Wednesday, January 17, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Solving Words, Part 1

The next three posts in this series will deal with what is probably the number one concern of most teachers when it comes to struggling readers: decoding. I choose to label what we typically call decoding, word solving, because I think this term gets closer to what is actually going on as students encounter unknown words in their reading and can, therefore, lead us to more informed instruction.

In Part 1 of Solving Words, I want to address two key underlying understandings of decoding that we may not always think of as we ask kids to "sound it out" when they run into difficulty. The first of these understandings is that identifying an unknown word encountered in text is a problem solving situation and that applying our problem solving abilities is critical. The second understanding is that any of the tools we have to decode words must be applied flexibly because none of these tools works 100% of the time.

When a reader encounters an unknown word, the reader is confronted with a problem to solve. As teachers our job is to help the reader develop as many tools as possible to bring to this problem solving situation. Let me take a step back and look at what steps we follow when faced with any problem to be solved. We'll use the sample of a leaky faucet here.
  1. Define the problem - What is going on here? The faucet is dripping and driving me nuts.
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence  - What information is available to help me solve the problem? The faucet is dripping. I know it is old. I know faucets often drip because of a loose connection or a leaky washer.
  3. Inventory my tools - What do I know that can help me? I have a tool box with adjustable wrenches, plumbers tape and a variety of different sized washers in the basement. I also know there is a valve to turn off the water. I also can look for a You Tube video on my IPad to show me how to change a washer in a faucet.
  4. Form a hypothesis - Maybe if I try this I can solve the problem. I think the most likely situation is a leaky washer.
  5. Test the hypothesis - What happens if I try this? The old washer looks like it has moved out of position and is worn. Let's replace it and see if that fixes the problem.
  6. Evaluate the solution - Did the tested hypothesis work? After I put this back together and turn the water back on let's see if it holds. No leaks. Good.
Now lets take a look at these steps as they relate directly to problem solving an unknown word encountered while reading.
  1. Define the problem - This word does not look familiar. What can I do?
  2. Analyze the problem and gather evidence - Ok, I need to know this word to understand what I am reading, so let me see what I can figure out. The word has familiar letters and I understand what I have read so far, so I should be able to do this.
  3. Inventory my tools - I know the sounds of letters, I know how to chunk a word and look for the onset and rime, I know how to look for small words in large, I know the word has to look right, sound right, and make sense. So...
  4. Form a hypothesis - If I work through the word, and use these strategies, I should be able to come up with the word.
  5. Test the hypothesis - After working through the word, I think the word is...
  6. Evaluate the solution - Does the word look right, sound right, and make sense?
Now, obviously a reader must be able to conduct this problem solving scenario almost instantaneously. If the reader struggles for any period of time over the unknown word, comprehension will suffer. So, children need to have a readily available tool box to access quickly and apply efficiently to solve the problem. The point here is to help readers see that they are junior Sherlock Holmes's trying to figure out a mystery with all the clues right in front of them.

Flexibility ties nicely into the problem solving view of decoding. One key element of problem solving is evaluating the solution. Since readers can never be sure that any one solution will work, they must apply the solution, whether it is "sounding it out", or onset/rime, or context clues, flexibly with an understanding the strategy may not work and something else must be tried.

I have often seen a lack of flexibility in word solving frustrate struggling readers. One memorable incident involved a first grade reader at the Rider Reading and Writing Clinic, when I was working there as a clinician. In order to get some sense of what the student (let's call her Mary) knew and was able to do in reading, I handed her a short reading passage about a cat called, Muff. Mary took the passage from me and, in a clear and precise voice, read "MMM-UHH-FFF-FFF." Mary had clearly learned the sounds of the letters and was a champion of "sounding out", but she applied this strategy so inflexibly that she had no other strategy and never blended the sounds into actual words. Mary had a flawed understanding of what reading was and I knew where to start my work with her.

Here is another, perhaps more typical, example of the need for flexibility. Suppose a child is reading the following sentence:

The boy was making a model airplane from a kit.

The child does not immediately recognize the word "model", but knows another word with a similar pattern, "motel." Using the analogy strategy, the child matches "model" with "motel" and pronounces the word "mo del'". The child must now reconcile this pronunciation with what he already knows. An inflexible reader might be satisfied with the incorrect pronunciation. The flexible reader might realize this pronunciation doesn't sound right, doesn't sound like a word I know, and think, "What would make sense?" Combining strategies might get the reader to the correct pronunciation.

So when "sound it out" or analogy doesn't work, kids need to have other tools to go to and they need to be ready to try these tools flexibly to solve the problem.  Teaching for flexibility isn't easy. Some kids cling hard to a one strategy, often sounding it out, and seek to apply it universally. The best approach for the teacher is to communicate to kids that solving words is a problem solving activity and that readers need to be ready to use all the tools that are available to them. And, of course, teachers must model that same flexibility when demonstrating for students how words can be solved.

In Part 2 on decoding, I will discuss the various strategies we need to teach and some possible strategies for teaching them to struggling readers.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Honor Dr. King by Raising Your Voice

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, thousands of people will honor Dr. King by doing service in their community. My hometown of Philadelphia boasts of having the largest MLK Day of Service event in the country. This is a wonderful thing. I am pleased that so many will honor the great man's legacy in this way. 

There are other ways to honor Dr. King, of course. We can honor his legacy everyday by fighting to make the United States live up to its advertising: With Liberty and Justice for All. We can honor his legacy by the way we conduct our own lives, working daily to attain the ideal of an open and welcoming attitude toward all people, no matter our differences. And we also can honor his legacy by speaking up when we see injustice, hate, racism, and intolerance in our society. As the quote above says, we must not be silent about things that matter.

And so today, to honor Dr. King, I must decry in the strongest possible terms the vile, divisive, completely unacceptable rhetoric coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States. This cannot stand and failure to raise our voices against it will mean, as Dr. King suggests, "the life of our nation will begin to end."

Donald Trump is not our first racist president. We have a long history of racism in that office, from Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson to Theodore Roosevelt to Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon, but Trump has ridden his racism into office and doubled down on it in office as few others have and after the country has begun to recognize the damage it has done with 400 years of racism and has tried, haltingly for sure, to do something about it. Trump is cynically appealing to the most base instincts of his core supporters for his own aggrandizement and at great cost to the country.  True leaders appeal to people's better angels, asking us to be better, kinder, more open to others. That is the legacy of Dr. King, and, oh by the way, our previous president.

