“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
…so begins the review for the first book mentioned on Brain Pickings’s The 13 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2013, The book, On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz, is a title that we have not yet read but have placed on the top of our “Want to Read” list. The review reminds us how easy it is to become so wrapped up in the trappings of day-to-day living that we can exist in our world without really noticing much about what is going on in the immediate world around us. Horowitz realized she had fallen into this daze as she walked her dog around the block day after day. She resolved to make an effort to “attend to inattention,” Horowitz enlisted the help of eleven different “experts” (e.g. an artist, a geologist, a dog) to help her learn to “look” in new ways.
As we mentioned, we are intrigued by the premise and find ourselves thinking about how it can help us think about “being present” in our personal lives and in our work with teachers in their classrooms. Without even reading the book, thinking about how other “experts” would view our work is fascinating and so, today, we leave you with this task:
After teaching a lesson, ask yourself these questions:
- What would my grade level colleagues notice?
- What would my administrator notice?
- What would my students notice?
- What would the parent of the most difficult child in my class notice?
- What would the parent of the most compliant child in my class notice?
Does this help you to “look” more closely at your classroom life? What do you notice? What do you see?
With all of the talk about “close, careful reading” one of the things we’ve been grappling with lately is how to get kids to monitor their reading and notice when meaning breaks down. In talking with children about their understandings, one of the things that we repeatedly observe is children formulating ideas that aren’t supported by the text. They read a sentence like “Bison are actually quite easy animals to look after” (from Can We Save the Tiger by Martin Jenkins–one of our favorite nonfiction texts) and then decide that this means that someone is keeping a bison as a pet because pets are something that they know must be “looked after.”
Working to understand is a messy process and mistunderstandings are par for the course when negotiating a text for meaning. In fact, we think of miscues and breaks in understanding as one indication that a text presents learning opportunities for students, presuming these issues don’t surface too often. We work to teach readers to celebrate and embrace these opportunities, but sometimes this isn’t as simple as it sounds. When prompted to double check his theory that someone was keeping a bison as a pet, the student we described above eagerly returned to the text and read the sentence “as long as you don’t hunt them and make sure they’be got a reasonable amount of space, they pretty much take care of themselves.” When we asked this fourth grade reader to explain how this was additional evidence to support his idea about what this text meant, he said, “it says ‘reasonable amount of space’. Pets need space too.” It didn’t seem to matter to him that, in the same sentence, the author refers to “hunting” bison.
We’ve been trying to figure out why children oftentimes opt to manipulate evidence to try to make it say what they believe it should say rather than revise their thinking. To us, it seems easier to acknowledge the mistake, have a gratifying “oooohhhhh” moment, and move on; yet, very often, children seem loathe to do this. We believe it has to do with their sense that mistakes are “bad” and acknowledging a mistake means acknowledging an embarrassing flaw in their intelligence. If we are right about this, then changing this behavior has less to do with teaching children strategies for identifying textual connections and employing fix-up strategies, and more to do with rewiring their perceptions of misunderstandings and mistakes. If we celebrate mistakes and the processes children employ to find and solve problems with reading with the same fanfare that correct responses often elicit, then perhaps we stand a chance of getting kids to revise their thinking. If not, then we’re up against legions of kids banding together to insist, “This is our story and we’re sticking to it.”
Over the weekend, Kim’s family went to Barnes and Noble. Her fifth grade son, obsessed with the music from Les Miserables, has many questions about the story and wondered if there was a version of the story written for kids. He quickly discovered that if a children’s abridged version exists, Barnes and Noble didn’t carry it, so he began to browse the other books in the children’s section. As he walked past the Diary of a Wimpy Kid kiosk he paused, picked up Hard Luck, the recently-released, eighth book of Jeff Kinney’s beloved series, and said, “I used to love these books. I don’t anymore. They got boring.”
If you look back over Nathan’s reading history, you will see that he is a serial series reader. His reading life can be charted according to the series that he’s read: first grade–Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge, and Nate the Great; second grade–Junie B. Jones and The Magic Tree House; third grade–Diary of a Wimpy Kid, anything by Roald Dahl, and Harry Potter (not surprisingly, he only made it through the first two books before stopping); fourth grade–Percy Jackson and Hunger Games; fifth grade–Heroes of Olympus.
When you look at this progression of books, it is not surprising that Diary of a Wimpy Kid doesn’t hold the thrill that it once did. The progression from singular, one-dimensional characters with simple problems to multiple multi-dimensional characters with intricately woven plots is evident in this list of books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid sits somewhere in the middle of this continuum, which explains why these books now strike Nathan as boring. When books lack the complexity to which he has grown accustomed, he feels it. His reading palate has matured. He craves richer books.
As teachers, we often worry about serial series readers. On the one hand, we are happy that they have found something that ignites their passion for reading. On the other, we worry that reading the same type of books will limit their vocabulary development and exposure to structure, not to mention fail to meet requirements that fifty percent of their diet be literary and the other informational. However, we must step back and consider the bigger picture.
Serial series reading is not unique to Kim’s son, many readers’ histories can be charted according to the series they passed through. And these readers share an important commonality. While some series may may linger longer than others, they are all eventually overshadowed by other series and titles. The series that students move on to generally tend to become more sophisticated. Without any intervention from us, serial series reading prompts children to build and climb their own staircase of text complexity. These readers aren’t still reading Magic Tree House in fifth grade because those books now bore them. This natural progression reminds us that, as we continue our discussions about text complexity and ponder how we are going to up the ante for younger readers, we cannot neglect that independent reading of serial texts can fill an important piece of this puzzle.