Read-aloud is Our Best Learning

Rust-v1-Visitor-in-the-Field-GN-Cover-202x300I did not intend to read ALL THREE of the graphic novel series RUST as a read-aloud to begin the year, but I found it was impossible to stop.

Now RUST may not be your favorite genre (sci/fi), and graphic novels might not be your favorite format, but this year, for these kids, they grooved on it so I kept on reading and reading and reading. And as we read and talked, I thought a lot about reading and the teaching of reading, and even (darkly) whether Reading Class is a valid subject to teach. 1

For those who do not know the series, RUST  is set in a sepia world during an undefined time. Early in the book, we discover that there has been a long war that pitted robots and people against other robots and people. A “jet boy” (Jet Jones) from that war 48 years in the past shows up on the barren wheat farm of Roman Taylor and his family. A creation (part robot/part boy) to aid in the war effort, Jet arrives at the farm pursued by a giant robot intent on doing him in. Roman rescues Jet from the robot, and Jet stays on the farm to help out, which is a good thing because Roman is barely able to keep the farm together. You see, Roman’s father went to war many years ago under mysterious circumstances and has never returned to the farm. Throughout the books, Roman writes him letters (but never sends them), he attempts to reclaim robots he’s found in a scrap heap in order to keep the farm running, and he tries to avoid thinking too far into the future.

RUST offers a complex world to think about together. The discussion has been fascinating and the fact that it is a graphic novel, for these readers, has helped highlight some of the ways complex fiction works. It has given us some meaty “author’s craft” stuff to think about, but in a form that slows down the pace of words coming at us, so we might keep track of how the author does what he does.

For example, the sparseness of the word-text has helped students identify important dialogue and description because it stands out more clearly. When we read the prologue to book 2, we encountered the following scene, which focused our attention on the idea that Jet was rebelling against the purpose of his creation, to be a super-weapon that would turn the tide of the war, a necessary evil who would relieve humans of the obligation to fight in any war ever again:


As we have read farther, we kept Jet’s question in mind, and began to think about whether this is a question we need to answer for ourselves, too. What is our responsibility to others? Is power enough? Do the ends justify the means? What is our purpose?

The artwork helps us focus on details that we might have missed if presented simply in words.


The difference in these power cells, and the way the illustrator allows us to linger on them (and on the eyes of the man collecting them from the battlefield) has become a central question we have thought about over the course of 3 books and nearly 600 pages. What a great experience to “hold onto” a detail (and a question) for so long! Maybe with this practice, students will be better able to do that kind of work with denser written text, too.

One more example. Complex narrative devices such as parallel stories are difficult to recognize, much less to track for these kinds of young readers. Yet, it sure was fun when we got to the section below and the kids realized that what appeared to be an action scene (which is was) was also a way to tell the “backstory” of Roman’s father’s entry into the army. In this scene, we get Roman’s letter describing the memory of his father’s conscription at the same time Jet is trying to deal with a robot who seeks to bring him back to his “maker.” The students got the chance to connect that decision to resist conscription to Jet’s decision to sacrifice his super-powers for a more “human” life. That’s what bravery looks like.

sequence1 sequence2 sequence3 sequence4



Besides bringing up important ideas about bravery and duty, the children now have experienced keeping track of parallel stories and have been able to construct some very concrete ideas about how authors construct a story. They are on the lookout for that kind of complexity because they have experienced the delight in recognizing when it occurs.

And all of this made me question my lesson plans that carefully lay out progressions designed to help students become independent, insightful readers. So much of what we did while reading aloud was “in the moment” instruction. We tried to figure out what this complex text meant, and we noticed what we did to figure it out. I was not all that important in the process, nor were my carefully laid out lessons all that useful. But what was useful was a good text, some thoughtful people who really wanted to make sense of stuff, and a little time to do it. 2

  1. Yes, I have this existential crisis every year. In my regular life, I read and write not as ends in themselves, but as a means to a larger end. So, I ask: How might reading and writing in school serve other ends that are larger than ‘READING CLASS”? What other ends might these be? These are the questions that bring on my yearly crisis, and my struggle to answer them drives some of what happens in the classroom.
  2. I know, this seems like the “easy way out,” doesn’t it? But my yearly existential crisis comes down to this: I wonder if a lot of what we (I?) need to do in teaching is along the lines of the kind of work we did with RUST,  which is difficult to place within a simple, single “I can…” statement, for example. I’d call this sort of a mutual cognitive apprenticeship. We learned by watching each other think. My role was, essentially, to name what we did.

The School of the Outdoors

Long time, no post. My move to fifth grade has been good for me, but the change in routine took a long, I mean, a long-long time to get used to. The bell marking the end of class was the crucial factor for me, which necessitated some pretty serious thinking about learning and how I fit into a system of bells and measured time. I may reflect on what the move taught me in subsequent posts.

For now, though, school’s out for summer, I’m back from a six-day paddle in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) in northern Minnesota, and I’m getting ready for a week-long workshop on inquiry-based science.

I’m reminded of how much I learn about the world and myself by just being outside for long stretches of time.

I wish I could take the kids out on a field trip to such a place as the BWCAW. We saw a moose feeding at the edge of the lake (how immense they are!); what appeared to be a lone trumpeter swan spend the afternoon in the bay, then trumpet and lift off a little after sunset; and many loons, like the ones in the video, who sang their mournful song at dusk.

