Playing with My Mind: Opening a Space for Intellectual Play

 “A photograph is not created by a photographer…”
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Sam Antonio Photography via Compfight

Off and on this year, we’ve been thinking about figurative language, in particular metaphor. Metaphor is often at the heart of themes in fiction, as this discussion we had about The One and Only Ivan revealed. I’ve written about our struggle with a particular image in the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, as well.

I’m aware that some children in the class are very adept at seeing metaphor and are beginning to think metaphorically, which is an exciting development. But I’m also aware that some children have a more difficult time with metaphor, with understanding how to begin to unpack a metaphor.

I often struggle with talking about metaphors with the kids. I don’t want the discussion to come across too “academic.” Like explaining a joke to someone, explaining a metaphor can be pretty one-sided with the end result being a mumbled, “Oh” from the one who didn’t see the metaphor and probably still doesn’t really feel it.

Last week I decided to present to the kids Valerie Worth’s poem, “Fence”, from her book all the small poems and fourteen more.

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

from Valerie Worth, all the small poems and fourteen more

For our Poetry Friday celebration, I copy a poem and place it at each child’s table space before she arrives in the room in the morning. The kids know to read the poem, talk about it with others, annotate it, and then bring the poem to the carpet area for our morning meeting, which starts after our morning chores are done.

This time, to help the kids who might have a more difficult time seeing that a concrete image like a fence might also contain a metaphor, I asked them to consider this question: If the fence in this poem were not just a fence but a metaphor for something else, then what might that be? Simple enough.

I was pleasantly surprised with how this simple question opened up the thinking of some of the kids. I found that students who were usually quiet during our discussions had something more to say. Here were some of the ideas. Other ideas got built on top of the ones presented at first. I’ve tried to represent some of that building upon in the way I wrote the comments by grouping them sequentially.

“Maybe the fence was like a cage that kept the cows in. Now they are free.”
“It’s kind of like Ivan. He was in a cage but he broke out of it to freedom.”
“It’s also kind of like some of the ‘stories within a story’ we saw in The Arrival, (the ones that are told to the father as he meets people in the new world.) It’s like the immigrants we are studying. They had to break out of their old life, too.”

“Maybe the fence stands for all of the things that hold you back.”
Me: Like what?
“Like other people who might not want you to be a certain way.”
“Or maybe like even you can hold yourself back by telling yourself you can’t do something.”

And that’s about all we could explore right then.

After I had time to process what the children had said, I wanted to ask them more. For instance, what did they think of these first lines?

The old fence
has fallen down,
A pile of gray
Rails resting
in the grass

Their interpretation of the poem was one that emphasized freedom. I suspect they had identified with the cows; I certainly did, too. Yet, these lines gave me a sense of age, a sense of melancholy. Maybe at least part of me was also identifying with that “pile of gray/Rails resting/in the grass”, which was something that might have been very difficult for them to feel. If I had the chance to do this over, I would ask them what these lines made them feel. Ah well.

This experience caused me to think about a couple things related to the question that I asked them. First, asking the question in an if/then format offered the kids a mental challenge to put pieces together and stretch their thinking. Some readers do that kind of thinking all the time, but for readers who haven’t started thinking metaphorically, who enter the concrete and stay there, this question offered them an entry into the process. Second, I think the if/then question might have created a space for intellectual “play,” for batting around ideas for the simple joy of playing with them. Maybe by opening up that space, children could enter it more easily.

Finally, I suspect that it is precisely this joy of intellectual (and emotional) play that keeps me coming back to reading poems like “Fence.” I suspect, too, that this play is at the heart of my desire to explore the apparent difference in readings (hopeful or slightly melancholy) that never really surfaced in our discussion that day, but lingered in my heart after our talk was over. Could it be that they experienced a bit of this joy, too?  Can we come to appreciate and value intellectual play? As an end itself?

Growing Ideas Takes Time

Cross section of a trees' roots * Flickr Explore
Photo Credit: Aaron Escobar via Compfight

One of the benefits of teaching many different subjects (as I do in fourth grade) is being able to come back to an idea or a question over and over again. Too often we think of learning happening in neat little packages: I taught this lesson and now I’m moving on to the next one. But learning doesn’t happen in nice, neat packages very often. It occurs in what I think of as seasons, with long periods of fallow and subterranean root development between harvests.

I was reminded of this kind of episodic learning once again this week. We’ve been exploring some questions related to immigration through a wonderful immersion project with a local museum. One of our reading groups recently finished an informational book on Ellis Island, took some notes on its content, and is now working up a video to teach the other kids in the class about what happened there. They’ve written the script and this week they are downloading photos from a marvelous collection offered through a photo stream from the New York Public Library via the Creative Commons.

