Ellin Keene Reflects on Mosaic of Thought’s 20th Anniversary with Tom Newkirk

Tom Newkirk interviews Ellin Keene part 1Mosaic of Thought, by Ellin Keene and Susan Zimmermann, became a runaway best-seller as the first book to explicitly describe the use and benefits of strategy-based comprehension instruction. To recognize the 20th anniversary of the book, Tom Newkirk, who served as editor, recently sat down with Ellin Keene to revisit how Mosaic of Thought came to be and the impact it had on education.

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See below for a full transcript of our conversation.


Tom Newkirk:    I want to go back to pre-mosaic, the conversation we had in the car after a workshop I did in Denver. My memory of it, and I'd like to get your memory of it, is that you're being the gracious host and asking me what I could do next, and then I asked you the best question I've ever asked, "What are you doing?" Could you take it from there because then you …

Ellin Keene:    I do remember, absolutely.

Tom Newkirk:    You remember that?

Ellin Keene:    I remember absolutely because it had not occurred to me that the work we were doing might be interesting or relevant to anyone else, and it had never occurred to me that I might be an author. I love to write. I knew that I like to write, but I never thought, particularly at that stage in my career, that I would write a book. I actually remember it so well that I can tell you exactly the street, the intersection, exactly where we were when you asked that question. You then said, "Have you ever thought about writing a book?" and I nearly drove off the road and into the culvert. We have culverts in the West. I mean I was flabbergasted. While I was still being flabbergasted, you said, "I think this comprehension strategy work is interesting enough that a lot of people would benefit from hearing more about it," something like that.

Tom Newkirk:    Nobody was writing about comprehension then.

Ellin Keene:    No, Delores Durkin had done the seminal study in 1978 or '79. Everyone in the research community had read that then. Basically it showed that less than 10% of our time in classrooms went to comprehension instruction, but even that time was really mostly asking kids comprehension questions, which is assessment not comprehension instruction. There was an understanding in the research community for the need to teach comprehension. It was believed at that time that you learned to read K-2, and then you read to learn thereafter, which is just patently not the case. Primary comprehension, in particular, was very, very underdeveloped, and actually intermediate. The notion that you could teach someone to understand better was very, very foreign to most people.

Tom Newkirk:    There's this good research basis. Look at Pearson and Dole. I mean it was…

Ellin Keene:    Solid.

Tom Newkirk:    Solid as a rock.

Ellin Keene:    Yes, and Jan Dole had been my undergraduate professor, so I had read it in my own classroom, and then in other classrooms started to experiment with it. Researchers don't prescribe how to use something. I think it's up to us to decide as practitioners how you interpret the research and how you put it to work in your classroom. I was just experimenting with my own kids, and then experimenting as a staff developer in a lot of classrooms, and kids came to life. It was a level of engagement and excitement, and almost a set of surprising. It was like they were surprising themselves, like, "Oh, wait, I said that. I didn't know I could think like that." When you see kids doing that, you just want to see it more and more. It becomes very intellectually contagious. 

Tom Newkirk:    One of the things that make it contagious, I think, how you wrote the book, was you started with your own model. You and Susan each would describe using these processes, so I think it taught teachers not only how they could teach the kids to read more fully, but how they could read more fully.

Ellin Keene:    Well, of course, that came from Don Graves. Of course that came from Don Graves because he had worked with us in the Denver area many, many times, and what was for kids had to be for us first. He said that over and over again, and he walked his talk. If he was teaching a writing seminar and we were participants, we wrote. Then we paused and reflected about how our experience as writers would apply to our students. That came directly from Graves. There was no doubt that this book would reflect that. There was no other way in my mind to do it. As a matter of fact, I wanted to do the whole book of just adult readings. In the beginning I thought that would be good, and then talking about our responses to it, but, of course, it had all kinds of implications for kids, so have to write that.

Tom Newkirk:    It's interesting how the book sold because … I guess we can say this. Heinemann had no clue that this book would sell. He had no clue that this would sell. Then it started, then it built and it built. It really spoke to some need in the educational community and its teachers. It clarified something for them, it seemed to me.

Ellin Keene:    I think it was because, and Don Graves wrote our forward for that first edition, and he said in the forward that it was having the experience of reading adult text that made the reader meta-cognitive, more aware of their own thinking, and that's a fascinating place to be. That's a really interesting place to be, aware of your own thinking. I think that may have had something to do with why it caught on. Heinemann, when they sent out the first cover, which you will remember was hideous …

Tom Newkirk:    I remember.

Ellin Keene:    I called here and I said, "That cover doesn't work for me so well." They said, "Too bad. You know what? You haven't sold one book for us so guess what? That's the cover." I loathed it. I hated it.

Ellin Keene:    That's why we had to do a second edition so I could pick my cover. 

Tom Newkirk:    With the mosaic on it.

Ellin Keene:    I did, yes. The colors did stand out.

Ellin Keene:    It was bilious. 

Tom Newkirk:    There were some really good covers in that era. I remember. 

Ellin Keene:    That was right up there with the worst. It's amazing anybody ever opened it.

Tom Newkirk:    They did and they bought it. I wonder if we could talk about moving from the … I mean not moving away from comprehension strategies, but you didn't stop there. I can imagine a career that could have gone where you just worked out the implications of how to do comprehension strategies, but you decided not to do that. Could you talk about moving, I don't know if beyond is the right word, but moving to maybe even a deeper sense of what you want reading to be. The comprehension strategies were as a part to it, but it wasn't like the total picture that you wanted to present to teachers.

