November 27, 2014

The Whole is Greater Than The Sum of the Parts: Creating Synergy at NCTE 2014

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Oh, sweet Washington, DC.  That was a great conference.

While the sessions and the learning were inspiring, most inspiring of all were the connections.

NCTE Vicki's Workshop Crew


On Friday, To Make a Prairie blogger and co-author of What Readers Really Do, Vicki Vinton, gathered together some of our favorite teachers/thinkers/fellow bloggers to present a session titled It’s Not Just for The Kids: Stories of What Can Happen When Teachers Embrace Curiosity, Openness, Creativity, and Wonder in the Teaching of Reading.  This was hands-down our favorite session not only because it was a privilege to listen to the stories of teaching and learning told by such gifted and dedicated teachers, but also because the way it exemplified synergy was sublime.  Stephen Covey says that “if you put two pieces of wood together, they will hold much more than the total of the weight held by each separately.  The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” We are all better when we come together to learn and this session was a humbling reminder of this important point.  If you don’t know the blogs written by Steve Peterson, Fran McVeigh, Julianne Harmatz, and Mary Lee Hahn, and of course, Vicki Vinton, you should.  These are outstanding thinkers!

NCTE 14 drinks with friends

The synergy continued on Friday night with AMAZING impromptu, one-on-one conversations with other bloggers, authors, and educators in the lounge at the Aloft Hotel.  We honestly find these conversations as stimulating (if not more so) than planned conference sessions. We are so grateful to our community and feel honored to have had the chance to meet so many of you!

NCTE Chris Lehman and Carol

As is the case with all busy conferences, we weren’t able to “synergize” as much as we would have liked with everyone, however, we are grateful to our friend Chris Lehman for organizing a professional book exchange.  We’re as excited to read the notes in the margins of the books we took home as we are to read the books themselves!

NCTE Picture With Barry Lane

And in the spirit of saving the best for last, a very special thank you to Barry Lane who happened by the Stenhouse booth while we were signing copies of Reading Wellness. His songs and jokes and joie de vivre reminded us that learning feels best when complemented with heaping piles of joy!



Sending Children Off to Do “Big Things”

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We’ve been reading and studying Time journalist Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book The Smartest Kids in the World and How they Got that Way.  In this book, Ripley investigates schooling in three educationally high performing nations: Finland, Korea, and Poland.  In addition to carefully parsing apart the data revealed by the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA), which measures advanced thinking and communication skills, the author follows three American, foreign exchange students in these countries to obtain an insider perspective into what it’s like to attend schools in these nations. While we could talk ad infinitum about this book, today we want to focus our thinking on Chapter 7, titled “The Metamorphosis.”

In this chapter, Ripley closely examines education in Poland, a nation with child poverty levels greater than the United States, and attempts to figure out what happened there to catapult this country from the educational doldrums to educational excellence. Ripley explains that the transformation began in 1997 with Miroslaw Handke, a chemist selected to become Poland’s minister of education. Handke’s solution focused on injecting the Polish educational system with renewed rigor. By 2012, fifteen years after the initiative began, Poland “officially joined the ranks of the world’s education superpowers. That year, its teenagers performed at the same level on PISA as kids in Finland and Canada.” (p. 136)

Wanting to better understand what contributed to this grand transformation, Ripley sought insight from a high school student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Wroclaw, Poland. When asked what he believed to be the fundamental difference in American and Polish education, he said his school in the United States “is not that concerned with sending people off to do big things.”

Reading that sentiment stopped us dead in our tracks. As teachers, we are propelled by idealistic notions of helping children to become lifelong learners.  In our hearts, we want nothing more than for the children that fill our classrooms to go off and do “big things.”  Yet, we fear that this posture–not concerned with sending people off to do big things–is all too common, and much of our work has long been around helping schools adopt instructional mindsets that support long range visions for children as doers of big things.

In chapter one of Reading Wellness, we explore this idea by looking at Jane Goodall ,who read “not because others set goals for her,” but rather “because she was driven by her passions.  Her reading was connected to the things she loved.” In addition, because she read, Jane Goodall imagined a future of moving to Africa to live with and study animals. When students read multiple biographies, looking to see the connection between a person’s passion, mindset, and effort (Heart, Head, Hands and Feet), they begin to imagine new possibilities for their own futures which instills a natural motivation to read more informational texts. We get giddy when we see the ways this kind of reading inspires children to imagine the “big things” they want to do.

