Post-Election 2016: What Should We Read?

I was recently drafting a blog about the consequences of taking a behaviorist approach to literacy curricula and the need for more constructivist thinking, particularly when crafting assessments.
After the presidential election, I decided to put that piece on hold.
That blog didn’t seem, as they say, worthy of the moment.
I’m not the only literacy blogger who has taken this approach, of course. You may probably feel fatigued with election reaction and analysis.
It’s too late to discuss whether Donald J. Trump should or should not be the next president. I’ll leave speculation about his education policy to more qualified individuals.
The question I want to deal with is this: What should we read now?
Literature is, after all, often the best tool for making sense of the world. And today, for many of us, and for many of the children we teach, the world doesn’t make sense.
A few years ago, I was sorting through my classroom library and ran across a copy of Madeline L’Engle’s classic, A Wrinkle in Time. I recalled teaching it as a whole class novel before our school adopted a reading workshop approach. For a generation or more, A Wrinkle in Time had been a favorite read for many kids, but I couldn’t remember anyone picking it from the library in a long time. I didn’t use it for read alouds. I didn’t even consider it. I wondered if we had reached a time when warnings against conformity had lost their importance. It seemed that no one worried about the danger of losing freedom of thought. Our self-determination seemed assured.
In retrospect, that may have been an illusion. Possibly a mistake.
We live now more than ever in a time when our individuality and freedom of thought are in danger. In the 1960s, the advertising masterminds of Madison Avenue determined that they could convince us to buy almost anything. They could brainwash us into believing our self-worth was attached to our laundry detergent and ring around the collar threatened human social progress.
The golden age of advertising bore the Black Thing that robbed of us our free will. (For those of you who miss the allusion, the Black Thing is the evil entity that controls human thought and action in A Wrinkle in Time. Explaining an allusion sometimes spoils it, I know. But it seemed necessary at the time. )
Today election cycles market presidential candidates with the same tactics once used to sell breakfast cereal. A few weeks before the election, I re-read some of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign speeches. His prose was elaborate and erudite, steeped in allusion to the classical thinkers of Athens and Rome. Today, candidates speak in 30 second sound bites.
I fear that we have become a people more controlled by media messages than by our ability to think as free individuals for ourselves.
Journalism is no longer about reportage. It’s another vehicle for manipulating how we think, reinforcing our fears, stoking our emotions. You can tune into one network and listen to purely conservative messages. Tune in a separate network for liberal messages. Choose your poison. No need to think for yourself. Let the media do it for you.
I’m not going to champion the cause of liberalism or conservatism. Political and personal philosophies are potentially dangerous things and should exist only as the product of a world closely examined through meditation and self-interrogation. We shouldn’t stumble into a way of thinking. We shouldn’t be lead to one. Curiosity and inquiry should be our only guides.
I believe we should take care not to allow labels to define us. Democrat or Republican. Liberal or conservative. Revolutionary or reactionary. Buying into an entire political philosophy is just another way avoid free, individual thought. We must not allow ourselves or our children to be so easily categorized.
So, I started out with the question, what should we read now? A Wrinkle in Time isn’t a bad place to start. We need to be wary of The Black Things that do our thinking for us.
Animal Farm and Watership Down are allegorical novels with warnings against tyranny and totalitarianism. Let’s not forget 1984. Big Brother is, after all, everywhere. I once thought that, like A Wrinkle in Time, these novels had become dated. I was wrong. We should never lower our defenses against the rise of tyrannical governments and leaders. It takes little to snuff out the flame of liberty.
There’s a temptation to say, “Let’s a read a bunch of dystopias because that’s where we’re heading.” Well… First, it isn’t our place to scare our students, or to suggest that the result of this election will lead to A Clockwork Orange. Again, I don’t wish to promote the cause of any party or candidate. My thesis remains: we need to direct our students to literature that promotes free and critical thinking about all the messages that surround us. We should be reading Feed by MT Anderson. We may not have media connections implanted into our brains yet, but we need to examine how electronic devices like cell phones control our lives.
We should still be reading The Hunger Games to discuss how media may be used to placate and manipulate the masses. Reading the Divergent series can lead to discussions about self-determination in the modern world. Allie Condie’s Matched series can also prompt discussions of how much control of our lives we hand over to the institutions who would rule over society.
Of course, 500 years ago, William Shakespeare warned us against politicians motivated by the forces of pride and ambition. The actions of such leaders produce tragic consequences for those around them. War and death abound in Richard III, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar. Tragedies are defined by their unhappy endings. We should genuinely fear those with a driving ambition for power and keep such individuals in check.
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau wrote the essays and treatises that defined an American philosophy that emphasized self-reliance and marching to the beat of own drummers. “Whomsoever would be a man, must be a nonconformist,” Emerson wrote. That’s an idea worth exploring in our high school classes.
Thirty years ago I started out as a newspaper reporter, a career I sometimes miss. Not always. Sometimes. Like most young journalists of my generation, I was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein. Kids, high school students, juniors and seniors, should take a class in journalism and one in the influence of the mass media. They should read All the President’s Men when they do.
We should teach students to look at the world critically and even a little skeptically. Our children should learn to doubt the message until the see the evidence. We need to teach the logic of everyday reason, the ability to recognize falsehoods and fallacies.
It is not our place as teachers to indoctrinate our students in any way of thinking, political or otherwise. It is our place as educators to teach our students to defend themselves against unwilling or unwitting indoctrination.
We hear so much today about college and career ready. We take for granted that those are goals children should aspire to through the education we provide.
We’re wrong.
College and career readiness is not the purpose of public education. Those may be beneficial side effects, but the purpose is to prepare our children to participate in something that resembles a democratic form of government. We’ve lost sight of that. We’ve become too obsessed with testing and standards, distractions from the real purpose of our schools.
In 1779, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, a cornerstone in the creation of public education. Jefferson wrote, “The most effectual means of preventing [the perversion of power into tyranny are] to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts which history exhibits, that possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.”
The power in society should rightly reside with its people, not its government, Jefferson believed. We empower students to take their role in society through education.
We must direct students toward the literature that will not only stimulate their thinking but equip them with the intellectual defenses against those forces that would control their thinking.
Otherwise, the Black Thing flourishes.