At any rate, the kids came across many, many photos that looked like these.

Then something interesting happened. The kids stopped and stared at the photos.

It turns out that the kids were looking closely and making connections to the drawings from The Arrival, a wordless graphic novel I had used to introduce our immigration unit. Said they, “These look a lot like the pictures we saw at the beginning of The Arrival!”

“Hmm…” I said. And I trotted over to get the book.

You see what you think.

The Arrival_faces2

So, then the connections came flying.

“Those people in The Arrival are definitely immigrants!”

“They look almost exactly the same as the drawings!”

“I wonder if the author saw these photos and drew the pictures from them.”

“Now we can see where the immigrants are from!” (The country of origin is in the notes on the Flickr account.)

So, maybe this connection between our reading of The Arrival and the New York Public Library’s photo stream isn’t the biggest thing that ever happened. But since our first interpretation of that page of faces from The Arrival was “Those look like terrorists!”, we have come a long way!

I think the struggle we went through to understand the drawings helped set the students up to not just KNOW that many different immigrants came through Ellis Island, this struggle also helped them OWN that difference in a deeper way than if I had told them from the outset, “No, those are not terrorists. They are immigrants.”

Coming Out (of the Corset)

National Portrait Gallery
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Terry Hassan via Compfight

Today’s post takes me away from the classroom stories I have been sharing and straight into the confessional.

Here it comes: I’m in an existential crisis. I love to read. I REALLY don’t like reading class. That makes me just like many of my students.1 Except that I’m responsible for the misery.

I had a crisis over winter break. I didn’t want to come back to school and teach reading in the spring. I wanted to teach science, social studies, math, and writing. Not reading.


Much of the current GREAT THINKING in education says our lessons have to be TIGHTLY FOCUSED around a SINGLE IDEA that is PROMINENTLY POSTED so students can KNOW WHAT THEY ARE LEARNING TO DO.

I’ve found that tight focus feels, well, tight…and confining…like a corset. (Or at least how I imagine a corset must feel?) It squishes me innards, metaphorically speaking.

I’m tired of the lessons whose tight focus on a reading strategy or genre leaves little space for the children to stretch and think for themselves; the five-days-a-week meetings of reading groups at the appropriate guided reading level to gradually release responsibility for my predetermined focus lesson; the “progress monitoring” of children, as if that much measuring of accuracy and rate (which is what it usually distills to) makes a hoot of difference for the big things that matter the most (or that measuring a lot makes a lot of difference, either.) I’m tired of the guilt for never being able to accomplish the above.

To make matters worse, a full two hours of our day is taken up by reading instruction, a 90 minute reading block and a 30 minute “intervention” block, which doesn’t leave much time for the classes the kids actually do like, like science and social studies and (less universally liked) writing, much less for student inquiry. The corset, though fashionable, is killing me and the students.

So, I’m experimenting. I’m stepping over to the Dark Side, further away from the core reading program, further into infidelity. (Infidel. Heretic. Ugh.)

It is not enough just to close the door anymore and hope no one notices. So, I have to be prepared for the eventual blow back. I will share my thinking so that I am prepared.

First (and primarily), I am focusing our learning on questions, rather than statements, because questions elicit thought. The two questions that have served me best are these: What sense can we make of this? And, later: Why might this be important to know or understand? From those, we can generate questions that will draw us deeper into our own inquiry. The inquiry may come from a topic I’ve chosen, or something the children develop themselves. But, if I post anything on a poster, it will be those questions.

Second, we will reflect on the answers to those questions. If I post anything else on posters, it will be how we have (provisionally) answered those questions, the discoveries we have made.

As far as structure, because I know I will get some questions about that. I’ll continue to offer a lot of uninterrupted self-selected reading. The innovation, though, was to create a wall of books we have read, with short, teaser reviews when the kids finish reading them. We are using that wall as a place to show our own reading, with periodic reflection along the way. The kids like reading self-selected books. (Like my brother-in-law, they don’t consider reading actual books to be “reading class.”) They like sharing what they’ve read with others. More of that, please.

I am also bringing more science and social studies into our small group reading time. Sure we are reading words, but we are also reading tables and graphs and maps and figures and videos and Google Earth and physics demonstrations in order to understand something important about a topic we are studying. We will start with the same questions: What sense can we make of this? Why might this be important to know or understand? And these groups will not meet five days a week, either. Two at most, for longer periods of time, sometimes less often.

I won’t let mini-lessons and small group work crowd out our shared read alouds. Period.

I’ll continue to talk to kids individually. If the powers that be want five group meetings for struggling readers, I’ll point toward two longer group meetings and (at least) three conferences per week and (hopefully) we will have a discussion about the relative utility of this path vs. the other.

Mostly, though, I want the kids to think. And I do not want to contribute to their dislike of “reading, the class.”