We also saw mosses (my partner is teaching herself how to identify the different species), beautiful sedges in the woods, marshes, and along the lake edge, and the first flush of brilliant green aspen leaves against the darkness of the black spruce. Spring comes slowly to the north country.

We experienced several nights in the low 30s, the first black fly and mosquito hatch (oh boy!), and observed dragonfly larvae crawl from the cool lake waters, split open, then transform before our eyes. Even now, I have to catch myself. The dragonfly is BOTH the acrobatic aerialist who hunted mosquitoes gathered near my head AND the monstrous looking larva that crawls from the underwater world only to open and, like the crew members in the movie, Alien, disgorge a winged creature with a very long abdomen and a voracious appetite. Two worlds, two lives, one dragonfly.

Until you actually see the still-wet larva split open and the winged dragonfly emerge, life cycles are abstract ideas.

We pulled out for lunch on a piece of Canadian Shield (some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, the spine of the North American continent), then marveled at the work of the beaver, master builder, whose fur drew hordes of opportunists to the north country and became the tophats of the fashionable people in Europe.


Each night we read aloud an account of a canoe trip the author took in the 1950s that followed the old fur trade route from Grand Portage, MN to the Red River of the North.1 While not great literature, this book reminded me that what counts as a “good book” can be situational. Packed with first-hand accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries, I learned more about the Hudson’s Bay Company, the Northwest Company, the XY Company, and the homme du nord than I had known before. While our fare was meager, it was nothing like the 1 quart of lyed corn cooked with pork grease that was the daily meal during the trip: “All the food that a man needs for 24 hours on the road.”

Small comfort, though, that three hundred years ago the fur traders cursed the black flies and mosquitoes, too.


Beth reads our travel narrative aloud from under her bug net.


  1. Bolz, Portage into the Past.

Building Spaces for Conversation and Intellectual Play

BalancedCreative Commons License Earl McGehee via Compfight

My move to fifth grade this year disrupted a lot of my classroom routines. Last year’s fourth-grade classroom was self-contained; I taught the same learners all subject areas over the course of the day. This left me with a lot of flexibility to add and subtract time depending on where the learning was taking us, and I knew the children as learners really, really well.

Now I teach only some subject areas — three blocks of Science and one of Reading and Writing in forty-three minute blocks of time. As every classroom teacher knows, routines are at the core of what we do. They allow us to focus learner attention and to dispense with loads of explaining so we can get right to the thinking. They allow us central themes off of which we can riff.1

My colleague, Heath, and I are experimenting with a new classroom routine for these small-block classes. It’s an adaptation of Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week, which we call Task of the Week (ToW) because we wanted the children to think about a wider range of “text” — fiction, poetry, art, photographic images, primary historical sources, and video along with the kinds of informational text more closely associated with Gallagher’s Article of the Week. Our goal is to have a significant, student-led conversation about the “text” at the end of the week, a conversation that deepens our understanding of what the text might mean, how the “author” created that meaning through craft moves, and why that text might (or might not) be important beyond the text itself. The children know that all of the meaning-making work they do during the week is in preparation for this discussion at the end of the week. Our thought was that this weekly discussion would create an authentic reason for a deeper reading (close reading?) of the text, something that is often missing from close reading activities, in my opinion.

We read closely so we have something to say about the text. We want to have something to say because we have experienced the joy of building ideas in the company of others.

What Readers Really Do2So, here’s how T0W works (so far, it is a work in progress): Early in the week we introduce the children to the “text” without a lot of pre-teaching or background. The students annotate it looking for details they think are important. They generate questions that the text brings to mind. This early stage work is deeply connected to the kind of inductive thinking that Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse outline in their book: What Readers Really Do.2

Our text for last week was a poem by Valerie Worth, “Camels”, from her book of poems, Animal Poems. We felt it was rich enough that the students could find meaning on many different levels.3

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning...

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems, a super book of poems that can be read on many different levels of meaning…

We look at the early work the children produce, oftentimes conferring with them as they engage with the text. The data we gather at this stage helps guide our mid-week work, which is always based on a “writing to learn” activity, but might include additional reading to provide historical background, mini-lessons to explore author’s craft moves, to more prosaic lessons on how to use an online dictionary (as was the case last week!) The mid-week work includes a Google Doc with some questions that are designed to help the students draw together (synthesize) some of the details and questions into rough-draft interpretations (ideas) they have about the text. We conduct mini-lessons on how to write in a speculative, tentative manner. For example, we provide them with some statement stems, model for them through our own writing how to do this kind of writing/thinking, and offer examples from student work from the week before.

Last week, after conferring with some of the children as they worked through the early stages of Worth’s poem, I realized that the students might be interested in some additional background material about the Silk and Spice Roads, so I wrote up a short narrative of that historical moment and tried to tie it to the reading they had done about the Age of Exploration in social studies.4

Also, as I wrote this historical background, I realized that the poem had helped me now see the camel as another piece of “technology” that had become obsolete with the advent of the new technology of wooden sailing ships and more advanced cartography. Strange that I had never thought of the Age of Exploration that way before!]

Here's a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

Here’s a screen capture of a Google Doc we gave the kids. Click on the image and it should take you to the Google Doc.

At the end of the week, we prepare a special place and time on Friday afternoon for a fishbowl discussion of the “text.”5 We have about 6-7 kids in the center gathered around the table while the rest of us ring them as observers. We choose a group goal to work on and each participant chooses an individual goal, too. Then we follow a rough protocol for the discussion (adapted from the Paideia: Active Learning website and Socratic Seminars) that begins with a period of time where we develop a shared basic understanding of the text. We follow that up by a period of time where we explore the ideas of the text. Our goal for the discussion is NOT to argue any particular point of view we have, but to explore the ideas in the text. We consider our discussion successful if we have developed a deeper understanding of the text. We always check in to see if that occurred.

