What does critical reading and critical thinking look like in your classroom? Are students excited? Bored? A little apprehensive?
Today we are joined by two English teachers and authors, Marilyn Pryle and Rebekah O’Dell, to hear about how reading responses can be an approachable and effective tool for helping students to engage meaningfully with a text. They advocate for moving away from right or wrong answer thinking, and into a space of rich discussion and ideation. If this sounds daunting, Marilyn and Rebekah break it down to show us how accessible it can be.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Rebekah: Marilyn, I am so excited to talk to you today because you know that I am a humongous fan of your work and your thinking. And even though I wish we lived, actually, close to one another, your work lives in my classroom every single solitary day. So, thank you for talking with me. I'm so excited.
Marilyn: Well, Rebekah, you know that the feeling is mutual, and I respect your work so much, and I know we've collaborated on things and we share ideas and we are like-minded when it comes to teaching literature to kids and critical thinking. And so, I'm just so grateful that you are here, and we get to have this discussion.
Rebekah: So, in our classrooms, in secondary classrooms, critical reading, reading with a critical eye, is so important, but it has always felt like something that is easier said than done. How do we get kids to actually be able to do that, and be able to do it confidently? And so, I'm just wondering if we could begin by you painting a picture for us of what critical reading looks like in your classroom.
Marilyn: So, I think the first step of just anyone, especially students, reading critically is engagement, right? They have to engage with the text, and that text, of course, can be anything. It can be in print, it can be any kind of genre, it can be visual, it can be audio. Whatever the text is, they have to engage with it in an authentic way so that they are bringing their real selves to the table and trying to interact with the text from that standpoint, right? So, just on a very basic level, that's what it's about. Genuine engagement.
Rebekah: So, that is so exciting for students, probably, because I would imagine that, when they get to your class, they have been told that some of those thoughts and feelings and reactions are not the "right answer" in English class. So, how do you negotiate that boundary of, "I want your engagement, I want your genuine reactions," versus what students have maybe been told in the past?
Marilyn: Right. And this is so true. And so, you teach seventh grade. I teach 10th grade, right? And by the time they get to us, they've been so ingrained in this thinking of there's a right answer, there's a wrong answer, you're going to get a grade. This is the currency that they've been raised on. And so, they get to us, and we can't exactly just cancel all of that out, right? But at the same time, we have to make the students believe that it's possible to have a safe place to be wrong, to take intellectual risks with your thinking. So, that's tricky because, again, they're there, they've been raised on this currency of grading and right and wrong answers, right? But we still have to build in that safe space and that trusting space. And I know, Rebekah, we've talked about this for years. For me, it's all rooted in reader response theory, right?
This idea that you react to a text, you make inferences about the text, you make judgments, you ask questions, all of those things while staying rooted in the text, right? And as a group, the idea is we're all going to bring our ideas together and discuss it and see if we can all get to a better understanding of the text, right? But that process takes a long time to make students believe that, number one, they can say what they're really thinking, right? And then, number two, it's okay if they're wrong. They're not going to be penalized for it. They're not going to be mocked in any way, right? And then, number three, that we can all just discuss it together and reach that higher understanding. So, I feel like, in my own class, and I'm sure in yours, there's some undoing that has to happen with getting them out of that mentality of the right and wrong answer dichotomy, and then some space and trust that needs to be built in, and it takes time.
Rebekah: So, on one hand, we have to squash that right and wrong thinking. On the other hand, we have to build in some critical thinking and critical response, right? I'm thinking about just today, my class is reading Persepolis, and they're annotating as they go. And I was pulling kids into reading conferences, and I had one student who is very hesitant, and we are recording this at the end of February. She is still a very timid sharer of her thoughts. She's timid to even share her thoughts with herself. But she had tons and tons of notes about Persepolis, however, they were all reactions. They were, "Oh, no. I can't believe that happened. What do you mean? What is she talking about? That's so terrible." So, for a student like that, my Finley, how would you, then, move those authentic reactions, which she is now having, forward into something that's a little bit more critical?
