For years I have struggled with asking my students to write about their reading. For years I have tried to justify to myself and to my students why writing about reading was important. I told them things that I, myself, did not buy or believe. I told them that they needed to learn to write about their reading and the thinking that they did as they read because it would allow me to see their thoughts. I told them that they had to write about their thinking because it would make them better readers. I told myself that they had to write about their thinking and reading because people told me it was good for kids to write about their reading and thinking.
But as usual, if I do not understand, truly and deeply understand, the purpose for what I am asking my students to do then there is absolutely no hope that my students will understand the purpose. And students, they know, they know right away when we are asking them to do things for which there is no real purpose.
And while, yes, looking at my students writing about their reading did allow me to see the kinds of thinking that were going on inside the heads of my students as they read, it usually was no where near as revealing as when I heard my students TALKING about the thinking that was going on in their heads while the read. Whether this took place in one-on-one reading conferences or if this took place as I observed their participation in literature discussion groups, the talking that my students did seemed to be a much more accurate portrayal of the kind of thinking that they were truly capable.
So if I saw no purpose in asking my students to write down their thinking, what was I going to do?
I could continue to ask them to do it and hope they wouldn’t catch on to the fact that I had no authentic purpose for this task. But that was not likely going to happen. I could stop having them write at all about their thinking. But that didn’t feel right to me either. So I was left knowing that the only thing left to change was my own thinking and understanding of why and how we ask our students to write about their thinking.
So I did what I do when I am struggling to better understand something. I read the words of those who I respect and admire. I looked at the work that my students were actually doing. I talked to my students and asked them questions about what they had been asked to do in the past and how it did or did not help them as readers. And most importantly, I thought about the ways I, myself, write about my thinking outside of the walls of a classroom.
This last piece is what truly helped me and changed my thinking on writing about our reading. When I write, sometimes I write for other people. However, sometimes I write for myself. Sometimes, when I write it allows me to process my thoughts and end up with clearer and more organized thinking. Sometimes, when I write I end up in a different place of thinking and understanding than where I was when I began. Sometimes, when I write my thoughts have time to deepen and grow simply because I have slowed myself down in order to capture what I am thinking in writing.
This is what I had to teach my students to do. I had to show them that writing about their reading had an authentic purpose, a reason that people would use OUTSIDE of the classroom. I had to show them that, if they did it right, they would actually gain something from the writing. The writing had to make them better in some way.
And this is an entirely new concept for them. When we write in writing workshop, I am ALWAYS talking about the importance of thinking about an audience. I am ALWAYS talking about the importance of keeping your audience and your reader engaged. So it makes so much sense to me that when I then ask my students to write about the thinking they are doing as they read, they would be hesitant to that. After all, who would want to read that? Who would be compelled to continue reading a train of thoughts.
So this year, I waited until now to introduce the concept of writing about our reading and thinking to the students. I took the months of September and October to really just build up the habits of reading that I wanted to solidify in my students. While it panicked me to NOT be writing about our reading earlier in the year, this group just wasn’t ready yet.
I cannot ask them to be aware of the thinking they are doing as they read if they have not yet really started to display all those signs that they know what it means to really be a reader. I wanted to help them first fall in love with books. I wanted to help them first build up their stamina for reading. I wanted to help them first learn to recommend books to others and accept the recommendations of others. These things laid the foundation that we are only now getting ready to build upon.
So this week, we started small. And before we did anything, we talked about WHY we write about our reading and WHY we write about our thinking. In general, my students tend to hate this kind of writing. So I was not surprised when I heard a chorus of groans come from the kids when I mentioned what we would be working on. But then, I asked them to trust me. And because it is now the end of October and because we have been learning together for a while now and because we have already given each other so many reasons to trust, they were willing to give me a chance.
So we started by reading a news article about Malala and her work. We have already shared a picture book about Malala. We have already read an excerpt of Mala’s autobiography I Am Malala. We have already used these texts to help us to understand the lives of others. So we already have quite a bit of schema on her and her work.
As we read the article together, I modeled for my students how I stopped and marked places in the text that allowed me to better understand the lives of others. Then I used the white space in the article to write down what it was that those words helped me to understand. I modeled my thinking at the start of the article and by the end of the article, the kids had assumed the responsibility and were writing down their own thoughts in the margins.
When we got to the end of the article, I asked the kids to write down the following words, “Overall, this text helped me to understand…” and then I asked them to keep writing from there. After they had a few minutes to write, I asked for a brave volunteer. Most of the students at this point had just a sentence or maybe two written down. In the past, this would have led me to tell them that they needed to work harder or think more deeply but I now realize that they just didn’t know what else to do.
So I had a student share her thinking. And then I asked her if she minded if we pushed that thinking together a little bit. I told her to add the following words to the end of her writing, “But this article also helped me to understand…” and then I told her to keep writing. As she set off to write more, I had another student share. After he shared, I asked him to write the words, “What this helps me to see about my own life is…” and then I had him keep writing. At this point, I checked back in with the first student to see what else she wrote. And then I checked back in with the second student to see what else he wrote.
For both of the students, we heard their thinking deepen. We heard that if they gave themselves the time and were willing to revise their thinking and their writing, they WERE led to new thoughts. They WERE led to deeper levels of understanding. Both students agreed that they ended up with thoughts that they DIDN’T have before they started writing. I shared with the kids that if the students had stopped with out the pushing, then they would all be right and there would be NO PURPOSE in writing down their thinking. They would not have gained anything new. They would only be doing it to satisfy my request, to comply, to prove that they had worthy thinking. These reasons were just not good enough. I told them that when they pushed themselves through writing, when they revised their thinking by revising their writing, then they gained something new. Then the writing had an authentic and valuable purpose.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Without asking any other students to try it, several students picked their pens and pencils back up and set about revising their own writing. They took the sentence stems that I had given to the first two students and they started to use them on their own.
What I told my students was that just like we need to revise our writing, we also need to revise the writing that captures our thinking. This kind of revision isn’t to make our writing better, but to make our thinking better. When we think more deeply, we can handle more complex texts. When we think more deeply, we can solve more complex problems. Once we know the words that we can use to push our thinking further, then we do not need to depend on anyone in order to help our thinking to grow. Then we can simply rely on ourselves and on our writing and the words that we have learned to use in order to push our thinking through writing.
And THAT is the purpose of writing about our thinking. That is the work in which I want us to engage.
At some point, I hope that my students will not need to rely on the words that I give them to push their thinking, but for now this is enough. Throughout the week we came up with several other words that would help us to push our thinking. Here is the chart that we created to capture that:
I believe that we have started the kind of work this week that will truly lead us to something great. And we might not be ready to write about our own independent reading books yet, and we might not be ready to choose to do this kind of writing on our own yet, but I do believe that many of the students have opened a small amount of space that allows them to believe that there just might be an authentic purpose for writing about reading after all.