The Start of a Tradition: Kicking Off the School Year with Teacher Thinking

ChalkboardPart of why I love summer so much is because its full of traditions I’ve developed over the years: nighttime walks to different neighborhoods for ice cream, picnics at the Botantical Gardens, a bike ride to the Cloisters to start the cycling season, morning trips to the Farmer’s Market for peaches, tomatoes and corn. Of course, the first day of school is a tradition, too, which I imagine many mark in special ways (which may or may not include new school supplies). But as we nudge up to that day here, it occurred to me that I could mark the day by starting another tradition here by sharing, as I did last August, some of the amazingly thoughtful comments that teachers have left on this blog over the last twelve months.

As I did last year, I do so in part to counter some of the flack and blame that’s all too often directed at teachers about this country’s educational woes and to celebrate, instead, these educators’ astounding commitment and willingness to raise difficult questions, probe their own thinking and reflect on their practice, knowing that as the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said, “Instruction begins when you, the teacher, learn from the learner, put yourself in his place so that you may understand what he learns and the way he understands it.”

What follows, in no particular order, is a small sampling of the nearly two hundred comments I received this year. In each case, the teacher’s comment is set next to an image that links back to the post he or she was responding to, with another link embedded in the teacher’s name if they’re part of the growing and vibrant community of teachers who also blog. In each case, I also hope you find a voice that affirms, reinvigorates or fuels your own thinking as we all embark on another year that may, yet again, be bumpy. And I invite you to take a look at other comments that can be accessed on each post for more inspiration—and to feel free to join the conversation whenever the spirit moves you.

Hansel and Gretel 2“In our 5th grades we are guiding students at the end of a fantasy unit to decide on themes that are surfacing for them. The difficulty, as you stated, is that the adults guiding them haven’t had enough time to linger themselves with the ‘what’ of theme. They are nervous in the students’ need to linger and try out their thinking around themes that surface for them. As Ginny Lockwood (our consultant) and others caution us, we need to expose, not impose. The demands of the Common Core make it such that the adults guiding the work need a very sophisticated understanding of literature. Without it, the best laid plans could end up fostering the present type of ‘pin the tail’ thinking as we move ahead in this complex work.” Margaret C.

Short Cut Sign“I am always concerned with activities that ask students to ‘hunt’ as you say for specific information which leaves them with a page full of facts – not always correct, and certainly not really understood. The most effective learning experiences that I am part of with my students is when we make time for discussion, sharing our thinking and letting questions lead us to more questions as we making meaning together and understand the text. Yes, this is time consuming, but giving the process time gives value to the fact that it is important to slow down and really read and engage with the text.” Carrie Gelson

“I find that explaining your thinking is a very powerful strategy for deepening understanding. I experience it every time I respond to a blog, blog or present my ideas to others. I really have to think about my thinking in order to explain it, and as a consequence my understanding is stronger. So it goes for our students. By explaining their thinking they not only are demonstrating to us their understanding, but also working out exactly why they think what they think.” Julieanne Harmatz

Old Books with Magnifying Glass“There must be some other reasons, more centered on the learner himself, that provides the enticement to read closely. For me, I know my ‘learner intention’ is honed and refined by being in a community of learners . . .  I love the way my thinking gets sharper while tossing ideas around. I love the ‘cupcakes’ I get from those interactions with people and ideas: a deeper understanding of this beautiful world, new insights into my life and the life of others, all that stuff. . . . It seems to me that my teaching, at the very least, has to make explicit the existence of said ‘cupcakes’ for learners who haven’t savored them yet.” Steve Peterson

Art of Anticipation“I’m re-thinking the way I launch my reading workshop, and the first read aloud of the year, too. My goal is to find ways to make my students ‘aware of all a text holds’, as you mention – the key to which is my own reading, selecting, ruminating, and responding to those very same texts so that I can be responsive to my students . . .Your post, and the article, reminds me to slow down in my planning process, to make it more organic – to allow my planning to be driven by where my kids are in their reading lives, not just what our district’s curricular map dictates.” Tara

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner,

Open Window in Florence © 2012 D. A. Wagner,

“I once was told that all good scaffolds must self destruct. So often in our quest to make learning easier and accessible for our students we have allowed the scaffolds to become crutches, leaving little thinking for the student. Pacing has also had a huge impact on students learning deeply; sustained concentration requires time”. Mille Arellano

 And now with these reminders to go slow and let go so that students have more time to think, may your year be filled with fascinating questions, rousing conversation, great reads and new traditions!

Planning for What You Can’t Know in Reading Workshop

Planning for What You Can't KnowThe title and lead picture of this week’s post comes by way of Matt Glover and Mary Alice Berry, whose article about planning writing units of study by projecting possible teaching points rather than creating a pacing calendar with a prescribed sequence of lessons seemed utterly brilliant to me when I saw it a few years ago. The article and the book it derived from, Projecting Possibilities for Writers, was based on the idea that if we want to be responsive teachers—i.e., teachers who teach students, not curriculum—we can’t always know how a unit will unfold, as it all depends on what our students bring with them and what they do with what we instructionally offer. This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t plan. We have plenty of plans up our sleeves, but we don’t necessarily decide what to teach and when until we see what the students do.

