Readers Front and Center Book Club: Chapter 4

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In this chapter, “Teaching Smarter: Stepping Students Up to Do More Complex Thinking in Independent Reading,” Barnhouse digs into the Staircase of Text Complexity.  She argues focusing solely on the text as the way to measure complexity encourages teachers to take their eyes off their students: a dangerous practice.  Instead, teachers should “notice and name what students are doing” and grow their thinking (67).

This idea of homing in on student thinking permeates my own thinking about teaching and learning.  If I truly value others’ thinking, how does my teaching time reflect that value?

When Peter Brunn (@PDBrunn) visited us in early March, he spoke of a shift in teaching stance, which connects in spirit and action to Barnhouse’s focus on readers, not text.  Brunn outlined this new stance with 6 deceivingly simple ideas:

  1. value student thinking
  2. listen carefully
  3. observe closely
  4. construct learning experiences
  5. facilitate thinking
  6. reflect

How do we slow down, be present, and listen?

Adapted from Barnhouse's Readers Front & Center.

Adapted from Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center.

Nurturing Complex Thinking

Because we value student thinking, we value their development of that thinking.  To nurture the complexity of their thinking as readers, Barnhouse contends we should start with helping students see the thinking they are already doing in their just-right text and what that thinking allows them to know and do.

Noticing & Asking Why

Using a book-brain chart like the one below, Barnhouse helps kids understand and see how books work and how their thinking helps them unlock the puzzles books present. In her conferences with a reader named Jared (captured below in the chart), she began by noticing how he made inferences about a character by paying attention to dialogue and punctuation across lines.

The classroom teacher shifted away from teaching inferring as an isolated skill of what the text says+ prior knowledge+consider what makes sense=inference to helping students see it as something readers do continually as they read, connecting details and asking why questions about what the characters were doing, saying, and thinking (74).  In the next conference with Jared, the teacher noticed he made inferences using details about what the character was doing and how others treated him, so she added those strategies to the book-brain chart.Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.09.43 AM


Making Thinking Visible & Connecting Thinking

Getting students to make inferences across multiple pages builds from their asking why?  Barnhouse provides a diagram she sketched of Jared’s thinking during a conference with him.  This diagram attempts to help Jared visualize the thinking he is doing across pages with the intention that he will then be able to repeat it.  Most importantly, Jared has the chance in this conference to see how this kind of complex thinking helps him better understand the character and the story.Screen Shot 2016-04-07 at 9.47.07 AM


Growing Into More Complex Texts

Barnhouse notes a few important steps in transferring students’ complex thinking into more complex texts.  She believes we need to help them see:

-the thinking they have done in simpler texts

-what the thinking has yielded –meaning, engagement, involvement with the characters–and how to link that to another read

-that they can think across pages, not just sentences and paragraphs, to consider the meaning of unknown words

-they can get support through working with a partner or book buddy


Finally, to sustain that thinking in more complex texts, we need to ask students about the patterns they notice.  We need to pose lots of questions around why those patterns have developed and how they may have evolved over time as well as what the readers make of those patterns.

Nurturing Ourselves

This teaching stance requires slowing down, being present, and truly listening.

What can we let go of to invest our time in what we value?

What do we need to be able to adopt this stance?