Student HHHF


For those of you attending NCTE, on Sunday, November 23 at 12:00 we are facilitating a session titled “They Grew Up Reading and Writing: Using Picture Book Biographies to Support Authentic Explorations of Informational Text.” We’d love to see you there, however, if you’ve got other commitments and will be unable to make it to our session, plan to stop by the Stenhouse booth at 9:00 Sunday morning where we will be hanging out and signing books. We would love to meet you and hear about how you are preparing your students to do “big things!”

Challenging Instructional Dogma

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When the Common Core Standards were released, “close reading” was a nebulous term that left many not only seeking to better understand what it was and how it served children, but also wondering what it looked like in the classroom. Because discussions of the Common Core Standards placed such emphasis on close reading and most educators felt they knew so little about it, they scrambled to learn what they could. For many, this exploration began with this EngageNY video of David Coleman discussing how to closely read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  In this video, Coleman discusses the importance of allowing the text to set the reading agenda and suggests a protocol for reading closely that involves asking students to read a short text with little to no scaffolding, followed by a teacher read aloud of the same selection, followed by a discussion anchored by text-based questions prepared by the teacher in advance.

At the beginning of this video, David Coleman clearly states that this protocol is “one model of instruction in alignment with the core standards of literacy. There can and should be several others.” However, in spite of Coleman’s words of caution, many understand it as the way to teach children to read closely and carefully, which inadvertently has elevated something that began as an instructional suggestion to instructional canon.

This relatively recent development makes us think a lot about some of the rules that govern how we approach literacy instruction that include things such as:

  • Children should read books at their level.
  • Always pre-teach new vocabulary and difficult-to-decode words.
  • Be sure to fill in gaps in background knowledge prior to reading.

While these ideas are rooted in important research about how children become increasingly proficient readers, we have to look closely at the ways in which we implement them and continually ask, “How are these rules serving children?”

For example, we have visited countless classrooms honoring the matching books to reader rule.  The classroom libraries are leveled and students only pick from the bin containing books “on their level.” However, when we ask, “how is this serving children?” we worry that this practice might do more harm than good as we repeatedly encounter children who shy away from reading challenges because “that book isn’t on my level.” Like David Coleman’s approach to teaching children to read closely and carefully, matching books to readers is a well-intended idea. There are many situations when it will serve an important role in helping to improve children’s reading skills, however, when it stops serving children, we can’t soldier on “just because.” Just because David Coleman or some other notable figure popularized a way of teaching children to read or write. We must remember that in education, we are always trying to outgrow our best ideas and that over time, even the best ideas evolve.

Using Interactive Writing to Teach “the Basics” in Upper Elementary

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By the time students reach fourth- and fifth-grades, certain writing “basics”–capitalizing proper nouns and the first word of a sentence, indenting paragraphs, using details to develop ideas–have been taught for years. However, many students are slow to “own” these basics, leaving teachers dismayed and wondering how to best use their already limited instructional time for writing. Do they reteach the basics or move on to teaching more sophisticated writing moves– how to merge ideas to create more complex sentences; how to include details that impact mood; or how to move from one idea to another using words besides first, then, and next? For many teachers, moving on without “the basics” in place feels remiss but the conundrum of time is too hard to ignore.  Fortunately for intermediate and middle school teachers faced with this dilemma, there is a skinny solution to the problem: interactive writing.

In interactive writing, students work together with the teacher to compose a text.  Decisions about how to introduce an idea, which words to use to describe something, or how to support an idea once it is committed to the page are made collaboratively. As the text is discussed, the teacher invites students to take the pen and publicly practice integrating the many aspects of the writing process. Doing this allows them opportunities to think aloud and ask questions about the parts of writing they find confusing.  For example, in a recent interactive writing lesson with sixth graders, the students were working to include the title of a short story in a text.  They weren’t sure whether to surround it with quotes or underline it.  One student mentioned that, in the past, she had thought about using a title in her own writing, but decided not to because she wasn’t sure how to punctuate it. There were nods of agreement from other students and clearly, these students appreciated the clarification.

Oftentimes, students’ apparent lack of “basics” has more to do with feeling disconnected from their audience than it does with understanding when and how to use these things in their writing.  Because interactive writing heightens students’ awareness of audience, remembering to capitalize, indent, and correctly punctuate sentences becomes easier as students recognize why these things matter to their readers.

