Slice of Life: The Year Begins with Read Aloud

Just make a mark and see where it takes you.
— Vashti’s teacher, The Dot by Peter Reynolds

This line bounced out of the first day of school’s read aloud. It hit me not just for what it might mean for my students as they crack open that brand new writer’s notebook, but what it means for me as I open to the first page of this year’s teaching journey.

That nervous, excited feeling of the first day of school is a part of every year. But this day, this year, everything is new in every way. I enter the classroom with the same feeling my students have. Brand new to the room and the grade level. We will sit together on a brand new carpet, and we will christen it with picture books read alouds.

We’ll take that first step with Marla Frazee’s wise words in Walk On.  Even though our first steps are scary, sitting around doing the same safe thing will bore us to tears.

If we try hard enough, we will fail like Rosie Revere and the little girl in the Most Magnificient Thing.  We’ll fly, right before we crash. And if we don’t give up, if we persist, the memory of flight will push us onward.

Easy, it’s not. We’ll stumble and have set backs and want to give up.

We might pull the flowers and not the weeds like Francisco in A Day’s Work. Painful as it may be, we’ll have to face up to our mistakes. Otherwise, how will we learn to tend our garden?

We may doubt our abilities. It might be easier to make excuses. But, like Farah in One Green Apple, Chibi in Crow Boy, and Emmanuel in Emmanuel’s Dream, we will keep on through difficulties. We have hope even when things seem impossible and uncomfortable.

Characters like Beekle will light our way. We may be different or think differently. But like Maya in Going Places and Donna Jo Napoli’s Albert, we will find our way. To that person, that place. That fits us. And in doing so, we’ll soar above the rest.

My students and I are sure to have moments that resemble the darker side of Vashti in The Dot. The side that says, I can’t. That turns away.


But, if we just make that mark, take that step, our journey will continue.  We’ll reach out with our pens and our hearts and discover the world and ourselves.

Here’s starting the year with picture books. Here’s to a year of discovery.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesday. Read more slices here.


Slice of Life: Bringing a Classroom to Life

Before the school year begins, all is anticipatory. The scenarios swim in my head. Whole entire lessons and imagined student conversations wake me up in the middle of the night and rattle around until I fall asleep or daylight comes.

The first days of school are a week away, and while I’m still sorting through the nuts and bolts of content and teaching points, I’m also thinking about listening to and learning from my new students.  I am aching to know them.

What do you wonder?
What makes you smile?
What makes you want to turn the page?
What makes you open your notebook and write another page?
Where do you do your best work?
How do you see yourself in this classroom? In the world?

Big questions for brand new fourth graders with a brand new teacher.

So I’m working on some topics they can talk to a partner about. Maybe write about.
Favorite food and why.
Favorite thing in your room and why.
Favorite game and why.
Favorite book and why.
Favorite place to read and why.
Name one thing you miss about kindergarten and why.
Name one thing you are an expert in and one thing that you need help doing.
Name one thing you want to get good at this year.
Name one thing you are worried about and why.
Tell about a time you did something that scared you.
Tell of a time you helped someone.
Tell of a time someone helped you.

I’d love any thoughts you might have to stimulate their 9-year-old hearts and minds. So they bring their lives into the classroom. And bring the classroom to life.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.



New Beginnings: I Need a Purple Door

This month I am the host for Spiritual Thursday bloggers. Welcome.

I have not been posting, perhaps this is a new beginning. But I can’t promise because I have a whole lot of new happening.t The theme is new beginnings.

New grade level, new subject matter, new science standards, new room. The list of things I have to do to feel like I’m ready is long and the days left to get ready are getting fewer and fewer.

After complaining to my daughter about “not being ready,” she offered me advice that sounded vaguely familiar. “You have to decide what is a want versus a need and do the needs first,”


She’s right.

I want to repaint the walls and the bookshelves. I’ve found the just-right silver-tinged gray and a purple that will be perfect on the door. Want not need? Wasted time?

My old classroom was far from perfect, but it was home.  I believe I need a classroom to be a home.  It creates a mood that makes a difference.

I told my daughter all of that.

She didn’t agree with my want versus need analysis, but took pity on me and offered to sand and paint the bookshelves.

I accepted.

I know there is no amount of time, work or paint I can apply that can make me feel ready. At some point, doing something new requires a leap.  The acceptance that it won’t be perfect and that I won’t know everything is a difficult pill to swallow.  But, it will be easier with a pretty purple door.

Please, post your links in the comments.


