After English Class: Some Thoughts On Reading Poetry

Last week I had the privilege of leading a three-day workshop on the Foundations of Writing Workshop in Bangkok for middle school teachers from NESA schools. We explored the structure mini-lessons, the role of mentor texts, the thinking behind unit planning and the art of conferring. We also looked at writer’s notebooks, where I introduced the participants to the idea of quickwrites as a strategy for generating notebook entries.

For those of you unfamiliar with quickwrites, it’s a practice whereby a teacher reads aloud a short projected text then invites students to write something inspired by it for no more than three minutes. Like flash drafts, which they’re often confused with, the point is to write fast, though the purpose of quickwrites is not to get a first draft of something you’re planning to write down on paper in one fell swoop. Rather, as Linda Rief explains in Read Write Teach, a quickwrite “is writing to find writing, not planning or thinking through the writing before the words hit the paper. It is writing for the surprise of not knowing you were going to write what you wrote.” And to give the teachers a feel for the power of quickwrites, I shared the poem “After English Class,” from Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am!, then asked them to write about whatever it brought to mind.

The range of writing this poem inspired was nothing short of stunning. Some wrote about themselves as teachers and wondered if they’d inadvertently killed poetry for their students. Some wrote about texts they’d decided to “drive by” because they’d grown complicated, too. Some wrote about the stillness of winter, others about the magic of snow. And I wrote about my mother, who, for reasons I couldn’t remember, once shared with me the moment she felt defeated by a poem. It was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Evangeline,” which she was required to read in high school—and it seemed so impenetrable to her that she stopped reading poetry.

Ancient Mariner & AlbatrossThat made me remember my own undoing with poetry in high school, which came by way of Mr. Loudon and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” First there was all the thee‘s, thy‘s, may’st‘s and haths‘s, and then there was the albatross—a symbol of Jesus, Mr. Loudon said—which was tied like a weight around the Mariner’s neck, like the poem felt tied around mine.

Fortunately, though, at some point in my thirties, I discovered poems by poets who spoke to me, like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds and Naomi Shihab Nye. That made me realized how important it is for kids to be able to find poems that speak to them and to follow Billy Collins’s advice in “Introduction to Poetry,” and ask students “to take a poem/and hold it up to the light/like a color slide,” rather than “tie the poem to a chair with rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

But . . . as is clear from the title of my new book, I also believe in helping students become deeper readers and thinkers. And that makes me think that the problem for Jean Little’s narrator, my mother, and me wasn’t that the poem we each read had hidden meaning, but that the meaning didn’t belonged to us. It belonged to the teacher.

Consider, for instance, what happened in a fifth grade class who’d been studying poetry. The students had had lots of opportunities to find poems that delighted or spoke to them, but instructionally, we focused on interpreting poems that used figurative language to convey their meaning, using a strategy I wrote about in “Figuring Out Figurative Language.” At this point, they’d read several poems that used a central metaphor, including Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” which uses the metaphor of a crystal stair. And you can see the class’s thinking about the crystal stair below:

Crystal Stair K:W Chart

We’d also focused on using talk to deepen the students’ understanding of poems and decided to celebrate the end of the unit with a formal grand conversation that the kids would conduct themselves. And for that, we chose the poem “Inside” from Nikki Grime’s wonderful Bronx Masquerade, which also uses a central metaphor.

Inside Bronx MasqueradeAfter reading the poem out loud twice and giving each student their own copy, we invited the kids to turn and talk first to ensure that everyone was thinking. Then they formed a circle for a whole class discussion.

Right from the get-go everyone agreed that the coconut was figurative, not literal, and many thought that, as one student put it, “this is a bullying poem.” Building on that, another student said the poem reminded him of the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” which made him think that the bullying involved name calling, not pushing or hitting, because of the phrases “booted words” and “wicked whispers shaped like knuckles.”

The poem also reminded many students of Rob in Kate DiCamillo’s The Tiger Risingwhich they’d read earlier in the year. Rob, they recalled, was physically bullied, and he tried to deal with that and other problems by holding all his feelings inside, locked in an imaginary suitcase. But there was disagreement about whether the poem’s narrator was also holding her feelings inside, with some thinking she does because she keeps her sweetness inside, while others thought not because she expresses her feelings directly to the bully.

