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

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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'
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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



Afloat in a Ocean of Stories

So, something interesting happened on the way home from a family holiday gathering. Something that helped me see (once again) that I float in an ocean of stories if only I take the time to notice.

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Driving to beat the winter storm that threatened to dump freezing rain and then 9 inches of new snow on southern Wisconsin, I left for a family visit in my 16 year old car. Just outside Madison, one-by-one the dashboard warning lights flashed on.  Darkness had fallen, and now freezing rain. Ice accumulated on the windshield as the wipers slowed almost to a halt. I stopped to see what might be wrong with the car, but on a early Saturday evening, all the shops were closed. Finally, when the ABS light came on, I took the next exit on the Beltway, found a large (mostly empty) parking lot, and pulled in. The car died right there.

While the story of my family’s rescue of me is interesting — they just happened to be driving by Madison toward the same destination from a different direction — the ending to this story that I want to tell is about what happened at the car repair place two days later. This ending reminds me that there are stories hiding in the most unexpected places. And these stories are for me (and perhaps for others) the very stuff of life.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *
Color Whore
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The mechanics had just begun to decide the fate of my car when I found a vinyl chair in the waiting room. Next to me was a woman, about my age, working on a laptop. I pulled mine out of my bag to work. Whatever we were working on, however, wasn’t as interesting as the possibility of a good conversation, so we got to talking. We soon discovered our shared connection as educators and began asking questions. And telling stories.

Where do you teach?

What’s it like to teach in Wisconsin these days? Have things changed after the fights over public education and budgets that Governor Walker had initiated?

How did you decide to be a teacher? What keeps you there working with the kids each day?

Turns out she was a school counselor in a district north of Madison and had been in the schools in various capacities for 29 years. I talked of my own move into teaching at the ripe old age of 42. She told of a long-term passion for it. We told stories about why we did this work despite the changes in our profession.

Soon a man stood up, walked over to us from across the room, and introduced himself. He’d overheard our conversation and wanted us to know that he was livid about the changes he’d seen. Coming from Switzerland, though now settled in the US permanently, he couldn’t imagine why the US was so set on bashing its teachers or privatizing its public education system. He told stories about the learning his children had done in the “excellent PUBLIC schools” in Madison.

While we were talking, two others joined in the conversation and began talking about schools their children had attended, teachers they’d had, and more generally about meaningful work, about families, about learning.

Finally, a woman who had recently arrived to the room caught my eye and smiled. She leaned toward the conversation and said, “Thirty-three years in middle school and high school in Connecticut, with some time off to raise a family. I’m retired now, but it was the best job for me.” Then she told us a story about a brave and scared girl she’d known back in 1963, now fifty years ago, a girl this older teacher had taken under her wing. Turns out that the girl had been moved by the connection with her teacher so, when hearing of her teacher’s pregnancy, she had entered her teacher’s name in a contest. A local business was to give away a new baby stroller, which the girl had signed up to receive “for my ‘mom’s’ new baby.”

The story brought tears to our eyes.

Imagine a group of adults sitting silently on vinyl chairs on the day before the day before Christmas, when all that should have been done hadn’t been finished, collectively waiting for broken cars to be repaired, sitting silently and teary-eyed because of some kind act that a child did so many years ago, and because of the awesome example of compassion offered by a woman who carried this story in her heart for fifty years.

One by one the cars got fixed. As people left the room they paused to shake hands, solemnly smile, and to thank the others in the room for the stories and the chance to meet. Each left with a look of puzzled wonder in her eyes about what had just happened.

Reflection as a Goal–Our (First) Weekly Video Update Project

Dreaming Lush Green Grass and Spring Sunsets
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Today I posted a short-ish video to my classroom blog site, an update of our week together that I talked about in this post that turned into a reflection about some of the struggles I have when I teach reading.

Now I’m going to show you our first video and to reflect on our learning goals for this project. The video is embedded at the end of this post.

The Rationale

I had learned about Tony Sinanis’ video updates from Jericho, NY through George Couros’ blog. I thought this idea might offer me a way to address some fundamental beliefs, beliefs that have been in the back of my mind for some time but that I have not been able to imagine how to bring to light.