Readers Read

To: Tim Shannahan

RE: Readers read

Let’s all take a minute to thank Tim Shannahan.

Over the last few weeks, a new fire kindled beneath the Great Silent Reading Controversy and flames erupted.

On behalf of literacy bloggers everywhere, let me say, “Thanks for lighting the match, Tim.”

Shannahan has argued over the last couple of decades that research doesn’t the independent reading practice known as sustained silent reading (SSR) or drop everything and read (DEAR).

I won’t argue research with Shannahan. He’s far more qualified than I am.

I’m going to take up this argument on my own with a slightly different approach– the logic of everyday reasoning.

First, I need to disclose a couple facts about myself. I’ve read The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. I love Book Love. I’ve met Penny Kittle. Penny has a great Youtube video that celebrates how much she gets students to read in her class. Penny breaks the fake reading epidemic. I like that most about her.

Therefore, as you have probably guessed, I’m biased on the silent reading issue.

Full disclosure complete.

Now, on to argument.

Sometimes answers are just this simple: kids should read silently and independently because reading is what readers do.

That simple.

Readers read.

You can circle your arms over your head for hours while kicking your feet furiously and never become a better swimmer.

In fact,you won’t become a better swimmer until you get in the pool and swim.

Swimmers swim.

Sometimes I feel like we do a lot of things that are called, perhaps euphemistically, reading instruction but don’t actually add up to reading. Those might include reading from a basal, working in a vocabulary workbook or a website, practicing skills like cause and effect and compare and contrast with worksheets.

Those things might… maybe, maybe, maybe… might help a child read better. But they aren’t reading.

Readers read.

They pick up books.

They get comfortable.

They get lost in a story.

If you are looking for the best justification for independent, sustained, silent reading, there it is.

Readers read.

Independent reading is authentic. I’m a huge believer in doing what Ron Ritchhart calls for in Making Thinking Visible. That is, closing the gap between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world.

Readers read.

In our classrooms, reading should not be just a tool for school (thank you for that phrase, Cris Tovani). Our goal should be to develop successful readers who will become lifelong readers. I don’t think many literacy-minded folks would disagree. To develop successful and lifelong readers,  teachers must model reading as a real world, lifetime habit of the mind.

I’ve always loved Nancie Atwell’s analogy from In the Middle. She compares reading workshop to sitting around a dining room table talking about books. That’s real world. Our classrooms should have a dining room atmosphere when it comes to reading discussions. Minus that one kid throwing mashed potatoes, of course.

Readers love to talk about what they read.

But mostly…readers read.

So thank you, Tim Shannahan.

You are wrong, I believe, but you ignited an important discussion about how we should handle reading in our classrooms.

It may not look the same in every room, but we all need to agree on one thing:

Readers Read.

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.

Stop Starting Small!


My son is in his first year of college, taking Chemistry 111 as an engineering science major. Smart kid, most days. He was a little underwhelmed by his first class. The chem prof began class by writing on the board: “1 meter = 1000 centimeters.”

“Dad, do you have any idea how many times I’ve done that?” my son complained.

A review of the metric system struck my son as a bit too basic for the first day of college for a future engineer. Apparently, in forming his objections this otherwise intelligent young man failed to consider when one of the basic principles of schooling: you must always master the basics before moving on to more complex concepts. The metric system is as basic to chemistry as atoms and test tubes.