Amid all this, though, one student shared that she was confused about how a coconut compared to bullying—and hearing her admit that helped others acknowledge Coconutthat they were also confused. This opened the door to others to explain how they made sense of that. One student, for instance, said, “Bullying isn’t like a coconut, she is. Outside she’s hard but inside she’s soft. You could push her and she won’t get hurt but on the inside she might be hurting.” Another saw it slightly differently. “Everything like the outside of the coconut,” she said, “keeps her from being bullied, but inside she’s sweet. So when she’s bullied she doesn’t care because in her heart she knows she’s sweet.” And that led another student to this ‘aha’ moment: “And when she says ‘Your loss is someone else’s gain’, she means that she could have shared her sweetness with the bully if he hadn’t been so mean.

With the period almost over and everyone nodding as they let these ideas sink in, I drew the conversation to a close and noticed and named what the class had done. Right away they’d gotten that the coconut was figurative, but they had to keep talking to figure out what it truly meant. They also connected this text to another, which also helped them out, for by comparing how Rob and the poem’s narrator handled a bully, they’d realized that the authors had different things to say about how to deal with bullying.

Finally, I asked them how they thought it went, and many said just what the students who’d read “Louisa’s Liberation” did, “That was hard, but fun.” Many also wanted to keep the poem, because they liked it so much. So perhaps what happens after English class depends not just on what poem you choose, but how you choose to teach it—and who truly owns the meaning.

Screen Shot 2017-04-08 at 5.14.17 PM

A Toast to Provocations & Spirited Discourse: The Book Is Out!

4360243 – ender corks popping open a bottle of champagne

It’s official! Today’s the day Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading is released into the world. And I can’t think of a better way to celebrate that than by sharing some words from the fabulous foreword the great Ellin Keene wrote for the book!

I first ‘met’ Ellin when I read the original Mosaic of Thoughtthe seminal book on teaching comprehension that she wrote with Susan Zimmerman, and I was profoundly affected. Even now, in fact, I can clearly recall how she walked me and her other readers through her reading of Sandra Cisneros’s gorgeous but elliptical prose poem  “Salvador, Late or Early.” Not only did her insights about the piece inform my own understanding of it, but she did something remarkable that I’d never encountered before in a professional book: She not only shared what she made of the piece but what she didn’t make by bravely admitting to when, as she wrote, her “understanding diminished” because “the images were coming too fast for [her] to keep up with.”

To me, this was real writing about real reading, with all the real messiness of meaning making captured—and anyone who knows my work can only imagine how much she’s inspired and impacted that. So I was beyond thrilled when she agreed to write the foreword, where she brings the same level of authenticity, insight and honesty she brought to Mosaic of Thought.

Right up front, for instance, Ellin acknowledges that Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading is “a provocative book—in,” she adds, “the best way.” To me, that means seeing a provocation not as an act that threatens us but as something that inspires thinking, questions and ideas, which is how it’s viewed in Reggio Emilia schools—and closer to home, at the Opal School in Portland, Oregon. There teachers frequently design provocations by setting up an array of enticing materials or situations that beg to be explored and manipulated, like this:

I think, though, that texts can be provocations, too. Consider, for instance, the fifth graders I wrote about who wrestled with “Louisa’s Liberation.” Or take a look at all the thinking that was sparked when third graders encountered the cover of Cecil, the Pet Glacier and were simply invited to share what they noticed and what they were wondering about:

To see a larger imagine, click here

Tinkering, an off-shoot of the Maker Movement (and yet another X-Based Learning approach), also uses the idea of provocations, which you can see written side-ways on the far-left side of the chart—just before the learner’s nudged to take a risk and plunge in:

Of course, that stepping off a cliff of into the unknown can, indeed, feel threatening. But Ellin speaks to that aspect of provocations in her foreword, as well. She confesses that while the book affirmed many of the ideas she’d been toying with herself, she didn’t find herself wholly agreeing with every premise or claim I make. But, she writes:

This is exactly what I think we should experience in reading a professional text. It should challenge some of our long-held ideas about practice. It should cause us to think about our craft in new ways—and we should feel ourselves pushing back in others. When you sit down to discuss the ideas in this book, I wish nothing more than that those discussions are dynamic (see title of the book!!) and argumentative (in a civil way, of course!) and inspired provocative. I hope you and your colleagues are stirred and inspired and that you experience a great deal of cognitive dissonance. Are we really a profession if we don’t spar a bit? Are we engaging in spirited and informed discourse if we don’t?

Leave it up to Ellin Keene to say exactly what I’m wishing for, too: that the book will inspire lots of spirited discussion, questioning, ideas—and, yes, even push back—in a way that, as one of the “Louisa’s Liberation” students said, is “hard but fun.” To support those kinds of discussions, I’ll be setting up a Facebook page for Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading in the next few weeks. But for now I’d like to raise a toast that I hope you’ll join me in, to a rich, robust exchange of ideas and lots of dynamic thinking!

