The Value of Quiet

When I was a child in grade school— sure, we’re talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s— quiet was a rule in school. You walked in quiet through the halls. You sat in quiet in the classroom. I guess we were allowed to make some noise at lunch and in the gym.
Quiet assured the dominance and control of a single voice, the teacher’s. Learning was a teacher-centered affair. The student’s role in the class was limited, listen and do work. Between listening and doing the work, we got debatably smarter.
The early years of my teaching career weren’t much different. My voice was dominant. I assigned work. The kids were supposed to get smarter.
But the paradigm shifted. We recognized the value of collaboration, cooperation and student talk. Then we took it further and began to differentiate instruction with packages of activities. Five concurrent activities to meet the same learning objective for various types of learners assures everyone has a voice, even if no one exactly gets heard.
If your classroom is quiet, your students can’t possibly be learning anything. At least that’s what the conventional “wisdom” says.
The other day on social media I ran across this quote by author John Green, “Reading forces you to be quiet in a world that no longer makes a place for that.”
The quote reminded me of an end-of-year survey a teacher friend of mine gave her kids. Several students commented on how reading workshop provided much needed quiet time during the day. It was the only time they could be alone with their thoughts.
As educators, we are right to value student voices in our classrooms. The problem is, we’ve lost track of an important voice.
In each of us, teacher and student, there is a voice in our heads, a thinking voice, the voice of our own cognition and metacognition, the voice we talk to ourselves with, the voice we work things out with, the voice of our conscious and the voice of our conscience, a little voice, a quiet voice, a loud voice, the voice we hear writing, the voice we hear reading.
We need to honor that voice most in our classroom. But we are drowning that voice out with poor imitations of the sound of learning.
We honor students thinking voices by giving them time to write and time to read. We honor thinking by giving students time to think about answers.
There can be a little talking with the thinking. Students can share thoughts. But they need time to listen to the thoughts first.
I remember the first time I heard Cris Tovani talk about annotation. She spoke of it as means to get students thoughts about reading onto the page as they read. Since then, I’ve been amazed, but never really shocked, when students say they don’t hear any voice in their heads when they read. They don’t think about their reading. They just quietly say the words to themselves.
If you read, but don’t think about it, are you reading at all?
However, why should we expect students to attend to their thinking voices when reading if we don’t ever teach them to listen to that voice at other times.
Learning occurs when students have time to process their thoughts. That won’t happen in a noisy, chaotic environment.
It’s time that we honor the value of quiet.

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Feel The Words

One of my favorite reading questions is, “How do the words make you feel?”

It’s not a very Common Core-ish question, but it is an extremely valuable question. As a writer, I am always acutely aware of how my words could make my reader feel. Empathy with the reader is essential to developing a writing voice.

Readers need to approach the page with empathy for the characters and empathy for the writer. Decoding and comprehension can’t end with understanding the denotation of the words. We all realize that, of course. That’s why we teach lessons in mood and tone. We also teach vocabulary lessons denotation and connotation. That’s all good.

However, we need to take it up a notch.

Monitoring “how the words make you feel” needs to go hand-in-hand with monitoring comprehension. “How do the words make you feel,” should be part of any questioning strategy we use in the classroom. There needs to be a signpost for it, or at least a question related to a signpost (for those of you who follow Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s book Notice and Note). If you are a devotee of Cris Tovani, as I am, you should have your students annotate their feelings as often as they annotate their thoughts.

To feel the words is to understand the words deeply. Too often, our students just read the words, without connecting them to any thought or feeling. Students’ reading goals are often to get to the end of the paragraph, or the page, or the paragraph in the most painless way possible.

Well, unfortunately, in reading as in exercise, no pain often equals no gain.

Think of the last time you asked students to read anything to themselves, whether it be an assigned piece, reading workshop, or SSR. How many students cried? How many laughed? How many got angry?

Intellectual responses alone are not sufficient for deep comprehension. If you have kids reading Number the Stars, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas or The Book Thief, you should spot a tear or two once in a while. If they are reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid, you should hear a chuckle. Kids should be frantically flipping pages to get the end of an Alex Rider thriller or a Percy Jackson story.

If your students are too willing to put their books down, that’s a sign they aren’t really feeling the work.

We teachers are part of the problem. We get so wrapped up with comprehension questions and constructed responses. We preach, “Find the textual evidence!” when we should be teaching, “Feel the words!”

The Common Core encourages a close reading of “the words themselves.” We need to understand that the words are not enough. Words weaved together properly, transcend what’s on the page. They become something greater in the mind of the reader.

I’m fond of teaching with poetry because every poem is short and packed with meaning. Teach students to become good readers of poetry, and reading prose is a piece of cake. You can’t detach feeling from poetry, anymore than you can take color from a painting or the harmony from a piece of music.

(By the way, there is no logical reason to separate poetry from prose in reading instruction, or literature instruction. We need to break down the artificial dividers we place between forms and genres. Our readers will thank us for it.)

Feeling the words can be messy. Describing emotional responses is more difficult than performing intellectual tasks. Some teachers might have a problem with that.

Get over it.

Response to literature should never be clean and formulaic, as much as the standardized test developers might like that. You shouldn’t be able to have a clean discussion about literature. Your students should be raising questions you can’t answer. They should contradict themselves and each other. At times, confusion should abound. Argument should be the rule of the day.

My favorite analogy of reading instruction comes from Nancie Atwell. In In the Middle, she compared discussing books in class to having conversations at the dinner table. Now, I don’t know about you, but in my house dinner table conversations are seldom calm and peaceful. The tend to toward the passionate side.

Our classroom discussions should also be loaded with passionate intensity, to borrow liberally for Yeats. The quickest way to get our conversations to that point is to teach students to feel the words.

Why You Should Let Writing Objectives Drive Reading Instruction (Sometimes)

I spent a good part of one summer working with a group of  clever teachers creating units of study for writing instruction. The writer’s notebook became the centerpiece for our classes, and we created notebook work that would help students develop writing muscles. We selected genres for focus, then started to collect mentor and touchstone texts. We discussed how to teach students to find craft and how to model our writing for them. The curriculum team planned assessment for both full process and on-demand writing, and chose appropriate rubrics.  Finally, we packaged all our work in dandy Understanding By Design templates.

Of course, there is always a glitch.

Throughout the curriculum project, we continued to trip over one question.  If we implement all these great ideas to teach writing, where we will find time to work on reading.

Fortunately, we weren’t stumbling around in the dark on our own. We had a consultant to lead us. Her name is Erica Denman; she trained at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, and if you want to improve the writing instruction in your school, hire her.

Erica offered a simple solution to our stumbling block: Sometimes it’s a good idea to let the writing drive the reading.

Writing to improve reading isn’t exactly a new idea. Using writing to drive the reading end of the curriculum is a little more outside the box.

The concept has tremendous merit.

At the core of effective writing instruction are the mentor texts we use to learn various genres. When students study mentors, they read with specific purposes: to find the voice, to learn the craft, and to deconstruct the structure. Students engage in much higher levels of thinking than they do if when they read to just to find out what happens in the story.

From Erica Denman, I learned that teaching students to work from mentor texts teaches them a valuable method of problem-solving that they can apply to many situations. When you have a task to complete, and you don’t know how to complete it, find examples of someone who has accomplished the same sort of task before, and learn from them.

I do it all the time. I would much rather work from the picture on the box than from a set of instructions when assembling almost anything, from a grill to a lawnmower. (Although, I confess, that method doesn’t always work when putting together a machine that has to work. The guts of writing piece are more visible than the inner workings of a small, internal combustion engine.)

Teaching students to analyze and write from mentors takes writing instruction a giant step above just a set of instructions for a five-paragraph essay or a three-page short story or a ten-page research paper.

When students start to see writing tasks as a form of verbal problem-solving rather than just a chore to complete, they take a leap forward in crafting meaningful writing pieces.

They start to read and think like problem solvers. The writing itself is just a way to present their solution to an audience.

Right now, one of my high school classes is working on a literary analysis paper examining which character or characters are to blame for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet. They have the play to analyze, and they have commentaries to read. That gives them content.

I also have them reading Roger Ebert’s brilliant movie reviews available on rogerebert.com to learn voice and New York Times book reviews to learn structure.

Through this process, students learn to ask the valuable questions:

  • What is the writer doing?
  • Why is the writer this?
  • What does the writer want the reader to think here?
  • How would I do it in my writing?

Too often we fall into this pattern: we decide we want to read The Witch of Blackbird Pond. We read the text, perhaps using techniques from Harvey Daniels or Kylene Beers or Cris Tovani as our pedagogy. All good stuff.

Then, we get to the end of the book and decide we need an assessment. We pick a writing topic and assign it. Eventually, we collect a finished piece, and we curse ourselves for ever making the assignment when we have to grade 50 putrid essays about Kit’s attempt to confirm to Puritan society.

Here’s a alternative approach: Decide on a writing genre — perhaps argument or analysis. Select a book or books. Then teach the students to read with the writing task in mind. That adds deeper and more authentic purpose to the reading. As your students work through The Witch of Blackbird Pond, you toss in various supplementary readings on topics like Puritans, Quakers and all sorts of witch hunts.

