In author Dan Feigelson's new book, Reading Projects Reimagined, he shows us how conference-based, individual reading projects help students learn to think for themselves. Feigelson raises an important question about the larger goal of reading instruction: while it’s our job as reading teachers to introduce students to new ideas and comprehension strategies, shouldn’t we also teach them to come up with their own ideas? In today's blog, Feigelson shares an example of how student can build on their own lines of thinking.
Teach the Reader, Not the Book
Adapted from Reading Projects Reimagined by Dan Feigelson
Most of us have difficulty resisting the temptation to take over the conversation. With the best of intentions, we suggest specific things to think about—often good ideas that are appropriate to the child and the situation.
Years ago, as a fourth-grade teacher, my students taught me a valuable lesson about resisting this temptation. As in many upper elementary classrooms, my daily read-aloud was from a chapter book with a lot of big ideas to talk about, since part of the point was to give students opportunities to flex their comprehension muscles. One of the best loved was Natalie Babbitt’s provocative novel Tuck Everlasting. The storyline of the book follows the Tucks, a family who has inadvertently drunk from a spring that stops them from growing older. Each is frozen at a certain age; Jesse, one of the sons, is forever seventeen years old. The novel raises deep questions about growing older, death, and (most significantly) whether it would be a good or a bad thing to live forever. Along the way, a subplot develops centered on a young girl, Winnie, who falls into a relationship with Jesse.
For several days, my nine-year-old readers talked animatedly about the story. The trouble was, the only thing they wanted to discuss was the relationship between Winnie and Jessie. Should she drink from the spring and be with him forever? Was he being too pushy about it? What about her family? This went on for a week or so, with many individual opinions entering the mix. After a while, fearing they were missing the larger point, I stepped in and suggested that today’s conversation should focus instead on whether or not it would be a good thing to live forever. After all, that was the point of the book, wasn’t it?
My students agreed to try it. Stefon was the first to voice an idea. “I think it would be cool to live forever,” he volunteered. “Actually, it might be sad,” Margo responded. “You’d watch all your friends die and then you’d be alone.” A couple of others haltingly agreed with one point of view or another, followed by a lengthy pause. Finally, Allison broke the silence, bringing the conversation back to what all the students were clearly thinking about. “Now about Winnie and Jesse...” she began. And they were off and running.
Listening as my readers continued to build on their lines of thinking, I had to acknowledge that in this moment it really didn’t matter whether they talked about what I considered important. In fact, altering the already productive flow of conversation could feel like I was correcting them. What mattered was that the students had come up with their own ideas about the book and that these ideas were evolving as they continued to read. Kids referred back to things others had said, they argued and built on one another’s thinking, and they cited evidence from the text. Whether my students walked away from Tuck Everlasting with ideas about living forever was less important than learning to connect and follow a big idea over time.
In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins cautions teachers to “teach the writer, not the writing.” In other words, what students learn from one piece of writing that they bring to the next is more important than perfecting any one piece. Similarly, for an elementary or middle school reader, it is often more important to teach the reader, not the book.
To be sure, giving students a new idea to think about is not a bad thing; it may increase their repertoire of ways to look at a text or introduce a new lens for thinking. But when a teacher consistently jumps in and makes the decision of what to think about, young readers do not learn how to make such decisions themselves. Moreover, they learn to wait for the adult to hint at the “right” answer, rather than taking a chance on voicing an idea that may be different from what the teacher wants.