16524922 – two champagne glasses ready to bring in the new year

What I Did on My Snow Day: A Slice of Life

I’m not sure who loves snow days more, teachers or kids. But I do know that when I learned that schools in New York City and New Jersey would be closed on Tuesday for what was predicted to be a monster blizzard, I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been ready for my work on Tuesday, but I hadn’t had time to wrap my mind about my work for Wednesday, when I’d be back in a middle school whose teachers were struggling to shift from a curriculum of whole class novels to reading workshop. Now I’d have time to plan.

Like many districts, this one began their initiative to implement workshop in their lower schools, where, over the years, it took root. It’s even been embraced by the 6th grade teachers, who’d noticed that their incoming students were arriving with a much greater sense of agency and identity as readers than they used to. But the 7th grade teachers Classic Middle School Booksweren’t so sure. They were deeply attached to the whole class novels they’d been teaching (sometimes for years), and they truly believed that that approach best prepared their students for high school. To me, this meant that they took their jobs seriously and wanted to do right by their students—and I used that as a place to start.

Over several visits, I’d shown them Penny Kittle’s videos where many of her students confess that they’d basically all but stopped reading in middle school. And I’d shared some from their own district’s lower schools that captured local fourth and fifth graders engaged in book club discussions. I’d demonstrated lessons; given workshop on books talks and interactive read alouds; created charts and handouts like the one below, and introduced them to blogs by middle school teachers, like Tara Smith’s and Pernille Ripp’s. But while they were intrigued enough to institute ten minutes of independent reading in their classrooms several times a week, they still struggled letting go of the whole class texts.

Read Alouds vs. Whole Class Novels 2

So I decided to take a new tact. For this visit, I’d committed myself to taking whatever whole-class-book lesson the host teacher had planned and show them how to shift that to a workshop approach by unpacking my thinking. So once I was fully caffeinated and had helped David shovel our sidewalk and stoop, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down at my desk to take another look at the email the teacher had sent.

The Miracle Worker PlaybillHer plan was to start “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, on Wednesday, using “opening activities focused on understanding Gibson’s use of lighting and stage directions to assist readers in understanding the play.” I’d never read “The Miracle Worker,” nor helped a teacher teach a play in middle school before—and I confess I felt some serious regret about what I’d agreed to take on. But sipping my tea, I knew my first job was to think about how to move this lesson away from this play, this lighting and this staging to ways of thinking about how staging and lighting inform the meaning of plays in general so the teaching could be transferred and applied from one text to another.

What I needed for that was a mentor text to help me understand how stage directions conveyed meaning and what challenges—or problems—they posed for readers. So I turned to Google to help me find plays that might be engaging to middle schoolers and had meaning-full stage directions. And I came up with a small trove of treasures. Here, for instance, are the opening stage directions for Herb Gardner’s wonderful play “A Thousand Clowns,” about an eccentric comedy writer who must change his ways in order not to lose custody of his 12-year-old nephew:

One thing I immediately recognized  was how much a reader would need to visualize to make sense of this. But more than that, readers also had to think about the significance of all these details and what they might, both literally and figuratively, suggest about what might unfold. That is, readers not only have to picture Nick sitting my himself in the dark, surrounded by a tsunami of disorder, with his face lit by the screen of a TV that the audience can hear but not see, but consider what the playwright might be trying to convey through all those details. And that requires a lot of thinkingfrom inferring that, at 8:30 on a Monday morning, Nick should be in school to wondering whether the position of the TV, the closed venetian blinds and the scattered, hazy light suggest there’s more that the characters—and us, as readers—can’t see.

All this seemed exciting to me, but also potentially hard. How might I introduce this interpretive thinking to the 7th graders? I could, of course, model a think aloud, but as Dorothy and I wrote in What Readers Really Do, the problem with think alouds is that, while they’re intended to show students how to think, what students often take away is what to think. Instead, as I wrote in my look at dynamic teaching, I wanted to design an opportunity for students to engage in that thinking on their own.

