Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Close reading, sure, but how?

There are many ways to do a close reading, but it helps to have the overall routine to make decisions about how best to implement a close reading for a particular lesson.

An offering of a teacher's routine is offered by the Arizona Department of Education. Here's another from Davis School District in Utah. And another from Glencoe McGraw Hill. There are many others, but these offer a reasonably good place to start.

Let me say that the word "routine" is misleading. This isn't something a teacher should do every class period. Do a close reading activity when it makes sense, when it will help students achieve the learning outcomes for the lesson. I saw a unit plan which sported the same exact steps of a close reading every day for five days. The first day might have been interesting, but the other four days would have been deadly.

Now let's look at the framework for doing a close reading. First,select a short but meaningful and reasonably complex passage. How short? It depends on the overall text and your learning objectives. Practice activities use the entire Gettysburg Address. Maybe two paragraphs, maybe five paragraphs. Short is a relative term, so the first time you do this activity, start with something literally short--two or three paragraphs. Get your students and you used to the process. See what works and what seems to be clunky. Then revisit the framework to see what you want to change and why you want to change it.What makes it reasonably complex? It depends on the text and your learning objectives. But think about the elements of text complexity and how the task assigned can contribute to the complexity. You might not be able to finalize your text selection until you make some other decisions.

Second, establish a purpose for reading that text. Does it focus on a particular concept you need students to understand? Does it explain something that is critical to the rest of the work and students' abilities to master the learning objectives for the day? Is it going to provide a bridge from the textbook to another resource, or vice versa? Does it establish some foundational knowledge for your students so you can move to the next part of the lesson? You have to have a purpose for investing significant time in this passage, and your students have to understand that purpose.

Third, plan. Determine how often you want your students to re-read the passage, and why. Do you want them to do a cold read of the text? That's no background knowledge, no vocabulary review, nothing. Kids just read. Do you want to read it aloud or have someone else read it aloud? If so, why? Do you want them to paraphrase some or all of the passage? If so, why? And then what do they do with their paraphrases? If you have them read the text on their own the first time, whether you've prepared them in some way or not, do you want them to annotate? And if they annotate, why do they annotate? What are they supposed to look for, and why?

Fourth, as you plan, write down the text-dependent questions you want them to answer and determine how they will answer. Will they write down their answers and then discuss with a partner? Will they make notes or write down full answers and then participate in an instructor-led discussion? Will you give them some number of text-dependent questions but then ask them to come up with their own? Will the discussion be mostly instructor-led or some student-led? Will you use debate or Socratic discussion or some other strategy? How much will you let them struggle and reason and debate/discuss with other?

Fifth, as you plan, determine how you will manage the discussion. If the discussion starts to get rambunctious but stays on topic, how will you transition? What if you get monosyllabic responses and no one seems to want to participate? What if someone suggests something you hadn't thought of and if you don't know is "right"?

Sixth, as you plan, make note to remind yourself and to remind your students that they must support any opinion or any statement with evidence from the text. And that they must respect the opinions of others, especially when they don't agree.

Seventh, have your students reflect on their learning. Have each student write a summary or a reflection in their learning journal. Have groups of students make notes of things they learned and then do a sort of gallery walk. Have a few prompts prepared and have them respond using exit slips or use the prompts to offer direction for writing that summary or in the learning journal. The possibilities are numerous, but you want them to reflect on what they learned, not how they learned. At some point, the how needs to be transparent.

Finally, as you plan, remember that a few dozen or so things may go wrong, but that's okay. As long as you keep the purpose of this activity in mind, your students will learn.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reading closely, effectively

The title of this blog post is a nod to the fact that today, September 24, is National Punctuation Day, something of which I wasn't aware until recently. For those of you who might be curious to know more, you can check out Scholastic's Making Your Mark! and the National Punctuation Day web site.

Today's actual topic: close reading. Christoper Lehman, a guy worth following posted Most Fun #CloseReading Post Ever Because Students Are Hilarious And Filled With Rage. (You are welcome to find the mechanical errors in that title on your own; this is the unedited title of the post.) To the freakin' point!

Students can hate a close reading activity when it is not done well. That, my friends, is a tragedy.

Let's start with the obvious question of why do a close reading at all. We can talk about how close reading has become all the rage because of Common Core (I almost feel as though that should be written C****n C**e, expletive deleted). But that would be pointless because close reading isn't new.

Way back in 2006, Linda Elder and Richard Paul wrote a book titled Thinker's Guide to How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading. In speaking about that art of close reading, Elder and Paul wrote:
Skilled readers do not read blindly, but purposely. They have an agenda, goal, or objective. Their purpose, together with the nature of what they are reading, determines how they read. They read in different ways in different situations for different purposes. Of course, reading has a nearly universal purpose: to figure out what an author has to say on a given subject.
 The article Closing in on Close Reading reminds us of some fundamentals for an effective and successful close reading. Yes, there are close reading routines and I'll talk about those in a different post, but let's focus on three essentials.

First, use a short text. Trying to do a close read for the entirety of a chapter in a textbook or a novel or anything else is impractical. Select a passage that has a key idea, seems to emphasize your learning outcomes or one of your essential questions for your lesson plan, or that just seems like a cool or pertinent passage. One or two paragraphs tops. Remember that you have to have a purpose for doing a close reading of that particular passage.

