Monday, May 12, 2014

Are You Going to Collect This?: Why Personal Response Still Matters

Last week identical responses in all three classes I teach made me pause. In each class—two undergraduate classes in social studies methods and one graduate class in children’s literature—a student asked me, “Are you going to collect this?” This was in response to my suggestion that they try changing a written text (provided by me) to a graphic (i.e., table, graph, chart, timeline, flowchart, cross section, labeled surface diagram) to see how the material changed. What new discoveries would they make? What information would they emphasize? What information would they delete? This is not my original idea, but I think it’s a good one. I learned it by reading Steve Moline’s I See What You Mean: Visual Literacy K-8, an excellent resource for teaching graphical literacy.

            My frustration is that the students were going to try this if—and only if—I was going to collect and grade it.  Otherwise, they would smile, play with their pencils, and humor me only as much as needed. I get this. My students are tired; it’s May. But there is something important lurking here. That is, I am simply not doing enough to make them want to engage in the experience. And I suspect I am not alone with this problem.

            In our emphasis on finding information, on testing, on meeting standards, we may be forgetting that we should be nurturing readers and thinkers—people who choose to read for pleasure and knowledge. That is why I have begun to rethink the constant push for skills, strategies, and standards in order to also include feelings. Years ago, I wrote about a “facts and feelings” approach to reading nonfiction that I used with fourth graders. It was hugely successful. Now I want to bring it back. Remember the I-Search paper developed by Ken Macrorie? He emphasized students’ inquiry experiences—what they did to answer their own questions. Recently, there has been revived interest in the I-Search paper for the simple reason that it celebrates what students do to satisfy their curiosity. It gives them authority to pursue learning, or in modern education-speak, “agency.”

            Let’s think about putting the “I” back into reading nonfiction. One simple way is to adapt the idea of the I-Search to develop the idea of I-Read. To put this into practice I began reading Chasing Cheetahs by Sy Montgomery with photographs by Nic Bishop to open myself up to thinking about my likes and dislikes while reading. Granted, I was predisposed to like this book. Why? Because I have read other books by this author-illustrator team and liked them all. I also like the whole “Scientists in the Field” series. Nevertheless, I began.

            Here are three things I noticed from the start that drew me into Chasing Cheetahs:
·      The opening illustrations and map swooped me immediately into the setting. First, I found two full-page color photographs of a cheetah. Second, there was a map showing Namibia (the setting) on a world map and in a close up of just Namibia and its neighbors. Third, the Table of Contents had a double-page panorama of the setting. There was no guessing as to where this was happening. I enjoyed this visual experience.
·      The written text begins with enticing details, not a big concept. The author tells us what she and Nic Bishop saw after leaving the city—straw nests of weaver birds that look like Christmas ornaments and road signs showing warthogs and crocodiles. The most startling site is a women dressed in black, with a cheetah on a leash. She is followed by two other human-cheetah pairs. People—human beings I can relate to emerge on page one. I enjoy reading about people.
·      The page format is varied. Pictures are placed differently on each double page spread. There are inserts between many of the chapters providing additional information. Between chapters 1 and 2 there is an insert entitled “Fast Facts on the Fastest Cats.” I think a varied format is appealing.

Of course there is a great deal more to this book, but you get the idea. I truly believe we need to focus not only on the information in the book, but our experiences as nonfiction readers. Why not ask your students to spend some time reading and responding to nonfiction the way that I did. What nonfiction features do they notice? What do they think about these features? See if they ask you if you’re are going to collect their work.


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