Taking the answer out of the equation

In the quest to promote deep student thinking, sometimes the answer is the problem.

In the classroom, we can launch a beautiful, rich question only to see students reach the answer – and reach the end of their thinking. After all, why would they think beyond the answer? Isn’t the purpose of a question to lead to an answer? Isn’t the answer also the conclusion? Isn’t the answer the end of the journey of discovery?

No, it’s not.

The purpose of a question is not always to launch a journey toward a single answer. The purpose is often to give students an opportunity to think, to stretch, to learn strategies which they can apply to a wider range of scenarios. When students regard the answer as the end of the journey, they may miss those very growth opportunities. But how can we cause students to reach for deeper thinking when they are accustomed to ending the journey at the point of reaching an answer? A simple solution is to take the answer out of the equation. In other words, when you ask a question, give the students the answer to the question and change their task. Ask them to find as many connections as possible between the question and the answer. 

These two questions appear to be nearly identical, but their potential for leveraging student thinking is vastly different.

The first question, by itself, will lead to a journey-ending “28 cubic units.” An insightful instructional tactic would then be to ask the students how they know, to explain their thinking, to make connections. However, the reality is that the students will often do so from the vantage point of confirming and defending their original answer. All additional connections will be seen through the lens of the student’s original pathway.

Now consider the second question. The instructional architecture is much different in this case. If this question is presented with the answer showing, the students are released from finding and defending an original pathway. Instead the teacher is able to say, “Show me as many connections as possible between the question and the answer.”  

The answer has been taken out of the equation.

What remains is the pursuit of the thinking that connects the question to the answer. What are the multiple pathways that can be discovered? More importantly, how are those multiple pathways related to one another?

Expect your classroom to sound something like this:

“I see 4 towers of 4, and 6 towers of 2. (4 × 4) + (6 × 2) = 28”

“I see a prism on the bottom that measures 2 × 2 × 5. That’s 20. And there are 8 on top.”

“There are 14 in the front, and 14 in the back. 14 × 2 = 28.”

“I see a tall group with a volume of 16 and a short group with a volume of 12. 16 + 12 = 28.”

“I see it differently, like I’m slicing it with a butter knife. There are 2 groups of 8 and 3 groups of 4. (2 × 8) + (3 × 4) = 28.”

“Oh, I see that! What if we slice it the other way, horizontally? I see two groups of 4 and two groups of 10. 4 + 4 + 10 + 10 = 28.”

“I see 40 cubes. Imagine that there is not a section missing in the top right corner—that it is one solid rectangular prism. There would be 40 cubic units. But some are missing. The missing volume is 2 by 3 by 2. You see, 12 cubic units are missing—and 40 – 12 = 28.”

Then, after many connections have been established and recorded, including several connections you didn’t see yourself, you step in with the simple question, as you carefully and deliberately point to the algebraic representations of the students’ thinking. “I wonder how these equations are related?” You press your students toward an even deeper level of thinking.

You can do it because your instructional architecture has been well designed.

You can do it because you have taken the answer out of the equation.

She carried Harry Potter across the ocean and other tales of a children's book editor

The license plate that watches over Cheryl Klein and her computer belonged to her grandfather, Philip Sadler, a “Kid-Lit” original. It is an expression of the love of words and adventures—both real and imaginary—that Sadler bequeathed to his granddaughter.

Klein, who joined Scholastic as an editorial assistant in 2000, is Executive Editor of Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc. I recently spoke with her about her work and how she is addressing what illustrator Christopher Myers, son of renowned children’s book author Walter Dean Myers, has called “the apartheid of literature.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Who are some of the writers you work with?

I work with authors from many different backgrounds, including Varian Johnson, who published a wonderful novel called The Great Greene Heist last May; Eric Gansworth, who grew up on the Tuscarora Reservation in New York State and wrote If I Ever Get Out of Here; and Trent Reedy, whose Words in the Dust is inspired by his experiences as a soldier in Afghanistan. I feel privileged to be able to bring so many unique stories to American readers.

Why does giving a voice to writers of diverse backgrounds matter so much to you?

Like most children, when I was growing up I had a keen sense of what is fair and unfair. That has stayed with me. It has always seemed unfair to me that there are so many stories that haven’t been heard. I find it unfair as a reader who hasn’t gotten to read those stories. And I think it’s unfair to writers who haven’t always gotten a fair shake. I want to be the person who fights to make things fair.

Could you describe your role in the Harry Potter series?

I served as the continuity editor on the last two books of the [seven-part] series. And I assisted Arthur Levine with the overall editing of the series.

As continuity editor, I kept track of the recurring names, terms and facts. For example, with “Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans” I had to make sure that “Bott’s” always had an apostrophe and “Every Flavor” never had a hyphen.