Marilyn: Yes. I mean, that's a great question. And I have that in my own class, too. Students that are writing reading responses, and it's just opinion after opinion after opinion. And they're having these thoughts, and of course, they're valid and they're tying it to the text, right? So, all those pieces are in place because something else that we can circle back to is this idea of reader response theory doesn't mean that anyone can say anything that pops into their head. And it has to be right because that's their interpretation, and they're entitled to whatever interpretation they want. That's not what it's about it. Louise Rosenblatt, the author of reader response theory, talks about responsible reading, right? So, there is such a thing of having an interpretation, and she says some interpretations are more responsible, let's say, than others, right? So, we have to guide students to these deeper levels of thinking, and that's where the discussion comes in. So, whether that's a small group in your class, whether, as you were describing, it's your reading conference one-on-one with the student, and it sounds like your student is being a responsible reader.
She's just constantly in this one mode, right? So, I would say to help deepen and steer her into a more critical stance would be, obviously, to ask her. You could ask directly, especially if she has an opinion about, let's say, a character trait or something like that. You could ask her a leading question to make more inferences, or how do you think this character trait is eventually going to affect the plot? Things that we always do as English teachers. Another thing that you could do, and I know, Rebekah, in your classroom, you use the reading response categories. Maybe steer her towards a group of categories to choose from that gets at that deeper, more critical thinking. That's another way. And then, if she's discussing in small groups, a lot of times, I see students just naturally approach this deeper level of thinking or wade into these other categories when they see their group members doing it, as well. I would recommend that. But what did you say to Finley?
Rebekah: Well, I noted what she was doing. And I said, "Finley, I notice that most of these annotations are really emotional reactions to the text. And so, I'm wondering why you think that you're having such an emotional reactionary response. What is it about this story or these characters?" And so, we talked about that.
Marilyn: Yeah, that's wonderful. And I would even, in that discussion, add, depending on her answer, say, "Do you realize you're getting into this category, or that category?" You're explaining your reactions, but also really you're doing maybe a class critique, or something like that. Sometimes, it's a matter of giving the students the vocabulary, the academic vocabulary, to name what they're doing. And then, once they're like, "Oh, that is what I'm doing," then they'll be more maybe comfortable or confident to go into those spaces themselves.
Rebekah: So, you mentioned the reading response categories, which are just about my favorite thing that has ever happened to literature study in my classroom. Would you tell us a little bit about what are these categories? What are we talking about here? What do you do with them?
Marilyn: In my mind, we're starting from this idea of reader response theory, where you bring your real self to the text, and then you go from there, right? There's a lot of directions that you could go in, right? So, for me, the categories are just pathways into critical thinking so a student isn't completely overwhelmed. And I know you worked with my book Reading with Presence, there's about 30 categories in there, and they're all just entryways into a text. So, about character, setting, or theme. But then, more difficult ones get into archetypes and things like that, and working all the way up to some of the more sophisticated criticisms, right? So, when we give students, number one, options of entering a text, and then, number two, the specific doorways that are these options, that really helps scaffold this idea of, "Okay, I'm approaching a text. What do I want to say? How do I want to react to it?" So, that's what I mean by that categories.
Rebekah: So, what are kids doing with these categories in your class? Is this just something that they are mentally processing as they're reading? Is there a product that comes out of this? How do they actually function inside the minutes of your class period?
Marilyn: So, what we do in class is we'll read a text. And again, I'm in 10th grade, so I can even just assign this for homework. I'll say, "Read a certain number of pages. Come in with one or two reading responses written." And they'll know what that means. And basically, they're, they're going to read the text, they're going to choose one of these categories, they're going to write five or six sentences within the category, and then they're going to attach a quote to it. So, in this way, I know we come in the next day to class, and every student sitting there, if they've done their homework, has a thought about the text, they've meta cognitively categorized that thought, and they have a quote to back it up. So, this is how our discussions are structured every day. And it just makes for such a wonderful discussion.
