Changing One Small Question, Opens Worlds of Possibilities (Action Research Part 2)

This is the second post in a series of posts I am writing about my action research project. If you are interested in reading part one, just click here

In past years, I began every reading conference that I had with my students with the question, “What have you been reading about?” And because kids try to always give us what we ask for, I often then received a 5-7 summary of the book that they were reading.  This told me very little about the reader sitting in front of me.  It told me a lot about the book, but the book wasn’t what I was trying to teach.  It was the reader who I was trying to teach.  But I started with a question that put the book front and center in my reading conference, not the reader himself.

This year, I tried different ways to begin my reading conferences. Many of them caused my students to sit in silence and to just look at me with eager eyes waiting for when I would ask them to tell me about their books.  And then one day I stumbled onto a question that worked well with a student. So I tried it with another student. Again, it worked well. And I quickly saw that there was one question that seemed to work wonders with most of the readers in my classroom.

So now, every reading conference that I have with a child begins with the very simple question, “What you have been noticing as you have been reading?” And I don’t know why, but this question has been so powerful for my students.  For me, it worked better than asking, “What have you been thinking about as you have been reading?” It seems to put less pressure on my students. It seems to be a more authentic question for them to answer. It seems to lead to a greater willingness on their part to share with me the things that I have always known are going on inside their heads, but that I haven’t been able to access before.

And when I asked them to tell me what they noticed, when I asked them to begin not with the book they were reading but with the thinking they were doing, then they told me all kinds of things. They told me that they noticed that their characters would say one thing, but mean another thing. They told me that they noticed that each of their characters had problems, but that they all approached those problems differently. They told me that they noticed that the author was including information that didn’t seem important at first but that became important later on. They told me that they noticed that a relationship between two characters was beginning to change as those two characters learned more about each other.  There were so many things that they noticed, it was almost as if they were just waiting to be asked.

Once my students started talking, really talking in this deep way, then I needed to work on doing a better job listening.  I had to listen for the golden nuggets that they were sharing and help them to put them into words that they could hold on to.  Because the thinking that they were doing was often complex and abstract and their ten and eleven year old minds often had a hard time managing these thoughts without putting them into words that they could understand.  So my first task was to listen. I had to learn to listen in a way that really allowed me to hear what my students were saying and not just to listen for what I wanted to teach them. I had to recognize and value what they were ALREADY doing before asking them to do something new and more difficult.

So in each conference that I have with my students, I try to pick up on one observation that seems like it excites them and interests them.  The goal is to use this observation to create a reading focus that they can use as they navigate through the rest of their text.  The reason that it is so important that the reading focus is rooted in their own thinking is because it needs to be something that will motivate them to launch an investigation into a deeper understanding of an element of their text.  They will then go back to their book and read through the lens of their particular reading focus in order to understand something in a deeper way.  And if this focus is something that I give to them, then it loses its authenticity and its meaning for the child.  I want my students to keep track of the thinking that they do as they read because it is something that they truly want to discover or find out or understand.  I want them to feel an urgent need to keep track of their thinking so that they can better understand something that has meaning and purpose for them as a reader.

Once the student and I have decided on a particular reading focus, then we decide on what he will pay attention to as he continues reading.  So for example, when one of my students told me that he noticed that his character was brave, we decided that it might be interesting to pay attention to the moments in his text that this character demonstrates his bravery.  That thinking came from the child.  Once the thinking is rooted in something that the child observed, then I can push the child a little bit to think of things that he might not have thought about on his own.  In this case, once the student decided to pay attention to moments that showed bravery, I then asked if he thought he might also be able to keep track of this own thinking about what allowed the character to be brave in each of those moments.  Because this was connected to his own observations and investigation, he was willing to take on this more complex piece of thinking.  I knew that by pushing in this small way, this child would be learning how to think more deeply about the things that motivate a character in a text.

Not only that, but this child was also learning a process for deeper thinking. He was learning that when you make an observation, you can then look for evidence in the text to prove that your observation is correct, and then you can push yourself to think about why that observation is occurring in your text. This is the kind of thinking that this student will, hopefully, begin to internalize and eventually be able to accomplish on his own no matter what text he is reading.

Once we have settled on a plan for what the child is going to pay attention to, then we need to come up with a way for that child to keep track of what he notices as he reads through the lens of this reading focus.  Again, this is a place where I need to allow the child to lead the conference.  I need to know what works best for the child and what works best for that particular child with this particular reading focus.  Sometimes a chart works best. Sometimes a bullet pointed list works better. And for other children still, a collection of drawings is the best way to keep track of the thinking the child is doing.

Often, this is where I am able to push the reader the most.  If a child has noticed that she often disagrees with the actions of the characters in her book and has decided to pay attention to the moments in her text that happens, she might first decide that a good way to do this is to create a two column chart. Perhaps she wants to label one side, “action of a character that I disagree with” and the other side, “why I disagree with this action.” This would be a fine way to work through the text. But I might try to push the child and suggest that we add a third column labeled, “Using what I know about this character, why might he/she have done this?” In this way, the thinking is still firmly rooted in the child’s initial observations, but I have had the chance to show her a way to push her thinking a little bit further.  If I can do this, then usually the child doesn’t even realize that she is being pushed and she is still invested in the work ahead of her.

And when I send my readers off, I know they armed with a mission. Not only have they set a reading focus or goal for themselves, but they have the urgency that is needed to stick with that focus because it is something that they want to know. Their reading journal becomes a place where they keep track of their investigation into a text and what they come up with is so much better any task I could have placed in front of them.

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2 thoughts on “Changing One Small Question, Opens Worlds of Possibilities (Action Research Part 2)

  1. I am just getting caught up in reading about your action plan. Such a powerful idea to study. The biggest complaint we get from our students writing about reading in any form, yet we know it enhances our understanding of the text and highlights a purpose for reading that particular text. I love how you spent the early days simply reading to reestablish their relationships with books – very smart. I especially appreciate your process in aiding your students to discover their own purpose in reading – great question, “What are you noticing?” I spied on myself this summer and tried to “diagnose” my own reading process. The truth is I navigate through text differently, so why do we assume our kids are any different? I can’t wait to read more about your research and to hear if/when the students begin to internalize independently. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jessica,
    The power of asking, “What are you noticing?” and then REALLY listening! So very, very important! REAL work for your students that respects their time, energy and thinking!

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