Using Stories to Spark Inquiry and Teach a Process of Critical Reading

In my last blog post, I wrote about our work as readers in our first reading unit, “Inquiry Into Story.” In that post, I explained how my students and I began to explore the ideas of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop as we learned how the stories we read can serve as both mirrors and windows.  At the end of the post, I explained the work that we had done with several short stories, where my students and I worked to notice where we could see ourselves in stories that were windows for us, where we learned something new that helped us to better understand someone else’s life or the world, and the questions that we were left with.

We talked about how the writer will often give the reader information that they need in order to better understand someone else’s life. As readers, we need to work to notice that information and think about what it helps us to better understand.  However, one of the things that I want my students to learn how to do as readers is to notice when the writer has NOT given them enough information in order to answer the questions that they might have. I want them to notice when a concept is introduced or information is shared that they are NOT fully understanding or grasping. I want them to not only recognize when they have lingering questions, but also know a process that they can use that can help them to answer those questions responsibly in order to leave them with a better understanding of a text, a person’s life and the world.

I do not want my students to sit passively by or simply walk away from a text with misunderstandings and half-answers to their questions. I want my students to be able to interact critically with a text and notice what questions are left unanswered, what concepts are left misunderstood and then, even more importantly, know a process that can help them to fill in that understanding with facts and information. Because otherwise, students will fill in what they don’t know with false information and assumptions, with what they have overheard adults say or from information gathered from pieces of conversations amongst classmates. Otherwise, students will take what they don’t fully understand and use it to try to understand our world in a way that can lead to harmful misunderstandings, stereotypes and bias. And so, I want to take the stories that we read together and show my students how they can be launching points for inquiry. And then, I want to leave them with a process that they can use in the world outside of school, with a variety of different types of texts in order to read more critically and find the kinds of information that will truly help them to better understand the world around them.

The process that we have been going through in order to read more critically follows the same steps in a variety of types of texts. Those steps include: observe, interpret, question, seek additional resources and information, and then revise/synthesize.  Once we understand this process, it is one that we can repeat in a variety of types of text. In this work we are applying this process to stories.

Here is the start of how we are doing that work in fifth grade.

A few weeks ago, we started with the picture book Stepping Stones, written by Margriet Ruurs and illustrated with artwork by Nizar Ali Badr. I chose this book because it deals with the concept of Syrian refugees, which is a topic that I believe my students carry a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions and bias about. In addition, it is a topic that deals with our current world in a way that requires my students to build a bigger understanding of the context of this book in order to fully understand the book and also the world. It is also a topic that I believe our students need to know about if they are going to grow up to vote for people who will make decisions that will affect the lives of Syrian refugees and refugees from other places. So this work that we are doing, it can start with ANY book, but these are some of the considerations that led me to this particular book.

So the first step in this process for critical reading is to OBSERVE. In this case, the first thing that I wanted them to observe was what information was given to us in the book in order to help us understand the text, the person’s life and the world. Then, we would move forward to observe what information we were missing so that we could identify the places where we needed to ask questions.

So, as we did our first reading of the book, I simply asked my students to pay attention to the story and the gorgeous illustrations. When we finished, I gave them a few minutes to talk about what information we were given that helped us to understand the text, this person’s life and the world. I then provided each student with a typed out version of the text of Stepping Stones. As I reread the text to the students, I asked them to mark places in the text where the author gave us information that helped us to better understand the life being described in this story or information that helped us to understand the world we live in. When students had gotten through the text a second time, I asked them to look back and share the information they marked with the people around them.

This was where we started to INTERPRET what we observed. We looked at what we were given in the text and then I asked the students to talk to those around them about what they understood about the book and the life of the family that was being described. And then, as a class, we talked about what this story helped us to understand about the life of this one family, about refugees in general, and about the world that we are living in. We pointed to the specific information that helped us to understand the lives of other people and then also the specific information that helped us to better understand our world.

So we had OBSERVED what we were told, we INTERPRETED what this information helped us to understand and now it was time to QUESTION that information in order to push us towards additional information that would expand our understanding.

On the second day, I handed out another typed up copy of the text and read through the book a third time. This time, I asked them to put down a question mark in any place where they noticed that they were left with a question. Unlike the day before, today I asked them to look for places where we did NOT have enough information in order to fully understand what was being said. I asked them to look critically at the text in order to identify places where they needed more information than they currently had in order to understand what was happening in the text, in this family’s lives or in the world. I modeled how I found one of these places within the first few pages of the book and then asked my students to continue looking for their own places within the rest of the book.

When we finished reading, I asked them to go back to the places where they put question marks and this time, write out, in the margin, the specific question that they were left with.  I then asked them to turn to a few people near them and share some of their questions.

On the next day, we used a Google document to gather all of the questions that we had as we read through the book for the second time. This document and this document show the work that we did. At this point, I needed to do some work with my students to help them navigate the immense number of questions that they were left with. I told my students that it was unreasonable to think that they would take time to seek out answers to every single one of those questions in order to help them to understand this text. So we had to do some work with the questions we were left with. Since we are doing this work early on in the year, a lot of our learning needs to revolve around the kinds of questions that we are using to move us forward into inquiry. As the year goes on, my students will get better at asking big questions, but since our year together is just starting, the heavy lifting work for this round of using this process comes at the start, where we are learning to ask better and bigger questions. Because we are spending a lot of time learning in the QUESTION phase of this process, I will take away some of the stress on the other phases of the process we are using to read critically.

