Thinking, reading, and responding…but, no arts and crafts.


Great books deserve thoughtful readers.

Last Sunday, Donalyn Miller wrote a thought-provoking post about our students’ reading lives, and what we (their reading teachers) could do/should do/should not do to ensure that our kids build rich reading lives.  I liked the post so much that I reblogged it, just to make sure that it was on hand to read and ask myself this question posed by Donalyn:

What are children really learning from us about reading?

I gather that this post earned Donalyn both “amens!” as well as some pretty harsh criticism – the latter so out of line that Donalyn was forced to screen comments before posting them.  Reading some of these, I was taken aback – why this level of incivility? Clearly, the post had touched a raw nerve.  Thinking it over, I realized that my own immediate response to the post was twofold:

  • on the one hand, I remembered the arts and crafts projects that my own children had been assigned during their school years, and the many trips to the store to purchase glitter, posterboard, etc. so that these “reading assignments” could be completed (and transportation for them could be arranged on rainy can’t- walk- to- school- days). My low point as a parent came during my youngest’s senior year, when she spent  more time making projects about her assigned reading than she did on her reading itself. Absurd.
  • on the other hand, I have also assigned projects about reading.  My sixth graders do love to “get creative”, and we have strayed into artsy responses to reading.  So, I read Donalyn’s post with no small measure of guilt … and resolved to do better.

I think that part of the issue here, for teachers in particular, is that we create these projects as a way to assess whether our students have indeed read the assigned book or their independent reading.  The assignment, therefore, is proof of their reading; it is something we can use a rubric to evaluate and then assign a grade for.  What these lovely, glitter-edged and visually beautiful projects rarely show, however, is their thinking about reading: how our students came to understand the text, how they navigated through the author’s craft in order to form their own conceptions of the characters, their actions, and the larger themes being explored.  That, really, is  the focus of the work we do in reading workshop.  But, what does this work look like and sound like? How can it be assessed? How can we create authentic reading assignments which capture this thinking work?

This past summer, two of my constant companions in my own attempt to find some answers to these questions have been these books:

readers front and center what readers do

Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse have done amazing work in researching how we read, how we grapple with different types of texts, and how we can help our kids with “the process of meaning making.”  If we want to foster and encourage a love of reading in our classrooms, if we want our kids to become engrossed in the books they read and leave each filled with the wonder of some new discovery about themselves or the world they live in, this type of meaning-making work is essential.  Better yet, this type of work rarely involves investment in poster boards, cereal boxes, or glitter.

This type of work took on a greater sense of urgency in this new school year after I  read through my students’ reading surveys.  The bulk of my students, it seemed, lacked a strong sense of reading identity – they read because they were assigned reading, or because they were participating in a let’s- see- how- much- we- can- read this year book contest.  Very few wrote about loving to read, and many wrote that they regularly abandoned books because “they were really confusing.”  Reading conferences have revealed that although my kids can name strategies like “inferring” and “predicting”, they tend to (as Vinton and Barnhouse write about in What Readers Really Do) view these strategies “as ends in and of themselves…in identification or isolated strategy practice” (p.44).   

So, our first read aloud of the year has taken on even deeper significance – we are reading Lisa Graff’s Absolutely Almost not just as a community building experience, but also “to introduce the foundational thinking work of reading” (p. 69), and my task is one of “designing instruction that specifically builds a bridge between what is visible in texts and what is invisible” (p.69).

The work that Barnhouse and Vinton walk us through is thoughtful and complex, and I am only beginning to understand how to put it all into practice in my classes and avoid falling into the trap that Dorothy writes about in Readers Front and Center:

The bigger problem is one of instruction. I fell into the trap of thinking that teaching consists of teaching the text.  It’s a common trap and related to the idea of teaching as correcting.  How do we know the student is “getting it” if we haven’t read the book?  This assumes, of course, that there is an “it” to get and an “it” to teach.  This assumes that our job is to teach the “it” rather than the process of thinking that goes into constructing an understanding of an “it”. (p.22)

We’re following two thinking tracks in Room 202.  In one, we read and think about what we know from the text and what that makes us wonder about the story, or the characters (This is based on what I’ve learned from What Readers Really Do):

photo (13)

This is from my reading journal – I’m keeping one this year to document our thinking as a class – and these are our class notes.

And, we are also keeping track of how we are “noticing and naming” – the work Dorothy Barnhouse describes and expands upon in Readers Front and Center:

Noticing and naming how texts work – and doing so alongside students – builds their understanding that texts are problems to be solved and allows them to see how practicing something – in this case reading – helps them build an understanding of how that thing works – in this case books.

What can we take from our work with Absolutely Almost and use to deepen our experiences with the next book we read? How can our rich conversations about Absolutely Almost lead to equally meaningful conversations and responses all year long?  Dorothy Barnhouse makes this type of thinking visible through Book/Brain charts, which she explains this way:

“…the Book/Brain chart is a tool…meant to concretize the notice and name work you’ve done … teaching side by side with students…(it is) a tool that helps you and your students be aware of some of the invisible work of reading.” (p.66-67)

We’ve just begun this work with Absolutely Almost :

photo (14)


My hope is that these notes will help us learn more about what readers really do (to borrow that wonderful title!), which will help us respond in a much more meaningful way than through a diorama or a mandala (my daughter made two of these in her senior year) or a mobile.  I haven’t yet figured out how to:

  • assess this thinking work with a grade
  • clarify it with a SWBAT in my plan book
  • create some sort of culminating activity

but, I have a feeling that it will be a worthwhile beginning to our year of reading together.



6 thoughts on “Thinking, reading, and responding…but, no arts and crafts.

  1. “I have a feeling that it will be a worthwhile beginning to our year of reading together.” Tara, I suspect the effect of your work with your students will last well beyond this year. What lucky students to have you for their teacher. What a great post this was. I’ve got Dorothy’s book but haven’t read it yet. Looks like I need to sooner rather than later.
    Love, love, love the photo at the top (header photo?)!

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful reflection of your PD reading and decision making. It is only through constant questioning of why we do what we do, what’s the purpose and is there a better way to achieve desired outcome, that teachers grow and the instruction and life in classroom becomes more authentic. You set a wonderful example of reflective practice.

  3. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of taking Donalyn’s question and then synthesizing from the other two texts, too, Tara. It’s complicated, but moving toward less dazzle & more conversation about how we all really read must be helpful in the growth of your students’ habits. Thank you!

  4. Perhaps not coincidentally I had a similar response to Donalyn’s piece because I love bringing the arts into classrooms—as several of my posts demonstrate—and I also love everything Donalyn writes. But your distinction helped me make peace with my unease about throwing the arts out the reading workshop window. In addition to using art to capture thinking vs. demonstrate thought as you’ve said here, perhaps what’s also problematic is not the actual product—the diorama, the movie poster, etc.—but the depth of thinking we want students to convey through that product (as well as whether it’s a one-size-fits all assignment or one in which students have some choice in how to convey their understanding. Yes?

    • That’s it, exactly, Vicki. My kids absolutely need many ways to make their thinking visible, many avenues for response. But, so often, I see the diorama become the one measure used to evaluate thinking, the product by which understanding is assessed. That’s where I balk, and I think that was Donalyn’s point, too. When an arts and crafts project is the only measure of what the student has taken away from or made meaning of the text – then that is waste of time.

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