In case you are wondering, we find upper elementary students just as excited about “sharing the pen” as the lower elementary students who are typically involved in interactive writing. The interactive writing format increases engagement and facilitates learning transfer to students’ independent practice.





Shameless Self-Promotion

Reading Wellness by Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris
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Those of you who know us personally or follow us on social media know that the last few months have been filled with the emotional highs and lows that come along with writing and finishing a book. However, those of you who know us exclusively through this space probably know very little about Reading Wellness, which was finished in February and has since undergone all phases of the Stenhouse production process.  We are proud to share with you that four weeks ago, Reading Wellness made its debut.

Reading Wellness by Jan Miller Burkins and Kim Yaris

As we conceived of Reading Wellness, we imagined writing a book that would do more than treat the problems students experience when learning to read.  Rather, we imagined writing a book that would help teachers prevent problems before they happen. When we began, we asked ourselves what we thought contributed to healthy, robust reading lives and built our chapters around these ideas:

  1. Love–Authentic Reasons to Read Informational Text Closely
  2. Posture–Mindset, Agency, and Hard Work
  3. Alignment–Working to Make Sense of the Words
  4. Mindfulness–Reading Closely, Comprehending Deeply
  5. Strength–Productive Effort and Building Reading Muscle
  6. Joy–Reading More for the Love of It

For us, writing Reading Wellness was a labor of love, but as anyone who has written for an audience knows, what happens when your thoughts and ideas go out into the world is up to the world. Because it’s only been four weeks since Stenhouse released Reading Wellness, we are just beginning to hear readers’ responses.  So far, this is what we’ve heard:


From Paula Borque, Literacy Coach, Augusta Maine:

I LOVED it!! … As I read each chapter I kept thinking how they were expressing so exactly the thoughts I want my teachers to have about creating reading communities and encouraging reading lives.  I felt so connected to those authors!


From Russ Walsh, Literacy Specialist, Rider University

Ultimately, Burkins and Yaris, want to help literacy teachers to move beyond the expectations of others – close reading, identifying main ideas, and all the aspects of reading writ small – and to keep our eyes on READING writ large, that READING that enriches our lives and that we hope will enrich the lives of our students. (For a full review see Russ’s blog: How “Well” is Your Reading?)


From Mary Howard, Literacy Consultant and Author

Chapter titles says it all–Reading More for the Love of It! Every word makes my heart sing!


From Dr. Byron Ernest, Educator, Indianapolis, Indiana

#ReadingWellness really hit home with me. Every #educator should read it! We are going to do a book study.

If you are interested in reading Reading Wellness, you can preview the whole book online at Stenhouse.  And if you do read it, we hope to hear your honest feedback!

Guiding Reading with Great Books

Fish and Frog
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We are constantly on the look out for beginning reading material that gives young readers substantial work with meaning. Unfortunately, too many of the beginning reading texts available offer minimal opportunities to think deeply. As finding texts worth rereading is essential to teaching students to read closely and carefully, the quality of beginning reading texts is a real dilemma.


We’ve engaged in a number of efforts to promote conversations about quality, beginning reading texts. For example, we developed this Text Complexity Rubric for evaluating guided reading books on levels A-E (because after level E, quality material is much easier to find.) Also, we worked with the wonderful illustrator, Steve Jenkins, to develop “Think Books,” which are leveled A-E, are companions to Steve Jenkins’s other titles, and available as free PDFs and free digital flipbooks. We are fond of the guided reading books by Okapi (reviewed here), as they have higher than average numbers of books that rate a level 4 (highest score) on our rubric, which means they give young readers a lot to think about.


Recently, we have revisited the “Brand New Reader” collection from Candlewick Press. Kim’s sons both learned to read with these texts, while Jan is relatively new to them. We are excited to add them to our collection of texts that offer both appropriate word work and thought-provoking comprehension opportunities. The authors/illustrators accomplish this feat by letting the images carry some of the meaning in the text.


They are also super affordable. You can purchase four books about a set of characters, such as Fish and Frog (below) in a slipcase for $5.99, or $1.50/book. They also come in boxed sets of 10 titles and an incentive chart with stickers for $12.99, which would work well for summer reading programs.*


Here are a few of our favorite titles:


Fish and Frog

Fish Makes Faces (Level C) and Hide-and-Seek (Level D) are both part of the “Fish and Frog” collection. In Fish Makes Faces, fish makes different faces–sad, silly, happy– in a mirror stuck in the sand on the ocean floor. When he makes a scary face, he scares himself. In Hide-and-Seek, Frog and Fish take turns hiding, but when Fish hides behind Fish, Fish can’t find him. Both texts have illustrations that give readers something to think about.