The discussion is entirely student-led. I remain outside taking notes. Occasionally, though, I may interject to name a conversational move that we have identified as a goal, or that we have not yet explored. For example, last week I briefly interrupted the conversation when I heard one of the children say: “So, just so we are clear about what we are talking about, I think we are saying that this part of the poem might be meaning X. Is that right?”, which was such a wonderful way of summarizing and bringing the group together. Since we had not officially “studied” that conversational move yet, I thought it important to notice the move. All I said was this: “What Tamie just did is called summarizing and it is a very sophisticated way of talking about ideas. Its purpose is to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and is ready to build on an idea that you all share. In the back of your mind, I want you to think about what effect that move had on the conversation as it develops.”6 Then the conversation moved on. Several other students “tried out” summarizing as a “move” during the remaining conversation.

Finally, early the next week, we open up a discussion thread in our Schoology course. We raise questions that were still “live” at the end of the face to face discussion. In this discussion, all the kids can participate, not just the ones who were in the center of the fishbowl on Friday. We have found that, even as early as we are in the process, this online discussion space opens up more room for ALL children to participate, not just the ones who are best at inserting their ideas into the live discussion. This discussion is “open” all week. Usually, we spend 20 minutes on Monday talking to each other online. It is strange, but very interesting, to watch the kids interact with each other, even though the room is quiet except for the clicking of keys.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.

Excerpt from a Schoology discussion thread about the short story, Around the River Bend from two weeks ago. The children contributed nearly 90 comments during the week to that thread.


I have noticed several good things that have come from this rich classroom routine. First, I see evidence that the children see the discussion as a way to deepen ideas, not as a way to engage in “one-upmanship.” Here are some examples from the notes I took during last week’s discussion:

G1: OK. I came into the discussion thinking the “precious waters” were pretty much about water. Now I think the poem is more about all the precious things that are inside a person, even if the outside is not so good looking.

B1: I now think this poem might be about not really judging a person by what is on the outside, but by what is on the inside.

G2: If we think that stanza 3 and 4 might be about what is on the inside and stanza 1 is about…like how ugly maybe the outside is, then what do you think stanza 2 is about? How can we connect these two ideas?7

B2: When I first started thinking about this, I could NOT figure it out! Then I thought that maybe the poem was about a pirate and there being some buried treasure. I think I might be sort of right about the pirate and the treasure, but now I think it might be about treasure that is not like really buried treasure but all the stuff that is inside that no one can see.8

Second, these examples, at least to me, show children having fun “playing” with ideas. This move toward intellectual play, I think, is a crucial, though little talked about habit?/skill? displayed by good learners.

Third, this routine seems rich enough to play with, too. For instance, I have provided a lot of the focusing questions that are designed to deepen our reading of the text early in the process. As we get comfortable with the process, I think it would be fun to have the children generate the questions to think about for our “writing to learn” section of the process.

So, routines have been difficult to create this year. I find myself in an alien environment; getting used to that environment is taking longer than I thought it would. However, I’m curious to see where this new routine will take us as the year goes along.


  1. It is always a balance between creating routines that become, well, too routine and having few routines. Finding routines that are rich enough to last is difficult for me.
  2. Our thought was that by embedding this inductive work in a culminating discussion, the children would get repeated experience seeing the value of noticing details and generating questions that would be used later on as they began to synthesize ideas about the text.
  3. It was a lot of fun to read the text closely with Heath. Last weekend we emailed each other our own close readings of the text and discussed it over email. It was really fun to do this kind of thinking together. I only wish that we could do more of this as part of our district mandated professional learning.
  4. I think it was a good move to delay this background until the children had grappled with the second and third stanzas of the poem. For instance, they immediately took to the online dictionaries — an early mini-lesson last week — to find out the meanings of the words camphor, amber… as well as “ancient sway” and others. It was really fun to see the wide eyes and hear the gasps of realization on Wednesday when they read my short piece on the Spice and Silk Roads.
  5. Our preparation for these discussions is also a place we can conduct mini-lessons on how to have a discussion. These mini-lessons happen throughout the week and often range from more formal mini-lessons about paraphrasing or eye contact or building ideas, to incidental teaching when we hear a student make a “move” that could be used in our conversations.
  6. I find Peter Johnston’s work to be really helpful here. He suggests that a powerful teaching move is to “notice and name” what we see happening around us so that learners can see how the choices they make in the moment of an authentic activity are helping them accomplish that activity. The act of bringing those moves to consciousness can be empowering!
  7. I know. I was blown away by that one, too. She asked people to make that move much better than I could have!
  8. And this, from a child who just recently came off the “special education” list, which just demonstrates the point he was making about the poem, I suppose.

Zombie Makers…a good book for a read aloud

Zombie Makers cover

I found a lot of good books at the NCTE14, some teacher books for me, but some kid books, too. I went with a focus –informational text — and I came away with some good ones. For read aloud today, I started one from the stack, Zombie Makers: True Stories of Nature’s Undead by Rebecca Johnson. I’ve read the first chapter to the kids so far. The children were fascinated, repulsed, enlightened, and intrigued.

