A Big Box of Literacy

Remember Miss Caroline Fisher? She was Scout Finch’s first-grade teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout and Miss Caroline shared a discordant first day of school if you recall.
Some the discord stemmed from Scout’s uncanny reading ability. Miss Caroline, an idealistic rookie, trained in the latest methods of the early 1930s, wasn’t prepared to have a literate first grader (among several other realities of in Depression-era rural poverty she wasn’t prepared for). While no one could rightly trace the origin of Scout’s reading skills, blame fell on Atticus Finch for teaching his daughter to read– and read the “wrong way” to boot.
As a result, “Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.”
Miss Caroline lacked solutions for dealing with children who did not fit into the molds she expected to use for teaching her class. Consequently, she issued that ridiculous direction not to read at home, with the warning that Scout would not learn to read the properly.
Literacy climbs out of a big box. Miss Caroline, as a rookie– and a fictional character– can be excused for not realizing that. The rest of don’t get a pass. We must take care not to fold literacy instruction into small boxes, or put the lid on our boxes too tightly.
Here’s a real-life example of a school where the literacy box is too small, and the lid is on too tight. A teacher reached out to me on social media this week to describe her school, where the library books are leveled and divided into sections by level. Students aren’t allowed to enter a section outside their level.
Being a good strategic reader myself, I formed a mental image of what was happening there. I visualized an obsessively orderly library with huge, brightly colored letters over each of the stacks– A, C, J, M, T, plus everything in between, and Z all the way in the back. I pictured a task force of tightly wound librarians patrolling the aisles between the shelves. I imagined elementary school kids with their reading levels in huge, scarlet letters, sewed to the backs of their shirts. I saw brown-shirted librarians herding students toward the appropriate sections while chasing kids with riding crops if they ventured toward the wrong stack.
Fountas and Pinnell meet Dante’s Inferno.
(Yeah, I may have overcooked my visualization.)
Leveling an entire library puts the most valuable literacy resource in a school, the library, into a small box. Denying students access to books puts the lid on too tight.
The rationale behind that leveled library reminds me of Miss Caroline’s admonition against Scout reading at home with Atticus. There are those teaching and leading among us who believe that kids can read wrong by reading material that is too easy or too hard. They believe that “wrong reading” can hurt a child’s literacy development.
I often quote Professor Richard Allington who says students need to read high volumes of texts that they can read with near perfect accuracy to fully develop their fluency. Quite to the contrary of what the leveled library folks believe, keeping “easy” books out of the hands of emerging readers could deal real harm in developing that smooth, automatic kind of fluency kids need.
I also remember my former curriculum director, a former colleague of Allington, Gaeton Zorzi, who believed that a motivated reader would overcome struggles with difficult text if they value what they can learn from it. They will learn to troubleshoot their comprehension challenges and therefore become better readers.
One of the easiest ways to get stuck in a small box is to allow products, programs, and approaches to make decisions for us. As literacy professionals, we need to be in control of the literacy decisions in front of us. Moving in lock step with a teacher’s guide does little to no good if the result is anything less than strong readers and writers.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the years from Lucy Calkins and her disciples at Teacher’s College. A few years ago, after working with consultants trained at Columbia, my school district purchased Units of Study for Writing as our curriculum guide. While I found many valuable resources in the Units of Study kit, there was no way I could get through the package like I was following a scripted game plan. First, that’s just not how I teach. I need freedom to move and make professional decisions based on my training, knowledge, and experience. Secondly, I found the Units of Study lacking in certain components essential to my writing pedagogy. Chief among those is the use of mentor texts, which are not a major element in the product.
Now, please, I don’t want to read comments about how I bashed Fountas and Pinnell and Lucy Calkins in my blog. I’ve nothing of the kind. I have merely suggested we don’t climb into a Lucy Calkins box or a Fountas and Pinnell box and live there. The value of a product, program or approach is in what we can learn from it and how it improves our professional knowledge. As teachers, we should be broadened by new ideas and information, not restricted by published parameters.
All great teachers are unabashed thieves. You should be stealing ideas from everywhere.
Great teachers are also like Dr. Frankenstein. Our pedagogy is our monster. We sew together the parts we steal. An arm here. A toe there. We construct our methods from the best we can find, and we do all we can to stitch it all together and make it all work smoothly together. Hopefully, we create something good and not a monster that stalks the countryside.


“Why do I loathe main idea?”

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.”


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.”

