Blogstitute Post 3: Closely Reading Our Students

June 23rd, 2014

We kick off the second week of our Summer Blogstitute with a fabulous post by Dorothy Barnhouse, author of Readers Front and Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts. In her post Dorothy shows us that by the putting students at the center of our teaching we can help all readers tackle complex texts. Be sure to leave a comment or ask a question for a chance to win a package of eight free Stenhouse books. Last week’s winner is Alex Fausett. We will pick a winner each week, so keep coming back!

Beyond Text Complexity: Closely Reading Our Students

I love the word complex. It implies a challenge, a puzzle, something to be figured out. The thesaurus gives us intricate and multifaceted as synonyms. Texts worth reading, in my opinion, are all complex, no matter how simple they may seem (see I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen or In a Small, Small Pond by Denise Fleming).

The problem, as I talk about in Readers Front and Center, is that the Common Core has emphasized specific levels of text complexity to be achieved by specific grades. And while I’m a strong believer in high expectations, what I have found in schools where I work is that the focus on text complexity has left many of our students behind.

Here’s one, chosen today because he’s pretty typical. He’s an eleventh grader. His class, which I visited in May, had read three novels since September. They were now preparing for the New York State Regents Exams, working with partners to fill in a worksheet describing each novel’s themes and literary devices.

This boy sat without a notebook, a book, a pen, or a pencil, but the backpack at his feet was unzipped to reveal a basketball. He spent most of the class talking with his partner about his game but expertly switched topics when the teacher approached. He had all the answers.

The Great Gatsby,” he proclaimed confidently. “Theme: Love is out of reach.”

As the class drew to a close, his partner pointed to the sheet. “We still need a literary device.”

“Easy,” the boy replied. “Symbolism. Don’t you remember in the movie? The green light at the end of the dock—always out of reach.”

With that, he borrowed a pencil, completed the worksheet, zipped his backpack around his basketball, and walked out of class.

We all know students like this, students who get the gist of a text but don’t understand or seem to care about the details. Often our default mode when we’re teaching these students is to do the work for them. We may, as the Common Core materials suggest, ask “text-dependent” questions, or we may stop at a particular place in a read-aloud and ask a series of questions that help students uncover the meaning. If we’re conferring with a student who is independently reading, we may focus the conference on correcting that student’s comprehension, perhaps by drawing attention to a word or phrase we determine he or she is missing.

But these methods of teaching are all limited by one thing: they are privileging the text over the student. Ironically—and often, tragically—the more we focus on texts, the less our students do. “Why bother?” is the response of many. Others internalize the messages we’re sending with “I can’t.” And we all know how quickly “I can’t” turns into “I won’t.”

So here’s a different idea. Let’s start our instruction with the student, not the text. Let’s take this eleventh grader, for example, and invite him to take his basketball out of his backpack, so to speak. Let’s ask him about his game. How did it go? Tell me about it. What happened next? Why did you do that? Why do you think the other player did that? If you had done something differently, what do you think might have happened? Why do you think the ref made that call? How would a different call have affected the outcome?

You get the picture. Questions like these are, of course, frames for complex thinking:

  • Looking at how different parts are connected
  • Considering how the different parts contribute to the whole
  •  Asking and answering “how” and “why” questions
  • Thinking about “what if” possibilities

Similar questions can be asked of a text, perhaps even of The Great Gatsby.  Not that this list should be trotted out and delivered as a task for reading The Great Gatsby, mind you. Instead, what’s useful about making this list is how it helps us see that students, even those we think can’t, actually can analyze and interpret. In other words, they can do complex thinking. In fact, this boy was doing exactly that with his friend—and with no prompting from me.

Instead of making this list for students, what we can do is make this list with students. “Look what you’re doing,” we can say. “That’s reading!” In this way we can make complex thinking visible for our students, in the texts of their lives.

If we want our students to closely read complex texts, let’s first closely read our students, complex beings that they are. Let’s heed the words of the late Maxine Greene: “To pay attention is our endless and proper work.”