It is no surprise that Trump is racist. Fifty-years ago, he conspired with his father and other real estate moguls to exclude blacks from their housing developments. He rode to prominence politically by leading the birther movement against Barack Obama. He set his campaign crowds to cheering by calling Mexicans rapists and once in office, he praised white supremacists as "some good people."

So, we should not be surprised by his comments this week about "shithole countries" or his negative characterization of the people of Haiti, or his seeming preference for people from lily-white Norway. We should not be surprised, but we should also not be silent. So here is what I plan to do to raise my voice in protest today.
  • Publish this post
  • Call my Republican Senator Pat Toomey and my Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick to insist that they denounce Trump's racist comments,
  • Create five pro-unity, pro-humanity, anti-racism tweets to send out throughout the day and send them to @realDonaldTrump.
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of Trump's racist statements has been the failure of Republicans to speak out and condemn them. Apparently, Senator Lindsay Graham confronted Trump on this at the meeting. Good for him. Where are the other voices of Republican leadership? In their absence, we must fill the void with our own voices. Qui tacet consentire videtur: He who is silent consents.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Sight Words

I clearly remember my eldest daughter, Beth's, first sight word. Her four-year-old self was strapped into the back seat of our 1965 Mercury Monterey, as we approached the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue in Yardley, PA. From the back, Beth, ever the back seat driver, pointed to the red, hexagonal sign in front of us and yelled, "Stop!" I stopped the car, turned around in my seat and said, "Yes that sign says, Stop."

Now I know what you are thinking. Beth probably wasn't reading the word. She saw the sign, the red color, the shape and used her experience riding in a car before to know what the sign was communicating. All this is true. But what I would like to suggest is that the learning of all sight words is enhanced by context and that when readers struggle to acquire sight words, we might want to consider having them practice them in a real reading context.

The importance of sight words is well understood in the literacy field. Children need a goodly store of sight words in order to smoothly and fluently process text. They need to know many words by sight because so many frequently occurring words (of, was, any, they, said) are irregularly spelled. Sight words also provide an "anchor" for beginning readers learning one-to-one word correspondence in a line of print.

Understanding the critical nature of sight words, teachers use a variety of strategies to help children learn these words. Strategies such as Word Walls, flash cards, sand writing, magnetic letters, and word games like Wordo or Bang! You can read more about traditional sight word activities here.

These are all worthwhile activities when executed well. But it is also necessary for students to encounter these sight words in context. Context helps reinforce the rote learning of Word Walls and flash cards and also provides them with the support of real meaning as they attempt to solidify their perhaps shaky grasp of some sight words.

Contextual sight word activities should include the following.
  • Reading Patterned Books -Multiple readings of simple repetitive pattern books such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What So You See? or We're Going on a Bear Hunt.
  • Repeated Reading - Reading a book over and over again is good for all sorts of literacy learning, including reinforcing sight words. Short texts used for guided reading offer lots of opportunity for repeated reading in school and at home. Poetry also offers good sight word practice in short texts. 
  • Shared Reading and Shared Writing - Shared reading through big books and shared pen writing provide the teacher opportunities to target sight words that need to be reinforced.
  • Independent Reading and Writing - Time to read independently provides children time to practice sight words in context. Independent writing, with the assistance of the word wall or student word bank, provides opportunities to visualize the word and then reproduce that vision on the page with the word available for double checking.
  • Songs - The rhyme and rhythm of songs can help reinforce sight vocabulary. Children sing the songs with a copy of the lyrics in front of them. Just look at the rich store of sight words in one verse of this Raffi classic.
                        Down by the bay
                        Where the watermelons grow
                        Back to my home
                        I dare not go.
                        For if I do
                        My mother will say,
                        "Did you ever see a goose
                        Kissing a moose?"
                        Down by the bay.
  • Word Windows - I've adapted this strategy from an article by Carol Chomsky in Language Arts (1976), titled, "After Decoding, What?" In this strategy children read and reread a short passage or poem or nursery rhyme, until they can read it with ease (even to the point of memorization). The teacher then uses an index card, I use 4' by 6', with a rectangle "window" cut out of it large enough for one word of print to show. The teacher lays the card over the text, revealing one word. This one word is a targeted sight word. The child is asked to read the word. If the child can read the word, great. It is now a sight word. If the child can't read the word, the teacher raises the card and allows the child to read the passage and discover what the word is. Repeated uses of the activity help students truly look at sight words and hopefully commit them to visual memory.

One final (non-contextual) strategy for kids who really have a hard time getting sight words into visual memory - Disappearing Sight Words.
  1. Write the targeted word on a white board in dry-erase marker.* Let's use "said."
  2. Read the word together.
  3. Say the word slowly with the child without distorting the letter sounds: s-s-s-e-e-e-d-d-d.
  4. Have the child use an index finger to trace/erase the word while saying the word slowly.
  5. Repeat 2,3,4 times until the word is completely erased.
  6. Ask the child to try to write the word. (Provide assistance if they cannot.)
  7. Ask the child to read the word.
    * This also works with a regular chalkboard and chalk.
Credit for this strategy goes to Dr. Susan Glazer, late Director of The Reading/Writing Clinic at Rider University. The strategy obviously taps into a child's visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic senses in order to try to create a lasting mental image. 

If you are concerned that some of your students are not acquiring sight words quickly enough to support their growth as readers, I would suggest that you first take an inventory of your practices. Are you using the Word Wall effectively or has it just become another bulletin board in the room? Are the children getting enough contextual practice through repeated reading, and shared and independent reading and writing? This quick inventory may help you make adjustments that will lead to greater sight word success for your students.

This post is Part 3 in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge and When Readers Struggle: Oral Language.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Oral Language

A child's oral language facility, we know, plays a major role in learning to read. As Hiebert, Pearson, Taylor, Richardson & Paris (1998) put it, "Oral language is the foundation upon which reading is built, and it continues to serve this role as children develop as readers." Unfortunately, not all children enter formal schooling with a high level of oral language facility. While all children are language learning machines, and children from all socio-economic status groups develop a remarkable facility to communicate their ideas and use language to help meet their needs, some children do not grow up in environments that encourage them to the expansive use of their remarkable linguistic abilities. While nearly all parents love their children and want the best for them, some parents view communication with children as being a matter of "talking at" their children, while other parents view communication with children as "talking with" ther children.
When children are "talked at" they may develop a transactional view of language. Talk is about communicating to me what I should and should not do and about trying to get something that I want. Children who are talked with may develop a conversational view of language. That is language is to be used for communicating all kinds of ideas in conversation with adults and other children and for speculating about things that may not yet be firmly understood. Obviously the transactional view limits oral language facility and the conversational view expands language facility. Equally obvious is that children with a more expansive oral language facility have advantages in literacy learning.

