I recently posted a note on my Facebook page regarding a conversation Bob Probst (author of Response and Analysis: Teaching Literature in the Secondary School) and I had in September with teachers, grades 4-12, in a school district close to Detroit. As a back story, it was that posting on Facebook and the many resulting comments that led me to ask Karl Fisch how I might share such an important conversation with others. He said, “It’s time you start to blog” and before I could list all the reasons I could not do this, he had enlisted Bud Hunt and the two of them were promising they would help me into this world of blogging. They have, and I so appreciate their mentoring.
Back to the posting on Facebook. It was obvious that the conversation I shared struck a chord—harmonious for some, dissonant for others. I continue to receive emails about the conversation and that is what compels me to share this story a second time, though this time, with more space, I’ve added thoughts.
Bob and I began the day by asking the teachers to work in small groups to define comprehension. Once groups began to share, we didn’t hear the same definition from each group, but we certainly heard a shared theme. These teachers defined comprehension as …
- evaluating a text (oral or print) to determine its accuracy and truth;
- figuring out what your own biases are as you respond to the text;
- recognizing the universal truths in the text;
- collaborating with the text and with others to defend or deny its accusations;
- knowing when you stand alongside or in opposition to the ideas in the text;
- questioning the text and the text’s motives
- making connections between the text and your own life
- knowing how to find information in the text to support inferences you make from it.
Next, we asked them to discuss how their students would define comprehension. The answers came quickly: being able to answer the questions at the end of the chapter; knowing the right answer; finishing the homework; knowing what the teacher wants for an answer; finishing a worksheet; getting a good grade on a test.
Quietly the teachers considered the two sets of definitions. Then, I asked them what it was that was happening in classrooms that led students toward those definitions and away from what teachers understood comprehension to be. One teacher spoke up: “It’s what I ask them to do. Answer questions at the end of the chapter; take multiple choice tests; maybe have a discussion, but the discussion is to get to the answer I want from them; maybe write a paragraph about what they think something meant, but too many times I’ve already shared with them what the theme is I think they should know. I want them to get good grades, so I’ve taught them, in some way, that comprehending is about just getting a good grade. They think that’s what comprehension is because in my class that’s what I let it be.”
And there it was, the ah-ha moment. If our actions, the things we ask students to do, are about completing worksheets, teaching students to turn to the end of the chapter first so they will know the questions before they begin to read instead of reading to formulate their own questions, if we give fill-in-the-blank worksheets to accompany great works of literature and think we should reduce discussion of theme to a multiple choice question, then why would we be surprised when students develop a diminished understanding of comprehension? As another teacher said, “If we build it, they will come. And what I have built in my classroom is a definition of comprehension I don’t really believe and sure enough, my students have come to that definition.” Most in the room nodded their heads.
We talked at length about this practice of having students look at the questions at the end of a chapter before reading so that they would have the “right” questions in mind as they read. Almost all teachers said this was a strategy they taught students. I would suggest that while this might be an important test-taking strategy, one about using time efficiently, it might not be a powerful reading strategy. Independent readers are those readers who, along with other things, can formulate their own questions as they read a text. As Bob points out, articles in USA Today or Atlantic Monthly or for that matter People magazine don’t come with questions at the end of the articles. As independent readers, we are expected to formulate our own questions as we read. A steady diet of reminding students to see what someone else has decided is the important question about a text before reading can eventually say to students that those questions—the ones from someone else—are the ones that matter. I saw that first hand when working with a ninth grader not too long ago. When I asked him what his questions were after reading the first few chapters of a Chris Crutcher book, he said, “About what?” I told him I was wondering what questions he might have formulated at this point about the characters or the plot or perhaps even about what the author might be trying to say about people and our relationships with one another. He was quiet for a moment and finally said, not too kindly, “You didn’t show me any questions before we got started. What questions?”
I wish I had asked that student to define comprehension. I fear I already know his answer.