Camping in the First Round of Comprehension

“Hold on a second, though – what do you think he means by that?”

Twenty pairs of eyes in the room began to shift. A few students squint back down at their books; others squint at some point on the wall just to the side of my head.

“I just don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet – I think there’s something more going on here. Maybe look back at the closing section.”

A student or two absently leaf through the reader, looking for the sake of looking.

I hear a sharp intake of breath from a student, one I knew I could count on for insight – I pounced immediately: “Yeah, Emma, what are you thinking?”

She gestures equivocally. “I think he’s just saying the same thing. I think he’s saying what we were already talking about. I don’t think there’s anything there except the same thing in a different way.”

Reader, you know this scene. We have all been in this place, yes? I would like to tell you that I cleverly pirouetted with a dazzling question for the class, that the scales fell from their eyes, and they adapted a philosophical mien as they carefully teased out the shades of meaning in the word “unbeing.” Of course no such thing happened. And I did what teachers who have stubbornly fallen in love with their own idea of a text often do: I said, “Well, then I think we need to spend a little more time here.”

For context, this was not a culminating interpretive discussion – we had just finished reading a difficult passage and were rehashing our basic understanding of it. The students had not finished guessing what was on my mind, and so I thought, “There’s more to be done.” What followed was a long slog through the mud, a back and forth between me pointing out interesting lines and asking direct questions, and students mirroring back to me the same mixture of defiance and exasperation.

This is such a common misstep that at Inquiry By Design, we try to warn teachers about it during nearly every training we present. We phrase it in slightly different ways, but it always amounts to the same thing:

“Don’t beat the text to death on the first reading.”

“Don’t spend too much time charting the comprehension piece – just make sure they’ve got the basics.”

“Don’t try to teach this part for mastery – they’re going to come back to it.”

And yet our basic nature as educators is to sit with it a little bit longer, to have the students go back one more time, to set up camp in this spot until they clarify what the author means in paragraph seven.

I offer you these words of comfort and caution: It is not only okay, it is perfectly normal and good for your students not to “get it” all the way (or maybe even most of the way!) when they first read through a text. “Not getting it” means there is more for them to return to in future readings, writings, and discussions and more for them to pick at in small groups as they investigate a new prompt.

On the other hand, if you insist, as I once did, on combing through the minutia from the very beginning, every subsequent cycle of work will have your students pulling out their hair, angry and bored at the same time, saying either “We just don’t get it!” or “We’ve already done this!” (or both).

Far better for everyone involved if, instead, you take a relatively brisk approach to the first round of comprehension: Can the students pick out who is who, and identify, generally, what happened?

Good. Then move on. This is the starting point for them – not the ending point.