Remembering Donald Murray

When I received this assignment from a few years ago, I could not have been more proud. Donald Murray is one of my heroes. Like Murray, I have been a journalist and an educator and I am proud of my work in both fields.
In the age of the Common Core, in a time when misguided ideas of literacy circulate faster than best practice, it’s good to remember the principles for writing instruction that men like Murray and Donald Grave set forth.
If there ever was a golden age of literacy instruction, Murray and Graves were two of it’s giants.
I hope to write more about Donald Murray in the coming weeks, including a close look at what we can still learn from A Writer Teaches Writing. In the meantime, please take a look at the is synopsis of “Teach Writing as a Process, not a Product.”

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 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.

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.

What Should We Read?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I think I could.

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion, response writing and other activities follow.

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