So after creating a giant list of questions, the first thing that we did was to look through our list of questions and sort them into the questions that were important in helping to grow our understanding and the questions that we could probably save for later. I modeled my thinking about a few of our questions and then had the students use the first three pages of THIS CHART in order to continue sorting the questions we had asked.

Once the students had some time to work together on sorting our questions, I asked them to share with me the questions that they felt were most important to answer. We were still left with a fairly large list. I copied the important questions onto the final page of THIS CHART and then shared with the kids that I thought we could probably combine several of their important questions and come up with a few BIG guiding questions that could lead us into inquiry. For example, I shared with them that I noticed that many of their questions had to do with what life was like for people in Syria before the war started. So I went through our list and started cutting questions that had to with life before the war and put them all into one box in the final chart. Then next to that box, I modeled how I could combine those questions into the big question, “What was life like in Syria before the war started?” I then asked the kids to work in small groups in order to find other questions that were related and group them together in the final chart. Then, they were asked to come up with one big question that could be used instead.

After giving the kids some time to do this work, I asked them to share what big questions they were left with. As a class, we agreed on six guiding questions that would lead us into our next phase of inquiry.  We reviewed the process that we went through to get to these questions and I shared with my students how sometimes our questions can seem overwhelming, like there is no possible way we could ever answer them all, so we walk away and don’t even bother trying. However, usually, we can look back at the questions that we have asked, sort them and then combine them and then we are often left with a much more manageable number of questions to work with.

This then, guided us into our next phase of our critical reading process, GATHERING ADDITIONAL RESOURCES AND INFORMATION. I want my students to know that often our questions become useless, if we do not use them to lead us to additional resources that can give us enough information to answer them. But, because it is still early in our school year and I have not done lessons with students on finding reliable sources, I wanted to guide this inquiry work by curating a list of resources for them to use. This is one way that I can make up for the time that we put into the previous phase of our critical reading process (asking questions).

So, I looked at the questions we were left with, I thought about what printed resources I had in my classroom and then I sought out additional digital resources that I felt comfortable having the kids use.  One of the things that I want to make sure that we work on in 5th grade is expanding our definition of what a text is. The truth is that our students are navigate a world much different than the one I grew up in. They are taking in information in so many ways and yet in school we are only teaching them to navigate a very narrowly defined concept of text. Our students get really good at reading responsibly written words printed on paper. They are getting better at learning to navigate written text on a device. But there are so many ways our students take in information and I believe we have a responsibility to teach them to read all of these texts in a responsible and critical way. For that reason, when I gathered resources for my students to use in this guided inquiry, I made sure to bring in not just printed texts, but digital ones as well. Those digital sources needed to include written words and also images and videos. With these ideas in mind, I set out to create a list of resources that my students could use to attempt to answer our six BIG questions.

Before introducing the list of resources to my students, I first gave them THIS NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT and put each of our big questions into one of the charts on our document.  This is where my students would gather their new learning from the additional resources they would be gathering. Having this chart gave us the opportunity to discuss two key ideas.

First of all, I wanted to make sure my students gained practice gathering specific evidence from the texts they were exploring in order to answer our big questions. This would help to guarantee that students are connected their answers to actual facts and information found in these resources and not on the half-truths and semi-accurate facts that they thought they knew.

Second of all, the note taking chart leaves space for students to gather information from MULTIPLE sources in order to help them answer a single big question. I wanted my students to start to understand that questions that are big and complex cannot be answered with information from a single source. This is something we will build on throughout the year and I wanted to make sure that we began that discussion with this first guided inquiry.

So after sharing this document with my students, I handed them one common text to start with. As we read through this text together, I modeled how I first reminded myself of the six big questions we were trying to answer and then as I read, I stopped any time I found new information that helped me to answer one of those questions. I modeled adding that information to my chart and asked the students to do the same. After we practiced this process with a printed text, we also practiced as we looked at a single image.  I modeled the different ways that we can look for information in these different sources.

After showing the students this process, I finally introduced them to our list of resources. At this point, I felt confident releases the kids to explore these resources on their own, reminding them that they would need to keep track of the information they were finding that helped them to answer one of our big questions. As students began to work, my job was to confer with students individually to help guide them towards resources and help them to track what they were learning on their note taking guide. As I conferred with readers, I was able to continue to instruct them on how to gather information and facts from whatever type of source they happened to be looking at.

And this is where we currently find ourselves. In the next days, I will ask students to focus in on a single question and ensure that they have facts from multiple resources that will help them to answer their chosen question. And then eventually, together, we will practice putting all of our new information in order to compose a written answer to that question in order to share our new knowledge and understanding with others.

And when all of that is done, we will return to our original picture book. We will read Stepping Stones yet again and talk about what we are able to understand now, after walking through this entire process, that we did not understand when we first encountered this book. And in that conversation, we will see the revision of our understanding. My students will see how their understanding of a text, of a story, grew as they stopped to observe, interpret, question, gather additional resources and information and revise/synthesize.

And when this process starts to live inside of my students, this is work that I have faith they will start to do in the world outside of our classroom. And as we apply this process to different types of texts and to different types of reading, we will focus on different phases and in different ways. But the process will remain the same and my hope is that these experiences will start to change the way my students read and the way my students understand the world they live in. And that gives me incredible hope for all of us.





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