  1. My all-time favorite story about how universal this problem is came from my brother-in-law, then a fourth grader in Texas. When I asked him whether he liked reading, his answer came in the form of a question: “Do you mean reading the thing you do, or reading the class?” Turns out he hated reading, the class, but read all the time outside class.

Wishes or Fishes? — Some Thoughts on Being Present at the Creation

We finished reading the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, which I had planned as an introduction to some of the central questions in a unit on immigration.

We came across these pictures early in the book.

I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut (at least for awhile) so I could hear the kids think. Here’s what they said:

“What are those….birds?”

“No, I think they are flying fish.”

“But they don’t look like fish, exactly. I think they might be a flock of birds that followed the ship.”

“I disagree. I think they are flying fish, too. I’ve heard of flying fish. They fly across ships sometimes.”

So, birds or fish? The class seemed split, but mostly on the side of flying fish.

Later, we came to these pictures.

And these pictures.

And then some kids said:

“I wonder if that isn’t really a bird. Maybe it’s a wish.” (ME: Tell me more, please.)

“Maybe the author wanted to show us a wish and had to think of a way to show it in a picture.”

“Maybe the bird is a wish that The Father sends out to his family. He wishes they could be there with him?”

“It’s like he sends them thoughts through the air to his family.”

And then:

“Remember earlier, on the ship, there were all of those flying fish? Maybe they were ALL wishes by all of those people thinking about the people at home.”

(ME: What do you all think? Wishes? Or something else?)


“Something else!”

(ME: What then?)

“Maybe they are strange animals. The Father has run into a lot of strange animals in the new land he lives in.”

“Yeah! Remember that weird pet that acts like a dog? And all of those people have strange animal pets. I think the author wanted us to think of this as a place with lots of strange animals.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

I bring up this conversation because it is such a common one in our classroom. I have to admit that I have a bias toward the wishes thesis because it contains visual metaphor, and my brain really likes metaphors. (Yum. And more later, maybe, on why metaphors mean so much to me.)

I know that our classroom is clearly divided between those who increasingly look for language (or a visual image) to carry with it a figurative meaning, and those who see things more literally. Some see wishes. Some see fishes.

I suspect that one of the differences between these stances is how (or whether) one’s orientation as a reader faces toward building a generalization out of a particular–to ask the question that generalizes out of any particular circumstance. For example, the habit of asking this: What might these fishes mean if they weren’t simply fishes? A question like that admits from the outset that there is more than meets the eye, and offers the possibility of general ideas to emerge from the particulars of experience.

Do you have such a divide in your classroom? If so, what do you make of it? Are there any thoughts common to the Literalists, the Figurativians that might help me understand them better?

*  *   *   *   *   *   *

Why does metaphor even matter?

Maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sometimes, when I listen carefully to the kids talk and I (try) to keep my mouth shut, I feel like I’m present at the creation. Lava oozes from the Earth, cools. Continents wander about slowly colliding, splitting, sloughing, accreting. A new world forms and reforms.


Waiting for the Arrival, or, How Jumping to Conclusions May be Important to Understanding

The Arrival_cover

We began our exploration of immigration by beginning a “read aloud” of Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival. I told the kids that we were going to be studying the topic of immigration, which is the word social scientists give to the idea that people move from one place to another. That’s about all I told them, so far.

My goal has been to open up some ideas about immigration in a way that the kids could first feel the disorientation and reorientation of the immigrant, before we got into some more of the nitty-gritty aspects of the topic. I’m thinking, here, of how some experiences (war, famine, persecution, hope) pushed people to leave what they knew in the home country to begin a new life in a strange land, the different experiences that people endured along the way, the disorientation of the arrival, the power structure immigrants landed in, and, using whatever resources they possessed, the way immigrants tried to make a new home for themselves in their new land.

Ultimately, I want the kids to begin to understand how this powerful force in history shaped people and places. But I also hope the students might understand the immigrant’s story metaphorically, as the story of any journey into a new land. The immigrants’ disorientation and reorientation applies to many situations.

Maybe, as we read we might see our own lives, our own learning as a kind of immigration from once familiar territory into a new, barely understood land. At the very least, for rural Iowans whose immigrant identity is tenuous to vanishing, we might gain a better sense of our fellow citizens whose experience with home and belonging is so different than our own. Perhaps. Perhaps.

We gathered on the floor, in chairs, and around nearby tables while I projected the book from my iPad onto the screen.

We began to read and talk.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Almost immediately, I ran into several of those moments that Vicki Vinton talked about in a recent post where the students she read to jumped to conclusions that seemed problematic. After the cover page, Tan presented us with this magnificent two-page spread:

The Arrival_faces1 The Arrival_faces2

I asked the children what they made of these. They thought for a moment, and then several children began to form a conclusion.

