Vicki Vinton is the coauthor of What Readers Really Do and The Power of Grammar. You can follow her latest thinking at her blog, To Make a Prairie. In this podcast with Franki Sibberson, she chats about teacher agency, student independence, and the Common Core.
A full transcript is available below the player.
Franki Sibberson: Vicki, I just finished your new book, What Readers Really Do, and I loved it. So thoughtful and important. You talk a lot early in the book about the importance of teachers being readers, themselves. Can you talk a little bit about why you think that’s so important?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. In a nutshell, I think it’s we’ve got to do more than talk the talk. We’ve got to also walk the walk. And I think that if we really want our students to be independent critical thinkers and readers, we need to be those same critical thinkers and readers as well. And I guess the other thing that feels really important to me is that I think teachers need to feel that they can actually teach writing and reading without being trained in some specific approach, or, particularly with reading, not having a teacher’s guide at their side to sort of tell them what to do and what to ask. And getting in touch with themselves as readers really allows them to kind of own their reading program. It builds agency. It builds a sense of ownership. And I think those things are as important for teachers as they are for kids.
Franki Sibberson: That’s so interesting. I hadn’t thought about that agency for teachers. Very smart. So, you talk a lot about really helping kids learn the process of meaning making rather than necessarily understanding everything about the book that the teacher understands. How can teachers make sure to focus on that? And what are the challenges to teaching that way?
Vicki Vinton: I think — I think it’s a really great question, because it’s — it’s not easy, initially, because you have to work against that impulse to make sure kids get everything. And it does feel, to me, like a little bit of a balancing act, because we are, indeed, focusing on a book. We are reading a book, and we want to make sure that we’re talking about the book. But I think it’s really important that we help kids experience how a reader can enter a text, sometimes knowing absolutely nothing, and come out the other end having a deep, deep understanding about something that they’ve discovered and constructed for themselves. And I think that if we don’t do that, we just risk having kids grow up and move through the years thinking that the answer to the text is outside of them, and that by high school, just take some going straight to SparkNotes and not reading at all.
Franki Sibberson: Hmm. What I did.
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. I think that’s really hard. [Laughter] So, in terms of the — should I plunge into the challenges?
Franki Sibberson: Yeah. I think it makes sense, but it seems challenging. So, yeah. Can you talk a little bit about the challenges and talk a little bit about our own meaning making, pushing that on students. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. I think we do that. It’s very — it’s kind of hard, particularly when we love a book, we’re teaching a book that we’ve loved, that has been profoundly important to us, perhaps something that we’ve taught over and over again. And each time we read it our understanding of it, our appreciation of it grows deeper and richer. And then to say, “But, we’re not gonna share much of that.” That’s hard, because we’re attached to the meaning that we’ve made. But I think two things. The first is, the meaning that we’ve made at that point does come from seeing how the entire book works. And when readers go into a text for the first time — like students do in a class, most of the time — they actually have no idea where the book is headed. They have no idea what the author’s agenda is, what twists and turns it might take. So we risk trying to get them to see something that we’ve only been able to see and truly appreciate because we know how the book turns out. And we kind of preserve the work of making your way through the text the first time so that kids can then take on that work when they’re reading independently. I think we have to, first of all, catch ourselves any time we’re suggesting an interpretation, or pointing kids to a particular passage that is informed by our prior knowledge, the privilege of having read the book in its entirety and thought about it as a whole, because kids can’t bring that when they’re reading a book for the first time. So that’s number one that I think is one way we can watch ourselves and be aware of the privileged position we have by knowing a text well. And the second is, I think it’s really important to acknowledge that who we are as adults, as people who have had certain life experiences, very different than who kids — where kids are. And that they can’t always see, developmentally, the same things that we see. And I think it’s fine. At key points, once the kids have constructed their understanding, it’s okay to share some things that we think about it that, perhaps, can expand their vision of what’s in a text. But they need to find their own center of meaning in the text, because it’s bound to be different than ours just by the fact that they’re young, and I’m, now, old. [Laughter] And it’s just like, as we read — if you’ve ever had the experience of going back and reading a book that you’ve loved at one particular point in your life, and then re-reading it and finding that you have a different experience reading it. Either that you love it for different ways than you did, you see more in it than you did the first time around. Or what you were so taken with the first time hasn’t aged well for you. So that we do see things at different points in our lives. We can’t expect them to see exactly the same things that we do.
Franki Sibberson: Right. That’s so smart — I find myself, too, wanting kids in one class to see what a group of kids the year before saw in a book, because it was so brilliant. And that’s something I have to be careful of, too. [Laughter] I wait for them to do that same thing another group of kids did.