Now, they're constantly writing. So, every day in my class, they're practicing these reading responses and they're writing their six sentences. But what does start to happen, because I know in your question you just said, is it a mental process? After a couple of months of doing these, the students can't help but think in the categories., right? So, they tell me later, like, "Oh, I was just reading something for fun, and I found the categories going through my head." They start critiquing whatever they're reading through the lens of these categories, these metacognitive functions. And so, maybe it's about mood or tone or author bias or whatever the categories are, they really start to internalize them. So, that's just a wonderful part of the system.
Rebekah: So you talked about how one of the great things is that kids are metacognitively categorizing their thought. Why is that so important for students as they move forward in their English academic career, or really even just as a writer? Why do they need to have these labels to put on the thoughts? How does that help them?
Marilyn: Well, I think this goes back to the original question of what does it mean to be a critical reader and a critical thinker. So it's not just that you are having thoughts, you're aware that you're having thoughts. And you're able to label what those thoughts are.
So as teachers, we know that metacognition is just one of the most important skills that we can send kids through the grades with. And this is one way to practice it. The more that they can label their thinking, the more they can be aware of exactly what they're reacting to and how they're reacting to it. And again, this is exactly what defines the critical reader.
So when most people read, you've got a million thoughts kind of passing through your head. But to be grab one, pause, freeze it for a moment, label it metacognitively of what... that kind of practice really slows down the mind and gives students the tools to reach these higher levels of critical thinking.
Rebekah: Something I tell my students is that each of these categories is a way that we look at a piece of literature. And so when they move on to their next class or their next school and their teacher maybe just says, "Hey, read this for homework and come prepared to discuss.", and they have no idea what that means, "What am I supposed to discuss?", these are the things that we're discussing. See the setting and character traits and contrasts and all of these different reading response categories are really that English class magic that [inaudible 00:14:26] kids sometimes think that some of them are born with and some of them are not, just broken down and made clear for everybody. This is what you're discussing, this is what you're writing about, even if you're a college English major, it's these things.
Marilyn: That's exactly it. And that's what sort of started this whole system for me. I can remember being a student and I was just petrified of opening my mouth. I was scared of saying the wrong answer. And whenever a teacher would say something like, "Oh, what does this poem mean?", you think that they're asking for the meaning of life. And we're just going to let the really smart English kid answer it.
And I remember one time in particular being called on in class, and this was in college. I wasn't young. And I was too scared to answer, even there. And I said, "I don't know." And the teacher kind of pressed me and was like, "Well, you've got to have a thought. You've got..." And I just sort of kept saying, "I don't know, it was a difficult piece.", whatever. Got out of it. And then the teacher called on another person and that person just talked about the main simile and the first couple of lines. And the teacher thought that was great. And in my mind I was like, "Well, I could have said that."
I feel like students think that we're asking for the meaning of life, when really we're just like, "Give me something. Give me one bit of this that you understood and you have a thought about, and we can go from there. We'll work together, we'll build off that." This is what a discussion is. So again, this goes back to that idea of, what does it mean to be a critical reader and what does it mean when we talk about reader response theory, bringing your true self to the table? It means this. It means you try. You might be wrong, but this discussion is going to help shape your thinking and make it better. But without those categories or that scaffold, students are scared. And also, they don't have the vocabulary to enter into a text. So, I feel like breaking it down has really helped.
Rebekah: And I think it's very empowering for students, in the way that you just described. When they see that, "Oh, I was kind of noticing that thing and now there's a whole reading response I can write about it.", that really validates the thinking that they already have.
Rebekah: Well, how do you introduce this when you get a new crop of students? How do you create that safe environment that says, "Just try this. It's okay if it's weird. It's okay if you feel like you failed."