To help teachers wrap their minds around this, Matt and Mary Alice provide what they call “A Process for Projecting”: a template for planning, consisting of steps, that I believe has implications for reading as well. The first few steps, for instance, have teachers gathering and studying a stack of mentor texts then determining the unit’s major goals. For the first step teachers might gather texts connected by genre, author or craft then study them to think about what the authors of those texts are doing that they could invite students to emulate in their writing.

Big_Fresh_Newsletter_logoWhen it comes to reading, we might gather texts to choose a great read aloud to anchor a unit on a genre, author, topic or theme, or to create a text set. Coincidentally enough, this week’s “Big Fresh Newsletter” from Choice Literacy shares several links where phenomenal teachers, such as Franki Sibberson and Mary Lee Hahn, explain how and why they choose certain texts as read alouds to kick off their year. For my part, I usually look for a text that I anticipate students will love and that’s not too long—a great picture book or a chapter book that’s under 200 pages. I also want one with lots of opportunities for students to think meaningfully and deeply in ways I believe will add to their enjoyment and sense of agency as readers. And since at some point early in the year, I want to engage students in the process of meaning making that Dorothy Barnhouse and I explore in What Readers Really Do, I also want a text that requires students to connect details within the text to infer and that uses patterns to develop its big ideas and themes.

I look for that first when I study the texts I’ve gathered. And once I’ve narrowed the stack of books down, I look more closely to better understand the particular demands those texts put on readers, or what we might call the specific kinds of problems readers would need to solve in order to literally and inferentially comprehend and think deeply about the book’s meaning. This is, in fact, exactly what I did with the teacher I wrote about last week, as we sat down together to assess how the textbook section she wanted to use conveyed content concepts and to see if there were any  ‘holes in the cheese‘—i.e., places where students would have to connect facts and details in order to apply the concepts and infer something the writer hasn’t said explicitly.

FreedomSummerStudying texts in this way also helps teachers become more aware of how the writer of a chosen text uses specific details, imagery and patterns to explore ideas, which is how I interpret the Common Core’s reading standards on craft. As I shared in a recent post about craft, my awareness of patterns in Eve Bunting’s One Green Apple helped me move students beyond the surface level. And studying texts helped the teacher in that classroom recognize the craft in other books she hoped to use to continue the work I had started. In Deborah Wiles‘s Freedom Summer, for example, which recounts the friendship of a white and black boy in the 1960′s segregated South, she noticed a pattern around ice pops and nickels that reveals a subtle change in the boys’ relationship after a head on encounter with racism at a town swimming pool.

It’s worth noting that the point of studying texts is not to know which specific details to direct students to, but to become more aware of all a text holds so that we can better respond to students and formatively assess their thinking. It also helps us take the reading Art of Anticipationequivalent of the fifth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s planning process: Anticipating Issues and Possible Small Group Work. In looking closely at the textbook I shared last week, the teacher I worked with anticipated that her students might not catch the tiny but important word ‘in’, which explained the relationship between minerals and rocks. So we anticipated planning some small group lessons to gave students additional time to practice thinking about the relationship or connection between the key words of a text. With One Green Apple, on the other hand, I anticipated that not every student would be able to see the metaphoric connection between the green apple and the main character, Farah. And while those who couldn’t might be able to piggyback on the thinking of others, I anticipated needing to plan some small group lessons of the sort I described in an early post to give them more time to experience that kind of figurative thinking for themselves.

Projecting those needs led me immediately to the sixth step in Matt and Mary Alice’s process: I had to think about materials and resources. If I saw what I anticipated seeing during the read alouds, I’d need some short texts or excerpts, possibly at different levels, that would offer opportunities for students to practice solving the specific kinds of problems that those texts presented. Projecting possibilities in this way, I’d be on the look out for those. But I’d also need to carefully listen to students during the read aloud to see if there were other needs or miscomprehensions I hadn’t anticipated, which I’d want to address in small groups as well, so that individual children had more time to wrestle with with whatever kind of problem they’d hit.

Finally, readers who clicked through to Matt and Mary Alice’s article might have noticed that I omitted a step: Developing a Sequence of Minilessons. With the number of questions I’ve been getting lately about the what, when and how of mini-lessons, I’m saving that for another post. But I hope this one helps with whatever planning for reading you’re doing this summer.

On Shortcuts, Quick Fixes and Why They Often Don’t Work

Short Cut Sign

This spring I found myself in many classrooms—from third grade right up to twelfth—working on content area nonfiction. In each school, teachers were worried that students weren’t comprehending what they were reading, even when the information was stated explicitly. And without understanding the basic facts, it was nearly impossible for them to engage with whatever less explicit ideas the writer might be exploring or with any of the essential questions the teachers had framed their units around.

Initially many teachers saw this as a problem of the students’ background knowledge—i.e., students couldn’t comprehend what the writer was saying because they didn’t have enough prior knowledge for the information to make sense. Or they saw it as a vocabulary issue, especially in those cases where the students were either English Language Learners or were working with texts that matched someone’s insane notion of text complexity (such as the third-grade-is-the-new-seventh-grade example I shared in a recent post).

Can of WormsI don’t want to minimize the need to help students build larger and more sophisticated word banks or to have more background knowledge. But I’m also reminded of what I wrote in a post last summer: that too much emphasis on vocabulary or gaps in background knowledge may actually undermine students’ ability to become stronger, active readers by implying that we can’t make meaning if we don’t know all the words and references. Plus obsessing about what students lack sometimes blinds us to what they can do, and so before I started making suggestions, I asked the teachers I was working with what kind of instruction they’d offered students and how they had done with that—which opened up another can of worms.