Second, ask good questions. Refer to your learning outcomes and essential questions. What is it about this passage that is important or significant? What is it about this structure, this content, this style of writing that will contribute not only to what students need to know, but to their development as skilled readers? Refer to Bloom's Critical Thinking Cue Questions for some prompts of those higher order thinking questions. Remember: ask questions that not only help develop your students' skills as readers, but help them think on deeper and more strategic levels about the text. And if you're worried about them offering an answer you're not sure is "right," then you have a couple of options. Make sure students can support their answers from the text. "Show me the evidence!" Another option is to ask the class what they think about the answer. You have to establish a safe environment that permits dissent and different ideas, and you have to be able to manage the debate that is likely to ensure. But you'll also enable your students to participate in the determination of the "rightness" of the answer--all with evidence from the text--and provide them with opportunity to listen and to speak.

Third, details matter. One possible component of a close reading activity is to have students paraphrase some portion of the passage. As with anything the details you have them observe, find, support, and/or infer must be supported by the text itself or by supplemental texts. Let me complicate things here just a bit by reminding you that "texts" might not be just words on a page, digital or print.

So as you're thinking about the possibility of using a close reading activity in your classroom, do so with purpose. Just as you would any strategy to help your students become more critical, thoughtful, and skilled readers.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Common Core Can Unite Us

I'm sure you're first thought at that title was that I've officially lost my mind. Not really. I do think it can unite us, but in a really wonderfully, delightfully unexpected way.

Someone shared a post with me: Top Ten Professors Calling Out Common Core's So-Called College Readiness. I'd never heard of any of these professors, so my top 10 is likely different from the blog posters' top 10. I get that.

Here's an interesting twist on college professors and their response to Common Core, their disdain for this movement and their pedantic observations. In 2012, there were a series of articles about college accountability, such as this one from The New York Times. (I can put together a full literature review, if you'd like so my sources aren't skewed nor prejudicial.) There have been murmurings of something akin to Common Core for colleges and universities for a couple of years now, though that's gained no traction. And then in August 2013, President Obama made a speech about college affordability and, yes, accountability. (Again, I can do a full literature review so my sources aren't skewed nor prejudicial.)

The ACT 2013 results are out. You can read The Reality of College Readiness report and view the scores. From this page at the ACT site:
Of the 31 states where 40% or more of their 2013 high school graduates took the ACT, in only 2 states did more than half of the graduates meet three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks. In another 8 states, 40%–49% of graduates met three or four Benchmarks.
In 16 states, 30%–39% of graduates met three or more ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in 2013, while less than 30% of graduates did so in 5 states. In no state did more than 56% of ACT-tested graduates meet three or four Benchmarks.
Common Core is not a perfect solution. Some veteran teachers see it as an antidote to NCLB.

Common Core could be a very small step towards education reform. Rather than bash it, often reflexively, perhaps we can use Common Core as the beginning of a conversation about real education reform.

What we want is kids who can think critically; reason analytically; and write, speak, and listen well, using evidence appropriately and effectively.

But however we approach education, perhaps with a single national voice enhanced by the harmonies of individual states, we have to work towards making sure our K-12 and college kids are not educated for a world that no longer exists, but educated to think and learn independently so they can build and improve the world in which THEY will live and love and hope and dream. And if we can get them to like, even love, learning, well, so much the better.

After all, education is about the kids. It's about the kids. It's always, always, always about the kids.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

What an exemplar isn't

An exemplar is not a mandate. The word "exemplar" comes from the Latin "exemplum." An exemplar is an example or model, but we use "exemplar" much like a superlative. If you're looking for a really good example or an ideal model, you look for an exemplar. But there is still no "Thou shalt" attached to the example.

Apparently some educators have confused the purpose of an exemplar and understood it as a mandate. Apparently some legislators need better briefing not only on what an exemplar is, but on what it really means to be an educator.

In a recent story, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye has become one of the current battlegrounds for Common Core.

It's as though legislators hadn't heard of an exemplar before Common Core and now, because they are such credentialed experts in the field of education, they are making grandstanding pronouncements about texts identified as exemplars and obfuscating reasonable conversations with staged outrage designed to do something--I'm not clear what--but nothing that really helps educators or parents or kids.

If we separate the political agenda from The Bluest Eye, we see a story of a young African-American girl trying to make sense of the world in which she lives, trying to understand the violence she experiences and who cannot help but wonder if this is "normal." Morrison's book is one of several listed as 11th grade exemplars:
  • William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
  • Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Saul Bellow, The Adventures of March
  • Cristina Garcia, Dreaming in Cuban
  • Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake 
I doubt the legislators and the so-called conservative commentators have a clear rubric for assessing the quality of a book, for determining why or why not any particular book may be a good choice for a group of students to help the students themselves better understand the world in which they live and in which they will be growing up, to figure out what doesn't work and what they might hope to change to improve the quality of life for all people.

The bottom line is this: an exemplar is a model. One that an educator may choose to use, or not. What the educator needs to understand are the qualities of the text that promote the learning skills and proficiencies a student can develop and hone as a result of working with that text. If an educator believes that text might not be the best resource for his or her students, then that educator can use the professional judgement and skills she or he has to determine a different work that enables his or her students to learn and demonstrate the proficiencies necessary for that grade level.