Marilyn: Well, I kind of talk exactly like that in the beginning of the school year. I say, "We're going to do this system." And I kind of show them the categories. And I resist indoctrinating them with a bunch of examples. I might show them one or two, but really that kind of defeats the purpose, because then I'm setting up what looks right and what looks wrong. So, I kind of explain it to them. But even then, it takes several weeks for them to really believe that they're not going to lose points or they can be wrong. Or a lot of times, the students will write really long reading responses that are mostly summarizing because this is what they've been taught to do and they want to make sure they get it right.
And then as time goes on, for some students, the reading responses will become shorter. Still fulfilling the five or six sentence requirement, but they'll become more concise and the language and thinking will just become better. And it'll just be less over summarizing and more just their true critical thinking. So, it takes time. I mean, I'm sure that's the same in your class too. Do you find that it takes a couple weeks for them to believe you?
Rebekah: A couple weeks to believe and definitely a couple of months to walk through this process together regularly until it gets good. It's sort of like any class discussion where you have to have a handful of terrible class discussions before you have that eureka moment. And I find it's the same with the reading responses. You're right, they do start out long. And I think that the five to six sentences... At first, I resisted that, Marilyn, at first I was like, "No, I do not like to tell my students how many sentences to write." But here's the brilliance of it, at least for my kids, five to six sentences is so approachable. They've been doing that since third or fourth grade. So when you say five or six sentences, their guard is put down a little bit. They're like, "Oh, I could do that." But five to six really good sentences is not.
So with the summary thing, what I actually have started doing is when kids get stuck in that summary zone, and maybe only the last sentence is really on target with the category, I start having them write a second paragraph. And the first five to six sentences is a summary, and then you're done. And then they kind of need that ramp up into that that actual critical response. And then over time, we start to delete that first paragraph of summary.
Marilyn: It's so true. And it's almost like a security blanket, again, because we've taught them to do this. And also, summarizing is important. I don't want to say we should stop summarizing. But we've taught them that but that's all that they... a lot of times that's all they can do. And they're scared to really put that lens, that additional layer rather, of their own critical thought. And so really helping them transition.
And then the other beautiful thing is, they get to know the difference. So my 10th graders just handed in their reading response analysis paper. So after semester one, I have them write a whole reflection paper on how have your RRs changed over the semester? And what kind of a reader are you based on the categories that you like? Things like that. And they'll write about, "I used to summarize so much and now it's so much more concise." Or some kids have the opposite issue where they couldn't think of anything to say, but now they're reading and the categories are popping up in their head. So, they immediately have ideas. They have to choose from which idea they want to write about.
So, they're able to see the difference between summarizing and critical thinking and personal response. So that's a huge victory as well, because for them in the beginning of the year, they think responding to a text is summarizing it. And if you ask them what critical thinking was, I don't know that they could even verbalize that.
Rebekah: No, that is huge. I used to teach seniors and I wasn't using reading responses at the time. I don't think your book had come out yet. But when I was teaching seniors, and these were IB seniors, our highest level of senior English, most of my year was spent trying to teach them what summary looked like so that they would stop summarizing.
But I think in reading responses, one of the most powerful things, I've said that 20 times because it's all so powerful to me, is that last question. On almost every reading response category, you have some kind of question about significance. Why does this matter to the text? Why is this character trait significant? What is the author saying through through the setting, or whatever it may be. And I think that also when they get into that habit of, "I'm addressing the category, I'm thinking through some questions." And the last thing I write every time I do a reading response is, why does this matter? Why is it significant? Why do we care? It builds this habit of analysis that they don't even realize they're getting.
Marilyn: And that's it. And that's the critical reading right there. So again, they get to seventh grade, they get to 10th grade, they can identify characters and character traits. They can identify setting, they can point to the sentence, but then why? What is the author doing? And so this gets into the author's intentions and the deeper meanings and themes and symbolism and things like that. And that's what we want students to always be doing, not just identifying literary elements. Which again, they get really good at that in the elementary grades and the middle school grades. But then applying that and really asking these deeper questions.
