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Linda Varvel

© 2001

Action Research

Teaching Reading Strategies More Visibly, Inventively, and Thoroughly: An I-Search to Action Plan Project

Why I Am Interested In This Topic In my second year of teaching at Anoka-Ramsey Community College, I was invited to teach two sections of Developmental Reading in the Reading Department. At the end of that semester, I felt that too often I had drifted into exploring the meaning and content of the particular stories and novels of the course, rather than staying focused on the "How To" of concrete reading strategies. I also felt my knowledge of key strategies was rusty. This summer, I planned to immerse myself in several texts. Our MWP morning sessions introduced me immediately to several cutting-edge texts and an opportunity to dialogue with several teachers from developmental and ESL and ELL programs. I Read It, But I Don't Get It by Cris Tovani is pure gold -- incisive, inspiring, and extremely practical.

What I Already Know
Teaching the meaning of a particular piece of literature role models good reading strategies and can certainly motivate students to try harder and participate more actively in talking and thinking about literature, but considering that most of the students in my class must transform poor reading habits and comprehension levels in two semesters, it seems critical to teach as skillfully as possible directly to the strategies. Although I structured my course around Double Entry Journals, levels of abstraction, and vocabulary, I found that a discussion of Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" which focuses on the mother's gradual recognition of her inadequate parenting of her eldest daughter and her prayerful thanks that her daughter has survived it thus far, risks being too indirect and haphazard an approach.

At times, I tried to teach too many strategies all the time and often did not emphasize a particular strategy specifically enough or with enough visible modeling and practice to make it part of my students' discipline. Chronological sequences within the text and direct instruction connecting what Keene terms "text-to-self, text-to-world, text-to text" were too random. I felt the learning curve rose too quickly at the beginning of my course and that I was still building parts of the foundation all semester.

Incremental seems essential here. I was surprised to discover that many readers tie their poor reading abilities to a particular teacher, one shameful learning event, or one "bad" year. Many students feel their only problem is reading speed and that it is the instructor's fault if they are not interested in the readings. With many students, although they wanted to be smarter and more skilled in the abstract, what kept them going was my belief in their success and their desire for a good grade. My agenda of learning more about people, the world, and developing a reading taste was not stated clearly or frequently. I need to be a sales person as well as a role model. Teaching metacognition, I think, is a key to the puzzle for me as teacher.

What I Want to Know
First of all, I want to know as many of the actual reading strategies as possible inside and out; I want to understand how they relate to each other in the dynamic transaction of reading. Based on last semester's experience, I feel the first 2 weeks are the most critical to enable the students to have a very solid foundation of strategies, clear writing activities, and a common language about reading and thinking. Therefore, I want to know how to design goals, objectives, and activities that build more incrementally and cast a wider net to catch more readers from the outset. Thirdly, I want to redesign the vocabulary aspect of Reading 0990 to be a more independent piece and have the students demonstrate words that they are learning to the class. Also, I want to find shorter activities that allow success as an opener to each class. Lastly, I need to more instruction about how to design quizzes and tests which teach strategies rather than literary content.

Beyer, Barry K. Practical Strategies for the Teaching of Thinking. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, Inc. 1987. [ISBN 0-2-5-10544-0]
This book focuses on teaching thinking processes and skills as distinct from a specific subject content; in that sense, it is a more scientific and academic approach. It is fascinating and will be particularly useful in the area of inference and synthesis.

Keene, Ellin Oliver & Susan Zimmermann. Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. 1997. [ISBN 0-435-07237-4]
This book reiterates many of the strategies and insights I found in the Tovani book, with a very detailed discussion and dialogue from the Ôclassroom as reading workshop.' She bemoans that fact that "we rarely see the systematic spread of best practices" found in our "classrooms of excellence" (53). I think the National Writing Project is definitely an attempt to do just that. I particularly like her beliefs: that disputes about what is important in a selection are just as useful as agreement about what is important, that students need to be encouraged to learn by close observation of both the teacher and the other students [in this sense, reading study is a true practicum], her emphasis on constant questioning and visual imagery, and a reminder that readers must always balance an awareness of the big picture as well as the small picture (185).