First, I believe that we learn better when we are mindful of what we are doing, which applies to me as well as the kids I teach. One way we could become more mindful, I felt, was for us to assume the responsibility for gathering evidence of our learning over a relatively short period of time, and to think about how to present a piece of that evidence to ourselves and to others. It made sense to get students involved in this kind of thinking. Perhaps it might develop in them the habit of thinking (and documenting) their own growth, and it might help me focus our learning as I see how they respond to what we’ve done.

Also, I believe that schools (including me and the classroom that is my responsibility) don’t open our doors quite far enough to parents and the community. I thought that a video might humanize our classroom, it might capture some of the ways that kids think, talk, and act. By doing that, our classroom might feel just a little more comfortable, open, and inviting, even if parents and interested others wouldn’t necessarily be able to come into the classroom to see what we are doing.

The Process

At the beginning of the week I showed the kids some videos that Mr. Sinanis created with the kids in his school. We talked about what the videos did, what they felt like, and what we could tell about the people and the school from the videos. We cited evidence from the videos for our ideas. You might say that we read Mr. Sinanis’ videos closely. How uncommonly Core-y. 🙂

Next, I told the kids that I had identified four academic areas where significant learning would happen during our week together. I made those choices, but, later, perhaps the kids could do some of that brainstorming, too. For the first video, though, I thought it would be easier for me to set those areas for the kids.

After that, we got volunteers to take on one of those areas, to chart what had happened during the week, and to write a short bit about what he or she had done or seen others do. (That writing part didn’t happen as much as I would have liked, but we’ll work on it. I think it might be crucial to my goal of mindfulness.) Each child got to pick a helper for the project, too, someone he or she could talk to about what had happened. This talk and charting, which happened a lot more than the writing, occured during the freer portions of our literacy block time.

Later in the week I gave the kids a sheet with questions designed to generate a story or two  about the week. I’m going to revise that sheet into question stems for next week. The sheet wasn’t as universally useful as I had hoped, but showed some promise.

Finally, on Friday I conducted short thinking conferences with the partnerships so we could discuss what they had noticed and thought. We planned their presentations and practiced talking to each other. Then, at the end of the day, while the other kids were working on creating cards for a Veteran’s Day project, we recorded the video in the hallway.

While the video isn’t a work of art, I think it will be well received by the parents in the classroom.

Have you done anything like this? What has been your experience?

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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Reflections on a Trip to Italy

Photo: Steve Peterson

Photo: Steve Peterson

I haven’t posted much this summer. This being the first summer of blogging, I was interested to see how I would react to the change in routine that summer brings.

Photo: Beth Lynch

Photo: Beth Lynch

Normally, I post thoughts about my craft and the profession as a whole, and not much personal stuff. Trouble is as far as blogging goes, much of my “work” these days has been deeply personal, regenerative, and outside the classroom.

For instance, I recently spent ten days in Italy to hike in the Parco Nazionale dei Monti Sibillini. I haven’t been out of the country much at all and don’t speak or read Italian, but an opportunity arose to meet my partner in Italy after some work she did there…so, well, why not?

The trip was fantastic. Much of the hiking was above tree line, through meadows full of small alpine flowers, which were in full-bloom.

Photo: Beth Lynch

Photo: Beth Lynch

Other hikes brought us through deep gorges carved through limestone cliffs, and up through beech forests and open pasture lands. Still others brought us through the winding, twisting streets of some of the many hilltop medieval walled towns that dot the landscape. The food was splendid (including a long, long dinner cooked by one of the local “slow food” chefs) and the wine was plentiful.

Photo: Steve Peterson

Photo: Steve Peterson

Two things about this experience seemed worth writing about in this blog space. First, the region of Italy we visited, Le Marche, is not frequented by American tourists and the local Italians didn’t speak much English. Yet, through lots of good will on the part of the people we met, we were able to function pretty well, get what we needed, and figure stuff out as we went.

I remember a Russian language professor in college telling me (when I complained about how hard it was to learn Russian) I must remember that five-year olds in Russia spoke better Russian than I did. I think he wanted to remind me that it’s not about difficulty, but about experience.

