Friday, May 15, 2009

Dealing with the Misfires

I've worked with my students to put sticky notes to record their ideas as they read, and we've made all kinds of charts to collect our thinking and map our ideas.

"love that dog" is a writing journal written by a student named Jack. He responds to various poems that his teacher is teaching in class, which leads to neat instruction, as the students and I can share the poem, react, and then see how Jack reacts. Well, we were reading "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" when one of my students raised her hand. "I have a connection!" she said. "The kid's name is Jack, and this poem is written by Robert Frost, and when you put Jack and Frost together, you have Jack Frost!"

Sigh. When I work with my students to move beyond word calling and into connecting with text, I hear a lot of these kinds of comments, questions and connections and ideas that a more skilled reader would repress. In the same lesson, one of my students shared a question: "Why is the horse wearing bells?" Keep in mind that these are not coerced responses, written because I forced students to fill lines on a paper. These are their real, honest contributions to the conversation.

What’s a teacher to do? On the one hand, these kinds of connections can pull a reader away from the text. On the other hand, this student was really trying to make a connection. What I did for my student was to honor her thought--"Wow, you're really pulling on some background knowledge to make a connection"--and try to move her to different thinking--"But do you think that that's important for understanding the text? Let's read on and see." After a careful reading of the poem, she said that the Jack Frost comment didn’t really relate. But I made sure that she was the one to make that decision.

I used to get very frustrated and feel that these comments reflected badly on me and my teaching. But now I realize: They're thinking! They're coming to the party! They're trying it out! What more can I ask? These misfires are a natural part of the process for students who have looked upon reading as just saying the words. Now they're trying a new process, and it's a lot to coordinate all at once.

As students move from my lesson and into their independent books (ahh...peace and quiet!), I have the same issues. Sara's working on "Wanderer". As I talk with her about it, I notice that she has missed some of the big ideas. The book's a stretch for her, and I'm glad that she's giving it a try. And she's understanding some things, like the different voices of the two narrators and their reactions to the journey. Her experience with this book, even though she doesn't have full and complete comprehension, will inform her reading for future books, and she'll get there. She’s developing a taste for the stories that yield their secrets slowly. To force her to move to easier books just because she hasn’t coordinated the process yet would be a step in the wrong direction.

So, when students toss out those crazy responses, think about where they might be coming from. Is the students honestly trying to attach meaning to the words in the text? If so, don't be discouraged. Help the student to discover for herself whether the thought she shared will help her to understand the text.

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