The start of a thought
As I continue to reflect on the amazing experience that was NCTE and all the fun that was had learning and meeting my friends, mentors and idols in the literacy world a common theme stuck out to me in the sessions I attended. That being the need for students to be able to access text.
Now I am not talking just about the idea that they need to be able to connect to text be it as a mirror or window or door as is often mention I am talking about the limiting factor that some text can be for our striving or as Nancy Akhavan referred as extending readers.
In one of my favourite session of the week, Kylene Beers talked about the soft bigotry of low expectations. The fact that when our thinking of a student is limited to what they can’t do we give up on teaching them skills beyond the basics, thinking, “If they can’t do this they surely can’t do that” This limiting of access to critical thinking strategies not only stunts the future potential of our students it also dishonours them. My dear friend and mentor in the joy of literacy Mary Howard discussed once on Twitter the fact that it is indeed our student’s birthright to receive the education and support they are in need of saying,
“SUCCESS FOR EVERY CHILD IS OUR RESPONSIBILITY. SIMPLY GIVING A CHILD WHO IS STRUGGLING WITH YOUR TEACHING A GRADE THAT WILL SERVE ONLY TO MAKE THE CHILD FEEL LIKE A FAILURE IS REALLY JUST REFLECTIVE OF YOUR FAILURE TO DO WHAT YOU ARE THERE TO DO. SUCCESS IS NOT RESERVED FOR A FEW BUT IS THE BIRTHRIGHT OF EVERY CHILD NO MATTER WHERE THEY MAY BE IN THE LEARNING PROCESS”
So as I listened to such amazing voices as Kylene Beers, Mary Howard, Bob Probst, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Kate Roberts and so many more I started to ponder on what simple things we can do as teachers to close the gap, to help our students extend past where they are. To grant them access to the conversations that so often, sadly, are left open only for those already at the top.
I feel like the answer, at least to start, comes in 2 simple steps. I have started looking at the work of Dr. Molly Ness regarding Think Alouds. I used them a lot in elementary school to guide students and model thinking as we approached a text. As I moved up in school I started to abandon the process mostly because I felt silly (a great reason to end good practice). When we look at the think aloud we need to remember that students that do not yet have the tools to internally do the thinking need the model, they need the steps but that little assist can yield huge gains. Yesterday I was reading The North Star by Peter Reynolds to my grade 7 class. As we read through the story I paused to discuss my thinking. We practice Notice and Note Signposts as a way to discuss our stories in class. This is a skill that at times is difficult for our extending learners, so we do it as a class. We point out the reoccurring elements the “Again and Again” and wonder about what they mean. We ponder on the words of the wiser, out loud, together. They start to notice without me, I step back and let them lead. It isn’t about levels when we think together and discuss our thoughts. It is about all being a part of the conversation, about my students witnessing that I too struggle with thinking it through at times.
I love to read aloud, mostly because I love to see the Aha moments my students have when they realize something important has occurred, the whispered lean to their shoulder partners or table groups as they predict, the writing of beautiful lines that stick out. Reading aloud to my students opens up a text in a different way. Students get a chance to focus on skills while I get the joy of focusing on words, on emphasizing just the right parts and leaving them hanging as a close the book at the “best part”. My favourite part though of a read aloud is the chance to do strategy work together, to move from the text into the talk. The moments before during and after where the class is discussing a shared experience and the different perspectives. Striving and Extending students often times gain access to an otherwise inaccessible experience when the reading is removed and the thinking can be amplified. I sat reading The North Star on Thursday and at moments I would just ask a simple question and wait for the discussions to roll in. I was not wondering about the sequence of events or the first animal the child encounters. It was not about right answers it was about many answers, many thoughts and many discussions. Read Aloud gives the teacher a chance to invite so many more to the table, to see what our students really can do not just what an assessment says they can. It is also just plain fun.
Two simple steps. They require work but they are not complicated. They are not something that removes the teacher from the equation, they put us smack dab in the middle surrounded by curious, inquisitive learners developing the skills for themselves. You are not going to find some great read aloud or think aloud on Teachers Pay Teachers. You are not going to notice its star rating. Hopefully, you won’t be attaching some assignment that does the opposite of the beautiful intent of a read aloud. Your students will never fondly look back on the workbooks or quiz of the week but they will remember reading Scar Island or Restart or The Outsiders or Refugee or Freak the Mighty or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or any other title you share with them. If you need an assessment just look around the room at the kids eager to think with you, eager to discover with you and eager to hear what is coming next.
Just Read, Just Think it is that simple. These simple things open up the door for all learners. Why would we limit students to the basics when the world requires so much more? Read Aloud and Think Aloud provide the opportunities for all students to succeed and grow.