But no matter what language facility a child brings to school, we must recognize that that oral language facility, limited or expansive or in-between, is the child's greatest ally in learning to read. If the child arrives in our classroom with an expansive oral language, our job is to expand it further. If the child arrives with limited oral language, our job is to develop that oral language so that it can support literacy learning. So again, as I have said in previous posts on struggling readers, we must not think in terms of a learning deficit, but in terms of an instructional challenge that is our responsibility to meet.

How do we both expand and develop oral language in our classrooms? First of all, by recognizing that every child's language deserves respect as a valid system for communication. It reflects the identities, values, and experiences of the child's family and community. Secondly, we can employ strategies that the research has pointed to as effective. Here are a few.

Hold Conversations with Children -

Make sure your interaction with children isn't purely transactional. In a classroom bustling with young children, it is easy to fall into a pattern of transactional talk. "Tommy, please sit down." "Mary please stop talking." "Johnny, put your book away in your desk." "Who knows the answer to the question?"

Transactional talk is necessary in the classroom , of course, but children need conversational talk with an adult to expand their oral language. According to Shanahan and Lonigan (2017)

Teachers interactions that best encourage language learning include having conversations that stay on a single topic providing children opportunities to talk, encouraging analytical thinking, and giving information about the meanings of words.

So we need to make sure that our instruction is structured in such a way as to allow us to have conversations with children on an individual basis. This could mean engaging a child in a conversation about a writing project, about something they read, about something they saw, or about an experience they had outside of school. I think of these conversations as opportunities for the teacher to "lean in" to listen to the child and then respond in a way to help the child develop their conversational competence.

Provide Time for Structured Play

Children also, of course, develop their oral language through interaction with other students, so opportunities for structured play are critical to oral language development. Structured play includes such traditional early childhood activities as block play, dramatic role playing, and such play centers as a classroom kitchen and office where children both play together and talk to each other about their play. I recently enjoyed a session of play with Picasso Tiles with my four-year-old granddaughter that was full of talk and new vocabulary about shapes and sizes.

In a time where structured play in the early years seems to be less and less valued, teachers need to fight for this valuable instructional time by pointing out its effectiveness in developing oral language.

Conduct Shared Reading and Shared Writing Activities Daily

Shared readings of Big Books are a good way to engage children in conversation about a book (such as asking them to make predictions or to summarize what has been read) and to help students make the connection between oral language and print through the teacher tracking the print with her fingers as the words are read to and with the children.

Shared writing of stories or classroom news gives students the opportunity to generate language that is then shared in writing. When students then share the pen (interactive writing) to record these orally composed stories, they again make the connection between oral language and print.

Read Aloud of Challenging Books

When reading aloud to children, an activity that should happen frequently in the classroom, teachers should choose books that are of high literary quality and challenging for the children in the class. By reading challenging works, teachers can help students navigate difficult vocabulary through explanations and help the children to articulate their understanding of the story. The sophisticated language of the high quality picture book exposes the children to the rich possibilities of language and provides a contextual basis for building vocabulary.

Turn Guided Reading Sessions into Guided Talk Sessions

For children whose most important need in the early childhood classes is the development of oral language facility, the guided reading structure might be altered to be a guided talk session. In a guided talk session the focus would not be on sight words or decoding strategies or reading a short text, but on talk. I like to think of this as an expanded picture walk. A wordless book could be used, but any book with pictures that also tell the story can be used. The teacher guides the children in using their language in telling the story that is represented by the pictures. It is important that the teacher encourage the children to tell the story, not just describe the pictures, so a prompt that encourages the students to "Think about the story and talk about what is happening here" is suggested. After going through the book and talking about all the pictures, attempting to weave a story, the children might be encouraged to retell the story individually.

The oral language that children bring to school is a critical factor supporting their growing literacy ability. It is therefore also critical that teachers plan to help children expand or develop that language so that they may be successful literacy learners.

This post is the second in a series on struggling readers. You may also be interested in When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

When Readers Struggle: Background Knowledge

Whenever I ask a group of teachers to identify areas that seem to cause difficulty for struggling readers, lack of background knowledge is sure to be near the top of the list. This is not surprising since a rich background knowledge has shown to be one key to skilled comprehension. Respected reading theorists Richard Allington and Patricia Cunningham have said, "the most important factor determining how much readers will comprehend...about a given topic is their level of knowledge about the topic."

Background knowledge matters a great deal, but I think it is a mistake to say children "lack background knowledge" as if it is some deficit they have. Students are full of experience and background knowledge about all sorts of things. For many children, however, the background knowledge they bring to any reading task may not match well with that task, so better to think of lack of background knowledge as task specific rather than some inherent deficit in the reader. In fact I could make everyone reading this blog feel like a struggling reader by asking that you read and summarize the following.

Having crumbled to 214 all out, with Jonathon Trott's 84 not out the glue across the otherwise brittle English innings, the tourists were back in the contest when Paul Collingswood's brace had the hosts wobbling at 100 for five at the turn of the 21st over.

This passage, reporting on a cricket match in England causes most American readers trouble because of our lack of background knowledge. So. lack of background knowledge is situational, not inherent in the reader. As teachers we need to be able to identify stumbling blocks for our readers and prepare them to read comprehendingly by filling in background knowledge gaps that are exposed by a particular reading selection. Fortunately, we have quite a few tools available to help us fill those gaps.

Picture Books - About 20 years , my colleague, Peggy Burke, a life-long educator with two masters degrees, signed up for a Harvard University seminar on The Science of the Brain. I will never forget how Peggy prepared for the seminar. She said to me, "You know I really don't know much about the brain, so I got this comic book called, The Brain Illustrated, to get me up to speed." Peggy's instincts as an educator told her that when she was going into new learning territory, it was a good idea to get some rudimentary understanding of the topic and what better way to do it than with a book full of pictures and clear explanations?

One very good way to build student background knowledge for a topic is to read aloud to them from picture books. If the topic is metamorphosis, what better way to introduce it than with Gail Gibbons book, Monarch Butterflies? If the topic is the weather, why not start with Seymour Simon's book, Weather? Studying the American Constitution?  I would recommend a read aloud of Jeanne Fritz', Shh! We're Writing the Constitution.

As a bonus, on-topic read alouds can build interest and curiosity about a subject. And the research has clearly shown that engaged reading is more likely to be comprehending reading.

