“But what does the evidence say?”
It was an unusually hot spring day on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and I was visiting a class of 8th graders who had organized themselves into book clubs. The club meetings that day overflowed into the hallway outside the classroom. The air conditioning didn’t. I sat with a club that was discussing Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl.
As a teacher-educator, I had come to the school a week earlier to reconnect with a real classroom full of real kids, learning from a really great teacher. I had commandeered the teacher’s desk, sifted through stacks of her students’ work, and imposed on her for her wisdom and resources. When she asked me to take some observation notes during the book club meetings, I gladly obliged.
The club members sat against the walls on either side of the hallway, legs stretched out, notebooks splayed over their laps. They were fanning themselves with their cracked-open copies of the novel and discussing a pivotal scene between the characters Leo and Stargirl when one member asked, “But what does the evidence say?” They all stopped fanning and dutifully flipped through pages tiled over with sticky notes to find the scene under discussion—to determine “what the evidence” said.
The teacher in me instinctively recorded the student’s question in the “+” column on the observation form. Without prompting and under only my loose supervision, she had asked her peers to anchor their discussion in Spinelli’s words, to scrutinize the text, and to hold themselves accountable to it.
And I might have written just that in the notes column on the form, except that the question started looking odd to me. What does the evidence say? Would this question have sounded normal to my ear three years ago, when I last taught? Back then, my students and I discussed, perhaps, pulling evidence from text to support interpretations. But this equation of text and evidence—this interchangeability of the terms—struck me as a new phenomenon.
Anyone teaching or learning in K-12 classrooms must accept the primacy of textual evidence. The “Reading: Literature” section of the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts directs students to “cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” I don’t dispute the letter or the spirit of this, but it seems like our focus on evidence has altered the way we see text. We’ve come to see text as evidence, and only evidence.
When students read in this way, they don't recognize all that text does and can do besides serving as evidence."
After that first moment of strangeness, similar moments began to fall like rain. My colleague, a former science teacher, asked me to explain how reading teachers use “think-alouds” (a teacher’s narration of her thinking about a text) to impart comprehension strategies. He asked if their purpose is to present the evidence that supports the teacher’s claims about a text. For a moment, I was tempted to accept this explanation, but I realized that, if I did, I’d be assuming that our thoughts arrive in our minds as claims, and words arrive on the page as evidence. I clarified that the purpose of a think-aloud is to show what the text makes us think as we read it and how, through this thinking, we make sense of its meanings.
A few weeks later, another colleague and I were designing a reading curriculum. She suggested this daily objective: “Students will categorize evidence from a nonfiction text by subtopic.”
How strange to think of the information we gather from a nonfiction text as “evidence.” Evidence of what? I thought. I suggested we keep her objective, but replace “evidence” with the word “information.”
I suspect that this confusion of terms is unintentional. But if our ways of speaking about text have seeped into our students’ ways of thinking about it, if they’ve come to think that text’s raison d’etre is to serve as evidence, their experience of reading has been fundamentally changed.
Imagine reading along in a novel, already anticipating the question you’ll be required to answer, the thesis statement you’ll eventually develop, or the comment you’ll make in discussion and be required to “back up” with evidence. This is reading the way squirrels put away nuts for the long winter ahead. This is reading to stock evidence, to prepare for the question, the assignment, the discussion.
The trouble is that when students read in this way, they don’t recognize all that text does and can do besides serving as evidence. The first standard doesn’t acknowledge the way text elicits thinking and draws out new ideas, curiosities, frustrations, causes, and sometimes even pursuits.
Text does this to me all the time. In a recent search for an article about literacy, I happened upon a 2000 article by scholar Cynthia Lewis in the Journal of Literacy Research on reader-response theory, which posits that a reader’s role is not merely passive, but essential to determining a work’s meaning. It wasn’t what I expected (or needed for my research), but it sent me on a search for other, similar critiques and prompted me to open a discussion of reader-response theory with my curriculum-design colleagues. Had I set out reading Lewis’ work just to stock evidence to support some future claim, I would have abandoned it after reading the abstract.
In a “Modern Love” essay for The New York Times this year, Edan Lepucki wrote, “I told myself terrible things every day, just to see how terrible they would feel.” Her words left me wondering and worrying, smack in the middle of the work day, if I don’t also occasionally participate in such catastrophizing, in my own kind of internal game of mercy. This kind of reading is what we used to call a text-to-self connection before we banished it from our practice and replaced it with so-called “text dependent” questions and answers.
Recently, I was reading Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and designing a series of text-dependent questions, just the kind of questions that students would need to answer with evidence. I read: “Victor imagined that his father’s tears could have frozen solid in the severe reservation winters and shattered when they hit the floor. Sent millions of icy knives through the air, each specific and beautiful. Each dangerous and random.” With this image, Alexie elicited in me the kind of emotional response that people in my generation tend to take to social media. (That’s what I did.) How wrong it would be to call this image simply evidence. Alexie’s words aren’t there just to be appropriated into an argument. That night, they helped me understand how little I actually understood about poverty.
Treating text as evidence may sharpen our understanding of what it says, but it also precludes us from using the text in personally relevant ways. And while the readings I described may be personal and unpredictable, they aren’t frivolous or idiosyncratic. These readings hug the text, but are not bound to it. They’re born of focused engagement and attention to not just what the text says, but why it matters. They are, in fact, text-dependent.
If we want to prepare students for college and career, let’s teach them the full range of reading required of us in college and career. Let’s teach them to read for real and relevant purposes and also to return to the text to search for evidence when they must. Let’s teach them not only to use text as evidence to support claims, but also to let the text move, teach, frustrate, confuse, and compel them.
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2014 edition of Education Week as Isn’t Reading About More Than ‘Evidence’?