Teaching Readers, Not Books

Earlier this week, I met with a teacher and good friend to talk about her classroom and teaching practice. Through our conversations, some of the tension around teaching novels bubbled to the surface and created some meaningful dialogue for both of us. As I drove back to my office (the car is second only to the shower as a productive place to reflect), I thought about this quandary: What is the role of the whole class novel? How does the whole class novel allow us to initiate students into communities of literacy?

Whenever I think about what to teach and why, I think about how that genre or skill translates to what adults–grown-up readers and writers–do. In my own classroom, I wanted to recreate those authentic reading and writing situations so that students could get practice (and support) engaging in them before they actually became adults. Now, when I work with teachers in their classrooms, we also explore this together. As my friend and I were talking, we started unpacking the moments in adult life when people read novels. This is what we came up with:

1. When they want to

2. When they’re in a book club

3. When they’re literary critics

Then we started talking about what people do once they read a novel.

1. When people pick up novels to read them independently and then share that experience when they’re finished, they do a few things. First, they might talk to a friend who has similar (or even different) interests. They might talk about the book they just read and perhaps even recommend it. They might also write an Amazon or Goodreads review (or, at the very least, rate the book).

2. When people are in book clubs, they democratically choose a common text, and then talk about it a few weeks later over a glass of wine (or three). They decide on the topic of conversation, they decide on the questions to ask each other. They make a commitment to read the book and then hold each other accountable to that commitment.

3. When people are literary critics (these are few and far between), they read all kinds of books–new and old–and write for literary magazines, journals, or the New York Times. I’m guessing that this is a job for English majors who don’t want to go into teaching. Either way, it’s not necessarily a huge field.

This is what people do not do once they read a novel:

1. Take a quiz

2. Write a book report

3. Make a poster

Our big question was this: why is it that, traditionally, the way we use novels in school is in direct opposition to how students interact with novels in the outside world? And, more importantly, how can we help our students build reading identities in order to make them life-long readers? Because I assure you that I am not a life-long reader because my junior English teacher assigned Grapes of Wrath. I am a life-long reader because I have taught myself what I enjoy, which incidentally, is dystopian literature and novels that include strong female characters–neither of which were present in my required high school reading lists.

As a sidenote, though, I now do really love Steinbeck, but that’s because of East of Eden, a book I read when I was 24 and out of school.

“So, Nicole,” you might be saying, “what exactly do you believe? It kind of sounds like you’re saying that the whole class novel is sort of bullshit.”

That’s not exactly what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that before we choose any instructional practice or materials for our classrooms, we probably should be really clear about what our goals are. Among lit majors, I feel like my skeptical opinion of the whole class novel is taboo. In fact, I hear so many reasons from a variety of people about why we should continue to teach the whole class novel. Here are some of them:

1. As teachers, we have a passion for this book, so that passion will inspire our students.

2. Students need to be exposed to rich and challenging literature.

3. Students need to understand basic texts that provide a foundation for our culture. In other words, kids need to read the canon.

4. Sometimes we just need to teach kids that, in life, they’ll have to do things they don’t want to do.

5. I can’t read all the books. How will I know if students have read them? How do I hold students accountable?

And here are my responses:

1. A teacher’s passion is very important in the classroom. Instead of thinking about how important it is to be passionate about a particular book, what if we reframed that to, “I am a passionate reader.”

2. Agreed. We’ve all heard about Common Core and text complexity, and beyond that, it just makes sense to give students practice in reading challenging texts. However, we can still provide an element of choice in our classrooms. What if, for example, we teach a unit about the ways in which a historical and political context shapes the literature of its time. Students could read a wide range of challenging and rich texts in a unit like that: 1984, Brave New World, anything by Dickens…the list goes on. If students were able to choose the text they read based on their interests and reading identities, then that builds engagement and ownership.

3. This is where I have trouble. Here’s why. The “canon” really is representative of a world of dead white men. Yes there are a couple of token women and/or more diverse authors thrown into the canon, but by and large, it is a very Anglo- and male-centric body of literature, and the fact of the matter is that a significant portion of our students see themselves nowhere in those texts. For the implications of this, you should see this TED Talk. It’s pretty amazing:

4. Persistence is a skill we all need to learn. When we’re faced with an unpleasant task and work through it, that definitely gives us practice in persistence. I’m just not sure if we need to teach persistence at the expense of children’s love of reading. If I have to choose what’s more important, I’m going with a love of reading. There are many opportunities in school to provide children tasks they don’t want to do. Why does reading a work of fiction–something that adults do almost exclusively for fun–have to be one of those opportunities?

