Notes from Ellin Keene’s “The Intricacies of the Mind”
NOTE: Email her for PPT.
Keene, one of the authors of Mosaic of Thought, began by promoting the new edition of the book that will be coming out in May. She has been the director of the Cornerstone Project for the past few years, focusing on the 13 lowest income districts in the country that are located in the largest cities and most remote rural areas. Many of the “ahas” that she will share today come from the four years of work doing professional development in these schools.
She makes the argument that comprehension strategies are about the intellectual development of the mind. She suggests that, “There is limitless capacity to the human intellect.” When she has a teacher, she reflected on how she didn’t really ask her students to be intellectually engaged, perhaps 10%. She thought of herself as a strong teacher with high expectations, working at the pinnacle of her abilities as a teacher. But, the students in these schools would produce 50 to 100 times more, with very little extra pushing. She asks, “How did my expectations as a teacher fall so short?” More over, how could kids from these schools teach me so much more than I thought was possible?”
As a staff developer, she wanted to get into schools to work with kids first, so as to better understand what is happening in the classrooms. She related a story of a child, Jamika, with whom she was talking about her reading for the day. Keen asked, “Does your reading make sense?” Jamika replies “None of ‘yall ever tell me what ‘make sense’ means.” How do you help students understand what it means to make meaning from reading.
Ten years ago, at the end of Mosaic of Thought, you could have been left with the idea that the cumulation of comprehension strategies means that you comprehended the text. Not so.
Are we stopping teaching of comprehension strategies? No, absolutely not. However, we understand that using strategies is not enough. We need to ask, “What is the outcome?” In this initiative, we decided to not use the incremental approach that many scripted programs utilize. Instead, we decided to go ahead and lift the bar high and then go higher with the kids. Why? Because, typically comprehension programs in this country answer questions, retell, and learn new vocabulary. We have never defined “comprehension” at a higher level and it is not worthy of our students’ intellectual capacity.
For example, Keene mentioned how one story in a classroom had 69 comprehension questions (more than twice the length of the text itself) without any questions about story structure, character, setting, or any other higher-level aspect of the story. If we expect kids to answer questions, retell, and learn vocabulary only, that is all they will do. There is only one lesson that the students need to pay attention to: what does the teacher want us to know? In this manner, we are never going to get anywhere and, this is harsh, “we deserve what we get” in terms of criticism. When we teach “comprehension” on the ability to answer questions and retell, are we teaching comprehension or testing it?
We need to redefine “comprehension.” We spend the vast majority of time in our classes — when we think we are not testing — testing because we focus on comprehension in this way. Even with the types of projects that we ask students to do, we may not be asking them to think in authentic ways. We need to focus on thinking about a text, not retelling it. Asking insightful questions, and the places that these questions lead students, are the ways to think about comprehension with staying power. Right now, the outcomes of comprehension instruction are severly limiting what our kids are doing as thinkers. Many of the texts that we are using are good for fluency development, but not for comprehension because there was nothing provocative, complex, or meaty about the text.
She asks and argues:
- Is the text we’re using more appropriate for fluency instruction or comprehension instruction?
- Do students need comprehension strategy instruction if all they’re expected to do is retell and answer questions?
- She asks this one fecistiously, mentioning SRA and trying to get from “brown to aqua” as a goal
- We may need to rethink our ideas about the nature of comprehension.
Are we teaching kids to do all the things that comprehension strategy instruction asks us to do if we are only expecting kids to live up to an out-of-date, low-level definition of comprehension. Kids have intellectual capacity to do so much more. I asked far, far, far too little of students when I was in the classroom and I wonder how far-spread this habit is in our country today, both in the richest and poorest districts.
So, what is it when we “understand?” Defining comprehension from many sources
- Research in the field, but there isn’t much out there
- Observing our own comprehension and extrapolating to instruction
- Observing students in the act of comprehension, giving language to their processes
What if we turn our attention to the kids and have them look at what other kids are doing when they comprehend, when they were on fire with their own learning? What if we articulated the highest level of learning for students? What if instead of starting at the basic levels, we started high and go higher?
A kindergartener in tetheh corner provides one example. This student was trying to understand how the seasons change based on a story the teacher had read, and he had taken three days to read through a book and try to understand an idea. He was fervently studying in a corner, away from the hub-bub of the class. He wanted to dwell with an idea and, in his words, “on purpose think” about how the seasons change. Also, he created a model to help remember what he has discovered, not because he was assigned a project, but because he wanted to generate new knowledge and remember it. Keene also suggests that he was manipulating his own thinking, revising it to incorporate new knowledge and describe how thinking has changed over time. This way, the text becomes vividly real for readers. This student went beyond comprehension to a more personal, meaningful understanding.
