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03.13.14Rue Ratray and “Sensitivity Analysis” in Reading Classes (Video)

gearsWhen we teach math we try to develop number sense- a broader intuition for how numbers work, an affinity for the logic of how they fit together. When we set out to teach ‘number sense’ one tool we often use is a simple version of “sensitivity analysis.” We ask students to evaluate the effect of changes to a number or a numerical expression.  For example we might ask students to evaluate how much the value of 1,206 would change if the two were changed to a seven. This helps students to see the interactions of the pieces within: The two in1,206 represents hundreds; the larger number can be decomposed into a series of other values. It’s an effort to show the inner workings of the machine.

I thought of that approach to teaching number sense when I watched a video of Rue Ratray teaching The Giver earlier this week.  Rue, who teaches sixth graders at Edward Brooke Schools’ Brooke East Boston campus, began his class with a close reading of a two sentence excerpt.  He wanted his students to discuss whether the father in The Giver was a cruel character. As you may recall if you’ve read it, the father commits a “release” (socially-sanctioned killing) of an infant but is blissfully unaware of what he’s doing.

Rue began class by putting these lines from the novel on the board and asking students to read them:

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp!”

Then he used a turn and talk: “Based upon just this sentence, as it’s written,  what can we infer about how Jonas’ father feels about what he did?”

What Rue wanted students to recognize, I suspect, was how the father’s tone revealed a lack of awareness about what he was doing. He was, ironically, using the same loving “baby-talk” voice with the child he was about to ‘release’ that he used with a beloved child he had adopted at home. Rue wanted his students to hear the unselfconscious sing-song in the father’s voice, how the use of the playful loving terms of affection, “little guy” and “shrimp” was both the way Lowry demonstrated that the father had little awareness of  what he was doing and how she expressed the deep irony and dissonance of him using his playful loving affection with all the echoes of family life in such a brutal scene.

It takes a special intuition for how words work, an affinity for the hidden language of tone and word choice to pick up on these things. Call that “language sense” to express he parallel to number sense, maybe. But the question that plagues us all is: How do you develop it?

Rue’s approach was a form of sensitivity analysis much like you might use in teaching number sense. He asked students to read two near-parallel sentences he’d constructed in which he’d inserted minor changes. And as with number sense, he asked his students to evaluate how the change affected the value of the overall expression. First they read the original:

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp!”

Then this:

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A shrimp.”
Then this:

Jonas watched as his father bent over the squirming newchild on the bed. “And you, little guy, you’re only five pounds ten ounces. A baby.”

As you can see the changes are subtle.  Rue is removing and substituting for (and adding back) just the pet names Jonas’ father uses.  The idea is to help students see how the setnence feels different with just a tiny change and then discuss the differences and compare the sentences, ideally to  show the inner workings of the machine.  And generally his students, in their discussion, did begin to understand the nuances of the subtlest aspects of Lowry’s writing.

This to me is a critical part of teaching reading–developing an ear for nuance, tone and word choice, and Rue’s lesson was, I thought, a relatively brilliant tool for getting there. And I think you’d have to say the data supports it.  Brooke East Boston posted the highest median student growth percentile of any school in Massachusetts at any grade level in ELA last year and Brooke Roslindale, where Rue cut his teeth, was, after years of steadily brilliant results, the highest performing K-8 school in Massachusetts.

Anyway if you want to see Rue doing ‘sensitivity analysis’–and get a general sense for the rigor and high expectations in his classroom, you can watch the video here

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6 Responses to “Rue Ratray and “Sensitivity Analysis” in Reading Classes (Video)”

  1. Lisa Van Gemert
    March 14, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    I love the analysis you’ve done here connecting this exercise to math. It’s connected somewhat to the concreteness fading technique – the teacher is taking the “real” words and then substituting, gradually letting the nuance emerge. It’s language algebra. Thanks for sharing.

  2. October 27, 2017 at 9:42 pm


    I was wondering if there’s any way to get access to this video–it looks like it’s now password protected. I wanted to share with some teachers at my school (along with a few of the other videos that have been put under password protection recently).


    • Doug Lemov
      October 30, 2017 at 1:00 pm

      hmm. not sure what the problem is there. i’ll look into it.

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