5. Let’s talk accountability for a second, because that’s really the elephant in the room. I have to say that, when I taught the whole class novel, there were students who wouldn’t have read it if I had paid them $1000. I am not kidding. They hated some of the books that much (I, of course, loved them). No amount of accountability coerced my students into reading the books I assigned  taught my students persistence.

So here’s what happened. They failed the quizzes, got less-than-stellar grades in my class, and still didn’t read. Of course, because they didn’t read, they also didn’t learn anything.

So there’s one of the problems with accountability. Even when you do a whole class novel, accountability systems don’t guarantee you anything.

Now let’s talk about the real world. A few years ago, I read The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller, and it changed my life. She opened the book about her story about how novels played a central role in her marriage to her husband. She then discussed how, when she finished a book, she absolutely did not go running to her husband and say, “Honey! I finished this amazing book! Come look at the diorama I created to represent it!” Instead, she talked about those books with her husband. And that’s what we do as adults, isn’t it? We have authentic conversations about books we read. Why couldn’t students also do this work? That is the work of a community of literacy.

Finally, here’s something else to think about. When we make all of the choices for students, when do they learn to make choices for themselves? How are we using our experience as readers to have conversations about pushing students beyond the boundaries of what’s comfortable? How are we using their interests to encourage them to read something new?

Teaching is a monumentally complex job, and when we focus on what we really hope students learn in our class–what our end goals are–maybe it makes things a little bit easier.

Postscript

Possible Teaching Ideas:

  • Use a site like TeenReads to help students choose books based on their interests.
  • Students could write book reviews and share them with other students in the classroom or through technological avenues.
  • Create book clubs around themes so that students have choice but also have a built-in literacy community.
  • Focus on teaching skills of a reader rather than the content of a book. Students can then apply any of those skills to the books they are reading.

Other ideas? Share in the comments!

I Thought You Said We Were Reading!

Even though I am teaching a full semester of English 1 (ninth grade) in summer school, I knew going in, with all of the intricacies of this abbreviated course, that I would never even come close to teaching even a large portion of the standards to mastery. Because of this, I made a very strategic decision to look forward instead of behind.

Especially since the ninth grade ELA standards (both current and CCSS) loop into tenth grade, I asked myself, What skills will most help students next year? From there, I divided those standards into two large groups: reading and writing. This is because those two “R”s are the primary reason many of my students are sitting in front of me. My goal was to prepare them for the inevitability that someone will, at some point in the future (and probably some time next year), hand them a piece of hard text and simply say, “Read this.”

Because of that goal, I also organized my day into two segments: the times we think like readers and the times we think like writers.

However, something peculiar has been gnawing at my soul over the past several days. During our “Reading Block” of time, when kids are working with text, I have turned to a tool I know helps people both explore and express the larger meaning of the words on the page: Writing. We write about text all the time. We write to explore the meaning of the words. We write to tell each other what the text has taught us.

And each time we do, I hear a similar challenge from at least one (but usually more) of my students: “But this is READING time!”

It disturbs me–not because the kids are complaining; that’s what teenagers DO by nature at times. But because, as educators, I don’t think we’ve done the best job of making sure that our kids understand that the two–reading and writing–are inextricably linked.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not pointing fingers. I think part of our current reality is a byproduct of how our standards are written (at least in California). There really is no expectation, save the literary response essay (which is a make-believe genre anyway), that students are writing about text. And the STAR test doesn’t improve the situation either when all of the questions about text are multiple choice. It sends a very clear message to everyone: writing is something that we do when we don’t read.

Somehow, the kids have gotten that message too. They don’t see reading and writing as activities that go together–they see them as very separate entities whose paths shall never cross. At least, my summer school students see it that way, and my guess is that at least some of their friends do too.

With Common Core on the horizon, this has to change. These new standards purposefully link reading and writing, and moreover–not that I want to get all test-obsessed or anything–the Smarter Balanced Assessment will require students to write about text too.