In almost every case, the teachers had offered students strategies for summarizing or finding the main idea, which often involved looking for topic sentences or repeated key words, as many a classroom chart advises. Some also taught students how to use text features to predict what information they’d find, which we could also call a strategy. These strategies, however, were in fact shortcuts; they offered students ways of synthesizing a text without actually reading it carefully and thoughtfully. And as the teachers shared anecdotes and student work, what seemed clear was that too often those strategies simply wound up backfiring.

In the case of using text features, for instance, students frequently became wedded to predictions they’d made based on pictures and headings, and with those in mind, they ignored any parts that didn’t match their predictions. Main idea and summarizing strategies, on the other hand, often sent students on scavengers hunts—or what SmartBrief blogger Fred Ende calls “Seek & Find” missions in a great post on readers versus scavengers—with students searching for key words or topic sentences without really thinking about how those words or sentences were connected.

Swiss CheeseRecognizing that the very strategies they’d offered might actually be interfering with real understanding, many of the teachers agreed to change tacts and focus on questioning instead—not the kind that would send students back to the text on more scavenging expeditions, but questions that would invite them to wrestle with the concepts and information an author presents. We also wanted them to become more aware of what I started calling ‘the holes in the cheese’—that is, the places where a nonfiction author doesn’t spell everything out, but rather relies on us, as readers, to connect the dots of facts together to figure something out. And to do this, we needed to study the texts we were giving to students, like this one from a fourth grade science textbook that I looked at with an ESL teacher named Cybi, to better understand how the author presented concepts and where the holes in the cheese were.

Mineral Textbook Page 1

In terms of concepts, we saw that the author explicitly described what a mineral was in the second paragraph. But by focusing on repeated or highlighted words, as Cybi had taught them to do, she wasn’t sure if her students would fully grasp the relationship or connection between minerals and rocks—i.e., that minerals were in rocks—which was exactly what happened when I modeled the shared reading later that day. Using the text features to predict the chapter’s content, the students concluded that minerals must be kinds of rocks. Acknowledging that they didn’t know that for sure, they agreed to let me reframe that as a question, which I asked them to hold in their heads as we read. But even with that, they glossed over the word ‘in’ until the very end when, with the question still unanswered, they went back and reread the beginning. At that point hands shot up around the room, and after they shared what they’d discovered, I noticed and named for them how paying attention to small words like ‘in’ had really helped them understand the connection and relationship between the more prominent words. And understanding how those words and facts were connected was really, really important.

We also wanted them to understand the concept of properties and how they helped scientists classify and differentiate minerals. Drawing on her knowledge of her students once again, Cybi thought they might be able to understand that based on the examples on this page and the next. But we both thought we detected a hole in the cheese in this page’s last two sentences where a reader would need to connect the information about hardness and scratching and apply the concept of properties to infer that calcite is harder than gypsum. And so we decided that this would be a good place to stop and ask a question, which I framed during the shared reading this way:

I want to pause here for a moment because I think there’s something the author’s not telling us that we might need to figure out. We know that hardness is a property and that properties help scientists tell minerals apart. We also know that scratching is a way of testing hardness and that gypsum is easier to scratch than calcite. But the author doesn’t come right out and say which mineral is harder, gypsum or calcite. I think he’s left that for us to figure out. So turn and talk. What do you think? Based on what the author has told us, which mineral do you think is harder and why?

This kind of question asked students to synthesize and apply information, not to simply retrieve it. And it asked them to actually think in a way that allowed them to construct understanding, not just consume and regurgitate information, as scavenger hunts often do. Ultimately, though, we wanted the students to be in charge of the questioning, and to that end we combined teacher-created questions, like the one above, that put students in problem-solving mode, with open invitations for the students to share whatever they found confusing or curious. And after I shared my holes-in-the-cheese metaphor, we began asking students if they thought there were things the writer hadn’t fully explained—i.e., holes in the cheese—then gave them time to figure those things out based on what the writer did say.

And as for those shortcuts: In the end, they weren’t so short after all, as they often took students away from real reading and real understanding, helping them, perhaps, to practice a skill but not really engage in deep thinking.

No Shortcuts

Who Do We Want Our Students to Be and Who Do They Need Us to Be: An Invitation to Share Your Thoughts

Young Child Reading Book

In a few days time, I’ll be heading north for ten days worth of cycling in Quebec, and while there’s much that I’m looking forward to—the scenery, the food, the sound of French, the feel of cobblestones beneath my feet—I’m also looking forward to how cycling frees my mind to wander and ruminate. In particular, I’m hoping to ponder the two questions in this post’s title: Who do we want our students to be? and Who do they need us to be? They’re questions I’ve been considering using to frame my next book on reading, where I’m hoping I can deepen, expand and explode what’s become the given language of the day: that we want our students to be career and college ready, with our teaching directed at making even our youngest students mini-academics, scouring complex texts for evidence to plug into tasks that we, as teachers, assign in order to determine if a student has met one or more particular standards.

The Day You Become a TeacherFor me, this nifty graphic from captures some of what I think our students need us to be: teachers who are mindful of the fact that we teach students, not curriculum or Standards, and who know that we can meet those other expectations in a deeper and more meaningful way if we listen carefully to what students are saying and build their learning from there in a way that allows them to construct their own understanding, not just take on ours.

