Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: Two Titans of the PD Book World You Should Love Right Now (and by love, I mean read of course) by Stephanie Martin

I adore Kelly Gallagher.  In fact, I have a wee bit of a crush on Kelly Gallagher.  Like all my married lady crushes, it’s more intellectual than carnal of course.  Why do I love him?  Whatever teaching crisis I’m having, one of his books contain the answer. Case in point– the central work product recommended in Readicide, the “Article of the Week”. To paraphrase my idol, he found his students’ ability to read informational text lacking, and their understanding of the political world around them appalling, and hence developed this assignment.  The assignment has two parts:  a copied article with room to annotate in the margins, and questions for reflection to answer on attached notebook paper about the article that require higher order thinking from students.  He pithily describes the moment he realized the importance of the assignment when he observed one student writing a question in the margin of a news article, “Who’s Al Queda?”  as in, ‘Who is this Al?  This Mr. Al Queada?  He seems like a pretty bad dude.’  Yipes!

My colleagues and I thought this was a wonderful assignment.  Let’s use it right away!  Let’s slightly bend it to our collective will first, though!  For example, in the Common Core-less state of Texas, poetry comprehension is a high stakes skill.  (Thus concludes the only time a Texan is allowed to lord it over others curriculum-wise.)  We’ve changed the title to the Weekly Read, reflecting our multi-genre approach, and added a third element:  Socratic Circles discussions.  This we stole from a totally different guy I do not have imaginary sexual tension with, Matt Copeland author of Socratic Circles:  Fostering Critical and Creative Thinking in Middle and High School.  Copeland writes of teaching students how to think about text using the Socratic method of teaching by asking questions of students.  Prepare to feast on this simple logic:

In most classroom discussions, the teacher poses a question to a student and one of three things happens.  The student either answers the question with the answer the teacher was hoping for, answers the question with an answer the teacher was not looking for, or simply responds with “I don’t know.” Typically the teacher responds in one of three ways:  praise, disapproval, or encouraging the student to try again.  In all three cases, the latent curriculum of this process teaches students that critical thinking is an ability that some students possess and some do not.  Socratic questioning helps to correct this problem.”  The teacher doesn’t respond with an evaluation,thereby ending the thought process, instead she answers with clarifying questions.

Isn’t that brilliant?  Isn’t that something you’ve done or observed a million jillion times in school?  How true can something ring?  Wow.  We used this all last year and it made us feel like educational rock stars.  Initially, you have to embrace some awkward silences, but as kids learn what’s expected of them (everything, we’re not digesting it for you)  they begin to automatically reread, dig deeper to use text evidence to support their opinions, and attack or confirm the opinions of classmates.  Adding some Copeland to some Gallagher teaches them that reading is a constructive, not passive, practice.  We are so proud of it.  We are so proud of our students annotating, rereading, writing short answer reflective question responses, leading their own discussions and asking their own questions of the text and of each other.

Um, in the spring, because now we are suffering through the pain of step one:  teaching 13-year-olds how to think beyond the literal, the right there, the concrete.  It’s painful.  I just graded their responses to our first Weekly Read “Harlem” by Langston Hughes.  They’re pretty sure Langston Hughes is a guy that just can’t wait to hop into bed and see what kind of dream he’ll have tonight.  Flying?  Or accidentally going to school naked?  Gee, which will it be?  Yeah, it hurts.  I let myself wallow in existential despair for a tick, then I recalled a certain side ponytailed girl, head full of Sweet Valley High books who would’ve written something quite similar at that age, and I return to my K Gal.  Like falling into a comfy recliner, he’s got me.

See?  The answer was there all the time like a bulletin board full of Kaiser Soze.  Write!  Like!  This!  (Buy it now!  Or make your department chair buy it for you!).  Duh!  I need to model those short answer responses!  No, not with the same text.  They’ll just copy me.  With a parallel text like a different poem by Langston Hughes.  Think aloud about how you go back and reread the question to make sure you actually answered it.  Uh huh.  Oh yeah.  We got ourselves a situation now.  We got our learn on.

Stephanie Martin is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in Austin, Texas who sometimes regrets things she’s said, but never things she’s left unsaid.  Because she’s too impulsive for that.