Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

05.29.13On Abuelita and the Perils of “Rounding Up”

abuelitaScreening video with the team at Taxonomy Towers this morning.   We watched a second year teacher at work with her 6th grade reading students.  She’s a strong teacher whose classroom is productive and pretty rigorous… she asked them to write for sustained periods on demanding, rigorous and text based writing prompts about a very good and challenging novel, Esperanza Rising.

I say that to make it clear that this post is about a tricky moment in a very good and rapidly developing teacher’s classroom.   But of course our work is really hard… and one of the toughest things to manage is to cause students to do the cognitive work.

If you’re familiar with Right is Right you may know the phrase “Rounding Up.”  It’s the process of taking a student response that’s fair to middling, saying “yes” or “good” or “right” to it and then adding all of the rigorous detail ourselves, giving the student credit but crowding out his or her own thinking.

I was struck by an example of rounding up from this teacher’s class.  Students had been reading a passage from Esperanza Rising where Abuelita crochets with Esperanza and uses metaphorical language about the challenges of the craft of knitting to advise Esperanza about managing the difficulties of her life.

“Is she just talking about crochet?” the teacher asked.

“She trying to make her feel better,” a student volunteered.

“Yes,” the teacher replied.  “She’s trying to ease her nerves by crocheting a blanket and giving her advice.”

I wanted to blog about this moment because it’s a classic and legible example of ‘rounding up’ a short cut we are all at risk of taking—and let the teacher who doesn’t do it cast the first stone.

The teacher here takes a generally right notion—a half developed idea—and adds vocabulary (she turns “make her feel better” into “ease her nerves”) and critical context derived from close reading (“by crocheting a blanket and giving her advice) weaving those things into complex syntax where the student used simplistic (and grammatically incorrect) syntax.

I also wanted to write about it because I asked Colleen Driggs, one of the best reading teachers I know how she might have responded to the student’s answer in order to push him towards excellence and cause him to do the cognitive work that the teacher did above.

Here’s a slightly edited version of what Colleen sent me. As you can see her questions try to anticipate the answers she’d get and scaffold the student to success.

  • Let’s use the character names here. Who’s she and her?
  • OK, Abuelita is trying to make Esperanza feel better. How are they related? Remember, we’re explaining this to readers who don’t know the story as well as we do.
  • Great. Now we can say Esperanza’s grandmother, Abuelita, is trying to make Esperanza feel better. (Also a good spot to ask about punctuation—but I don’t want to overcomplicate) (and maybe using Esperanza’s name twice is repetitive—if I used her instead, I’d ask students why that’s OK)
  • What’s a more sophisticated/collegiate way of saying “make her feel better?” What’s Esperanza “feeling” that necessitates help?
  • What’s she doing to comfort Esperanza or ease her nerves? Why that?
  • What’s the advice? OR Why would crocheting a blanket ease Esperanza’s nerves? (or maybe both)
  • Etc.


Anyway, I think the ability to supplant our own tendencies to “round up” with sequences of artful questioning like this is one of the key (and often hidden or under-acknowledged) skills of teaching.  So, with thanks to Colleen, I hope this is helpful and that you’ll be out there resisting those round ups.



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