I think those are good reactions to a book about parasites that literally take over the brains and bodies of their hosts. The book builds its chapters around “traits” of zombies. For example, chapter one explores Zombie Trait #1: Stares vacantly ahead. Moves slowly and mechanically. Behaves oddly. Using scientific research about the fungus E. muscae, Johnson describes how spores of the fungus drop on a fly. The fungus quickly grows its mycelia (the tough vegetative “root-like” structures of a fungus) deep into the fly’s insides. The roots release chemicals that basically take over the fly’s brain, causing it to climb mechanically to the top of the nearest grass. There the fungus expands into the fly’s abdomen, distending it and killing the fly.

Zombie Makers_2

Soon after that, the fruiting bodies of the fungus burst through the fly’s exoskeleton to release more spores. The process starts over again.

In chapter one we learn more about fungus attacks on carpenter ants, with similar results.

Zombie Makers_carpenter ant

Chapter two moves away from the realm of fungus and into the world of worms, one of which uses crickets as a host. The end result is a bad one for the cricket — it is forced to dive into the nearest water to drown — but fantastic for the worm: it is able to complete its life cycle. Oh, did I mention that the worm that finally comes out of the cricket is up to three feet long? That’s a lot of worm to fit into a cricket!

Zombie Makers_cricket

I loved this book for several reasons. First, who wouldn’t like a book that describes such gruesome real-life events? Also, the writing is crisp and clear, and the photographs are stunning; they really help the reader visualize what is happening inside the body of the host. I mean, it’s one thing to describe the distended abdomen of a fly, it’s quite another to see what that looks like in a photograph. Exquisite.

Each chapter has a segment that describes the science, and the scientists, who made these discoveries. From these short segments, you get a real sense of how scientists do their work, how they ask their questions, under what field conditions they make their observations, and what drives them to do what they do.

Finally, I love how these creatures are all so humble. No tigers, rhinos, whales, or wolves in this book. Instead, we find the lowly creatures of the world — the fungus, ants, crickets, and worms that live under our feet and beneath our attention. How cool is it that this unnoticed world is so filled with drama, strange behavior, and bizarre moral codes?

If you aren’t too squeamish to read it, I’ll bet your kids would love this book read out loud to them. If you are a bit too squeamish, get it anyway and set it out somewhere in plain sight. There’s someone in your class who wants to read it. I know it.

Are you feeling a compulsion to buy this book, maybe one you might not have bought otherwise? I thought so. Good. It’s working…

Tell Me a Story, Putting Ideas into Words in Science Class

A student writing The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

A student writes The Story of Fossil Fuels. This was an experiment to see how story creation could help kids learn scientific concepts.

Thinking,_Fast_and_SlowLast year I read Daniel Kahneman’s, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book about the two main thinking pathways in the brain. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but think about the implications of this work for my teaching. One of Kahenman’s main points is that our brains are basically wired to create stories; we almost can’t NOT create them when presented with new information. The reasons for that are fascinating, and have to do with how much effort it takes to hold information in our working memories. But one takeaway from that work, for me, was that stories are a device to help us to see, and to remember, the relationships among large amounts of information.

Minds Made for StoriesRecently, I read Tom Newkirk’s book, Minds Made for Stories. He was also fascinated by the power of stories and how this is linked to who we are as humans. In a short conversation with me at the NCTE14 (thank you Vicki Vinton, for introducing me!), Newkirk conveyed his sense of awe at just how automatically we create stories, and what that might mean for how we read and write expository text.

Newkirk’s book is a great read and has formed the backbone of some of the teacher-inquiry that I’m doing in my classroom these days.

If our minds really ARE made for stories, then what does that mean for how I teach science? (Or reading, or writing…?) What if I offered students some compelling stories (or some compelling problems or questions) and then, crucially, cleared space for them to create and revise stories in class? What if these stories could become the containers for the new information they were learning? Might clearing space for learners to create stories be time well spent?

In a previous post, I wrote about reading together Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm’s, Buried Sunlight, in science class.1 As a culminating activity, in lieu of a “test” taken individually, I decided to give the kids a large piece of blank newsprint to be filled as a small group.

I gathered them around and outlined their task: tell me the story of fossil fuels, where they came from and what their presence means for us today. We brainstormed some key ideas that might need to be included in their story. Ideas like these — buried underground, plants, plankton, millions of years ago, carbon chains, photosynthesis, Sun’s energy — emerged from our short brainstorming session.

Then they set to work in groups of 3-4. My work was to roam the classroom helping groups figure out the big ideas they wanted to convey, how to work on a project like this effectively in a group, and to prod and probe their thinking as it evolved. I also documented their work through notes and photos.

What I observed was learning that deepened the more they dug into the task. I saw children grappling with how to put the ideas they had heard (and seen) through the interactive read aloud into their own words and their own drawings.

As they told and retold the story to themselves, they discovered parts of the story that did not hang together, places where they could not explain the cause of an effect, or a step in a process, or describe well enough the world they sought to draw on the paper. That brought them back to the text — one copy for the entire classroom! — which they gathered around to re-read and re-interpret.2

The posters that emerged were different, though the story was the same. As they presented their work to each other (we did a gallery walk around the classroom) the students remarked on these differences and looked closely at the drawings that each group had produced.

Here's one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

Here’s one example of the posters that emerged from this activity. As the process went on, the blank paper provided a space to deepen the thinking by linking ideas to each other, and by adding details to explain key ideas.