We couldn’t transmit any of the manuscripts via email because the stakes were too high. So during the editing process, I flew to England several times. In 2007, I was at London’s Heathrow Airport with the final manuscript, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which no one was allowed to know I had. At security, I got pulled out of line for a random bag check and was told to open my bag and empty it. There was a pile of paper about five inches high. I was so afraid that the guard would look down and see the names “Harry,” “Ron” or “Hermione.”

“Wow,” the guard said, “you have a big pile of paper here."

“Yes,” I said nervously. But she just pushed it back at me. She didn’t know that at that moment, she had her hands on the most valuable manuscript in the Western Hemisphere.

What were you thinking?

That if anyone questioned me about the manuscript, I would say that I had written a work of fan fiction. No one would have known otherwise.

As moderator of our upcoming author panel at Teacher Week @Scholastic, what are you most eager to ask of panelists Varian Johnson, Sonia Manzano, Sharon Robinson and Lisa Yee?

First, I’d like to talk to them about their experiences as readers. I’m curious to know about the books that inspired them to become writers, the books they first saw themselves in, and the teachers who inspired them to take up writing and then cultivated that love for writing in them.

I’d also like to know what qualities they try to bring to their books that readers from all ethnicities could relate to.

How do you envision bringing more diversity to children’s literature?

This is one of those topics that I’ve been talking about for so long I almost think: “Hasn’t everybody just accepted this by now?” But we have a real opportunity [with this panel] to discuss the challenges and complexities of discovering new voices. I’m excited to get to talk to teachers about this.

What would you say to young readers?

That your stories matter, and that you are the only person who can write them. That doesn’t mean you have to grow up to be a writer. But never think that your story—or anyone else’s—is worthless or that it shouldn’t be heard.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

I grew up reading Jane Austen, and she is still one of my favorites. I also love the authors I work with, of course, including Trent Reedy, Bill Konigsberg, Karen Rivers, and Bethanie Deeney Murguia, who is an amazing writer and illustrator. She's working on a book called Princess, Fairy, Ballerina that we’re trying to sort out right now, which is really fun. We’re always working a year ahead.

Can you tell me about the original owner of your fancy license plate?

My grandfather was a professor of children’s literature at Central Missouri State University [now the University of Central Missouri], and he helped run one of the nation’s first children’s literature festivals.

Every year, about 30 authors came in to talk to kids. I ended up going to the event from the time I was a baby. From a very young age, I got to talk to authors. When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a book editor.

What matters most to me is empowering children as readers and writers. I grew up around writers. I grew up understanding that books are made by people. I want other kids to understand that too.

To learn more about Klein and the “diverse protagonists” she has helped bring to life, click here and here.







Critical and creative thinking for all

I find myself consistently in awe of the teachers and principals of schools that have rolled up their sleeves, taken the hard work of turning around their school head on and still have the energy and passion to share their successes – and lessons learned – with others. I often wonder how are they not sleeping instead?! I met one such principal this week when I sat in the Keysor Elementary School presentation during the 2014 Model Schools Conference. Principal Bryan Painter gave us a window into how this Missouri school tackled all sorts of challenges and while they find themselves still working, had plenty of productive experiences to share.

During conferences, ideas can be overwhelming as they are buzzing about everywhere and while my list of great insights is long from this conference, the piece of Principal Painter’s presentation that really got me to think was when he asked use about instilling critical and creative thinking for all in schools. He started with presenting his key action items on a slide:

  • Create, allow for, and nurture opportunities to problem solve and think critically about relevant ideas
  • Create, allow for, and nurture opportunities for playful thinking and creativity
  • Teach into creative thinking skills
  • Ensure conditions of trust – where risk-taking is the norm and creativity is valued
  • Advocate for physical spaces that inspire creativity, innovation, and new ways of thinking

With the simple list in front of us, he had us discuss them amongst ourselves for a few minutes from our own lens. Once we finished, he posed the group two questions. How many of you looked at this list from the perspective of your students in the classroom? All hands went up. Now he asked how many of you looked at this list from the perspectives of the teachers in your school? I don’t recall a hand going up but I reserve the right to have missed one while I had an a-ha moment.

That simple question was an eye-opening trick that I hope you all will think about. We are so invested – and rightly so – in the success of students. A crucial part of that conversation is always how do teachers and leaders come together to make it work – again, rightly so. But this simple idea of what we want to do for our students to foster learning is also what we can and want to do for our teachers is spot on. Just as we are creating the environment for our students to think differently, we need to do so for our teachers so they can tackle the changes they need to address. The "for all" in this post's title isn't just for all student but rather for all students and educators. 