Slice of Life: Sorting out THIS room

I’ve been itching to get into my classroom for some time; anxious at the thought of all those books locked away in cabinets this close to the beginning of the school year.

Friday the room was clean and mine.  I’ve been there ever since.
Sorting and shuffling books have a calming effect on me.

The boxes of fiction are sorted.

The nonfiction books have become piles of science, social studies, biography, and math: little islands of information.

And then there are the picture books that can do anything and everything if you take the time to notice. So I sort for themes and reading and writing lessons that lurk in each.  I look up Carrie Gelson’s recent post for inspiration. That takes time.

My stack for writing craft is high. Each one is a mentor.

Today, THIS book catches my eye.

 And these words –

As she draws, she tells the story of what she is drawing. She always starts with the word THIS. THIS door to the subway…and THIS is a…

William’s story of Cherries and Cherry Pits made me think about all of the stories that were waiting in THIS room.

The person who will sit at THIS desk and fill THIS space with her books and pens. She’ll sit next to her friend and read and write. She’ll come to the carpet to listen, to watch, to share, to think, to play. And she’ll plant a seed or two or three next to her classmates’ that by the end of the year will grow into full grown ideas.

THIS space will be filled with stories and ideas until there is a whole forest of ideas right in THIS room.

Here’s to dreaming about next year’s garden.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.

#cyberPD: Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, Chapters 9 and 10

This marks the final post for this summer’s #cyberPD.  The book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading has brought forth a great community of thought. Thank you to Cathy Mere and Michelle Nero for organizing the Google community and tonight’s Twitter chat. Thank you to all of the thoughtful participants and a huge thank you to Vicki Vinton for giving us an incredible basis for conversation about reading.


Chapter Nine Reflections on Considering Ideas and Opinions in Nonfiction:
Teaching “main idea” to middle-grade students has been challenging and frustrating at times. It can show a student’s comprehension of a text, but it also can create student confusion. Coming up with what a text is mostly about is often watered down and essentially disengaging response to a text. In this chapter, Vicki hits what might be an essential problem with the pursuit of main idea.

Like teaching students to think of themes as a saying or one-word abstractions, we tend to offer shortcuts for the complex, messy work of engaging with an author’s ideas, and then we ask students to practice the shortcut as a skill.  Such a skill might be useful when studying content and answering test questions, but it doesn’t help readers who are reading to expand their understanding of the world. And  perhaps that’s why students have trouble with it: Identifying main ideas as a skill just doesn’t seem terribly meaningful. It might offer the satisfaction of completing a task, but it doesn’t provide the aha feeling that accompanies illumination. — page 167

Meaningful. Aha. Illumination. Isn’t that what we read for? Isn’t that something that we want students to read for?

Nonfiction writers present more than just the facts and chronology of events. In subtle ways, they share their opinions and ideas about those events and facts. If we simply ask young readers to tackle complex texts by asking what the text is mostly about, we avoid the work that will allow them to engage with the ideas the author presents. As critical consumers of media and current events, ferreting out a writer’s implicit point of view requires more than a simple main idea response.  It requires a different and more interesting approach.

…readers don’t find ideas in texts; they construct them from the details they notice.  — page 170

Understanding implicit bias is tricky. Knowing this, a reader must approach a text with the understanding that facts can be presented as beliefs or ideas. Vicki approaches this complexity by setting students up a to consider, what does the writer want us to understand by taking us through a classroom’s thinking about a text.  The inquiry and thinking process is a strategic process of understanding, questioning, reacting, and sorting out ideas, bit by bit.

  1. What does the author want us to understand?
  2. Sort out ideas and details, asking if they are separate or are they connected
  3. Combine ideas
  4. Consider is that the only thing the writer wants us to understand
  5. Consider is that the author’s opinion or someone else’s (distinguishing a quote used from the writer’s pov)
  6. React to the text: what do you think? feel? believe?

The prompts listed below (pages 180-181) guide the reader towards deeper thinking about a nonfiction text.

• What do you think about the facts the author has presented (what’s your opinion or reaction to them) and why?

• What do you think the author thinks about the facts and why?

• Do you think the author sees things the same way you and or the people he has quoted do or not, and why or why not?

• What do you think about what you think the author seem to think (again, you opinion or reaction) and why?

This is huge thinking work and might seem too big for young readers. But, if we break down the process, or “frame” it, as Vicki suggests in her lesson sequence, into parts, students can manage and be engaged in rich thinking while the teacher keeps sight of the whole.

Dealing with and identifying “loaded language” an author uses is a great lesson in finding an author’s point of view. Identifying and discussing words and even punctuation that evoke emotions can be a great way to reveal the author’s presence in the text.  In the nonfiction text, I’m currently reading, the author uses exclamation marks liberally.

