Read, Talk, Write: Simple yet profound.
The establishment of Common Core State Standards is a step in the right direction, but it is not the final destination. So what is the final destination?
I suggest the final destination is classrooms everywhere filled with the sights, sounds, and products of imagination, inquiry, and thoughtfulness as students collectively make meaning of big ideas in a discipline. Not fanciful imagination, but imagination inspired by rich, interesting, and challenging experiences. Experiences resulting from the mutual exploration of provocative readings (texts) selected from literature, social studies, math, science, philosophy, health, art, or music. Inquiry sparked by the observations and questions arising from students’ interaction with these often perplexing experiences. Thoughtfulness applied to the questions and wonderings of students, striving to make meaning, and often leading to possible resolutions, new questions, and fresh lines of inquiry.
Every day, in every classroom, students should Read, Talk, and Write. Read complex texts (including more non-fiction), engage in classroom dialogues on the ideas in a text, and write about the thoughts, ideas, and questions that come out of classroom dialogues. Mike Schmoker writes convincingly about this exact belief in his most recent work Focus. I know there are outstanding teachers who do this and more, and I applaud them. We need them. If you are one of those teachers, thank you. You are the model of what we need most for our students. Yet, some of you might be like I was midway through my teaching career.
I tried in the 1980s to engage my inner-city students at Hoover High School in San Diego in the kind of experiences I am suggesting. On my good days, I was fairly successful. What did fairly successful look like for me? Well, my period 1 American Literature class had an engaging classroom discussion about some maxims from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so I felt pretty good about the quality of their discussion. So I was excited to do the same lesson in periods 3 and 5. Period 3 (same “level” of kids, same readings, same questions from me) was slow, dull, not thoughtful, not civil, and, quite frankly, quite disappointing to me, and I am sure just as dissatisfying for my students. Period 5, compared to period 3, was better, but it too did not come close to the quality of the period 1 discussion. This is how I rolled during that time. Some good days, some mediocre days, and yes, some not-so-great days.
For me, it all turned around after I attended a Socratic Seminar Leadership Training presented by Dennis Gray. Once I got trained to lead Socratic Seminars, my good days far outnumbered my bad days, and most importantly, my students got more good days. Why Socratic Seminars? Those of you who have already gone through one of our workshops or trainings, and have been practicing Socratic Seminars, I know can express it better than me. Simply, Socratic Seminars do the big three that I suggest. Kids engage to Read, Talk, and Write in powerful ways. Ways that prepare them for college and for living thoughtful and open-minded lives.
That is all well and good Oscar, but what about the upcoming local and state tests that I must prepare my students for, and of which might determine whether I retain my job or not? Mike Schmoker echoes my thoughts on this subject when he suggests in Focus that a clear, unwavering commitment to engaging students in daily close reading of complex texts, thoughtful classroom dialogues about their readings, and subsequent writing on their readings and conversations prepares all students for success in school, including performances on state and local standardized tests, and beyond.
As I mentioned previously, some of you already have discovered how to have your students read complex and challenging texts, engage in thoughtful conversations, and turn those experiences into powerful reflective and persuasive writings. Again, I applaud your abilities to do so. To aid your efforts, I share with you a sheet we use in our trainings to help teachers coach students in close reading and participating in seminars. It is a summary of analytical reading taken from Mortimer Adler’s influential work, How to Read A Book. Grant Wiggins says in his Blog “Granted, but…” about How to Read A Book, “The book changed my life: I became more skilled, confident, and willing as a reader; I went into teaching in part motivated by the simple yet powerful lessons taught me about the joys of reading and thinking in the book.“ The document we are sharing with you is called Preparing a Text for a Seminar. Enjoy!
For those of you who want to explore training and coaching to improve your skills to engage kids to Read, Talk, and Write, our work at Socratic Seminars International is for you. Please join our community of practice. If for any reason our community doesn’t meet your needs, there are two other strong professional development opportunities for you to consider. One is The Touchstones Discussion Project and other is the National Paideia Center. Each of these projects is a cousin to the work we do at Socratic Seminars International.
Read, Talk, and Write…it is the destination.