Friday, July 19, 2013

Question Types, and why I don't like QAR

I learned about QAR first through a colleague.  Then, I taught a series of lessons using the QAR framework to help students understand question types.  It came up in my Reading program a few times, and I read an article and some of Taffy Raphael's book about the subject.  So, I don't think I'm "dumb" about QAR.  Yet, when teaching it for the first time, I couldn't help but get the four question types mixed up.  And if I was doing it, you can believe that my students were doing it.  In my frustration, I asked myself, "Do they really need to know the differences among so many different question types?  Is this worth the teaching and re-teaching that it takes to clarify all of these differences?"

I think the answer is no.

Briefly, in QAR, there are four question types:
  1. In the book, "Right there" questions - These are questions that you can point to in the text.  They are factual, short-answer questions.
  2. In the book, "Think and Search" questions - These questions require connecting separate parts of text, making inferences across texts, or otherwise require more "searching" than "Right There" questions.
  3. In my head, "On My Own" questions - These questions are prior knowledge, what you know before you read questions.
  4. In my head, "Author and Me" questions - These questions connect what you already know to the author, or to bigger things (?).
I have a hard time explaining this because it doesn't feel logically consistent for me.  I don't think the distinction works or makes sense.  You are reading the book - you can't make connections without referring to the text and yourself.  The whole "Author and Me" question type makes no sense.  How do you connect without talking about the text?  When I explain this to students, I feel forced to make such incomprehensible statements as, "With Author and Me, you're talking about the text in general, not specifically, like you are in Right There and Think and Search."  But what about inferential questions about a character?  Is that Think and Search, or Author and Me if you are making broader inferences based on connections to other characters or real people?  It doesn't feel like it holds water to me.  

I don't like these fuzzy and artificial distinctions, but I like teaching the difference between "right there" and other question types.  I want my students to recognize and employ the difference.  So, the next step for me was teaching the difference between fact-based and more idea-based or more "out there" question types.  I tried teaching students to recognize fact-based questions, just as a general test-taking and comprehension strategy.  The problem with that approach was the fuzziness of the "out there," non-factual questions.  There are just too many things that fall under that umbrella, some of which are useful, and some of which are not.  

Enter the three question types.  I don't remember where I found this idea, but I think one of the clearest articulations of it comes from Tompkins.  Here's a passage from her book, Language Arts:
Questions can be divided into three levels: literal, inferential, and critical.  Literal or "on the page" questions have a single factual answer and can usually be answered with a few words or "yes" or "no."  When the questions refer to a story or other book that students are reading, the answers are directly stated in the text.  The second level of questions is inferential or "between the lines."  To answer these questions, students synthesize information and form interpretations using both their background knowledge and clues in the text.  The answers are implicitly stated in the text.  The third, most complex level of questioning is critical or "beyond the page."  These questions are open-ended.  They require students to go beyond the text and think creatively and abstractly about global ideas, issues, and concerns.  At this level, students apply information, make connections, evaluate and value the text, and express opinions.  (p. 349)
I think these three question levels do everything that distinctions among question types should.  There are clear and important differences among all three question types, and understanding the differences is much easier and much more valuable.  I want students to be able to answer factual questions, but I also want them to see these as less valuable than either of the other two.  And I would like them to be using the third question type to be thinking about how they can use what they read, or how adults use what they read.  

This three-level question framework also more easily lends itself to analogy and graphic organizers.  I've seen some good tree organizers - factual questions are the roots, inferential questions are the trunk and branches, and critical questions are the leaves.  

Let me try some examples with my old standby, Harry Potter:

Literal - What are the names of Harry's parents?

Inferential - Why is Hogwarts the only school of magic in Great Britain?

Critical - What message does the series try to support about discrimination and prejudice?

I think this approach is much more useful and much clearer for students, and I think it also establishes a clear hierarchy of complexity and difficulty.  I think we want students to work toward critical questions, and I think teaching them this framework helps them see that as a useful goal.  

Friday, July 12, 2013

WRITE BESIDE THEM and Middle School Writing

I started reading this book a year or two ago (I can't honestly remember) when several teachers recommended it to me - several of whom were fellow participants in the Summer Leadership Institute for the Illinois Writing Project (a fantastic opportunity, and something I recommend to everyone, by the way).  So, I ran out and picked up a copy.  I read through the first 70 pages in a day or two.  The next 100 pages took more than a year.  This summer, I've finished the book - mostly because I bought another book by Penny Kittle (BOOK LOVE) and felt the need to finish one before starting the other.