When your class gets to the end of the book, they examine mentor essays about the teenagers searching for identity or conformity versus rebellion. You might find good examples in NPR’s “This I Believe”  and “This American Life” collections.

Both the reading and writing improve from taking this approach.

A writing-driven genre study approach works wonders when teaching poetry, drama, short story and non-fiction. Students learn to read the genre by learning to write it.

Writing becomes more than a task; it becomes more than an assessment; it becomes more than test prep; it becomes more than filler between reading units — all stations it has held in the past.

Writing facilitates clear, analytical thinking about reading at levels reading and discussion only could never reach.

Now for the promised, mandatory disclaimer: Writing should not drive all reading instruction.

Writing has its limits.

I believe the number one rule that should drive all instruction is authenticity. We don’t always read so that we can write. Sometimes we read just to be entertained. Sometimes we read just to satisfy curiosity. Authentic purpose for reading should always be at the core of our instruction.

To accomplish all reading purposes, we need to teach students how to monitor their comprehension and how to fix it when it breaks down. Many students struggle to engage with texts, and we have a primary responsibility to teach them how to do that.

All reading and reading instruction should center on what our students need at that moment. All other goals, objectives, standards and essential questions come in second to helping our students with whatever difficulties they face at the moment.

“Why do I loathe main idea?”

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2
Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

I received this email this morning from one the best literacy teachers I know:

“Why do I loathe main idea?”

What a great question in the age of common core instruction.

My first thought was main idea — or central idea as the CCSS calls it  — is such an overused term. I am sure there are teachers who have file drawers full of worksheets on finding the main idea and providing three supporting details. Or, as we like to say these days, “identify supporting text evidence.” I don’t think it matters whether you call them supporting details or text evidence. We could argue questions of nuance between details and evidence, but all we would really be doing is arguing jargon, not literacy.

Then, I thought a little more on the subject and wrote back,  “[finding main idea] can justify a very surface reading of the text sometimes. We’re teaching kids, ‘All you need to know is the main idea and a couple pieces of evidence.’ We aren’t digging deep.”

That’s what rung the bell on this question.

My friend responded, “You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”

Amen.

I just finished thumbing through one of my all-time favorite  essay collections, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum. Like any favorite book, my copy is a tattered paperback barely held together at the binding with Scotch tape. To read those essays, “to get the main idea” would be a travesty. Fulghum conveys so much through his tone and writing voice. You would miss all that. You might believe you did learn everything you need to know in kindergarten.

Would you read Tuesday’s with Morrie just deeply enough to get the main idea? Would you skim The Last Lecture, just for the key points? Get just enough from the text so you can summarize it in a properly structured paragraph with a topic sentence, five supporting sentences, and a closing sentence. Such tasks are an injustice to the literature, and to the reader.

Okay, in the name of fairness and accuracy, the CCSS says that students must analyze the development of central ideas and themes in the text.

Let’s think about that. Let’s analyze it.

Analyze is a word we educator’s love because it occupies a high ranking on Bloom’s taxonomy. The problem becomes when we try to define and apply the term. I remember once asking a group of teachers in a workshop to define the analysis. I got a lot of responses that sounded like, “Well, um, it’s when you…um…” Then a stream of gibberish and jargon spewed forth. After the session, I concluded the most common definition of analyze was: students can recall and repeat an explanation that the teacher provided in an earlier lesson.

Analysis is not a process that just happens in a student’s head because you tell them to do it. Analysis requires a protocol, a procedure, an algorithm, a model or a method. Our brains don’t come pre-programmed for analysis…or for reading comprehension at any level. We learn to analyze.

It’s vital for literacy teachers to be introspective and reflective about how we construct meaning on every level when we read. Let me ask you this question: What’s your analysis protocol for the central idea? What activates the protocol during your reading process? When you read a piece of literary non-fiction, when does the main idea light start to blink on your mental dashboard?

The room grows very quiet. A cricket chirps.

I don’t mean to be unduly facetious about this, although I find it hard to keep the sarcasm out of my tone as I write on this subject.

Fine models of analysis that builds and deepens comprehension exist. Check out Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst; Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives, by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey; Deeper Comprehension, by Kelly Gallagher; and, What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Victoria Vinton.

Teachers can model and guide students through thoughtful text analysis using models like these. From that thoughtful analysis, students will be able to explain the central ideas and support their conclusions with their deeper understanding of the text.

