Let’s call her Nadia. I’ve been working with her one on one for a little over a year now.
“I suck at reading,” she told me bluntly, when she approached me for help toward the end of her sophomore year.
“I do too sometimes,” I admitted, inviting her to sit with me a while so that I could learn more. We’ve learned a lot together, Nadia and I. It all started with frank conversations like these.
“Why is reading hard?” I asked, and she told me she couldn’t really say because she wasn’t sure she ever really read long enough to figure it out. “When I look at a page full of tiny print about stuff I could care less about, my chest gets tight, and then my brain just clicks off. I hate it. I mean, I really hate reading.”
I’ve learned that when Nadia is able to read what she wants, the experience is slightly better. “I still hate reading, but I’ll do it,” she says. “I can get it done if I have to and if I actually like the subject matter I guess.”
But she doesn’t sink deeply into any text she reads, and I know that until she is able to have this experience, she’ll never be rewarded by her reading. Not really.
“I don’t know how to think about books like smart people do. Did you ever notice how all smart people like books?”
Yeah, I tried not to flinch when she asked me this.
Some kids need a little bit of help falling in love with reading, and sometimes, no amount of modeling seems to make this happen. Best practices might work for the majority of readers, but when they don’t work for the ones we’re trying to reach, we have to be ready with next practices. These often emerge from the quiet of our reflections and a whole lot of trial and error. This is why I love teaching: it keeps us humble. It makes learners of us all.
Learning how to read with a lens was a game changer for Nadia, and I have Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman to thank for that. This was the first habit that I taught her, pulled from the pages of their book. Adopting this simple approach enabled her to make reading a far more purposeful and therefore, manageable, endeavor.
It also brought the next dilemma into sharp relief.
“I figured something out tonight when I was reading with the lens like we’ve been practicing,” Nadia told me. “I can notice interesting things now and underline them, but the rest of those words are still annoying me. It’s really distracting.”
Clearly, the best practice was working, but a next practice was in order.
Nadia taught me the importance of physically isolating text details from the whole of the passage. Reading with a lens enabled her to identify what mattered, but cutting and lifting the details right out of the text quieted the noise that the rest of the words were making. This helped her notice connections between the details she was eager to focus on most, and it also inspired her to mix and remix them. Being able to move them around was important.
“This helps me have different ideas about what I’m reading instead of just looking for one answer,” she said.
Sticky notes enable this same kind of thinking. Rather than cutting the text up, readers lift the details from the page and record them on individual notes, which they begin clustering, categorizing, mixing, and remixing.
The original text is never lost. It simply waits in the wings to be called into play. As inferences are made and conclusions are drawn from the details collected, readers return to the text to search for additional clues that might help them deepen, question, or refine their thinking.
Now, when readers tell me they feel overwhelmed, when text is too noisy, or when they struggle to truly synthesize details and make new meaning, this is the next strategy that I try. It often helps.
Interested in trying this in your own classroom with groups of readers? Sunni Brown, Dave Gray, and James Macanufo’s work inspired me to Gamestorm this approach, and I’ve tested it in a dozen or more middle and high school classrooms over the last year, improving it along the way. Click on the thumbnail below to give it a go, and let me know how it works. I’ll be sharing more stories from the road, next practices, and games in posts to come.