Me: What do you think about these pages?

Student A: Hmmm. It looks like these are terrorists. (Others agree.)

Me: (Taken aback.) Terrorists? What makes you think that?

Student A: Well, I’ve seen people look like that on the TV when my mom watches her news.

Me: What is it about them that you recognize?

Student B: I agree with (Student A). They look like terrorists because some of them have those hats that they wear on their heads, the ones that twist up…

Me: (To myself: Oh no! This isn’t going where I expected…or want…or anywhere good.) Ok. We think these people might be terrorists. Why do you think the author wanted us to be thinking about terrorists right now in the book?

Student C: Maybe because something is going to happen that’s really bad and the author wanted to plant a clue for us right now?

Me: (To myself: Hmmm….that’s pretty good thinking about how authors use these early opportunities in books.) Ok. Maybe the author wants to warn us about something. Let’s read more to see if we can connect anything to these pictures and to other parts of the book.

(Before I can start to flip the pages again.)

Student D: Maybe they are slaves?

Me: (To myself: Hmm…this is going to be interesting!) Why do you think that?

Student D: They look like they aren’t very happy and some of them look like the pictures I’ve seen of slaves. Besides, there’s a picture of a little kid on the third row down on the left side and I don’t think this kid is a terrorist, but I know that some kids were slaves.

Me: Ok. So now we have two different ideas about what these pictures mean. 1) They are a warning that terrorists might attack. 2) They are pictures of slaves that…what?

Student D: …might be arriving somewhere. That way we can connect to the title, too.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

We read on. The pictures tell the story of a man leaving his family. We notice they are poor, and the woman and man are very sad to be parting.


The man takes a train from the station and then boards a boat. After many days at sea — delightfully rendered by many small drawings of different kinds of clouds — we see this picture.


Suddenly, the ideas about who those people were at the beginning of the book changed!

Student A: I don’t think those were terrorists or slaves anymore. I think they are the people that got on this boat.

Me: Tell me more.

Student A: I think the author wanted us to think about all of these different people getting on a boat to go somewhere. They are sad because they have left their families, like the father was sad when he left his family.

Others: Yes! There are all of these people that had to leave their families and go on a train, maybe, and now a boat and soon they are going to arrive somewhere else.

Me: (To myself: I’m glad that I just let the early stuff go so we could come to this.) So, we discovered something here, didn’t we? We started out thinking th0se people were terrorists, then slaves, and now we think they might be other people, lots of different people who look very different from each other — all of whom are leaving their own homes for somewhere else. You’ve connected this set of images to other things you’ve noticed in the story and you’ve changed your mind as you got more information. That’s really cool, kids, that you can stick with something like that until it starts to make sense, and until you can connect it to lots of other details in the story. Congratulations.

Let’s see where this new idea takes us, okay?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

It may be that the struggle the children engaged in as they jumped to conclusions helped them to first notice the differences between the immigrants in the two-page spread of faces (the strange faces, the long beards and mustaches, the wrapped heads.) This is a crucial understanding that I hoped they would get, that all immigrants are not alike, and that not all immigrants would even feel comfortable around the other, though they share the same “name”: immigrant.

Perhaps it was necessary for them to live with the idea of difference, even if it brought them to a place that was pretty uncomfortable for me for awhile. (Watch out for the terrorists!) Only after living with that for awhile were they able to understand that while the difference between the people on that page was significant for the story, the terrorist idea didn’t fit and they could eventually discard it.

Similarly, their conclusion jumping — they are slaves! — emerged from noticing the expression on the faces and putting that together with the differences in the faces. This idea of unhappiness or worry, too, might have been necessary for them to notice and to live with for awhile so they can feel deeply the emotions those who leave must feel.

As we read further in the story, the difference between the people, as well as the worry and sadness they had on their faces, might help us better understand what it must be like to be so different, one from the other, and so alone in a new world.

What Failure Teaches Me (…more thoughts on reading nonfiction)

8-18-12 design scans 006
Photo Credit: Katie Walker via Compfight

Of course, I love it when things work out well. I like to celebrate those moments here.

But I also want to use this space to think about things that don’t work out so well. As I tell the children, learning is often messy, unclear, our ideas emerge partly formed and take some effort to make them clearer. From that vantage point, the beauty that might someday be often takes awhile (and some squinting!) to see. So, writing only about the successes doesn’t seem completely honest, since much of what I experience is that messiness of learning. I wrote earlier this year; I pick my way through the jungle.

So here is a failure of sorts that points toward something interesting.

If you’ve read my posts recently, you’ll notice that I’m thinking (obsessed?) about how to help students linger in the ideas of text that do not have a narrative focus. One thought I had was that I might use a practice common to scientific thinking as a way to help students linger with an idea: the creation of a model that could be probed and revised.