Videos - With the advent of You Tube and other online services, it has never been easier to share video clips in the classroom (provided, of course, you can get past your school district's firewall). Videos go a long way to helping students acquire the background information they need for reading comprehension. The Highwayman, by Alfred Noyes, is a poem I like to introduce through video. The poem references a time when the horse drawn coach was the main mode of travel and when robbers (or highwayman) waylaid travelers to steal their money and jewelry. I find that viewing an animated conception of the poem helps students understand this world better. You can find the video I use here.

It is best, I think, to keep the videos brief and it is also important to have the students turn and talk about what they have seen with each other, as well as discussing it as a whole class.

Over the years, I have seen teachers show videos to students as a kind of reward. After struggling through Romeo and Juliet on the page, the students are treated to a video version of the play. I think this gets it all backwards. I believe the reading of the play would be greatly enhanced by showing the video first, so the students have some idea of what they are reading and have a better opportunity to visualize what exactly is going on. 

Talk - In any classroom there is sure to be a wide disparity of knowledge on a given subject. Some kids may know a great deal about a topic, others very little. It makes sense to tap into the knowledge of the entire class to activate and build background knowledge for the entire class. As the teacher, we can provide a structure to make this talk focused and productive. Two strategies that I have found useful for this are PReP and Anticipation Guides.

PReP (Pre-Reading Plan) was suggested by Judith Langer (1981). Implementation follows these steps.
  1. Teacher chooses a reading selection and identifies its central concept. The concept is stated in a simple declarative sentence and shared with the class.
  2. The class is divided into small groups and tasked with listing words are phrases that are connected to the central concept. The students then group these words and phrases into logical categories. The groups share their lists with the class.
  3. The teacher then leads a discussion by asking the students clarifying questions like, "What made you think of that association?" and "How is this association directly related to the concept?"
  4. Students then refine their list, eliminating terms that don't directly relate and adding new terms suggested through discussion.
  5. Students then read the passage with the list at hand and then revisit the list reflecting on how their activated background knowledge aided their understanding.

Anticipation Guides get students talking about what they anticipate they will be reading about and talking about the key concepts they will encounter in the reading. Implementing this strategy requires the following steps.
  1. The teacher chooses a passage for reading and identifies key concepts.
  2. The teacher develops simple declarative sentences to capture the key concepts and sets these up in an agree/disagree, yes/no, true/false format.
  3. The students read the statements and decide if each statement is true or false or agree/disagree, etc.
  4. The teacher then leads a discussion where students defend their positions by providing rationales for their choices.
  5. The students then read the passage to confirm or disconfirm the positions they have taken.
  6. Post-discussion focuses on new understandings that have been developed through the anticipation guide and reading activity.

As teachers we need to embrace student's differing experiential backgrounds, and even their lack of knowledge of things we think they should know, as an instructional challenge and not as a student learning deficit.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Review of Steven Singer's New Book: Gadfly on the Wall

In his new book, Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform, education blogger Steven Singer has collected some of the most informative and provocative essays from his popular blog, Gadfly on the Wall. Singer's voice is one of the most necessary in the entire education reform blogosphere, because Singer is a practicing teacher, whose writing is both passionate and informed. If he sometimes sounds indignant, that indignation is rooted in the wisdom that comes from being on the front lines of the debate as a practicing educator, as a parent, and as an advocate for children and public education.

While the topics he tackles are very serious indeed, his writing style carries the reader along on a wave of short declarative statements that pull no punches and take no prisoners. If you find your passion for the good fight against the corporate education reformers flagging, this book is sure to buck up your spirits and get you ready to carry on with the battle.

The book is divided into four sections. Three of the sections cover topics you would expect to find in a book like this: school choice, standardized testing, teaching in the age of the Common Core. Each of these sections provide thoughtful critiques from the perspective of a teacher, father and public school advocate. It is in the least expected section, however, which leads off the book, that Singer makes a singular contribution to the literature on education reform. The section is titled, Racism and Prejudice, and this section alone is not only worth the price of the book, but should be required reading for every current and prospective teacher in the country.

Singer, a white teacher teaching in a classroom full of mostly black students, takes a serious and knowing look at racism and its impact on his students, and by extension, all students of color, and our society as a whole. First of all, Singer owns up to his own racism and invites us to see our own racism and to reflect how this impacts our education system and our entire culture. Singer defines racism as "hate plus power." In other words, racism goes beyond prejudice, anyone of any race can be prejudiced, but racism requires the power that only whites have in our society, so racism in America is a problem that only whites can fix and they can only fix it, Singer suggests, by first admitting it.

And, Singer says, this is white America's problem to fix. With the power white's wield in our society, we must fix ourselves or the issue will never be fixed. So after recognition comes action. Singer suggests many ways teachers can work to fix the problem in a series of essays. The solutions he offers are as seemingly simple as respecting  African American naming practices, "White People Need to Stop Snickering at Black Names", to the complexities of classroom discussions about police brutality, "A Moment of Silence for Michael Brown," to the challenges of overcoming deeply ingrained attitudes about wealth and poverty, "Prejudice and Poverty - Why Americans Hate the Poor and Worship the Rich."

Ultimately, Singer is arguing that we must combat racism by "treating black folks fairly, equitably, and with an open heart." It is that open heart that we may find to be the greatest challenge, because as Singer skillfully shows in this section of the book, our history and our culture has not only closed our eyes to our inherent biases, but, as recent political events indicate, may have done great damage to our heart as well.

One man whose heart has escaped undamaged from being raised white in America is Steven Singer. In these pages he opens his heart to the reader, and for this reader at least, my heart is a bit more open and a bit richer for having read his words.

Singer, Steven. (2017). Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform. NY: Garn Press.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Least of Russ on Reading 2017

Welcome to the 4th annual list of The Least of Russ on Reading. Each year newspapers, magazines, and television shows use the end of the year as an opportunity to publish "Best of,,," lists. I choose to use this year-end recap to revisit a few of my posts over the past year that, for one reason or another, did not attract a lot of attention.

I have been writing this blog for almost five years now and I have yet to figure out what precisely makes one blog post go viral, while another is greeted with internet indifference. At any rate I think these few are worth another look. I hope you agree. Here they are: The Least of Russ on Reading for 2017.

Comprehending Non Fiction: Setting Kids Up for Success

When kids struggle to comprehend the non-fiction texts we give them, we need to ask ourselves, "What can I do to ensure they can read this successfully?"

Building Bridges Beats Building Walls

As I sat pondering the impending inauguration of one Donald J. Trump as President of the United States, some songs and poems reminded me that "something there is that doesn't love a wall."

