Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Confessions of a Plot Junkie

After reading “What Readers ReallyDo” by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton, I’ve realized that I really don’t understand how to read deeply. Sure, I can identify the theme of some obvious books, such as “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, a story about an Olympic runner who joins the war effort and is shot down over the Pacific, captured, and lives as a prisoner of war for several unbearable years.

But then again, the theme of that one is in the title.

Most books, I’ve discovered in looking back over my reading journal, I read just for fun. I am what Lucy Calkins calls a “plot junkie”. I rarely read for deeper meaning, to really get at the message the author is trying to send.

One of my friends, upon finding out that I’d also read “Water for Elephants” exclaimed, “Oh! Didn’t you think the Russian elephant being beaten for not following English directions was like the second language students in our schools?”  What??  No! I thought it was a love story.  What else have I been missing?

Now that I’ve read Barnhouse and Vinton’s book, however, I’m determined to turn over a new leaf. Each chapter in their book describes in detail how to teach students to pick up details in the beginning of a new book, how to look for a pattern within a text and infer possible meanings and author’s messages, and how to evaluate a book for its relevance to one’s own life.

So with that in mind, I dove into Yann Martel’s book “Beatrice and Virgil”. He’s the author of “The Life of Pi”, another book I read at a purely surface level and which I plan to reread now that I’m in rehab for plot addiction.

What I found out about this new “reading me” was that I needed to read slower, more intentionally, and with much flipping back and forth of pages to previous elements of a pattern I felt building. I needed to stop and restate in my own words an overview of what was happening and what I felt it meant. It would have been helpful to have a discussion partner at this point.

And what I found was depth. The old me would have abandoned this allegorical book or pushed through only so I wouldn’t have to confess to giving up, but with a scowl on my face while exclaiming, “This book is too weird!” Instead, I found that I was able to determine it was about the Holocaust before the author came right out and told me late in the book. I connected events that the old me would never have realized were related, and I even thought deeply about why the author chose to name the characters as he did.

The next step in my rehab process is to spread the word to others and convince them there’s more to books that just the plot. Of course, perhaps you’re the kind of person who already reads deeply and easily anticipates the author’s intent. Or maybe you’re in denial.

Either way, come on and join me – the first step is admitting we have a problem.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Pineapple Implosion

Testing mania has officially reached the pinnacle of absurdity. In an effort to make every square peg of text fit into the round holes of standardized tests, and the seemingly parallel goal of sucking every bit of enjoyment out of the act of reading, New York recently tested students on a tongue-in-cheek fable written by Daniel Pinkwater. He’s the author of books such as The Hoboken Chicken Emergency , Adventures of a Cat Whiskered Girl and Mrs. Noodlekugel , none of which I’ve read. However, it doesn’t take a genius to recognize his books contain an offbeat sense of humor that appeals to boys, quirky kids, and the creative right-brainers of the world.

Take a look at the passage from the test and the subsequent questions. How would you answer them? I’ll wait while you go visit the site….


Here are mine: reading on a standardized test is not the same as reading for enjoyment or for intrinsically-motivated information-seeking. When we read test passages we’re searching for the one right answer – by definition we’re not allowed to think outside the box or answer divergent questions. The most successful test-takers see it as a game where they try to “beat” the test creators.

“The Hare and the Pineapple” is not a story intended for literal comprehension. It would be like giving a college student their final exam on an episode of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show or treating Saturday Night Live as if it’s a documentary on American life from PBS. The fact that the Pineapple story was treated with such seriousness makes me feel that we’ve lost sight of our purposes. Not to mention our reason.

Standardized tests can give us some good information. But it can’t take the place of reading for enjoyment, and it certainly shouldn’t kill it. Please – leave some stories for kids to enjoy for the pure fun of reading, and give us at least a fighting chance of creating readers out of the students in our classrooms.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who's In Control?

“Good thinking!”
“I like how you inferred the answer to your question.”
“You’re right!”

These are all things I’ve said to students in the interest of giving them feedback, bolstering their self-esteem, and praising their use of strategies in the classroom. But I’m currently reading What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making by Barnhouse and Vinton, and they’re making me question these types of statements to kids.

When we evaluate student’s responses as being either good or bad, we subtly assume control of the learning. We become the keeper of the knowledge, the one who determines if an answer is “right” or not.

For instance, one day during a unit on inferring I read The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bag Wolves to a group of 2nd graders, and led them in using context clues and background knowledge to infer the meaning of unfamiliar words. As I turned a page partway through the book, a picture of the wolves playing badminton in front of their concrete bunker revealed itself to the children. When I read that the characters enjoyed a game of “shuttledore and battlecock” outside their new home, one boy exclaimed, “That’s just badminton!”

Here’s where I messed up. I simply said, “You’re right!”, saw the nods from the other students, and continued to read. However, Barnhouse and Vinton argue that my simple statement positioned me as the “one who knows the answers”. In classrooms where this is the norm, students will continuously search for the “right” answer that will please the teacher. They usually end up thinking there’s only one right answer.

Instead, these authors argue, I should have simply asked, “What made you say that?” That simple statement gives control back to the student and forces him to search within himself to describe his inferring process.

