Where Dioramas Go to Die

I picked up my first pedagogy book of the year this week and I can’t put it down. Disrupting Thinking by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst is living up to its name. It’s 1950’s Louise Rosenblatt Reader Response Theory meets a desperate modern need to educate kids to be responsible consumers of information in order to compassionately embrace the viewpoints of others.

The first few chapters have felt like the perfect “Now what?” for someone that has recently made the move to workshop.

My kids are choosing what they read. Now what? 

I’m devoting class time for students to build this habit. Now what? 

My students are reading more and more. Now what? 

The “now what” is to really think about the how and why we read. The text details insights on building responsive, responsible, and compassionate readers who will interact with a text, rather than just extract from it, question the text, and open themselves up to the text in order to see other points of view.

Cue the angelic choir and parting clouds. I’m ready.

But, I am also guilty of not always facilitating this type of reader response. Not on purpose, of course, but just out of difficulty in dealing with the daily grind.

We read. We talk. We mini lesson. We write. We rearrange the order. We repeat.

However, somewhere in there, we also lose a lot of readers. The once enthusiastic elementary kids, with their literal cartwheels about books, often come to us as vacant vessels of readicide. How does this happen? Beers and Probst suggest that “we have made reading a painful exercise for kids. High-stakes tests, Lexile levels, searches for evidence, dialogic notes, and sticky notes galore – we have demanded of readers many things we would never do ourselves while reading. We have sticky-noted reading to death” (46).

Now, ironically, I’ve written quite a few sticky notes around the insights in this book…postitI like to organize my thoughts this way. And, in no way am I suggesting that pulling ideas from a text is malpractice. At the end of the day, of course we need students to think deeply about their reading and demonstrate that thought through talk, written reflection, and/or analysis of some kind.

But what is appropriate? What is too much? What kills a desire to read as opposed to igniting it?

In search of some renewed inspiration, Disrupting Thinking had me laughing out loud as it got me thinking about why and how I interact with texts:

Seriously, as you finished the book you most recently enjoyed, did you pause, hold the book gently in your hands and say to yourself, ‘This time, this time, I think I’ll make a diorama’?…Do you write summaries of what you read, make new book jackets, rewrite the ending, take tests over every text? Any text? Do you want your reading level put on a bulletin board for all to see. Do you even know your damn reading level? (Beers & Probst 46)

So, how do we balance professional responsibility, a love of content, a desire to build up students as readers and writers, and the knowledge that a lot of what we’ve done (or still do) in our classrooms actually exhausts, irritates, and/or alienates our students from reading?

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers. This is a reflective process in action.

What I do know, is that Disrupting Thinking has me…thinking about it. A lot. It also has me vowing to put a few things into practice and promote a few others in my classroom:

  1. Promote Responsive Readers through more and more opportunities to talk about choice books. I’m guilty of still trying to “make sure kids are reading,” when in fact, most often, they are cutting corners in that reading if we are trying to “catch” them. Book clubs, conferring, and talk through reflective notebook writing promote low stakes opportunities to share insights on texts.  With mentor texts to support skill instruction, the thinking can be applied to choice reading, but doesn’t necessarily mean that I should be looking to choice reading as a summative data point.
  2. Promote Responsible Readers by working to find a balance between supporting/celebrating reading and “holding students accountable.” This is an imperfect science to be sure. I find that the more I talk with students one on one, the more they have to say, and the more I can directly intervene to move them forward to more challenging books, deepen their understanding of why I want them to keep reading in the first place, and celebrate their successes as independent readers. Save the evaluation for skills based cold reads when the curriculum demands the assessment we as teachers need, while keeping in mind that many students don’t see those assessments as their responsibility to reading, and I would argue, nor should they.
  3. Promote Compassionate Readers, again, through talk. When I read something that is changing my perspective on the world, myself, or life in general, I want to share that with someone. I want to share that with many someones. I also know, that to grow in my reading life, I need to read a wide variety of books…books that challenge my long held beliefs and understandings (or misunderstandings) of the world. Again, this is where helping students to diversify their reading lives is so very important.
  4. Talk, Talk, Talk! I’ve been asking my students two questions this week to drive their book club discussions: How is this changing me? How is this changing my view of the world? These two questions invite personal connection and reflection. I can’t wait to hear my AP students’ book club discussions!

Lisa Dennis teaches English and leads a department of incredible English educators at Franklin High School near Milwaukee. Her thinking has been disrupted and she’s loving it. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum 


7 thoughts on “Where Dioramas Go to Die

  1. […] student has with the book (read more about a modern take on Rosenblatt’s transactional theory here and here).  Students want to connect with texts in meaningful ways, through their own experiences, […]


  2. […] ideas had been disrupting my thinking since page one.  I loved its premise, which centered around two questions the authors returned to again and […]


  3. […] also reminds me of a passage I read about compassionate readers in Disrupting Thinking this morning (a book I refer to as Interrupting Thinking, thanks to a certain 16-month-old in my […]


  4. Shana Karnes June 2, 2017 at 9:05 am Reply

    Okay, fine, I’ll move this to the top of my pedagogical TBR pile, Lisa, dammit. 😑😋

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] Thinking by Kylene Beers & Bob Probst – Lisa has been so effusive about this book that I just had to go ahead and start reading it, even though I’ve been […]


  6. Amy Rasmussen May 17, 2017 at 1:56 pm Reply

    This question belongs on a poster, and needs to be considered by every educator: “So, how do we balance professional responsibility, a love of content, a desire to build up students as readers and writers, and the knowledge that a lot of what we’ve done (or still do) in our classrooms actually exhausts, irritates, and/or alienates our students from reading?” Perhaps we’d rethink much of what we do in our instructional practice.

    Thanks for this insightful post! My book should be at my doorstep when I get home today. Excited to read and share in this thinking.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Amy Estersohn May 17, 2017 at 8:10 am Reply

    Another thing I’m continuing to think about is what kind of thinking we demand from what kind of text. I can appreciate when kids roll their eyes if we demand they identify a theme when all they are trying to do is enjoy a good story. I can live a happy life if students don’t want to think too deeply about an IR book … but I agree with you, Lisa, I also want to think about how we can show students how a close read is done. Always a careful balance!

    Liked by 1 person

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