As I’ve been planning with teachers for the coming year, here are a few ways we’ve decided to situate ourselves to pay closer attention to our students:

  • Plan our year as a stepped-up opportunity. If we want to end with grade-level complex texts, let’s start with highly engaging texts—maybe even a basketball game or two. “Read” those texts side by side with students, with no agenda. Listen for complex thinking, places where students are analyzing “why” or considering “how” or synthesizing parts into a coherent whole. Step students up to do this thinking in other texts, from ones we know will be highly and immediately engaging to ones that will require some deferred gratification.
  • Teach mini-lessons after students read, rather than before. That way, we can turn our students’ thinking into notice-and-name mini-lessons. They will thus become the teachers in the room.
  • Establish independent reading as the backbone of our classes (yes, even and especially in high school). Students need to read widely in self-selected texts. Conduct research conferences. Our job is to get to know how our students think as they read. Books are our indispensible partners in this work.

How are you planning on putting your students at the center of your instruction this year? I’d love to hear your comments.



Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

31 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Teresa  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:37 am

    Centering the student in the framework of questioning would definitely reflect different thoughts and stretch student understanding. This definitely has me thinking about higher level questioning, to produce higher level thinking.

  • 2. Stevi Quate  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:48 am

    Thank you, Dorothy! I’ve thought it ironic that CCSS expects students to do high level thinking but some of the support urges teachers to do the thinking for the students, heightening the level of thinking for the teachers but reducing the level of thinking for the students. That’s been one of my worries about the emphasis on text-dependent questions developed by the teachers. Your comments are spot on, especially your insights into the “default mode.”

  • 3. Shirley McPhillips  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 11:54 am

    Dorothy, wise as ever. Amazing how our long-held beliefs about teaching the “student” no matter what swirls around us holds true. Thanks for always bringing us back to what matters.

  • 4. Christina Rayner  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    Thank you for a great connection to help me better show close reading and analytical thinking to my students. We have to relate our teaching to students’ passions and current understandings.

    I’m moving from resource teaching to classroom teaching, and I’m soaking up every resource I can!

  • 5. Linda Baie  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    I like your idea of teaching the mini-lesson ‘after’ the reading, as the focus will then be with the student’s individual experience as the lesson offers a way for him or her to ‘look back’ at what was read, to notice specific things. I need to think about this in various stances because I work with K through 8 teachers. It will be a lively discussion I imagine! My school focuses on individual choice in workshop areas always, so beginning with the student as the center is not a new thing, but turning around that lesson really intrigues me. Thank you!

  • 6. KK  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 8:14 pm

    To answer your query, I plan to put myself in the background during the thinking work of a read aloud. I see read aloud as the public “independent” reading time where we collectively think alongside each other; a place to grow our thinking work. I’m planning to resist the temptation to do the work that students need to be engaged in and listen closely. From this stance, I hope to collect much to teach for mini-lessons after noticing-and-naming what and how students are thinking as we read together.

  • 7. Tracy Mailloux  |  June 23rd, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    I second your comment about “closely reading the students”. How could we ever meet the needs of our students if we don’t take the time to get to know them first, not just as readers but as people? I also like your idea of reading a piece with no agenda. Sometimes it is important to read for reading’s sake. (And then go back in for that mini-lesson!)

  • 8. Lisa  |  June 24th, 2014 at 6:05 am

    Thanks for this deeply thoughtful post! Love how you push our thinking to put students at the core…that’s what close reading is all about! I can’t wait to try and share student-driven mini-lessons post reading. Exciting ideas!

  • 9. Beth  |  June 24th, 2014 at 7:29 am

    I don’t work with highschool students, but I know that in my work with elementary kids, I have tried to focus on how to get them to work collaboratively to generate complex conversations/questions among themselves. Wise teacher input in reading groups can help their collective thinking really take off.

  • 10. Kate  |  June 24th, 2014 at 10:22 am

    Thanks for this post! You’ve got me thinking about modeling complex thinking outside of texts as a way into complex thinking inside a text.

