#CyberPD: Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching of Reading

Years ago a colleague shared a copy of What Readers Really Do by Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse. Intrigued and desperate for something to help me teach middle-grade readers to read and like reading, I grabbed it, and I haven’t looked back. This text spoke to how I created meaning. It removed the graphic organizers that I used only when I taught, and never when I read. Finally, reading instruction that made sense.

Over the years this seminal work has been something I’ve returned to again and again to clarify and shore up my understanding and my beliefs around reading.  Vicki’s blog, To Make a Prairie, has provided a place to revel in her thinking, storytelling, and teaching. It is a place to refine and discover how this complex work of teaching reading can go.

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Now with Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading I have another place to zoom in, improve and fortify my beliefs around why this work matters. With this post, I’m joining in the #cyberPD community to reflect on the first four chapters of Vicki’s new book.

The subtitle of the book, shifting to a problem-based approach, says so much.

…in a problem-based approach, my aim as a teacher is to help you develop your problem-solving capacities as a reader, not to get a particutlar text. — p.12

…It’s about the process of thinking, making sense, and perservering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed.– p.13

This is exactly what I’ve been doing this week reading Yaa Gyasi’s epic saga Homegoing. I know little about the cultures presented and have a vague understanding of the history the story covers. Every chapter leaps generations and continents. It is breathtaking and at times confusing. I’ve had to go back to understand the logistics and connections. I have trusted myself to read, read on, re-read, and problem-solve as needed. I have trusted the writer to lead me. I started this tale knowing little, but now, I am thoroughly vested in figuring it out.

This kind of learning only happens if readers bring their minds and their hearts to a text, and as a teacher of reading, that means I want students to be able to analyze and interpret, reason and  imagine, critique texts ojectively and respond to them personally.  And I want them to do this with real independence and a strong sense of agency and identity as readers, in ways that support academic success and a love of reading. — p. 18 (underscore added)

The words I underlined in this section follow Vicki’s italicized ands. Teaching readers to interpret, imagine, respond personally while having a love of reading sounds like the work I want readers to engage in. This means getting students texts where they can practice that work is critical.

Vicki asks us to consider shifting “from the current vision of text complexity to one that fully acknowledges the role of the most unpredictable piece, the students” — p. 20  And that teachers “assess a text’s complexity by how much a reader has to figure out that the writer has conveyed indirectly.” — p. 22

By thinking about how much a reader has to figure out in a text, we can consider how students are really reading. Focusing on the work each student is doing to create meaning on their own guides our teaching.  And by allowing students to do this, we build student agency around reading.

The interlacing of creative and critical thinking are addressed in the third chapter. Vicki offers this thinking

…I believe that creative thinking is actually the invisible and often unrecognized thinking that helps readers eventually make more nuanced and insightful judgements and claims. … thinking creatively is the behind-the-scenes work that’s needed for students to more thoughtfully complete  many of the Common Core-style tasks…– p.34

Creative thinking is the generative, possibility making, hypothesis forming part of reading work that drives us to figure it out. The reader’s beginning work is to notice what seems important. Then we instinctively consider how the potentially disparate pieces fit together by look for patterns. Asking could it be, or perhaps…

Thinking back to my summer read, Homegoing, I’m in what Vicki would call the “middle middle” of the book (p. 41). It’s messy. I’m looking for those big ideas by piecing together the puzzle. Each character leaves an impression on me, and I struggle to connect the trials of one to the next. I’m looking for answers or at least meaning to the trouble they face.  Pondering this, and recounting the journeys of the characters brings forth more thinking. The book sits with me, and I internalize; testing out theories around what it could mean. I’m sure I have missed details, nuances, and beautiful language on my reading journey. I could have been a better reader along the way.  I’m creating meaning, and at this point in the story, I am also critically considering ideas I have generated. Creativity and critical analysis are interwoven activities at this point.

Will students do this work? Teaching and learning are touched on in chapter four.

Three big ideas: the impact of stress, the necessity of time and repetition, and the importance of pleasure. These three hit home.

Stress makes the majority of learners shut down. Creating an environment of safe learning and emotional support is critical. Pushing too hard, and too often with difficult text is stress producing.

Learning takes time and repetition. That means students read. They do. And

“…This means students often start out unaware there’s something they can’t do — or even something to do– and the first step in the process is to become aware of that.” — p. 47.

I love this.  How powerful is becoming aware you don’t get it on your own. Too often students are looking to be told where and how well they comprehend. It is empowering to know this on your own.

Finally, the pleasure of reading. Thinking about the long game, this is essential. Giving students the opportunity to discover and learn something will keep them going, provide the reason to read on, and in the end create critical consumers of text.