I’m quite sure that many of you reading this have ideas about these questions as well, and with summer upon us, you might even have time to share some of your thinking here. If so, please click on the reply link at the bottom of this post and type away. And if you want more food for thought—or just have a little more time on your hands now that it’s July—here’s three links that in different ways explore those same two questions:

Ken Robinson QuoteIf you missed Sir Ken Robinson‘s keynote address at last year’s NCTE Convention, his TED Talk video on “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley” will bring you up to speed. In addition to expressing his deep belief in teaching as a “creative profession,” not “a delivery system,” he makes an impassioned plea for reorganizing schools around the three principles he believes are what allow human beings to flourish: diversity, curiosity and creativity.

A Year at Mission HillIf you’re like me, there may be many articles, blog posts and videos you mean to get to but don’t because of time. Fortunately, though, I’ve finally had time to catch up with A Year at Mission Hill, a series of videos that chronicle a year at a remarkable public school in Boston. All ten chapters are amazing but for the purposes of this post, I invite you to watch the inspiring “Freedom to Teach,” which ends with teachers singing a song that includes these critical words: “You can give them your love/but not your thoughts/They have their own thoughts/ They have their own thoughts.”

Hurt No Living ThingAnd finally there’s this from my colleague and friend Renée Dinnerstein whose early childhood education blog Investigating Choice Time: Inquiry, Exploration and Play has tons of implications for those of us working in other grades. Her most recent post “Hurt No Living Thing,” for instance, looks at the unintended consequences of well-intentioned behavior management charts, and along the way has lots to say about how to create the kinds of classrooms where students can emotionally, socially and academically develop and grow and thrive.

Here’s hoping you find some inspiration—or affirmation—here then share your thinking below. And now . . . I’ve got to pack!

Quebec Bikes

Cracking Open the Word Craft

Cracking Open Nuts

For those of us who have taught writing workshop over the years, we tend to think of craft as the particular moves a writer makes that we can invite students to emulate in their own writing, such as using sensory details or repeating a line as structural device or refrain. Writers, we tell students, make these moves to engage their readers and bring whatever they’re writing about more vividly to life, which is indeed true. But that concept of craft is very different, I think, from what’s meant by the word in the Common Core Standards, where three “Craft and Structure” reading standards exist for both literary and information texts from kindergarten up to twelfth grade.

Those standards require students to consider the significance of, say, the particular sensory details a writer has chosen and to analyze how those choices contribute to the overall meaning or tone of a text. And if New York City is any indication, there’s a fair amount of contention brewing around those standards—especially in the way they were tested in the recent state ELA exams where students faced a barrage of multiple choice questions that asked them why an author used a particular word, detail or phrase in a given text. Many of the over 600 parents, principals and teachers who left comments on the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project ELA feedback site, for instance, saw this as a troubling emphasis on minutia over big understandings, with Lucy Calkins, the Project Director, summing up those sentiments this way:

“. . . I think the test makers are interpreting the standards, even for 9 and 10 year olds, to be all about ultra-ultra-law-school-literary-criticism-level-close analytic reading, asking ‘why did the author include (mean by) X in line Y?’ and not at all about reading to acquire knowledge or construct big ideas about a comprehensible story. How will a test like this alter reading and writing curriculum, and will that yield a generation of engaged, curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers and writers?”

Rat DissectionI’ve made no bones about my fears of where curriculum is headed, and have questioned how certain models of close reading, which encourage students to dissect texts, like science lab mice, through teacher-driven text-dependent questions, can possibly yield those curious, thoughtful, knowledgeable readers that I, too, want students to be. But for all the questions and worries I have about analysis as the end goal of reading, I do think it’s important to ask students to consider the possible significance of details for authentic reasons.

Every time, for instance, that we infer a feeling or motivation from a detail a writer gives us, we’re engaged in thinking about the writer’s choices, automatically but invisibly asking ourselves, Why is the author telling me this? What is she trying to show me? That’s because thoughtful and knowledgeable readers know that, as I wrote in an earlier post about the writing mantra ‘show don’t tell,’ writers actually show and tell, through details they’ve purposefully chosen.

One Green AppleFrom a reader’s perspective then we can think of craft as how writers use and arrange specific details, words, images, and figurative language to convey their story’s meaning—i.e., to show and tell. And readers construct those desired big ideas by attending to and interpreting those choices.  Here, for instance, is a group of fifth graders I worked with recently reading Eve Bunting‘s great book One Green Apple, which tells the story of a girl named Farah who, having recently moved to America, takes a giant step toward belonging during a class field trip to an orchard.

If we stick to some of the common methods of thinking about theme or the gist of a story, such as thinking about what a character learned or using a Somebody Wanted Something But So chart, students may think that this is a story about the challenges of learning a new language. That certainly is something Bunting explores, but when I asked the students if they noticed any patterns—recurring words, details, images, ideas that the writer had purposely woven into the story—their thinking got much deeper.

As they made their way the first time through the story, they noticed how many details were about things that were different. There was Farah, herself, who was different from the others, the language she spoke, the head scarf she wore, the way boys and girls sat together, and the green apple of the title, which came from a tree that was different than the others. And as the story progressed, they noticed a shift, with fewer details about things that were different and more about things that were the same. The green apple was “small and alone” like Farah, and lots of sounds were described as being the same in America and Farah’s homeland, such as people laughing, sneezing and belching and dogs crunching on apples.


