One of the intriguing pulls for me for attending this conference was the fact that Ellin Oliver Keene was giving the keynote. I have her book, Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader’s Workshop, which she co-authored with Susan Zimmermann. I have had that book for quite some time and it is one of my favorites. It’s the kind of book that you pick up and ponder the contents. It makes you think. Each time I page back through it I come away with more understandings and learning and yes more questions. I knew it would be a treat to hear her speak and I would learn more about comprehension and how we understand. The title of the keynote was “To Understand.”

She opened the keynote with a story about one of the students she was working with whose name was Jamika. She told a story of a young girl who apparently erupted in class after being asked one too many times, “Did that story you just read make sense?” Jamica probably rolled her eyes and said that teachers, her parents and everyone else kept asking her this question time after time. Jamica’s hurled back a question of her own. Apparently Jamika was quite exasperated with adult after adult asking this same question and she had had enough. I can just hear her in my head as she exclaimed, “All of you keep asking this question but none of you say “what does sense mean Why don’t you tell me what “make sense” means?” I could get quite a good picture in my head of the encounter. You know kids always come up with the best questions and send us on a quest like none others. So Ellin began a journey to figure out “what does Jamika understand?’ She looked through the teacher’s guide and discovered that a total of 69 questions were asked when the teacher follows the guide. Basically the student answers questions and retells the story. The process was one of answering questions and retelling the story. Ellin Keene stated that we could just look at the pictures. Answering questions, retelling and learning new vocabulary are the main components. Then Ellin Keene posed this question for the audience:

“Do students need comprehension strategy instruction if all they’re expected to do is retell and answer questions?” Ellin Keene questions if this definition is worthy of our student’s intellectual capacity?

How would you answer that question? We all need to give that question much thought. Ellin Keene went on to point out that the first three points assess comprehension. They do not teach comprehension strategies. She said, “We are not teaching them to improve thought processes.” Ellin Keene began to focus on the classroom practice. She wanted to observe students in the act of comprehension and give language to the process. Take moments of understanding and hone in on what the kid was doing at that moment. If we can define and describe we can learn more. Here are some nuggets that Ellin tossed out to the audience.

  • When you are deeply engaged the world around you disappears.
  • We dwell in ideas. We need time to be silent, to listen to our own thinking to reflect purposefully on an idea.
  • How much time do we give students? We have to give them time.
  • Understanding does not happen unless we give them time to think deeply. We have to give them time.
  • Students need a way to hold on to their thinking.
  • We understand when we struggle because we so want to know.
  • Talk is hugely important to the learning process.
  • To understand is to remember because it is important for us to remember – need those emotional connections.
  • Rigorous discourse with others.
  • We are renaissance learners – we allow ourselves to meander through a wide range of topics and understand texts and generalize.
  • We work to understand how ideas are related.

Her handout gave examples for making the dimensions of understanding come alive. Her first bullet under
When we understand:

  • We concentrate intensively – we are fervent, we lose ourselves in the experience of thought, we work intensively, the world disappears and we work hard to learn more, we choose to challenge ourselves.

She went on in the handout to give examples for making the dimensions of understanding come alive. Here’s one for the above bullet :

“We concentrate intensively, we are ferment-

  • Model — This translates into you sharing with your students about times you were intensely involved with learning and what triggered you to push those understandings further. Share the details. Did you happen to be studying something at the time that was an area in which you were passionately interested? What made you want to dig deeper? Did it lead you to more understandings?
  • Talk about how to develop areas of passionate interest. Such passions don’t come automatically to all kids. Talk to your kids in individual and group meetings to help kids find areas that most interest them. Talk with them about how to pursue topics of passionate interest. How do you do it in your own life- how might they do it?

I’m going to try this out in my classroom. Why don’t you? Come back and comment and let’s share the learning!