I recently came across this comic from Baldo by Cantú and Castellanos via a family member whose hobbies include archery. In the comic, a young girl is using a bow to shoot an arrow. She concentrates very hard on her aim before releasing the bow, then runs to see where the arrow landed. It turns out the arrow hit a fence. The humor lies in her pulling out a brush to paint a target around the arrow, making it dead center in the target—creating a bull’s-eye. The comic was not posted, and certainly not created, to send a message about education, but upon seeing it I could not get the idea of learning targets out of my mind. This Baldo comic perfectly captures my thoughts about how learning targets work best—when created by individual students.
The district in which I teach refers to independent reading at the middle school level as “power reading” to emphasize that its purpose is instructional rather than recreational. Although recreational reading has instructional benefits, administrators who feel pressured to document evidence of instruction with checklists and rubrics expect to see specific learning targets connected daily to power reading. They expect to see a target painted on a fence toward which students must aim. This is an expectation with which I struggle.
I have tried creating discreet, deconstructed, daily learning targets, but as soon as I determined the purpose for reading on a certain day was to find a quote revealing something about the protagonist and record it on a sticky note, that became my students’ only purpose for reading. I want more for the readers in my classroom. As a result, I think of the learning target, or purpose for daily power reading, as being more like the fence toward which the archer in the comic aims than the painted target.
To build the picket fence that has become my learning target for power reading, I focused on Common Core State Standard 10 for reading literature in eighth grade—the ultimate goal—which says, “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, at the high end of grades 6-8 text complexity band independently and proficiently.” Using these ideas, the learning target for power reading in my classroom is Read with your whole heart and mind to work toward reading and comprehending complex, grade-level text independently and proficiently. This is not the kind of target in which an arrow would sit neatly at the center; rather, it is as broad as the fence. However, it is exactly the work I want my students to reach toward each day. Beginning with this general foundation, I help my students create their own targets to paint on the fence through a power reading challenge and shared texts.
Targets and the Power Reading Challenge
The power reading challenge is a long-term assignment tailored to the interests and needs of each individual student. The idea is to nudge students out of their reading comfort zones to produce growth, and the possibilities are endless. Once when I heard Penny Kittle speak, she mentioned that readers do not read at a single consistent level, but rather our reading selections look more like a roller coaster, with some very challenging texts and some light reading. The challenge should become the highest peak on a student’s reading roller coaster, either because of the complexity of the text or because of the depth of the reader’s thoughts about the text. I use a Create Your Own Power Reading Challenge Contract on which I list possible challenges, including reading across a genre to determine its characteristics, reading a classic to build stamina, and rereading a favorite book to admire its craft.
After selecting a text, students must then determine how they wish to capture their thinking. Students choose whether they would like to capture their thinking while they read, or wait until the end to reflect. I offer some tools, including Cris Tovani’s inner voice sheets for use during reading and a book talk template for after reading. After reading Dan Feigelson’s Reading Projects Reimagined: Student Driven Conferences to Deepen Critical Thinking, I have gotten better at conferring with students to determine what kind of thinking they plan to do and helping them select the right tool to do so. Many students end up filling the blank line marked other with a specific kind of chart to track their thoughts.
The power reading challenge is one way for students to determine their own learning targets. What makes the challenge similar to the comic, where the young archer determines her target after having shot the arrow, is that students have the flexibility to change their projects when they discover where their thinking leads. For instance, one student decided to read The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards. Her mother had talked to her about the book and shared her copy. At the beginning, this student had chosen to just immerse herself in the story and capture her thoughts at the end with either a letter-essay to me about the book or a book talk to share with the class. However, as she began reading the book, she found it was challenging to keep track of the characters when the storyline shifted. So, after conferring, we decided it would make sense for her to keep track of information about each character in a T-chart in her notebook as she read.
If I had had a predetermined, discreet, deconstructed learning target in mind for reading instruction instead of this open-ended challenge, this student might have missed critical opportunities for growth such as discussing books with her mother, self-monitoring and problem solving to improve her own comprehension, identifying the shift in storyline as a cause for the breakdown in her understanding, even selecting a book written for adults in the first place.
The long-term growth inspired by the power reading challenge is balanced with daily practice in making meaning of shared texts. All students have access to a copy of the shared text, which they are expected to annotate by both marking the text and making note of their thinking about what they marked. In the case that students are unable to mark a copy of a text directly, they are expected to keep notes. When I plan for a shared text, I always have at least two questions to ask to spark discussion. However, the most important question is the one I always ask first: What did you notice? Once students become accustomed to this being the first question, they realize it is an open invitation to shoot arrows at the fence and paint targets around them later.
In addition to inviting students to notice absolutely anything in every text we read, I believe it is important for students to have an idea of the kinds of thinking they should be shooting for—some sample targets. I consulted Teaching for Comprehending and Fluency: Thinking, Talking, and Writing About Reading by Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell to create a template that defines and organizes the kinds of thinking readers might do in response to a text: solving words, monitoring and correcting, searching for and using information, summarizing, predicting, making connections, inferring, synthesizing, analyzing, and critiquing. Students use this matrix to reflect upon and analyze their own thinking by identifying the categories into which their ideas best fit. This way, students are truly able to paint their own targets, because they can name which target they are hitting.
When I think about the Baldo comic in terms of education rather than archery, it is not as easy to see the humor. If, instead of an archer concentrating on shooting an arrow I see a student focusing on reading, it seems natural that she would complete the task before defining for herself exactly what she achieved. Students need more opportunities to determine their own learning targets.