So I made myself another cup of tea and stood by the window, watching the snow silently blanket the street. And suddenly I had what David calls a “brain fart.” What if I began by having students interpret Edward Hopper paintings, which suggest stories in interior spaces that almost feel like stage sets, and then moved from those to “A Thousand Clowns”? With renewed excitement, I headed back to my desk, where once gain Google helped me find images, which seemed perfect for the kind of interpretive thinking I wanted the kids to try on:

Hopper Movie Theater

Hopper Nighthawks

Hooper room-in-new-york

With a text now chosen and a basic plan in mind, I still had to consider the logistics: Should I do the first painting with the whole class then break them into smaller groups to interpret different painting? Would the kids need some kind of protocol or lenses for looking at the paintings? Should I follow the same structure with the stage directions, first look at “A Thousand Clowns” together, then let groups work collaborative on different openings that they then could read in book clubs?

As I pondered these decisions, an email notice popped up on my screen. I had a new message from the middle school. Turns out there was so much snow the school couldn’t open on Wednesday unless the roads, sidewalks and parking lots could be cleared. And even if that happened, there’d be a delayed opening, which meant I’d need to reschedule the day. Given that I couldn’t do that until much later in April, you could say all that work was for naught. But I have to say I found the thinking as exhilarating as The Snowy Day‘s Peter found playing outside in the snow. I didn’t make snow angels, build snowmen or hurl myself down a hill on a sled. But I did hurling myself down a thrilling ride of thought, which led to making something. And who knows? Maybe one of you out there will do something with this!

The Snowy Day sledding


Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Solving Problems as Readers


One of the most common text features found in professional books are subtitles, and having taken a look the last two weeks at dynamic teaching and deeper reading, I want here to explore and explain what’s behind this book’s subtitle: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach.

Many of you already know something about problem-based teaching and learning (a.k.a. PBL). In fact, PBL may already be in your teaching repertoire. But here’s a little background: Problem-based teaching and learning became established as a specific zombie-based-learning-2teaching practice when medical school professors in the 1960’s shifted from teaching their students through lectures and textbooks to setting them up to solve the kind of complex diagnostic problems they’d experience in the field. And in today’s world, PBL is joined by a plethora of what the Buck Institute for Education dubs “X-based learning” practices, such as project-based learning, game-based learning, design-based learning, brain-based learning—and even zombie-based learning!

Most of these are variations of basic constructivist and inquiry practices that again go back to Dewey and to other great thinkers like Piaget and Einstein, who claimed, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” And while there are some differences between X-based practices, they all share at least some of the features that Dr. Howard Barrows, who adapted these ideas to the teaching of physicians, describes here:


If Google and educational websites are any indication, it seems as if PBL has taken hold in many math, science and STEM classrooms, but it hasn’t gotten much traction in reading, where we tend to think that problem solving is only needed at the word level. But think back to (or catch up on) the students I wrote about last week, who worked their way through “Louisa’s Liberation.” They did, indeed, have to figure out what a word meant, but to do that they had to first figure out what point was being made about the fact that Louisa was playing doctor, not house or even nurse, as Katie and Emily thought. And figuring that out then allowed them to figure out what the author, Jean Little, might be trying to show them about people and life through the story.

All this figuring out was needed because the writer conveyed this information indirectly. direct-vs-indirectAnd in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper ReadingI propose that we see every instance in which a writer conveys something implicitly, versus explicitly, as a problem that text poses for readers. This can be something as deep and meaningful as what a writer wants us to consider about the human condition to something as seemingly simple as what or who a pronoun refers to. And part of the trick of a problem-based approach is becoming more aware of where, precisely, those problems are in a text.

To build that awareness in the book, I regularly invite readers to look at a short text or excerpt to consider what the writer hasn’t said directly that a reader would have to figure out. And to give you a taste of that, take a look at the text below. It’s the opening of a folktale that a group of 5th grade teachers brought to my attention after it appeared on a state benchmark assessment. How much do you have to figure out just to get the basic who, what, where and when? (And if you’d like a strategy for that, pay attention to when you’re confused.)


If you’re like the teachers who shared this text with me, your jaw might have dropped at what seems like the unnecessary confusion of this passage. Mostly it’s because the characters are referred to in different ways, which the writer doesn’t explicitly clarify. And just imagine how much your confusion would be compounded if you were a fifth grader who also didn’t know what the words dispute, Zen, monastery and monk meant.

zen-monk-scrollIf we see these, though, as problems to solve and give students a chance to collaboratively wrestle with them, many are able to do what a small group of sixth grade students did. They had no idea what a Zen master was, or a monastery, but they reasoned that the Zen master must be some sort of teacher because he had a student, and that, whatever a monastery was, it was where the Zen master lived. They also recognized that a conversation was going on, and using what they knew about dialogue, they were able to figure out that the Zen master and the old monk were one and the same, as was the wandering and the visiting monk. And while there were questions about whether there was one or two one-eyed characters (one a student and the other a monk), one of the group made a case for them being one and the same, too, because he thought that if the one-eyed monk was a new character, he’d have been introduced with an not the.