Mouse has fun

In the “Mouse Has Fun” collection, you will find It’s Super Mouse (Level B). Super Mouse–Mouse in a red cape–jumps off various, increasingly-tall objects to “fly.” At the end of the story, when he jumps off a hill, he flies and “lands.” The picture tells the story, of course, as the landing is a little bumpy.

Termite Trouble

Finally, we particularly love Termite Bites, which is in the “Termite Trouble” collection. This Level A text begins with Termite facing a log and thinking about where to bite it. It ends with Termite facing a wooden sculpture of himself.


For more information about the Brand New Readers from Candlewick Press.
*We receive a lot of materials for review and we only write reviews for the few we like best. We don’t usually list prices, but it seemed relevant in this case, since these are SOOO affordable and schools are both desperate for quality guiding materials and short on funds. We don’t work for Candlewick and don’t receive any kick-backs for reviewing their books. We do, however, like just about everything they do.

Evaluating and Vetting Common Core “Aligned” Close Reading Materials

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As publishers continue to flood the market with “Common Core” aligned materials, the task of sifting through and weeding out the good from the bad becomes increasingly more difficult. Educators are particularly concerned about which materials to purchase to support students’ ability to read “closely and carefully.” In response to this growing concern, we offer you the following three questions to ask as you evaluate and vet the materials you are considering for your school.

1. How interested will your students be in reading the texts in this resource?

In developing their materials, many publishers have ignored the three defining characteristics of complex text (quantitative, qualitative, reader and task) and unfortunately include text that meet only the quantitative measure. Furthermore, in many cases, publishers are repurposing text that is decades old, offering students the dryest of reading selections. Because reading is a transactional relationship between reader and text, it is important that text be compelling. We cannot expect students to invest in close and careful reading if they lack the motivation, purpose, knowledge, or experience to be able to interact with the articles and/or stories in the resource. We recommend that educators read at least three to five different samples of text in a close reading resource to determine whether the content feels appropriate for the intended audience.


2. Who’s doing the work?

As we have perused many resources aimed at helping students read “closely and carefully,” we have noticed a trend toward the publisher determining when and where children should stop and think.  Generally, these points are delineated by the insertion of a text-based question or task that asks students to reread to notice something deemed important about the text. While there is some value in supporting students’ ability to read closely and carefully in this way, we are skeptical that repeating this process over and over will yield the desired result–an independent and proficient reader. We believe that the decision making process about how to read closely and carefully is more important than answering a series of questions about a text.  We recommend that educators consider how a resource releases thinking responsibility to the student. If there are no opportunities for students to make decisions about where to stop and think and what to think about, it is unlikely that they will transfer this skill to their own independent reading.


3. Are the questions worth answering? 

In looking at several materials by several different publishers, it appears that “close reading” has been generalized to mean “exhaustive reading.” We find that more times than not, close reading resources leave no stone unturned. Text is chunked into equal portions and students are asked to notice and note details about every aspect of the text, regardless of its significance to the larger themes and messages of the text. We are concerned that this practice implies that all text is created equally, which it is not.  Some text , even portions of classic literature, just isn’t worthy of close, careful rereading.  We worry that time spent rereading to answer questions about inane sections of text will perpetuate what Kelly Gallagher calls “readicide,” or, the systematic killing of the love of reading.” As you evaluate resources for reading closely and carefully, we recommend that you consider how much rereading students do in each text and consider whether the questions in the text have students striving toward significant or superficial understandings.