Building a Better Robot Teacher

What a surprise! Research shows that technology can't replace human beings as teachers. Here I talk about the proper role of technology in the classroom and the still critical role of the classroom teacher.

What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need

One of my personal favorites of the year. While so many around us seem to think that anyone can teach, I argue here for the very specialized kind of knowledge that a teacher must have and how that knowledge is unique to those who choose teaching as a profession and not a sideline.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

A Holiday Gift of Poetry 2017

As this blog enters its fifth year of existence it is a pleasure to continue a tradition begun in the first year - an offering of seasonal poetry as a gift to loyal readers of Russ on Reading. Over the years one of the real pleasures of sharing poems with you has been the opportunity to find new poems I had not read before and to revisit older poems I had read many times before. This year I offer something old (Winter Trees) something new ( Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing) and something old, but newly discovered (Speakin O' Christmas). In an increasingly fraught world poetry has always offered me solace and food for thought. I hope you find something here that brings a smile of recognition or a nod of remembrance to brighten your holiday season. Thanks for reading. Enjoy your holidays.

Winter Trees
by William Carlos Williams

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold

Speakin’ O’ Christmas by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Breezes blowin’ middlin’ brisk,
Snow-flakes thro’ the air a-whisk,
Fallin’ kind o’ soft an’ light,
Not enough to make things white,
But jest sorter siftin’ down
So ’s to cover up the brown
Of the dark world’s rugged ways
’N’ make things look like holidays.
Not smoothed over, but jest specked,
Sorter strainin’ fur effect,
An’ not quite a-gittin’ through
What it started in to do.
Mercy sakes! it does seem queer
Christmas day is ’most nigh here.
Somehow it don’t seem to me
Christmas like it used to be,—
Christmas with its ice an’ snow,
Christmas of the long ago.
You could feel its stir an’ hum
Weeks an’ weeks before it come;
Somethin’ in the atmosphere
Told you when the day was near,
Did n’t need no almanacs;
That was one o’ Nature’s fac’s.
Every cottage decked out gay—
Cedar wreaths an’ holly spray—
An’ the stores, how they were drest,
Tinsel tell you could n’t rest;
Every winder fixed up pat,
Candy canes, an’ things like that;
Noah’s arks, an’ guns, an’ dolls,
An’ all kinds o’ fol-de-rols.
Then with frosty bells a-chime,
Slidin’ down the hills o’ time,
Right amidst the fun an’ din
Christmas come a-bustlin’ in,
Raised his cheery voice to call
Out a welcome to us all;
Hale and hearty, strong an’ bluff,
That was Christmas, sure enough.
Snow knee-deep an’ coastin’ fine,
Frozen mill-ponds all ashine,
Seemin’ jest to lay in wait,
Beggin’ you to come an’ skate.
An’ you’d git your gal an’ go
Stumpin’ cheerily thro’ the snow,
Feelin’ pleased an’ skeert an’ warm
’Cause she had a-holt yore arm.
Why, when Christmas come in, we
Spent the whole glad day in glee,
Havin’ fun an’ feastin’ high
An’ some courtin’ on the sly.
Burstin’ in some neighbor’s door
An’ then suddenly, before
He could give his voice a lift,
Yellin’ at him, “Christmas gift.”
Now sich things are never heard,
“Merry Christmas” is the word.
But it’s only change o’ name,
An’ means givin’ jest the same.
There’s too many new-styled ways
Now about the holidays.
I’d jest like once more to see
Christmas like it used to be!
Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing
by Toi Derricotte
My mother was not impressed with her beauty;
once a year she put it on like a costume,
plaited her black hair, slick as cornsilk, down past her hips,
in one rope-thick braid, turned it, carefully, hand over hand,
and fixed it at the nape of her neck, stiff and elegant as a crown,
with tortoise pins, like huge insects,
some belonging to her dead mother,
some to my living grandmother.
Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her,
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us
unless it was weighted and bound in its mask.
Vaseline shined her eyebrows,
mascara blackened her lashes until they swept down like feathers;
her eyes deepened until they shone from far away.
Now I remember her hands, her poor hands, which, even
then were old from scrubbing, whiter on the inside than they should have been,
and hard, the first joints of her fingers, little fattened pads,
the nails filed to sharp points like old-fashioned ink pens, painted a jolly color.
Her hands stood next to her face and wanted to be put away, prayed
for the scrub bucket and brush to make them useful.
And, as I write, I forget the years I watched her
pull hairs like a witch from her chin, magnify
every blotch—as if acid were thrown from the inside. 
But once a year my mother
rose in her white silk slip,
not the slave of the house, the woman,
took the ironed dress from the hanger—
allowing me to stand on the bed, so that
my face looked directly into her face,
and hold the garment away from her
as she pulled it down.
From Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. Published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Ain't That a Shame

The great Fats Domino died this past week. The blog post takes its name from one of his greatest songs, a tune that has been running through my head since I read of his passing. Maybe that is why a recent article from Kappan caught my eye. The article by Joan F. Goodman, professor of education at the Graduate School of Education, addresses the issue of shaming as a disciplinary strategy in schools, particularly charter schools. The article entitled, The Shame of Shaming, is behind a pay-wall,  but well worth the read if you can get access to it (Kappan, October 2017). I have voiced my own concern about charter school shaming practices in earlier posts here and here. The Kappan article adds to that thinking with some important, scholarly insights that cannot be ignored.

Shaming, defined by Goodman as "public censure of a student designed to induce humiliation", occurs with some regularity in most schools, of course, but Goodman wanted to look at school policies that directly condone and even encourage shaming as a disciplinary measure. In our country's 10 largest cities none explicitly endorses a policy that meets the definition of shaming above, but a number of shaming techniques are explicitly spelled out in the parent/student handbooks of charter management organizations (CMOs) in these cities. Goodman focused her study on nine CMOs representing more than 500 schools. The endorsed practices she found in 2/3rds of the handbooks for these schools included the following, which will be familiar to anyone who has been following the educational reform movement.
  • Public data walls in the classrooms or hallways, displaying information on student behavior, academic achievement, or disciplinary infractions;
  • Physical or simulated separation from the students' peer group via silent lunches or clothing changes (in my own experience I have seen kids forced to wear ugly yellow highlighter-colored shirts as a mark of their minor infraction like talking while in line); and
  • Public apologies (often in the form of a letter to be read aloud in front of the class).
These shaming practices are often meted out to students for very minor infractions, such as failure to turn in homework, failure to keep eyes on the teacher, talking in the lunch line, etc. Do these officially sanctioned shaming strategies work? Not according to the experts. Goodman summarizes the findings of researchers and concludes that 

Shame fails to inhibit future acts of wrongdoing and may even make matters worse. It is associated with defensively motivated anger, future substance use, risk taking, and externalization of blame.