I’m not saying that our kids need to write a full analysis of every text they read. There are lots of ways kids can write about text to share their ideas–including many technological tools that can help (digital literacy, anyone?).

I’m just saying that maybe we need to make sure that, as teachers, we show our students the beautiful and necessary synergy that exists between the two–and teach our students how they can become even more insightful thinkers if they can simply harness that power.

“But I Can’t Read”

I have been teaching for eleven years now, which I think is long enough to have a deep understanding of teaching practice but not quite long enough to avoid the charming giggles of my veteran colleagues who will probably say to this, “Eleven years? You’re still a baby!”

Either way, I had a moment today that I have not yet had in those eleven years, so even though I feel like a veteran at times, the universe reminded me today that, in some areas, I’m still soberingly inexperienced.

This morning, my students and I were reading more personal narratives. Feeling like they were ready for some independence, I provided a new narrative for them to read and then subsequently write about. That’s when it happened.

One of my students, a gregarious JV football player looked at me and said, “But, Mrs. Kukral, I can’t read.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

I went into problem-solving mode, trying to determine whether it was a comprehension issue or a true-to-life decoding one. As I reflect on the day, I think it’s probably a bit of both.

I wanted him to read aloud to me, but understandably, he didn’t want to do that with the other students around, so I selected a small chunk of text, and asked him to read it to himself and underline words he couldn’t figure out. Some of his selections were words like surroundings, belongings, anxieties, samurai, and ethereal.

As we worked together, I offered him some decoding tricks, and then we also tried some comprehension strategies. When he had success decoding and comprehending a chunk of text, I asked him about his thought process so that we could determine other strategies that worked. Over the course of the morning, I noticed that he was starting to use some of the processes independently. But this lively, energetic boy (who admits he got kicked out of class last year–a lot) still has a long road ahead of him, and I have very little time to make a difference.

Thinking about this turn of events for most of the morning, I started to reflect on some really relevant issues in the Common Core, and the one that surfaced most quickly for me is also one of the most controversial: Text complexity.

Of course, we know that the Common Core State Standards advocate that all students should be reading grade-level text and that our kids need to be able march up a perfect little staircase of complexity as they advance through the grades.

Teachers of reading know this isn’t quite so neat and tidy. On the other hand, if students are going to be successful in the world outside our classroom walls, they are going to need to have strategies to comprehend (and decode) complex text from all different disciplines.

That’s where the teaching comes in.

Because another expectation of the Common Core is that we are all literacy teachers. This is a paradigm shift of colossal proportions–even, I would argue, for many English/Language Arts teachers. This is because while biology teachers have genetics, evolution, and ecology, English teachers have Shakespeare, Faulkner, and the persuasive essay.

I think that this needs to change.

In order for us to be able to help our students learn how to read (because this isn’t just a problem unique to elementary school, as it turns out), we need to know how to do that.

I was faced with that reality today. I had this student in front of me who vulnerably said, “I can’t do it.” And I pulled out every tool I had in my shed, including immediate formative assessments I could try in that moment in order to “diagnose” his particular issue.

  • I questioned him in order learn what his mind was doing when he read.
  • I showed him how to deconstruct words and look for word parts that he recognized.
  • I showed him how to read small chunks of text at a time and paraphrase.
  • I showed him how to use his understanding of the previous paragraph to build an understanding of the one below it.
  • I asked him what we was doing to understand the text when he finally did start to figure it out.
Most importantly, I drew on my own experience and reflections as a reader to provide the support that he needed in that moment.

Are these all the answers? No. But they’re what I felt were appropriate at the time given the circumstances. Will I continue to investigate interventions and supports that will work for this student? Absolutely. But my reality is that I have seven more days to help, and he has a very frustrating lifetime ahead of him if we can’t start to solve this problem.

So what do we do about the Common Core? We teach teachers–all teachers–how to be teachers of reading and writing, how to explicitly draw on their own experiences as readers and writers in order to understand how these complex and intricate processes work. Because at the end of the day, not all students are going to fit the straight-edged text complexity mold, and we need to know what to do about it.

We will not always recognize these students, and they will not always bravely tell us what mine did today. In fact, he shared with me that, “I misbehave in class because I don’t know how to do the work. It’s just easier that way.” This is also the student who, on the first day, asked me to do grammar worksheets instead of read and write.

Now it all makes sense.