Participating in the National Conversation

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One of our first efforts to write about the Common Core State Standards involved looking closely at the research behind the author’s suggestion that students should spend their time in frustration-level texts. From analyzing the research a couple of years ago to speculating on the use of the term “frustration” more recently, the ongoing national conversation about the role (or lack thereof) of instructional level text in elementary instruction is of keen interest to us. There are a number of writers and/or bloggers we respect who offer us insight and perspective as we try to make sense of the array of challenges to sound literacy instruction. Among those is Russ Walsh, who offers thoughtful and balanced perspectives based on a keen understanding of the historical perspectives of both literacy instruction and the Common Core. Yesterday, in his guest post on Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, “The Answer Sheet,” Russ wrote of recent and heated debates about the role of frustration level texts in classroom instruction. In his post, he refers to our analysis of the related research cited by Timothy Shanahan in support of eliminating instructional reading level texts. We are confident you will find the article of interest for its attention to both the nuts and bolts of the issue and the broader educational and political implications.  We are interested in learning more about what this national conversation has people thinking about and invite you to share your experiences, insights, concerns, and questions in the comment section of today’s post.

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 2)

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On Tuesday, when we first posed the question, “Has close reading gone amok?,” we shared some of the “close reading” tasks we found in the workbooks Kim’s sons are using this year to learn to “read closely and carefully.”  Here are a few excerpts:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

Unlike Social Studies and Science textbook questions that appear at the end of a section or a chapter about a specific topic, the tasks in these close reading workbooks are interspersed throughout the passages.  It appears that the design is intended to teach students to chunk text into meaningful sections, pausing periodically to notice relevant details or ask thought provoking questions.

As Matthew and Nathan make their way through their close reading exercises, they  stop when they are told to do so, underlining or circling text and making annotations in the margins. However, as they work, they are also counting how many tasks they have left to complete, calculating how long it will take to finish all of these tasks. They don’t make the effort to find all of the details that indicate how the father in the story “has changed” because they also have to write out their inferences and point to details that support those inference. Then, they have to write four short responses, complete with quotes and evidence from the story. They know this assignment is going to take a while, so they carefully measure their effort. They aren’t working to deeply understand the story, or even to practice “close reading.” Rather, they are working because they want to finish in a reasonable amount of time.

As we think about their work, we are reminded of a parable that Dorothy Barnhouse shared in her new book, Readers Front and Center. The story is about three stonemasons working in a quarry. When someone asks them what they were doing, the first stonemason says that he is cutting a stone. The second says that he is building a parapet. The third stonemason, however, shares that he is building a cathedral.

While all of the stonemasons were doing the same work, only the third was doing so with vision and purpose. Our hope is that when children read, they, like the third stonemason, see the larger goals and purposes of their reading. However, when students are prompted when to notice and connect and infer, close reading feels like a farce. Reading that should be building cathedrals becomes a mere act of cutting stones.

Has Close Reading Gone Amok? (Part 1)

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Social media response to the posts we write and share on this blog help us to keep our finger on the pulse of what really matters to educators. So, when Reading Today recently released its “What’s Hot” list, it didn’t surprise us that “Close reading/deep reading” ranked as one of the hottest topics in literacy. What did surprise us, however, was that “Comprehension” earned only a single yellow dot indicating that, by comparison, it’s not nearly as hot as “close reading.”

Interestingly, in the  “should be hot” column, the experts polled indicated that they think this phenomenon should be reversed, with a greater emphasis placed on comprehension.  We couldn’t agree more and, in our post The Essence of a Close Read, we even cautioned educators against the dangers of overemphasizing “close reading” warning that doing so risks “schoolifying” and subsequently undermining the real purpose of reading closely: to understand.  

By now, the school year is solidly underway in all parts of the United States.  We find ourselves thinking a lot about close reading and its place in American schools.  In fact, Kim’s sons, Matthew and Nathan have shiny new “Close Reading” workbooks for the new school year. These workbooks involve finding and highlighting bits of “evidence” in relatively short, purportedly complex texts.

In these workbooks, Kim’s sons and their peers are instructed to execute discrete tasks, such as the following:

Reread lines 27-44.  In the margin, make an inference about how the narrator probably felt about her father’s response to her new talent.

As you read lines 140-179, underline language that describes how the father seems to be changing.  Make notes in the margin in lines 140-150.

Reread lines 169-205.  In the margin, explain how Marlene’s relationship with her father has changed. What is her father doing at night? Support your answers with explicit textual evidence.

This oversimplification of a sophisticated process, which involves trying to reduce close reading to a few objective responses in a workbook, is what often happens in education, unfortunately. Succombing to political and testing pressures and responding to the abundance of poor and mediocre materials flooding the market, we take a reasonable idea, such as reading for meaning, and we go to extremes,  losing sight of what is really important. Close reading is merely an extension of tenets we all consider important, i.e. students read to understand, to learn, to think.


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