Teaching High Schoolers How to Read Like Writers with Cynthia Rylant’s When I Was Young in the Mountains

Fact: high schoolers love storytime. They love sitting cross-legged on a patch of carpet as the teacher reads a story from a chair, fanning open the pages of the book.

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When I told them we were having storytime, my ninth graders appeared confused at first, exchanging dubious glances around the room.

“Like in elementary school when the teacher read aloud?” someone asked.

They gathered around me on the carpet in front of the white board, fidgety at first. I held up the cover of the book. “When I Was Young In the Mountains by Cynthia Rylant. Does anyone want to make a prediction? What do you think this story will be about?” I summoned the calm reading voice of my mother, an amazing first-grade teacher and storybook reader, and we began.

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A few days earlier, I had reread the chapter “Organized Inquiry: Teaching Students to Read Like Writers” in Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words. Her chapter invited me to reflect on how I had introduced the concept of reading like writers to my students in the past. I decided that I had introduced it rather quickly, eager to launch the first workshop, assuming my students would pick it up as we practiced. The result was that some students never truly understood the difference, never truly figured out how to tap the potential of a mentor text and read with a sense of possibility for their own work. I knew that I had to be more deliberate in my approach this year.

One of the things that stuck out to me in this chapter was Katie’s advice to “spend time getting to know a text as readers” before exploring the craft in a piece of writing. I had been remiss in doing this. Why had we so often plunged into a text as writers before enjoying it as readers?

I decided I would use a children’s book for a few reasons. First, like a poem, a children’s book does more with less space. I wanted students to be able to find beautiful craft without having to wade through pages of text. Second, I wanted to use storytime as a metaphor for reading like readers. During storytime, I knew I would be able to demonstrate reading like readers–lingering on the illustrations, pausing every page or so to allow students to make connections, asking questions. And third, I wanted this lesson to look different, to feel different than most lessons. I wanted students to remember it differently and be able to point to an experience months from now that helped them understand how to read like a writer.

When I was finished reading, I said, “What we’ve just done here…what you’ve done your whole reading lives… is read like readers. And it’s wonderful–making connections, predictions. Thinking about characters and conflicts. But this is just one way of reading. Today I’m going to tell you about another way of reading–reading like a writer. A way of reading that will not only help you grow as readers but as writers.”

They went back to their seats and I handed them a copy of the text of When I Was Young in the Mountains.

To explain this new way of reading, I used an analogy from the same chapter of Katie’s book:

Because my friend is a seamstress, she goes to the mall or to the dress shops differently than the rest of us who aren’t seamstresses. First, it takes her a lot longer than a normal person to make her way through the store. She turns the dresses and jumpers and shirts inside out, sometimes sitting right down on the floor to study how something is made. While the rest of us mere shoppers are looking only at sizes and prices, my friend is looking closely at inseams and stitching and “cuts on the bias.” She wants to know how what she sees was made, how it was put together. And the frustrating thing for anyone shopping with her is that as long as it takes her, she hardly ever buys anything! You see, my friend’s not shopping for clothes, she’s shopping for ideas for clothes. After a day at the mall she goes home with a head full of new ideas for what she might make next on her trusty sewing machine. (13)

Lucky for me, I have a friend who is an an amazing seamstress. So I adapted the analogy to fit my friend Laurel’s personality, and I showed them a few pictures of her current work in progress: her sister’s wedding dress.

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Photo courtesy of Laurel M. Janosik

Then I asked them to help me make the connection. Instead of telling them she often “shops for ideas” I asked them, “When Laurel goes shopping and spends hours examining clothes, she doesn’t always buy something. Is she really shopping for clothes? Or is she shopping for something else entirely?”

In all of my classes someone said, “She was shopping for ideas”–or some variation of that. One student even said, “She wasn’t ever shopping for clothes…she was shopping for inspiration.”

Here is how the rest of the lesson went:

  1. They copied Katie Wood Ray’s definition of reading like a writer in their notebooks–reading like a writer means reading with a sense of possibility, a sense of “What do I see here that might work for me in my writing?”
  2. We reread her text out loud with an eye towards interesting craft.
  3. I spent a few minutes pointing out craft that I had noticed. I worked on a document camera while they added notes to their printed copies.
  4. They worked in pairs or threes for 10-15 minutes to generate a list of as many noticings as they could find.
  5. We came back as a group and added their noticings to the text under the document camera.
  6. I introduced them to Katie Wood Ray’s “The Five Parts of Reading Like a Writer”, and they copied this list into their notebooks:Notice something about the craft of the text.

    Talk about it and make a theory about why a writer might use this craft.

    Give the craft a name.

    Think of other texts you know. Have you seen this craft before?

    Try and envision using this crafting in your own writing.

  7. We practiced making two theories together.
  8. Students returned to their pairs with the goal of making theories for 2-3 pieces of craft they felt drawn to.
  9. We added these noticings to a chart.

Three forty-five minute periods later, my students were beginning to read like writers, and I felt more confident about this foundation we had laid than I had in previous years.

At the end of the three days I polled them: “Can someone tell me in their own words what it means to read like writers? And more importantly, why we read like writers?”

Colin raised his hand. “When we read like writers we try to figure out how a piece was written. We bring back ideas for our own writing.”

“And why do we read like writers?” I asked, hoping the answer would be immediate and clear.

Mando’s hand went up. “We read like writers,” he paused. “To become writers.”

I couldn’t have said it better, Mando.

How do you introduce the concept of reading like writers? How do you use picture books in the classroom to teach the craft of writing? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on Twitter at @allisonmarchett @rebekahodell1.

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