text (lexile: 840) titled Smoke and Mucus. 

During the course of this lesson, I watched this reader mark up her text with a highlighter as she noticed captions and photographs.  She engaged in animated discussion with her peers.  In fact, at one point, another girl raised her hand to question the validity of the title wondering out loud if it should really be called Smoke and Mucus because it seemed to her to be more about smoking.  When Danielle heard this, she cocked her head slightly to the side and raised her hand to disagree.  She said, “Mucus is related to coughing and in this article they talk about that a lot.” With that statement, she buried her head in the text and proceeded to reread and share three different examples in the text that backed up what she was saying. 

As I watched, I thought to myself, This is a below grade level reader? Because at that moment, she did not appear to be.  What’s more, I couldn’t help but hear the echo of David Coleman’s words addressing the importance of children reading grade level complex text.  When I first heard him speak of allowing children the opportunity to experience dissonance, I was skeptical.  I am a firm believer in the reading tenet that says that in order to become more proficient, most of children’s reading should be at their instructional level.  But here I could see what he was talking about.  This text was within Danielle’s zone of proximal development—harder than what she would read in guided reading but yet not so hard that she couldn’t wrestle with it and use what she knows to piece together meaning and experience the satisfaction of successfully completing a hard task. 

I think the lesson for me here is an important one: good reading instruction depends on teachers striking a balance between presenting children with instructional level and grade level complex text.  If children are to be successful on their reading assessments, and more importantly, “college and career ready,” we don’t want their first (and only) experience with grade level complex text to be the day of the test.  And conversely, if children only work with grade level complex text in preparation for the test, we risk creating situations where children do not read eagerly and voluminously and that, too, would be counterintuitive to the idea of “college and career readiness.”

So where this leaves us as teachers is trying to puzzle out what our instruction should look like.  What percentage of a child’s instructional time should be spent with independent text?  What percentage of time should be spent with instructional text?  And how much time should be spent should we spend working in whole groups with grade level complex text?  The Common Core is still new to all of us and I’m wondering if you are grappling with this too?  What do you believe is the right “balance”?  

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Energizer Bunny Problem

If there is one thing that I have learned about teaching writing through the years, it’s that we cannot assume anything. If we’re talking to students about writing sentences, we cannot assume that they understand that the word “sentence” implies a subject and action working in harmony to formulate a complete thought. When we talk about paragraphs, we cannot assume that children know that topic sentences set the stage for what is to come and that everything that follows should be organized and focused around a central idea.

It is for this reason that when planning mini lessons, I try to look at the components of writing through a child’s eyes and try to figure out what pieces they will need to know in order to best build their understandings of how to compose text. I know that writing volume and pleasure are contingent upon success and so I try to figure out how to make the building blocks of writing tangible and concrete.

This week, I worked with a group of third graders working within a unit of study of compare-contrast essays. My charge was to help these students develop their ideas into well rounded paragraphs. When I looked at a paragraph through a child’s eyes, it occurred to me that paragraphs appear to be ideas stretching down the page so when I began my mini lesson, I talked about how a single sentence leaves readers wanting for more and paragraphs step in to fill the need by providing the details that “stretch” an idea down the page. Knowing that understanding “what” writers do would not be enough, I searched for a way to show students “how.” I settled on telling students that writers accomplish the work of stretching out ideas within paragraphs by asking themselves, “What would my reader want to know next?” and set about the work of composing a paragraph together.

Our paragraph went like this:

Lunch is one of kids’ most favorite times of the day. They love lunch because they can talk to their friends and they don’t have to do school work. With busy mornings, kids get hungry so kids love lunch because they get to eat.

From there, children paired up to write a paragraph about another school day favorite: recess.

As they talked, they wrote, and as I circulated the classroom, I heard them asking one another, “What else would my reader want to know?”

At the end of this guided practice exercise, the classroom teacher and I observed that all of the children had successfully written a detailed paragraph about recess. However, when we looked closer, we noticed something. Take a look. Do you see it too?

