First, a brief explanation of character work. There is reading for plot, and there is reading for characters. The latter means reading in a way in which one follows the characters, lives the story alongside them, feels their emotions, gets to know them perhaps better than they know themselves. When teaching students to become deeper, more insightful, more engaged fiction readers, character work is everything. Readers who read strictly for plot nearly always remain stuck in literal interpretations of text. They can retell and summarize, and they can determine when meaning has broken down. But, they typically struggle with more complex reading skills such as inferring, predicting, determining themes, and interpreting lessons. If you’d like to teach your students to become more insightful readers, start by teaching them this one radical shift in approach: teach them to read for the characters, not just for the plot.
Walk into a classroom where students are engaged in book club conversations, and it may look as if the teacher has an easy job. She (or he) circulates, dropping in on this conversation, then that one, offering a tip, whispering encouragement to a club member, making a salient point about a book. She may even stand back, observing students while they talk. It appears as if students are doing all the work: they huddle in groups, leaned in toward each other, listening fervently, jotting notes, flipping though pages of their marked-up books.
A Preview from A Guide to the Reading Workshop: Middle Grades
by Lucy Calkins and Mary Ehrenworth
Over decades of research (1977, 2002), Richard Allington has returned often to the three key conditions readers need to thrive:
time to read,
access to books they find fascinating, and
The first condition, time to read, means examining middle school schedules to make sure students get time to practice. Allington argued, and many other researchers have argued, that above all, students need time to engage in reading in order to get better at reading. Arguing for time for independent reading in schools, Donalyn Miller (2015) likens the situation of students needing to read in order to get better at reading to learning a sport or an instrument. No one ever asks the coach why his players are practicing on the field, and no one asks the music teacher why students are playing instruments during practice times. The only way to get better at doing something is to practice doing it.
Starting at even the youngest ages, students are well aware of social issues. Even before they begin school, they know what is fair and unfair, what it means to take care of each other, and what it means to behave in ways that aren’t socially accepted. Through the elementary school years, students begin to understand the power of social groups as they feel the effects of bullying and cliques.
In middle school and high school, students begin to care about social issues that exist outside of their school and home environments. Poverty, race, gender, and class become topics of conversation. Students also begin to understand that they can take a stand on issues and that their voices matter.
The Writing Strategies Book started shipping this week. I’ve been overwhelmed and humbled by the positive responses and enthusiasm from so many. Before you all get this book in your hands, though, I need to get something off my chest:
This book would not exist were it not for a community of friends, mentors, colleagues and teachers—giants—whom I’ve been lucky to know. I want you all to know them, too.
My most immediate teacher and mentor around the teaching of writing is Lucy Calkins. I first read her books in college, leaned on them heavily throughout my years in the classroom, and eventually was lucky enough to spend years with her at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Her contributions are deep-reaching—not only in writing curriculum and workshop methods of instruction but also as a mentor to so many who have gone on to inspire others. If you asked Lucy, though, she’d probably tell you she stands on the shoulders of her mentors, chief among them Don Graves. I came to Graves’ books, such as Writing: Teachers and Children at Work, many years after being introduced to Lucy’s books, but through Lucy, I was learning from this work years before going directly to the source.
Asking children to utilize Common Core close reading skills, such as comparing and contrasting, analyzing characters, and providing evidence to support claims, sounds like a heavy order for young readers. What does this really look like in action?