Monday, December 3, 2012

The Orchestra Metaphor

As I was driving back from my yoga class this morning, I heard the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra playing on 99.5, the classical music station in Boston. It reminded me of a discussion I just had last night with a Lesley student, about a nonfiction workshop I conducted in July 2011 in which I used the orchestra as a metaphor for the different contexts in which teachers need to cultivate nonfiction reading habits in the classroom.

For instance, there are times, particularly in science, social studies, and the arts, or within integrated units, when students need to learn particular content from a nonfiction text or text sets. Of course, we always want them to learn content from nonfiction, as well as new ideas about writer's craft, theme, etc. However, there are times when we use nonfiction in the classroom because its primary purpose is to convey information children need to learn to meet state or district content standards. How do we cultivate discussion and provide support when students need to access that content? In that respect, the teacher is like the orchestra conductor. In an orchestra, everyone is reading off of the same musical score, and the conductor guides all of the different sections through the score with visual cues and signals. In the classroom, the teacher must know the score (the content) well. You have to know the variety of texts and text types out there to select the right arrangement of texts for your students to learn the content. Rather than gesticulating with your hands and a baton, instead, you model how to get through the texts. You provide specific scaffolded questions for conversation and exploration and graphic organizers that are specific to the content and the texts, to support student note-making.

There are other times when you are going to have students reading different nonfiction texts for the purpose of inquiry, so that they can research individual topics of interest. Often, this falls to the language arts teacher, but more and more, with the new Content Literacy expectations of the Common Core Standards, this will be happening in science and social studies as well. For this purpose, we need to let go of some of the control, and give students room for independent explorations. In this case, the classroom is a bit like the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which has no conductor. The group works as a whole, but without anyone explicitly directing. Therefore, they really need to listen to one another when rehearsing, in order to ensure that they will achieve their goals in performance. When out of step with one another, no one in the orchestra sounds good.  When conducting inquiry, students need help from one another, as they talk about and discuss their research process, the results of their research, the new directions in which they need to take their research. Of course, these conversations can and should happen with a teacher as well, but if we do not create a culture of nonfiction in the classroom amongst the students, it will be difficult to really empower student researchers and writers. Students need more support than one teacher can provide, so we must teach them to support one another and share their strategies, setbacks, and successes. None of this happens in a vacuum, and you don't become the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra overnight. But gradually, after a lot of conducting, you can start to turn that control over to the students.

Finally, there is the solo performance, when students are selecting nonfiction books for pleasure reading. We need to give students the opportunity to "do their own thing" with nonfiction. If they are only reading nonfiction to meet and satisfy content standards or literacy standards, they will never truly find what kinds of nonfiction they are interested in reading for their own pleasure. We want to meet curriculum standards. But we also want to create readers, children who will chose to read from a variety of genres for personal enjoyment. We need to give students the opportunity to find a range of nonfiction they will enjoy reading. Reading widely exposes children to a wide range of subgenres of nonfiction. Through their solo performances, in which there is more likely to be true engagement with the text, students improve as readers of nonfiction.

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