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Book Review: Comprehension and Collaboration

4 Oct

Daniels, H., & Harvey, S. (2009). Comprehension and collaboration: Inquiry circles in action . Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Wow. I am definitely all geeked-out about this book. What are inquiry circles? Essentially, they’re like book groups, only instead of reading a book together, kids choose a topic or question they’d like to explore together.

Here are some touchstones:

  • Students at Best Practice High School in Chicago work together to negotiate the curriculum the kids will encounter the next year. I love the idea of giving the kids some say in what they’ll study the next year.
  • In 2007, a study by Pianta and Belsky found that American fifth graders were spending 91 percent of their school day either listening to the teacher talk or working alone. Shocking! What an artificial situation we’ve set up. How many people would choose to spend that much time sitting and listening without contributing?
  • Inquiry circles don’t allow kids to research just anything. The teacher’s job is to draw on the kids’ background knowledge and curiosity to evoke deep and real questions about their concerns and the curriculum covered in class.
  • Conventional projects often fail because they are not based in true inquiry. Students need to have choices. They need to be able to collaborate and interact and talk. They need to have access to lots of texts of all different types, and they need to have real purpose and real audience. Without those elements, we might as well still be having them make shoebox dioramas.
  • Gifted and talented kids aren’t the only ones who should be experiencing energizing, kid-driven projects! Come on, now!
  • How should we decide what content to teach? The authors reference the “backwards design” movement’s four screens for determining what curriculum is vital and, implicitly, what other topics can be safely deemphasized: (1) Is the topic potentially interesting to students? (2) Does the topic lie at the heart of the discipline? (3) Does the subject require uncovering? (4) Does the subject connect with everyday life? According to these screens, curricula worth teaching should get the kids wondering about ideas that are important and complex that have relevance to their daily lives.

I think the idea of curricular inquiry circles and lit circle inquiries is exciting and a productive first step. But, man, do I love the idea of open inquiries. I’ve never tried something like this, but the idea really makes me want to go back to teaching introductory composition. What would kids in those classes do if presented with an open inquiry project? Do we even have as many questions as teens and adults as those darn curious second graders? One of the problems / benefits of composition in general is that the subject matter is up for grabs. Would there really be any disadvantage to allowing students to pursue their own projects?

The last semester that I taught freshman composition, I had all students involved in community-based projects. They chose an local issue that was important to them and composed a series of texts related to their topics. From confronting parking problems on campus to advocating for proper signage for ATVs on public trails, the topics that my students chose represented their interests in a way that my previous semesters’ rigorous focus on topics chosen by me had not.

The best part of this book is the way that kids’ questions are valued. If I were to sum it up briefly, I would say that Harvey and Daniels want us to remember that kids ask questions, naturally, and if we follow their lead, there will be a whole lot less dragging behind and a whole lot more bounding ahead.

Thinking is not a spectator sport.


Diane Ravitch

27 Sep

So, did you hear NPR’s interview with Diane Ravitch this morning? Have a listen.

I didn’t think, for some reason, that I was going to end up in her camp, but based on what she talked about this morning, I’m thinking I need to read her new book. This was a brief interview, but Ravitch spent most of her time focusing on what she sees as the “real” problem of education – poverty. I was particularly drawn in by her point that the kids we need to help the most are getting the least, and that we need to focus on doing things like decreasing class size, and making sure that impoverished kids receive arts and have access to things like guidance counselors and school librarians.


Have you read Ravitch’s book yet? What did you think?

Book Review: So, What’s the Story?

13 Sep

Fredricksen, J., Wilhelm, J., & Smith, M. (2012). So, what’s the story? teaching narrative to understand ourselves, others, and the world. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

This book, from the series Exceeding the Common Core State Standards, is written by two of my favorite contemporary writers about English education – M. Smith and J. Wilhelm. They teamed up to write Teaching Literacy for Love and Wisdom, which is truly one of my favorite books about teaching.

So, What’s the Story? asks difficult questions but offers reasonable and practical templates for responding to those questions. Here are some touchstones that I found stimulating:

  • In their introduction, Jeff, Michael, and Jim (they refer to themselves by first names) implore us to ask how our narrative assignments help students to engage and do functional democratic work in their classroom, school, community, and world. Yes! Narrative can be creative writing, but it doesn’t have to be completely disengaged from the world.
  • Jeff tells a story about his daughter trying to decide what to do with her summer, and he asks her, “Which decision will give you the best story?” I love that. I hope I’m that open when my daughters ask me the same questions.
  • “We need to move beyond the CCSS, because if we only stick with the standards, we focus only on the crafting of individual stories, rather than on how those stories might operate in communities. We think this is limiting because it can keep students’ focus only on the schoolishness of a task, rather than on the wider purposes, principles, and contexts of narratives. […] We don’t want our students to only write stories because we assign them; we want our students to compose stories because stories are vital to the ways in which people and communities understand themselves” (p.21). Again, what I love about this is that it encourages teachers to show students how this work fits into life outside of school, which is something that seems to be majorly missing from the vast majority of our classrooms.
  • Man, I’m seeing a major trend in the quotations I’ve picked out. Here’s another on authentic purpose: “As with any sequence of instruction that supports students’ composing and understanding, it is important to provide a significant purpose and a meaningful context for learning and for use of what is learned” (p.70).

I think what I’ve really taken away from this book, in addition to the activity ideas and planning templates, is a reaffirmation of the central importance of making this work relevant to students. Writing stories is fun, sure, but kids have to understand how this plays out outside of the classroom.

I’d write a whole post on my thoughts about the place of creative writing and fiction in the classroom, but I’m not that brave yet. Give me another few months 🙂