In case you’re having trouble reading, Angie and Jake’s paragraph goes like this:

Recess is loved by kids, too because you can run around crazy. They can spread out and play games like tag. There is a lot of things to go like slides, swings, monkeybars, and soccer. You can also play on the blacktop and play games like jump rope, hop scotch, and hula-hoop. Recess is fun for everyone! Kids think recess is cool and fun and awesome. Another thing you can do is go on the spider web. You can play sports like baseball, basketball, tennis, ping-pong, and exercising. Recess if fun!

Perhaps the verb tense and pronoun switches are glaring at you, but we were looking at this from a stretching the paragraph point-of-view and what we saw was a paragraph that kept going and going and going and going…It felt like this paragraph could have or should have ended at the first “Recess is fun for everyone” but in asking “What else would my reader want to know,” these writers marched forward, just like the Energizer Bunny.

So what does this mean? Can we call ourselves effective teachers if in the course of teaching one thing, we create the need to teach another?

When children are learning new skills and strategies, it is not uncommon for them to overgeneralize. What has happened here is not unlike when children first take note of apostrophes and periods: they sometimes appear where they belong but they often turn up where they don’t belong. In this case, children have stretched the details down the page to craft a paragraph, but they’ve stretched it a little too far. Now we get to teach them the next part of a paragraph which will be how to know when enough is enough because after all, when you stretch a rubber band too far, it will break and no longer be functional.

So was this lesson effective? Well, it all comes down to instructional decision making. If tomorrow I decide to return to the teacher’s manual that says that on the day after “how to write a paragraph,” I need to teach “how to write a good beginning,” and do it because the books says so, then yes, I have been ineffective. If, however, I decide to teach that lesson about how to know when to end a paragraph, well, then, that is a different story entirely. Effective instruction is teaching children what they need when they need it.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Importance of “Why Do You Think That?”

Last week I shared the story of the exasperated teacher who wondered why children who demonstrate such great understanding when they talk about text can’t seem to demonstrate the same understanding when faced with multiple choice test questions.  Ever since she posed this question, I have been on a quest to find answers that help explain this apparent lack of transference.

In the past week, I have led numerous close reads of text and have been informally researching what seems to be behind this problem.  Today I had one of those moments that we all covet as teacher-learners: the epiphany, the moment when what was once very confusing begins to make a lot more sense.

This is what happened:
As I worked with a group of fifth graders to look closely at the “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, we zeroed in on the following paragraph:
When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty.  I must tell you, therefore, that it was I and I alone who had the idea for the great and daring Mouse Plot.  We all have our moments of brilliance and glory, and this was mine.

Knowing that the shift in focus here can be confusing, we puzzled through the question who is Roald Dahl addressing when he says “when writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful”?  The students postulated different responses including “himself,” “his friends,” and “his audience.”  We took great care to eliminate incorrect choices one-by-one as we noticed evidence like “I must tell YOU…” and “we ALL have our moments…”and that there were not quotes around this part of the story as opposed to what was happening just prior when the characters were speaking to one another.  All of these examples supported that Roald Dahl was speaking to his audience.  The conversation was pointed and rich but of course the question about transference lurked in the back of my mind so after all was said and done, I gave the students the following question:

When Roald Dahl, writes, “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful.  Truth is more important than modesty,” who is he concerned about lying to?
  1. Mrs. Pratchett
  2. His friends
  3. Thwaites
  4. His reader

Based on our conversation, I was certain there would be unanimity about the correct response being 4. 

However, that was not the case.

Many students answered 1.  When I asked why, they said, “Mrs. Pratchett is mean.  He knows that lying to her would get him into trouble.” 

Because I asked, “why do you think that?” I now understand that part of the problem is that they are not giving full consideration to the entire question.  They saw the word “lying” and had just finished reading about and discussing Mrs. Pratchett so that made A seem like a reasonable response.  That’s a problem I can fix.

