Reading is not the enemy.
Conversations with students repeatedly point to a loss of a reading life outside of school during the formative transitions between 5th and 6th grade. It only gets exacerbated throughout 7th and 8th until high school students, returning for a visit, lament, "I wish I could read books again."
Life interferes with reading. Homework interferes with reading. Other people's expectations interferes with reading. The resigned trumpeting of "I'm too busy" fills our homes and schools.
Walt Whitman decreed, "Be curious, not judgmental."
So, I ask students to tell me about what works for them as readers. How can we expect kids to be readers, if we act as though we do not want to catch them reading? Without reading, few would write.
Leaders read. Leaders write.
In this podcast, my 8th grade student, Manav, begins by telling me about her reading life. She enjoys John Grisham and anything reminding her of Grisham. She has a book pile and accepts recommendations from her sister and her father. Manav knows herself as a reader. She even reflects that she "aged out" of fantasy and enjoys YA realistic fiction today.
As I listen and then dig deeper with my questions, Manav shares that she thinks about writing down her thinking after reading something she enjoyed. As a matter of fact, Manav has written stories on her own time outside of school. She has shared the stories with trusted family members.
Yet, Manav does not see herself as a writer.
She says, "I just don't feel like I can be a writer like that...I'm an ok writer, I think...the way I write is a bit off."
I understand this lack of confidence as having direct ties to her reading. Yes, Manav reads. But she must keep reading. Relentlessly. The less Manav reads, the less confidence she will foster in herself as a writer. When adolescents are made to feel that self-selected reading is an afterthought to other assigned work, they are less likely to develop reading and writing as a strategic, game-changing life skill. The worst-case scenario is that students grow into citizens who completely abandon reading because they have learned and accepted that they do not have time.
I am not a reader. I am not writer. Anything else is more important.
With this mindset, students grow up learning to depend on other people for ideas. They become followers in the classroom...and the workplace. Muhammed Ali's statement works both ways: "What you are thinking is what you are becoming."
I worry when I hear adults gripe that kids are reading in lieu of "other" work. I hope kids are not hearing that message, but I fear that they are. Reading leads to thinking, leading to writing, leading to deeper thinking...and more reading. When we make kids believe that reading interferes with the something else that they are supposed to do, we influence how they see themselves as readers.
"As a man is so he sees." William Blake.
Students like Manav must keep reading so they are inspired to write and develop their ideas--especially those ideas that barge unexpectedly into their imaginations! They have to read and write during their own time outside of class, as well as during their busiest times of life outside of class. The business of a reading life pollinates all beautiful societies.
Like all adolescents, Manav needs to not feel bad about reading--to stop feeling as though reading is like a caramel to be enjoyed only after dinner. Too much is lost when adolescents apostatize reading for everything else in a day. If we scold an adolescent who is reading for not doing other work first, perhaps we might examine the other work , instead of kicking the book out of hand.
Reading is the engaging, pleasurable work that plants the seeds of original, expressive thought.
Reading is not the enemy.
In Children Want to Write (edited by Thomas Newkirk and Penny Kittle) we read that Donald Graves completed a study in 1973 suggesting that students need out help in becoming critical thinkers within three explicit phases of the writing process: pre-composing, composing, and post-composing. One details I have been focusing on lately is the acknowledgment that students can be either reactive writers or reflective writers (111).
I had never grappled with the notion that adolescent writers could be either on any given day depending on the task set before them. In other words, my decisions as a teacher influence the decisions of my young writers to approach their work in a reactive way or a reflective way.
Over the past two weeks, I observed my students put into both positions...by me. When I put them in a reactive situation (writing alone), it was not on purpose. I wanted them to be reflective and expressive, but it did not turn out that way. My decision was well-intentioned but short-sighted because (after rading the same text) many students, writing independently of each another, began their writing identically:
The council suggests...
Other identical patterns emerged throughout the essays...including a bizarrely Manchurian Candidate-sque duty to the five-paragraph essay.
I must write an introduction, three paragraphs of support, and a conclusion.
Yet, when I positioned my students with writing partners, in the hopes of inspiring conversation as they wrote so that they might be more reflective, I was hoping for change...and got it. Students still read a common text, but the act of conversation teased out a variety and depth of writing absent from the previous attempt.
In this podcast, Elsa tells me about some of the initial gains she took away from this first experience with a writing partner.