The other adults who come into our classroom and I felt that this activity helped ALL of the children reach a deeper level of understanding. Did everyone understand everything at the same level? No. But those who struggled with understanding the information came to see the links between the pieces of information to a greater depth. I think it was because they got the chance to place the information in the context of a story that the relationships between the parts were made more explicit. And, because it was done collaboratively, the children couldn’t just tell any story (perhaps filled with inaccuracies and gaps), they had to tell a version that “held up” to the scrutiny of their community of scientists, their fellow classmates.3

I came away with a greater sense of how important it is for me to make the stories in science class very explicit, to highlight, not bury, the problem, conflict, question, or oddity that brings us to study what we are studying. But I also learned that I need to clear space for the children to put their ideas into words, and, crucially, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and revise as they create the stories that will become the vessel that contains the new information they are learning.

  1. I stayed away from the textbook version of this big idea for fear that it would do more harm than good. Thomas Newkirk has a great chapter in Minds Made for Stories about textbook writing and how it intentionally buries the story (for lots of reasons), which makes textbooks incredibly difficult to understand. A reader has to read very actively (and have lots of background information) in order to figure out the problem, question, or oddity — the story — that lies underneath the desiccated textbook language.
  2. I’m kind of glad that we only had one text. It forced the kids to move from table to table, which, I observed, helped foster a “cross-pollination” of ideas. Scarcity also seemed to raise the value of the text, too. It became a sought after commodity. “Where’s the book?” was a question often heard throughout the two days we worked on this project.
  3. In this way the process mirrors the scientific method.

Gathering Evidence, Making Judgments

I use Evernote to record some of my reading conferences. I approach a child while she is reading, then record her reading and our conversation about the book. Later, I take a chunk of time after school to focus my mind and attention on that child via the digital trail I have collected. Often I jot some notes, kind of a freewrite about what I notice. This practice always helps me see that child in a new light, and causes me to connect with things that I had noticed in other settings, but had not recorded.

When I sat down to review some of the notes yesterday I had collected over the last couple of weeks, I expected to learn something. And I did. But this time what I learned was about me, the other voice on the recording.

What I heard was a guy who started out conversations pretty well. I heard questions like these: So, you’ve just read this piece, what are you thinking now? Or, What’s going through your mind right now? These questions often lead to some good conversations, though sometimes rather slowly. (I suspect that the children have not had a lot of practice with these kind of conversations with teachers.)

But I noticed that in the last several weeks my questions have evolved. Whereas I might have said: Tell me more about that. Or, How did you figure that out? I heard myself saying things like this: Don’t you think that…? I thought…What do you think? I thought X, do you see that, too?

While sometimes those observations provoked further thinking, too often there was an awkward silence that followed. I could tell the children did not know what to do with my observation, or my connection.

So, I asked myself: Why did I change the way I talk, especially when the change was for the worse?

This morning I’ve been thinking about that. And it seems clear that I am struggling a bit with the constraints of my new work, my move from 4th to 5th grade. That change brought some new time constraints like 43-minute reading and writing periods where bells ring and kids move. I’m accustomed to longer pieces of time, a more leisurely approach to learning.

Another reason is that middle school emphasizes grades (rather than descriptive narratives) as a way to provide response to student work. Grades are designed to sort. Narratives describe and probe. That change has been difficult enough for me. I’m a nurturer, not a sorter by nature. But as I reflect, I can see that the fact that I have to assign grades has pushed me to “justify” my sorting. Hence the desire to “prove” what I think by seeing if the children can “do” certain things related to the standards that I am to teach.

What resulted from my cognitive dissonance was that I changed the idea of what a conference was. Where I had thought of a conference as an opportunity to see how children were thinking and to respond as a human being to that thinking, I came to see these conferences as a place to “assess”, to gather evidence, to justify a judgment that I was making about the child. All this represents a different kind of curiosity, less open-ended. Less the explorer of unknown terrain, more the tracker, the travel guide.

The time constraints of a short class period changed the nature of the time, too. Gone was the leisurely exploration. I heard in my voice the haste of trying to nail a teaching point.


I don’t have an answer about what to do next, but I suspect that it will come through the doorway opened by Tom Newkirk in his wonderful book, Minds are Made for Stories:

“There are few unqualified generalizations we can make about great teaching. But I will hazard this one: great teachers don’t look rushed, and they don’t make their students feel rushed.” (p. 153.)

Rendez-vous à Fontaine de Vaucluse
Photo Credit: decar66 via Compfight

What I Learned by Listening First

As readers of this blog know, I sometimes chafe at the gradual release model that emphasizes teacher modeling and a release of responsibility to the children for the task; this is the “I do, We do, They do” model. It’s not that I think the model is wrong or flawed, it’s just that I tend to want to just jump right in to the “We Do” part, and skip the teacher modeling altogether.

There are probably several reasons for my discomfort. I have been influenced a lot by some newer thinking in math instruction (ala Dan Meyer at dy/dan blog) where students start right away working their way through a problem, often even to the point of gathering the information they need to solve the problem. Teacher modeling happens later, if at all. Also, the (now old) 5E model of science instruction immerses the learner right into the event or question to be learned. The exploration is designed to engage the learner in real scientific content. The general scientific principles are sorted out later as a way to explain what just happened. And in the field of reading , Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s book What Readers Really Do, and Vicki’s recent blog post (“When is a scaffold not a scaffold?“) have stretched my thinking about how to design learning with children’s thinking at the forefront of my mind.

Probably, also, my aversion to teacher modeling comes from the boy in me that just wants to get to it and cut the talk.