So no, sometimes our students don’t tell us what they need–not directly anyway–but they somehow still figure out a way to let us know.

We just need to be able to hear them.

Real Talk

My Area 3 Writing Project colleague, Joe, challenged me to share some of my bumps in the road as I experiment with the Common Core in my summer school class. He (very rightfully) said that the bumps are what people want to hear about–because they want to know how other people are navigating them. While I wasn’t in a place to do that yesterday, I am feeling much more up to the task today.

Because I’m not gonna lie. Yesterday sucked.

As I’ve been structuring my summer school class, I have decided to focus on building two major areas of my students’ skills: reading and writing (with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the writing).  Over the next three weeks, my plan is to focus on two major text types: narrative and argument. All of the reading we do is also in those types so that students can start to see the link between what we read and what we write.

For students that say they hate writing, they are surprisingly enthusiastic about it (more about that on a different day). However, yesterday, when it came to reading, I had a huge problem on my hands. We were reading a narrative and working through some tasks to help students collaboratively analyze its structure. This was after we read the piece to understand the gist of it and to extract significant moments from it. I thought the kids would be okay. They definitely were not, and they rebelled.

After what felt like an hour (but wasn’t) of not accomplishing anything, I finally hit the reset button. I stopped all of them, named the fact that something clearly wasn’t working, and then asked for their feedback. Their responses were not surprising, given what I had learned from them the previous day: “We don’t like to read.” “Why do we have to think so hard about this?” “Can’t we do grammar worksheets?” That last question sealed the deal for me. Because when I discover that a fifteen-year-old boy would rather do grammar worksheets than what I’m asking him to do, I know I’m in deep trouble. Very deep.

I managed to survive the rest of the day and left school feeling pretty discouraged and beat up. I needed to figure out exactly what went wrong so that I could fix it. In a hurry.

As I thought about my failings last night (over two glasses of Cupcake Red Velvet), I started to develop a theory. What if I didn’t include enough scaffolding? What if my release wasn’t gradual enough? Could that have been the cause of the rebellion? Had I gone too fast?

So I did what we do as teachers: I re-vamped all of our reading work for the next two days. I shifted our reading block to the morning when the kids (and I) are fresher. Then I thought about the way the Common Core Standards are organized. One thing that is so elegant about them is the way that they are horizontally aligned (in the document) so that one grade level builds on the next.

But what we don’t always talk about is how they are so intentionally vertically aligned on paper so that each standard sort of builds on the next one. The first person who made me realize this was Lucy Calkins in her book Pathways to the Common Core, co-authored by Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman. It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before (that’s probably why she’s Lucy Calkins, and I’m not).

Take the reading standards, for example. This is the general progression of the first section, “Key Ideas and Details” (in my words):

  • RI.9-10.1: Pull out details/evidence from a text; articulate explicit and implicit points in a text
  • RI.9-10.2: Gather those details and inferences and determine how they equate to a central idea in the text; write about this central idea
  • RI.9-10.3: Analyze the order of points and details in the text and how they are introduced, developed, and connected to each other.

As students progress through these standards, their understanding of a text can really become more sophisticated. That’s where my problem was.

I didn’t spend enough time with the first two and jumped right to the third one. My kids didn’t know what to do, and it was totally my fault.

When I started thinking about how I would change things for today, I realized that I needed to spend way more time on numbers 1 and 2 and not worry so much about number 3, not yet anyway. After all, what I am trying to do is make sure that my students have some really concrete tools to take with them into next year so that they don’t end up in summer school again.

So that’s exactly what we did. And I scaffolded the heck out of it too. We read the piece in small chunks and wrote paraphrases of each paragraph, including what the narrator was learning about herself. And then, when I finally did release them for independent work, I gave them small, manageable chunks to complete in a very short amount of time (10 minutes or so) and constantly had them share their thinking. For my students, who have demonstrated that they don’t have a whole lot of stamina, this worked.

And when they transitioned to writing about the central idea in the text (after I modeled very explicitly how I take my notes about something and transfer it to a written piece), they were successful.

And as I conferenced with them about their writing, they were listening to the feedback, trying on the suggestions, and sitting up a little taller each time I complemented something they were doing well. Even the kid who hated my guts yesterday and Monday was totally on my side after I recognized how good he is at making inferences about the narrator’s feelings.

So yeah.

It was a good day.