Backwards Planning for Writing in Response to Reading.

To help students dig deeper in to their understanding of what they read I have been requiring more of students writing in response to texts. I believe that when students can express text understanding through writing, they can strengthen that understanding as they write.

One strategy I use to set students up to write using fiction books is to think from the writer’s perspective to help deepen their understanding. I teach my students to ask questions like, why did the writer make the character do that or say that? Or, what does the writer want you to think/feel here? If they think about what the writer is attempting to get readers to feel and understand as they read, then it can deeper their thinking and help them make those sometimes-elusive inferences. I want my students to get beyond the generic understandings and ideas to the deeper ones that are more inclusive to text details not clearly stated but implied. It also gives them more than one lumped together sentence to write about.

 

In the text: Thin Ice by Anne Sibley O’Brien, the main characters are cousins.

Thin Ice

 

Rosa is older and often babysits her younger cousin Manny. On their way home from school one day during the beginning of a spring thaw Rosa is fretting about a story she has to write while Manny is carefree and creating adventures for himself. Rosa wishes her life was more exciting, more like Manny’s. Manny pretends he is a hockey player, darts over a fence and heads for a pond. Rosa yells to him that the ice is to thin to walk out on, as he grabs her notebook to use as a hockey puck. She tries to grab it back and it slips from his hands onto ice. Manny quickly goes after it. He falls through and so does Rosa trying to rescue him.

Readers in my guided reading typically explain the book being about falling through the ice. As Rosa eventually pulls herself out of the ice and helps keep her cousin from going under students start to think about Rosa being a hero. There is a deeper meaning to this story, however. It focuses on Rosa feeling sorry for herself and worrying about what she could write for her story because her life is so boring. She states all she does is babysit. The ending of the book helps clarify this theme when Rosa appears to not be upset about what Manny caused because it gave her something to write about. My striving readers easily overlook this deeper theme that can be built up into explanation of what the writer wants readers to understand about life.

 

I planned my lesson for this book through backwards planning. I planned what I wanted students written response to focus on and thought about what strategy would help students be able to notice the underlying theme.  I want a better written response then simply saying this is a book about a girl saving her cousin when he fell into a pond, which is technically right but readers can figure most of that out from the cover of the book. We need to be able to go much deeper.

I chose to have students focus on Rosa and how she was feeling about her life at this point in time as they read. They would have to be able go deeper than the rescue itself to understand what the writer wants readers to understand about Rosa, beside her being a hero.

After reading the text through one time, I asked students to reread specific sections, underline sentences and words that can help them understand how Rosa was feeling that day. Then annotate the text making notes about the why of what she was feeling and to jot down some of their inferences. They will use their notes to help them write in detail about what Rosa was feeling about her life that day. I prompted with questions like I mentioned above, “what does the writer want readers to think here?” or “why would the writer make that happen?”as students marked their text.

Readers will use their notes to help them make a plan for writing and then as they write I confer with them and help them stick to their plan or lead them back into the book so they can clarify something. This will lead to a much more in-depth understanding of the text then I use to get and a clear purpose for students to keep in mind as they read knowing they will be writing about Rosa.

It often appears that teachers will make a plan for student writing as they are finishing up the text readings. This is not something a recommend doing. This makes your lesson objectives isolated and your writing disconnected from your teaching points. Backwards planning with the end in mind will help striving readers make the connections they need to and not practice strategy instruction in isolation where reading becomes about strategy use along and very general understandings of text. Readers will not end up reading for meaning and building meaning through writing.

If the lesson is not planned to set students up for the type of writing you want, then they will not be able to build on and extend their understanding of the text in a cohesive and manageable way through writing. Your reading and writing objectives for the lesson must be aligned, even in your lower level guided reading groups. As the teacher you will possibly end up providing them with the details you decided you wanted them to write about.

Troy

 

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart’s Law

Goodhart's Law

 

Charles Goodhart is an economist who came up with this principal: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Simply put when numbers becomes more important than the purpose behind it then numbers can become misleading or stagnant.

Within education we fall into this trap when tracking certain kinds of data. We optimize what we measure for. Or we teach to the measurement tool. For example when we put too much emphasis on tracking students’ words per minute read and lose sight of the purpose for tracking this measure. This leads to kids who are mostly focused on reading fast and forgetting to think and feel as they read.

The purpose for tracking words read per minute is to use it as an indicator that says, hey this kid is not performing at the same level as his peers, let’s stop and figure out what could be causing this. We should not be simply set a goal saying I will read _____ words in one minute and only focusing on rate.  Don’t forget the purpose.

calltime

Words per minute is one indicator that a student could be struggling with reading. Reading success is not about speed alone.

I cringed when I saw ads on Instagram for a word game. The ad promoted it by saying something like playing this game every day will improve your reading speed and make you smarter. Ugh! That is a very misleading ad and when our teenagers see that ad what message does it send to them!

As a Reading Specialist in my district I come across so many kids who think reading is about word calling and speed, instead of meaning and feeling, along with accuracy and rate. Reading words too quickly can hinder comprehension as much as slow laborious reading does.

In todays word driven by numbers and the competition created by the publicly released test scores, we often stop teaching the micro or atomic habits that need to be instilled in readers. There has been a swing to undervalue anything ephemeral or quantitative that is harder to quantify. We mistakenly begin to think the only factors that matter are the ones we can measure and or attempt to measure on an assessment where conversation does not take place. Or give a grade to, so we can easily have accessible data to look at. Data is only worth looking at when you can identify the purpose behind it, and how it fits into the bigger process of reading.

Sometimes this leads to putting more value on visible reading task that students can put into graphic organizers. Simply identifying the visible aspects of reading instruction is not enough and leads kids to identify reading as something you do without much thinking or feeling.

I implore you to consider how you can apply Goodhart’s law to our data driven educational word. Data can be an essential part of high performing schools when used with purpose, not as a showcase of numbers. It can be satisfying for students and teacher to track things like words per minute and increases in test scores, but we cannot be asking students or districts to have those be their only goals. They also need to be setting smaller goals that can help create habits out of those internal as well as the outwardly visible processes readers use.

I would love to hear from you how you have seem educators fall into this trap and how you have seen them overcome it.  Troy