Writing About Reading Begins With Thinking About Reading

Some weeks ago, when the school year was brand new, I wrote about setting up our Reading Journals for a year of writing about our reading.  Now we are approaching the end of the first marking period, and the truth is that we are just beginning to be ready to write about our reading.

I was thinking about this on Sunday night as I participated in Kylene Beers and Bob Probst’s Notice and Note webinar. The six signposts of Notice and Note  have anchored our read aloud work as  we’ve made our way through Priscilla Cummings’ Red Kayak; they have helped us identify places where we can notice, pause,  reflect  and deepen our understanding of the text.   The purpose of the signposts, as Kylene and Bob write, is:

to teach our students to be alert for certain features as they read, to take responsibility themselves for pausing and reflecting when they spot them, to own and ask a few potentially powerful questions at those moments, and to be willing to share and revise their thoughts in responsible conversation with others…We need to keep reminding the students, explicitly, what we are asking them to do – notice, pause, reflect. And we need to make sure that the language we use doesn’t just help them learn more about any one particular text but is generalizable to others.

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The class chart, and students’ individual charts gave us plenty to pause and note; best of all, my kids began to make connections between signposts (“words of the wiser moments” often lead to “ah-ha moments”, for instance) which led to many rich conversations.  During the webinar,  Kylene talked about the importance of encouraging and generating “first draft thinking” in our classrooms, and I immediately thought of these discussions – these really are the  first drafts of any writing work that we would be engaged in once we had completed our readaloud!

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From: What Readers Really Do – Barnhouse & Vinton

Our reading work also involved keeping “Know and Wonder Charts” – important work which I learned about in What Readers Really Do by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton, which are designed to “build a bridge between what is visible in texts and what is invisible”.  Here, we  thought about what we know from the text and what that made us wonder about the story, or the characters.  For my prediction happy, often skipping- over- parts- of -the- text – to -get- to- the -“juicy” parts sixth graders, this was crucial work.

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We also kept track of our “book/brain” thinking which is based on my reading of Dorothy Barnhouse’s Readers Front and Center. The intent of this type of charting was to get my kids to think about the craft moves authors make, and how these moves impact their reading.   Our Book/Brain chart allowed us to generalize what we learned from these craft moves from Red Kayak to other books we will encounter.

Finally, we learned about and discussed literary elements: character traits, symbolism, themes, and the story map.  These are, of course, essential parts of any conversations that we have about literature, and any of the forms of writing that we will do, as well – from reading responses to literary essays.  Now we have the tools of the trade, the language used to write about literature.

In the four weeks that it has taken us to wend our way through Red Kayak, we’ve:

  • built a reading community
  • practiced “first draft thinking”  through many lively turn and talks
  • learned how to pause and think about what we are  reading, and what the author is doing
  • figured out that reading is not just about flipping the pages to find out the ending, but deliberate work of piecing together how a characters and stories are shaped and grown

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Our “Reading is Thinking” wall is now full; we have used our first read aloud to do what Vinton and Barnhouse suggest: “to introduce the foundational thinking work of reading.”  Now, finally,  we can begin to write about reading because we have things to write about!  At the end of the school day, some of my students helped gather together our charts so that they will all be in one place as we begin book clubs (our “one stop shopping area for ideas” as one student put it).  Then, we stood back and surveyed our ‘work’.

Our writing about reading could finally begin.