Other students answered 2.  At first, I was stunned because these children spent no less than ten minutes discussing why he wasn’t addressing his friends in this part of the story.  But then I asked, “why do you think so?” and a boy raised his hand and explained that it seemed to make sense because “look Mrs. Yaris, it’s in quotes and didn’t you tell us that when words are in quotes, that means that people are talking?”  The skies opened up for me.  The problem here isn’t understanding the text, it’s understanding the function of quotation marks in text. In this case, these readers couldn’t distinguish dialogue from a direct quote. That too is a problem I can fix. 

So in returning to the question about why the apparent lack of transfer, I am beginning to conclude that students do achieve new understandings when they have rich discussions of text.  When they fail to demonstrate the same understanding on test questions, very often the error is not in understanding the text, it is in understanding the question being asked which leaves us wondering how to rectify the situation.   

I think the answer to that returns to the Common Core suggestion that we train students to gain and integrate new information through the close, careful analysis of text.  What we must realize is that text does not only mean passages and poems, it also means test questions as well.  I’m wondering when close reads become part of our regular classroom practice if it will naturally begin to occur that students read questions more thoroughly and subsequently begin to do better on tests?  Will one good practice beget another? 

Only time will tell…

Friday, January 27, 2012

An Epidemic of Poor Comprehension

This week, at a teacher training for using conversation to lift student comprehension, an exasperated teacher raised her hand and asked, “I’m concerned because my students seem able to have really thoughtful conversations about books but when I turn around and give them a “test question” about it, they bomb!”

This question set me thinking—a lot.  

Is the problem the topic of the conversations students are having?  Is it that their conversations aren’t going deep enough?  Do their ideas dance around the periphery of the real meaning of the text?  Or is the problem something different all together?  Is it an issue of vocabulary?  Or careful reading or interpretation of the questions themselves?  The fact of the matter is this: when this teacher asked this question, I had no idea how to respond because it felt like the answer rested with  any one of a series of infinite possibilities. 

But here’s the good news.  As a follow-up to this training, I have started visiting classrooms in this district and together with the teachers who echoed the same sentiment voiced by this exasperated teacher, we’ve begun to take a close look at this lack of transference. While the jury still seems to be out on the absolute answer to this question, the observations we have made have been fascinating. 

One behavior that we saw time and again was the inclination to make snap judgments. Test questions require that we fully absorb all aspects of what is being asked.  They require that we not only read the text closely and carefully, but also that we take the time to fully reason and consider what a question is really asking.  What we saw were students who seemed to be skimming the questions and answering according to what they knew instead of using the information provided in the text.  For example, when we asked the question “What does the word prise mean in the first paragraph of “The Great Mouse Plot” from Roald Dahl’s Boy, many children saw the word knife and immediately concluded that the best definition for this word would be cut.  When we asked a question about Roald Dahl’s relationship with his friends, they saw the word truthful in the line that read “When writing about oneself, one must strive to be truthful,” and immediately thought that their relationship was based on honesty. When asked how Roald Dahl felt when he was placing the mouse in the jar, students said “proud” in spite of the fact that at the point when he places the mouse in the jar the text says his “heart was thumping like mad” and his “hands had gone all sweaty.” Instead of honoring those words,  they keyed into the last sentence that read it was marvelous to be so popular and called it a day.

Instead of reading closely and carefully, the students we looked at read lightly and literally.  And what I’m wondering is why?

When I was first introduced to the Common Core State Standards, specifically the idea of being able to read increasingly complex text through close readings that emphasized text-based questions, I was somewhat skeptical.  When I heard David Coleman speak about it, I felt that he was disparaging strategy instruction and as a teacher whose entire career has reflected the ideas espoused by Ellin Oliver Keene’s Mosaic of Thought and Harvey and Goudvis’ Strategies that Work, this felt a little blasphemous (amazon affiliate links).  However, what I have observed in the last few days is enough to convince me that aspects of our strategy instruction may well be counterproductive.  I sense that we may overemphasize things like making connections and predictions and underemphasize things like synthesis and determining importance.  And in so doing, students’ thinking dances around the periphery of the text never quite making it to the core.  And as a result, we’ve got kids who answer test questions based on what they think as opposed to what they know from the text they are reading—and you know what that means: bad scores.  But what’s worse than that is this: We’re grappling with an epidemic of poor comprehension and that’s a bigger problem. 