But that champing-at-the-bit also comes mostly from the fact that I learn so very much from the children about what they are thinking when we jump into a task together. Why obscure their thinking with my teacher-model? I lose a valuable source of information.

Such was the two-way learning last week. My goal was to introduce the children to the idea of finding text evidence to support an interpretation. The text was a delightful poem by Joyce Sidman (“In the Almost-Light”) from her fantastic book: Butterfly Eyes and other Secrets of the Meadow. 

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Rather than show the children how to do it, I set them to the task by introducing them to the idea that readers and writers are in a kind of delayed conversation, and the text is the place that conversation starts. Amazing things happen inside our hearts and our heads through the words that appear on the paper (or screen) in front of us. (Strange to think that words from someone we’ve never met might have such a profound impact on us, isn’t it?)

Reading:Writing poster

With that in mind, I asked the children to listen as I read Sidman’s poem aloud to them. (Typed, not copied, so as to focus their attention only on the words. And isn’t that artwork gorgeous?!)

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After the third read they were to try to figure out the answer to the question, and circle words or phrases that helped them figure this out. Basically, they were to justify their thinking.

As I circulated through the room I talked with children about what they were noticing and what they thought the poem might be about. The answers ranged from nuanced to clueless. I was especially interested in why children were stumped. My conversations revealed what I thought might be an initial difficulty seeing the poem as having a time and place, something that I could clearly see, but was much more opaque to the children. There were other problems, but I thought we might be able to take this problem on quickly. Without watching them struggle, I would never have known this.

My next teaching move was to pull the children back for a short discussion about this question: What time is it in the poem? How do you know?

Several had no clue, but many offered either dawn or dusk, using the “Almost-Light” in the title as evidence. Those that thought dusk focused on the first stanza (“In the dark/in the night”) without trying to resolve it with lines like these: “in the leaf-crisp air just before sunlight.” But others did notice those later lines, and pointed out that the poem couldn’t be about dusk because of those other words. In a short time, the class came to consensus that the setting for the poem was dawn based on the fact that there was so much more evidence for it than for dusk. And the students got some good, quick experience drawing (and revising) conclusions while citing text evidence for their thoughts.

Having seen this peer thinking work bring along other classmates, I realized that my next move would be to form quick groups to compare our thinking about the poem. As the triads talked, I again circulated through the room listening and probing their thinking with this question: How do you know?

It was fascinating to hear the groups move from a wide range of options — ranging from butterflies to night to all manner of creatures — toward a consensus (reached independently in disparate groups) that the poem was talking about early morning dew.

The period ended and we had a long Labor Day weekend. On Tuesday we came back to school and one of the first things we did was revisit the poem. I asked the children to declare themselves and to cite some evidence for why they thought what they thought. Here are some of their answers.

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I was pleased with the thinking the children were able to do, especially so early in the year. I was glad that I did not model for the students how to find text evidence, which I think is actually a pretty easy concept for them to grasp, since they are used to using evidence to persuade adults about all manner of things. What I think I discovered through this exercise was that the problem arose because the children were not used to seeing the text as having a unity of purpose (they didn’t see it as communicating a central idea or feeling) so they grabbed bits and pieces of words to form their conclusions. Conversation with peers and time helped them extend the scope of their thinking beyond the first thing they saw or thought.

I would never have learned these things about the children if I had started out talking and showing, rather than listening and asking. Now, with my new knowledge about how they think through text, I can “name” what readers really do and design more learning so they can practice those habits.

Next Year Begins with Playfulness

Last year I noticed that we seemed to improve our thinking about literature after I had introduced the children to the idea of figurative language, in particular, the idea of metaphor. After some practice, we began to see how authors used metaphors or other comparative devices of one sort or the other — symbols, similes, analogies, personification — to convey meaning. I wrote about our exploration of a particular image in the graphic novel, The Arrival, and our playing with metaphor in Valerie Worth’s poem, fence.

In the past, I’ve introduced figurative language later in the year as we gear up for a unit or two on poetry. When I start fifth grade this year I plan to introduce the idea of metaphor (or, more generally, comparison) earlier, maybe even in the first week, so we can use these idea to talk and think about texts over the course of the year. At its root I believe figurative language is about playfulness. And that’s the point I really want to make from the get-go next year.

Dark emperorLast year we enjoyed Joyce Sidman’s poetry, in particular her book Dark Emperor. Her poetry offers a playfulness with language, a delightful use of personification, and a serious number of wonderful metaphors to feel, study, and talk about. I wanted more.

Earlier this summer I ordered a whole bunch more of Sidman’s poetry books. They just arrived.

IMG_0443One new book would be perfect for an early-in-the-year introduction to figurative language (and playfulness in general.) That book is Red Sings from Treetops: a year in colors. Gorgeously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, Sidman’s poetry explores how colors, even the meaning of colors, changes over the course of the year.


Using the language of colors (green, red, purple, white…) Sidman’s writing invites the reader to see these ordinary words in new ways, as creatures with their own lives. A rich emotional landscape emerges from her play.


A book of poems like that would be good enough. But in Red Sings perspective is also important. Can you imagine introducing the concept of perspective by exploring how the meaning of colors change depending on the season they are experienced? How does green look or feel in the fall?


Of course, often my favorite color-explorations are those that lie in the shadows. Chiaroscuro describes my perspective on life.

The darkness.


And the light.


Red Sings is packed with poems that not only invite the reader to think about color in new ways, but to see how color (green, for instance) has different meanings when seen from different perspectives. Awesome.

