Thursday, August 06, 2015


Awhile back, I made what I thought was a fairly unremarkable reference to a Common Core "teaching" technique called "close reading." I had watched at least a dozen videos that purport to demonstrate this method, all of which involve slowing the class down to study a piece of literature word-by-word, idea-by-idea. Maybe I'm misusing the term, but to me this is what I've always called "deconstructing" literature/art. I enjoy doing this. My friend and colleague Toby, who goes by Floor Pie on the internet, pointed out that I often do this exact thing with the children I teach. She used The Little Red Hen as an example. And it reminded me that we did this sort of thing with prints of great paintings when her daughter was a 4-5 year old in our Pre-K class.

I love deconstructing art, and literature in particular, but, you know, I don't expect everyone to enjoy it, especially if they really didn't like the book I'm hankering to deconstruct.

When we deconstruct things, when we engage in "close reading," it emerges spontaneously from our mutual interests, not because I, or anyone else, has decided that this is something we need to look at more closely, but rather because we all agreed, in the moment, that it was worth pursuing. I acknowledge that because I'm the teacher, because I'm the one moderating the discussion, that I have an undue influence on the proceedings, but I strive to let the discussion go where it wants to flow, starting from where it wants to start, diverging where it wants to divert, and dwindling out where it wants to dwindle out.

I hope every teacher has experienced this: when it's flowing there is nothing better: a child lead, child directed free-form discussion about a single piece of art. If you haven't had the pleasure, then know that this is the goal. 

When I watched the "close reading" videos, what I see are teacher lead, teacher directed forced marches through minutia, with lots of "Good jobs" and "That's rights" to make sure the children know there are right and wrong answers. Of course, these are instructional videos so the children tend to appear rehearsed or, quite often, there are no actual children present at all. The reality of engaging in this sort of activity with 20+ actual children is that it only takes one or two who would rather be doing something else to turn it into a struggle: the sort of struggle that puts the entire class on the path to disliking reading.

So, how do you know when you're doing it wrong? When it's a struggle. When you find yourself managing behavior, rather than discussing ideas. That's when it's time to move on, even if your own agenda has not been met, because, ultimately your agenda is just one of a dozen in play in that moment and it has no special significance to anyone but you. "Close reading" is vital only when you're following the children's lead, investigating their questions, not yours. That's when you begin to approach the ideal of what we call "critical thinking."

What the videos I've watched have failed to address, is that there is no right answer in these kinds of discussions. The point is the discussion and there is no way in hell to devise a test to "prove" the learning that takes place in this process. You simply can't get data out of this because everyone is going to walk away with his own understanding.

I love taking things apart with children, be it a work of fiction, an old appliance, or just breaking a piece of glass, but only if the children themselves are driving the inquiry. This is my secret to success and I share it with the world. And this goes for . . . everything.

Every teacher upon occasion falls in love with her own agenda. We've all been there, with our brilliant idea usurped by a better idea, yet we're so in love that we drive it forward nevertheless, commanding, demanding, coaxing, and scolding. And everyone winds up frustrated.

I can't tell you how many times I brought that stack of art prints to school, hoping for the sort of discussion we had that one time when Floor Pie's daughter was in class. And I've often sat with 2-3 interested children deconstructing those masterpieces while the rest of the class played at their own things, but only once during my tenure at Woodland Park did the entire classroom of children take the reins and, as a collective, drive a meaningful discussion of great art for a solid 45 minutes, nearly the length of a college class session, flowing beyond the time I'd allotted by a good half hour. We read The Little Red Hen every year in every class, and I'm always prepared for the discussion we had that time when the 24 of us agreed that the hen was a jerk, but it's never happened again, even when I attempt to prod things along. 

You can't waste a whole damn day
Loving what you need to caste away. ~Jim White

Sometimes, the hardest thing in the world is the put aside that stack of prints or to close The Little Red Hen without the discussions I know are possible, but I do it far more often than not, in favor of the better ideas of the children themselves. This, I suppose, is what bothers me the most about what passes for curriculum in our public schools: it's all about the teacher's agenda, and in the case of things like Common Core, it's about the for-profit test writer's agenda, or a future employer's agenda, or the agenda of some political ideologue. Where do the children fit into this?

A genuine democratic education is not imposed from above, even when it's a good idea like "close reading," but rather it emerges from within. A teacher's job is not to command, demand, coax, or scold: it is to jump in the flow and to be prepared for wherever that might take you, but that can't happen when you're still clinging to the things you need to caste away.

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Carol said...

The word "education" comes from the latin word educare' which means, "to bring out from within"!

I have visited agency programs that have implemented what is often referred to as "canned curriculum", where every preschool classroom is doing the same prescribed activity on the same day. I have also watched these teachers struggle as you put it, "because it is the lesson plan for the day". The teacher is struggling to keep their attention, the children are struggling to "behave" and no real learning is happening. I just don't understand the point.

Let the children lead in their learning and let us (teachers) "jump into the flow"! Being in the natural flow of children learning is a wonderful place to be! And you see that happening in Teacher Tom's and other outdoor classrooms everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I think a truly interactive discussion between an adult and children can only really happen when the group is quite small - from 1 to 4 children. Each child has a whole new way of thinking and contributing, and can't take part if they haven't an opportunity to offer their bit, and to be heard and responded to. I once had a small group of 3 & 4 year olds captivated by Peter and the Wolf. We moved through listening to the CD to reading a book with pictures, to retelling the story together with whiteboard pens and very dynamic drawing by everyone, over several days. It's not happened again like that - as you noted, the moment may never come again, but there will be new moments! Heather in NZ