If I’d said that during my read aloud he might have responded, “Well, that’s what’s in the picture.” I imagine, these being 2nd graders, that I’d have to have given some good wait time, or even said, “Tell me more” in order for him to explain that he’d played badminton in P.E. last year, he’d used rackets and the funny little cone-shaped ball, and so he was drawing from his own schema to infer the meaning of the unfamiliar words “battledore and shuttlecock”.

Those simple little words, “What made you say that?” have the potential to be so powerful. They take away the easy answer, the search for the one “right” answer, and force the student to be an active, reflective participant in their own learning. And they force us teachers to dig deeper, listen more, and be willing to accept multiple answers. If school is about teaching kids to think, we have to make room for kids to do just that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Voices in Our Heads

When’s the last time you read aloud to your class? Or if you’re a coach or administrator, when’s the last time you walked by a classroom or dropped in when the teacher was reading aloud to her kids?

The fact is, many of us could probably say our read aloud sessions are few and far between. As the pressures of teaching have increased, and the test looms over the not-so-distant horizon this spring, anything that has the stench of “enjoyment” and that can’t be directly tied to an increase in test scores is abandoned in favor of activities that are.

But it’s not just during testing season that reading aloud books falls by the wayside. Too many people (teachers, administrators) feel if kids are listening to a book, or even interactively responding to a read aloud book, that rigorous instruction is not being provided. “You can’t just read for fun! There’s too much to do – skills must be drilled, worksheets must be worked upon, and circles must be bubbled.”

Recently, I had the good fortune to hear Katie Wood Ray speak at the National Reading Recovery Conference in Columbus, Ohio. She was a keynote speaker, talking in front of about 2,000 Reading Recovery certified (and those of us who were not certified) teachers about the power of reading aloud.

Kids deserve to hear the beauty of language spoken aloud, she said. They need to build a knowledge base of what good writing sounds like – otherwise, when we ask them, “Does that sound right?” they won’t know. Students need to practice reading their own writing aloud, which she practices herself when she writes professional books for teachers. It’s what makes books eminently readable – the sense that there’s a person behind the words, that it sounds like spoken language.

Katie led us in an exercise that made a big impression on me. First she posted on a large screen a memoir piece by Cynthia Rylant from “The Milestone Project” and she asked us to read the entire piece to ourselves. Then she read aloud, slowly, in her sweet Southern voice, and she let herself linger over some parts, pause at others, and luxuriate in the words. She then asked us to read the last paragraph to ourselves again, but this time to read it with her voice inside our heads, and as I did I realized that her voice was slowing me down, forcing me to slow at commas, stop abruptly at dashes, that before I’d quickly rushed through on my way to finishing the piece. Her voice echoed in my head, and I really did enjoy the piece, and connect with six-year-old Cynthia on her way to the school bus in the dark, much better than I had the first time.

The point, Katie says, is that when we read aloud, this is the gift we give our kids – to let them hear our voices inside their heads. When we listen to someone who really enjoys reading aloud it enhances our understanding of the characters and allows us to tie ourselves to them emotionally.

But for kids who don’t hear text read aloud, how will they know how it’s supposed to sound? How will they know how to write in ways that make their stories come alive to others? Will they connect as deeply to characters without the sounds of their dialogue echoing through their heads? Or without the sound of our read-aloud voices echoing as well?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What's the Underlying Message?

If there's one thing I've learned during my work over the past few years, it's that words matter. Whether they're spoken, emailed, or Tweeted, what we say and how we say it can often be two different things. Many times, we're not even aware of the competing messages we send.

I have a friend who I often talk to about teaching and coaching, and I realized after a discussion the other day that she often begins her sentences to me, "You need to..." rather than, "What about..." or "Have you thought of..." The difference is subtle, but the underlying message of the former is, "I have the answer" and it can be quick to shut down divergent discussion.

In working with a group of teachers earlier this summer, I learned from a participant to ask, "What questions do you have?" rather than, "Does anyone have any questions?" because the message then becomes, "I fully expect questions and don't judge you for having them".

Every year as the school year gets ready to begin, I like to reread Peter Johnston's book "Choice Words". My copy is heavily highlighted so I can skim the book within an hour. He argues eloquently that our words in classrooms have immense power to create efficacy and identity in children. Debbie Miller, featured often in his book, is a master at giving children power with her words: "You really helped me think through that part" she tells a student and "You solved that word by rereading and chunking". The underlying message is, "You did the work, and I merely witnessed your brilliant thinking".

I'd argue (and have before) that the same applies to coaching. Cathy Toll says a coach should never ask a question she already feels she has the answer to. So, we should never say, "Have you thought about making your mini-lessons shorter?" That's not really a question. It's a statement about the length of the current lesson. Asking a convergent question sends the message that the coach knows best, that she's searching for the "right" answer, and it automatically disrupts the power balance in a coaching relationship.

It's helped me to always step out of my shoes in conversations with teachers and put myself in their place. How will what I'm about to say come across? If I were them, would I feel motivated to continue our discussion? Or would I want to shut down? What underlying message am I sending?