Chasing the SKILLZ

This just doesn’t seem to want to go away. Invariably I will sit in a meeting or workshop with other teachers and administrators discussing a reading related topic: lessons, assessment, reading in the content classes, etc. I will present ideas for reading strategically and critically using Kylene Beers, Robert Probst, Cris Tovani and Kelly Gallagher as my sources for evidence and inspiration. I will quote Richard Allington, Tom Newkirk, and Russell Walsh.

“We should have students annotate their thinking with an article of the week,” I might suggest. “Then, we need teach them how to use signposts to think their way through a novel.”

Of course, I will go on to explain how those ideas work, and on a good day I might even be able to connect it all to close reading and the Common Core State Standards.

I will get some nods and a few affirmations before someone will ask:

“What about the SKILLZ? How are students going to learn the SKILLZ?”

Notice the spelling. It’s important.

When I think of reading skills, I think of decoding, phonemic awareness, and phonics. I think about the reader’s eyes and their ability to track across the page. I think of the skills necessary to recognize the words and connect them together fluently so the reader’s brain can comprehend the images, ideas and messages in the text.

Those are reading skills.

The SKILLZ my colleagues talk about are a different animal altogether. They want to know how we are going to teach kids to find the main idea, look for author’s purpose, or recognize cause and effect. The list is longer than that, but you get the idea. Sometimes they even confuse skills and SKILLZ with literary devices like plot and setting.

The reason for the confusion is obvious. For decades, educational publishers have packaged these SKILLZ in materials and disguised them as reading comprehension.

Now, before I give you the wrong idea, let me say this: readers should be able to find the main idea of a passage. They need to be able to infer the author’s purpose. They ought to be able to figure out the causes and effects of an event described in a text.

It is just that those aren’t exactly reading skills. More properly, they are post-reading skills. Those understandings are the bi-product of properly applying the actual reading skills and thinking strategies that build comprehension. I spell them out as SKILLZ  because that is how publishers mislabel them in their materials.

When we talk about cause and effect or author’s purpose, we aren’t talking about a level or type of comprehension. We are talking about a type of comprehension question.

Comprehension questions are good things. We need them for formative assessment. However, we have to understand their place. Comprehension questions can only follow attempts to build comprehension.

When my colleagues talk about the SKILLZ, what they mean is, “How are we going to teach students to answer these kinds of questions.” (Too often, that translates to, “How are we going to teach the types of questions that might end up on a standardized test?”)

Here’s the problem with centering reading instruction on the SKILLZ: you end up putting the questions in front of the understanding, rather than after the understanding where they belong.

In other words, you end up chasing comprehension rather than building it.

And too often we fail to catch what we chase.

That’s true for reading comprehension. That’s true for test scores. That’s true for our tails.

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.

SOFT Is the New Hard

I’ve been working on a blog piece titled, “With Rigor and Mortis for All.” It’s about the dangers of applying the word rigor to classroom instruction. I’m trying to take a serious tone with the piece. I want to be scholarly and give the subject the serious analysis it deserves. I intend to use Cris Tovani’s discourse on rigor in her book So What Do They Really Know as my guide.
The problem is I keep meandering all over the canvas. I’ve been touched on everything from standardized tests to Lexile levels. From the Common Core State Standards to tenure reform.
It’s a mess.
The internet is full of messy blogs, and I don’t intend to let mine join the crowd.
I was considering how to revise my work into something unified, coherent and stable. I recalled a Youtube video in which Penny Kittle relates a bit of writing advice she ever received from the late Donald Graves. The language is a bit shocking, coming from Graves and Penny. I’ve included a link to  the video here. Don’t click on the link if you are going to be offended by an F-bomb.


Graves told Kittle that a piece of writing should say one f*#$^ing thing. In my blog piece, I have been trying to say a dozen bleeping things about rigor, just like Penny had tried to say too many things in her piece.
Now that I understand my mistake, I can take another swing at “With Rigor and Mortis for All.” I plan to take one of Tovani’s contrasts between work that is hard and work that is rigorous and expand on it with specific applications to classroom instruction.
That’s nice, I’m sure you are thinking. But can’t you do that without telling us about it?
Of course not.
Because in discovering the need to go SOFT, I’ve learned something about rigor.
Narrowing, focusing, clarifying, is rigorous work.
As an internet writer, I’m often asked to survey topics. I gather a variety of ideas from various sources. In doing so, I skim the surface of issue that are sometimes extremely complex. I distilled books into paragraphs and whittle theses down down to phrases. It’s not all that hard. I do it all the time. And I’ll continue to do as long as people are willing to pay me. Journalism is mercenary.
But as a blogger, I owe reader’s depth. I need to dive rigorously down into the narrow spaces. Every blog piece needs to say one thing.
Because, ironically, SOFT is rigorous.
And in that lesson is the subject for a blog of its own.