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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

A Call for a Transformational Approach to Grammar Instruction

This week, in case you missed it, some of us celebrated National Grammar Day. Don’t blame yourself if you didn’t notice. Following the crowd favorite, Read Across America Day, and the commercial favorite, National Pancake Day (I’m 85 percent sure the International House of Pancakes made that one up), it is easy to understand how you may have missed it. Hopefully, we can make up for that now.

Here’s the premise I would like you to consider for the next few minutes: We need a transformational approach to teaching grammar that will make it an essential part of literacy instruction once again.

Now, I’m not suggesting our schools bring back Warner’s English Grammar and Composition, that dense little book of rules and drills that followed me through my schooling. I don’t want to go back to the HBJ Language textbooks and workbooks I used when I started teaching either.

Drill and kill grammar taught in isolation doesn’t work. Every study on the subject conducted over 30 or 40 years came to that conclusion. For years, I tried grammar mini-lessons incorporated into my writing workshop, but those lessons always seemed forced and were always too hit or miss. I never saw the returns in better edited final pieces.

I abhor Daily Oral Language just as much as grammar books. Jeff Anderson, the author of several books on effective grammar and mechanics instruction, including Mechanically Inclined and Revision Decisions, points out the flaws in DOL. This routine typically involves displaying for students an error-laden sentence and asking them to suggest the corrections. The problem with this, Anderson states, is that by showing students flawed sentences we reinforce the mistakes, not the corrections.

Anderson recommends a model I have found particularly effective. He shows students mentor sentences and invites them to notice the craft, structure and stylistic elements in the sentence. Then, he asks students draft their imitations of the mentor. Finally, he has them attempt various revisions to see how alterations change of the effectiveness of the sentence.

When you follow Anderson’s instructional model — or that of Carol Weaver who pioneered this path — you begin to see grammar not as a set of rules and restrictions, but rather as a tool for crafting pieces with a sophisticated writing voice behind them.

This is the only method I have ever employed that produced noticeable changes in the way students write. For several years, my teaching partner Lisa Sassano and I used the mentor and imitation method as the foundation of our writing instruction, and it produced remarkable improvements in the way our students wrote. I was able to convince a few other teachers to adopt out version of the Anderson method, and they produced the same result.

My only regret is that more teachers don’t teach grammar this way. These lessons only take about 10 minutes a day if they become a regular part of your instructional routine. If you are like most ELA teachers, grading essays isn’t your favorite pastime. Teachers, I often say, are the only people who get paid to read bad writing. Editors at least have the option of rejecting a piece for quality, and they can do that quickly. Sadly, teachers have to read until the very end.

When students begin to master craft, voice and style, when their stories and essays take on some authentic rhetorical sophistication, their writing pieces are no longer a chore to grade. You look forward to the work and walk away with a sense of pride in your instruction.

All this is good stuff, I hope you will see, but it isn’t the best reason for pushing a transformational approach to teaching grammar, mechanics, and craft.

Grammar is the mechanism — the metaphorically mechanical nuts and bolts — that give a piece of writing its voice. You may have come across this line from Stephen King’s On Writing: “What is writing? Telepathy, of course.” As teachers, we shouldn’t ignore the importance of that line. Writing is a means for putting thoughts onto paper, and the paper is simply a medium for conducting thoughts from the mind of the writer to the mind the reader.

Grammar plays a vital role in this process. Grammar brings clarity and coherence to writer’s thoughts and the writer’s voice. Clarity and coherence are essential for both interpersonal communication and interpersonal communication. Without grammar, we can not clearly share our thoughts, and often we can not understand the thoughts ourselves. We have a mind full of fragmented ideas, instead of a fluent inner monolog.

We need to teach grammar so our students can write and speak with abundant clarity. But we also need it so our students can think in cogent language. A sentence, a paragraph, a story, or essay must have its own internal logic as clear and functional as lines of code in a computer program. That’s what effective grammar instruction provides: logical lines of code on paper and in our minds.

Therefore, I call for a transformation in grammar instruction. We must abandon the thought that grammar is strictly rules to drill into the heads of our students. We also need to stretch beyond grammar as a writer’s toolbox for crafting clever sentence.

We need to see grammar as the vehicle for creating clear and coherent thinking for all aspects of communication, including a rational, coherent inner monolog. Our instruction needs to follow this model so we can lead our students to the highest level of reading, writing, and thinking.

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 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.