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.

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 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.

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.