Am I Doing Enough?

by Dorothy Barnhouse

At the beginning of this month, Maria Walther invited readers of this blog to share three words to guide their teaching in 2018. Although I tend not to make formal New Year’s resolutions, I naturally reflect on and focus my priorities as a new year rolls around. I therefore welcomed Maria’s exercise as I returned to work after the holidays.

Three words bobbed to the surface of almost every conversation I had during that first weekback: “Not long enough” (in response to the question, “How were your holidays?”), but I know that’s not what Maria had in mind. I proceeded with my work attuned to other words that might serve as a mantra for me this year.

One classroom, a fourth grade in a New York City public school where I’ve been consulting, offered just the opportunity. But before I reveal the three guiding words that came to me, some background: When I began my work with this teacher last fall, she had complained to me that the scripted curriculum the school had chosen wasn’t working for her students. “They’re not engaged,” she told me, and proceeded to describe how they would groan at the prospect of opening the single text that steered the lessons and tasks, how they would wiggle and misbehave, and how she would spend more time managing the class than teaching. “I want my students to love reading,” she said. “And this curriculum is not doing it.”

I praised the teacher’s instincts to teach her students rather than the curriculum and welcomed the opportunity to rethink her reading classroom (Barnhouse, 2014). Together we began to plan an alternative unit. We pulled from the essential questions and skills that were required of students but chose what we thought would be another, more engaging read-aloud, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. The chapters of this book are short, the characters deeply sympathetic and the themes applicable to any number of issues these students might be facing. I hoped therefore that they would have an opportunity to experience the impact a book can have on their lives. “Why read?” became one of our essential questions, and after reading The One and Only Ivan, we expected the answers to that question to go beyond “because the teacher is telling me to” or “to pass the State tests.”

Additionally, I knew that through the reading of this book, these students would be able to experience what deep comprehension looks, sounds and feels like. The answer-driven scripted curriculum would certainly not do this. Applegate’s prose invites interpretation. It is spare without being overly complex, and students would therefore have lots of opportunities to notice details, generate questions and formulate ‘maybe’ answers that they could confirm or revise as we kept reading (Barnhouse and Vinton, 2012).

And so, in December we got started. We gathered the students together, established partners and talk routines and started reading The One and Only Ivan. Sure enough, through simple open-ended engagements such as asking students to talk with their partners about what they were noticing or what they were wondering, we began to unveil the process of making meaning that I first wrote about with Vicki Vinton in What Readers Really Do. The initial chart of the students’ thinking looked like this:

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.36.33 PM

Once students internalized the way readers hang onto details (“Know”) and read on with questions in their minds (“Wonder”), we stopped charting but continued to offer students opportunities to talk and share with one another and with the group.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.37.30 PM

During the second week of this work, the teacher and I noticed that students’ wonderings were often focused on ‘why’ questions, in particular why characters were doing or saying or thinking what they were. Knowing that ‘why’ questions usually indicate the seeds of an inference, we decided to slow down and linger on making these processes more visible for the students. We wrote down some of their questions and invited themto fit details from the text together in order to draft ‘maybe’ answers to those questions. We demonstrated this thought process by focusing on one student’s question, which was “Why does Ivan name his toy gorilla Not-Tag?” Students pieced details together to make an inference that Ivan misses his sister.

That is where we left off when the holidays rolled around. I was confident that the students and teacher were in a good place. The students were doing authentic reading work and the teacher was facilitating thinking rather than managing tasks.

Fast forward to my return that first week in January: the teacher started our planning session a bit sheepishly, as if making a confession. “I got nervous,” she said. “I felt that I wasn’t doing enough. So I went on Teachers Pay Teachers and got some comprehension questions for the chapters we’re going to read this week.”

Now there has been a lot of chatter recently about Teachers Pay Teachers, taking issue with copyright infringement and discussing the implications of the site on teacher collaboration, but I didn’t want to get into any of that with this teacher. What I wanted to do was respond to her very real fear of “not doing enough.” This teacher had taken a big risk in abandoning the curriculum that had been sanctioned by her administrators and the district. She was going rogue, and I needed to support her and respond to her discomfort.