Noticing all this allowed them to move beyond the lesson about learning English to something deeper that Eve Bunting seemed to be exploring through these patterns: how our similarities might be more important than our differences. And with this in mind, we revisited the story to develop and refine that idea, with the students noticing even more. They noticed that the day, itself, was different; that among the three dogs, one was different; that the words belong and blend were repeated; and that there were differences among the other children, with some being friendly and some smiling “cruel smiles.”

They also took another look at a page that had puzzled them before where one of the boys attempts to stop Farah from dropping her green apple into the cider press. On their first read they had developed two ideas about why the boy tried to stop her: that he may have feared that the apple, being green, wasn’t ripe and would spoil the cider, and that he might have wanted the apple for himself because it was unique. Each idea was somewhat grounded in the text—the apple was green and it was unlike the others—but with a heightened awareness of the patterns Bunting had crafted and the link between Farah and the apple, they now wondered if perhaps the boy didn’t want the green apple—and by extension Farah—mixing with the others.


Paying more attention to the details of the story and how the author used them helped these students consider something they never had before: that bigotry can exist among children even now. And like the students discovering the gender issues in The Paper Bag Princess earlier, they had much to say about that. And that brings us to another authentic reason for thinking about craft: It helps us reap one of the great gifts of reading—to expand and enrich our understanding of people and the world.

The Blue GhostIt also helps students become more aware of the intentionality of details, as two third graders of teacher and blogger Steve Peterson discovered when they returned to the beginning of a book they’d finished, The Blue Ghost by Marion Dane Bauer. As Steve recounts in his post “Re-reading to Discover Author Choices,” going back to the first chapter helped these readers see how the author had planted all sorts of clues they hadn’t noticed the first time around. This could, of course, help them analyze the text. But more importantly it will help them enter the next book they read with a greater awareness of how writers craft a text by arranging and using details that develop everything from character to theme. And, in the end, I believe that will make them more college and career ready than any multiple choice questions will.

So let’s not discount the importance of craft. Let’s just be sure that both we and students see how thinking about it really helps readers.

Thinking About Theme: What About What It’s About?

Hansel and Gretel

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Kay Nielson

A while ago as I was visiting a lower school, a bulletin board caught my eye. A second grade teacher had decided to tackle theme in a unit of study on fairy tales, and the bulletin board displayed her students’ reader responses to the theme of Hansel and Gretel. Intrigued, I stopped to take a look and quickly noticed that in paper after paper the students wrote that the theme of Hansel and Gretel was good versus evil. Hmm, I thought. How did the students arrive at that idea? Surely not on their own. And what did that mean the students took away about what a theme was, how a reader constructs it, and why thinking about theme matters in the first place?

Like Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, we, as teachers, can get lost in a tangle of terms when it comes to theme. Lesson, moral, author’s message or purpose, big idea, main idea, theme: Frequently when we talk about theme, uncertainty arises, with different teachers having different ideas about what it is and how it’s connected—or not—to those other terms. And amid that uncertainly we almost never think of what a reader actually gains—beyond, perhaps, an academic skill—by thinking about theme.

Pin the Tail on the DonkeyAs this teacher had, we often think of theme as a one-word (or as above, a three-word) abstraction, such as love, friendship, bravery, kindness. The problem is that even a story as simple as Hansel and Gretel isn’t about just one thing. It’s also about jealousy, loyalty, greed, resourcefulness, abandonment, courage, and while we could think about which of these the story is mostly about, as standardized tests tend to do, I don’t really see what a reader gains by reducing a complex story to a single abstraction. It also invites what we could call ‘Pin the Tail on the Donkey’ thinking, especially in classrooms where students are given a list of these abstract words that they’re then asked to ‘pin’ on or match to a text.

Students also tend to think of themes as sayings or aphorisms, such as “Two wrongs don’t make a right” or “Honesty is the best policy,” perhaps because that’s how morals are stated in most versions of Aesop’s Fables, where the concept of theme may be first introduced. Unfortunately, this seems reductive as well, and again it seems more about pinning something on a text than thinking about the text deeply. Much better, I think, is writer Janet Burroway‘s concept of theme, which Dorothy Barnhouse and I shared in What Readers Really Do. Here’s what she says in her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft

“We might better understand theme if we ask the question: What about what it’s about? What does the story have to say about the idea or abstraction that seems to be contained in it? What attitudes or judgments does it imply? Above all, how do the elements of fiction contribute to our experience of those ideas and attitudes in the story? 

Applying Burroway’s notion to the second graders reading fairy tales would mean inviting them to consider what the story of Hansel and Gretel specifically has to say about good versus evil. And to do this, we’d want to ask students to think about not only who was good and evil, but why they were and how they were and how one engaged with the other, which would almost inevitably wind up circling some of the other ideas in the story, like cleverness and greed.

The Paper Bag PrincessFor students who are all too ready to pin a saying on a story, we can push them in a similar way, as I did recently with a fourth grade ICT class that, much to their teachers’ dismay, had summed up Robert Munsch‘s fractured fairy tale The Paper Bag Princess with the maxim, “Never judge a book by its cover.” The teachers had purposely chosen a book that was easy enough for all their students to access in order to focus on the harder work of thinking about theme. It’s another example of the ‘Simple Text, Complex Task‘ approach I offered in last week’s post. But when left to their own devices and ideas about theme, the students’ thinking remained simple as well, missing the whole feminist angle.

