Blog-a-thon Post 11: #CloseReading Structure OR When You Stop Making Sense

Only two weeks left in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading!  It has been an exciting, inspiring conversation. Be sure to read the Contributors page and consider linking to your own post. 

Also, heads up that my “Fall in Love with Close Reading” workshop in Brookfield, WI on December 6 is nearly sold out.  Seats are also going quickly for the date Kate and I will be together in Amherst, NY on December 9. We look forward to learning with you in person!

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When You Stop Making Sense

Katie Wood Ray and Lester Laminack have one of the greatest titles for a professional education book: “The Writing Workshop: Working Through the Hard Parts (And They’re All Hard Parts)” (2001 NCTE). It feels as if you could swap out “the writing workshop” for nearly anything in education and the title still holds: Social Studies: … And They’re All Hard Parts. Parent Involvement: … And They’re All Hard Parts. Grading…. And They’re All Hard Parts.  And for our purposes here: Close Reading… And They’re All Hard Parts!

The good news is, as their title suggests, there are challenges in everything and yet you can work through them.

Case in point: teaching students to read closely to consider structure.

Now, perhaps you have long since mastered this instructional skill set. If you have, we would love you to link to a post about it. But let me tell you, Kate and I found this probably one of the biggest challenges in our study of close reading. It snuck up on us. Because on the outset it seems so simple, just stand in front of a class of students and begin your lesson with a crystal clear analogy:

by compujeramey used under Creative Commons lic

“Structure in books is a lot like the frame of a house or like the beams in a building. With that structure in place an architect can then attach everything else to it. It is what makes that building solid and whole. It is what gives that building it’s shape. Without structure, the building would fall apart.

…so.

….um.

….read to notice. that. stuff.

…now.”

It was not as simple as we thought.

Now, while many of our early attempts did not sound this pathetic, they often times felt pretty close. In one triumphant instance I was working with a class of sixth graders while the entire sixth grade team of teachers sat in. I modeled with a simple picture book (you know, so it would be quick and clear) and ended up taking nearly 30 minutes of talking and scribbling all over the board to demonstrate considering the structural choices the author made in the text.

At the very end I felt somewhat okay with myself, despite the absurdly long time. I mean, the board was full of lines and arrows and bullets. Clearly it was thought-provoking. Then, one teacher said, “Wait, so we’re just trying to make a timeline of all of the scenes?” I stepped back and realized that was exactly what I did. Only in a dramatic, overly complicated, way.

I felt ridiculous.

Instruction Is Not About “Perfect,” It’s About “Responsive”

If not for seeing what didn’t work, we never would have gotten to what worked (or, at least, what worked a lot better). What matters in close reading instruction, all instruction for that matter, is that we are willing to make an attempt and even more willing to look for parts of our instruction to revise.

Several actions helped us during this process of revising our teaching:

  • Always returning to student work to look for evidence of (or lack of) independence. If we didn’t see it, we knew our teaching wasn’t clear enough or transferable.
  • Looking for approximation and then building on that strength, both in student attempts and our own.  A “are we there yet?” way of looking at our teaching choices helped us keep moving forward.
  • Lots of professional, reflective conversation. In their book, Professional CapitalMichael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves argue that a large piece of improving education revolves around making more time for collaboration. They point out that great schools do not have stellar teaching in random classrooms, but instead teams that grow, think, and plan together. We found each conversation, with whomever was willing to talk and reflect with us, to be hugely instructive.

Each attempt got better. Each time we were surprised by what we learned.

For instance,  we began to see that structure didn’t just fall into one category but several. That sometimes structural choices are the major parts of a text–like scenes in a novel or video game, or sections in an article. That sometimes authors structured where and how techniques were used–like repeating a particular line in a poem, the appearance and reappearance of a certain color in a movie.

We found that for some students rereading to consider structural choices was naturally more of a two-step process: first they would locate the parts, then they would return to consider the purposes for that organization.

Then, of course, were times students blew our minds. In the chapter on structure in our book we include a few images from a high school class in which students not just thought about the purposes of structure in the text, but then experimented with ways of diagraming them.