Rebekah: Yeah, it's not just seek and find of literary elements, which is what they kind of come with often.
So Marilyn, there are these 30 plus categories in Reading with Presence. How do you introduce those categories to students in a way that they don't feel overwhelmed? I know that you're setting up this environment where their thoughts are valid and valued, and they're not going to be penalized for being, quote, unquote wrong. But 33 things to think about when you're reading is a lot. So, how do you parse these out? Do you give them to them all at once? How does that introduction process go in those early days?
Marilyn: That's a great question, and then one that I talk with other teachers about a lot because the answer for everyone is going to be, it depends on your class. And it depends on your grade level, and it depends on your students. So for me, I have 10th graders. And by the time they get to me, they're pretty good at the traditional literary analysis. Right? So, I don't hit them with 35 categories at once just because the process is still new. Again, the process of learning to trust like we were talking about before, that's still new. So I'll probably give them in the very beginning of the year, just about 15 categories. Those are the more traditional categories about character, setting, mood, tone, theme, symbolism, things like that, and they feel pretty confident in those areas. Also, ask a question, give an opinion, make a connection, all of those.
Letting them start small, helps build their confidence, helps get the technique down because it is a habit. That's another thing, it's a system. They're writing these reading responses constantly three or four times a week, usually in my class. So getting the system down, getting the method down. And then after about a quarter, I'll introduce the other categories, and most of them, again, 10th graders, they are ready to take off into those more difficult categories. They've spent years doing the traditional foundational stuff so the thought of being able to write psycho-analytical criticism that's just thrilling to them. So a lot of them will take right off into those.
So I organize mine in an easier batch and a more challenging batch of categories, and so I kind of scaffold them that way, but I've talked to lots of other teachers who do it in different ways. In general, you're progressing from something a little easier, something more familiar into something more challenging, that's what we do as teachers. But there are different ways to group the category. So it would depend on what your content is, what your end goals are for the class. I talk a lot about, you can create any category that you want and you simply just have to ask yourself, what do I want the students to notice? What space do I want to create for students to think in as like an invitation, like a space that exists that they can step into and think in.
So with those questions, individual teachers can kind of arrange their own batches of categories. Whatever the categories are, start off with a group of about 15 and then maybe every quarter add more. Now, some classes you might start with a group of five, the choice might be that small if that's what your students can handle without getting overwhelmed. However, the only hard and fast recommendation is that they must always have a choice. So I never assign a certain category. Whatever batch of categories I assign, there's always choice within that batch, that's an integral part of the process.
Rebekah: I introduce them one or two at a time, actually. So my students come to me with the foundational ones from sixth grade, and then when I get them in seventh grade, we add them kind of piecemeal as mini-lessons almost throughout the year, and then we're just adding to this running list. And I loop with my students, so by the time they leave eighth grade, they've got 35, 40, 45, depending on how many I've added, which is something I want to point out. Again, I know you've just said it, but what I love about your system, which I love about any great system, is that it gives us a firm foundation that we can lean on as long as we need it, but it's flexible.
And when you are sitting in your classroom and thinking, oh gosh, I just really need my kids to not just be able to think about symbols, but think about systems of motifs, you can invent a category, motif master was born. Or I need my kids to be able to use motifs to identify themes, then I made up the category motif to theme, and a new category was born. So I love that you have given us so much that we don't have to come up with anything if we don't want to, but when we need to as teachers, when we are ready to move on, it's a system that can embrace whatever our classroom is throwing at us at the moment.
Speaking of something our students throw at us a lot in English class, are those students who read a text and say, uh, I don't see anything. I didn't really have any thoughts when I was reading this. I looked, no thoughts landed on me. I'm so sorry. So for the kids who don't sort of automatically connect with the categories, how do you move those students along, the ones who don't see anything at all?