In other words, shaming works directly against our desire as teachers to develop thoughtful, reflective, self-actualized learners who are willing to take the risks necessary for learning to take place. Shaming is an educational dead end. Imagine that this bankrupt and cruel strategy is being foisted most often upon our most vulnerable students, students of color in impoverished areas of our cities, and we must wonder about the motivations of these charter management organizations. This is nothing less than institutionalized child abuse, at best motivated by well-meaning, but clueless education reformers, or at worst, a racist response designed to foster a compliant, low-wage work force for the white and wealthy captains of American industry.

I call on all who champion charter schools, including Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, to immediately disavow any form of policy driven shaming practices from any school that receives public funds in any form (that includes all charters and most parochial and private schools). And after all shaming practices are eliminated from policy, we can focus on the very needed work to ensure that shaming is never used as a disciplinary tactic against children as any part, official or unofficial, of an educational program. 

Schools are designed and run by adults. We should expect our public officials to behave like adults and not try to control children by abusing them through public shaming.

I am sure we all have our school-based shaming stories to share. When I was a sophomore in high school, I made the junior varsity basketball team and while I was probably the 12th player on a 12 man team, I was pleased and proud of the accomplishment. The team, of course, had a few rules, which included keeping your nose clean in class, getting respectable grades, and absolutely no smoking. These were reasonable rules and I managed to follow two of them. I was, however, a smoker and my close friends were smokers, so even though it was against the rules, I continued to smoke. I got caught. Some assistant coach saw me smoking at the local teen gathering place and reported me to the coach. 

Here is how my coach chose to inform me of my violation of team rules. The whole team was gathered in the locker room before the first game of the season, dressing for the game. We were laughing and clowning and generally trying not to show how nervous we surely all were. Coach came in for our pregame meeting. He began by saying that one of us had shown that he was not a team player by breaking the rules. He said, "Walsh you were seen smoking after school hours yesterday. Get dressed and get out. You are off the team." As my teammates listened to coach's pregame instructions, I stood there in that small room, putting on my street clothes, while everyone tried to avoid looking at me and I choked back tears.

Now, I broke the rules. I deserved to be punished. I deserved to be kicked off the team. What I didn't deserve was to be shamed in front of my teammates. Coach could have called me into his office before we all got dressed or he could have brought me down during school or even after school to tell me not to appear that evening, but coach decided to shame me, probably to "make an example" of me for the other players. Adults should not abuse 15 year-olds to make examples for others.

The shaming did not make me a better basketball player. It did not make me a better rule follower. It did not even make me quit smoking. It did breed resentment, but fortunately for me I had a reasonably healthy ego and home support system and I got past it quickly. But I have never forgotten it. In the end, I hope it made me a more empathetic teacher and coach.

Shaming has no place in our schools, yet charter schools make shaming a part of school policy for poor, minority children. Fats had it right, Ain't That a Shame.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Richard Wilbur, Great American Poet: An Appreciation

I read in the New York Times this week of the death at 96 of the great American poet, Richard Wilbur. Wilbur was a former poet laureate of the United States, a two time Pulitzer Prize winner and a National Book Award winner, who published numerous volumes of poetry, as well as children's books, translations of Moliere plays, and song lyrics. He teamed with Leonard Bernstein as the lyricist for the Broadway musical, Candide. Wilbur held a special place in my heart, not only because of his great poetry, but also because he was one of the very few great American poets that I actually got to meet and talk to.

In 1967, Wilbur was a visiting artist at the Spring Arts Festival at Bloomsburg State College (now University), where I was a sophomore history major and aspiring actor. As part of the Festival, and as a way to honor Wilbur, the Bloomsburg Players were putting on Wilbur's translation of Tartuffe, by Moliere. As a member of the cast, I was invited to a seminar that Wilbur gave on campus, just a dozen students sitting around a table and chatting about poetry and plays.

Wilbur was central casting for my youthful idea of "poet." He was in his forties then, quite handsome and urbane, wearing a turtle neck and patch sleeved sport coat, and smoking a pipe. His voice was deep, resonant, friendly and authoritative. I clearly remember that day that Wilbur discussed one of his poems, The Juggler.

The Juggler 
A ball will bounce; but less and less. It's not
A light-hearted thing, resents its own resilience.
Falling is what it loves, and the earth falls
So in our hearts from brilliance,
Settles and is forgot.
It takes a sky-blue juggler with five red balls

To shake our gravity up. Whee, in the air
The balls roll around, wheel on his wheeling hands,
Learning the ways of lightness, alter to spheres
Grazing his finger ends,
Cling to their courses there,
Swinging a small heaven about his ears.

But a heaven is easier made of nothing at all
Than the earth regained, and still and sole within
The spin of worlds, with a gesture sure and noble
He reels that heaven in,
Landing it ball by ball, ,
And trades it all for a broom, a plate, a table.

Oh, on his toe the table is turning, the broom's
Balancing up on his nose, and the plate whirls
On the tip of the broom! Damn, what a show, we cry:
The boys stamp, and the girls
Shriek, and the drum booms
And all come down, and he bows and says good-bye.

If the juggler is tired now, if the broom stands
In the dust again, if the table starts to drop
Through the daily dark again, and though the plate
Lies flat on the table top,
For him we batter our hands
Who has won for once over the world's weight. 
I remember, in particular, Wilbur telling us that he tried to get that last line "Who has won for once over the world's weight" to sound like a ball bouncing on a floor, less and less, until it finally stops still. The poem is typical of Wilbur's poetry: formal. witty, spiritual, but not preachy, and absolutely virtuosic in its command of form.
When I became a teacher, I discovered that Wilbur also wrote (and illustrated) books for children, including his series called, Opposites, which I would often use in class.
Some Opposites

What is the opposite of riot?
It is lots of people keeping quiet.

The opposite of doughnut? Wait
A minute while I meditate
This isn’t easy. Ah! I’ve found it.
It’s a cookie with a hole around it.

What is the opposite of two?
A lonely me, a lonely you.

