“The text awakens associations in the reader’s mind, and out of the mix, meaning is created.”
~ Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst ~
Like many of you, I have been working with my colleagues to teach students to read more closely and gather evidence to support their thinking. I am thankful for the work of Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts in their book Falling in Love with Close Reading, Vicki Vinton on her blog, To Make A Prairie (I’m embarrassed to confess that her book, What Readers Really Do, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, is still in my TBR pile.), and Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, for helping us in this endeavor.
Last week, I mentioned sharing King Midas and the Golden Touch with the fourth grade students at my school. They all enjoyed the story, and because of our rich discussion, had a good understanding of the theme. They were also able to write about this understanding, but incorporating evidence from the story into their writing was more of a challenge.
Their teachers and I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a “one-shot deal.” We knew there would be many more lessons, including guided and independent practice, as well as feedback, to get our students to be able to do this kind of work well. So on Friday, I was back in their classrooms with a very short excerpt from Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, “Uncle Ry and the Moon.” I love sharing this deceptively simple story with students, and have done so many times. Muth’s book is quiet and unassuming, but it contains a powerful message.
Following the same routine we had used with King Midas, I read the story through once. The kids followed along on a typed version of the text. When I finished reading, I was met with a roomful of puzzled faces. I asked the kids to write what they had noticed and what they were wondering (We used a modified version on Vicki Vinton’s “Know/Wonder” chart for this.) Once they had their thoughts written down, they shared. All of the students were confused by Uncle Ry’s attitude toward the intruder. This clearly conflicted with the action they would take, or expect anyone to take, under similar circumstances. I complimented them for noticing this important contradiction, and explained to them the importance of this kind of observation. When an author includes those contradictions, he’s doing it for a reason. (Notice & Note, pg. 71)
Our next step was to reread the story, more carefully this time, and we stopped along the way to discuss what we were noticing now, and trying to sort out our confusion and begin to answer some of our questions. As we read, some students made thoughtful observations or raised interesting questions. Others asked questions to clarify a simpler element of the story, but these were important, too. I let them discuss these with their partners before sharing with the whole class.
It was during this conversation that one boy tentatively raised his hand. I have known and worked with this student since he was in first grade. His thinking is often perceptive, but can sometimes be muddled. I paused before calling on him to give him time to organize his thinking. Then I nodded to him and he said, “It’s like he’s the opposite of King Midas. Uncle Ry gives things away because he doesn’t mind being poor, and Midas wanted to have as much gold as he could get.”
I was speechless. I hadn’t thought of that myself. His teacher and I exchanged a look of joy. Of course, we let him know how impressed we were with his thinking and the he had made such a meaningful connection to King Midas. Then, another student started to raise her hand, and again, I could see the wheels still turning. She proceeded to tell us that another reason Uncle Ry was different from Midas is that Midas was blinded by greed, but Uncle Ry was blinded by his kind nature, and that was why he saw the intruder as a visitor.
I have shared this story with students many times before, but they have never come to these deep and thoughtful conclusions or level of understanding. So what was different? I hadn’t read the story right after King Midas before, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of a thematic connection between the two. Just as before, I had a plan when I began the lesson, but it was more open-ended. In the past, we were usually focusing specifically on character traits or summarizing. I firmly believe that the kids were able to achieve this level of understanding because I followed their lead. I let them develop the questions they had about the story. I let them go back and locate significant passages in the text. We do our students a huge disservice when we teach from a script and ask only preplanned, canned questions.
Are we finished with this work? Absolutely not. But we are laying a solid foundation for the kind of close reading and thinking skills our students will need to be thoughtful, caring human beings. And that, my friends, is worth all the gold in the world.