On Wednesdays I teach small groups of middle school children whose English test scores are undesirable in “literacy intervention” classes. Two of my highest goals are to foster a love of reading and to teach students how to read for understanding. We use a host of strategies to translate the words on the page into a coherent mental narrative including inferring, questioning, visualizing, personal connections, predicting, and others. I hope to build out these individual strategies over time so that students use them flexibly and strategically to make meaning out of text.
This past Wednesday I decided to start with the strategy of questioning by doing an interactive read aloud of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I chose this book because it is funny and wrestles with issues of race, community, and figuring out where do I fit into this world? The plan was to read the first few pages but to interrupt the story to make explicit my own inner-dialogue.
“Right away I have a question about the title. I’m wondering, is this a true story or not? If it was true then why did the author have to throw in the word absolutely?” (On the board I write “Cover: Is this a true story?”)
In the first chapter the author talks about having his teeth pulled and the white doctor’s assumption that Indians only felt half as much pain as white people, so he only gave them half as much Novocain.
“Whoa! Now I’m wondering, when is this story taking place? That’s just so ignorant and racist that I’m guessing that this is from the 50s or something. Nobody could believe that sort of thing now right? (On the board I write, “Page 5: When did this story take place?”)
You get the picture. After displaying my own inner dialogue and interactions with the text, I ask students to pull out a sheet of paper and to write down their own questions as they emerge. EXCEPT, they are not to do this silently, they are instructed to INTERRUPT ME with their questions by injecting “Say WHAAAATT!?”
Reflections on What Happened
- I am delighted to report that things went largely according to plan with the first group. Students were engaged with the story and their sheets of paper were filled with questions.
- I made a decision on the spot to allow each group to come up with their own word or phrase to use when they had questions. Though “Say WHAAATTT” was relevant and exciting for me due to its connection to a fond memory, my students were not a part of that experience and any opportunity to give them the power of choice I intend to seize. My first group settled on “Kai,” in honor of their favorite TV show Dragon Ball Z Kai. My second intervention group chose “AG,” the evolution of which looks like.
Hey Mr. Gaber → Hey Mr. G. → Hey G → eyyy G → AG
- One student in my first group realized as I was reading that one of his earlier questions had been answered by the text. Unprovoked, he turns his sheet over and writes “Answers” at the top, then records the answer to his earlier question.
- My second group walked through the door carrying with them the energy of the crowded, play-fight filled hallways they had just traversed. Anticipating difficulty with the request that they all sit behind individual desks, I decided instead to ask that they sit on the couch and gather around me in any form they would like. The move was very effective at allowing me to jump into the lesson rather than wasting time pleading students to sit down. However, the new location meant that they did not have something hard to write on. I moved forward requesting that they simply share their questions and we will discuss them, rather than record them on a piece of paper. Again, the on the fly adaptation proves effective, perhaps because pulling out a sheet of paper is automatically associated with dull work to be graded, rather than a fun, interactive story.
- Midway through my second class the principal walked in with two boys who were supposed to be with me but instead had been roaming the hallways, taking advantage of the general confusion associated with the recent schedule change. I ask another student to explain to them what we are up to and then continue with the story. Very quickly they choose instead to grab the bag of rubber bands on the teacher’s desk (I do not have my own classroom, so I move from space to other person’s space) and shoot them at students engaged in the story. I think this points to how important the initial framing of a task is. Essentially you are making a case for why an activity is important and requesting that students to buy into it, to say, “yea, this is worth my time and attention.” My own enthusiasm for the book had won over the students who had been there from the start, but for the late-arriving boys who missed my introduction, this activity was not at the top of their priorities.
- The narrator of the story talks about having too much cerebral spinal fluid in his skull at birth, and has consistent seizures in his early years. A student in my third period group asked me to please stop talking about brains. Noticing real concern in his voice and face, I said that this was a part of the story, and asked why he wanted me to stop. He revealed that his mother had died of some brain related illness a couple of years ago. The other students expressed sympathy for him, and then stared as he seemed close to tears. Sensing his apprehension to discuss the matter further, I moved on with the story, knowing that we were past the talk of brain damage.
- I am constantly confronted by my own assumptions about what students already know. For example, I anticipated they might not know what an Indian reservation was, but I was surprised to learn that none of them had a response to the question, “who were the Native Americans?” I was not even sure where to start in explaining the history of Native Americans and the government of the United States. It reminded me how essential background knowledge is for making sense of a story, and a huge gap that was important for understanding the story at hand.
- The student who shared about his mother also shared with me on a different occasion that his father recently lost his job and there was an eviction notice on his door. I’m going to give him a journal, with a letter from me talking about what he shared and asking how he is handling these outside of school challenges, and how we as a community can best support him. I’ll tell him that this is a private journal that I will not show to anyone else, it’s just a place for him and me to talk. He does have difficulty writing though, so I’ll give him the option of drawing pictures, and pulling me aside to say his response out loud, and, I’ll give him the space to not respond at all if he doesn’t want to.
- Clearly these students need to learn about Native American history, but where to start? A youtube clip? I don’t see them often enough to assign reading in a new book. Would love some advice here!
- Inspired by the student who took the initiative to answer his own questions on the other side of his paper, I think I will make graphic organizers with questions on one side, and a column for answers on the other. I could also do a column of questions and a column asking how did that question help you understand the story, and/or a column identifying exactly what kind of question they asked.
- While this was a good starting point, I’m seeing that simply asking for questions is not enough. There are so many different kinds of questions! Questions in regards to what will happen next. Questions about why a character did what she did. Questions about the definitions of words. Deeper questions that we as a society don’t even have answers to yet…I will want to break their questions into further categories, each of which will point to a different sort of approach for answering. Metacognition is the bomb!
- Read the next chapter, again focusing on questions.