So, comments about my weird reading history aside, the material in the book is pretty fantastic.  I envy some of the details of Kittle's teaching assignment (teaching a writing class? awesome!), and I know that her kids are different from mine.  So, I'd like to kind of "think aloud" about how to use this in middle school.

I've posted about the details of my teaching assignment before, and I don't want to go into too much detail.  Briefly, I teach in a suburban Title 1 middle school that uses a "teaming" concept (two or three teachers share a group of students and teach various subjects to the same group of kids, so that students have fewer teachers and teachers can collaborate better) and block scheduling.  Unfortunately, I only have one block (60 minutes) to teach both reading and writing (which are assigned separate grades, by me).  It's hard to teach a writing workshop when it means that you have to surrender all of your literacy time to writing.  I've done it, and it's worked really well almost all of the time (partly because I'm so passionate and motivated when it comes to teaching writing), but lately I've been trying other strategies that allow me to better emphasize both reading and writing at the same time.  So, a modified workshop, or a workshop built around "units of study" - genre-based study of texts, including close reading/analysis and then production/imitation of a text that fits that genre.

Anyway, what does this have to do with WRITE BESIDE THEM?

Let's start with a numbered list:

  1. I really like her discussion of writing notebooks, something I use almost every day, and something that Kittle uses every day, too.  It's a place for "all of that bad writing that is essential to uncover good writing" (26) and a tool for helping students find their voice (27).  
  2. I use her model of "quick writing" (Chapter 5), which has three important rules:
    1. Write the entire time
    2. Write quickly without letting the critic in your head censor you
    3. Relax, have fun, play
  3. She writes along with her students during these quick writes, and she shares her messy drafts so that they see her thinking on paper, and they see a writer making choices and revising.  
  4. Heart Maps - Kittle got this idea from Georgia Heard, and it's a great way to get kids thinking about their "writing territories," something you can come back to later in the year when they say they don't have anything to write about.  
  5. I love how she models re-reading of the quick writes - if kids are just writing and tossing the material, there's not much point in doing journals.  It's when they see value in the notebooks and are using what they come up with that these things are important and worthwhile.
  6. Her overall flexibility and her willingness to adjust her teaching (and her expectations) to help kids.  Chapter 9, "Seeking Balance," should be required reading for anyone teaching writing to any person over age 10.  In a nutshell, Kittle argues that kids don't learn to write well when they are given writing assignments that they will never revise.  And many of the writing assignments given in English classes are first-draft, write-and-forget assignments.  She encourages letting go of some of the demands of literary analysis: not everything a kid writes in an English class in high school has to be about a literary classic.  Students don't learn effective writing when they have to write about something that doesn't matter to them.  True, that's not ALWAYS the case, and yes, students should be expected to do some literary analysis.  But writing a five-paragraph essay about THE SCARLET LETTER doesn't teach them very much about good writing.  They will probably learn about literary analysis, but that's not teaching writing.  
  7. I like her discussion of conventions (grammar and mechanics), but I don't love it.  I don't think Kittle is the best voice on this subject (I prefer Jeff Anderson for this), but I think that she's developed a system for helping kids learn how to get better at conventions.  It's not the focus of what she does, but she addresses it.  Not everyone does, and not everyone who does manages to help kids retain and use better conventions.
  8. Her discussion of feedback.  I loved the example she gave of the different ways that she was given feedback on something she wrote, and how that made her feel.  I think that we've all been there, as teachers and students, when we were given destructive or hurtful feedback on something we wrote that seemed to miss the goal we were striving for.  It's an excuse for the writer to ignore the feedback.  I really liked her discussion of it, and I think that it makes the point about how writers often feel about what they've written - how there's an element of trust involved in that exchange of written products - and how aggressive, insensitive comments can destroy any hope of helping the writer.  If you stomp on their fledgling ideas, they aren't going to share any more with you - or at least not any that matter to them.  And, if you manage the opposite, if you can sift through the messiest draft and find the nuggets of meaning, the funny part, the briefest glimmer of insight, and point that out to a student, then you've built trust.  You have a disciple.  Students identify with what they write, and they want you to find the gold in what they write, just like they want people to find the value in them.  It's a delicate thing, and it can be enormously positive and powerful if you become a skilled treasure-hunter.  
  9. The craft of the book overall.  I've read books by teachers that were better written, but this is close to the top.  There were a couple of chapters and passages that really stood out to me.  Clearly, her writing matters to her, and she wants to convey her meaning appropriately and aptly.
I think I have more to say about this book, but I'm going to step away and think a bit more.  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Top Twenty Fantasy Series . . .

