As a child, I often watched my mother or grandmother sit down at the dining room table with an ashtray, a cup of coffee, and a pen. The morning paper had been read and it was time for the crossword puzzle. I didn’t understand the clues and I didn’t know the answers, but that didn’t matter. I knew I was a citizen in the world of words and that one day this ritual, along with a taste for black coffee, would be mine. Even then I liked being part of a puzzler’s smart meditative silence.
When I grew up I reached for the back page of the Style Section of the Washington Post. I was shocked (and somewhat humiliated) to find that I couldn’t do it. At the beach, I saw that my brother’s wife, Debbi, knew just what to do. I watched her glide into the familial Zen-like zone of the crossword puzzle. How?
“I don’t get it. I can’t do it.”
“Of course you can do it. You just need to know how it works.”
She was right. I had the background knowledge, but I wasn’t puzzle-savvy. I needed to be clued in about clues.
I start teaching reading comprehension on the first day of school with a deceptively simple shared inquiry technique: “No Answers, Just Questions.” This is low risk high yield activity for students. I tell a folk tale. At the end, each child is invited to ask a question—no answers allowed! We quickly learn that the best questions have more than one right answer.
But later we learn that on a standardized test — as in a crossword puzzle — there is only one right answer, no matter how good the question.
This concept is a hard pill for some deep thinking readers to swallow. Confronted with a practice test, hands go up: “I can’t do it. I don’t get it.”
“As smart as you are? As hard as you’ve worked? Of course you can do it. You just need to know how it works.”
This week in Reading Workshop we will begin a study of fables. We will also begin a unit of study on Question and Answer relationships (QAR). We will work cooperatively to learn how to think analytically without over-thinking; we’ll build our stamina and hone our skills.
Every year June rolls around and so does state testing. My children know that when it comes to SOL’s they will do “S.O. Well.” Part of scholarship is an ability to show what you know. Clued in about clues, third graders will pick up their pencils with alacrity–an eight-letter word that means ‘cheerful readiness.’
And now I have a pen, a cup of coffee, and a crossword puzzle waiting for me.