Each new avenue started with a not-so-hot attempt.

It Will Be Challenging And You’ll Love It

by I See Modern Britain, used under Creative Commons lic

There will be times when your work with close reading goes amazingly well. Then, there will be times went it flops. When things fall apart we first send a heartfelt hug from across the miles–we’ve been there, friend–and we also want to say how exciting moments like those become.

Think of each interaction with your students as a chance to learn, a chance to follow the lead of your students, to study alongside your colleagues. With that mindset, there are no failures, only new understandings.

Your Turn

What have been your biggest challenges in close reading instruction?  What have been your biggest moments of learning? Comment on this post, or better yet add a link to your own blog post. See the Contributor Page for more ideas and inspiration from fellow educators.

Share your insights, we are closely reading close reading together! 

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 12  on Thursday!

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Blog-a-thon Post 9: Complex Texts or Complex Kids: Which Texts Are “Worth” #CloseReading

Welcome to the fifth week of our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. Each week posts are added to the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

Also a reminder that we have two workshops coming up this December called “Fall in Love with Close Reading.”  I will be in Brookfield, WI on December 6.  Kate and I will be together in Amherst, NY on December 9. Registration as well as the number to call for lodging information or other questions can be found here. We look forward to working with you in person!

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Complex What Now?

If you are a Common Core State Standards state, the standards your state adopted have only one thing to say about the complexity of texts students should be able to read by themselves: In Reading Standard 10, across grade levels, the standard reads: “By the end of the year, read and comprehend literature/informational texts in the grades X-Y text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed…”

One phrase that I find important: “by the end of the year.” What is clear here is that a standard is a standard, an expectation. One educators have always wanted, I argue.  As page 6 of the standards further clarifies, you can decide how to get there, which research to follow or avoid, which path to take.

by basibanget used under Creative Commons lic

The message of  students must read complex texts all the time, then, does not come from the standards themselves.

Instead, that message comes from documents your state did not directly adopt (though in the case of states like New York, it’s as if they had).  Documents like the “publisher’s criteria” and the “tri-state rubric” offer interpretation of the standards–often based on theory more than research or knowledge of practice.  These documents make broader reaches into suggesting that lessons should include texts that are “similar to CCSS grade-level text exemplars” or one of my least favorite phrases, include complex texts that are “worth reading” (insert a condescending, “pshaw”). The documents were intended to impact textbook companies, and it is evident that in many cases they have.

The good news is that if you agree with these or any other documents, you are free to follow their lead. If you disagree, the standards say that should be up to you to decide.

I Choose Complex Kids, First

What has felt so joyful about this blog-a-thon is that many of our fellow contributors struggle, dream, plan, and reflect on the love we hope for our children and young adults to have with reading and thinking.  We aim to not just “do” close reading as an initiative, but instead to invite our students (and ourselves) to see this skill as a way of looking at the world in an eyes-open way.

In the opening to our book (sample here), we write:

“…teaching readers to look at texts closely—by showing them how one word, one scene, or one idea matters—is an opportunity to extend a love affair with reading. It is also a chance to carry close reading habits beyond the page, to remind students that their lives are rich with significance, ready to be examined, reflected upon, and appreciated.” 

Close reading is not the only way, but instead one of many ways to invite our students to admire text and more importantly bask in their own deep, imaginative thinking.

Love is In the Eyes of the Book-Holder

Love is a fickle and uniquely personal thing. Along our lives we fall for the wrong people at times, we don’t make our friends happy with our choices, our love goes unrequited.  When our hearts start beating fast and our palms sweat it’s often hard to know how or why. It just is.  Who you fall for is unique to you.  (It’s why those blind dates your friends set you up on don’t always pan out.)

by CarbonNYC used under Creative Commons lic.

Herein lies the perennial challenge of all reading instruction, close reading related or not: Just because you love and adore Text X with all of your heart and soul, does not mean your students will.  Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Soto, Myers, Woodson, Dahl, DiCamillo–it doesn’t matter if you are “CANON” (boom!) minded or a young adult “fangirl/boy,” what you love will assuredly not be what all of your students do.