The opposite of a cloud could be
A white reflection in the sea
Or a huge blueness in the air
Caused by the cloud’s not being there

The opposite of opposite?
That’s much too difficult. I quit.
In Wilbur's translation of Moliere's Tartuffe, I got to speak these lines.
Enough, by God! I am through with pious men!
Henceforth I'll hate the whole false brotherhood,
And persecute them worse than Satan could.
My character was a fool who had been duped by a false prophet. Not all were so taken in by the would be cleric's  piety. The young Damis says this:
Good God! Do you expect me to submit
To the tyranny of that carping hypocrite?
Must we forego all joys and satisfactions
Because that bigot censures all our actions?
Great fun and simply a joy to perform.
Richard Wilbur was a great poet who deserves to be celebrated, but most importantly read. If you were looking to buy just one volume of his work, I would recommend New and Collected Poems, one of his two Pulitzer Prize winning volumes.
I'll finish this piece with one more of my favorites.
The Boy at a Window
Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.                         

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sunshine Patriots

These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. - Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

In The American Crisis, Tom Paine was, of course, writing about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War some 250 years ago, but I have always thought that "summer soldier and sunshine patriot" line could be applied to many contemporary "patriots."   I am thinking, in part, of those Americans who stand for the national anthem at sporting events with their hat in one hand and a beer in the other and who think that that is an act of patriotism. 

I would have to think that our founding fathers would laugh. They understood that true acts of patriotism required commitment and risk. That real patriotism meant taking action, not standing idly by. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine have more in common with Colin Kaepernick than they do with Donald Trump. Yes, all of these men are flawed human beings, but four of these flawed creatures were and are fighting for America to live up to its own ideals and one is using the guise of patriotism to attack the true patriots and to appeal to the basest instincts of those who think patriotism means "my country right or wrong."

Let's get this straight. We do not dishonor the flag or the veterans who fought under it in all of our wars by taking a knee during a sporting event. We do the most to dishonor the flag when we allow the flag to stand as a symbol of discrimination and inequality. What did our veterans fight for, if not for "liberty and justice for all?" We do our flag and our veterans the greatest honor by continuing to fight for that great American ideal. If Donald Trump does not understand this, he is the "sunshine patriot" in chief.

One place that this controversy will surely appear soon is the public schools. Schools are the places where the playing of the National Anthem and other symbolic patriotic activities, like the Pledge of Allegiance, are daily occurrences. How do teachers respond? How do administrators respond when the inevitable happens and students start to take a knee? We've already seen how one school district in Louisiana is responding, by threatening students with disciplinary action if they choose to exercise their rights.

I have always thought that our job as teachers is to clearly set forth to children what the American ideals are, to inform them about the many ways we have lived up to those ideals and the many ways that we have failed to live up to those ideals and then show them the tools the Constitution and the laws of this country provide for us to try to protect those successes and correct those failures.

Early in my teaching career, I taught a high school freshman course in Civics and American Government. As a part of that course, we studied the Bill of Rights. The first amendment of that document says the following.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

After we read this, I asked the students that if the Bill of Rights says that "Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion", why were we required to say The Pledge of Allegiance, including the words "under God" every morning at the start of the school day?

I then provided a little history. The Pledge of Allegiance, originally drafted in 1893 and revised several times over the years until it was approved for recitation in the schools by Congress in 1942, did not include the words "under God." It was only in 1954, with the country in the grip of the communist witch hunt known as McCarthyism, that Congress decided to add these two words. The argument was that these words would distinguish the US from godless communism. Almost since the words were first added, various groups and individuals have challenged the constitutionality of having school children recite a pledge that included these words.

Should I have raised this issue with 14 year-olds. Many would likely say no, but if we are truly in the education business to provide an educated citizenry that can carry on the greatest democracy the world has ever known, it seems to me these citizens in training need experience in analyzing and questioning the actions of their government. Besides it does no good to lie or sugar coat history with these children, for those lies will turn to resentment once these young people inevitably discover the truth.

To recognize that the USA is not perfect is not unpatriotic. To want the country to do better by all of its people is not unpatriotic. In fact, to recognize it and to do something about, such as taking a knee at a nationally televised football game or taking a seat in the front of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, or declaring your independence from a tyrannical king, is a very patriotic thing to do and in the grandest traditions of this country's true patriots.

I would like to see all school children learn this - the true nature of patriotism.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Knowledge, Belief, and the Professional Educator

I imagine that most of those who read this blog accept climate change and the human impact on climate change as settled science. We've seen the evidence; we've heard from the experts and we have reached an informed conclusion. This is a good thing and one that most Americans not in the White House or in denial for economic and political reasons also accept. It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving climate science; it is a matter of rigorous academic inquiry.

Now I would ask all teachers and teacher leaders to apply the same academic rigor to instructional practice. That is we must make our instructional decisions on what we know works - based on research.

Unfortunately as I have talked to teachers over the years about instructional practice, I have heard a lot of faith-based language.
  • "I don't believe in homework."
  • "I believe in phonics."
  • "I don't believe in teaching to the test."
  • "I believe in independent reading."
  • "I believe in using round robin and popcorn reading."
For about 2,000 years doctors "believed" that blood-letting was an effective treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Today, I would bet if you encountered a doctor who recommended blood-letting for your flu symptoms, you would run, not walk, out the office door screaming. Science, and mounting numbers of dead patients, caught up with blood-letting. So, as professionals, we need to hold ourselves to the same standards. We need to follow the science and stop talking about our beliefs and start talking about the scientific research behind our instructional decision making. 

Now I know applying the rules of scientific inquiry to education is more difficult and more elusive than the study of climate. Climate exists in the physical world, education in the human world. Working with the mind is messier than working with weather patterns. And yes, teaching is as much art as it is science. Still, decisions on instruction must be rooted in what we can show works. Unless we can show, through documentation of the research, that what we are doing does indeed work, we stand vulnerable to the charge of educational malpractice.

So, instead of saying, "I don't believe in giving homework", we need to make a statement like this. "Research has shown that homework has little or no impact on learning in the elementary grades, so I chose not to assign it to my third graders." This statement, by the way, is true. The most comprehensive research study on homework, conducted by Harris Cooper of Duke University, found just that. You can read my fuller discussion about homework here. The reason we continue to see elementary school children burdened with homework is because teachers "believe" in it, not because it has any academic value.

Often times, however, the science gives us conflicting messages and makes sticking to the science and what we know difficult. For example, we know through numerous studies that the more time children spend reading the better they get at reading. Teachers aware of this will work to make sure to provide time for engaged, independent reading in the classroom. But what if you would also like to have the students read at home? Is this homework? Will it be effective? We might decide to work with parents to provide a family time for reading at home. Our statement then is not, "I believe that reading in the home is important", but rather, "The research indicates that when children have access to reading material in the home, when reading is valued by the adults in the home, and when time is set aside for reading, children will improve their overall reading ability." We would then need to work with parents to make "family literacy" not homework, but a natural part of what happens in the home.

