Brian needed a change. He had been voraciously reading graphic novels since school began two months ago, and I had been wondering when to start nudging him to change it up a bit. Brian is a 6th grader who caught my eye almost immediately: he asked me if he could take home one of my giant yellow literature anthologies. You know the ones: they sit virtually unused on a bottom shelf, saved to use for a lone story or two throughout the year. Students groan when they are asked to heave them onto their desks. We had just finished reading one of the few stories I use in the reading series — Eleven by Sandra Cisneros. While I was collecting the books I heard Brian ask, "Do you think I could take one home?" I looked and him and his goofy smile thinking he was kidding. We joke around a lot.
"Noooooo." I laughed, "Evil Miss D. isn't going to make you drag this big old thing to your locker." I grinned back — I obviously wasn't getting that he was making a serious inquiry.
"It's just that I need a book to read at home because I finish mine so quick then I have nothing else to read." Brian's grin turned a bit sheepish.
"Oh well . . . sure, why not. Take this one and return it at the end of the year." I handed Brian a book, unsure of whether to be glad that he saw some great story potential in it, or worried that a basal is what he was using to find stories to read. That's when I realized — Brian needs a change. He needs to be reading books that engage him. If he is cruising through these graphic novels that quickly, he isn't being challenged. My time for nudging was at hand. I immediately challenged Brian to go find a novel from our class library that looked like it would be really interesting and a good fit for him. "Nothing too easy," I cautioned. He came back with Everlost by Neil Schüsterman.
During reader's workshop that day, I kept a close eye on Brian. He kept waving me over and whispering, "Miss Doherty — this book is weird." Each time he would point out some vague passage that really kept the reader wondering. For each passage, we would discuss how confusing it was, and what we thought was happening. I did not want Brian to become overwhelmed and abandon this book for yet another graphic novel. I wanted him to get used to the uncomfortable confusion readers sometimes go through. But how to get him to understand this was normal? Even more important, how to get my whole class to understand when the author wants us to be confused to hook us, versus true confusion — those times when we have missed an important piece of information and are lost. This was a struggle many of my students were going through, and books were being hastily abandoned because students were unsure how to deal with confusion.
Kelly Gallagher in the video series Building Adolescent Readers (Stenhouse, 2009) teaches a wonderful lesson on noticing confusion. That night I reviewed his lesson and designed some scaffolds of my own to help students begin to analyze their confusion. I was excited, and a little nervous about this approach.
Teaching Confusion with a Mentor Text
"Raise your hand if you have ever abandoned a book." I raise my hand high, as do most of my students. "It's true — we all abandon books, and as readers we have the right to do that! There are too many books and not enough time to read them all, so why waste your time with a book you aren't enjoying?" Some eager nods bob in agreement all around the room. "Let's take a minute and write down in our reader's notebooks all the reasons we might abandon a book." The students write for three minutes, and then I ask them to share.
"While I am writing your reasons in my notebook, feel free to add some reasons to your notebooks. If you're thinking, 'Hey — that's a good reason to abandon a book,' go ahead and write it on your own list." Students call out their reasons for abandonment of books as I scurry to write them all in my notebook.
"It's too confusing."
"I don't like the topic."
"I can't connect to it."
"I can't see it in my mind"
The list goes on. "Great job — you were obviously being thoughtful about this, and that is going to help us with our lesson today."
"Let's talk about confusion. There are a few different types of confusion when you are reading a book. Sometimes, the author wants us to be confused. Can anyone think of why that might be? Talk about it in your table groups for one minute and see what you can come up with."
Immediately I hear some sharp thinking:
"They may want to keep you guessing at a mystery."
"Maybe they are trying to hook you."
"They want you to try to figure it out for yourself."
"You guys have some really good ideas about why an author might want us to be confused. Brian and I have been talking about this a lot lately." Turning Brian into a star for a few minutes, I describe to the children the conversations he and I have been having about his book. Then, I ask him if I can borrow his book. He proudly hands it over — his ever-present smile stretching his cheeks.
Together, the students and I read the first page of Everlost paragraph by paragraph. I pause after each section and ask the students what their questions are. I write their questions on sticky notes and place them in the book. The book begins with an attention-grabbing and complicated scene. When I finish reading the first page we start taking about confusion.
"Wait!" Alexis says. Confusion is stamped all over her face. "I do NOT get this." Several other students pipe in agreement. There was genuine confusion. On the first page of this story six characters are introduced all traveling in two different cars (one car is black and the other is white). We re-read the section three separate times, until all of my students know who is who and in which car each person sits.
"Phew! That was a lot of work you guys!" I wipe imaginary sweat off my brow because. . .well, I'm a dork and it makes the kids laugh.
"And we still have a ton of questions. A lot of these questions are questions that the author wants us to have. We should be wondering if the kids without seatbelts are going to die, we should be wondering why the car crash happened. These are great questions you had that we need to keep in our minds and trust that the author will clear up for us if we keep reading. The other questions we had-we really needed to go back, re-read and create some mental images to help us keep the characters straight. We needed to do that so we could continue the book and understand some of what is happening."
After this conversation, the students and I brainstorm a list of ways our confusion can get cleared up as we read:
Read Ahead (Trust the Author)
Use our Schema
THINK About What We've Already Read
This list gets written on large chart paper so the students can readily reference it as they move on to practice this skill. I give each student three sticky notes on which to record their confusions. I also give them a personal Clearing Up Confusion Chart. You can download the template by clicking here.
When they are finished reading they will place their sticky notes on the chart and pause to reflect on how these confusions were cleared up. If their confusion hasn't been cleared up, they are asked to anticipate possibilities for how the author might tackle the confusion in the subsequent text.
As the students go off to read and practice, I wander through the room and pause to chat with kids who aren't writing anything down. I talk to them about what they are thinking and what questions they have. We take a minute to discuss how these questions might get cleared up. Then I leave them to think it out some more on their own. I know this lesson is not over.
Later, as I read over their thinking on their Clearing Up Confusion Charts, I make notes on follow-up lessons that need to be taught. It becomes obvious that we need to continue to do some work with different types of confusion or questions we have. Many of the students have questions that are helping to hook them into their books. Some students have written about confusion, but it is clear they are unsure of which strategy to use to clear it up. Many students have attempted to answer their own questions, instead of reflecting on how they might be answered through the text.
We will need to practice several times over the next few weeks, using several examples of text. We will analyze the questions we ask. We will go deep to figure out what strategies are suitable to clear up the different types of confusion we have. These are lessons we will revisit not only in the coming weeks, but also as the year progresses. I want my students to know that all readers get confused. It is the thoughtful reader who knows how to clear up her confusion.