Sure, they may love YOU. May even love the experiences you have shared with them around a book. I argue, that still does not mean they would or could read Text X on their own and think within its pages.  Heck, I will always remember James and The Giant Peach for the young, female teacher that read it aloud to us… I think there was a boy in it and maybe some bugs…

Learning to Love

Does this mean you should never choose texts?  No. Exactly to opposite.

We learn about love and relationships through example. We watched our parents, television, movies, and our friends. Then, with those examples of what to do (and not to do) in mind, we let our hearts lead us.

Across this blog-a-thon, in our book, and in all of our work, we aim to support students in learning the habits of close reading so they can carry them beyond that one lesson and into their lives. A portion of this is how we are teaching these skills, another portion is the texts we use to demonstrate and inspire.

When choosing texts for close reading instruction we suggest you consider several actions:

  • Model your own joy of reading, often. Not just the texts you are using for instruction, but also talk about  texts from outside of the classroom. The question, “So what are you reading right now…?” or the statement, “I just started an amazing book…,” are important across the school day and beyond.
  • Choose demonstration texts you love. Choose texts that you are authentically excited about, that is rule numero uno. If some curriculum guide you were handed says “This Text Was Deemed To Be Close Reading Worthy” but you find your soul wilting as you read it, then it is not worth reading. Your enthusiasm and wonder matters.

    by Jack Mallon used under Creative Commons lic
  • Choose demonstration texts that will speak to students. The second step is to ask yourself if the texts you will model with will be compelling to (at least some of) your class. Does it strike an emotional nerve, engage them intellectually, speak to them? Learning happens with wide awake minds (versus sleeping with your eyes open in class).
  • Vary Your Texts Often: In Tone, Complexity, Topic. The more variety in your text choices, the more students’ minds you will ignite. If you spend time with a particularly dense text that felt like an uphill climb–both exhilarating at the top and exhausting–, then next read a text you can sprint through. If you just read a tear-jerker, don’t forget the kids with the infectious sense of humor. Recall, as well, that texts need not be only literature. Nonfiction, movies, songs, video games, primary source documents, overheard conversations–close reading is not only academic, it is a way to think through the stuff of life.
  • Readers Choose (And Choosey Readers Read Tons). Ultimately, allow your readers plenty of opportunity to choose the texts they will read independently. With choice come volume, engagement, and opportunity for developed thinking. (See Penny Kittle‘s brief video interview of her high school students talking about their lack-of-turned-growth-in reading, link here.) As we mentioned in a previous post, we have to be careful that we are not simply close teaching, but offering our students many opportunities to practice becoming close readers.

All of this is to say, we believe you do not choose your text, first, and then decide out how to bring it to your students. Instead you choose your students, first, and decide how to bring them to texts.

Your Turn

What do you think about when choosing texts? Do you agree with our points? Do you challenge some? Share your ah-has, hmms, and huhs with the community. This blog-a-thon is about all of us sharing ideas! See the Contributor Page for more posts and information out how to add yours.

Share your insights, we are closely reading close reading together! 

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 10  on Thursday!

Blog-a-thon Post 7: Most Fun #CloseReading Post Ever Because Students Are Hilarious And Filled With Rage

Welcome to the seventh post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. Each week posts are added to the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

Also a reminder that we have two workshops coming up this December called “Fall in Love with Close Reading.”  I will be in Brookfield, WI on December 6.  Kate and I will be together in Amherst, NY on December 9. Registration as well as the number to call for lodging information or other questions can be found here. We look forward to working with you IN PERSON!

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No, Really, They Are Not Happy.

I stumbled upon writing this post completely by accident.  Last week, while updating the contributor page, I got on twitter and searched for the term “close reading.”  I know many of you are using the hashtag and I was curious to see what other ideas were circulating.  What I found–with some delight and horror–was not only are educators tweeting about close reading, but so are students.  And so a post was born!

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is a small sampling of 48 hours of “close reading” student tweets. *Note: While tweets are in the public domain, I have chosen to black out specific twitter handles.

The dread

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The rage

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The challenges

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And the certifiably bizarre

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You are correct.

That does sound so dumb.