This experience in Italy reminded me what it is like to be in over my head and to have to figure things out as I went. That’s a really good position to put myself in. My brain knew this concept already, but my heart re-discovered the feel of that experience while on the trip. Patience, and some very good and helpful people lowered my anxiety about something so new and unknown to me, though not for the average five-year old Italian. Perhaps this experience will help me step outside myself in the classroom, too, so that I might provide support and understanding for my students as they enter a new and strange land next year.

Second, as I’ve been thinking about what to write about this summer I have realized that writing about the classroom is really difficult when I’m not in it at that very moment; hence the personal story about a trip to another country. I’m not sure what to make of this silence, but I think it has to do with how the classroom, for me, is an environment that is mostly governed by relationships, rather than plans.

Sure, plans are important. At this point, I’m planning for next year, with all the changes that are in store for me, but I also know that these plans are really only a way to prepare my mind and heart for the year that is coming. Very little will go as planned. Writing about the plans I’m making seems stilted and (though not a lie) at least sort of untrue. The real sorting and writing will happen next year as I add relationships to the plans. Together, those will help to create the country the children and I will visit together.

Reflection #2, Or, What this Blog Became in its First Year


Seedling Planting In my last post I explored some ways that blogging has helped me to grow as a teacher. This time I’m focusing on themes that emerged from my blog posts. After seven months, what has this blog become? As I look back over my first year of posts, three general areas of interest emerge. I’m going to highlight some of the posts that I think illustrate how blogging has helped me grow.

This blog started as a way to open up what I am doing “inside the dog” of my classroom where, indeed, it is sometimes too “dark” to think clearly. I hoped to turn on the lights and open the doors. I think some of my best posts emerged from trying to observe closely and think deeply about what the heck was happening around me.

  • A trio of posts culminated in one of my favorite posts about two students who re-read the first chapter of a book they had finished in order to discover how the author, intentionally or not, chose details to help the reader understand an early chapter book. Re-reading was very empowering for them; it became one of those events that served as a touchstone for the rest of the year.
  • In another post I talked about how a science exploration of water allowed us to read photographs and short informational text closely. I liked this post partly because it turned out so elegantly well (not all lessons do), but partly because it was a simple change up of a lesson structure that I would have used in the past to a structure that plunged right into a mysterious event that we closely observed and wondered about. (Here, I’ve benefited from the work of writer/consultant, Vicki Vinton, the writing and consulting team of Burkins and Yaris, as well as some of the work on question-first lesson design put forth by Dan Meyer in math.)
  • An early post about a read aloud explored some ideas about how readers interact with text in order to find meaning. In future posts, I want to open up some space in this blog for more short, classroom audio/video links like that.

Daily Disney - Meep!A second category of posts revolved around teaching as a profession, the pressures teachers and students face due to standardized testing, what good teaching and learning look like, and how the teaching profession is being “deskilled” by politicians and corporations through packaged learning programs designed to make a lot of money for publishers by promising to address the pressures imposed by standardized testing. While not as personally satisfying as the posts that came from inside the classroom, posts from this category helped me understand more about the problems in my profession. Rather than just complain, though, my writing helped me to be a more articulate advocate for learning-centered teaching in our school district, and a more effective advocate for this kind of learning as I interact with government officials through letters and conversations.

  • In one post I think about how using standardized test data to evaluate teachers will not just yield poor results, but will lead us away from better student learning. As a corollary, a different post expanded on the theme of how building the capacity of teachers to do the best teaching possible is much preferable to an external accountability model for school change.
  • This post speculated on how we might think about monitoring “leading” rather than “lagging” indicators, how empowering a change like that might be for teachers and for students. I brought up these ideas at our District Leadership team meeting and hope to expand what we imagine “data” to mean. I’ll also be planning my own leading indicators to monitor as I start with a new crop of children next school year.
  • Another post began to explore one way I tried, ever so slightly, to document student thinking, and how students might be able to be more conscious of the habits of mind that learners develop.