We must recognize that finding main idea and supporting details is a bi-product of a thoughtful comprehension process.  It should never be the entire purpose of reading. The main reading task always remains the same: comprehend fully and comprehend deeply. Comprehension is not a divisible, segmented process when it occurs in the reader’s mind. We should not chop it up for classroom use or standardized tests.

Reading is an act of exploration. The reader must enter the book with eyes wide open. Like Lewis and Clark traveling the Missouri River, the reader’s mission is to notice and catalog everything and to create a complete and accurate map of the territory. You don’t just look for the mountains. You don’t just look for the forests. You study the moss on every tree.

Like all journeys of exploration, reading is an open-ended experience. You don’t know what you will find until you see it. And you might miss if you are busy looking for something you think you have to find.

“You miss so much when you’re only looking for the main idea.”

What Should We Read?

In my 20 plus years of teaching, I’ve used a host of reading programs and methods. The choices weren’t always mine to make. All teachers are at the mercy of curriculum and purchasing decisions often made above our pay grade. I am not complaining about that, and for a good reason, which I will explain later. First, let’s take a look at this list:

Basal readers: When I started teaching 6th grade, we had a very traditional basal program. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think it was from MacMillan. I remember we couldn’t use the workbooks as consumables. Students had to write their answers on a separate sheet of paper.

Literature Anthologies: In higher grades and higher levels, I used a Prentice Hall anthology series, which I actually enjoyed working with. It had a nice balance of stories that supported teaching the classics and teaching to a culturally diverse group of students.

Whole Class Novels: I will never forget one small, delightful class of students I had my third or fourth year teaching. They got so excited by the books we read, particularly The Witch of Blackbird Pond and A Wrinkle in Time. We had fantastic class discussions on a daily basis.

Integrated Learning Technology: Yes, I’ve tried teaching reading with a computer program. I have asked kids to sit in front of a monitor, reading passages and answering comprehension questions designed to show them how to find main idea and cause and effect.

Reading Workshop: The favorite of progressive-minded educators everywhere, myself included. I love the idea of showing students how to read, then letting them apply the lesson with their own books. However, I’ve discovered some pragmatic issues with it as well, like getting every student in the right book and assessing the progress of 60 different students reading 60 different books.

Kits: You know what I mean when I say kits, right? Boxes of skinny, “high interest” books, very glossy and appealing. They come in a box, sometimes made of cardboard, or plastic with a handle. Students progress through the box at their own pace, usually taking some sort of quiz at the end of each book. I vaguely remember one that used plastic cards, almost like large recipe cards with short passages instead of the skinny books.

Standardized Test-Prep Workbooks: Guaranteed to get every child in your class to pass THE TEST by practicing all the reading passages, prompts and questions.

(I can see some of you nodding your heads, or shaking them, with a “been there done that” sort of expression on your face.)

The lesson I have learned from all these experiences may shock some of you. It may anger some of you. Good. Anger and shock are strong emotions, and you should feel strongly about instruction. Just don’t let your emotions block your thinking.

THE LESSON: What we read isn’t as important as how we teach. Anything with written words can be the material for a reading lesson.

Think about this — in one room school houses all over America, for generations, students learned to read from catalogues, the Montgomery Ward catalogue or  Sears and Roebuck. And they memorized passages from the Christian Bible.

Some of those people went on to become great scholars, inventors, scientists and captains of industry.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to teach reading that way, and I am glad I don’t have to.

But I think I could.

Reading, of course, begins with teaching students to decode and put words together into fluent combinations. Then, to make sense of those combinations.

For me, working in middle and high school, the making sense part is normally—not always— but normally — my focus.

My instruction centers on showing students how readers think, encouraging them to think for themselves and providing feedback on their thinking. The feedback, call it formative assessment if you like, may be the most critical piece. That’s what creates the growth we’re always looking for.

That is why I ask students to annotate as they read, to take notes on Post-Its or to fill in charts and graphic organizers. These tools make students thinking visible to themselves, to their classmates and to me, which is essential for teaching students how to think.

My favorite reading lessons often involve reading articles and columns by Dave Barry, Mitch Albom, Leonard Pitts and Rick Reilly. I project the passages on my interactive whiteboard, read a portion aloud and model my thinking and annotating. Then, I ask students to do the same thing with a partner. I assess how well that goes, then I ask the students to finish on their own.

Discussion, response writing and other activities follow.

The materials, I have learned, don’t really matter. It is the thinking that counts.

Intense and Intentional

My mantra for the 2014-2015: Be intense and intentional about raising the reading level of every child.