Marilyn: Right. And I think, first of all, that's a result of just years in the system of this right and wrong answer thinking. They just tune out, they're convinced that nothing they think about the text is going to be right or interesting or worthwhile sharing. So they get into this mode and they just tune out. Because I don't think that's a normal... I mean, I think that as you read, you are having reactions, right? So they're saying, oh, I don't see anything, but really they've just kind of spent years just sort of thinking that they don't have anything interesting to share.
So from that standpoint, I might go over, show them the categories and just kind of say, well, what about this? What about that, or what did you think? Or we could talk to them about what their favorite book was ever, or what their favorite movie is, or what their favorite video game is and what is it that you like about it. And then as we're listening, we could identify the category that they're talking about and then maybe steer them towards that, help them apply it to the text in the class.
And again, these are all things that we do as English teachers. We're constantly kind of nudging students in this way and making these connections. I definitely have had students that kind of refused to write an RR for weeks. Weeks would go by and we would have these discussions and I would talk about it, and I would reassure them, "I promise you, if you have your quote, if you have a thought, you're going to get full credit on this. I know that you're thinking about this." And then one day, the day will come by where they actually do have a thought, and maybe I sit there and help them kind of get it into sentence form or whatever.
But there's usually a turning point, and it's not this miraculous all of a sudden they write everything perfectly, but it's a breakthrough. And that's what the reading response system has space for, for these types of moments, and that you can invite kids into again and again and again. Whereas the whole comprehension question, right and wrong answer situation, that's what turned them off in the first place. That's what has brought them to our classroom with this all-or-nothing thinking. So it doesn't happen instantly for some kids, but just talking to them, reassuring them, using the existing categories to engage them with if not the text at hand then maybe some of their other favorite sort of texts.
Rebekah: I think talk is such an important point that you brought up because I know that you use these in class discussions, but in that example, you were talking about more individualized conversations. And I find that for kids who are struggling... Usually, kids aren't struggling with this, they're struggling against this. They're just sort of fighting because they can't believe it's this easy or they just don't want to put it down into words.
Right now, I have eighth graders teaching the fifth graders who are going to come up to middle school next year about reading responses. We're trying to impress some middle school magic upon them. But they're just talking it out. The eighth graders are teaching them a category, and then they're just having a conversation instead of writing anything at all. Or sometimes even when I'm absent, I've done this, or when I just really feel like I want to connect with the kids in a different way. Instead of having them write their reading response, I'll ask them to use a voice recorder and record it or come tell me your reading response today instead of writing it. They love that.
Rebekah: So I think that there are lots of ways that we could partner kids or offer them recording as an option to scaffold them into that five or six sentences if that part is still hard or scary or intimidating.
Marilyn: So wonderful.
Rebekah: What about for the kid for whom it's not intimidating? What about that kid who walks into your classroom and they've been secretly writing reading responses in their sleep for years? This is pretty easy work for them. Even those harder categories, yes, they get it, they can try it, they can be successful at it. How do we build past these five or six sentence reading responses? What comes next?
Marilyn: So I find with my 10th graders, the ones who are just really strong writers, or it comes easily to them and they love the most difficult categories, they don't get bored because again, they're completely in control of it. So they're the ones coming up with an idea and they'll tell me, "I couldn't wait to share this with my group. I knew what my group was going to think when I came in with this." So they're very engaged with the process.
Rebekah: So the differentiation itself helps it work for everyone.
Marilyn: Yes, exactly. And it's built-in, and the discussion within their small groups are always so great and so engaging. The kids for whom writing and thinking comes easily, I've never really found that they get bored or they don't want to do it. If anything they want to, it's the space for them to really let loose. So there's that. But to answer your question in another way too, I've been thinking on my own of how can we take this system to the next level, and especially in recent times where we are in the world with so much misinformation and disinformation out there. How can we use English class to better equip our students to be critical thinkers out in the world?