Well, it turns out that on some level I must have already been thinking about this problem because I actually had students generate a model as a way to help me understand their thinking about the way sound is produced and energy is transferred via sound waves.

Why didn’t I see this as a rich source to mine for the question I’ve been asking? I don’t know! It took writing on the blog before I saw what was right there in front of me. Sometimes the parts of my brain are like an old couple, living together side by side, thinking their own silent thoughts.

So here’s what we did.

In a learning unit on sound, we conducted experiments and read in small group some short informational pieces about various aspects of sound production and reception. As a culminating activity, I presented the kids with a simple hand-drawn picture and asked the kids to explain how sound got from them to me. In essence, I was asking the children to create a model. As part of their explanation, I asked that they describe in as great a detail as they could how this happens, but that they also identify their uncertainty, too. I told them that the best scientists are most interested in the parts that they don’t know or still have questions about because these are the next areas to explore.

Here are some examples of what the students drew, and how they identified their uncertainties. Here is Student A’s model:


Student A’s model is sort of sketchy and shows that through our discussions and reading I wasn’t able to help her create a very detailed model of how sound travels. However, she does a terrific job of identifying some of the areas where she is uncertain, and offers some tentative explanations: “Maybe the wind carries the sound.”

One of my failures, here, I think was that I didn’t make creating this model the focus of our learning so it could provide a framework from the beginning, If I would have done that, we could more easily track what we learned and what wasn’t learned, and been able to create richer descriptive language. (Richly descriptive mentor texts could have also helped!)

Here’s another example, Student B:



Student B’s model shows some clear details about the various steps in the process — the necessity of some organ in our throats to produce sound, the way the ear receives sound, the presence of “sound waves” — and a clear sense that he didn’t know how sound was produced in the larynx other than that vibrations were produced. Also, the notion of sound waves was mentioned, but not questioned, which I thought was interesting.

Another of my failures illustrated here was that if Student B and Student A could have talked together about their models, if they could have lingered over them a bit more, but in conversation with each other, then both Student B and Student A would have been able to form a better, more complete model and, crucially, a more complete set of questions.

Here’s another model from Student C:


Student C’s model very clearly identifies steps, and some of the parts that must be needed. I was very pleased with how he admitted large areas of uncertainty ( a willingness to admit NOT knowing) including a concern over the structure of waves (“I don’t know how sections become sections.”) Wow.

This model represents still another layer of failure for me. We hadn’t talked about compression waves, but had I known his concern earlier I could have easily found written text (and video!) that shows how vibrations propagate compression waves. This might have brought us into the conceptual swamp of molecules in gases like air (but, heck, why not, eh?) But even if that wasn’t understood by everyone, at least then everyone would have realized that the metaphor of “waves” needed to be further unpacked to make it sensible, even if they couldn’t quite understand how they worked. (This is only fourth grade, right?)

So, what to do?

One way this points me is toward using models as a repository of our current thinking as we read informational text that doesn’t have a narrative focus. If we had a model to talk about, that we might have lingered on, that we could have used it to hone our description, we could have used it to identify and explore areas of uncertainty. We could have used it as a way to talk to each other so we could all develop an increasingly complex conceptual understanding of some pretty complicated ideas. We might have used this model to reinforce a crucial element of scientific inquiry; that is, we could have mapped the unknown territory, the place where scientists love to explore because that’s where the cool stuff lies.




Reading Nonfiction (part 3): Building Models

Photo Credit: Mike via Compfight

I’ve been trying to puzzle out why nonfiction reading, whether it be my reading aloud to the kids or our small group work with nonfiction text, looks and sounds so different than the fiction we read and talk about. While the kids in my classroom like to read nonfiction, and enjoy when I read it aloud, we don’t seem to have the depth of conversation, we don’t linger in the text or the idea behind the text nearly as long as when we read fiction together. I do more talking and explaining, and the kids have a less “speculative” stance than happens during our talk about fiction.

I’d like that to change.

I’ve been thinking about my own reading practices to help me figure out what I do that makes nonfiction not just compelling, but something that I mull over, toss around, linger over. I do a lot of nonfiction reading. In fact, there was a time not long ago that I just wasn’t so interested in fiction. (That’s changed!) How can I help students feel the warmth, to draw closer to the fire? 1

One thing I do that kids don’t do in my classroom is create a model of the ideas I’ve encountered in the text.

The idea of creating a model comes from scientists, who often create models of complex phenomena to help them mull things over a bit. Sometimes these are computer models (my partner is working with a team of geographers to map various vegetation-types that have occurred under different climate regimes since the last Ice Age), sometimes they are conceptual models (say, for instance, the origin of dogs based on DNA evidence, known behavior patterns of wolves, and archeological evidence.)