In this age of educational over-complication, driven by test scores and wonky teacher evaluation tools, when you are told to teach close reading strategies to six year olds and develop lessons around structured, academic argumentation in kindergarten, the smartest thing any one of us can do is lift up our child’s reading ability.

Seems too simple to believe. But there it is.

I spent the first month of school going over all the pertinent data of every child in my school, looking for students in need of reading intervention. That’s what interventionists do, after all. Sifting through the data, I made a shocking discovery: kids who read well do well on standardized tests. Those kids who walk around all day with the Divergent books or The Fault in Our Stars or the Alex Rider spy adventures under their arms did very well on the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge.

Wow, what a surprise, right? But the conclusion sat there large as life.

Tests favor good readers.

Of course, this makes perfect sense. Readers have the word knowledge and the background knowledge to meet whatever testing tasks educational overseers throw at them.

The greatest revelations often hide in the most obvious places. Sometimes they are hidden by a little smoke and a few mirrors.  In this case, the smoke and mirrors are called data driven instruction. Data tends to point us toward tasks that students performed poorly on. Then we teach toward tasks. Persuasive essays. Constructed responses.

We often work under the mistaken assumption that all we have to do is work a little harder on these tasks to see the results in higher test scores. Of course, that rarely works. You simply can not take a student reading one, two, even three years below grade level and get a grade level test result from the child.

It’s time to forget about building the better test taker, and it’s time to become intense and intentional about on building the better reader.

We need to assess the reader thoughtfully and thoroughly, gathering data on vocabulary, comprehension and writing. Data doesn’t just go way. We need good data, but we need to use it right. We need to find a starting point so we know in where we have to go. Once we have a baseline on every reader,  we can start lifting them up.

Wait, you are thinking, you mean the way to conquer the Common Core, the PARCC and a slew of misguided assessments is to ignore them altogether and just teach reading?

You’re damn skippy.

Of course, you will want some proof. Well, check out the books by Emily Kissner, The Forest and The Trees and Summarizing, Paraphrasing and Retelling. I don’t know Emily, but I know her fine books. In them, she makes the point that her kids score well on tests, although she does little “test prep.” What she does is raise the reading level of her students. I’ve heard noted educators like Jeff Anderson, Kelly Gallagher, Cris Tovani and Penny Kittle make the same point.

It’s about the reader, not the test.

If you want your students to demonstrate growth this year, then take a leap of faith. Forget the Core and Tests. Concentrate on the reader.

Be intense and intentional about making every student in your class a better reader.

Here’s one final warning:

It’s tempting to pick one aspect of reading and to fixate on it. That’s a common fallacy at the root of many reading programs which come with loads of bells and whistles for teaching everything about reading. Too often, these reading programs fail to deliver promised results because they isolate reading into parts.

A reader is more than the sum of the parts.

Six Literacy Myths We Hear Too Often

Myth: Kids can read the words out loud and they can recall what they just read on a literal level. Therefore, they can read.

Reality: Poor readers are often good word callers. That’s how their reading issues slip by. Recall is not true comprehension. Students need to explain the meaning and importance to what they have just read and connect new ideas to previous information before we can call it comprehension.

Myth: The kids are smart enough, but they don’t put out the effort necessary to be successful in class and on tests.

Reality: The kids are smart enough, but they lack the systematic thinking routines, and they have large gaps in their schema. They often don’t know how to use background knowledge to build deeper understanding of what they read. They do not effectively use working memory to build comprehension. They often read through difficult words or confusing parts of the text rather than applying strategies to fix their comprehension.

Myth: Teaching test-taking strategies is more important than teaching comprehension strategies.

Reality: Kids make mistakes and poor choices on standardized tests because they lack word knowledge, word attack skills and background knowledge about the topics. They can’t deduce an answer without understanding what each answer choice means. 

Myth:  Students don’t learn anything from reading easy books.

Reality: When students read texts that they can read with 99 or 100 percent accuracy, they improve their stamina and fluency.

Myth: Teaching literary elements is the same as teaching comprehension.

Reality: Comprehension requires a complex interaction of thinking strategies and routines. Working on isolated literary elements won’t help students understand the text. In fact, this approach will frustrate many readers. 

Myth: Traditional skill are the what the kids need.

Reality: Traditional skills like cause and effect and sequence of events are actually post-reading tasks. They are a way of demonstrating comprehension and depend on the student actually understanding the text they have read. Telling students to find the main idea isn’t the same as teaching students how to find the main idea. Students need to learn how to think while they read before we work on using information after they read.

Myth: Teaching to the Common Core State Standards will make kids better readers.

Reality: The standards largely describe what students should be able to do with information they have read. They don’t address how we should teach students to understand they reading.