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If you are frustrated by the looming shadow of high stakes testing and the impact it has on all of the educational decisions we make, raise your hand. I'm right there with you. That's why Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst is a favorite professional resource. This book is validating and inspiring, looking beyond the need to meet accountability expectations and addressing the need to raise a generation of real, authentic thinkers and readers. I can't recommend it enough...
At the heart of this book is a framework called BHH. BHH is an acronym for Book, Head, and Heart. This framework pushes readers to think beyond the book and examine how that book impacts their thinking and their actions. It is a game changer in a culture where students are asked to read for answers, evidence, and the satisfaction of adults. This framework puts the ownership where it has always belonged - with the reader. Real reading is personal. It's impactful. That is, if readers are allowed to make it so.
This is the first concept I shared with students at my school this year. As I went around and introduced myself and my role at our school to our students, I was able to share a fabulous book (The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig) and invite students to try BHH reading on for size.
I began by sharing a secret...reading is not just about what is in the book. The collective gasps of the students in almost every room I visited reinforced to me just how critical this concept is. They were shocked. I had just shared something that rocked their worlds and turned what they thought they knew about reading upside down. It was almost scandalous. Some of them glanced at their teachers like I had said something I wasn't supposed to!
Let me clarify - this is not because the teachers themselves had actively taught this view. It's just what school has become. Reading has become a task to complete where students are asked to restate what is in the text...to locate text evidence...to paraphrase text evidence...to compare text evidence from multiple texts. This is what is increasingly required as schools respond to the demands of testing. No one has ever TOLD them reading is only about what is in the book, but that is what they have internalized.
Not only had I opened the lid of something outrageously different, they were excited about it. I followed up my initial statement by explaining that what happens in the book is indeed important, but that what is going on in their heads and their hearts is just as important. They were also excited when I told them I planned to read without stopping to ask them questions. A chorus of "YES!" frequently met this announcement. I explained to them that teachers plan those pauses for good reason, but that sometimes readers should just read for the fun of it. I also told them that we would have a conversation at the end of our story, so they weren't totally off the hook.
They were engrossed in the story - students from kindergarten through 5th grade - filling the room with "awww..." and "that's so sad"... and "look!" Their instinctual responses were personal. With no prompting from me, they were already experiencing this book in an intimate way. Many classrooms erupted into applause at the end, not because of my amazing delivery, but because they connected with the character and were genuinely invested in the outcome.
Connecting to background knowledge, I pointed out to them that the book is like a seed. It's only the beginning. Readers should always think about what is in the book, but that ideas and questions in their head can grow from that. Feelings and responses in their hearts grow from it as well. Then we practiced.
My first question was always "What did you notice in the book? Tell me about what happened in the words and the pictures." Their responses were typically some variation of "he was gray at the beginning and colorful at the end." My follow-up was "Why do you think that was?" This led to a round of inferring as students discussed how people ignored him or wouldn't play with him until the new student came, leading them to conclude that he must have been sad when he was gray and happy when he was colorful. I was able to point out that this was an example of head thinking, because the author didn't directly tell us that...they had to use what was in the books and the thinking in their heads to figure it out. We also celebrated any questions they had as head thinking. We practiced a little bit more by discussing whether Brian was truly invisible (he wasn't) and why the author called him the invisible boy if he wasn't really invisible. They were able to conclude on their own that the author was talking about how Brian felt on the inside, not how he looked on the outside. Then I was able to ask them if they had ever felt like that. Most had, which allowed us to have a conversation about how this kind of heart thinking can help them understand a character better. We also talked about how it can help us understand real people better or make a difference in the world, because we can pay attention to people who might be feeling invisible and make a choice to invite them to play or work with us. We ended our lesson by talking about how reading can change us by giving us new ideas, helping us think about real problems, and teaching us more about ourselves.
It was incredible to me to see how much more engaged ALL the classes I visited were when I framed reading this way. They were also able to respond more thoroughly to the text than if I had simply asked them questions about what had happened in the book. They were able to touch on symbolism, inferring, personal connections, character motivation, and theme without me asking any questions specific to those types of thinking.
I created two printables for my teachers to use, and I am making them available here as well. Please feel free to download and use these in your own classrooms, and make sure to check out Disrupting Thinking as well - you won't be sorry you did!
Empathy is a topic that was repeatedly part of conversation at the 2017 ILA convention in Orlando, FL this weekend. It is a topic that is timely, relevant, and necessary. About a year ago, I wrote a post on Edutopia discussing how empathy and reading comprehension can intersect. Discussing and practicing empathy in the classroom is a practice that benefits both teachers and students, and it reaches into both the social-emotional and academic experiences of a classroom community. It provides a lens through which to view peers, texts, and the world at large. Take a look at this post for ideas on how to use empathy to boost comprehension. If you give any of these ideas a try, I would love to hear from you!
"I see you!"
Those are some of the most powerful words in the human language. Everyone wants to be seen. Everyone wants to be valued for who they are, without conditions or reservations. Unfortunately, in today's high-stakes testing culture, we often see everything BUT our students. We see their test scores and their formative data. We see their deficits and the gaps we need to fill. We see their impact on our school grades and our VAM scores. So often, we see their value in numbers because that is what our current political and educational culture places importance on. Even the best, most well-intentioned educators fall into this trap.
Numbers are important - there's no denying that - but students are more than numbers. If we have any hope of reaching them, we need to really see them. We need to see their strengths and their growth. We need to see their fears, frustrations, and worries. We need to see their passions and interests. We need to see THEM as humans - as individuals with value far beyond numbers. This is what will build their motivation and drive, what will make education relevant and meaningful to them, and ultimately help them learn to move themselves forward.
To counteract this tendency to be drawn into the numbers game at the expense of the humanity of our students, we need to be cognizant of the filters and lenses we use when observing and discussing students. Look for areas where instruction needs to be strengthened or restructured, but also look for areas where growth is evident. Celebrate forward movement rather than despairing over the distance yet to go...then plan the next step in the journey.
Gravity Goldberg discusses admiring students in her book Mindsets and Moves.
The very first step [to changing our relationships with students] is to learn to admire the readers with whom we work.
As reading teachers, let's spend time admiring readers. This means we see differently, noticing what is already there. We also listen differently, getting glimpses into readers' minds and process. As admirers, we find potential and imagine what could be.
This is a complete shift in a variety of ways. It forces us to look beyond the immediate (test scores) to the possible (a student's future). It asks us to set aside our own anxieties about the numbers and celebrate a little person - flaws and all - for who they are and what they bring to the table. It shifts thinking from what a student is missing to what they already have. Once you know what they have, the next step becomes clearer.
Wouldn't we all rather work for a leader who celebrates our strengths and helps us grow? It's much more motivating than working for a leader who is constantly focused on your deficits. With a deficit focus, students and teachers become discouraged because of ground to be made up, slow progress, or a sense of inadequacy. Do yourself and your students a favor and step away from the deficit lens. Use numbers to get the big picture - the direction on your compass, if you will - but look to the CHILD for next steps. Find where they are and then help them go a little further.
Talk to your students and ask them what they feel good about. Then ask them what they worry about. This can be in relation to classroom learning, current world issues, or general interests. The answers can help you tailor mini-lessons, address mindset issues, and select texts that students are genuinely invested in.
Numbers inform us. They can help chart our course, but it's the human element that steers the ship. Take the time to truly see your students. Let them know you see them. It matters.