Meagher, Don. Handbook for Critical Reading. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1997. [ISBN 0-15-503057]
I have just begun to look at this one. This is one of our next textbooks for my Reading Course, Level II; it ties in beautifully with Tovani and I am beginning to study it in detail.

Tovani, Cris. I Read It, But I Don't Get It: Comprehension Strategies for Adolescent Readers. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers, 2000. [ISBN 1 57110 089 X]
Ms. Tovani opens the book with an amazing confession. She did not really learn how to read until after she began teaching. Although I find that difficult to believe, what she has to say is extremely accurate, practical, and useful in teaching learners to make meaning out of the words they decode on the page. Many of her strategies, if taught well, become useful access tools for readers as they try to encode meaning beyond just words and phrases that they read as beginning readers. It's all about constructing meaning through thinking. Tovani's voice and energy are very compelling; I couldn't put it down. It is a great foundation book for me right now.

What I Have Already Learned
I am well aware that students who cannot read well, fake it; however, I had no idea how many resistive readers actually know how to read, but lose the skills because of apathy and/or rebellion (Tovani 14). That explained something I had sensed for a long time. It was also great to hear her put the responsibility in these cases where it lies -- in the mind and heart of the student. He must meet us at halfway; she must enter in and engage in his or her own learning. One new idea stands out: "In the initial stages of learning a skill focus should be explicitly on the skill. Interference from subject matter and other skills should be minimized, if not eliminated altogether (Beyer 75). This was exactly my experience in my first semester of Reading Level II.

Ms. Tovani named seven clear reading strategies (17). I already practice the question-question-question strategy and pre-reading focus on background knowledge (reader response), but the practice of demonstrating my own interaction and thinking process as I read a selection and giving the students two-color highlighting assignment to track exactly where and why the reader becomes lost or confused are both radically simple and relevant (26, 38) Six other processes stand out:

• Identify and role model the idea of "reciting voice" and the two kinds of "conversation voice" (Tovani 39)
• Have students come up to the board and jot down what they know --either about some background historical or cultural knowledge for pre-reading context or about the selection we are reading aloud (66).
• Persuade students that DED's actually help them remember what they read, which will improve their class participation, add to the community knowledge, and help on test review.
• Teach the exact behaviors that indicate a confused or stymied reader: no conversation, no pictures, distracted, cannot retell, not answering any question, forgets characters (48).
• Teach the practice of observing and noting, talking about, and using "fix-it" strategies at the exact moment of confusion (48).
• Give them guided practice at using a number of reading strategies for new problems

What I Have Already Learned -- continued:
Probably the most helpful chapter to date is Tovani's Chapter 8: Outlandish Response, or as my UWRF colleague, Dr. Karolides, says instances of "valuable, but not valid" responses. Defining the fine distinctions between strategies and showing students samples of each is just excellent: prediction, inference, assumption, and opinion. I've already moved these into overheads.

Keene's book defines levels of importance very effectively and contains some excellent selections, especially "A Chorus of Stones" by Susan Griffin (22, 74). Her strategies of retelling and reading aloud are both helpful. I particularly like the way Keene and Zimmerman show the incremental step-by-step process of moving the learners from dependent to responsible, independent readers (95, 119). Tovani frames everything in an empowering and positive manner: "Good readersÉ.;" Keene uses the term "proficient readers."