Good teaching starts with the basics. Always begin a unit by defining vocabulary words. It’s impossible to move forward until we conquer the basics.

(Clunk…other shoe drops.)

I hate that kind of teaching.

I believe in starting at the highest levels of thinking, never the lowest. Create something. Solve something. Learn the basics along the way.

Consider this example: suppose you wanted to build a deck onto your house as a DIY project. Where would you begin? Most folks would start by designing their deck. They would sketch their plans; then they would start measuring. They might make more detailed sketches; then they would calculate materials and cost.

Few people would start a DIY project by taking a Home Depot course on how to hold a hammer. If you started any DIY project at that level of the basics, you would never complete anything. You would never engage in the highest level of creative thinking. You would never have a new deck.

Everyone who has ever completed a DIY project understands that you learn new and valuable skills along the way. You learn the basics as you create, not before you create. If you want to learn a heap of building trades, fix your house up to go on the market and do all the work yourself. You will learn everything from HVAC to plumbing, from carpentry to landscaping.

Several years ago I ran a workshop on writing learning objectives in lesson plans. As an activity, I asked teachers working in small groups to create objectives for an imaginary character education unit. Nearly all the groups insisted on first writing objectives at the lowest end of Bloom’s taxonomy. The teachers argued vehemently that they couldn’t teach lessons about empathy or respect until students first copied the definitions of those terms out of the dictionary.

There is no reason students need to learn the word for a thing before they learn about the thing. Words are not things. For example, you don’t need to know that the comfy thing in the living room with all the pillows is called a couch, or a sofa, before you lie down on it to take a nap. Who cares what it’s called whey you need a nap?

Yet, I couldn’t convince those teachers that students could grasp the concept of empathy before they learned the word itself. They were too entrenched in their belief.

I wish all teachers understood this: humans are driven by a need to create, and the need to create is a powerful force to drive learning.

Take a moment to consider the architects, stone cutters, masons, artists and laborers who created the pyramids and the great cities of ancient Egypt. What must they have learned in the process of creating extraordinary structures the likes of which the world had never seen before? Architects still study the methods of those ancient builders.

ELA teachers often feel the need to “front load” students with content knowledge before reading a story or novel. On the surface, it makes sense to build background knowledge about the French Revolution before reading A Tale of Two Cities or about the Holocaust before reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I have done this myself.

And I was wrong.

Rather than front loading background knowledge, I should have modeled curiosity and inquiry from my students. I should have shown them how to identify historical references and allusions and provided my classes with the opportunity to develop their questions, then research the answers.

Granted, this approach would have radically slowed down my Anne Frank unit. However, I would have greatly enriched the learning.

The opening pages of To Kill a Mockingbird contain references to the time the story takes place. A teacher launching a novel study should assign the first chapter and ask students to generate a list of questions about the setting. The students should then use the questions to guide their inquiry into the Great Depression. They may not learn everything, but what they learn will be meaningful.

No two words mean more for learning than create and discover.

Nonconformity, Haiku, and the Thoughtful Art of Teaching Grammar as Craft

I can still hear my college literature professor reading this to our class:

To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,

We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,

To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica

Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,

         And to-day we have naming of parts.

This verse is begins “The Naming of Parts” from Henry Reed’s collection, The Lessons of War. The poem captures an army drill instructor’s rote dissection of an M-1 rifle, and the distracted, lyrical thoughts of a young recruit, daydream, mind elsewhere.

To me the poem, mirrors the traditional approach to teaching grammar and the effect on students.. Let’s see if I can imitate Reed:

To-day we name the  parts of speech. Yesterday,

We had capital letters. And to-morrow morning,

We shall have how to punctuate the end of a sentence.

But to-day, we name the parts of speech. The short stop

gobbles up the ball, pivots, and underhands it the second basement,

And to-day we have the naming of parts of speech.

Reading aloud to the class, my professor, an Air Force veteran, did a remarkably authentic job capturing the monotonous tone of a military DI who had delivered the same monolog countless times to a room full of mind-dead pawns. I am not sure how Dr. Terry Donahue would feel about the approach to grammar instruction I advocate. He was a fierce taskmaster himself when it came to writing instruction.  Much like a dedicated drill instruction who truly cares about training men to return home and whole from war, not just to go fight one, Dr. Donahue did an admirable job preparing my class of freshman for college-level writing demands.

The naming of parts, Reed and Donahue would agree, has very little to do with thinking. It’s about complying and conforming, without much thought. Naming the parts of speech, capitalizing letters, punctuating the end of sentences, all of that is about compliance, too. It’s all about conforming to a sets of restrictions and definitions. That is a commonly held view of what grammar is: the restrictions placed on how to form a sentence.

From among all the great writers you have ever read or studied, how many of them would fall into the category of conformists? How many felt they had to blindly comply to any set of boundaries placed on them by agents and publishers? I think we would agree conformity and compliance are rarely qualities we find among great writers.

