Some of you might not know this about me, but I grew up in a science family. I’m the daughter of an analytical chemist. As kids, we spent weekends playing with toy microscopes and doing science experiments. A hike was not complete without a lecture on the role of moss in the forest ecosystem and when my dad wanted the salt passed to him at the dinner table, he’d say, “please pass the sodium chloride?”
So it seems an interest in science was inevitable. It clearly rubbed off on my sister, whose chosen career is in medicine, but my path to teaching may be, at first glance, less obviously connected to science. A teacher? Of reading?
Have you seen this quote? “Teaching reading is rocket science.”
The teaching of reading, to me, is about the kids. Kids are complicated and complex, they’re nuanced, they’re as unique as snowflakes. And when we want to teach them, really teach them, we have to study them closely. Do a close reading, if you will. Approach them like scientists.
If you’ve seen me teach children or staff develop teachers, or even read one of my books, you’ll notice this reading-teacher-as scientist quality. I approach my teaching with a spirit of wonder and amazement. I ask questions that guide studies of inquiry about students specifically and about reading skills and processes in general. I collect data, and puzzle over it, rearrange it, analyze it and draw conclusions from it. And just when it might seem I’m done, I start the whole thing all over again — there is always more to think about, question, and learn.
Below are four tips for bringing a scientist’s mindset to closely read your students as you strive to teach them to be readers:
- Be Curious
- Collect Data
- Identify Variables
- Expect Revision
The poet Nancy Willard once said, “Sometimes questions are more important than answers.” I just love curiosity in a teacher and in a student. I love the attitude of “I don’t know” and “I wonder why” and “Let’s figure this out.”
Every time I look at a child, I think “What’s going on here?” and “what can I do to help him understand what I’m saying?” When some kids “get it” I think, “What did I do there? What worked?”
A curious teacher isn’t one who is just going through the moves of a Reading Workshop – minilesson to independent reading to conferring to share. She’s a teacher who is really interested in the work the students are doing. She’s the one who is trying to figure out how to make things go deeper. She’s trying to figure out what it’s going to take to really move each and every child. She’s going to seek out professional reading, hop on Twitter for chats, and go to conferences on weekends.
We’re data-crazed lately, I know. So for me to suggest you collect data may feel ridiculous. But let me be more specific. What I really mean is that I hope that you are actually using opportunities for data collection –trying to record nuance and not just regard their assessments as “tests”.
- Does the assessment I give match what I want kids to be doing every day? If you want kids reading whole just right books each day, you need a tool to assess how well they handle whole books. Placing post-its in the book and asking kids to respond in writing allows you to see their comprehension in the midst of reading.
- When I give a running record, do I analyze it? Do I go back and look to see what the data tells me about the student, and use that data to form instructional goals?
When we look at an individual reader, there is a kaleidoscope of things going on. Seeing a one-sided view of any reader is limiting. When I lead teachers in assessment, I encourage them to view readers through five different lenses:
- Print Work
Sometimes, over-focusing on just one will lead us to misinterpret what is going on with a student, and jump to conclusions. If we can identify all of these five as variables in a child’s reading success, we can better help that student. For example, a child who may seem to be struggling with comprehension based on the reader’s writing about reading and conversation during read alouds may actually just not be engaged. Maybe that child is faking it – during independent reading and read aloud – and when asked a question he just makes something up!
A close reader of children is one who is involved in a never-ending cycle of inquiry. These kinds of teachers are always pulling their sleeves, looking closely at each success and proficiency, and trying to figure out how to make their students learn more, and make the work deeper.
In the inquiry process after drawing conclusions (developing theories), you begin again in a way. You move then to testing those theories, gathering more information based on the outcomes, and fine-tuning and revising once more. The more information you learn about your readers the more your ideas will change. And readers aren’t static – they move and change from day to day. Last month’s data is already too old to go on.
A scientist/close reader stance means to embrace that cycle, knowing that there is always more to learn about a student, more to study, more to growth to support.
Like the cosmos, like cell division, like the never-ending waves of the oceans, our readers change and grow. To study them like scientists and to read them closely means to appreciate this. No – to marvel at it, revel in it, and explore.