What a powerful statement: “The questions a student asks after reading a text are a better assessment than the questions a student can answer.” When I think about David Pearson's quote, I wonder what it means for our classrooms. What does it mean for our assessments? How can this change the roles of the student and the teacher?
When I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s, Pizza Hut had a computer-based (Apple IIGS) reading incentive program—I just Googled it and it's still around—which offered free personal pizzas if you correctly answered seven out of ten comprehension questions. Well, I was incentivised! Every recess, I sat down at the Apple IIGS and started taking those tests. Well, by the end of Grade 4 and Grade 5, I ate a lot of pizza, but I didn’t read any books. I just kept taking and retaking the tests until I got the questions correct. And, voila, free pizza! No Comprehension Necessary.
Do comprehension worksheets allow for students to share the thinking they had while reading texts? Usually not. Do they celebrate student thinking? Nope. Do they actually keep students accountable? Not really. Do they actually improve student learning? “No. There has never been one study that has ever proven that a comprehension worksheet has ever improved a students’ ability to read" (Steph Harvey). If they are ineffective, what can kids do instead? Read. That’s what kids should be doing, reading! However, the common response is there’s no time. So where do we find the time? By uncovering our benches.
Previously I have posted about Debbie Miller’s analogy in her book No More Independent Reading Without Support that teachers guard benches, and they often hold onto the things they’ve done for years without thinking deeply about the purposes. She relates this to soldiers in Eduardo Galleano’s short story, Bureaucracy 3:
At a barracks in Seville, in the middle of the courtyard of that barracks was a small bench. Next to the small bench, a soldier stood guard. No one knew why the bench had to be guarded. It was guarded around the clock—every day, every night, and from one generation of officers to the next, the order was passed on and the soldiers obeyed it. No one expressed any doubts or every asked why. If that’s how it was done, there had to be a reason.
The bench was guarded for over thirty years without ever knowing the purpose! How many things do we do in schools and have no idea why we do them? When you think about teaching, can you think of some benches we have, things we’ve always done just because we’ve always done them?
Rather than spending hours figuring out different literacy centers activities where the kids produce sheets and sheets of paper that require very little cognitive demand and often ends up at the bottom of a trashcan, perhaps the kids could spend that time reading and writing down their thinking about a story. Rather than having students fill out comprehension worksheets (shut-up sheets), perhaps the kids could be taught the art of discussion and engage in a thoughtful discussion about a story while being videoed so they can reflect on the depth of their discussion and thinking.
Valuing the Thinking of Our Students
Over the past ten years, I have embraced the idea of celebrating kids’ thinking, and I have tried various ways to make their thinking and understanding visible. The ultimate goal of a teacher should be to understand a child’s thinking about a text, and how he or she developed that thinking. As inquiry-based teachers, we should teach the reader, not the reading, so that students can seamlessly transfer the skills, strategies, and concepts of reading from one text to another. So, what does that look like? I walked into a Grade 1 classroom and saw exactly what David Pearson expressed: student thinking being valued while providing authentic assessments of understanding.
The students were sitting on the floor closely clustered around Ms. T who was reading, What Do You Do With an Idea by Kobi Yamada. Teachers and students were equipped with Post-it Notes, clipboards, and pencils. Conceptually, this book is quite difficult; however, what this book does do it push kids to question. In a nutshell, it is about a boy who has an idea that follows him around and grows and grows as the boy’s confidence grows until one day when…(read the book :-))
The students’ questions were exploding out of the room. As Ms. T read, students wrote and drew pictures of their questions, teachers scribed, and everyone turned and talked about their thinking. All thoughts were valued, and the students' thinking showed us their understanding, misconceptions, and overall comprehension.
When you walk into this classroom, you immediately realise that celebrating student thinking is of paramount importance. Kids were learning, thinking, and understanding, and time was not wasted. How can we ensure that what we value are students’ questions rather than those prescribed or ones we think are important, because in reality, they’re not important to the students.
During a recent cross-curricular planning meeting discussing an upcoming unit on the impact of technology on our lives, we began to discuss the concept of censorship with regards to access to information. We questioned our school's policy on internet controls and the filters in place to keep our students "safe". In order to push the depth of our students' thinking we came up with a provocatively debatable question.
Should access to information be controlled?
As Banned Books Week comes to a close, I thought this was quite a powerful and pertinent question; books, once considered one of the highest forms of technology, continue to be censored and banned. But, why?
During our school's past two Teacher Talks, where teachers present workshops on areas of interest, our Deputy Head of School and Junior School Teacher Librarian both alluded to the concept of censorship. Our teacher-librarian shared the amazing wealth of information, access to books and technology, and how easily accessible they all are just from the JS Library Blog.
This past Thursday, our Deputy Head of School spoke about the Self-system Theory, which emphasizes how motivation for students relies on three basic psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Sitting in the library listening to the teacher talk and looking around the library, I saw how well our library fosters student autonomy. When you walk in, you always see such wonderful displays of books. Recently, I walked in and saw this unassuming collection of books. Within this collection of books, one has been on the American Library Association Top 10 Most Challenged Books across the United States since its publication in 2005. Can you guess which one?
Yup, it’s And, Tango Makes Three. This adorable true story of two male penguins at the Bronx Zoo who father a baby penguin named Tango has been banned not only in countless schools and counties, but in other countries, as well.
But, at Munich International School, And, Tango Makes Three sits front and center asking students to check it out.
Censorship of books is not new and won’t stop in the foreseeable future, but to what degree do we unknowingly ban books for our students? When we’re in the library with our students, do we subconsciously or consciously ban books our students want to read because the books are too hard or too easy or they’ve read those books before or they’re only reading fiction books?
I hope not at all. Libraries should be sanctuaries of freedom, openness, expression, and comfort. If you walk a little further into our library, you’ll see The Rights of the Reader Poster by Daniel Pennac on which he states that every reader has certain inalienable rights.
I’ve been wondering, how do we support these rights? What do these look like in the Junior School? How do we provide choice? How do we foster student autonomy? How often do we allow students to stop reading books? How do we foster a love of reading?
These questions are supremely important because as Daniel Pennac writes, “What we need to understand is that books weren’t written so that young people could write essays [or answer comprehension questions] about them, but so that they could read them if they really wanted to.”
Let’s make sure we’re helping them really want to read.
And, on a lighter note, if you question the technological impact of books, watch an oldie but a goodie:
In the spirit sharing how much we value and love books, I wanted to share The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. This Academy Award winning animated short is an adaptation of William Joyce’s book, which is available in our library under the same title (call number: E JOY). The video has no spoken words, which allows all our students regardless of language level access to its content. It might be a little scary in the very beginning for ECers depending on the class. You could fast forward through it (from 1:10 to 2:39). If you have a desire to use this or other videos in your class, you can read Using Video to Teach Comprehension Strategies and Thinking Routines