Thinking With Text

I don't get it, A.J. exclaimed.  His brow furrowed in bewilderment, he protested, "Where does it say that?"
A bright ninth grader who navigates the internet handily and who is always reading a book, A.J nevertheless was perplexed by the explanation of the metaphor in the poem "Fog" by Carl Sandburg. He couldn't "see where it says" that the fog appears with the same quiet stealth as a cat.  Although he reads incessantly, he wasn't in the habit of analyzing what he read.  For him and many of his classmates, reading and thinking were not simultaneous acts.

At the beginning of the year, I give an open-ended reading assessment , a remnant from the days of the California Learning Assessment System (CLAS), which almost invariably reveals that the majority of my students read at a literal or thoughtful level of comprehension. On the CLAS six-point reading scoring guide, most of the class score at three and four. And although, a few avid readers demonstrate perceptive and insightful achievement, all of them are perplexed when I ask, "What do you do when you read?"  Almost to a person, they stare at me blankly and shoot back, "What do you mean, what do I do? I just read."    To introduce them to the idea that reading is more than the simple recognition of words, I give them my whimsical Informal Reading Assessment, asking them to "read" the word cat in isolation (decoding), then in a simple sentence and answer a question: The cat has a black tail. What color is the cat's tail?  Black (literal comprehension). Then Sandburg's poem : The fog comes in on little cat feet/It sits looking over the harbor and city/on silent haunches/and then moves on."  At this point, many students, like A.J. are stymied. They offer various interpretations of the poem, all of them literal: "The cat is walking around in the fog. The cat has fog on its feet."  In A.J.'s honors ninth grade English class, one student was able to explain the metaphor.

"Thinking with text," is an unaccustomed habit to the average teenager. Recounting his days as a middle school teacher, reading expert, Richard T. Vacca (Kent State University), realized that he wasn't actually teaching reading, but rather teaching kids to" think with text." "Thinking with text" is where I begin with my students: avid readers, indifferent readers, struggling readers, functionally illiterate readers. After almost all of them "fail" the informal group reading test, they realize that reading is more than just being able to pronounce words and pick out details. A.J. was bowled over by our discussion of the poem, clueless, but intrigued.

Next, we explore what it means to read. We reflect on the nature of reading, using the image of a tree as a metaphor. I ask the class to fold a paper from top to bottom, draw a dotted line on the fold and draw a tree, showing the part that grows above ground on top of the dotted line and the part that grows underground below it. When we look at our trees and compare it to reading a text they discover  that reading is understanding what the text says as represented by the trunk, leaves, branches, and what it means, the roots which are beneath the surface. They realize that it is the invisible "beneath the surface" reading that requires interpretation and analysisãthat is, thinking.
They learn the active reading strategies: question, connect, predict, clarify, re-read, evaluate.  They learn to annotate, to mark up text, from two wonderful articles about close reading: high school AP teacher Victor Moeller's article "Creative Reading," and the article that inspired it, "How to Mark a Book" by Mortimer Adler. As they learn more ways to "think with text," Levels of Questions, QAR, metacognitive marking, reciprocal reading, literature circles, A.J. and his classmates continue to grow as readers, writers, and speakers, as demonstrated by their written response to core literature texts and in their recent book talks, enhanced by music, performance, art, research, interviews, and power point presentations.

But what I treasure most from this enthusiastic and delightful evidence of thinking with and about texts is the moment when A.J. reached epiphany, at one point looking up from his copy of I know Why the Caged Bird Sings and chirping,  "Now I get it, Ms.Hutch., this is getting interesting," as he articulated a "beneath the surface" idea about a passage in the book. When he finished reading a few days later, he looked up  from the page and declared triumphantly, "This is the first time I've ever read a metaphorical book by myself."
"A.J.," I chuckled, " I'm proud of you. The fog has lifted!"

By Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson