Close reading has been my mind a lot lately. I recently read What Readers Really Do, by Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton. I revisited Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst as well as Falling in Love With Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts. Yesterday, Tara Smith’s excellent post on reading journals gave me more to think about. This is important work. Work that will help our students “grow and develop new ideas and insights.” (Barnhouse & Vinton, pg. 152) I need time to process all this wisdom and work with my colleagues to determine how we’ll integrate these ideas into our teaching. I’ll be sharing more about this in the weeks to come. In the meantime, I want to share a post from 2013 that still holds true today.
This morning as I was weeding my garden, it occurred to me that the mint that had overrun my herb garden was like standardized test prep. As schools across the country do their best to prepare students for the new CCSS-aligned assessments, test prep is running rampant. Just as the mint in my garden has choked out the basil and parsley, test prep, and the tests themselves, threaten to take over the school day, leaving no time to savor novels, delve into a character’s motivation, or write a deeply personal narrative.
I grow a variety of herbs in my garden because each herb has its own distinct flavor and use. The amount of the herb I use depends on what I’m cooking. The same is true for teaching. We have a wide variety of instructional resources and strategies available. As professionals, we take great care to make…
Last week, I mentioned sharingKing Midas and the Golden Touch with the fourth grade students at my school. They all enjoyed the story, and because of our rich discussion, had a good understanding of the theme. They were also able to write about this understanding, but incorporating evidence from the story into their writing was more of a challenge.
Their teachers and I knew from the start that this wasn’t going to be a “one-shot deal.” We knew there would be many more lessons, including guided and independent practice, as well as feedback, to get our students to be able to do this kind of work well. So on Friday, I was back in their classrooms with a very short excerpt from Jon J. Muth’s Zen Shorts, “Uncle Ry and the Moon.” I love sharing this deceptively simple story with students, and have done so many times. Muth’s book is quiet and unassuming, but it contains a powerful message.
Following the same routine we had used with King Midas, I read the story through once. The kids followed along on a typed version of the text. When I finished reading, I was met with a roomful of puzzled faces. I asked the kids to write what they had noticed and what they were wondering (We used a modified version on Vicki Vinton’s “Know/Wonder” chart for this.) Once they had their thoughts written down, they shared. All of the students were confused by Uncle Ry’s attitude toward the intruder. This clearly conflicted with the action they would take, or expect anyone to take, under similar circumstances. I complimented them for noticing this important contradiction, and explained to them the importance of this kind of observation. When an author includes those contradictions, he’s doing it for a reason. (Notice & Note, pg. 71)
Our next step was to reread the story, more carefully this time, and we stopped along the way to discuss what we were noticing now, and trying to sort out our confusion and begin to answer some of our questions. As we read, some students made thoughtful observations or raised interesting questions. Others asked questions to clarify a simpler element of the story, but these were important, too. I let them discuss these with their partners before sharing with the whole class.
It was during this conversation that one boy tentatively raised his hand. I have known and worked with this student since he was in first grade. His thinking is often perceptive, but can sometimes be muddled. I paused before calling on him to give him time to organize his thinking. Then I nodded to him and he said, “It’s like he’s the opposite of King Midas. Uncle Ry gives things away because he doesn’t mind being poor, and Midas wanted to have as much gold as he could get.”
I was speechless. I hadn’t thought of that myself. His teacher and I exchanged a look of joy. Of course, we let him know how impressed we were with his thinking and the he had made such a meaningful connection to King Midas. Then, another student started to raise her hand, and again, I could see the wheels still turning. She proceeded to tell us that another reason Uncle Ry was different from Midas is that Midas was blinded by greed, but Uncle Ry was blinded by his kind nature, and that was why he saw the intruder as a visitor.
I have shared this story with students many times before, but they have never come to these deep and thoughtful conclusions or level of understanding. So what was different? I hadn’t read the story right after King Midas before, but I wasn’t consciously thinking of a thematic connection between the two. Just as before, I had a plan when I began the lesson, but it was more open-ended. In the past, we were usually focusing specifically on character traits or summarizing. I firmly believe that the kids were able to achieve this level of understanding because I followed their lead. I let them develop the questions they had about the story. I let them go back and locate significant passages in the text. We do our students a huge disservice when we teach from a script and ask only preplanned, canned questions.
Are we finished with this work? Absolutely not. But we are laying a solid foundation for the kind of close reading and thinking skills our students will need to be thoughtful, caring human beings. And that, my friends, is worth all the gold in the world.
It’s Monday, and this slice is once again doing double-duty for It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Be sure to visit Jen at Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee at Unleashing Readers to find out what other people have been reading lately. Thanks, Jen and Kellee, for hosting!
Reading Anchor Standard nine of the CCSS states that students will “analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.” At each grade level, this standard has a different specificity. In fourth grade, students are expected to “compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics (e.g., opposition of good and evil) and patterns of events (e.g. the quest) in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.”
By the time they reach eighth grade, this expectation has become more complex. Now students must “analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.”
I’m focusing on this standard in particular because it is such a shift from the previous expectation in the Connecticut ELA standards. They emphasized text-to-self connections, and there was no particular emphasis on folk tales, fairy talks, or myths. I’m glad these stories have been given more attention in the standards. Many of them are so ubiquitous in our culture we don’t even recognize them as myths. Worse, they aren’t recognized because readers lack the knowledge of the original story.
So, one of my goals this year has been to find materials that help us meet these expectations. I’ve always had a copy of the classic D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths in my classroom, but there are many other excellent resources available. Here are two of the many books I’ve found.
Charlotte Craft’s retelling of King Midas and the Golden Touch (HarperCollins, 1999) is based on a version of the story told by Nathaniel Hawthorne in A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys. The original story is thought to be based on an 8th-century BC king of Phrygia, in what is now central Turkey.In a note, illustrator K.Y Craft explains that she chose to set the tale in the more-recent Middle Ages of Europe to convey the truly timeless nature of this story. In Craft’s version, Midas receives the golden touch as a reward for entertaining a stranger, for he believes that “the golden touch will bring me all the happiness I need.” Craft’s retelling is rich in imagery, characterization, and language. Last week, I shared the story with two fourth grade classes. Both groups had rich discussions about the decisions Midas made, key turning points in the story, and the theme. Some students had recently finished reading The Chocolate Touch, by Patrick Skene Catling. It was so much fun to see the lightbulbs going off as they made connections between the two books.
Gifts from the Gods: Ancient Words of Wisdom from Greek & Roman Mythology, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) by Lise Lunge-Larsen and illustrated by Gareth Hinds. Lunge-Larsen has chosen seventeen myths that “illuminate and explain words” that English speakers use all the time. (RL.4.4: Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including those that allude to significant characters found in mythology (e.g., Huerculean).) She has also included an excerpt from a modern story as an example. This is from Norma Howe’s Blue Avenger Cracks the Code:
Like all those classical heroes down through the ages, Blue Avenger is not invulnerable; like them, he has a weakness. Superman feared kryptonite, Achilles had his heel. For Blue Avenger, it’s lemon meringue pie. (p. 1)
At the end of each myth, Lunge-Larsen also includes the meaning of other words related to the story. After reading the story of the Three Fates, we learn that the goddess who cut the thread was named Morta by the Romans. “Her name means ‘death’ and lives on in mortal and mortality, words we use about things that one day will die. The gods, who will never die are immortal.” (p. 22) Hinds, who is best known for his graphic novel versions of Beowulf and The Odyssey uses a similar style in this richly illustrated volume.
There are countless retellings of Greek and Roman myths, plus many from other cultures around the world. More about those another day.
Today’s post is doing double duty as my contribution to the Slice of Life Challenge at Two Writing Teachers.
We’ve all heard of a school of fish and a flock of birds. But what about an ostentation of peacocks?
Collective nouns, those words that turn a group of people, animals, or things into a singular noun, are words that children often learn intuitively as they acquire language as toddlers and preschoolers. The CCSS calls for collective nouns to be formally introduced to students in second grade.
If the goal of teaching these words to young writers is to have them use them in their writing, they need to have “read that language, to have heard it in [their] mind, so that [they] can hear it again in order to compose it.” (NCTE Beliefs About the Teaching of Writing) Although the styles of these books are very different, each one would be a good choice for introducing the concept of collective nouns.
Ruth Heller’s A Cache of Jewels (Grosset & Dunlap, 1987) is an old favorite, one I read to my third graders when I began teaching almost twenty years ago. This brightly illustrated book is still a good model for using collective nouns. Heller includes collective nouns of all kinds, not just those that describe groups of animals.
I’ve found some new books students will enjoy as they learn more of these words. My favorite is A Zeal of Zebras: An Alphabet of Collective Nouns (Chronicle Books, 2011). Woop Studios, a London-based collective (honestly, that’s what the book says!) of four artists, have created “a visual safari through the animal kingdom” (back cover). This oversized picture book is filled with stunning illustrations, unique collective nouns and facts about each group of animals. Some, “an implausibility of gnus,” for example, seemed so improbable that I looked it up. (It’s true, and you can find an extensive list of collective nouns for groups of animals here.) Others are so appropriate: of course it’s “a galaxy of starfish.” Some of the longer words will be a challenge for second graders, but these are the kinds of words kids love learning and trying to use.
One Sheep, Two Sheep: A Book of Collective Nouns, (Little Hare Books, 2010), by Patricia Byers and illustrated by Tamsin Ainslie develops the concept of collective nouns being a group of three or more. Each two-page spread follows the same pattern: “One sheep, two sheep, a flock of sheep.” Charming illustrations provide visual support for the growing numbers in the group described by each collective noun.
Finally, silliness ensues in Rick Walton’s Herd of Cows! Flock of Sheep! (Gibbs Smith, 2002, 2011; illustrated by Julie Olson). This book incorporates the collective nouns into the story of how Farmer Bob’s animals jump into action to save him after his bed is swept away in a flood.
I don’t know if there’s a collective noun for a group of bloggers, but Stacey, Tara, Dana, Betsy, Anna, and Beth are the best around! Thank you for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing rubrics lately. All year, we’ve been continuing to incorporate the CCSS into our writing instruction and part of this work has been creating new rubrics. My school purchased the Units of Study by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project last spring, and we’ve made some minor changes to the rubrics in those units for grades K-5. However, the middle school rubrics have been a bit more of a challenge. Connecticut is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, and they have published rubrics that we’ve used as a guide to create documents that work for us. We found the Smarter Balanced documents cumbersome, so we’ve used the language from Smarter Balanced with the Units of Study format to draft rubrics for grades 6-8.
There has been some disagreement among the teachers, however, about how many categories were needed on the rubric. Ultimately, we felt that everything on the SBAC rubric should be included on ours, but there is concern that the document has become unwieldy.
The challenge is to create a document that includes the standards being taught and assessed, but isn’t so lengthy that teachers don’t use it as a formative assessment tool to determine what our students are learning. As Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan, authors of Assessment in Perspective, have pointed out on their blog, “Assessment, formal and informal, is the window into knowing our students.” Using the information gathered through these assessments to guide instruction is essential if our students are going to grow as writers.
One option is to use the whole rubric for pre- and post-assessments. Then, once learning needs are identified, relevant sections of the rubric can be used as an interim assessment tool to monitor the students’ progress toward their learning goals. Some teachers have found that this works for them; others are not yet convinced.
I know many of you have grappled with this same issue. I’d love to hear if anyone has any other solutions.