Ellin Keene:    It's a logical sequence, isn't it? Because if you think of comprehension strategies as a means to an end, then it begs the question what's the end. That was next for me in to understand, was to imagine what is the end. If we're saying that comprehension strategies facilitate deeper understanding, what's deeper understanding? That was a very fun thing for me to explore because it wasn't something that I felt terribly constrained by the research or the writing that was out there. I just was free to explore that question with kids. That question drove to understand what does it mean to understand deeply and well and lastingly. Again, I explored it through art and through adult pieces of writing to contrast what's it like for a reader to have a more literal understanding, and what's it like for a reader to have real in-depth understanding.
    Then that begs some questions. What's the talk about understanding how? How is understanding facilitated by discourse, which I'd long been interested in. That led to talk about understanding. It's really just been a logical sequence in a way. I still spend a lot of time in classrooms, and I still work with comprehension strategies all the time. Now I'm more interested in not in the strategies themselves, but in where they lead. How do kids engage with each other in discourse better, for example, because of the strategies, or with strategy language to facilitate that, versus when they're left with more literal questions, when they're asked to respond to recall kinds of questions. I'm not interested in that. I'm still interested in the strategies, just where do they lead.

Tom Newkirk:    Where they lead.

Ellin Keene:    Yeah, that's really what has taken me in a different way.

Tom Newkirk:    It always seems to me that it's a quest for you, that this drive to what is the most meaningful, the most profound interaction we could have with reading or with learning. There's something deeply passionate about that in your work, that it's driving you. Where does that come from?

Ellin Keene:    It's interesting. I'm not sure, but if I had to say it's because kids continually surprise me. I never walk out of a classroom that a kid hasn't said something, or written something, or shared some thinking that doesn't just blow me away. My thinking is, "Well, if she can say that here, what else, man?" That means they're capable of so, so, so much more than I think the vast majority of us credit them for. I want to know how far that goes. The quest there is to give kids the language they need to be able to articulate what's already in their minds because I believe it's deep and profound, and it's an iceberg we haven't begun to scratch the surface of. I'm continually affirmed in that belief because every time you talk to a kid, kindergartners, older kids, it doesn't matter, they surprise me, and that surprise is a great way to have a career. How many people can say they walk out of their work every day and have had an extraordinary surprise? That's what keeps me coming back.

Tom Newkirk:    I think sometimes it's even more because I think you say the language is in their minds, but then you push them to stay with something longer. One of the things I get is don't settle.

Ellin Keene:    Don't settle, yeah.

Tom Newkirk:    Don't settle. Keep at it and you're going to go to someplace that you couldn't even imagine that you could go.

Ellin Keene:    Well, that's true for adults too. If I said, "Tom, say something brilliant right now, quick, hurry, right now, now. I said now." Yet that's the urgency that you sense in a lot of classrooms. "Okay, oh, sorry, you didn't think of it fast enough. Anybody else?" I'm really trying to fight against that. I wrote an article for Ed Leadership called "All The Time They Need," and I mean all the time they need. I think we have to make, at least force ourselves to fake it well enough, that we're not projecting this sense of urgency, and "Oh, my gosh, we've got to get this done," and "We've got to get this done," and "Oh, no, we're late for lunch," and "Oh, we've got to get ready for the test." That agitation that we feel, kids can't feel that and think at high levels. 

Tom Newkirk:    Nobody can.

Ellin Keene:    Nobody can. You didn't say something brilliant a minute ago when I… You didn't, you didn't. You're still thinking, aren't you?

Tom Newkirk:    I'm still thinking.

Ellin Keene:    That's exactly the problem. If quiet time for thought becomes the norm … I'm loud and fast personally, so I've really had to work at bringing my voice down, slowing it down, and being comfortable in silence because that's what kids need. They need the time to think. Once that becomes the classroom norm, then you're dealing with a whole other level of thought. Then you've really opened all kids up to completely new possibilities. 


This was part one of the conversation between Ellin and Tom. Ellin is hard at work on her next book, which Tom is also the editor of. We’ll release that part of their conversation in early 2018. Be sure to follow both Tom and Ellin on Twitter, and to learn more about Mosaic of Thought checkout a sample chapter on Heinemann.com  We also invite you to subscribe to the Heinemann podcast and download the Heinemann Teacher Tip App where you can get daily tips directly from Heinemann author five days a week. 

3 thoughts on “Ellin Keene Reflects on Mosaic of Thought’s 20th Anniversary with Tom Newkirk

  1. Colleen Buddy

    Loved reminiscing as I read this lively interview! Who else says "bilious"?  I am so grateful for Ellin and her impeccable models and thinking she has so generously shared with me and tens of thousands of teachers who value student and teacher evolution of thoughts and ideas. You are a treasure, dear friend,  and funny as hell to boot! Can't waitit for your new book! Please say it won't take 10 years!

    Reply
  2. Stef

    Where are you?  Everywhere I look and in my own children's classroom everything is prescriptive and reform oriented.  I see no opportunities for kids to think but instead it's all competency based and skill driven.

    What are you and all at heinemann doing to stop the horrible corporate takeover of our public schools?

    Reply
    1. Jaclyn

      Everything comes back to leadership, in my opinion. When leaders feel energized and brave to do what is right for kids as little humans as a part of this world, then they make choices based on thinking vs. prescription. It's incredible to me that I can visit a school district that functions off of the kind of work Ellin etc. do and then go not too far away and experience a completely different world. Leadership. 

      Mosaic of Thought transformed my work and my school's work at the time because we had a leader willing to allow teachers to spend time together with the UNH Learning Through Teaching program with Tomasen Carey. This leader knew we had it in us to talk about what it meant to teach and learn. This leader retired and another leader came in, one who loved data and had a knack for placing fear and doubt in teacher's minds with comments, smirks, and vague post it notes left on your desk. That doubt led teachers buying a program, even though the majority knew this wasn't the way. Leadership. Leadership. 

      Reply

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