The thing with models is that they operate like a kind of “rough draft” that Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse talk about in their book, What Readers Really Do. Both models and rough drafts are based on the best available evidence and are mutable; as new evidence is acquired, they change.

What makes model creation just a bit different is that they often are ways to take complex ideas and make them simpler to understand and play with. Models allow scientists to engage in some “If…, then…”-type discussion. These discussions then reinforce parts of the model, or show the weak areas. Discussion occurs during the creation of the model (lots and lots of clear description) and when scientists poke and prod the model to detect and shore up weak areas.

Perhaps our discussion could be enhanced by making explicit what scientists do? If so, we’d need to spend time talking/creating a model and clearly describing what is happening with each part. We might need to look at our model and do some “If…, then…” thinking to see what new information we might need so we could test our model, and explore the weak areas. Finally, as we gained new knowledge we would need to talk about how that changed our model.

Could I do that kind of thinking with nonfiction texts? It might be interesting to try.


  1. For an example of how I’ve created a model from nonficiton text, check out this post about Dan Willingham’s book and how it has helped me understand how people learn. I’ve presented a version of this model to the kids and we use it to help us be more strategic about our learning.

Reading Nonfiction (part 2) — Slowing Down

Ravens 'Talking'
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Doug Brown via Compfight

In a previous post, I raised some questions: Why does it seem like there is less energy in my classroom for reading informational text? Why are the conversations that happen around informational text read alouds not as deep, speculative, or far-ranging as the ones that happen during our fiction read alouds? Why do we seem to reach “WOW!”, but not so much beyond that?

In that post I speculated that at least one reason might be because fiction offers a story to readers that allows us to live in the world of the book, to toss around ideas about what might be happening in that world, or what it all might mean.

Non-narrative informational text doesn’t offer that story-world to inhabit, it offers a world of ideas.

Mary Lee Hahn, writer, poet, teacher, and across-a-distance-friend, offered a compelling reason that nonfiction might have a different feel, and gently pushed me to think more about the distinctions I was making. Says Mary Lee:

I’m wondering if there’s one more piece to the puzzle about response to informational text. Could it be that life experience is what moves us past the “that’s cool” stage to the one where we’re fascinated by the interconnectedness of information…because we’ve lived long enough to develop a network of cognitive connections? Maybe story is a doorway that is so hardwired that we can walk through at any age (in some way, shape or form), but informational text functions like life experience or mathematical learning — in more of a sequential, cumulative way. Maybe we need to embrace the differences in response to fiction and nonfiction, rather than trying to make them the same.

I love the idea that more experienced readers become “fascinated by the interconnectedness of information.” Certainly that is the case for me. The more I read, the more ideas I collect, the more I see, the more the connections (and disconnections) take on an intrinsic interest. Many of the people that I see as models for how to live an engaged and aware life study the world around them. They mine experience and the information it provides for questions and connections and new knowledge.

I think of the work of Bernd Heinrich (Ravens in Winter, A Year in the Maine Woods) a scientist-writer I love to read because, for example, he does stuff like this: While sitting on his front porch at his cabin the the Northeastern US woods, Heinrich follows a small wasp to the woodpile where he observes it laying its eggs inside the larva of wood beetles, an observation that opens up a discussion of the violent world of whole-body parasitism. It’s a larva eat larva world out there.

Paul Gruchow ( Grassroots: The Universe as Home) really understands the social and natural history of both northern and southern Minnesota (quite a feat as they are such different places.) Powerful poems emerge from Mary Oliver’s daily walks around her home in Massachusetts (A Thousand Mornings). How can the same walk each day generate such depth of insight?

As I write, I realize that I hope the learners in our classroom experience the joy of living an engaged and aware life, and the way “reading like the wolf eats” (Gary Paulson), including books on how the wolf eats!, is part of that engaged life.

So, thanks to Mary Lee, here’s a second stab at what I wanted to say.

I suspect that that not only does fiction offer up a story, a world to explore, but that fiction allows us to slow down our life. Perhaps life happens at a pace and with such a welter of experience that it is hard to focus, to slow down enough to let the importance of events sink in until long after they are over. By offering up a text that isn’t our own life, but talks about things we have experienced or anticipate experiencing, we are able to live inside the lives that inhabit that imaginary world because it moves at the pace of a book. Talking, pondering, exploring are the visible signs of slowing down; they are ways for us expand our understanding of what is happening. But the important thing is to slow down.

If that’s true, that slowing down thing, then maybe what I seek for our nonfiction reading is a chance to slow down, too. “WOW!” is a start, but “WOW” is a match whose heat flickers out quickly.