All this fits with some other reading I’ve been doing on how we learn. Work by Daniel Willingham, Daniel Kahneman, Peter Brown, et al, and a book I’m reading now (A More Beautiful Question) all connect learning to the  learner’s active manipulation of new information. To learn well, a learner has to engage her mind in a quest of some sort, often to answer a question or explain something puzzling or incongruous. This quest requires the learner to pick up and examine the new information with an open and searching mind; to have both the time and the inclination to play and to experiment; to connect and compare new information with other things she has learned or thought she knew; to ask the big questions that emerge from curiosity and interest: Why?/What If?/How?

I can’t think of a better way to begin that process of playful questioning than to experience how writers play with language, how they pick up and examine common words (like colors) and ideas like the seasons we have all experienced in order to arrive at fresh ideas about things that we thought were so familiar.

Real Talk

A quick post this morning about a short conversation with a child that helped me see how he was thinking about a text he was reading. A conversation like this tells me so much more about what is going on in the mind of a child than does some norm-referenced number on a standardized test.

A boy, a very capable yet reluctant reader, came up to me and said:

Boy: Hey, I just got Gregor the Overlander from Kadin and I’m liking it.

Teach: Cool. He thought you might like it. I’m reading it now and I’m liking it, too. What do you like about it?

Boy: I’m noticing that it’s a lot like Amulet.

Teach: (I hadn’t thought about that before…) Hmm. What do you mean?

Boy: Well, in both the kids go into a basement and end up following a path into another world. Also, in both there’s a parent that’s missing. In Amulet the kids have to go after their mom that’s been taken away by this creature. They have to go try to save her. In Gregor, the kids fall into this hole into another world. I think they are going to find their father down there. Maybe they’ll have to try to save him, too.

Teach: So, I’m seeing the start of a theme here, are you? There’s something about kids being on their own, about the roles being reversed here. Parents usually take care of kids, right? Maybe these are different kinds of stories?

Boy: Yeah! The kids are the ones who do all of the really good stuff in Amulet. They have to save the parents.

Teach: And they discover they have something inside them that they didn’t know they had.

Boy: Yeah! Emily has the power of the stone. And Navin can drive all kinds of things. I wonder if Gregor and Boots will have some kind of powers?

Teach: That’s a good question. If the books are similar, maybe he will discover some power he didn’t know he had…When you’re reading keep that question in mind. Does Gregor (or Boots) have a power that makes it really important for them to have fallen down that hole? I’m curious now, too.

Also, you got me thinking about something else. In Amulet they arrive in a world that is in real trouble. They don’t really understand how much trouble it’s in right at first, but they eventually figure out that things aren’t really going well down there. I wonder if the world Gregor and Boots have fallen into is in trouble, too? What do you think?

Boy: It sure seems like it, but I haven’t read very far into it yet.

Teach: Well, maybe that’s another question to keep in mind as you are reading? Is there some trouble in the Underworld that Gregor needs to try to figure out? Let me know what you think as you read more, okay? Let’s talk more after we get farther into the book.

*  *  *  *  *

Several things struck me about this conversation. First, this boy is comparing books; that’s Common Core-y as my friend, Sara, says. Second, these books mean something to him, which is probably why he feels the desire to compare them. [He probably had a question like this in his mind: Why does this book feel like that book?] Third, our conversation was initiated by him and I entered it as a fellow explorer, rather than as a teacher-with-the-answers. True, I have more experience with these texts and so I pushed him to think about some stuff that he might not have come to on his own, but the flavor of the conversation was as a real conversation with give and take and discovery. And my push was tinged with the flavor of a fellow explorer.

Finally, as we talked a small group of other kids gathered to listen in and to add in their thoughts. They became fellow explorers, too. This momentary gathering of people helped this boy see that what he was saying about a book could be interesting to others, that ideas can hold attention. For me, it was another example of how important it is, in my interactions with the children, that I be a human being first and a pusher of curriculum second. It’s nice when these roles coincide. But if I have to choose, I’d choose the real talk, trusting that at its core are the elements necessary to build a better reader and thinking person.

On Gravity and the Regular Orbit of Comets

Tracker CoverA small group of guys and I have been reading Gary Paulsen’s book, Tracker, together.

Together? Well, maybe sometimes. Some of these particular boys orbit through group work like celestial objects through a solar system. Their hearts and attention appear to be tethered to some complex system of invisible forces beyond my ken. Now here, now somewhere else, the gravitational pull that orders their lives does not often include talk about ideas with others.

From experience, I know they don’t do well when I arrive with a specific skill for them to learn or practice; they tend to tune me (and other kids) out, wandering off in their thoughts, perhaps dutifully doing the task I’ve assigned, but sometimes not. Dutiful or not, under those circumstance the “learning” does not appear to go very deep inside.

I chose Tracker because I knew the boys might groove on the topic. Most of them are hunters and have been going hunting with families for several years. Also, they hadn’t been exposed to Gary Paulsen’s work and I hoped to connect them to the deep themes that Paulsen explores through his books.

I kept my main goals simple: Like the skimmer construction project we are completing in science class, I planned to give the boys some good materials to use and a problem to solve. Translated into “reading class”, that meant they’d need a good book, and I would ask them to think BIG about what Gary Paulsen might be trying to tell them through the book. In other words, we’d explore not just WHAT the book means, but WHY the book exists? Why the heck did Paulsen write this book anyway? What might he have wanted us to think or feel when we read it? I asked them to mark places that “seemed important” and we would talk about those together.