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. I did that the other day in a class. Because here’s the other thing I think is — I’m so glad you glad you brought that up, because I do think when we do overstep that line, we want to try to keep in our minds about how much to reveal about either our own reading, or another class’s, and how much to hold back. And we have to forgive ourselves if we step across that line. [Laughter]
Franki Sibberson: Oh, good. Really, the privilege of having read it with so many different classes, too, if you read a book more than once. With different kids, you see — you learn so much.
Vicki Vinton: Right.
Franki Sibberson: It’s like — that’s hard.
Vicki Vinton: Well — Yeah. And I think that’s the other thing. I know when I do workshops that where half the time is actually reading something with teachers, I sort of have a little repertoire of texts that tend to use. And I’m always astounded how every single time I do it, somebody sees something that neither I nor anyone else I’ve worked with has seen before. Or they interpret something that — in a different way. They bring something fresh to it, and in that way my own reading is enriched, because texts are rich.
Franki Sibberson: Right. So you talk a little bit about comprehension strategies in your book, and your thinking around them. Can you share some of that thinking?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. I had — that feels like a big one, about my own journey of thought that led to the book, because I think, as Dorothy Barnhouse and I — my co-writer — and I both say, when we were working in schools, and books like Strategies That Work, and Mosaic of Thought came out, we just thought that this was the best thing in the universe, that we sort of knew that we wanted to move away from whole-class novels, where everybody gets some kind of preconceived notion of what the symbolism of the mockingbird is in To Kill a Mockingbird. And we thought, “This is it. This is it. We’re really gonna do what readers really do.” But I think that we increasingly noticed that sometimes, sometimes, doing the strategies sort of became the end goal. And frequently the strategies took kids out of the book, rather than deeper into the book. And I would say text-to-self strategies were probably the worst for that. They open the door to kids going off on — I don’t know — memory lane, and tangents, [Laughter] and all kinds of things. And by the time — I know I struggled in classes — by the time I started reining them back in, and got them back to the book, they’d sort of forgotten where we were. And what was left in their heads was that memory that they had. And frequently those connections also stayed on the literal level of the text rather than kind of getting to the heart and soul of it, which was harder to do. So, I think Dorothy and I both — we were also two people who, unbeknownst to us at key times — we on the same journey in different ways. We began seeing that, if we created a situation in which we invited kids to kind of come in to texts as problem solvers, simply by asking them to keep track of what they were learning from what they were reading, and also what they were wondering about, we saw kids who were naturally kind of reaching for strategies, using strategies as part of the desire to understand something. So they’d reach for a connection if it would help them understand, say, why a character was doing something. Or they’d automatically infer just to figure out something that they were wondering about. And that seemed to us that we could maybe reconfigure things and not — make sure that, if we were teaching strategies, that they were really tied to meaning making. We weren’t just asking them to generally make predictions, to generally make connections, to ask questions, without that being rooted in true authentic curiosity about what’s going on. So that seemed like a big shift for us.
Franki Sibberson: Yeah, that’s big. And you make the distinction in your book, the difference between a prediction and a hunch. And I loved that part. Can you share your thinking on how you came to the difference, cause I had to kinda re-read that part a couple times, “See, all of this makes sense.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. Yeah. Predictions seem to be another of those strategies that really pulls kids out of the text and made them less attentive rather than more so, because frequently they’d get fixed on their predictions. And sometimes — sometimes they’d be predicting on nothing more than the picture that was on the front cover of the book. And I’ve really completely stopped that practice, because I think that you don’t have enough information to make any kind of informed prediction about where this text might be going. And so I think it’s better to wonder, based on the front cover, than to predict. And then kids would become competitive. It was all about who’s prediction was right, who’s prediction was wrong. And while I think many teachers did attempt it, there is some gorgeous strategy instruction out there. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t work across the board — but that some teachers would attempt to get kids to revise their prediction. But it sort of became a kind of static thing. “I thought this. Either I was right, or I thought this, I was wrong. It was this.” And so it seemed to kind of keep kids, once again, on the literal level, and also reinforced that right versus wrong mindset, which I think is not helpful. So, the actual word, hunch, I confess that I latched onto when I read Janet Angelillo’s book, Writing About Reading. But before that, I’d been talking about bringing the scientific method into classrooms, with the idea that we first observe and notice, and that, in texts, what we’re sort of noticing is the details the authors are giving us. And from there we sort of draft a hypothesis about what we think is going on in the book, perhaps literally what’s gonna happen, and also why, and how it’s gonna happen. And then we read forward, looking for more clues that can either affirm, challenge, develop, extend that hypothesis, revising it along the way, until finally, finally, we can develop a theory, turn the hypothesis into a theory. And when I encountered that word, hunch, I just thought, “Oh, that’s a much simpler word than hypothesis.” And it seems to capture all those qualities that I liked in hypothesis, that it makes it more inquisitive, more testable, more tentative. And it kept kids really looking for clues, more so than I think the word, prediction, does.