At the end of this chapter, Vicki poses some essential questions for inquiry with students. Finding what my students think about these ideas will be fascinating. Discussing and revisiting these questions could set the tone and monitor the growth of readers in my classroom.

  1. Do you think there’s a difference between knowing and understanding?
  2. Do you think the experience of reading fiction is different than that of reading nonfiction?
  3. Do you think there’s a difference between a topic and an idea (or facts and ideas) in nonfiction?
  4. Do you think authors want to do more than persuade, inform, or entertain their readers?
  5. Do you think identifying themes in fiction or ideas in nonfiction help you as a reader — or in your own life?

Chapter Ten Reflections on Conferring with Readers:
Conferring with readers is probably the most important work teachers can do with readers. And it’s the most daunting. Most teachers I suspect, feel that they need to have that teaching point ready after a quick assessment of a reader. I know I did. But honestly, after years of trying and failing to do that work, I went to do a lot of listening before I had any idea of what the reader was really doing.  Chapter ten has defined, focused, and confirmed ideas and teaching moves to make in reading conferences.  It opened up the windows and let the breeze roll in because it gives permission to do lots of research on readers before attempting to teach.

Some things I’m adding to my conferring tool box:

Research, Notice and Name, Research, Notice and Name
Asking students what they understand and naming the reader work they have done is huge. If teachers just do this with kiddos, I believe every reader will grow. The process of pushing a student to do the next thing based on what they are doing is the goal.  To make my teaching life clearer I’ve put together this sheet. I tried to include various if, then situations alongside Vicki’s reader centered questions.

Teach book choice through meaning.
Ask students to read the first few pages to figure out who the characters are, how they are connected, what’s happening and where they are. Then if they are unsure have them read on. This move focuses choice on meaning and gives a clear strategy to check up on understanding at any point in a story.  Vicki says, “…reading a book is like entering a relationship.” By allowing students to test their understanding at the outset, readers can “date” the book without making a serious commitment or mistake about choice. By focusing on meaning students can better make a good choice.

So much to think about in this book.
Vicki invites us to dive in and take on the challenges of teaching students to read deeply. It’s complex, at times overwhelming, and even impossible work. But, at the same time,  it’s exciting, meaningful and honest work. It’s the work of creating students who understand the power and purpose of reading.

For now, here’s what I look forward to in the coming school year.
For me:
• Determine complexity of text based on percent of inferential work needed
• Use read aloud to construct a complex vision of reading
• Allow for robust and flexible interpretations of  texts providing the basis of analysis
• Frame thinking work into bite sized pieces so students can do complex thinking work
• Research the Reader, Notice and Name,  Rinse Repeat

For my students and me:
• Make sense of a text through reason and logic
• Transact meaning with the head and heart
• Respond to texts personally as well as analytically
• Ask what the writer wants me to understand in nonfiction text
• Choose books based on meaning


Slice of Life: Nesting Instincts

Just beyond the attractive patio furniture, the yellow walled escalator beckoned. We turned and stepped onto the toothed staircase. We knew the dangers; the many temptations that could detract us from our mission.  If one dares enter, one must have either explicit intentions or no time constraints. My colleague Michelle and I had the former.

At the top, we stepped off and into the mouth of the multi-story behemoth named IKEA.


Days before this venture, Michelle had scouted out the terrain and had decided on storage containers for grade level math manipulatives.  Procuring those and some cushions for chairs defined our quest.

We entered, walking boldly past tables and baskets, shiny metallic containers and neatly arranged desks. Down and around and around we went until we came to the floor that housed bins of chair cushions named Muttla and Meelka, Malika and Medina. Similar, yet different. Decisions about color, size, price and two filled shopping carts later, we move on.

Down and around and around.

Swirling purples and greens attract me to the sheets that could be bulletin board covering. I consider. Two sets. Was it walking in circles or the bins that dislocated my monetary sensibilities? A glance at the price point sobers me, and my hands unclench. The package falls harmlessly back into the bin.

Down and around again.

We arrive at the container floor. Reaching our goal, we survey the merchandise; consider the possibilities of durability, convenience, and price. Decisions made we count and recount our stacks and hurry to the stairs that lead to the exit.

Breathless at check out we marvel at our conquest.

“Only teachers and pregnant women come to IKEA,” Michelle quips. I laugh, and we talk about the parents we’ve seen over the years, fussing over cribs and changing tables.