To help the students dig deeper in the text and give them a different vision of how readers engage and think about theme, I gathered the children in the meeting area where I put a piece of paper under the document camera and wrote down “Never judge a book by its cover.” I then explained that while you could, indeed, say that this was a theme of The Paper Bag Princess, there were lots and lots of stories this was true for. So our job as readers was to think more deeply about what in particular this book might be saying about judging books by their cover. And we’d do that by going back to the story to think about who was judging what, why they were, how they were, and why they shouldn’t have in a way that would get us closer to the author’s attitude and judgments.


As you can see above, I drew boxes around the words judge, book and cover, and I asked the students to turn and talk about what specific form those three words took in The Paper Bag Princess. And as you’ll see by following the arrows that led down from each of the words, the thinking became much more interesting. It ultimately allowed the class to develop three new thematic statements (which you’ll find numbered on the upper right) that captured the feminist twist of the story. And while these students might need additional support in developing these statements in more sophisticated ways, they had taken a big step here. They were also energized by the thinking they had done and eager to continue discussing the gender issues they now saw in the story, which is the authentic reading reason to think about theme: because it can extend, affirm, challenge or deepen our understanding of ourselves and others.

When it comes to teaching theme then, rather than asking students to match a text to an abstract noun or saying that too often doesn’t capture the richness or nuance of an author’s take, we might better ask students to linger longer in the details and the elements of the story, not to simply identify them, but to develop ideas and interpretations about how and why they interact and change and develop over time. From there, it’s a relatively easy move to zoom out from the specifics of the story to a generalization about human behavior, as the fourth graders did. But it means that we have to have a deeper and more nuanced understand of theme, one that acknowledges how it’s embedded in and arrived at through the details of the text. And we need to share that with our students, as well, so that they’re not lost in the woods.

Hansel and Gretel 2

Illustration for Hansel and Gretel by Natascha Rosenberg,

The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook

Author Studies 2.0: Getting to the Heart of What Matters


Over the last two years I’ve noticed a renewed interest in author and thematic studies, which I think is due to the Common Core Standards, particularly to Reading Literature Standard 9, which asks students to compare and contrast stories that are either by the same author or on a similar theme. I’ve always loved author studies, and over the years I’ve helped teachers plan and implement them on authors such as Patricia Polacco, Gary Soto, and Jacqueline Woodson. But the author studies I’ve been supporting recently have a slightly different flavor and feel than the ones I’ve done in the past, which seems both connected to the Standards and the deeper reasons for reading.

My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherIn the past, I think we studied an author for two primary purposes: to see the connection between the author’s life and work and to study their craft, which students could then transfer to their own writing. And with these two major purposes in mind, we’d often begin by introducing some biographical information so that students could get a sense of the author’s life. Then we’d read the books paying particular attention to the author’s craft, noting, for instance, how in My Rotten Redheaded Older BrotherPatricia Polacco uses similes in her descriptions—”He had orange hair that was like wire; he was covered in freckles and looked like a weasel with glasses—and often explains things by giving three examples, as she does here:

Now my babushka, my grandmother, knew lots of things. She knew just how to tell a good story. She knew how to make ordinary things magical. And she knew how to make the best chocolate cake in Michigan.

These are certainly wonderful goals to hold on to, especially when it comes to student writing. But as I’ve sat down with teachers preparing to embark on an author study recently, we’ve taken a different tack. Before starting to search for author bios or combing through books for craft, we’ve been reading the books to see if we notice any patterns in characters, situations, imagery and themes. And each time we’ve done this, we’ve hit a motherlode of meaning, seeing more than we ever thought we would.

The WallThis year, for instance, I worked with a group of third grade teachers who were planning a unit on Eve Bunting. We knew Bunting often looked at difficult topics, such as homelessness in Fly Away Home or riots in Smoky Nights. But what we didn’t know until we dug into the books was how many revolved around holding on to memories, whether it was a father taking his young son to the Vietnam War Memorial in The Wall; a young girl coping with the loss of her mother in The Memory String; or the Native American boy in Cheyenne Again trying not to forget his heritage when he’s forced to attend a white man’s school.

An-Angel-for-Solomon-Singer-9780531070826Similarly, last year I worked with a group of fourth grade teachers planning a unit on Cynthia Rylant. As we looked through her books we were struck by how many lonely characters there were who, often through a chance occurence, encountered someone or something that made them feel less alone. There was the city transplant Solomon Singer who found a lifeline in a waiter named Angel; Gabriel, the main character in “Spaghetti” who stumbled on a stray kitten; and the main character in The Old Woman Who Named Things who overcame her fear of attachment when a puppy showed up at her gate. They were all lonely and all saved from loneliness when something unexpected happened.

In each case the question then became how do we support and position students to replicate what we had done so that they could experience what writer Norman Maclean describes as the essence of thinking: “seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”

Like the second grade teachers in last year’s post, the teachers studying Cynthia Rylant created an author study chart that helped students hold onto the specifics of each book and see patterns across the books. And we gave them lots of time to talk and exchange ideas, which allowed one student to ‘see’ something that none of us teachers had: that Solomon Singer was “solo-man,” a name that seemed particularly apt for a Cynthia Rylant character.