So, with all of this talk about fantasy, I'm going to finally try to nail down my top ten series.  (What's the plural of "series"?)
  1. Harry Potter/JK Rowling - a classic witch and wizard fantasy.  MG, lots of fun.  If you haven't read this series, you should.  
  2. Lord of the Rings/JRR Tolkien - another classic.  Longer and more challenging than Harry, but richer and darker in some ways.  Written by a scholar of medieval literature.  So many brilliant details.  Movies are classics as well, but the books are still better (and that's saying something!).
  3. Narnia/CS Lewis - yet another classic.  Fast and easy to read, and just plain good storytelling.  Lots of surprises and strange twists.  Some of the later books are bizarre.
  4. His Dark Materials/Philip Pullman - takes place in a strange alternate universe with some bizarre twists.  Some people think it's anti-Christian because of the negative depiction of some of the angels later in the series.  Still a good story.
  5. Abhorsen/Garth Nix - brilliant and dark, with some really scary depictions of the world of the dead.  About a series of heroes who can walk into the land of the dead.  Feels more real than many other fantasies, mostly because death is real.  
  6. Fablehaven/Brandon Mull - the characters are lots of fun, and there are a ton of imaginative surprises.  Two kids find out that grandma and grandpa run a kind of nature preserve for magical creatures.  And they feel obliged to protect ALL of the magical creatures, even the bad ones.  Book 4 has one of my favorite surprises of any book that I've ever read.  Don't want to give it away, but it was worth reading four books to get there.  
  7. Lightning Thief/Rick Riordan - the movie almost ruined this series for me, but it's a fun fantasy based on the Greek gods and goddesses.  Lots of cool applications of mythology.  The hero, Percy Jackson, is the son of Poseidon and a mortal, and he's sent on several quests.  I enjoyed all seven books.  
  8. False Prince/Jennifer Nielsen - No magic needed here.  More like medieval adventure.  It's about a plot to take over a kingdom using a fake prince.  I've read both of the two books that have come out, and both were really good.  The main character is a pleasant blend of pragmatic rule-breaking and naive virtue.  Looking forward to the third book.
  9. Sea of Trolls/Nancy Farmer - Farmer is an incredible storyteller.  She has a gift for carefully crafting character and orchestrating believable adventures.  Lots of terrible evil monsters, and Farmer does a good job turning characters around, making them seem really bad, then really good, then really bad, as the story progresses.
  10. Bartimaeus/Jonathan Stroud - In this series, wizards run Great Britain by summoning demons and making them do their bidding.  They really have very little power without them.  Bartimaeus, who narrates, is a demon, talking about demons and wizards.  It's an original approach, and Stroud makes it funny and interesting.  
  11. Curse Workers/Holly Black - A nice blend of mafia narrative, alternate reality, and magic.  Some people have the ability to work magic through their hands, and it takes place in an alternate present, with an alternate American history that includes concentration "camps" for these magic people, discriminatory laws, and a whole subculture of criminal magic workers.  The main character is a shady curse worker with power he doesn't quite understand.  Lots of mystery and fun.
  12. Resurrection of Magic/Kathleen Duey - This series is strange and dark, and I'm excited about the third book in the series.  It's two overlapping stories, one about a young woman who's a natural adept with magic, and a young man who is sent to a magic school to learn magic - only the school swallows up children and often refuses to spit them out as wizards.  I really like the way that the story develops about where magic comes from, and the twisted way in which it is taught at the strange school.  There's a lot of mystery and evil here.  It's good.
  13. Earthsea/Ursula Le Guin - The rules of magic are strange in this series, and people can lose their magic ability if they do too much.  Magic is based on a language, which happens to be the language of dragons, and there's a lot of work and study involved.  I like that kind of twist.  The series of books includes some strange stories, and Le Guin's imagination is vast.  I enjoyed the tension in this series a lot.  