And what I found as I've started to talk to my students about this is they compartmentalize things. Like, we have English class, and that's where we learn about literature and character and setting, and all of that. And they get really good at that. But then when you ask them, what does it mean to be a critical thinker in the world, like when you go home and look at your phone or when you go home and look at your television screen or whatever it is, and they don't really know, they don't necessarily make that connection.
And I know in school we're trying to make that connection with media literacy classes and things like that, but I feel like even some of that sometimes get compartmentalized because it's not that system, that practice, that ongoing practice of what is this, what am I reading, what am I thinking, that kind of a thing. So I've started to move in the direction of... Well, I asked myself, what do critical readers do? And we might do it... Well, we probably do do it even subconsciously, right? You see a text and your brain is already thinking, what is this text? What genre, what medium is it in? What is it telling me, but what is it hiding? How does it work? And then how am I reacting? These are the questions that we're always sort of thinking about, but it doesn't mean that our students are doing that as well. There's this stream of information that's just coming at them. And my fear is that they're just taking it all in, without having this space to ask something like, "What is this really?" Or, "Who made this?" Or, "Where is it coming from?" Or, "Is it hiding something from me? And what is it hiding?" So my latest thinking around reading responses has been to formulate categories, and group these categories into these critical questions.
Rebekah: So with these critical questions, are students examining their whole class novel, or are they examining that... I was going to say Facebook, but they don't look at Facebook.
Marilyn: Nope, Facebook is for old people, they tell me.
Rebekah: Yes. Are students using these new categories to think about their whole class novel, or are they thinking about TikTok videos, and ads they see on television? What sort of texts are we talking about?
Marilyn: Right, this is it. So ideally both. And so what they see in real life is where I really want them to start applying these skills. But what I've noticed, since I've introduced some of these new categories, like author bias, or emotional appeal, or recognizing my own reaction, or "Am I feeling like I want to take action after reading something that I've read?" So normally, you would think, "Okay, that would be more about contemporary media articles, online videos on YouTube." That kind of a thing. But they've actually started to apply them to the classical texts that we're reading in class. Someone wrote one this week that was like, "Author bias of Homer." And I was like, "Yep, yep, that is true." I found this with the original reading response categories as well, they apply them in ways that are surprising. Right, Rebekah? Do you see that with your students?
Rebekah: Absolutely. In fact, some of my eighth graders who have been doing this with me for two years now have started creating their own combos, and putting together two reading responses in interesting ways. And so we had one the other day that was spot the setting and character development, which is one I think I made up. And I wasn't really sure where they were going with it, and then it turned into this brilliant thing about how these characters move with his family, is what perpetuated this change in a trait. And I was like, "Oh my gosh." So now my kids are in a competition with each other. We have a Google Doc, and they put the combos that they've made together. And then in addition to your categories and my categories, they can choose from the combo categories. But they do, they absolutely start to see these in outside of the box ways that I didn't even predict. Which shows us that they're really critically thinking, right?
Marilyn: Yes, this is it. That's exactly it. And I found that too. They started to invent their own categories, and they started to combine them. And when I would talk to them about it, they'd say, "Oh, I don't know if this is the right category, but it wasn't exactly this one. It wasn't exactly the other one, so I had to combine it." And that right there is what I'm after, that metacognitive, playing with thought, labeling your thought, even creating the combo, as you were saying. And those discussions are so wonderful. And it's not about the right or wrong answer, it's about the thinking that the student has done. So I love that. And I do find that whatever categories I give them, including these newer critical thinking ones, just apply it to anything that they think might work with it. And it just shows how their brains work in so many different ways, in differentiated ways, in creative ways. And this is what we should be making space for in our classrooms, opening things up instead of limiting them.
Rebekah: So we've talked about this a little bit, but I'm wondering if you have anything else to say just about the ways that, either in the old categories, or the new categories or just reading response thinking, benefits kids beyond the English classroom. I can think of a zillion ways that it benefits us in English, but why is this so important for them as people moving on?
Marilyn: Well, so I'll give you an example of something that just happened a couple of months ago as I was experimenting with these newer categories. And one of them is called Seeing the Source, so see the source, and the prompt kind of addresses maybe you're online reading something, and you realize that this article came from somewhere that is funding it, or it came from somewhere that there might be another motive for having this article on their site. It might be good, might be bad, it's not that everything's out to trick you or get you, but just, what's the source? And I had a 12th grader, and I don't teach 12th graders, but sometimes I'll practice these categories with some of my former students. And I said, "Can you just look at this site?" I gave her a choice of sites, and I said, "Just think about these categories." And Seeing the Source was one of them.
And that's what she decided to write about, and she sent me this RR, and it was amazing. And she had really traced this one article, and researched what the website was, and what the organization was. And afterwards, in my classroom, she said, "I have never had this thought before. It never occurred to me that something on a website is coming from an organization that has a motive." And I was thinking to myself, "Here's a 12th grader, this girl has been through 12 years of really solid exceptional public education, and she's just realizing this now." And I guess we take it for granted that naturally they're noticing these things and asking these questions, but they aren't necessarily doing that. They're compartmentalizing. Which is what I was saying before, English class is English class, and they'll excel in that, but they're not really transferring these skills habitually to the text that they're seeing online.
Another category that I really love to think about, and I've had students start to write in it is one called Map the Algorithm. So you watch a video, let's say on YouTube or whatever, and then they queue up 10 more videos that you might like. So I want students to stop and look at that queue, and what is the website saying about... What does it think about you? What is it assuming about you? And so the kids really enjoy that one. And again, they might fleetingly have this thought of, "Oh, the algorithm's leading me here." But to create the space to really write it out in those five or six or more sentences, that's what really shifts their thinking, and deepens their thinking.
Rebekah: And I love what you said, habitualizing it.
Rebekah: Making it a habit.
Rebekah: So Marilyn, if teachers are intrigued, and excited about this work, what are some ways that teachers could get started in their own classrooms?
Marilyn: The Reading With Presence is out there still, of course. I do have, if you go on my website, marilynpryle.com, I do have a free reading response starter pack I call it, which are just some of those preliminary categories. And that's really all you need. And you can, again, create your own categories. It doesn't take much to get started with it. You don't need a bunch of handouts or anything like that. It's, again, just this system that is clear, and simple, and you just kind of let the kids try it out for a while, and you'll instantly see the level of engagement that it brings, and you'll want to go from there. So I would say that's probably a good place to start.
Rebekah: I think that is an excellent place to start. Those free resources are very generous that are on your website. I've pointed many people in that direction. And Reading With Presence literally lives on my desk, it does not move, it just stays there.
Marilyn: So great.
Rebekah: Marilyn, thank you so much for your time, and for the influence that your work has had on my students. I loved talking to you today.
Marilyn: Rebekah, you are welcome. And thank you for being such a wonderful partner in this, and for all of your excitement about reading responses. I know you're doing amazing things in the classroom, so I really enjoyed this conversation...
Marilyn Pryle is an English teacher at Abbington Heights High School in Clarks Summit, PA and has taught middle and high school English for over twenty years. She is the author of several books about teaching reading and writing, including 50 Common Core Reading Response Activities and Writing Workshop in Middle School. Learn more about Marilyn at marilynpryle.com.
Rebekah O'Dell is coauthor—with Allison Marchetti—of Writing with Mentors and Beyond Literary Analysis. Their popular blog Moving Writers focuses on writing instruction in middle and high school classrooms with an emphasis on voice and authenticity. Traveling the country to work with teachers and students provides constant inspiration as they help educators do the hard-and-transformative work of teaching real writing.
After more than a decade in the high school classroom, Rebekah currently teaches middle school English in Richmond, Virginia. She has experience using the reading and writing workshop model to transform student engagement at all levels, from inclusion classrooms to the International Baccalaureate program.