Each chapter in the book’s Section Two is grounded in a classroom room example that shows kids grappling with specific kinds of problems texts pose, like figuring out the basics in fiction or understanding the implications of facts in nonfiction. And each comes with a chart that shares some of what readers have to do to solve those problems, like this one on figuring out the basics in fiction and narrative nonfiction:


From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann a caption

Additionally, between the chapters in Section Two, you’ll find a Considering Complexity feature that notes other texts that poses similar problems at different reading levels, so, regardless of what grade you teach or where your students are, you have some place to start:


From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

My hope is that these features will encourage and inspire you to try out this teaching approach (if you haven’t already). And finally, I think it’s important to remember the benefits of making this shift. Not only will students retain more of what they’ve learned because they’ve figured things out for themselves, but they’ll reap the additional benefit that the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca described:


Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Delving into Deeper Reading


So here’s a problem I wrestled with this week: How do I explain something like deeper reading that took me nearly four years, over two hundred pages and countless drafts to describe in a thousand-or-so-word blog post? My solution? Create an opportunity for you to begin to construct your own understanding of it by sharing a classroom example from the book!

In this example, I was working with a small group of fifth graders—Ava, Luce, Antonio and Nick—all of whom, according to their teacher, were having trouble identifying theme. And the text I decided to invite them to read was a short piece called “Louisa’s Liberation” from Jean Little’s wonderful book Hey World, Here I Am!, a collection of poems, journal entries and vignettes written by the lovable narrator Kate. The goal would be for the students to ultimately consider what Little might be trying to show us about people or life through the piece, and I invite you to read it here, too, with that same goal in mind:

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of  HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

© 1986 by Jean Little. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann).

As a proficient reader, you may have thought Jean Little was saying something about stereotypes—and you might have even laughed as you realized she was playing a joke on Kate and Emily, who seem in need of liberation themselves. If you considered more specifically what she could be saying about stereotypes, you might have arrived at an idea like this: Even people who think they’re enlightened can fall into stereotyping. And depending on the grade you teach, you might have also have thought your students wouldn’t get that for a variety of reasons. They might lack background knowledge about the women’s rights movement or not know words like liberation, trundling, and preoccupied. Or you might question if they have the maturity to reach a similar conclusion. And you’d be right—at least in terms of what students might not know.

After reading the first section, I asked the students what they thought they’d learned so far and what they were curious or confused about (i.e., what they knew and wondered), which revealed that none of them knew what liberation meant. Nick thought it could be connected to the word library because of what seemed like a common root, but that idea didn’t work out when he tried it on the second line (“It was up to us to make sure Louisa grew up liberated.”) Noticing details about teaching and school, though, Ava and Antonio wondered if liberation might mean education, and because this worked in both the noun and verb form, they used it as a placeholder, as in, they thought Kate and Emily wanted to find Louisa so they could educate her.

What they still didn’t know, though, was what Kate and Emily wanted to teach herchild-playing-doctor-2. Luce thought it might have to do with the words sex stereotypes (which she pointed to rather than said out loud), and the rest thought that was possible. So with this thinking on the table, they were ready to wrestle with the rest of the piece, which continued to puzzled them.

They sensed there was something significant about Louisa playing nurse or doctor rather than playing house, but they didn’t know what to make of that. Nor did they know how it connected to Emily and Kate’s mission to educate her. And so I invited them to try to talk it out, and here’s a taste of their thinking:

Ava: I think it’s important that she’s pretending to be a doctor, not a nurse, because doctors help people and nurses just help doctors.

Luce: Yeah, and one of my aunts is a nurse and she told me doctors get paid lots of money. So they’re sort of more important than nurses.

Antonio: And Louisa thinks she can be anything she wants to be, not just a nurse but a doctor.

Ava: But Kate and Emily thought she was playing nurse, so maybe they didn’t think she could be a doctor.

Luce: And maybe they thought that because lots of women are nurses but only some are doctors.

Antonio: But she didn’t need them to teach her anything. She already thought she could be anything she wanted. And they were just happy she wasn’t in the kitchen.

Nick (who’d been quiet till then): Oh! I think I just figured out what liberation means. It’s like the Statue of Liberty. Louisa’s free to be anything she wants to be because liberty is like freedom.