We also invited students to bring what they knew about the Rylant books they had read to the new books they were reading, which led to some magical moments. Making our way through The Old Woman Who Named Things, for instance, I stopped reading after the following page spread and asked the class to think for a moment about what they knew so far about this book and what they knew from other Rylant books we’d read. Then based on that, I asked them to think about where they thought this book might be headed.



Before I had a chance to say, “Now turn and talk,” a boy who was usually quiet gasped, “The puppy is the angel,” referring to the waiter in An Angel for Solomon Singer who acts as a change agent in Solomon’s life. The rest of the class immediately agreed, and expanding on his idea, many also thought that the old woman wasn’t as clever as she thought she was because, even without a name, the dog had already changed her, as could be seen by the fact that she fed him every day. And while they weren’t precisely sure what other changes the dog might herald, they were sure her life would no longer be the same.

Finally, I took another stab at using a Venn Diagram as a thinking tool, not as an artifact of what students already thought. That meant we constructed one as a whole class first, focusing on brainstorming similarities rather than differences. And this time their thinking exploded, precisely as Maclean described, with one idea leading to another in ways that not only engaged students in the work of Reading Standards 2 and 9 (determining the theme from the details of the text and comparing works by the same author), but also gave them a deep understanding of what mattered to Cynthia Rylant.

Venn Diagram for Cynthia Rylant

Of course many of the students still needed help in explaining their thinking in written form, which I’ll save for another post. But what stood out for all of us as teachers was how much more thinking the students could do if we had the time to think and talk first in order to develop a deeper vision of what we were aiming for, which then informed and determined every teaching move we made—from the titles we chose, to the questions we asked, to the decision to save the bio for the end, when the students had already figured what was in the author’s heart.

How Much Do We Truly Expect Students to Understand?

Unhappy Schoolboy Studying In Classroom

During my week in Reggio Emilia, my fellow study group members and I had several opportunities to speak through translators to our Italian colleagues to share observations and ask questions about some of the incredible practices we saw. I was also curious to know what our hosts thought about some of the practices we hold dear and whether or not they confronted some of the problems that we faced, which prompted me to ask questions.

Reggio AtelierHaving visited one of their new elementary schools, for instance, where there was much writing on display, I asked what they thought about craft lessons. This necessitated a bit of back and forth between me, the translator and the teachers who wanted to make sure they understood what I meant by craft. When that was clarified they said that, yes, they would invite students to study craft. But they reminded us of something else they’d said when we’d all marveled at the magnificent ateliers or art studios that are at the center of each school: “[They] do not offer art and technique in order for children to become artists, but in order for them not to become slaves.”

It’s a line I’ve pondered about a lot, along with their answer to another question I posed. I asked if they ever saw children, like the ones I described in my two last posts, who are able to read a text fluently but seemingly don’t understand what it says. And if so, what do they do. Again the question caused some back and forth between the translator and the teachers, though finally they said that they do occasionally see that, and when they do, they refer the child to specialists in order to determine the root cause.

At the time, the answer seemed insufficient—and having been astounded by so much of what we saw, some of us wondered whether here, in the States, we’d actually done more thinking about reading and all that’s involved in comprehending than our Italian colleagues, who were just embarking on lower schools, had. But increasingly I found myself thinking of all the stories and videos they’d shared of students wrestling with ideas, whether it was the existence of negative numbers or how to write certain letters. In each case, the students passionately, thoughtfully—and sometimes even heatedly—shared their own provisional theories about whatever was being explored, which they then would test out, revise and develop as they dug deeper into their study and listened to their classmates.

No Judgment ZoneReminded of that, I found myself wondering whether their constructivist approach to learning—where students don’t consume information but actually build their own knowledge—made some of what we see here moot. Every single child in Reggio was engaged in questioning and developing theories about whatever it was they were exploring, and children were confidently  voicing ideas without fear of the teacher’s judgement. In those rooms, it seems possible that no one without some cognitive glitch would read without wondering what the author might be saying, and no one would be passively calling out words without thinking about what those words meant. And the teachers would both expect and trust that even if the students’ initial theories were far-fetched or even faulty, the process of sharing and revising ideas would eventually lead everyone to understand more in an age-appropriate way.

I wonder, though, if we expect the same. We certainly expect students to learn and know things, and we expect them to perform. But in our race to meet the Standards, move students up levels and complexity bands, and answer our close reading questions, do we really care how deeply they understand as long as they get the right answer? And do we really trust and expect they can get there without our firm, directing hand?

If You Lived with the Iroquois CoverWith these questions in mind, a group of fourth grade teachers I’ve been working with decided to put understanding front and center by inviting students to acknowledge what they didn’t understand as a place from which to start learning. To do this we chose a nonfiction text, If You Lived with the Iroquois by Ellen Levine, aware that, particularly with nonfiction, there was a big difference between knowing the facts and truly understanding them. Then gathering a small group of students on the rug, we gave each child a copy of the book, asked them to turn to the following page and to read thinking about not what they learned but what they’d didn’t fully understand.

