I was hoping they wouldn’t notice it.
You see, on April Fools’ Day, Newsela added a little rectangular button under the lowest reading level bar. Overly showy? No. Enough to induce curiosity in 12-year-olds who know their Newsela screens by heart? Absolutely.
We made it until fourth hour.
And then, a click and an “Oooooooooooohhhhh!” The next thing I knew, heads were popping up all over the classroom like deer in a forest who just heard a twig break. Three quarters of my class ran to the rebel’s computer screen. The brave student who made the first click announced, “It floods the article with emojis!” In perfect synchronicity, there was a mad dash back to laptops like velociraptors on a hunt.
Among the squeals of joy, one conscientious doubter, ready for me to put a kibosh on the fun, looked up at me woefully and said, “But Mrs. Sheets, you love emojis!”
It’s true. I do. I have a behavior management system that consists entirely of emoji stickers. But my mind flashed through the lesson I had ready, and had already completed with my first two classes. Since getting our PRO membership set up in December, we had finally gotten to the point where almost all students had read eight articles (the students only have my class every other day for 45 minutes, so this was no small feat) and we were ready to sift through our data. After writing down their performance percentage on each standard and graphing their quiz data, my students were ready to form small groups. They formed small groups based on their personal least successful standard on Newsela (or Next Level, as we call it in my classroom) and were taking screenshots of and paraphrasing the two quiz questions (from an article of their group’s choosing) that corresponded to their “Next Level” skill. Then, we used Google Classroom and Google Docs to turn in their work.
So, all of this planning was swirling in my head, but what I said out loud was, “OK, I gotta see this!” and I perched next to the student, plastering my face next to his screen so he had to move over a bit. I saw the article I had used earlier in class to model paraphrasing. The article was about how scientists are able to give chickens dinosaur legs (I’m completely obsessed with dinosaurs, but that’s for a whole different blog post … or Text Set).
Then, he started reading to me. Out loud. Without being asked. But, before I dive into what he sounded like as he read aloud, let’s think about what reading, unfortunately, often becomes.
I’m sure all of us teachers have had the experience where you know students’ eyes are moving over the words, but that’s just about all that’s happening. Kelly Cartwright discusses this at length in Word Callers (2010). Some traits of “word callers” are: less sensitivity to meaningful relations among words, difficulty inferring the meaning of unknown words in context, difficulty arranging words into sentences that make sense due to less knowledge of syntax, less likely to monitor understanding, and difficulty making connections between prior knowledge and the text. Cartwright also tells us that word callers struggle with flexible thinking – the ability to hold more than one idea in mind at a time. Word Callers contains entire chapters about how to increase students’ flexible thinking with laughter and pictures. Check and check. Emojis bring both of those to the table.
Reading like a “word caller” is like driving while immersed in thought. You get from point A to point B and go, “Wow, I don’t remember that part of the drive at all,” and yet, there you are. Sometimes I fear that this phenomenon of glossing over the words with our eyes, but not really using our minds, happens more often when reading is on the computer versus on paper. There is such a barrage of information online that we can become numb, and reading becomes more of a scanning process than anything else, just in order to figure out what deserves our full attention, and what does not.
As the student read to me, something glorious was happening. Here’s what the article looked like:
“Dinosaurs lived on … what is that thing? It looks like Epcot … oh! Earth … when there were sad families? Wait, no. Sad people? No. Dinosaurs didn’t live with people … maybe that face means no? No people? … They lived on land and in the whale — what? Oh. I think they mean ocean.”
The emojis interrupted his reading in the best way possible. He was forced to pause and interrogate his own understanding. He knew that the article probably had nothing to do with Disney based on the title and first sentences, so Epcot wouldn’t work. He had to think of something else. Perhaps he has been to Epcot and knows that the park is themed around different countries of the world. Perhaps he just fixated on the shape of the emoji, and used the word on to figure out that they were using the emoji in place of the word Earth, since “on Earth” is a common phrase. So, he had to think through his background knowledge to come up with another possible meaning for an emoji when his original guess didn’t fit the structure and syntax of the sentence.
This was an unprecedented level of audible, capture-able thinking, and independent checking of understanding, in my classroom. In teacher training, we are often told that we need to make thinking visible for students, and it’s very difficult to think through and teach all of the steps that one needs to use in order to, for example, find the main idea, in order to explicitly teach the skill. What I love about the emoji articles is that it forced students to verbalize their thought process to me in a truly spontaneous way. Those things that word callers tend not to do – the familiarity and lightheartedness of the emojis encouraged and helped bridge the gap.
He read on to the sentence that says “one dinosaur looked …” and got stuck. “One dinosaur happy a chicken? That makes no sense …” He knew he was stuck. He didn’t fast forward automatically and ignore that he was stuck. The emojis made the article have a sort of secret code that the kids felt they just had to crack. Many times, students aren’t able, or willing, to acknowledge when they are stuck and they just keep trucking, hoping for the best, or worst of all, not caring.
Then he said, “Is there an emoji dictionary translator? I’m going to Google it.” He was going to do research. Without. Being. Asked. He was not going to go on in the article without figuring out what the sentence meant.
My original lesson plan was about paraphrasing. In decoding the emojis, my student was activating some of the same processes that are needed in order to paraphrase. Before you can ever paraphrase, you absolutely have to understand the original. Also, the emojis were Newsela’s own way of paraphrasing parts of the article. I’m even wondering if having students replace words with emojis might be a fun and useful paraphrasing technique we can use in my classroom in the future.
In the end, I’m so glad that one of my students wasn’t a and that he dared to click. Just like students sometimes fast-forward their reading without really settling into the meaning, we teachers can be guilty of fast-forwarding to just get through our lesson plans at all costs. On a Friday, April Fools’ Day, I too was reminded not to be a when it comes to stopping, relaxing, listening to, and following my students. I wouldn’t want them to think I’m an old , and not stopping to listen to them would’ve made me the fool. Even though this experience was not an intended outcome of my lesson plan, and maybe not even an intended outcome of the April Fools’ emoji button for Newsela, I am overjoyed that it happened.
Cartwright, K. B. (2010). Word callers: Small-group and one-to-one interventions for children who “read” but don’t comprehend. Portsmouth, N. H.: Heinemann.
Shelley Sheets is a middle school educator from Omaha, NE and a Newsela Certified Educator. Find her on Twitter at SheetsLegitLit.