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.
31 comments June 23rd, 2014