“Let’s take a look at some of the questions you found,” I suggested, and she handed me a sheet of paper with a decorative border, inside of which was the following question: What does Stella mean on page 53 when she says, “There’s a difference between ‘can’t remember’ and ‘won’t remember.’”? Use details from the text to support your answer.

I was both disappointed and relieved. Relieved because the question was, in fact, simply a different phrasing of a ‘why’ question. It could easily have been stated, “Why does Stella say…?” But I was also disappointed. Students had already been doing this work: asking questions that were giving rise to inferences, which, in turn, were blooming into interpretations and big ideas. Did the teacher not recognize that?

I tried to articulate my thinking. “We’ve been focusing on powerful questions with the students,” I said, “and they seem to have experienced the power of their thinking. It’s helped them make deep inferences and be deeply engaged in the process. Do you think if we read these next few pages and remind them of their thinking, they might ask similar questions that TPT did?” I pointed to the photocopy.

“They might,” the teacher conceded. “But what if they don’t? And they need experience answering these kinds of questions for the test.”

I agreed that they did. “But maybe they’ll do better on canned questions,” I argued, “if we first give them writing experiences from their own questions.” We agreed and decided that it was a good time to move students from talking to writing, perhaps first on post-its and then in their reading notebooks.

And so when we settled the students into the read-aloud, we reminded them, via the anchor charts, about the power of drafting answers to their why questions and told them that today they would be talking and writing. We read a few pages, stopping at the same spot that the TPT question came from, and said to them, “Turn and talk. What questions do you have right now? What are thinking?”

We hunkered down to listen. Sure enough, many partnerships shared versions of the same question the teacher had paid for on TPT, and many posed answers to those questions. Others went even deeper, noticing that the idea of memory and remembering “keeps repeating,” and developing theories about what that pattern could mean. All the students did thinking that was deeper, more satisfying and more authentic than the short-answer task that TPT had suggested. It was time to send them back to their desks to write.

Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.40.11 PM

When I returned to the school the following week, the teacher had created a bulletin board detailing the journey her students had embarked on. Partners had made posters of their thought processes, choosing a ‘why’ question to answer and examining details from the text to formulate a ‘maybe answer’ to that question (‘idea’).  They had also written one-paragraph responses in the manner of the test, some of which were also displayed on the bulletin board.


As I looked at the work, I knew I had my three words for the year.  Here they are, in sentence form:  Trust Authentic Processes.
– We have to trust the authentic processes of our teaching (yes, that teacher was doing enough — more than enough, really);
– We have trust the authentic processes of our students (yes, given the
opportunity, students can, and will, do thinking that is as deep and deeper than
any curriculum or prepared comprehension questions);
– We have to trust the authentic processes of reading. The readers in this fourth-grade classroom were not all arriving at the same answers to their ‘why’
questions at the same moment. No doubt some of them would have “failed” to
accurately answer the TPT question if we had stopped at that page and expected correct thinking right then and there. But as we gave students opportunities to draft and revise, as we made visible how readers postpone clarity but expect it at the same time – to say, “I don’t know yet” – we began to hear the wonderful‘oh’s’ and ‘ah’s’ that show us how deeply satisfying and stimulating reading can be when we allow our students to throw their whole selves into the meaning-making process.

.Screen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.43.38 PMScreen Shot 2018-01-22 at 11.43.49 PM

Authentic processes will work in classrooms if we put our trust in well-written texts. Good books can be our best teachers, if we’re willing to step aside and offer students authentic ways to engage with them. That, certainly, will always be enough.

Happy New Year – and see you at CCIRA in February.

References:Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Reading. Heinemann, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse. Readers Front and Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts. Stenhouse, 2014.

Katherine Applegate. The One and Only Ivan. HarperCollins, 2012.

Dorothy Barnhouse is a literacy consultant and instructional coach with experience working in elementary, middle and high schools in New York City and across the U.S. She recently completed a two-year residency at the American School of Bombay, where she provided reading and writing support for content-area teachersin Grades 6-12. She is a regular presenter at national literacy conferences and can be found on Twitter <ahref=””>@dorobarn

Author: CCIRAblog

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