  14. Chronicles of Prydain/William Alexander - This series is kind of young, but it's fun, with some old-fashioned storytelling structure thrown in.  It feels like an "old" tale, like Tolkien, though it's not quite as dark, and perhaps not quite as detailed.  But it's a good series of tales.  
  15. Graceling/Kristin Cashore - This is a quirky, character-driven fantasy story about a super-strong female fighter who faces an evil king.  There are some twists and turns, but she tells a really good story with some fun fight scenes.
  16. Finnikin of the Rock/Melina Marchetta - Marchetta is a gifted writer, and her Jellicoe Road is a great story and a Printz Honor book.  This is YA fantasy much like Abhorsen, with the story told from the point of view of someone who doesn't really know magic, but who fears it.  It's dark, and there are a lot of scary things in this fantasy universe.  I enjoyed it a lot.  
  17. Shadow and Bone/Leigh Bardugo - This is a relatively new entry here, and it's a weird premise.  There are people with special types of magical power, called Grisha, and the main character discovers that she has one of the magical powers.  But there's an evil dark cloud that is spreading over part of the country, destroying land and people, and strange monsters are breeding inside the darkness.  The main character is asked to help fight the darkness, only the person asking her to fight it is not such a nice guy, really.  It's really dark, and really cool.
  18. Ranger's Apprentice/John Flanagan - This is a cool series about a kid who becomes a Ranger, one of the king's special forces, so to speak, who help lead his army, maintain peace and order, and serve the interests of the king.  There are several different villains throughout the series, but the Ranger himself doesn't really have his own magic.  It's a fun story (at least it was fun for the first five books) about a kid with no prospects becoming a powerful leader.  
  19. Chronicles of Ancient Darkness/Michelle Paver - This is a strange story about a kid whose father is killed by a "demon," and who spends several books fighting for revenge against the demon.  The kid lives in the woods in a hunter-gatherer society, with some clans and villages that he has relationships with.  It's cooler than it sounds, and full of action.
  20. Amulet/Kazu Kibuishi - This is the only graphic novel series on the list, but it's a great story about a magic amulet that falls into the hands of a girl who isn't sure if she can trust it.  Apparently, the amulet could be both a blessing and a curse.  She enters a different universe through the basement of her new house, and she sets out on a quest to help the people of this universe.  It's a good story with some fantastic art, and it has several mind-blowing moments.  
I tried to stick to series where I read more than one book, though I haven't quite finished the second book in the Grisha series (Shadow and Bone).  And there's a lot of diversity on this list.  Most people would consider the Chronicles of Narnia as an elementary-level fantasy (perhaps even a thinly veiled Christian allegory).  Several other titles on the list would be better described as YA or high-school fantasy.  Resurrection of Magic is dark and disturbing in places (I've called it the meanest depiction of teaching I've ever read, where the teachers of magic force the students to learn magic to eat or starve to death trying.)  I'm also fairly certain that there are a lot of great fantasy series out there that I haven't read.  (I would love to hear about those!)  I've said elsewhere (on Twitter, I think) that I don't often read series anymore.  It's becoming less common, though it still happens.  An example of this would be Ranger's Apprentice.  I read the first five books and enjoyed them.  I'm not sure why I never really got into the sixth book.  Now there are twelve books, and a spinoff series.  I might never read those (although the first book in the new series, the Brotherband Chronicles, recently made it to the Caudill list.  I might read it just because of that, though I'm dragging my feet a little.)