Ava: Yeah, she’s not in a box, but Kate and Emily sort of are because they only expected her to be a nurse.

Antonio: It’s like she’s more liberated and mature than they are. But maybe Louisa can liberate them.

girl-in-a-boxGiven time to question, ponder and think, these students arrived at the same implicit and nuanced idea that you, yourself, may have had. And as they talked about what they had learned about people and life through the story, some said that Jean Little had shown them that age doesn’t always determine maturity, while others thought she had shown them that sometimes you might be in a box even if you think you’re not. They also had lots of strong opinions about people who thought women couldn’t do the same jobs as men. And when I asked if they thought they’d learned anything as readers from this experience, here’s what they had to say:

Ava: “Yeah, it’s like there was a story inside the story and we figured it out.”

Nick: “It’s really important to figure out words, especially if they’re in the title.”

Antonio: “We also had to think about what we didn’t know, not just what we did.”

Luce: “That was really hard, but fun!”

If we go back to the words I shared last week from John Dewey’s contemporary Michael O’Shea, you can see that by framing the students’ reading around what the author might be showing them about people or life, I put them in “a dynamic attitude toward the thing being presented,” which helped them “keep thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity.” Or as Dewey said, by giving these students “something to do, not something to learn,” that demanded thinking, “learning would naturally result.” And here that learning included expanding their understanding of human beings as well as realizing there can be an implicit message in a story, that much can be gained by paying attention to what you don’t know, and that thinking hard can actually be fun.

Additionally, I think it’s important to note that, if you take a look at the Common Core Anchor Standards below, you’ll see that they were also engaged in the work of standards 1-6. That’s because when we invite students to dynamically read deeply for meaning, they automatically—and authentically—engage in the work of the standards.


So now the question is, what’s your understanding of deeper reading now?


Counting Down to Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: What Does It Mean to Teach Dynamically?


If you’ve seen Heinemann’s Spring Catalog already, you may know that Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading will be out in about six weeks. And as a run up to its release, I’d like to share some of the books’s big ideas and features over the next few weeks, beginning here with the concept of dynamic teaching.

the-education-trust-report At some point as I was writing the book, I started noticing the word dynamic in various articles and blog posts that showed up in my inbox and twitter feed. Most of these talked about a need for teachers to embrace more dynamic practices, such as this study from The Education Trust, a nonprofit advocacy group dedicated to educational equity, which looked at the kinds of reading-related assignments students were being asked to do to meet the Common Core Standards.

As I share in the book, one of their major findings was that “many—if not most—assignments were over-scaffolded . . . [with] much of the work actually done for the students rather than by them.” In particular, the researchers took aim at close-reading and text-annotation tasks, which they said “were so tightly scripted they actually appeared to interfere with the deep understanding of complex text.” And this led them to ponder whether “the implementation approaches we have chosen are overly mechanical, denying the dynamic nature of teaching needed for strategic thinking.”

comprehension-going-forwardA similar finding is shared by P. David Pearson in his wonderful coda to Comprehension Going Forward“Toward the Next Generation of Comprehension Instruction.” Having taken a hard look at the current state of strategy instruction, he acknowledges that its implementation—especially in classrooms where teachers are using commercial reading programs—often lacks “the dynamic, adaptive and responsive character,” needed for it to be effective and meaningful. And that leads him to conclude that these practices also “stand in need of reform.”

But what precisely might a more dynamic implementation look like? If you go to Google and type in dynamic teaching, you’ll find any number of ways people think about it. For some, it means bringing more technology into classrooms or creating blending learning opportunities. To others, it’s about us, as teachers, being more energetic, enthusiastic and engaging; while still others think it involves making more real world connections between what goes on inside and outside of school. All of these practices are certainly worthwhile, but none of them—even when combined—necessarily capture the essence of the word dynamic, which the Oxford Dictionary says describes a system or process “characterized by constant change, activity or progress.”