American Academy of Pediatrics issues policy on early literacy

Educators, researchers and parents have long understood the importance of reading aloud to young children -- both to instill in them the importance of books and reading, but also to help stimulate brain development, vocabulary acquisition and the knowledge that comes from reading about the world.

Research dating back decades (See Hart & Risley) shows the stunning word gap between young children from low-income families and those from wealthier households. These vocabulary gaps start to open at a very early age, and they tend persist as children grow older, and become predictors of later success in school and beyond.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is taking a big step forward today by issuing a policy statement that promotes early literacy—beginning from an infant's very first days—as an essential component of primary care visits. Here's coverage from The New York Times this morning.

Today, at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) America meeting in Denver, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a new collaborative effort of Too Small to Fail, AAP, Scholastic and Reach Out and Read to raise awareness among parents about early language development.

At Scholastic, we're excited to be making a 500,000-book donation to Reach Out and Read to jump start this initiative -- books that this wonderful organization will use to distribute to children in pediatric exam rooms nationwide.

This is an issue we care deeply about here at Scholastic; we've always advocated that parents begin reading to children at birth. The more children are exposed to books and rich language, the better off they’ll be!

Parents: When did you start reading to your kids?

How to run a great end-of-year literacy event

With the school year wrapping up for most students, what better way to celebrate than with a family literacy event? It is a great way to bring families together to continue to build your learning community. You can recognize the year’s achievements and kick off summer activities.

The top 5 things that make a great literacy event:

  1. GREAT BOOK: Start with a great book, one with exciting pictures or an intriguing story line.  Read it with passion and ask lots of questions. Follow the read aloud with a quick discussion to review the book and extend the learning.
  2. INTERACTIVE ACTIVITIES: Follow up the read aloud with fun interactive activities that spark everyone’s interests. Anything from writing to acting or drawing can keep the learning going.
  3. WORKING TOGETHER: Provide opportunities to share and work together. Everyone has something to offer and each of us have different experiences. Working together allows for everyone to play a part of the learning.
  4. GOOD COMMUNITY COLLABORATIONS: Partnering with other organizations and businesses in the community can help make the event stronger. Community partners can provide volunteers, activity space, educational resources or refreshments.
  5. OPPORTUNITY TO PRACTICE AT HOME: After families have had a great time at the literacy event, share resources or activities they can do together at home. Giving families the chance to do some of the same types of activities they just experienced allows them to work together.

New York City’s PS 7, the I Have a Dream Foundation – NY and the Scholastic FACE (Family and Community Engagement) group teamed up to host a Literacy Event to celebrate a great year. On an early Saturday morning in East Harlem about 30 students and their families showed up in the school library for literacy event. Students participated in a great read aloud of the book What Do You Do With a Tail Like This? by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page. After a quick book discussion the students and their families did three great activities in the cafeteria and then went home with three books and more activities for home.

Program Director Nancy Restrepo-Wilson summed it up when she said, "I loved the opportunity to make reading fun and accessible to families as they support their children. Indeed, we are grateful for this opportunity and look forward to more in the future.”

Save the date: Teacher Week @ Scholastic

No matter how talented, how experienced and how well-trained we are at something, there's always room for improvement! To help you recharge and gear up for next school year, we are excited to invite you to Scholastic for a free, four day event featuring 15 professional development seminars (and exclusive teacher discounts in the Scholastic Store!). 

Teachers, if you are in the NYC area August 18-21, mark your calendars and register for Teacher Week @ Scholastic at www.scholastic.com/teacherweek. (Be sure to include an email address you'll have access to this summer so we can send you updates!)

We are still putting final touches on things and building the full schedule, but we know this year’s seminars will include:

Tailoring Reading Instruction to Your Students By Dr. Julie Washington, Professor, Georgia State University, Communication Disorders Program, Educational Psychology and Special Education

Number Talks By Sherry Parrish, Assistant Professor for The University of Alabama at Birmingham

Writing Evidence-Based Arguments By Dr. Ruth Culham, President of the Culham Writing Company

Putting Students on a Path to Greatness By Bryon V. Garrett, Chairman, National Family Engagement Alliance; Former CEO, National PTA

Supporting Bilingual Students By Dr. Cynthia Weill, Teachers College, Columbia University

New teachers, don’t worry we’ve added special seminars just for you!

Classroom Management and Organization Made Easy By Genia Connell, Master Teacher

Integrating Technology into the Reading/Writing Classroom By Alycia Zimmerman, Master Teacher

7 Strategies for Surviving—and Thriving—in Your First Year of Teaching By: Francie Alexander, Chief Academic Officer, Scholastic Inc.


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