In retrospect, confronted with addressing an academic text and an academic writing task alone, students reverted to formula...and not writing. They trusted in structures ingrained in elementary school and did not act as writer. Sadly, a culture of adolescents continues to grow with the belief that academic writing is accomplished successfully through graphic organizers, reliable formats, and trusted formula. If one can understand how to edit such work for grammatically correct rhetoric, then by-golly we are on the road to being good writers.
When I read the repetitive openings of more than a dozen essays to my students, they giggled. Then they swallowed and looked to me for a solution. They were reactive writers. All of them.
I presented another academic writing task with a common piece of literature...but asked them to accomplish the writing in pairs or threes.
What happened? They talked. And talked. And talked. Then, they wrote on shared documents. Some broke up responsibilities. Others wrote in a more blended approach--discussing each line and idea. They became reflective writers. All of them.
In my opinion, the necessary shift is moving academic writing from isolated silos to collaborative, social exercises where ideas flow back and forth between partners and even cross from group to group. Shared thinking. This is where students will grow as thinkers capable of writing analysis. Just because students are tested in silos does not mean that must train them in silos.
All writing practice should embrace what good writers do: talk, revise, research, read, and collaborate. Many academic writing situations leave young writers feels abandoned and unconfident.
My 8th grade student, Elsa, captures the experience:
"It kind of felt different...I felt like I had someone to rely on...if I didn't understand something or was really confused about it, she was right there to say, 'OK, how about if you work on the conclusion, and I'll try to work this out, and then we can switch again and we can make changes to what we think. I really liked that idea. And then I did the same for her because she was really stressed out on some stuff, and then we'd switch places...and we got it done really quickly, but we took time to go over each others' stuff it was actually really nice to have someone you could rely on to help you figure out any questions that you had."
Tom Newkirk writes "reactive writers do no wish to reexamine finished products. For them, the actual doing, getting the message down in rough form, is everything. Teachers who wish to help reactive children to become more self-critical have a difficult task since self-criticism is a reflective act that involves a return to something written. Reflective writers, on the other hand, enjoy the contemplation of their writing, the meaning of their message, and the development of their characters (111).
The fact that the same adolescent can be both a reflective writer and reactive writer depending on the task set before them is a bit of new discovery for me. By constantly indoctrinating students with the belief that form beats thinking, we corral students into a reactive mindset with academic writing. We have more influence over our students' attitudes than we might believe.
Stella can't put books down. Natalie forces herself to put books down.
Stella re-reads books again and again and again. She wants to relive the experience.
Natalie extends the book by moving more slowly. She wants to savor the experience.
Stella, fingers tapping throughout, physically feels a response. She says, "I get hyped as I read...I read absurdly a lot..." You binge read? "Yes."
Natalie, who shares Stella's feeling that she can't put a book down, says, "I want to learn more about it...but I don't want to rush myself into it..." After a month or so, if Matalie is still thinking about the book, she goes back and rereads it.
These two adolescents love books. They read. They engage in rich discussion with friends and family on their own about books. They recommend books. They accept recommendations. They think about their books when they are away from them!
There is always a "but..."
Reading for school is another issue. One admits that she skips pages (just to reach deadlines) when a book is assigned. Another steadfastly remarks that, if she reads something, she wants to read it "on my own terms."
It seems strange that an act as joyful and purposeful as reading can push adolescents into moves counterproductive to learning. Regrettably, we measure reading by speed and numbers as opposed to leveraging conversations and experiences.
Neither students reads for pleasure when a book is assigned. They even go so far as to say that it is unlikely...well, it is possible to enjoy the task...but unlikely. They use language that indicates that students have to separate joy from learning.
This is troubling.
Natalie: "When we had assigned books--done in a certain time--I did not like that--i just look for more literature devices because that is what we have to mark down, but when I read on my own I don't care about that."
Stella: "You are reading to find something instead of just enjoying it."
Of course, Kelly Gallagher's Readicide addressed this issue head-on in 2009. We suffer from a disconnect between what is deemed best practice in the classroom and what is best practice outside of the classroom. It used to be that (and maybe it still is in many instances) the experiences inside of the classroom prepared students for life outside of the classroom.
Yet, so much of what my students say sounds like they are being indoctrinated for a life boxed inside narrow bands of tests and tasks.
Stella tells me when books are assigned that it feels "less like reading and more like a worksheet..." To counter that experience, Stella often reads a book for pleasure while the task of reading to play school has been assigned.