For me this means teaching that engages students in a recursive, interactive process that allows their thinking, understanding and sense of agency to actually change, develop and grow as they work together to figure something out—whether that’s the difference between a scene and a summary, which I wrote about recently, or, in the case of reading, what an author might be trying to show us about the human condition.

john-deweyIt’s worth noting that this concept of teaching isn’t new. It goes all the way back to Dewey who believed that learning required thinking, not “a diet of predigested materials” and that “we only think when confronted with a problem.” Therefore, he thought teachers should “give the pupils something to do, not something to learn” (as in strategies or skills), and if “the doing was of such a nature to demand thinking,” (as trying to figure something out is) “learning would naturally result.” And one of Dewey’s colleagues and friend, Michael Vincent O’Shea, even used the word dynamic in his book Problems in Everyday Teachingwhich was published in 1912. According to O’Shea:

“Whenever a pupil is obliged to make things work, he will think as effectively as it is possible for him to do. If in our teaching we can arrange a program of exercises of this concrete, dynamic character, we can keep pupils thinking up to the limit of their constantly enlarging capacity. Really, the art of teaching consists mainly in realizing this plan to its fullest extend in all studies. . . [as] there can be no effective learning in any class where the pupils are not in a dynamic attitude toward the thing which is being presented. And they can not be dynamic for any considerable length of time unless they are self-active in organizing and setting forth in some way.”

More recently, this vision of dynamic teaching was recommended in a report put out last August by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (NCTAF) called “What Matters Now: A New Compact for Teaching and Learning.”  There they argue for a set of “New Teaching Dynamics” where, in order to “empower students to become self-directed and responsible learners,” teachers need to become learning strategists rather than content providers.


As you can see from this graphic, being a learning strategist requires teachers to take on multiple roles, some of which will be new to many. These roles also require us to be flexible, adaptive and responsive thinkers, frequently in the moment, which can also be new—and scary. And here’s where Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading comes in.

Throughout the book, I’ve tried to make the teaching moves involved in this kind of teaching as concrete, explicit and replicable as possible so you can transfer and apply them to different grades, instructional settings and texts. You’ll find chapters that show you how to create and implement dynamic learning opportunities for your students in reading, and each of these ends with a chart, like the one below, that captures and names the specific teaching moves shared in each chapter’s classroom examples.


From Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading by Vicki Vinton. 2017. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing

Additionally, you’ll find sections in those chapters that unpack the thinking behind the moves, share ways of providing vital in-the-moment feedback, and show you not only how to plan for this kind of teaching but how to actually be prepared for the various twists and turns a more dynamic approach can take. And with that said, it’s time to begin thinking about next week’s post: What Is Deeper Reading?


Ideas for Skinning the Writing about Reading Cat

Skinning a Cat

By now, we all know the emphasis the Common Core has placed on writing about texts, and we’re also aware of the effects that has had on writing: The writing of poetry has vanished in far too many schools while the five-paragraph essay has become institutionalized as the way to respond to what the Common Core says is “the special place” argument holds in the Standards. And too often this has resulted in writing that’s functional and mechanical but not terribly meaningful or interesting to read.

Patrick Sullivan, the author of the NCTE piece “The UnEssay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom,” connects these results with “the kind of reductionism promoted by the Common Core Standards and the powerful, entrenched interest of the testing consortia,” And to push back on these forces, I want to offer some alternative ways for writing about reading. As in my first “Skinning the Writing Cat” post, each is grounded in a mentor text that students can study for structure and craft. And each promotes what Sullivan argues is needed to combat those trends and entrenched interests: “a more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing.”

Book Reviews: Real Writing for a Real Audience

stone-soup-coverIn the age of the Common Core, book reviews seem to have taken a back seat to analytic literary essays. This seems a shame to me—especially when students are invited to aspire to the kinds of student-written book reviews that regularly appear in the magazine Stone SoupIf you dip into their archives, you’ll find many examples of children writing about books with insight, voice and a deeply rhetorical, cognitive and creative understanding about writing, such as this review of Kevin Henkes‘s Olive’s Ocean written by 12-year-old Isabel:

“I’ve read so many books that are supposed to touch your heart and are just boring and predictable. This is not the case with Olive’s Ocean. You see, Kevin Henkes is a true writer, not some sappy poetic writer wannabe. He has this way of writing that’s plain but still very powerful—and I’m not talking about the Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse Kevin Henkes. . . [But] one thing that Kevin Henkes did take with him on the path from a world of five-year-old mice to this tear-jerking read is his fabulous understanding of a kid’s brain. Only Henkes can capture the feeling of the last day of a trip. Haven’t we all experienced that sensation of “this is the last time I’ll sleep on this pillow, the last time I’ll walk through this door, the last glass of orange juice here”?

Letters About Literature: Getting Personal

letters-about-literatureEvery year the Library of Congress sponsors a writing contest for grade 4-12 students called “Letters About Literature.” The contest asks students “to read a book, poem or speech and write to the author (living or dead) about how the book affected them personally.” To the best of my knowledge it’s the only writing contest for grade school students sponsored by the Federal government—the same government that sponsored the development of nationwide standards that ask readers to banish personal responses in order to stay “within the four corners of the text.” Here, though, students are applauded for personally connecting with a text, and the winning letters are filled with deep and often poignant insights and questions, such as this one from Charlie Boucher to Kathryn Erskine, the author of Mockingbirdabout a girl named Caitlin who has Aspergers.