If You Lived with the Iroquois Page

Right away a student said that he didn’t understand the sentence about the Iroquois using what nature provided, and once he’d revealed that, the others all agreed. They also didn’t know what a ‘kilt-like skirt’ was, and when I asked about the word ‘tanned,’ they said they weren’t so sure about that either—unless it meant laying the skins in the sun to tan. We then invited the students to look through the book, seeing if there were any places, either in the text or the pictures, that might help them understand what they hadn’t. This led one girl to discover a whole section on tanning a few pages later and several students to develop an understanding of a kilt-like skirt from the illustrations.

We went on then to read the section about tanning, which was hard for them to fully grasp. But at some point the boy who’d originally cited the line about using what nature provided said he now thought he knew what that meant: The Iroquois used material they could find outside, like deer skin and brains, moss and corncobs to make what they needed. And another student, going back to the previous page, added on that porcupine quills, which they used for decoration, also came from nature.

If You Lived with the Iroquois 2

That led one girl to ask, “Did they have stores back then?” “What do you think?” we asked, and after flipping through the pages one last time to see if they spotted any sign of stores or manufactured goods, they all decided they didn’t think so, which they thought was pretty amazing and made them curious to learn more.

The teachers and I all believed that the students left the group that day with a deeper appreciation and understanding of the Iroquois than they’d had if we’d set them up to take notes, gather facts, or fill out a worksheet. And we sent out a message to them that I fear students don’t always hear: We care more about your thinking than your answers, and we truly want you to understand—so much so that we’ll honor what you don’t understand as the place to begin exploring and will carve out time to give everyone the chance to reveal their fledgling thinking and then use talk, not to prove a claim, but to grow and develop ideas. And by trusting and expecting you to understand, you will come to expect that, too, and accept nothing less. And that means you’ll never be a slave to someone else’s thinking.

Reveal, Listen, Understand

My Christmas Wish List


I began thinking about this post last Thursday after I’d spent the day with some teachers who were trying to wrap their minds around what makes a nonfiction text complex beyond background knowledge and vocabulary. I’d brought a sampling of books with me, many from the list of text exemplars found in Appendix B of the Standards, and as the teachers began to pour through them, they noticed many things. They noticed, for instance, that most of these books disrupted much of what we teach students about nonfiction; many had illustrations, for instance, instead of photographs, and many had no text features to speak of—no table of contents, no index, no subheadings, to make fact retrieval easy. And rather than the dry, utilitarian language we often find in nonfiction, these books were filled with the kind of language more often associated with poetry, as can be seen from this gorgeous page from Nicola Davies‘s book Big Blue Whale:

Big Blue Whale 2

“I wish I could find a teacher who’d do an author study of Nicola Davies with me,” I said as I imagined children writing ‘information’ texts that explored content through beautiful language that made facts come alive and were structured as creatively as these text exemplars were, rather than by drearily following the Writing Standards bullet points like a formula.

That, in turn, gave birth to several wishes that Thursday afternoon. I wished that in this current climate of argument, analysis and evidence, we could find the time not just to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings,” but to relish and delight in language and feel its power to move us. And to do this, I wished, as Tom Newkirk does in his wonderful piece “Reading Is Not a Race: The Virtues of the ‘Slow Reading Movement‘”, that we could stop equating proficient reading with speed and right answers and instead, “not put students on the clock, but to say in every way possible—’This is not a race. Take your time. Pay attention. Touch the words and tell me how they touch you.’”

walt-whitmanI also found myself wishing that we could crack open those first three writing Standards and acknowledge how truly powerful writing doesn’t always fit comfortably and neatly into those opinion, information, and narrative categories—even when we’re writing about texts. Here, for instance, is a link and an excerpt to writer, professor and educator Tom Romano‘s glorious essay “A Relationship with Literature,” which combines personal narrative, literary analysis and deeply held convictions to explore his life-long relationship with Walt Whitman:

“Through their essays students have shown me that literature matters to them for many reasons: because of their search for identity, their spiritual needs, their desire to escape to imaginative worlds, their evolving sense of justice. . . . No students yet have written that what won them over to literature was the arc of the Victorian novel, or the qualities of Romanticism, or what a green light symbolized at the end of a dock. This doesn’t surprise me. Literature matters to my students because of their wild and precious lives. They want them to make sense, to be meaningful. They want to find their way. And I understand. ‘I am the man. I suffered. I was there.’ (Whitman).”

And then, of course, came last Friday, when yet another unimaginable act of violence occurred, destroying 27 wild and precious lives. Tom Romano notes that some of his students “have come through slaughter, and a book helped them understand that pain, fear and despair.” I do wish that at some point the families of Newtown, Connecticut, will find some shred of solace in a writer’s words. But right now I wish that literature will fail us, that it actually won’t help us make sense of what happened, because if understanding begets acceptance and tolerance, I wish to never understand what happened that day and to never, ever have to see the words massacre and school in the same sentence again.

Finally, as we head into the holidays, I wish that we might find the strength and courage to to change a world that seems bent on discounting creativity, beauty and the slow accretion of meaning, that seems to care more for the rights of gun owners than the rights of children, and that narrowly evaluates the value of a teacher in ways that fail to acknowledge the valor and sacrifice of the teachers in Newtown. Of course, doing that will not be easy. But for that we might want to hold on to the words of Anais Nin‘s poem “Risk”:

And then the day came,
when the risk
to remain tight
in a bud
was more painful
than the risk
it took
to blossom.

Pine Tree in Snow