What is astonishing is not that education is wrong--because many useful outcomes are often the intention behind our classroom novels--but that adolescents are right. The moves they make with their books beat the moves we make with our books.
Natalie's grandmother lives with the family and the grandmother not only suggests books to Natalie, but she leaves several spread out at all times for Natalie to pick up and read. They discuss the books. They visit the library together at least once a month. When I asked Natalie how her grandmother knows her so well as a reader, she says, "probably because she talks to me."
Applying what good readers do outside of the class to the decisions we make inside of the classroom is a necessary adjustment to not only building lifelong readers but also building experiences that stick (and matter).
As I reconsider the design of how I will handle an upcoming whole-class text, I have to remember these students' words that it is possible to enjoy an assigned text...if they feel an interest in the book and if they feel that their personal reading process is honored.
Neither happens because I teach the book.
Either could happen if I teach the reader...on their own terms.
Two 8th grade students, Livia and Jenna, led our conferring session into ideas--which happens to not only be one of the Six Traits of Writing, but it is the first (and arguably most significant trait) among the Six Traits of Writing. As my students talk about their flow of ideas, Jenna brings up a very specific (and alarming) word: censor.
In the context of our conversation, Jenna shares that as one grows older a censor "gets built" into one's brain. You become "scared" to put down ideas. When one is younger, he doesn't care.
My gosh...8th grade students summoning up some of the seminal writing research of Don Graves, James Britton, Janet Emig, and others. What Jenna may or may not know (naturally, through her own visceral experiences as a writer) is that the censor she refers to does not grow naturally of its own accord. The censor is indeed placed inside the young writer's brain from a long, neurotic history of writing taught as correction.
The fear she references has long been noted (by Mina Shaghnessy and others) as a palpable fear of a trail of errors following the young writer around. Sadly, the research also shows that this freeze-up can often linger and follow us into and through our adult years.
For example, at a recent professional development workshop, I asked about thirty teachers in the room if any of them write. One raised her hand. At the conclusion of the session, I asked if any might start writing. None raised their hand. The reasons for not writing likely vary, but the fact remains, no matter how good the teacher may be or how well-intentioned, our generation of teachers is a walking manifestations of the flawed history of the teaching of writing in America: a heavy, heavy, heavy lead foot on the gas pedal of the correction of errors.
Helping adolescents develop their ideas is the heart of developing their thinking (aka writing) which is the foundation of developing as a writer. The trap we have to avoid is seeing narrow bands of thinking, such as the TDA or the DBQ, as writing when, in reality, in the testing situation, neither a TDA or a DBQ has much of anything to do with the authentic act of writing.
We know that writers think about ideas long before setting pencil to paper. Writers discuss, research, pull apart ideas. Writers revise ideas over extended periods of time--weeks, months, and years. No writer shares his brilliant treatise developed over minutes of thinking! Not only is the TDA and DBQ the most inauthentic act of writing we ever ask our kids to do, but also could become the only act of writing some ever ask their students to do.
Why isn't a TDA or a DBQ writing? Students don't own the idea. They never had any shot to think about it over time--like real writers. Students are not permitted to talk about the ideas--because talking would be cheating--even though as James Britton discovered, "Writing is born on a sea of talk. Our students only have a chance to revise without fresh eyes over a span of minutes--they are not afforded the opportunity to set their writing aside, walk away, think, come back to it tomorrow...as real writers do. And, the first and only draft of their writing is judged. Where else in the real world of writing on this planet is a first, rough draft of an idea judged without any collaboration or time to research, think, share...? With the exception of setting handwriting to paper, scant few elements of a TDA or DBQ are indeed an act of real-world writing.
This frustration is the crux of what Jenna and Livia point out to me in their own words. It is what I hear from students again and again and again:
I am a writer when it is personal and I can deeply relate.
When you are interested in a topic, you want to write about it more.
I only write to prompts I want to, otherwise it is a waste of time and I do not put my best effort in.
As you listen to the podcast, consider how the students in your classroom would feel about Jenna and Livia's experiences. How many would share their perspective? And if this perspective is shared, how might that knowledge impact the decisions we make as teachers?
When conferring with adolescents, an awareness of body language plays a role. Sometimes students keep pecking away at their keyboard and never glance over at me, or they are headfirst in their notebook, pencils scrawling away--and they reply with a vague, "fine" or "my story" or "this idea I've been thinking about."
Scribble-scribble-scribble. Tap-Tap Tap-Tap-Tap.