Oh, there are exceptions. As a freelance journalist, I comply and conform to the demands of my clients because, honestly, I like to get paid. The magazines and news websites I work  for often have set formats for articles. They have their own an established voice and style. I have done web-based work for the New York Times Co.,  and I freely admit I don’t have the journalistic chops to argue style with anyone at that company.

Conforming to a certain style isn’t intrinsically bad. For the writer, it allows emphasis to fall on content, structure and organization…all essential elements to good writing. That kind of conforming doesn’t shut off my thinking as a writer. It focuses it.

In every great writer, however, there is some element of rebellion. I’ve been an editor, and I have had to squash it a few times. Ironic, I know.

e.e. cummings often chose not capitalize his initials, as if he had the right to break the rules whenever he wanted. I chuckle every time I hear a teacher talk about how important it is for students to know and use 100 synonyms for “said” when Ernest Hemingway rarely saw the need to use any other word. Then, there’s James Joyce, who we know once wrote: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” Whatever the Hell any of that means.

Every writer, to some degree, is Bartleby, the Scrivener.

Writing is about using grammar as tool for shaping something meaningful and colorful, even three-or four- dimensional, out of a one-dimensional sheet of blank, white paper.

Grammar has to be taught, and taught well, not as a form of conformity but as a way to engage thinking.

We need to show our students how to think like writers. As I draft this blog, I not only think about what I want to say, but how I want to say it. I’m making choices to quote poems and novels. I have sipped in literary illusions. I imitated a poem, all as means to reach this point. Go back and check and you will see compound sentences joined by comma splices and lists without a junction before the last item. First, second and third person. Deliberate fragments. I meander in and out of formal and informal style.

The thoughtful choice of how to arrange words. That is what grammar is. Or, grammar is that. Grammar, that it is. (To employ  grammar, you must experiment.)

I once had an 8th grade class of competently bland writers. Someone must have taught them that every sentence had eight words and started with a capital T in The and ended with a period. Five sentence paragraphs. Five paragraph essays.

Their literary analysis essays on Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” droned on as dispassionately Reed’s drill instructor. To fix this I tried to show them adverb clauses, participle phrases, gerunds, and the like.  We drilled sentence combining like it would save them when the bomb went off.

The class did great with all the grammar book exercises.

Improve the actual writing? Not so much.

One day, in utter frustration a thought pops into my head. I have no idea where it comes from. That’s how inspiration works, I guess.

I’m reading some dreadfully dreadful essays aloud — trying to intimidate good writing out of kids, because that’s a strategy —  I stop, drop the papers on my desk, and I say, “You know what. Let’s write some haiku.”

Haiku is a poetic form with it’s own set rules. We keep the idea of three lines and the five-seven-five syllable pattern. I am not  so concerned about the subject matter.

We write haiku where the topic is the first word, where the topic is the last word, where it is implied, but not stated. We write haiku in the fewest number of words possible — three — and the greatest number of words — seventeen.

In a class period or two, these extremely unimaginative writers become problem solvers, manipulating words like puzzle pieces.  Creating…


I wish I had a few samples, but they disappeared in a move from one classroom to the next. I remember one was about the golden ratio of all things. Talk about an odd topic for a poem. Odd topics = real thinking.

The haiku exercise is a game changer. Suddenly, my students no longer think like compliant 8th graders. They  think like writers.

Then, before they begin their next essay assignment, I simply say, “Write every sentence like you are writing haiku.”

Talk about a lightbulb over the head moment. (Notice how I play with verb tense in the last few paragraphs. I take a little risk to see what I can do, play with how how the writing sounds. I revise it a few times. Playing. Thinking. Experimenting. You, the teacher, need to do this in front of your students. You don’t have to do it well, you just have to show them how you try to make it better.)

In terms of grammar, what did the students do differently? They manipulated sentence structure and played with word choice. In the process, they established entirely new writing voices for themselves.

Haiku  is a tremendous vehicle for teaching craft.

When you teach grammar, teach it in the context of “This is how writer’s think as they write.” Avoid words like always and never. Instead, encourage students to think, “Should I or shouldn’t I?” and “How will this sound to the reader?”

Show them a passage from a mentor text with lots of compound and complex sentences (or whatever is you think they need to work with). Ask your students to speculate on why the writer chose to use them. Then, get your students to try them out. They will be thinking like writers, maybe for the first time ever.

Encourage them to imitate mentors, but never get locked into one way of thinking or doing. Never allow your writers to ask you, “Can I do this?” That puts the thinking on the teachers side of the net. When students say, “Can I write it like this?” always respond with, “Try it and find out. We can always refine it later.”

And remember these words — slightly adapted– from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Whomsoever would be a writer must be a nonconformist.”

“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.