  • 11. Tammy Petty Conrad  |  June 24th, 2014 at 11:23 am

    “…let’s closely read our students…”

    Love this! It is so easy to get caught up in the requird curriculum and miss this step. I’m going to really look at better establishing relationships at the beginning of the new year with my students.

  • 12. Rhonda P.  |  June 24th, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Even though I teach math, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post! It is so important for students to do the thinking across the curriculum, not just in reading class. At times, I have found myself doing the thinking for my students. I have to stop, rephrase my questioning, and allow for their creativity to come forth. Thank you for this reminder!

  • 13. Terri R  |  June 24th, 2014 at 2:12 pm

    I was always a compliant student, but became frustrated when my 7th grade teacher insisted that the way I interpreted a passage by Poe was wrong. It made me wonder how she knew what he was thinking, After that, I found it was best to just feed back to the teacher what was given to me and not express what I thought for myself. After all I wanted good grades. This continued though my undergraduate years.

    As a teacher I try not to lead students to my opinion and provide a safe environment for them to express their ideas or thoughts without being put down or ridiculed. I believe I’ve been successful, benefitting both my students and myself.

    Unfortunately, the teacher the following year strictly follows the textbook. They will be expected to give the answer in the teacher’s answer key or be counted wrong. Are standardized tests also looking for specific answers? If so, how do I prepare them for that? Suggestions would be appreciated.

  • 14. Elsie  |  June 24th, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    You’ve given food for thought, hmmmm, mini-lesson after reading. That has great potential. A natural way to get kids to reread for an authentic purpose.

  • 15. Joanne  |  June 24th, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I am moving from Kindergarten to 6th grade Social Studies. I am trying to learn all I can about close reading. I think your point about reading first, lesson after sounds like an excellent chance for the students to notice more about the text and to get more out of it.

  • 16. Angie Kelley  |  June 25th, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I like the idea of reading first and then a mini lesson after. I think that sets the expectation that the student’s thinking is important and valued by the teacher. I feel like some students will give up on complex text because they are afraid that their thinking is wrong.

  • 17. Terje  |  June 26th, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    “If we want our students to closely read complex texts, let’s first closely read our students, complex beings that they are.” So true.
    “Teach mini-lessons after students read, rather than before.” This one makes me wonder as it contradicts what I have believed to be true so far.

  • 18. Dawn Sunderman  |  June 28th, 2014 at 7:09 am

    One way I intend to put students at the center of our classroom is during a read aloud rather than me asking questions, I will stop and have them share what they noticed about what we just read with a partner. Or have them turn to their partner and ask them a question about what we just read,
    I am also interested in the idea of having the students read and then do a mini lesson. I am curious as to what they will look like.

  • 19. Mrs. D  |  June 28th, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I attended a workshop on “Reading Powers” This year and hope to fully implement these thinking strategies to my first graders this year.

  • 20. Gloria Wilson  |  June 29th, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    Building those relationships with students so you can get insight into their interests isn’t an easy thing to do. This is especially true in our media saturated world today. Our local schools are now allowing all students in the high schools to carry their phones with them all day long. This will mean that they will be talking to their friends instead of the teacher.

  • 21. Brenda  |  July 1st, 2014 at 1:43 am

    I teach Kindergarten. When I read to the students, just getting them to listen is always an enormous task. If I ask any kind of question they are usually so scared to answer until February.

  • 22. Kristin McIlhagga  |  July 2nd, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I think your point of “reading students” is crucial in many aspects of teaching. Your basketball example is what I often refer to as an “entry point” for the teacher.
    I work with preservice teachers, and so often their big concern is what to do if students respond in a way that they haven’t anticipated. I try to model this as often as possible in the children’s literature courses I teach. I’ll often write notes on the board about student’s initial thoughts or “download” and then build from there. In order for this to work, I have to follow my own rule (and the students do as well) that this the download is done without commentary or judgement.
    Then we go back as a class and consider what is interesting or intriguing. What do we have questions about or want to know more about from other readers. I often respond by saying “Kati, I’d like to know more about your thinking. Could you find a place in the book that could helps us consider it more closely?”
    I like the idea of a mini-lesson afterwards because it could be an opportunity to help students learn how to do this themselves – which ultimately is one type of close reading.
    Thanks so much for your thinking – and for everyone’s posts as well! I’m planning on sharing it with preservice teachers in the fall.