And in that moment I have to make the decision to either interrupt their flow or to back away. Most often, I back away from writers in the zone. I read a few lines over a shoulder, and then I move on to someone else sending signals that a conversation would not be intrusive in their process--as a matter of fact, a conversation may help the process flow.
So, when I approached Anju, an 8th-grade student, he told me was thinking about cooking. A few times this year, he was written about cooking. Yet, for the first time, I caught him in the act of thinking about cooking.
"Tell me more."
He said so much in the span of three minutes that I asked him to have lunch with me so we could create a podcast about his thinking. And, what resulted (attached below) is a podcast where we talk a lot about cooking...a bit about a maker space camp...and his participation in a collaborative cooking challenge at his church...and then we dip into wrestling...and, of course, writing.
What I pull from my time with Anju are how our lives are trajectories of rich, overlapping connections and passions. Yet, for too long in my growth as a teacher, my actions did not demonstrate understanding that curriculum could be a part of each and every adolescent's separate personal trajectory. I was teaching writing in its own box. And grammar had its own space. As did reading. And vocabulary.
For too long, on any given day, students engaged in a curriculum (in my classroom) served up like a display in a museum that I built according to the blue-print handed to each teacher from above. Sometimes students observed in my museum silently. Sometimes they daydreamed and missed "my lesson." Sometimes they listened to me and absorbed something. Sometimes the experience featured a hands-on experience. And then, when we were done, when it was time for me to move on with my agenda, the experience faded into a memory that many forgot.
Conferring experiences like the one published below with Anju continue to push me to disassemble the museum model of teaching one piece of wood at a time. The hope is that Anju feels encouraged to write about anything on his mind...while still learning vocabulary, deep reading skills, grammar, and the tools of a writer. Anju, like many adolescents, engages in so much thinking in life outside of school that his thinking should be welcome inside of the classroom. Actually, it should be more than welcome. Anju's thinking should be a foundation for Anju's trajectory as a writer.
If you listen to this episode of The Classroom, I hope you take something from the notion our time with adolescents, at least in part, is an act of helping them gain access to their thinking while connecting their thinking to the skills learned throughout the year in our classroom.
A February 2016 article in The Smithsonian (Infants Can See Things Adults Cannot) reveals that our brain filters out our ability to see things deemed unimportant--rather quickly. Adults cannot see image differences that infants can. The implication that the brain filters out things that don't matter should make every writing teacher pause.
What if this judgmental, housecleaning region of the brain doesn't allow us to notice adolescents and teenagers in the act of writing outside of school? We know our kids write, somewhat. Certainly, social media and digital platforms provide opportunities. Beyond the digital, we might also be aware of a few students with a passion for composing stories or poetry--who keep notebooks or journals. Yet, what if more of a writing process is happening than we allow ourselves to see?
What if in the complexity of the cortex, we believe that we have the current form of education so thoroughly figured out that we train our brain to dismiss writing--to no longer be conscious of it since it is not occurring inside the classroom?
In this episode of The Classroom, two 8th grade students, Jackson and Soumil, talk like two sagacious writing teachers. They write at home. They write for themselves. They write for others. They share. They talk. They reflect. They own their writing fears. They understand what works with making writing better. They grasp of the moves writers make when inspiration dries up or if they have an idea in need of development.
And I have to ask myself how adolescents know this much about writing? Is it that they always have known this much from their personal experiences and I have been ignorant--I have never paid attention? Maybe it is good news and a prevalence of adults are modeling and mentoring great writing habits? Maybe it is the often black-eyed CCSS? Maybe it is a packaged reading program. Perhaps it is the presence of phonics at an early age. Or maybe it is simply that children and adolescents and teenagers have always wanted to write, do truly want to write, and will always find a way to write.
Maybe our culture has grown so used to understanding writing (and all of its processes) as only a very narrow model. Perhaps we have forgotten what long thinking looks like when it comes to the writing process since so many classrooms can never feel free to create the space and time for long thinking. So much of writing is a process that includes recursive acts of silent thinking, conversation, and observation.
My students tell me again and again that they write. Furthermore, when I ask them to tell me about their writing lives, few talk about writing IN school. Perhaps a sidebar, a fragment, a term has taken root. But the writing process--that happens more often than not outside of school. Too many years of packaged, prearranged and girdled writing process instruction has done as much of a disservice to teachers than students. When you let them talk, students tell us that they still manage to engage in the constant act of composition right before our eyes--and we just can't bring outselves to recognize it.