A Plan for 2001-2002:
What I Still Need to Discover:
With these key texts in hand, I want to redesign my syllabus and activities to allow room for practice, modeling, and discussion of the actual reading strategies around any literary piece. I plan the following:

• post-it note exercises to pinpoint the exact moments of confusion
• discussions of the web (schema) of thinking around 1-page readings from many genres and rhetorical stances; I will require each student to bring in one piece to spring on me (or any student who wants to try) and give it a "cold read" in which I report my spontaneous inner dialogue of thinking/strategies.
• check homework/journals every week for the first 4 weeks to get them on board
• initiate small group work sooner and check homework daily the first 2-3 weeks.
• emphasize a "workshop" where being wrong is as beneficial as being right.
• change the final project to a self-evaluation presentation around one page of one of their assigned selections and an analogous selection that they have found outside the assigned readings.

Tovani's book will be at the center; I plan to continue actively reading about reading strategies, and I want to invite my supervisor-colleague, Patty-Wheeler Andrews, into the classroom twice: once to present her slant on reading strategies and once again, to observe my methodology on "drawing inferences." I intend to call three people from this SSI group to talk about my progress with these goals around reading strategies. If possible, I would like to organize reading strategy activities around guest authors at Anoka Ramsey Community College.


Creative Writing

Plain Women

In a womb-like cocoon of women's closeness,
settled like sisters against the storm on a prairie farmstead,
solid arms bare to the elbows and long skirts flapping in the hillside wind,
we were plain women, equal to each other's love.
I out foraging for meanings in the world,
she pulling threads of the world's tapestry back in on herself -- homespun,
weaving and nesting always.
I came home to her, she went out into the hills with me.
There was a blessing in our kitchen conversation.
And then one day,
the dishes were put away,
aprons hung up on the wall.
She went next door for socializing
and came back with a man she could love,
and I heard footsteps down the back stairs.
It was a long, cold winter,
and I whispered inside my hollow chest, "a bitter one."

I thought I was a witch, a she-hag,
an aging spinster in the run-down house on the corner,
children peering in as they walked by.
But spring came and I kept up my habits,
Seeing women frequently in circles with hot tea and honeyed breads.
I managed to stay inside my skin.

By summer a Black Madonna came knocking at my door,
said she loved me and would I pick roses for her.
I declined, but began to smell hope,
wear it in my hair, carry it to bed with me.
She was divining water, so moved to a river city
and I lay down one last time with a man
in a dream one night.

Come summer,
think I'll go back up to the old farmhouse
plant forty acres of clover
and lay some mornings late
up in the big brass bed,
my arms wide open
and let women's voices flow over me like water.


Homefront, Iowa, 1950s

In bobby socks and saddles shoes, the girls cluster in groups of three
pastel cardigans Ð pink, blue, and green.
The look-alike boys are all called Jimmy and Donny.
Holding hands and pecking a kiss like Dutch couples on a clock high in the air,
they watch each other, transfixed over milkshakes and hamburgers.
Romper Room meets Dick Clark until everyone begins to move and shake below the waist.

No sweat or ecstasy here, that was still over there in Paris, Rome, or Berlin.
D-Day was submerged on the shores of the collective unconscious and wouldn't see the
light of day for fifty years.
The men couldn't let themselves go like that again,
Not unless it was very dark and very far from Main Street.

Regimented amnesia had been handed out like money on the troop ships home.
Changing trains in Chicago, the men put on dress suits, shirts, and ties,
got out of the car in Peoria and Des Moines to smiling children and small dogs.
The women leaned against vacuum cleaners, ringer washers,
or the family sedan for holiday photos.
Motels were for family vacations and cameras were instamatic and flashing 12 hours a
day, especially in the summer.

Clean sheets flapped on maypole clotheslines.
Backyard housewives
moving in and out to the GI Bill of Rights.
spinning family trees to end World War II forever.
Summer wind whistled through screens so softly,
the whispers were doves moving again.

Everyone smiled and said "Cheese" simultaneously,
hoping that the millionaire would find their front door and Mom would have time to get
her apron off.
Born to some silent, synchronized merry-go-round
Esther Williams in a flock of golden fish
none of us could stop swimming, swimming
wound up by some wizard no one dared look at behind the curtain.