A couple weeks ago, I sat down with one of my seniors to conference with her about her reading activities. I started by asking, “What are you learning?” She dove right in, talking about how the author had introduced the main character and explaining what she thought the theme might be. The ideas spilled out quickly, until she started to question why he included certain details. She grew frustrated, saying, “Well, have you read this book?” I knew she wanted the answer to be “yes,” so that I could come to her rescue and guide her to some understanding about the author’s choices. But I hadn’t the read the book, so I couldn’t ask her the exact guiding question to get her there. I had to think broader, asking lots of “Why?” and “How do you know that?” questions. Eventually, our discussion led her to some resolution and she felt satisfied and prepared enough to move on to her next activity.
In reflecting on this experience, I’m so excited that my student even got to ask that question. When I first started the ILP and my students were venturing into independent reading, they had the expectation that I had somehow read every book; they were absolutely gobsmacked that I couldn’t tell them the answer. But now the culture at Hunterdon Central is shifting to the student as the expert on the text, not the teacher. This speaks to the comfort that my colleagues and our students are starting to feel about letting go of the traditional model that the teacher is all-knowing about the text. This shift started with student choice in terms of reading but is now a part of learning in general. My students are finding information about ideas I know nothing about— how cool is it that I get to learn as much as they do?
So what does it mean for the teacher? To start, it’s important that students are leading conferences— they should come with questions and points of confusion, as well as the ability to explain how they are practicing the standards and answering their own EQs and GQs. These skills take time to develop, but it helps students to determine what is necessary in a conversation about a text. An essential part of the learning conference is for students to be able to succinctly summarize their reading, as reflected in Common Core State Standard ELA 2. This gives the teacher a jumping off point to ask questions, and a mini-lesson on how much summary is necessary for a listener’s understanding could be a pre-cursor to a learning conference.
In many ways, we are now the students, asking questions about the text to clear our confusion. But unlike our students, we have an arsenal of questions to help guide students. Just as we might ask what motivated Holden Caulfield to visit his sister, we can ask how students know a character’s motivation and whether or not they’ve seen that motivation in that text or elsewhere. Depending on the skills your students are practicing, other sample questions might include:
- At what moment did you realize the main character was changing?
- What kind of language does the author use? Why do you think he/she chose that phrase?
- What is challenging about the author’s writing style? Is it something you might mimic in your writing?
- At what point in the story did you figure out the theme?
So, rather than seeking one right answer, we’re asking our students to explain their thinking and to provide reasons or examples to show how they come to understandings.
One of the criticisms we’ve received from our colleagues is that we can’t possibly ensure good close-reading when we haven’t read the books. And on some level, they’re right. This year a student read The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book I haven’t gotten to yet. Based on what was in his activity, I assessed him as “proficient.” But when one of his classmates produced an activity on the same book, I realized that the first student had missed out on a major plot point. This was pretty disheartening, though it hasn’t made me give up on independent reading. Instead, it’s reinforced the notion that I need to be asking more questions throughout the process, making sure to check in with students throughout the reading experience. Students might produce what looks like excellent analysis, but in some cases, we can’t know with absolute certainty that students are accurately analyzing unless we’ve also read the book. This is why we balance choice with full-class work, like analyzing a common text in a mini-lesson, to make sure that the skills they’re developing independently transfer to all texts.