I was sad to have finished reading Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading. I know that I will return to it many times to re-read chapters and sections of chapters, and to refresh my memory about the many brilliant ideas and words of wisdom she has to share, and I know that my students will reap the benefits of all I have learned…but I am sad all the same. The experience of reading Vicki’s book felt very much like a conversation between us, as though she had pulled up a chair to my work table with a notebook filled with the essence of good teaching, and calmly shared what I know in my heart to be really true: teaching in the way Vicki directs us to “… creates opportunities for us to be big-picture thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers, too. And by not tying us down to a script or a lesson plan that claims students will meet outcomes that are hard, if not impossible, to reach in a single sitting, it allows us to reclaim the status of professionals in a world that often sees us as the problem.” (pg. 216)
In Chapter 9, Vicki sheds some much needed clarity on two areas of non fiction reading that I have been wrestling with in my teaching life: how to help students arrive at an understanding of the important ideas the writer is trying to convey (the main ideas, in teacher lingo) and how to sift through the author’s own feelings about an idea (their bias).
“…readers don’t really find ideas in texts; they construct them from the details they notice…Readers of this kind of nonfiction (which includes magazine articles, investigative journalism, and many kinds of essays) have to actively draft and revise their thinking as they move through a text, adding on to their own ideas as they do…These cumulative understandings are, by their very nature, more deep and penetrating -and more nuanced and complex-than those focused on readily apparent features..” (pgs. 170, 171)
Rather than focusing on text structures and trying to use “box and bullets” to tease out the main idea and supporting details, Vicki asks us to consider ideas, sort and group these ideas, combine like ideas, consider the author’s perspective as well as one’s own reactions, in order to construct meaning. This chart frames the work in such a problem solving approach, one that involves active engagement with the text as one reads through chunks, stops to consider and synthesize, before moving on to continue the process, which is, as Vicki points out, “the invisible thinking work involved in determining importance”:
I loved the inclusion, once again, for opportunities for low stakes writing through out this process, in addition to turn and talks, since it allows every student a chance to anchor their thinking and experience their reading thinking made visible.
My students often arrive at non fiction thinking that they are either going to learn all facts (i.e. the “truth) or all only what the author wants you to think of as facts (i.e. a biased point of view), to help them formulate a more nuanced stance, Vicki guides us to ask our kids to consider the following:
*the arrangement of facts
*the selective inclusion or omission of facts or points of view
*the structure of the piece, including how much space is given to different aspects of a topic or issue
*the last note struck by the ending (pg.184)
Reading this section, I was struck by the way this nuanced work was reflected in a nonfiction book group I am taking part in at the moment. The process Vicki describes is exactly what my group seems to be doing – sorting ideas, combining and connecting them, trying to synthesize information even as we transact and react to our book. Our engagement in this process is exactly the sort of reading experience I wish for my own students to have.
Chapter 10 gets right to where I spend a good chunk of my teaching day – conferring as my students read their independent books. What will my reading conferences look like/sound like in a problem based approach? is a question I’ve been asking myself in chapters one through 8, so I was delighted to find that exploring this is how Vicki chose to conclude her book.
Here, I was thrilled to see Vicki take on the teacher focused ideas that seem to prevail in many conferring methodologies, i.e. not coming to each conference with an agenda in advance or a pre-decided focus:
“In a problem based approach whose goal is meaning…you’ll want to hold off on deciding what to teach until you have a sense of how a student is navigating the problems he’s encountering and what meaning he’s making as he reads.”
Such a conference would look like this:
The repetitive presence of “research” is a key one in this process, for this acts to:
“shift the focus of a conference from what students are reading to how they are making meaning, which sends out the message that the thinking students are doing with the book is as important, if not more so, than the book itself…” (pg.198)
in a way that allows our kids a “new sense of competence and purpose”, because our students:
“need many opportunities to have their thinking listened to and validated before they begin to consider that they may, in fact, be insightful readers.” (pg. 210)
Conferring in this problem based way will require us to suspend some of the neatly packaged ways in which we sit down to confer with our students, it requires us to really listen and to be flexible in our thinking. This work neither sounds easy, nor looks easy:
But, I see tremendous value in setting our students up to be problem solvers and deep thinkers, to read with the consciousness that they are actively constructing meaning which will “both illuminate their understanding of the world and lead to that ‘education of the heart’.”
My first read through of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading has given me a new framework for reading workshop in the new school year, now, for the second read through….