We are doing the right thing by teaching comprehension strategies, but we need to take it to the next level. For what purpose? To what ends? By using these strategies, we can define and describe what we have learned and how it changes over time.
In another example, she talked about a student who was reading Little Women because she wanted to be a part of the book club in the classroom. She wanted to engage in discourse about ideas and flesh out our own ideas while understanding the perspectives of others when we argue and challenge them. We surprise ourselves with the clarity of our own thinking, when we have the language to define and describe what we are doing. This is about asking more than “What happened in chapter 4?” and moving into deeper, more thoughtful discussions that happen when kids have to defend their ideas. When their is cognitive dissonance, we learn more about our thinking when we have to engage with one another. Has argument been lost in our schools?
To understand means that we are renaissance learners, that we have to allow ourselves the opportunity to meander through a wide range of topics and interests, texts, and genres so we work to undertand how ideas are related. Part of the problem with lack of engagement in fourth and fifth grade is that students are not allowed to pursue their own varied and interconnected interests. Keene worries about leveling in schools and how it takes away from kids ability to be renaissance learners.
She gave another example of a student in fifth grade who just arrived in the US and didn’t know any English. This teacher read Elsie’s War aloud three times and, as a native of Eastern Europe, this student told the teacher how she wanted, despite her limited English, to read that book. By the end of the period, and with the help with a student near her, she made her way through the book. Did she “read” the book by any objective formula? No. But, she read the book because of the motivation, background knowledge, and help that she received. With this background in place — interest, multiple readings, student collaboration — unreadable books can be read.
When we struggle for insight, we savor and learn from the struggle itself. We take ventures into new learning territory and fight the debilitating influence of judgment. Sometimes our rhetoric with children emphasizes making things quick, fun, and easy. Yet, to struggle for insight is a joy. It is supposed to be hard. Do we have faith and confidence that these students can learn from the struggle itself? Do we help them hear the voice that says “I can’t” and help them combat it? Our emotional connections seek beauty and understanding in the aesthetic journey. We seek to create something luminous, something that matters to others. Humans are hard-wired to leave something that will matter later to others, to leave a legacy. In this era of retelling and answering questions, we are not helping them leave this legacy.
Ultimately, we remember when the experience becomes potently memorable to us.
These “dimensions of understanding” are very much a part of our own experience as learners. Strategies for comprehension are tools for understand, but we also need to think about what else we need to do “to understand”: to engage, to argue, to struggle for insight.
What does this mean for schools and classrooms?
- Initiation of conversations in study groups, faculty meetings, and classrooms. How would we answer “What does it mean to understand?” How would we answer Jamika’s question?
- Read shared texts to provide immediate experience in comprehension and provide context to discuss classroom applications.
- Consider current practices and materials in light of the newly evolving definitions of comprehension — are practices and materials doing what we want them to do?
- Study children in the moments of understanding and work to define and describe exactly what they are doing.
- Be aware — what is it that we as human beings are doing when we work to understand?
What does this mean for comprehension strategies?
- Comprehension strategies are the tools that we use to develop deeper comprehension
- Comprehension strategies are not an end in and of themselves
- What do you get by using these strategies?
- We can teach students to improve comprehension
- We need to redefine comprehension in order to raise expectations
The more effective comprehension teachers…
- Are themselves readers and writers, constantly scrutinizing their own reading and learning processes in order to provide the most responsive instruction
- Don’t follow recipes, scripts, programs, and prescriptions. They understand basic reading theory enough to generate enough instructional options to respond to students’ needs.
- Use a wide variety of texts in terms of genre and level
- Setting aside daily time to confer with kids; this is the key instructional venue
- Create a classroom environment conducive to scholarly oral interactions and long-term study of comprehension strategies and concepts
- Provide lengthy periods of time for students to read every day
Our work showed that scores went up in 12 of 13 districts and, Keene thinks in the end, the scores went up because students spent time reading and writing independently. 45 minutes of reading per day in kindergarten with 60 minutes of reading in grades above that (along with 45 minutes of writing). The success rate in terms of dramatically extended the time that they are reading and writing also allowed for teachers to confer with individuals and small groups. In the 13th district, the transiency rate was 160% per year, and it was difficult to overcome the effects of students moving in and out of the district at such an overwhelming rate.
The teachers got it in other districts by giving students time to read and write, understanding theory, and then give them time to work in professional communities.