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                Text Forms and Features:
                           A Resource for Intentional Teaching
                                          by Margaret E. Mooney     
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I had just stuffed a bleached cow skull into a box along with a handful of paintbrushes, some frayed pieces of burlap, and a packet of bulletin board letters.  Such is the behavior of a teacher dismantling his classroom for the summer.  I was eyeing a thirty-gallon fish tank filled with giant tadpoles, each swimming about ina different metamorphic state on its way to full bullfrog maturity.  How on earth was I going to persuade my wife to let me keep them in our garage all summer?  What would I do with the tank of crickets on which the mature frogs fed?  And what about poor Mildred, the salad-plate—sized Argentine frog that spent her days in a smaller tank perched atop a heating pad?  Worse yet, what about the cage of perpetually perpetuating field mice on which Mildred fed? 


A ringing phone provide reprieve from these nagging questions. On the other end of the line was a person from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction for Washington State.  She wondered if I would be interested in helping with a series of institutes for elementary teachers during the coming summer.  Margaret Mooney would be working with the teachers to develop a cadre of solidly trained mentors who in turn would help train teachers in their own school districts over the next two or three years.  Would I be interested in facilitating small group discussion with these teachers as they were being trained by Margaret?  I gasped.  A tadpole splashed.  Mildred let out a bark.  I uttered an excited and nervous “yes,” and the world turned upside down.


Several weeks later on the campus of Western Washington University , one hundred teachers and reading specialists came together for their first institute.  To observe Margaret Mooney with a room full of teachers is to see the very art of teaching itself.  She can bring a group to the edge of their chairs and to the cusp of the own understanding in a flash.  Once there, Margaret advises, challenges, probes, and propels her audiences to ever deeper understandings of their own profession and practice.  With the delicacy and precision of a scalpel and the force of a jackhammer, Margaret asks questions.  “How does the structure of your classroom and your use of time reflect your personal philosophy of reading instruction?”  “Whose room is it anyway, yours or theirs?”  “During guided reading, how does the text form support meaning making?”  “Are your struggling readers needy or worthy?”  “Who is responsible for children learning to read? The products and books you buy, or you, the teacher who uses them?”


Traditionally, elementary students have been raised on a fare of fantasy fiction.  Margaret challenged the teachers with whom she worked to question that practice.  If students were going to be expected to master more complex text forms by fourth grade, then why shouldn’t they be exposed to them in kindergarten? If we were going to expose students to the same text forms they would be encountering later in life, which forms and what about each of them should we teach? 


To these questions teachers offered a variety fo answers with varying degrees of self-assurance and self-doubt.  After all, these were teachers who had been acknowledged by their peers and administrators as outstanding.  Each came with a solid reputation and a history of successful teaching.  Yet each was challenged by Margaret’s questions.  Never had they been asked to define their beliefs about literacy instruction so precisely, or to articulate exactly how those beliefs were made manifest in their daily interactions with students. 


Intermingled with these questioning sessions, Margaret taught techniques for shared and guided reading.  The group marveled at her ability to instruct.  In doing so, she used this same questioning strategy, but changed the focus of the reading act.  “If I tell you we are about to read a biography, what do you already know about the text?”  “How does this information help you to make meaning of the text?”  “How does the author manifest his or her biases as the text progresses?” “To what extent are biography and autobiography alike?” “In what context is one more appropriate than the other as a reading selection?”  As the group formulated responses to these questions, Margaret pushed them further still.  Each answer was greeted with a smile, a nod, and a quizzical prod:  “And what else?”  That summer Margaret stretched each of us to the very limits of our own understanding. 


I returned to my classroom the following fall feeling like a first-year teacher.  How could I incorporate all of Margaret’s strategies and questioning techniques into my reading instruction?  Why was I putting the bleached cow skull up?  Which expository texts would I house next to the tadpole tank and which by Mildred?  As so often happens, some of the these questions answered themselves.  For one, poor Mildred met her demise when an overly large mouse got stuck in her throat.  The first graders and I buried her in a pizza box with all the pomp and circumstance that her noble girth deserved.  Seven-year-old Cory summed her life up best during his inspiring eulogy:  “Mildred was a good frog, but she was a bad pig.  That’s why she’s dead.”


I’ve always been a “good” teacher, but that year I became a purposeful one.  As a result, my students’ reading skills and strategies  and their ability to articulate their own reading behaviors were deeper and richer than anything I’d seen in nearly twenty years of classroom experience.  My teaching was more focused, intentional, and self-reflective than ever.  As I met with the reading cadre and Margaret throughout the school year, I heard stories similar to my own from every participant.  Margaret’s teaching had made a profound difference for everyone.


Throughout the following couple of years, as we worked with Margaret and the teacher leaders from Washington State, a common frustration was expressed over and over.  In their preservice training, teachers had not focused on the variety of genres and text features that we were expecting our students to master.  As such, they were spending an inordinate amount of time seeking appropriate texts and making links between them.  Most felt their instruction lacked the depth it could have because of a gap in their own experience as readers and as teachers of reading.  As always, Margaret’s response was decisive, deep, and completely practical.  She developed a manual of text forms and features to serve as a guide for Washington State teachers facing this dilemma.  This book is an elaboration and continuation of that earlier work. 


In the past few years, teachers and publishers have risen to the challenge of providing elementary students with a rich array of fiction and nonfiction texts.  Similar to Margaret’s incredible teaching style, this reference book gives classroom teachers the information to push further and to extend their skills even deeper.  As with all her work, Margaret’s questions ring loud and clear throughout this volume.  “Here is the information you need about text forms and features and how they work together.  Now, what are you going to do with it?  And what else?”


The very best teachers share more than information and classroom experience with their students.  They inspire and provoke thought and introspection.  They deliver just the right amount of support and challenge for each stage of cognitive metamorphosis.  They model both the excitement and the satisfaction of learning.  In short, they change lives.  Margaret Mooney is just such a teacher!


Jerry Miller