Teachers and pregnant women. Nesting. Preparing for our brood.  Only a strong primal instinct would allow such a dangerous journey.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.



#cyberPD: Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, Chapters 7 and 8

..reading is a transactional act, with a text’s words only coming to life as they interact with a reader’s mind and heart, and that the students who leave our schools will need to know how to interpret many things, not just analyze them, we need to bring interpretation — and feelings — back into our classrooms.— page 133  

Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading

Every chapter I read in Vicki Vinton’s new book opens up a new door for me as a reader and a reading teacher. I believe I will be reading it again and again during the school year, seeing more each time as I use this line of inquiry with my students.

Vicki takes simple ideas and books and subtly addresses the craft of interpretation in Chapter 7. The work readers do to interpret a text, supports their eventual understanding or analysis.  Our natural pattern-seeking behavior drives the process of inquiry and interpretation. When a pattern breaks, it calls readers to revise what we thought we understood, and create a new pattern or a new line of inquiry.  This complex work of interpretation is the heart of how readers can make the leap to analysis and meaning. Interpretation is how we support our thinking.

Some big ideas from Chapter 7:

While Common Core standards ask students to analyze more than interpret, we as teachers know for students to analyze, they must spend time and energy around interpretation. Interpretation is the basis for any analysis.

The process of interpretation is essential not just for readers but for historians, writers, scientists, inventors, leaders, thinkers. Without interpretation that involves examining multiple lines of inquiry, we can not make meaning.

Details offer keys to interpretation, and we often miss them while we are figuring out the story. A simple move I plan on to make next year is at the end of a Read Aloud, rereading the beginning with the end in mind. Asking readers, what details did we over look and how might these details enhance our interpretations and final analysis.

We know nonfiction writers want to inform their readers about the topic they’re writing about by giving us lots of facts and information, but they don’t always explain those facts in a really clear, understandable way.  That means that, as readers, we could know those facts well enough to answer a question or use them in our writing, but not fully understand them. — page 147

This quote from Chapter 8 is a key idea I’ve highlighted to start my nonfiction reading and writing work next year. Too often young readers come to nonfiction thinking they will be spoon fed the information. Or worse, that they can scour for the answer to a specific question about the text. To read nonfiction, we must take an investigative stance.  One that requires us to figure it out and be at risk of confusion.

Our work this coming year will be about finding those confusing moments when we need to build understanding with logic and inference.

Some big ideas from Chapter 8:

Expository nonfiction often requires a logical, “if-this-then-that” approach. By recognizing places of confusion, we can teach readers to ask how does this work, how does this connect, how did this happen, and/or is something missing.

Nonfiction is full ideas and language that the writers assume readers understand. Be aware and ready to address this through inquiry.

Court confusion and it’s more confident cousin curiosity.  Embrace confusion as natural part of learning.

Thanks to the #cyberPD community for choosing this book.

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#cyberPD: Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading

Reading is a complicated act. To teach it we need to be responsive to the problems our students face. Chapters 5 and 6 in Vicki Vinton’s new book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading,  highlight practices I plan to hold on to for the coming year.

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Chapter 5, Creating Opportunites for Readers to Figure Out the Basics, hones in on how to support readers who missed the essential ideas in a story: the who, what, when or where. These students “should” be able to access these ideas but aren’t.  They may have chosen their book. They may even jot and talk with a partner. But when you confer with them, you realize they have no idea. They are completely lost, and they don’t know it. I know these kiddos.

Vicki offers key strategies and examples of how to “design opportunities” for readers who are confused even though they are reading self-selected, technically just right books.

The chart below will be in my conferring notebook this fall.  

In this chapter, Vicki takes us through the nuts and bolts of a small group lesson: from choosing a text and crafting the teaching point to facilitating the session with nuanced teaching considerations.  It is beautifully done and worthy of study with your grade level team. My major takeaways follow.

  1. “Connect what you’re asking students to do to some understanding of how texts and writers work.”   Writers often do or don’t do… so readers need to…
  2. ” Be mindful of the language you use.”  Academic language and metaphors can confuse learners. Get to the point offering students a clear explanation of what readers do, why, and how they do it.
  3. “…don’t worry about offering a new teaching point each day.” Kiddos need the basics, and that limits the teaching points. And, they need practice doing it. Keep it simple.
  4. “…select more than one text that poses the same problem and let students choose which one to read.”   By offering students a choice of text, it nudges students to do something they may have not been doing well: select a text that they want to and can do the work with. 
  5. “… think twice before automatically offering scaffolds, including modeling.” This is a biggie. Many of our students have learned to wait for help. And teachers, being the helpful sort, oblige.  Vicki suggests we turn the “I do, we do, you do” model on its head. Reverse it by putting the student first. How brilliant.  Let the student do first.  Invite them to show what and how they do, then we can think as a group to build our understanding. Finally, a teacher can notice and name what was done. By putting students first, everyone sees more of what students can do; empowering students and informing teachers.