Why read fantasy fiction?

I know that not everyone likes to read fantasy, and I understand a lot of the stereotypes.  I've heard more than my share of jokes about Frodo and hobbits.  But I think that the purpose of fantasy fiction (at least for me) goes a lot deeper - or perhaps wider - than just escapism.

When I was younger, I wasn't a big reader of fantasy.  I read a lot of science fiction and "classics."  Later, when I became a graduate student in English, reading became work, and I only read books that were related to my research interests or assigned.  What changed my reading habits?  Harry Potter.

I've talked about and written about Harry before, and I'm sure that we've all developed our own relationships with the Boy Who Lived.  For me, it was a little display at Borders (ouch!) with the three books that were out at the time.  There was a sign that made me think these books were popular.  I decided to check out the first book.  I read the whole thing in a day.  It was easy to read, short (at least the first book was), and fun.  I ended up reading the entire series, re-reading all of the books every time another installment came out, and even standing in line at Borders (again!) the night the final book came out.

Since then, I've become a middle school literacy teacher, so reading YA fantasy can be considered "work" again, but it's much more fun work than trying to wade through yet another book about William Faulkner (which was my unfinished dissertation topic).  I've also become something of a specialist in YA fantasy and science fiction.  It seems like these two subgenres are my "comfort zone." Much of what I read for fun falls into either of these categories.  Here's a partial list of fantasy books/series that I've read:

Harry Potter (of course)
Lightning Thief
Lord of the Rings
Books of Pellinor
Resurrection of Magic
Keys to the Kingdom
Curse Workers
Demon's Lexicon
Daughter of Smoke and Bone
Chronicles of Ancient Darkness
Faerie Wars
His Dark Materials
Tuck Everlasting
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Raven Boys
Girl of Fire and Thorns
Chronicles of Prydain
Sea of Trolls
Peter and the Starcatchers
False Prince
Shadow and Bone
Marbury Lens
Finnikin of the Rock
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer
Dragon Slippers
Magic Thief
Lord Loss
Last Apprentice
Warrior Heir
Chronicles of Prydain
Glass Houses
Artemis Fowl
Forest of Hands and Teeth
Eighth Grade Bites
Vampire Diaries
Merchant of Death
Midnight for Charlie Bone
If I Stay
Before I Fall
Ranger's Apprentice
Mortal Instruments
Great and Terrible Beauty
Iron King
Graveyard Book
Red Pyramid
Lost Hero
Septimus Heap

I didn't include any science fiction (except where it wasn't clearly only science fiction or fantasy.  For example, Artemis Fowl is kind of a mix of science fiction and fantasy).  I also didn't include any grown-up fantasy (like the Dresden files or Terry Pratchet's Discworld books).

So, what's so great about "fantasy" that doesn't apply to other kinds of YA fiction?

  1. Fantasy tends to be weirder, with stranger characters and unusual situations.  For example, the Curse Workers series by Holly Black takes place in a universe with a section of the population that can do magic with their hands.  One of the main characters' relatives, for example, can kill people just by touching them.  As a result, everyone wears gloves, and it's considered indecent to show people your naked hands.  Isn't that weird?  
  2. Fantasy tends to be much longer, often stretched over several books, giving a much fuller sense of fictional reality, character, and story development.  Harry Potter's books span seven years, and the Harry who fights Voldemort in the seventh book is very different from the little kid who sleeps under the stairs at the Dursley's.  Sometimes this can be a fault. (I'm thinking of books that just ramble on and on, as if trying to fill pages, or that end strangely, to encourage readers to pick up the sequels.)
  3. Fantasy isn't afraid to be epic, to have delusions of grandeur, and to talk about the struggle between good and evil or the end of the world.  It doesn't have to be - and this is perhaps the most often lampooned characteristic of the subgenre - but it often is.  This is probably my favorite thing about fantasy.  There are usually "bad guys," and they are usually really bad.  Voldemort is a sociopath who kills and tortures because he enjoys it.  Increasingly, there are more ambiguously good heroes.  Curse Workers is a nice example - Cassel Sharpe, the main character, is connected to a powerful crime family, and commits several crimes throughout the books.  Sage/Jaron, the main character in The False Prince/Runaway King, is a thief.  
I think a lot of these things are also true of science fiction.  I also think that some of the lines between the two subgenres are blurring.  Interworld is a good example of this - it's about the struggle between a magic-based society and a science-based society, and maintaining a balance between the two.  

I would never say that fantasy is the only kind of "good book" out there.  I've read a lot of other books that were awesome.  And there are a lot of "grown-up" fantasies that are fantastic and popular.  I know we've all heard of Game of Thrones, but The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a really good fantasy that hasn't yet become a movie or HBO series (though it would make a great film).  And we all also know that turning something into a movie doesn't mean that the book was awesome (Twilight comes to mind) or that the movie/series will be great (Dresden Files comes to mind).  

Anyway, I've been planning a top ten list for some time.  I'll be working on that next.