Charlie begins his letter with an anecdote about passing a strange homeless man on the street who seemed so confused and off-kilter that his father told him to avoid people like that—which he did until he read Mockingbird:

I fell in love with that book. No other book has ever made me cry. But I did more than cry. I thought, I visualized, I feared. When I finished your book, I couldn’t stop thinking about that man I had seen. Did he have Aspergers? Rather than avoiding him, should my father and I have helped him? What about the countless other Caitlins in the world? I felt sympathy for them, but I felt something else. Later I realized that was guilt. . . . I was a hypocrite, ridiculing those who did not help others but not actually helping. The very core of my being, kindness, was in question. But I reread your book and I felt more a sense of understanding. You weren’t trying to frown upon those who bullied, but rather encourage people to be more open, to promote empathy. I did.

Writing to Think Before Writing to Convey Thinking

It’s easy to image that these two students and others you’ll find in the links are simply precocious or are privileged to come from homes full of books with parents who read to them. That, of course, is possible. But beyond their personal circumstances, one thing I’d bet on is those weren’t their first drafts.

Just as I do when thinking about a blog post, these writers probably started by simply exploring their ideas and thought without worrying about structure or even if what they were writing made sense. This kind of low-stakes or low-risk writing is incredibly valuable but often underusedthe-thing-about-luck—so much so that students may have no idea what it could look and sound like. Teacher modeling, of the sort shared at NCTE last month, can help, but so can an excerpt from Cynthia Kadohata‘s National Book Award winner The Thing About Luck.

The book tells the story of a Japanese-American girl named Summer whose family has seemingly run out of luck. First Summer contracts malaria from an infected mosquito in an airport, then her parents have to fly to Japan to care for a dying relative right before the harvest season starts. And with them gone, her aging grandparents must come out of retirement to get the wheat harvest in, taking Summer and her younger brother with them. Amid all these upheavals, Summer also must read and write a thematic essay on A Separate PeaceJohn Knowles’s classic about two boys’ tragic friendship during World War II.

Summer begins by trying to explain her experience of reading the book:

I thought A Separate Peace was a strange and kind of amazing book. It was very quiet, and then suddenly, it was not quiet at all. So then the parts that are not quiet make all the quiet parts seem like they are not quiet after all.

She then notes the odd structure of the book—how it starts at the end not the beginning with most of it taking place fifteen years earlier than the first and final chapters—before launching into a long text-to-self connection about how she and the main character Gene both live with fear.

Eventually, though, she gets to the book’s crucial scene where Gene shakes the branch of a tree his friend Finny has climbed, which causes Finny to fall:

Finny used to be a great athlete, but now his leg is broken so bad from the fall that he cannot be an athlete anymore. Later in the book Finny falls down a set of stairs. Then, he dies during surgery on his leg. The problem is, I do not really understand if Gene could have possibly shook the branch on purpose. I mean, who would do that to their best friend? Gene was jealous of how good an athlete Finny is, so I guess Gene, shakes the branch on purpose to hurt Finny?

Before Finny dies, Gene starts to dress like Finny. Finny trains Gene to be an athlete like Finny used to be. Gene becomes like Finny because Finny cannot be himself anymore. This is insane behavior in my opinion. Their relationship is so intense that it is insane.

Summer takes a break here to ponder what she’s written. Then she grabs her pencil and starts writing again to capture the thought all this writing has spawned:

People are very complicated, and I do not think even a really smart psychiatrist can truly figure out what is in your brain and what is in your heart or stomach. You might not even realize it, but maybe you would shake a branch your best friend is on, although I personally do not think I would ever do that. My brain and heart might be mixed up and tangled, and inside of me there are both good and bad things. The lesson of A Separate Peace is that it might take fifteen years to untangle all those things inside of me.

To me, this is a wonderful example of how a writer doesn’t craft a thesis as much as arrive at one through a process of thinking. Granted, an experienced, skilled writer actually wrote this, but I can’t begin to count the times I haven’t discovered what I’ve wanted to say until I reached the end. So if we truly want students to write meaningfully about reading and develop that “more deeply rhetorical, cognitive, and creative understanding of writing,” let’s be sure to give them a vision of what both the process and the product could look like by using great mentor texts.