In Chapter 6, Creating Opportunites for Readers to Experience Deeper Meaning, shares how we can get students “to experience deeper meaning by reading closely, raising questions, and considering possibilities about what the writer might be trying to show them as they read, not after they’ve read.”

This chart will go into my planning tool box for read aloud. It pushes me to create a reading process around curiosity and wondering. With that stance in hand, questions and potential answers are natural outcomes.

As they read, students need opportunities to notice and offer opinions. Vicki encourages talk but also low stakes writing so students can “ponder, deepen, and question their own thinking.”

Low stakes writing is tricky. Here are my take aways that I need to make sure my students understand.

  1. We write to capture and create thinking at a point in the story.
  2. We write to explore ideas that the text makes us wonder or question.
  3. We write knowing our thoughts could change.
  4. It isn’t an essay,

I’ve asked students to sit in the character’s shoes, but Vicki invites readers to shift their perspective with prompts like:

What does the writer think about the character?
What do you think the writer was trying to show you?
What is your opinion of the character?

These questions will nudge students toward recognizing that their ideas interact with a writer’s ideas. And that writers want their readers to consider and develop ideas around their characters.

I’m imagining this chart in my classroom or in a student’s notebook. Maybe with a Post it on the perspective they choose for their writing about reading.


Thanks to the #cyberPD community for choosing this book. Reading and writing in the company of others helps me hold on to and grow ideas that I can bring to the classroom next school year.

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Celebrate: The “I’ve got it” feeling

My week has been so full, it’s no wonder I spent yesterday staring at out the window, catching my breath.

This week, Monday through Thursday I was with my fourth-grade colleagues at UCLA in a Math Professional Development. For those of you who huddle in the language arts camp, and if you know what takes to get to UCLA by 8 am, you may be wondering, why is this a celebration.

405-north bound to UCLA by Mike Owens

All of that perceived and possible torture was mitigated by a daily dose of learning with Megan Franke and committed teachers. I heard Franke speak last spring so when I saw she was teaching a small group on Cognitive Guided Instruction or CGI, I jumped at the chance.

I was not disappointed. By the end of the week, my notebook is filled with practices and tools to take to my classroom; my heart was full of the kind of research-based, constructivist pedagogy that brings me to teaching.  Balancing teaching strategies with student thinking makes for excellent instruction no matter the subject matter.

The honoring of student understanding, not only meeting students where they are but allowing for equal access across the day, is why I teach.  This can be done with teacher moves that push, pull and press students toward their next step allow learning that will stick.  This week we talked how this goes in math.  Do you see connections to moves you take in the language arts classroom?

When a teacher pushes, they ask a student to take something they did and do a little more. It’s a nudge that says, wow look what you did, how about taking that, that thing you did, and try this.

Teachers pull student thinking with tell-me-more queries. How-did-you-do-that questions ask students to tell the details of their thinking and by doing that we (teachers and students) notice more about what they did.

Pressing student thinking testing their ideas. A teacher might say, what you did right there, that idea, would you ask yourself, is this true for all situations, or only this one? Testing an idea is analytical thinking at its best.

Reading and writing teacher friends, isn’t this what we do every day?

This week I realized why I love school and teaching. Pushing, pulling and pressing our thinking leads to the “I’ve got it!” feeling. And that makes you want more.

Thank you, Ruth, for hosting celebrations on every week. Find more here.


Slice of Life: Blackout

The last bit of chocolate ice cream had melted to syrup when the white noise stopped. Patrons bent over their candlelit meals as the restaurant became sticky and dark. Blackout.

Our meal complete we walked out to the sidewalk, searching for signs of light. Perhaps in the next block. Passing darkened cafes, aproned waiters stood outside waiting for power. Their faces lit by the glow of their phone messages. No more tables to turn tonight.

Up ahead, our car waited. We jump into the oasis of light and air and escape.

Driving towards home, high in the sky, there is a flash of light. Is that the moon?  Off and on.  I watch it appear and disappear in the coal black sky.  Back and forth. Playing hide and seek on the horizon.

We turn south, and the moon reveals itself completely. Shining its nearly full moon shape down on us and follows us home.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more s11454297503_e27946e4ff_hlices here.