Reading anything by Vicki Vinton, whether her books or her blog, always has the effect of making me sit up just a bit straighter and think a whole lot harder. So, this is exactly what I have been doing since I turned my summer reading attention to her latest book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, our #cyberpd book for this summer.
Section One (Chapters 1 through 4) presents an argument for a shift in the the way we teach reading, from a “skills based to a meaning-based focus”, from “direct instruction to an inquiry or problem based approach”, where we teachers practice “shifting the emphasis from complex texts to complex thinking”. This “problem based approach to teaching reading” Vicki maintains, does more than just help our kids to become better readers, it helps build habits of mind that make them better thinkers, too. Instead of teaching discrete strategies and concepts in isolation she posits (i.e. those mini lessons with their attendant charts), let’s make a shift so that the text sets the agenda and the reader is put
in a problem-solving stance where you read not to practice a strategy or a skill or to answer a text dependent question, but to wrestle with the “real problems” these texts posed, which … entailed figuring out what kind of world you were in as a reader and why the characters were doing and feeling what they were. And by fitting pieces of the text together and using whatever strategies you had up your sleeve, you developed a first draft understanding of the big picture whole. (pg 11)
This is a stance that appeals to me because it calls on students to dig into the text and go through the messy process of figuring things out themselves, rather than assuming a teacher dependent and centered one in which they are looking to me for problem solving and using terms I give them through my mini lessons. I think there is great of merit to what Vicki says when writes about scaffolds as “shortcuts for more complex work”, in that we teachers want our kids to succeed in their reading tasks so much that we over provide these scaffolds and thereby create dependency rather than independence.
I love each element of the five steps she provides on page 24, especially #3:
Instead of launching independent reading with a mini lesson where you demonstrate a strategy or skill, remind students of what they have already done and experienced in the read aloud and invite them to deliberately try to do that same work in their independent books. This acknowledges that it’s far easier to transfer and apply something you’ve already done before than something you’ve just watched and heard.
Thinking about what this will look like and sound like in my sixth grade classroom, I can see that it makes the work of our readalouds that much more intentional and powerful – this is where the reading thinking and concept naming is introduced, mulled over, problem solved together first, before students return to their own reading to practice and practice and practice again. The goal is to help our kids become first comfortable with and then adept at this approach to their reading lives; this shift in approach, though worthy, is also risky, as Vicki acknowledges: “readers will need to experiment, explore, and test out a variety of ideas, not all of which will pan out, and your challenge will be to figure out how to gently steer the class while preserving the agency of all of your students as readers, which initially can feel daunting.” (pg. 13). True. But the best teaching I have done has always begun as a risky endeavor – one in which I have to have faith not only in the soundness of the teaching idea to begin with, but also in my students’ capacity to take that learning risk and run with it.
I loved Vicki’s validation of creative thinking as being as important to reading work as critical thinking:
On the one hand, these two types of thinking can seem like complete opposites: One’s objective; the other is subjective. One is closed, the other is open-ended. However, I believe that creative thinking is actually the invisible and often unrecognized thinking that helps readers eventually make more nuanced and insightful judgements and claims. Or, put another way, thinking creatively is the behind-the-scenes work that’s needed for students to more thoughtfully complete many of the Common Core-style tasks they’re being asked to do.” (Pg 34)
I spent a great deal of time studying this chart, and thinking about the best conversations I’ve had with my students over the past school year:
and came to realize how much the creative thinking part engaged my kids in their books and kept them invested enough in the text to want to do the critical thinking part, which then led to great conversations and also more meaningful writing about reading. Yes, I want my kids to feel confident and capable in their reading skills so that they can answer those awful PARCC questions, but, above all, I want them to care about their reading lives and to be deeply committed to the idea of growing as readers.
Finally, I was moved by Vicki’s thoughts about “the power of language to reposition”.
But what if, instead, teachers expressed uncertainty in response to students’ questions and then asked how they might figure something out? That language sends a very different message about who students are and what they’re capable of doing…That language also invites students to see us not as authority figures who hold all the answers and power, but as learners who are sometimes unsure and must figure things out as well…Rather than showing students how to do a strategy or skill, we’re implicitly modeling how to be something. Specifically, we’re modeling the dispositions and habits of mind of complex thinkers, readers, and learners who are comfortable with uncertainty and know that stumbling is simply a part of the process.” (pg. 53)
This is the “where it gets messy” part for us as teachers – making the shift from sage on the stage to a more collaborative form of teaching. It’s easier to say, “here’s the strategy, now use it” to “hmmm, let’s see if we can all figure this out together.” But, it’s through the latter kind of learning opportunities that learning really sticks for our kids; they tend to remember those collaborative learning moments much more clearly – which is our goal, after all, learning that sticks.