Teachers, though, must be skilled and skeptical consumers of research. Sometimes what is presented to us as research is really propaganda. It is always a good idea to follow the money when presented with "research" demonstrating that a program is effective. Ask the questions, Who stands to benefit financially from this research? What is this research trying to sell? Was this research published in a peer reviewed journal? If someone is citing you research to support a reading program she is selling, be very, very skeptical.

Sometimes the "research" is driven by a political agenda. A prime example of this was the National Reading Panel (NRP) that came out with the Reading First initiative under the George W. Bush administration. The leaders of NRP, including the chair, Reid Lyon, had a bias toward a systematic phonics approach to reading instruction, so that unsurprisingly, the final NRP report argued for the primacy of phonics in early literacy instruction. Eight years later, follow-up research found that indeed, thanks to Reading First, kids were better at phonics. Unfortunately, the same kids were no better at understanding what they read, which after all is what reading is about.

The NRP fell into the trap of valuing one type of research, what they called empirical, over other types of research including, especially, correlational and ethnographic that would have given them a fuller picture of effective practice. Phonics instruction, and other bits and pieces approaches to literacy tend to lend themselves to empirical study, while other effective practices, like independent reading, are more readily studied through correlational studies or ethnographies. While empirical studies are generally the "gold standard" in research, they are not the only standard and much can be learned from other rigorous types of research.

All this can leave the poor classroom teacher frustrated and confused. What to do if our goal is to truly use well-researched instructional strategies in our teaching? For me the answer lies in two places. First, what does the preponderance of reliable research evidence show to be effective practice? Second, what do I observe in my classroom, over-time and through documentation, seems to be working?

So when I read the following in a respected publication, an article written by respected researchers that "the research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading" (Gambrell, et al, 2011), I am prone to include independent reading in my instructional practice. If  over-time in my classroom, the practice does not seem to be working, I need to take a close look at how I have implemented the practice, find out what successful programs are doing that I am not and make adjustments.

There may even be times when well-researched practices that have shown to be effective with other students prove to be ineffective with the students I am working with. When this happens, and when I have done all I can to be sure I am employing the practice as effectively as possible, I may have to drop a practice as not effective with this particular group of students (or possibly with this particular teacher).

The point is, finally, that as a professional educator, I must make decisions based on the preponderance of the science and in line with the evidence I see before me and keep reading and keep adjusting and keep employing my best professional judgement. That is the essence of being a professional. And that is something we can all believe in.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Questions as Invitations, Not Inquisitions

When you are a writer, inspiration for your writing can come from all over, suddenly, unpredictably, sometimes even against your will. Into my in box this past week came an email from the Academy of American Poets, with a collection a poems for the beginning of the school year. Most were familiar, including this one by the acclaimed American poet of the working man, Philip Levine. 

M. Degas Teaches Art and Science at Durfee Intermediate School - Detroit 1942

He made a line on the blackboard,
one bold stroke from right to left
diagonally downward and stood back
to ask, looking as always at no one
in particular, "What have I done?"
From the back of the room Freddie
shouted, "You've broken a piece
of chalk." M. Degas did not smile.
"What have I done?" he repeated.
The most intellectual students
looked down to study their desks
except for Gertrude Bimmler, who raised
her hand before she spoke. "M. Degas,
you have created the hypotenuse
of an isosceles triangle." Degas mused.
Everyone knew that Gertrude could not
be incorrect. "It is possible,"
Louis Warshowsky added precisely,
"that you have begun to represent
the roof of a barn." I remember
that it was exactly twenty minutes
past eleven, and I thought at worst
this would go on another forty
minutes. It was early April,
the snow had all but melted on
the playgrounds, the elms and maples
bordering the cracked walks shivered
in the new winds, and I believed
that before I knew it I'd be
swaggering to the candy store
for a Milky Way. M. Degas
pursed his lips, and the room
stilled until the long hand
of the clock moved to twenty one
as though in complicity with Gertrude,
who added confidently, "You've begun
to separate the dark from the dark."
I looked back for help, but now
the trees bucked and quaked, and I
knew this could go on forever.
(from What Work Is, Knopf 1991)
What jumped out at me in this reading of the poem was the question the teacher asks: What have I done? 
What have I done? To me, this is an invitational question. The question invites speculation. The question invites a variety of possible answers. The question has no right or wrong answer. The question taps into each individual student's background knowledge, schema, conceptual understanding and for some apparently, mischievousness. The question invites talk.
As teachers we ask a lot of questions. Indeed questions may be the most important tool in the teacher's arsenal, but too often our questions are inquisitional, rather than invitational.
Inquisitional questions have right answers. They do not encourage speculation. They cut off talk. Literary theorist, Louise Rosenblatt, criticized these inquisitional questions in her seminal article, "What Facts Does This Poem Teach You.?" The title giving away what she viewed as the objectification of an art form through unenlightened questioning. 
Here are some inquisitional questions for the poem above:
What is the significance of the poem being set in early April?
How does the narrator characterize the student, Grace Bimmler?
What evidence does the narrator provide that he is not interested in what is happening in class?
I think it would be much better to approach this poem, and most reading material for that matter, with a liberal use of invitational questions. Here is a list to get you started. The first one is my favorite and one that was taught to me by my wife, Cynthia Mershon, a literacy teacher.

What stood out for you?
This question invites the reader to participate in a conversation with a fellow reader. You can't be wrong, because you are answering from your personal experience with the text. After this opening invitation, we might follow up with these questions:
Can you say more about that?
What makes you think that?
What does this get you thinking about?

Does that make sense to you?
What is another possible way of thinking about this?
How does what (another student) said square with your understanding?
In a world increasingly focused on the standardized test, it may seem counterintuitive to recommend these invitational questions as a way into reading comprehension. Doesn't the student need to be skilled at answering the inquisitional questions?
Well yes, but I would argue that the best way to help students develop their comprehension of a text is through first inviting them into the world of the text and then, through skillful follow-up questioning, helping them refine their understanding of the text. This is, after all, what all readers do when they read independently. In Rosenblatt's words it is that initial "lived through experience of the text" that provides the baseline for ongoing interpretation and understanding.
So as this school year begins, may I suggest that you redouble your efforts at refining your questioning techniques in such a way that will invite your students into the learning.