Sunday, June 23, 2013

50-Minute Interpretations of Paragraphs

Hi Mr. Shanahan, 
I am writing with a question I hope you may be able to help me with.  I am trying to get a better picture in my mind of what it means to slow down and spend an entire class period on – as was suggested in a common core PD I attended today – an entire 50 minute class on one paragraph.

I have adapted close reading into the plans I wrote for my network next year (I am the DCI at a k-8 school in New Orleans and my network has recently adopted common units between our schools), but I cannot envision what it looks like to spend an entire class period on literally a paragraph.  This is a potentially extreme (maybe, maybe not?) example, but I am wondering what advice you have about planning objectives and planning lessons that align with common core.


In terms of spending 50 minutes on one paragraph, I think it is possible, and yet, unlikely. The time to spend on a text depends to a great extent on the text. If you are reading something that is remarkable in its language and ideas—with lots of interesting author's choices and a great depth of meaning, then you could spend a lot of time discussing those things. David Coleman talks about asking questions that provoke curiosity or a sense of wonderment (the example he uses is asking about Genesis and from whence/or with what God creates)… One can imagine quite an argument about that, with lots of careful reading and rereading of different parts of the text to try to figure it out. With such a text, and with a teacher who knows the text very well, one could imagine a scintillating argument that could go on quite a while (the rabbis have argued over that one for a couple of thousand years). However, MOST texts appropriate at middle school would not support that kind of intellectual exegesis, and most teachers are not likely to be so skilled or so devoted to that text. 

One other element is necessary—and it doesn't just happen: the students have to be willing to be intellectually engaged at that kind of depth. What seems like great intellectual fun to some is likely to seem tedious, boring or irrelevant to others. It is not that I don't believe that 12-year-olds can engage in such discourse and effort, but I do believe that this is learned behavior—not just natural endowment. It is certainly possible that a teacher will be able to get kids, by this stage of their life, excited about a word or sentence to the point that they are generating multiple interpretations and energetic searches for evidence and the time will fall away as if nothing, and yet, I suspect that won't be true for most middle schoolers. 

So, yes, I accept the claim that a discussion of a paragraph could profitably go on for an hour… but not every paragraph with every teacher and every student. Let's work towards that one rather than assuming that will  be typical in American middle schools.


Anonymous said...

How would this relate to second grade?

Tim Shanahan said...

You certainly wouldn't expect that kind of depth at second grade (or any primary grade). But you do want the children trying to make sense of the text and how it works. The idea is to nurture a sense of curiosity during reading as well as trying to develop a sense of intellectual stamina. In too many classrooms, teachers tell students the answers right away when they don't get it (or they have other kids tell them). The key is to steer them back into the text scaffolding their reasoning--getting them to solve the problem or answer the question.

Anonymous said...

Read "How to Read a Book" by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren. You will then understand "close reading". (Sometimes teachers know just enough to be dangerous.) Don't depend on someone telling you about close reading or some published curriculum. Close reading is not a "thing to be done". It is about helping yourself understand a complex text.

Mollie Welsh Kruger said...

What a thoughtful response to this query. Thank you for sending out the reminder- it is always about the learner....what the student is ready for...hungry for...and, of course, wise teachers choose texts carefully to motivate and engage.
When we, as a country, get comfortable with the idea that there is NO one "correct" way to teach everyone, we will be taking steps forward.