We read. We gathered. We lay in a circle on the carpet. Chairs don’t work for these guys. They like to roll and rock, feet and bodies moving. Their talk sometimes sounds like machine-gun fire — short pronouncements delivered in bursts — rather than the kind of searching exploration that I seek to create.

Yet, in this merry band of comets, one conversation this week set me back on my heels. And it caused me to think about what I know about learning and teaching, and to wonder about what school is, exactly?

*  *  *  *  *

We’d read nearly half the book. We knew of John’s grandfather’s cancer; and two boys brought the recurring stories of death to the carpet.

These boys argued that the theme was death, and they cited as evidence Clay’s cancer, the deaths of John’s father and mother, the neighbor, three deer, particularly a line: “I was close enough to see the life leave it’s eyes.” They could relate to that sight.

Something interesting happened next. I asked: “What about death do you think Paulsen wants us to think about? What do you think he’s thinking about? Why might he have written this book for us to read?”

The response back was: “I’m not really sure.” To which I said: “Then what does it feel like he’s trying to say, even if you can’t put your finger on it exactly? We can work with what your heart tells you.”

Guy1: It seems like something is draining out of John as his grandfather is dying, that he’s trying to keep it together.

Guys: (Others agreed that it seemed that something was changing, but there was some general dissatisfaction with the “draining out” idea, too.)

Teach: You mean like he’s losing energy? Or something else?

Guy2: No, he seems to be gaining energy from the beginning. Like, he’s doing his chores and that seems to help him. But I see what you mean about something draining out. There is something happening.

Teach: What could be draining out…what could this idea of death, or the near death of his grandfather be doing to him that makes you feel like he’s losing something?

Guy3: It seems like maybe that what is draining out is maybe John’s connection with his grandfather. He’s been really important to John…John doesn’t have a father or mother and there’s no one around for him except his grandparents. Now his grandfather is going to die and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s like John and his grandfather are connected, but that connection is draining away. They used to do chores together. They used to hunt together. Now John does all of that stuff by himself.

Guys: [Others chime in with examples of how the relationship has changed, how John doesn’t get to do stuff with his grandfather anymore. There is general agreement that this “death” theme might be not “just” about death, but about John losing some kind of important connection, and when that’s gone things will change for him, something will be broken.]

Teach: (I thought it might be important to explore not just “broken connection” idea, but also the “nothing he can do about it” idea, too.) So, what I hear you saying is that one thing this story might be about is the question: how do you deal with losing connection with important people or things, especially, like many losses, this loss is out of our control…Could that mean anything in our lives, even if we don’t have a grandfather dying…?

And so the conversation went. Worries welled up. Worries about family, worries about divorces, about many, many things that are out of our control. Yet we still have to deal with them, these things that boys don’t talk much about, especially in school. Which eventually brought us back to the book.

Teach: So…maybe Gary Paulsen wrote this book so he could help people like us learn how to live a good life, a meaningful life even when bad things happen, bad things that are out of our control…?

I told you once before that Paulsen ran away from home when he was young ’cause his family life was so bad. Things were so out of his control that he couldn’t take it anymore. How do you live like that? How do you find something good and important in all of that stuff?

Guy3: Maybe he wrote the book to help us figure that out?

Guy2: Maybe he wrote the book to figure out for himself…?

Teach: So, as we read more, maybe we can look for his answer…How do you live when things are out of your control? What do you do? How do you act? What do you hope for? What do you accept?

Which makes me think…Do you remember that odd bit that he wrote about the Japanese poets that his grandfather loved? The ones who wrote haiku? Do you remember that there was a line of Clay’s that struck us: “How did they find beauty in the midst of such ugliness?” Could it be that’s something this book wants to teach us? Maybe there’s some wisdom in the book that’s important for us?

*  *  *  *

So, what to make of this one moment within a larger moment in the lives of some boys who aren’t sure of their place in school? I’m not sure.

I know that this particular book, coupled with these particular boys’ experiences, hit a nerve. I felt it. I could tell that they felt it, too. This description of John Borne’s life — a life of loss in a world out of his control — is also a struggle to find something to hang on to. This description caused them to connect pretty deeply with their own lives, a connection that allowed them to settle their comet-selves down on a carpet under a bank of fluorescent lights contained by four walls long enough to consider the possibility that some made-up character from the mind of someone they don’t even know might have something profound to say to them. Something shifted inside. Permanently? Assuredly not. Shifts show the temporary nature of things, not their permanence. But inertia is inertia and what is in motion has a greater chance to stay in motion…Who knows…?

I also know that it matters that I’m not a computer, and that the kids aren’t reading for AR points. I know them and what they struggle with. Our conversation naturally deflects toward those centers of gravity.

And, so…what’s this school-thing all about anyway? There are no standards that mention the seismology of the soul. There’s no way I could write that goal on the whiteboard: “A student will…what, exactly?” But without the gravitational pull of something meaningful, how do comet-souls find a force strong enough to claim a part of their mass? And without that pull — without the Japanese haiku poets that John Borne’s grandfather reveres, without the Gary Paulsens (or the librarian who gave him some books when he was a fourteen year-old) — how does one find beauty enough, gravity enough to capture a heart?

Finally, I write about this experience not because it is so uncommon, but because every teacher has had these experiences where lives are touched, including our own. We talk about this amongst ourselves. And yet the official version of school isn’t really about this kind of thing. Is it?