Franki Sibberson: Right. Yeah. That was — I loved that part. So, moving on to your blog — I love your blog. I just — it’s one of my favorite reads. So, what made you decide to start a blog? And can you talk a little bit about the focus of the blog?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. Why I started it is easier than the focus, but I’ll try to do both. [Laughter] I think Dorothy and I both came to this book with an enormous amount of material. We had — we had lessons. We had classroom anecdotes. We had all kinds of stuff in our heads. And the big job for us, as writers of that book, was to come up with some kind of structure that would hold some of that thinking. And along the way we had to let much of it go, because it just weighted the book down too much. We just had too much material. And, I think, part of the decision to start the blog was simply that I wanted to find a place to have — to be able to share some of the thinking and the anecdotes that sort of got left on the cutting room floor. And I also think finding that structure for the book was the biggest challenge. Once we got the structure, the rest of it came relatively easily. But part of the allure of a blog was that it could be looser, more flexible. It didn’t have to have the same kind of design as the book did. And the thing that I hadn’t fully, fully realized, but definitely have felt now, and perhaps is the reason why I continue to do it, is that it also offered a way of having more direct contact and conversation with readers. And that’s been — that’s been just the shared joy of having a blog, connecting to people like you, sort of kind of like minded souls out there who are trying to do hard, good, authentic work in a sometimes challenging climate. As for the focus, I have to say that I don’t think that I really had any preconceptions about it. I just — I just had things that I still wanted to say about what it means to authentically read and write. And I had things that I wanted to share about how that might look like in classrooms. And then this year, as the year’s gone on, there were things that were happening in classrooms, either things that I saw that teachers were doing amazingly well, or things that I was helping them with that I wanted to share. And the blog seemed a great way to do that. But that does mean that I don’t really know from one week to the next what I’m gonna be writing about.
Franki Sibberson: And I feel like I love that, as a reader, the fact that we finish your book, but there’s still somewhere to go to kinda keep up with your thinking. It used to be we had to wait for the next book, or we had to wait to see you at a conference. And with blogs, you kind of can follow someone’s thinking, which is really an amazing thing, as a reader.
Vicki Vinton: Well, I’m sort of hoping that the blog eventually turns into the first draft of something else that I haven’t yet envisioned.
Franki Sibberson: Right.
Vicki Vinton: But, right now, I just really enjoying doing it week by week. Another way of being in the dream.
Franki Sibberson: I love it. I love it. Okay. So, on to one more question about Common Core. I can’t not ask a Common Core question.
Vicki Vinton: I know. I know. It’s in the air, everywhere.
Franki Sibberson: Everything about your book — from my take on it — is about text complexity and close reading. To me, it’s about what reading with depth is about. Can you talk a little bit about with how you’re kind of grappling with that as it relates to the Common Core, and if it’s defined the same way, things like that?
Vicki Vinton: Yeah. It’s interesting. You’re not the first person who’s said to me that this is the book that seems mostly to hit that notion of close reading.
Franki Sibberson: Right.
Vicki Vinton: And, to be honest, I think it wasn’t billed as such because we started it just as the Common Core was coming out, and before everybody was sinking their teeth into it and thinking about it. So some of those buzz words that are around the Common Core, I think, don’t appear as such in the book, which is maybe to its benefit. But I guess what I kind of struggle with — I do welcome the Common Core, because I think it does put the spotlight on close reading and meaning making, which I think is fabulous. But the danger is that we’re gonna try to have kids do the standards, just the way we had them do the strategies, and sort of use them as curriculum. And I think we really need to embed them in truly meaningful units, and units that also let students see the process behind what are the outcomes listed in the standards. And, for instance, they need to see — they need to not just comprehend what a text explicitly and inferentially says. They need to see and experience how a reader does that. And to that end, I’ve just recently been coining a couple phrases that I’ve begun using in my work. And I’ve been saying that we need clues before evidence, we need hunches before claims, and we need practice before performance. That all those things are kind of the work that goes on behind the scenes to be able to get claims, evidence, and performance. So, I’m hoping — I’m hoping that people will think that way, and not just rush to make a claim, have your evidence, do that performance based task. But there’s lots of conversations going on around there. New York State is starting to embrace a particular implementation model that, I fear, doesn’t give much credence to clues and hunches and practices. [Laughter] So we’re gonna have — we’re just gonna have to see. There’s a lot to be thankful for, and there’s a lot to be wary of as we move into full flown implementation. And maybe the one last important thing is that only a responsive teacher, who is actually listening to what kids are saying, and is able to kind of notice and name for them, what they’re doing in a way that lets them hold on to it. Which means that the teacher has to have some understanding about what goes into making meaning as you’re reading. It’s only that responsive teacher that can really help students grow. A text book can’t do it. A list of questions can’t do it. And somewhere, I fear, that in the conversation we miss the potential for one, caring, committed, thoughtful teacher to make a huge difference in a student’s life.