My husband and I recently attended a live performance of the NPR show, Radiolab. Titled “Apocolypto,” the thread tying the stories together was endings. The first story the hosts, Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, told was about recent research on the extinction of the dinosaurs. Previous theories proposed that the dinosaurs died off slowly from starvation because the debris-filled atmosphere prevented sunlight from sustaining plant life, thus disrupting the entire food chain. Based on new evidence, some scientists now hypothesize that the dinosaurs were wiped out in a cataclysm of fire that lasted only a few hours. The sights and sounds that accompanied this tale of death and destruction made it seem even more horrific.
This got me thinking about cataclysmic change. We don’t handle it well. Indeed, it is often deadly. Recent events bear this out: whole neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey are gone because of Superstorm Sandy, the recent floods in Colorado, wildfires throughout the West, earthquakes in Japan and other parts of the world. The list is long. People do recover from these events, but it takes time. These disasters leave both internal and external scars. The people and the landscapes are changed forever.
I feel like the world of education is in the midst of a cataclysm. CCSS, SBAC, and SEED (Connecticut’s acronym for our new teacher evaluation system) are causing huge upheavals across the country. Teachers are doing their best, just as they always have, to keep a steady focus on their students and what they need to learn and succeed. But it’s not easy. Every day it seems like there is some new demand that drains more time and energy away from our students.
But times of cataclysmic change and natural disasters also bring out the best in people. Communities come together to help and support one another as they get back on their feet. We have to remain supportive of each other as we navigate these changes. Instead of feeling like those dinosaurs on that really bad day eons ago, we should feel like we are part of the creation of a better education system for all children.
The physical world is in constant flux, and it’s an illusion to think that the day-to-day world of our lives is any different. Our survival depends on the attitude we bring to those daily challenges. Radiolab’s final story that evening was about two actors, both diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at about the same time. Rather than let their disease get the best of them, they teamed up to perform Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame. Their determination not to be crushed by their disease allowed them to overcome its devastating effects.
We can’t let ourselves be crushed by the changes we face. We have to go to school each day and support each other as we combine what is good about these new initiatives with what we know is best for students. That is how we can evolve and flourish in the aftermath of this cataclysm.
“Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.” ~ Blaise Pascal
Last spring, at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion, Lucy Calkins urged the thousands of teachers gathered at Riverside Church to be supportive of our colleagues and to treat one another with kindness through this tumultuous time in education.
The importance of maintaining this kind of positive attitude is being felt in schools across the country this fall. In Connecticut, where I teach, the state’s new teacher evaluation system is being rolled out this year. Teacher’s are now required to have five goals: two Student Learning Objectives (SLO’s), one Professional Growth Goal (linked to the Connecticut Common Core of Teaching Rubric), a whole-school goal linked to last year’s state assessment results, and a goal related to feedback from a parent survey. These have to be submitted by October 15. Needless to say, this is causing some stress.
And yet, as I meet with my colleagues each day to work on these goals, we feel a sense of accomplishment. As we read through writing samples, we learn more about our students and our writing goals become clear. We read and reread the standards, and our understanding deepens. Our unit plans begin to take shape, and we realize that we can do this. We are doing it. Together.
My colleagues and I have been thinking about how we are going to adapt our instruction to meet CCSS Reading Literature standard Nine (Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches authors take.) I have always tried to link texts thematically whenever possible, but in Connecticut, our state test has had an inordinate emphasis on text-to-self connections for years. So this standard is causing us to rethink some of our curriculum.
I think this is a very good thing, as there is plenty of evidence that reading multiple texts on the same topic and pairing fiction and nonfiction texts helps students build a stronger knowledge base. So we’ve been creating text sets to support our reading units of study. For example, we’ve selected a variety of titles around the main theme of each unit so students have an independent reading book of their choice that has a similar theme to the short story or novel being read in class. For the past week or so, I’ve been reading and rereading several books we’re thinking about adding to our collection.