  • 23. Miriam  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 7:19 am

    One way to invite students to do more thinking in any subject or around any topic; when they answer a question say That’s a good answer because (fill in truthfully), who has a different idea? This almost always encourages richer, deeper and more individual thinking because it builds trust and sends the message that divergent ideas are not only welcomed but expected.

  • 24. Susan M  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I have been teaching second graders the 4 basic levels of Text Dependent Questions (A- Right There B-Search and Find through pix, captions, charts, etc, C- Connect to Author’s Meaning, D- Beyond the Text), identifying the types of questions they encounter, whether on standardized task or teacher created. I do this “outside the text” during our morning meeting time, as well as during all subjects. The kids are given opportunities to create their own questions in each of the categories and ask each other their questions…mostly during small group instruction. I have even categorized a kid question when it is asked during recess or any transitional or personal moment. What this has done was enable my kids to form purposeful questions when it does relate to a specific text, but just as importantly, to each other personally. They have become more in-tune with each other by asking a friend more involved questions. I have seen a shy child smile because what they had to share piqued the interest of her peers. I agree that the “mini-lesson” after the read works really well. In my room, it looks like trios sitting and asking these TDQ’s about what they have read. There is a visual prop in the room with the levels of questions, and the key question words of the 5 W’s +H. I will be adjusting this piece to include the “What If…” category.
    This was a great article of thought…thanks

  • 25. Deb H.  |  July 3rd, 2014 at 7:39 pm

    I like the idea of getting to know students’ interests as a way in to reading complex texts. I am already considering ideas to try this out, to help students make the connection between the complexities of their lives and interests and those of the characters and events in literature.
    I also like Miriam’s comment about encouraging students by telling why an answer is a good one, and then asking for other ideas.

  • 26. Karen Mason  |  July 4th, 2014 at 7:53 am

    It has been a struggle with students to get them really thinking about the text and sharing their thoughts. I will use the three tips as I revamp my literacy block. I particularly like the idea of doing the minilesson after the reading.

  • 27. Teacher Contests Ending J&hellip  |  July 6th, 2014 at 4:55 pm

    […] Publishers:  Head over to the Stenhouse blog to comment and be entered to win 8 free Stenhouse books for your […]

  • 28. Chris  |  July 7th, 2014 at 4:45 am

    In elementary school, we utilize “close reading” with our learners throughout the day with multiple venues, guided reading, read-aloud, etc; as well as, in content areas, math, science, and social studies, training them to think about what they have read using the how and why questioning technique. Early introduction and practice of this concept solidifies the learner’s understanding of how to analyze, synthesize, and critique what they read to learn.

  • 29. Susie Scott  |  July 8th, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    As I read this, it struck me that our ultimate concern is always our students, but sometimes we get so caught up in the “what” and the “how” of teaching that we forget the “who”. Thank you for the valuable reminder. I love the idea of doing a mini-lesson after reading (what a concept!) and that I need to remember that there are many ways to instruct, I just have to keep my kids’ needs in mind and think outside the box at times. I recently read an article where a teacher wanted to implement an idea called “whole novels” so her students could actually read and enjoy a novel all the way through before taking it apart to analyze. I respect her concern for authentic reading!

  • 30. Jill  |  July 9th, 2014 at 7:45 pm

    I am intrigued by the idea of close reading especially with the youngest readers. This is definitely a topic that I need to learn more about.

  • 31. Tips & Tools for Help&hellip  |  January 17th, 2015 at 9:52 am

    […] how our students think as they read. Books are our indispensible partners in this work.” (Closely Reading Our Students, 2014)  Dorothy has taught me to focus on the reader’s thinking and what they are working on […]

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