Now, you could be thinking, “well students like to complain, they get on twitter and just share their angst.” To that claim, I submit this counter-evidence:

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THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF ALL CAPS TWEETS PROFESSING LOVE TO ONE DIRECTION. EVERY. MINUTE.

Engagement Isn’t a Thing, It’s the Only Thing

Across the blog-a-thon many posts have been keenly aware that it’s critical that close reading instruction is student-centered, empowering, and engaging.

Mindi Rench‘s post during week one, “Close Reading: Please don’t let it be a return to ‘Read to answer the three questions at the end of the chapter,’” Scott McLeod‘s post during week three, “Will an emphasis on ‘close reading’ kill the joy of reading?” (both linked to on the contributor page), and our podcast with Franki Sibberson for Choice Literacy are all examples.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey noted in an IRA brief that if close reading instruction is not carefully crafted it could detract, instead of enhance, engagement and learning (see page 8).

I am reminded of a statement Donna Santman made in a workshop a few years ago: “As teachers, we first get good at reading to our students, but then we need to get good at reading our students.”

Every decision we make can raise or lower interest, belief, and learning.

Keep Close Reading Close to Them

In our work for Falling In Love with Close Reading one element that became critical to effective close reading instruction was conversation.  Authors talk with authors, doctors talk with doctors, educators talk with educators–so too should readers talk with readers.  We found that if you plan to have students voices within your instruction not only do you have more engaged learners, but you benefit from students developing more sophisticated ideas together and you are able to do much more assessment of their developing skills. The more students have opportunities to think out loud together, the more you truly can “read” your students.

Down to its most simple parts, lessons could progress like this:

  • Teach a habit of close reading. Perhaps, zooming in on particular kinds of details like Kate emphasized in her last post.
  • Demonstrate this habit with a small bit of text.
  • Then, read a bit more of that text and invite students to now practice together.
  • While students talk, listen!
  • After the lesson, invite students to return to their own independent reading or book clubs. Offering more opportunities for engagement, conversation, and assessment.

The listening we do as educators, we argue, is not in a “are they getting the right answer?” kind of a way. Instead, you are listening for how their thinking is developing, if your instruction was clear, and–yes, my twitter friends–if they are engaged.

When you feel heard, you tend to say more.  When you say more, you tend to feel more.

Your Turn

What are ways you already see engagement (or a lack there of)?  In what ways do you engage your learners intellectually and emotionally? What are your reactions to the twitter comments?  Add your comments and/or links to your own posts. This blog-a-thon is about all of us sharing ideas, see the Contributor Page for more posts and for information out how to share yours.

Share your insights, we are closely reading close reading together! 

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 8  on Thursday!

Blog-a-thon Post 5: #CloseReading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!)

Welcome to the fifth post in our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading. Each week posts are added to the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

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Join!

Before we jump into the first post for this week, we have two quick announcements (think of these like infomercials, only without the poor acting):

  1. Be sure to click over to the Contributor Page to read posts of other educators. They have pushed our thinking and we know yours, too. If you are considering posting (or even a tad nervous to post or share a link), please do! We firmly believe the most important professional development is conversation and even a post of only ten words will get others thinking.  More on how to share your post here.  Remember, an essential step is to post your link in the comments section on this blog or Kate’s.
  2. We’re happy to (re)announce that we have two workshops coming up this December called “Fall in Love with Close Reading.”  I will be in Brookfield, WI on December 6.  Kate and I will be together in Amherst, NY on December 9. More information, registration, and the number to call for lodging information or other questions can be found at Heinemann. We look forward to working with you IN PERSON!

Close Reading Nonfiction (Why? and Oh!)

It seems that a lot of conversation around close reading practices centers around literature, so we wanted to share some of our thinking about close reading nonfiction.

It has been our experience in schools that when the topic of TEACHING NONFICTION READING comes up, a good percentage of us ask the very poised and reflective question: “Whhhhhhhyyyyyyy? Do I have toooooo?”

by memekode Used under Creative Commons lic

So, naturally, when you add “close reading” into the mix the question then becomes a dignified: “I don’t wanna. Come on. Whhhhyyyy? Please no. Whhhhyyyyyyyy?”