The question now is what can we do it about it?  I know that’s what I’ll be thinking about in the coming days but I’d love to know what you’re thinking, too.  What are you doing to help students achieve “close, careful analysis” of text?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Reading is NOT an Option

As someone for whom reading is like eating, a necessary part of human existence, not wanting to read is a perplexing occurrence.  When I feel the pull to do other things, anything besides read, I wonder, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME????”  The weight of my distraction is disturbing, in fact, so much so, that even though I choose not to read, I am burdened with guilt for feeling that way.  Eventually, the guilt becomes overbearing enough to compel me to pick up my reading and muddle my way through a couple of chapters until I find that stride that reconnects me with my “other” world. And usually, I am not disappointed.  And when I am, I know I will keep trying because for me, reading is not an option. 

When I think about my own inner struggles with an engaged and active reading life, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to students. With the advent of the Common Core, our focus and attention has turned toward figuring out how we are going to raise student reading proficiency.  In thinking about this, our focus has turned toward instructional strategies and practices. What do we need to do to TEACH these children better?  As I think more about this, I am wondering if perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree.

The scores aren’t telling us that students can’t read, they are telling us that they can’t read well enough.  When we don’t do something well enough, is it because we haven’t learned what we need to know or is it because we haven’t practiced what we learned? I don’t believe that our problem is illiteracy, it is aliteracy.  We have far more children who can read and don’t than we have children who simply can’t read.

But unlike me whose lack of reading induces feelings of malnourishment, most children (and dare I say alliterate adults as well) are unburdened by a less than robust reading life.  THIS is cause for alarm.  THIS is what is causing scores to stagnate.  And THIS is where we need to look long and hard if we are going to figure out how to breathe new life into scores that have flatlined for over thirty years.  If we want to change test scores, we shouldn’t only be looking at HOW we teach, we must also be looking at how we MOTIVATE children to want to read MORE.   In the same way that it is unconscionable to think that a sports team would improve their game simply by hiring the best coach, we can’t be lured into the false belief that our problem in reading lies solely with instructional practices.  Good coaches know that positive game results require that players get out there and kick the ball around. And as educators we need to recognize that positive test results require more than good coaching: readers need to read. My question is this:  What can we do to make kids WANT to read?  And as classroom teachers, how do we fit more time for reading into an already jam-packed schedule?    

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Need It to Make Sense? WRITE!!!

One of the things that I preach to teachers when talking to them about deepening student understanding is the importance of writing in response to reading.  I tell them about the research that correlates higher reading scores with frequent writing.  Everybody nods in polite agreement but there is that small piece that remains skeptical.  After all, how often do we, as sophisticated adult readers, stop to write something after we’ve read?  Surely deep understanding is possible without picking up a pen???

So, in spite of the lingering doubt, we resolve to make sure to have students write more in response to reading.  Why?  Because it’s important.  Why is it important?  Well, because the research says so. 

And then it happens.  Sweet epiphany.

As I went about my daily life as a literacy coach helping teachers improve the practice of having conferences, I wrote vigorously as the teachers talked to the students. As I wrote word-for-word what they were saying, I couldn’t help but start to analyze what was happening.   Oooh, I thought to myself, she’s doing what I do when I get nervous that students aren’t saying anything.  I bombard them with a string of questions that might prompt SOME sort of response.  And that was but one of MANY of the thoughts that occurred to me as I wrote.  And as I wrote, I thought…and then, I thought some more and that’s when I realized why it’s so important that we have students write in response to reading—a pen becomes an extension of the brain and when we have it in hand, we can’t help but begin to think things that we would not have had we not touched the pen.  The literal extension morphs into a figurative one and that is what we want to happen to our students: we want them to S-T-R-E-T-C-H themselves.  We want them to reach deep and extend their thinking.    

Writing is a reflective practice.  It forces us to slow down and carefully consider all of the noise that resides inside of our heads.  It’s the reason that I blog.  It helps me to make sense of my professional life and as for students, writing can help them make sense of many things, books just being one of many.