You are here: Home / Blog / Reading Check Boxes: Little Things With Big Muscles:

Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.10.14Reading Check Boxes: Little Things With Big Muscles:

 Little Things Have Big Muscles: On the Teach Like a Champion team, that’s our motto.  Aliquam magna est res musculi in Latin, apparently.  First draft of the Coat of Arms below.  Comments welcome.

But seriously, in analyzing the classroom materials of teachers at Leadership Prep Bed Stuy Middle Academy the other day we found one of those tiny but powerful things we love.  Amy Parsons, the Dean of Curriculum, found that when it came to reading poetry, her students were daunted. Many of her students would read a poem quickly and try to make a general statement about a line or two of the poem that they vaguely understood.  Often, she saw her students missing the overall tone and therefore have no chance at understanding the underlying meaning of the poem.  She wanted to slow them down and discipline (definition: teach them the right way to do it) them to read it multiple times before they tried to make sense of it.

So Amy taught her students to read poems three times as follows:

  1. First Read: Make a mood and tone note
  2. Second Read: Make a main idea note
  3. Third Read: Make two notes on literary devices used

Amy found that having a method for attacking poems and having that method involve multiple reads really helped to de-mystify poetry for her students.  Her students were better able to read and understand poetry independently. At least, they were when they were consistent about completing all three reads.  But kids are kids and sometimes, well, they said or even maybe believed they’d read it three times.  But had they?

So Amy instituted a check box (see photo below) a seemingly tiny and simple thing, but one that turned out to have great big muscles. By checking one box each time they read, students could track their own readings and of course they knew that Amy could track their readings.  It became harder not to read three times than it was to read three times.  By asking students to track and record their multiple reads, Amy standardized the format– a technique that’s going to be in TLaC 2.0 and that involves making sure that key information you need as you observe is in a standard place for each student so you can find it easily.  The check boxes made it easy for Amy (and very rapidly her colleagues) to hold students accountable for something that would otherwise be extremely difficult to monitor.  It made re-reading something that she could see and manage and push her students to hold themselves accountable for as well, thereby increasing their success as readers.

Also, note that each time students read they looked for something new.  On the first read, students look for tone and note whether it was positive or negative.  On their second read, they look for figurative language, underlining and labeling it.  Finally, they read the poem a third time, this time for the main idea.

Take a look at the examples below. When we analyzed student work samples in classes without this approach, many students misunderstood the mood of the poem and therefore were entirely unable to answer the question posed (“How does Roethke use figurative language to communicate the relationship between the speaker and his father?”).  Students who hadn’t read the poem multiple times thought the poem (about the complicated relationship between a son and his drunk and abusive father) was about a happy dance between a father and his child.  Those who read it three times got it.  And this simple check-box approach to track multiple readings made all the difference giving them the tools to unlock its deeper meaning.

Sometimes little things have big muscles.