Teacher Scholar Voices

Grappling with the Black Hole: Supporting Students’ Discussions About Text

Teacher Scholar Voices


Laura Alvarez is an 8th grade English teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland Unified School District.  A long time Mills Teacher Scholar and part of the Mills Teacher Scholar team, she has focused her recent Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work on supporting students’ thinking and discussions around complex text. In this series of three connected blog posts, she discusses how looking at video data of student book groups broadened her understanding of student learning in this area and helped her respond in ways that moved her students forward. 

As teachers, we’re often told to put students into groups. Group work has some kind of magical power in the world of education. Through group work, stronger students support their peers, students interact and construct learning together, the teacher isn’t the only authority or source of knowledge and expertise in the classroom, etc. But what actually happens when you put kids together has always been somewhat of a black hole for me as a teacher. In the midst of a busy class of 30+ students, it’s hard for me to listen in a focused way to one group of students.

Screen Shot 2014-09-16 at 12.19.27 PMThis year I decided my 8th graders were ready for me to let go and have them meet independently in small reading groups. With the Common Core’s focus on academic discussion and students grappling with complex text, I hoped that by letting go students would be pushed to take more ownership for their reading and discussions and be more self-directed in their meaning making.

In setting up their reading groups, I tried to be as explicit as possible about the purpose–supporting each other’s reading development. The learning target was: “I can prepare for and participate in discussions about text so that everyone reaches a stronger understanding of the text,” and students regularly reflected and gathered evidence about whether they were meeting this target.  To prepare for their groups, students read the assigned chapter or chapters and wrote factual and/or interpretive questions to discuss with their group, along with the relevant page numbers. To help me grapple with the black hole of group work, I regularly audio recorded four focal students in their groups as part of my Mills Teacher Scholars inquiry work.

 “Clarifying the Text” vs. “Clarifying the Story”

So now that kids were in groups and talking to each other, what did a good conversation look like? What was a conversation that was going to get group mates to “reach a stronger understanding of the text?”

One of my first aha’s was the difference between what I called “clarifying the story” and “clarifying the text.” In November, we were reading Animal Farm by George Orwell as a whole class. I chose one discussion group–Fabiola, Charles, Alejandro, and Elisa–as my focal students for the year. This was a challenging book for my class, and the questions they brought to their group sometimes included factual questions about the basic plot or interpretive questions that showed some confusion about what had happened in the chapter. At first, this made me anxious—was the book too hard? Did I need to stop and regroup?

But then I noticed the differences in how students dealt with a groupmate’s confusion. One approach was what I called “clarifying the story”—basically, let me just tell you what actually happened so now you’ve got the story-line and we can move on. The second was “clarifying the text”–I’m going to take you to the part in question and through our interaction, you’ll figure it out “on your own” or I’ll guide you through how I understood it. The latter is more of a “teacher move”—what I often do as a teacher to guide a student through the process of making meaning themselves.

It quickly became clear that what I wanted to see and what I thought would push students to grow as readers was “clarifying the text.” They could see the movie and get the story down, but what mattered was that they grew in their ability to struggle through challenging text and make sense of it. This required actually delving into the text together, with scaffolding from their groupmate.

Laura_photo1With this clarity as a teacher, I was able to be explicit with my students about these two different types of moves and remind them of our purpose in talking about books together–supporting each other to understand the text (not just the story) better. Groups debriefed their discussions by identifying incidents of “clarifying the text” in their discussions.

In the end, Animal Farm was challenging for my students, but (or better, and) it gave us the space to learn how to grapple collaboratively with text and meet the learning target of participating in discussions about text so that everyone reaches a stronger understanding of the text. If students could learn to do this effectively with and for one another, I no longer needed to hold onto the reins as facilitator of their reading development.

Read Laura’s posts on what she learned through her inquiry about her assumptions around student grouping practices and what makes a “strong” reader.