I think I’m looking for ways to slow down the nonfiction reading experience so we can live in the experience, to deepen our understanding, to let the roots of thinking grow, to take the next step into the room that WOW opened for us.

I want to explore how to do this. Maybe this blog is a place to start? Does this distinction make sense to you? Does it seem worth pursuing?

I’ll do some more thinking about how I can slow down our reading and where that might take us.

Reading Nonfiction — Noticing and Speculating, part 1.

Vacuum Tube Etch-A-Sketch
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The internet has been a wonderful thing for me and my teaching.

I’m fortunate to have “met” Julieanne Harmatz, teacher, writer, thinker, while following the work of Vicki Vinton on her fantastic blog, To Make a Prairie. I’ve been struck by the eloquent and thoughtful comments Julieanne offers.

So it was no surprise that Julieanne had another thoughtful post on her blog, this time puzzling out the differences between the engagement of students during read aloud and independent reading time. Which got me thinking about how read aloud and independent reading function in a classroom setting. Why even bother thinking and talking about books? It must give students something important to go through all that effort.

Which then got me thinking about another difference I’ve also noticed in my classroom: the difference in energy the children have for reading and discussing informational text vs. fiction text. What is the difference in how we approach fiction vs. nonfiction that might account for that different level of energy?

Most of the kids in our classroom are reading fiction these days. Some dabble in informational text, for sure, and some read mostly informational text, but I’ve noticed a lack of specific passion for nonfiction both in what the students read independently as well as how much and deeply they discuss during my read alouds. We simply don’t get the engaged kind of conversation that have emerged from our fiction reading. (For examples of how fiction has grabbed us, check out some recent posts here (The One and Only Ivan), here (Ivan, again), and here (the graphic novel, Rust.)

I’m not sure why there should be such a noticeable difference in conversation, but I want to use this space to think through that conundrum.

First off, I can’t rule out my own contribution to this difference in energy, but it is hard for me to see the low hanging fruit that would allow me to change quickly and easily. In other words, I don’t think this can be explained away by something obvious I’m either doing or not doing that squashed conversation or interest.

For example, I love informational text and often share my love for it with the kids. In fact, much of what I read for myself is informational text. I read informational text to the kids in short snippets as well as longer chunks. We explore ideas together. Also, at least 1/2 of my classroom library, which extends to over 1,000 titles, is devoted to informational text. I’ve organized my library by subject, with some favorite author bins for Nic Bishop, Seymor Simon, Nicola Davies, Steve Jenkins, and others. So, the lack of comparable energy for informational text isn’t easily explainable by lack of teacher interest, lack of library, or by books that are “hidden” from view.

While the kids do enjoy reading and listening to informational text, I think one thing informational text doesn’t offer that fiction does is a clear entry into the text through the doorway of story, an entry that facilitates speculative, engaging conversation. Nonfiction texts, particularly those that do not have a narrative, seem more difficult to engage.

I’m going to speculate here, but I suspect that what the fiction we read offers the kids is a story, plain and simple. Story offers the kids a easy opening, a doorway, through which we can all enter the text. By offering a story, authors help students enter a world populated by characters and events that the students can use to create interpretive “drafts” of what is happening or what characters are thinking and feeling. Readers can argue their points based on the evidence from that world that is available to all who read. They can listen to others argue their points because we all live inside the story; the details the story provides are sufficient to create a world to inhabit and walk around in, to talk about, to explore, to understand.

That living in the text hasn’t happened as readily with nonfiction that isn’t narrative. (Narrative nonfiction is another animal.)

Again, I’ll speculate. The children often enter informational text through the doorway of wonder, or amazement, or “wow, that’s cool!”, which is great, but only goes so far as a seed for a good conversation. Once we’ve noticed that “coolness” what else do we say? And to make it doubly hard for good conversation to develop, for some kids it’s hard to NOT already know the cool thing that we just read about. Often we construct our identity as ONE WHO KNOWS.

I’ve noticed that even for kids who are in the habit of reading fiction deeply and interpreting tentatively, even for those who often admit that they don’t have THE ANSWER in a conversation about a character’s motivations, these children sometimes say, “I knew that already.” when we read and talk about nonfiction. Or partway into our reading, they’ll “finish” the explanation offered by the author by offering up an explanation that is partially true, but is missing key elements that would make the explanation so much cooler, or deeper, or more interesting. And, after we are done, they won’t know that they don’t know. They’ll still be carrying whatever misconception they had at the beginning with them through the end.

If you happen to stumble across this post, do you notice a difference in the way students interact with informational text compared to fiction? Do you notice a difference in the quality of conversations that emerge from read alouds that are informational vs. fiction? What do you think is going on?