Finally, part of this blog has been devoted to poetry, which seems odd given the other two learning and teaching centered foci. I’m still trying to figure out what this third focus means, exactly. Should I keep the poetry as one of the things this blog does, or should I let it go? I’m still on the fence about that one. What I do know is that I like to write poetry and have really enjoyed the people I’ve met in that online community. So, there’s that. The discipline of writing regularly has helped me develop not just as a writer, but also as an observer of the world around me. To the extent that this blog is about literacy (writing teachers need to write) and teaching is about seeing and noticing (and my poetry is also) then I can see a place for it here. I’m still torn, though, as there really are two different audiences for these kinds of writing and my blog is struggling to figure itself out. I’ll be thinking about this conundrum as the summer progresses. At any rate, here are some of my favorites.

  • Most of my poetry seems to explore the significance of chance events or the moment when barely understood things reveal themselves. This poem wondered about the events that eventually lead to a cancer diagnosis. While outwardly about my father’s melanoma, it drew heavily on the experience of waiting at the hospital for my mother’s breast cancer surgery to end.
  • This poem imagined the lives that gathered early in the morning at Dottie’s Cafe in gritty downtown Dubuque, IA, amongst the window factories and near the shuttered meat packing plant.
  • On a little lighter note, this ode to my axe talked about the joy I feel when I am doing physical work outside, particularly getting wood ready for the wood stove.

Whatever the new year brings, I’m looking forward to using this blog to think through them. Thanks for reading, and also for your support.

Photo credits:

Seedling: Creative Commons LicensePhoto Credit: USFS Region 5 via Compfight

Grumpy puppet: Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Joe Penniston via Compfight

A Reflection on Blogging

My school year is over and between packing my classroom for a move, reading, tree planting, and scything the grasses that are growing so quickly in the fields (yes, there are still some of us who are enthusiasts) I have some time to think back on where this blog has brought me since I started it about seven months ago. Seven months and 62 posts are not the normal milestones, but for a teacher early June is when the crops have been harvested and the machinery gets repaired.

Mr White
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Lawrence Whittemore via Compfight

This blog has given me many gifts, it’s been one the best things I’ve done to continue my professional growth. Here’s a short list of some of those gifts:

  • Discipline. I’ve always been a learner, but writing regularly has kept me more focused than I’ve ever been in my teaching life. As I try to keep to a regular posting schedule, my mind naturally begins to think about what I am doing or thinking that might be interesting, which causes me to do more and to think more. It’s a cycle.
  • Thinking. The Iowa Writing Project was right. Writing does cause me to think differently (and more) than I would without writing. Putting electrons on a screen, rereading, revising, scrapping whole chunks and starting over again helps me organize my writing but, more importantly, it helps me organize and push my thinking so it just doesn’t sit there, vague-like and fuzzy in my brain. For me, writing (and talking) are essential ingredients for thought.
  • Community. While the audience for this blog is not large (If you have read this far, you are one of the few!), I do feel a strong sense of community among some very smart and interesting people. The fact that someone may read what I have to say causes me to think even harder and a bit more deeply and consider my words just a bit more carefully than I would if I were writing in a journal. And experiencing the importance of that community has helped me redefine how I interact with a larger community of bloggers. I’m much more willing to offer a comment than I had been earlier; I know that my comments can help others think and feel connected, just as their comments help me think and feel connected.
  • Seriousness. You wouldn’t think that someone who is in his early fifties and male would struggle with a sense of  illegitimacy — in most places our patriarchal culture grants me power that I didn’t earn — but I do struggle with being taken seriously, and with taking myself seriously. Many elementary teachers do, I think. Some of that comes from being in a female dominated profession, and how those get delegitimized, even amongst educators. Some of the problem comes from the small people we work with; a profession often takes on the status of its clientele and ours are the least powerful in a society that worships power and independence. Some of that comes from the way we “infantilize” teaching through scripting, packaging content, and narrowing choices and thought. Whatever the causes, writing regularly has helped me to see my work as highly intellectual and skilled, which helps me to develop those very same qualities in my professional life. Again, it’s a cycle.

That’s a whole lot of giving over these last seven months.  If you write (or teach elementary school), have you experienced these kind of gifts, too? Am I missing anything?