To be fair, a good deal of you love teaching nonfiction. But, in a number of schools there is an equally large number of you that would be delighted to leave the skills of informational reading up to your science cluster teacher (Poor Ms. Smith, she already has enough on her hands).

Therefore, we want to offer some inspiration for taking up close reading practices with nonfiction texts.

Loving Nonfiction

In Chapter 4 of my book on rethinking research instruction, Energize Research Reading and Writing, I write:

Great nonfiction writers become stars. Within the circle of their readers their names are praised. You probably know people who talk about their favorite columnists as if they were close friends: “That Maureen Dowd, she never holds back.” The world has bought millions of copies of books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking. Co-workers trade quotes from Freakonomics, Outliers, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Some teachers say “Seymour Simon” and “Bobbie Kalman” with quiet reverence as if they’re shorthand for, “Of course we all know their books are terrifically written.”

            What do all of these writers have in common? It is certainly not just that they know a whole lot about their topics; it’s doubtful that a book full of dense facts alone would be a number-one best-seller (when’s the last time you read a textbook for pleasure?). What great nonfiction writers—best-selling, most-quoted, most highly praised nonfiction writers—have in common is that they do their very best, work their hardest, to be excellent teachers. They work to be engaging, clear, and always with sight of learners in mind. Terrific nonfiction does what all of us educators strive to do every day when we step into a classroom.

The truth is that informational writing, at its best, is as artfully crafted and nuanced as a poem or beloved novel.

In our new book, Kate and I run with the assumption that all types of texts can be loved more carefully as you read more thoughtfully, including nonfiction texts, arguments, and media. Some of the many purposes for reading nonfiction closely can include to:

by Markoz46 Used under Creative Commons lWe can read nonfiction closely to:
  • Understand what the author values (cares about, thinks is important, wants us to focus on)
  • Have a clearer understanding of a topic (clarify our mental image, see connections between ideas we may have missed)
  • Define terminology that is unclear at first
  • Find a topic more interesting
  • Develop ideas with peers
  • Spark imagination
  • and so on

Let’s take the opening pages to Seymour Simon‘s Coral Reefs (sample here from the publisher). 

Read page 5, then get ready to reread.

In a previous posts we suggested that looking for patterns is one important habit in close reading, and that as readers we actively bring in our prior knowledge including being actively aware of what we don’t know and what piques our interest. We invite you to reread this short section and allow patterns to pop-out to you.

For instance, I am struck by (as always) Seymour Simon’s carefully selected words. I’m noticing a pattern in the kinds of descriptions he includes: strange, brilliant colors, shimmer, vibrant, strange-looking, colorful, ‘like nothing you have ever seen.’ I find myself doing many things with these words. I have a clearer picture of this place he is describing.  I notice his relationship to the subject–he seems to be in awe, and his careful language is leaving me more in awe as well.  Let’s pretend the word “vibrant” is unfamiliar to me, with the collection of other terms I would be in striking distance of understanding what that one meant.

The collection of words is not only bringing me closer to the page, it is also working in the opposite direction, bringing me out of this page and into life (Kate’s brilliant 3-D “fifth corner”) and leading me to wonder: why are the reefs and fish so colorful? Haven’t I heard many reefs are in danger? I realize I have never been to a coral reef…. hold on, I  just need to do a little vacation research…

There is no magic trick here. It’s not just this particular page or the topic or the book. Rereading in this careful way, looking for patterns, can lead you to new ideas about nonfiction in almost any book you read.  Or documentary you watch. Or radio commercial you hear. Or editorial you click to.

Whether you are a self-professed nonfiction-avoider or -lover, looking closely at nonfiction can lead you to love the subject, the writing, heck perhaps even the entire text-type more.

Your Turn

How do you feel about the teaching of nonfiction reading? In what ways have you, or could you, included close reading in that study? What nonfiction texts are your go-tos?  What experiences beyond text come to mind for you? Add your comments and/or links to your own posts. Several links will be added to the Contributor Page.

Share your insights, we are closely reading close reading together! 

Look for Kate’s blog-a-thon Post 6  on Thursday!