I’m figuring that this is part 1 of my reflection on nonfiction reading because I’m just now going back to re-read Georgia Heard (who I often go to for inspiration). I suspect that to foster better nonfiction reading and better nonfiction conversation, I will need to get to the heart of the matter, since that’s where the good stuff lies. There are few writers on my bookshelf who get to this place more completely than Georgia Heard. I’m not sure where this is taking me, but I’ll report more on where I end up in a future post.

awkening the heart a-place-for-wonder Finding the Heart



Reading, the Thing You Do? or Reading, the Class?


What will we talk about? And should I share it “on the web?” 🙂

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I’m inspired by Tony Sinanis’ video updates about the happenings at his school in Jericho, NY. Yesterday I presented a couple of these videos to the kids and asked them whether they wanted to do such a thing for our classroom. They were very interested! I’m pleased, so we’ll start this week and post to our classroom website.

This weekly review of our time together fits with a more general desire I have to move toward documenting the learning we are doing on a moment by moment basis, which is itself strongly connected to my sense that learning happens when we are mindful of the deeper structures of our lives. I’m hoping that this weekly reflection will turn into a routine and that the kids will begin to document their work throughout the week.

But, like most ideas, the more I think about this, the more I wonder. Specifically (and this is difficult for me to admit) I wonder what the kids will say about what we do during our “reading” class. I love to read, many of the kids love to read (though, like other classrooms, there are exceptions to that rule…); some of the best moments we have in our class happen during the conversation around the books we read. Reading class takes up a large chunk of our day.

But what will they tell others about our “reading class?”  How can one describe a conversation? An insight? Or, in the other side of the reading class I present to the kids each day, what will they say about the teacher and school driven goals that I and The Reading Program create for them?


Why is it that SMART goals never seem all that important to me, but other goals do?

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All this causes me to wonder about our “goals” during reading class, and whether they are powerful enough to be memorable, or clear enough to be described.

Which makes me wonder about how to teach reading.

Which makes me question myself, and how I do things.

Which brings me to the “insight” that I had this morning over my cup of coffee in front of the wood stove, always a dangerous and exciting place to inhabit, lost in thought, on a cold wintery morning.

I once asked my nephew when he was going into fourth grade whether he liked reading. He looked at me with this serious expression and asked a question back at me: “Do you mean reading, the thing that you do, or reading, the class?” He went on to say that he definitely liked the one, but not the other. In fact, in his fourth grade mind, it seemed they inhabited two separate realms.

Another story. I feel about teaching reading the same as  I felt when I first taught writing as a US history graduate student at the University of Minnesota during the 1980s. In those days our large teaching cohort (numbering over 100!) had passionate discussions about whether writing was even something you could teach in isolation, as a subject on its own, or if it should be taught across the curriculum as part of the classes in which it was used. An existential crisis for writing teachers, no?

I never resolved that problem back then; I guess some of my doubts linger regarding reading.


The way we normally teach reading is as a set of mental processes to practice (inferring, visualizing, synthesizing, evaluating, determining importance, etc.); as text structures to recognize (cause/effect, comparison, description…etc.); or thinking processes to complete (evaluation, making judgments, etc…) All these cast reading as a process, which it is, of course. But processes without content are abstract and difficult to learn and subject to the learner creating misconceptions because the context is not clear. Why visualize? Why infer? Why even evaluate or determine if not to do something with the ideas we have?

Here’s a concrete example. As an historian, I gained a greater sense of what industrialization meant in the lives of people. I started with a quite shallow understanding, basically just the knowledge that this word was important to historians. But as I read about the deskilling of workers, the revolts against the machine, the concentration of capital, the rise of an educated middle class, growing waves of urbanization and the decline of the rural landscape, environmental changes and changes to the health of individuals and the planet, I could almost feel a story growing inside me. Soon, what was difficult to understand, now had nuance and texture. New information just added to that richness. Learning history actually gave me something that I can feel.

But reading? The processes I teach the children, if we do that much in the classroom, actually become less known the more we are able to deploy them because these processes become automatic. In fact, when did I become an “expert” at inferring? At what point did my visualizing  achieve “mastery?” The only way to tell is if the things I infer as useful, and the visualizing yields a piece of the intellectual puzzle I’m building.

So, what to tell the kids? Can we report to parents that we have “done” visualizing this week? Is that even true? Can we say that we are “working on” making inferences? That we have almost achieved “synthesizing” mastery? Or do we tell them that we’ve been reading some cool books, name them, and then talk about what we’ve learned from them and from each other? But, if the later, what am I teaching them?

And how can the thought of creating a video update for the parents in our classroom cause me to have an existential crisis?

Probably, a long time ago, I read too much Kierkegaard. Maybe I should just go get another cup of coffee. 🙂

Buddha dog

The balancing act continues.

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