In the spring, the 8th grade will study the Holocaust in social studies and English/language arts. In the past, students have read the play, The Diary of Anne Frank. We haven’t made all of our choices yet, but so far have added The Book Thief to this unit.We want to include nonfiction as well, so last weekend I read Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. (Scholastic Nonfiction, 2005) This is a powerful book. Parts of it were difficult to read, but Bartoletti does an excellent job of creating a clear picture of how Hitler manipulated the young people of Germany to his purposes. Using extensive primary sources and photographs, readers experience life in Germany from the rise of the Nazis in the early 1930s to the end of the war and beyond. Bartoletti also includes the story of several teens who realized the Nazi leaders were lying to the German people. They tried to warn others, but were arrested and executed. An epilogue tells readers what happened to the young people whose stories are told throughout the book after the war, and there is an extensive bibliography. In 2006, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow was named a Newbery Honor Book, a Siebert Honor Book, and an Orbis Pictus Honor book for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.
Bands of partisans fought against Hitler throughout Europe, and many of these brave men and women were teenagers. Allan Zullo has collected their stories in We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust. (Scholastic, 2012) This book has many gripping accounts of the harsh conditions the partisans endured, especially during the winter, and the dangerous missions they undertook in their attempts to break the Nazi war machine. There are notes about the lives of these resisters after the war, as well as recommendations for reading more about each individual.
Although it isn’t about the Nazis, we will probably include Ruth Sepetys’s Between Shades of Gray in this unit, as there are so many similarities between Lina’s story of persecution and deportation in Soviet Russia under Stalin during World War II and what was happening in Germany and much of Europe at the time. If you haven’t read this amazing book, add it to your list today. In the meantime, you can learn more about it here.
It’s not easy to have the courage to stand up for what you believe in, for what what you know is right. We Fought Back: Teen Resisters of the Holocaust and Between Shades of Gray offer readers inspiring portraits of young people who fought against governments who denied their basic humanity. Reading these books in conjunction with Hitler Youth will give readers plenty of opportunities to build their knowledge and discuss this terrifying time in world history.
There are many other excellent books that would fit in a unit on the Holocaust. What titles do you include in similar units? How are you addressing standard nine?
For the past six days, I’ve worked with an amazing group of teachers making revisions to our writing curriculum. The dedication and passion these men and women brought to this work made my job of facilitating much easier. I feel good about what we accomplished and know that these teachers all feel prepared to launch the writing workshop in their classrooms next week.
We still have so much work to do, but thanks to the Units of Study developed by Lucy Calkins and her colleagues at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, we have a good grasp of the process and new expectations. Everyone is excited for school to start so we can begin working with students and help them become capable, confident writers.
Teachers often ask me about the purpose of the writer’s notebook. They are uncomfortable with the idea of letting kids write about a self-selected topic. They want to know what they’re supposed to do with this writing. Do they grade it? Does it have to become a story or some other kind of a polished piece. I always explain that no, this writing is not graded. It doesn’t necessarily have to become something else.
Because of these questions and the discomfort some of them have with writing itself, I began our work days by giving the teachers time to write. Some days I offered a photograph or piece of art; some days I shared one of Corbett Harrison’s Sacred Writing Time slides. It was interesting to watch how the teachers reacted to the prompts and how they worked. (I did write, also.) But the real revelations came when the teachers shared their writing.
Everyone had approached the task from a different angle, an angle that was meaningful to them. Some were surprised by the direction their writing took. Others were grateful for the opportunity to sit quietly and be reflective after a hectic morning trying to get to school by eight o’clock. We talked about the importance of giving our students choices about their writing and about the importance of feeling comfortable enough to share our work. We all agreed that going through this process ourselves would help us as we guide our students in the weeks to come.
The most valuable insight for me came from what I wrote this morning. Harrison’s slides always include whatever “National” day it is. Today happened to be National Radio Day. This made me remember a record album of old time radio programs that my mother used to listen to when I was little. Like links in a chain, this thought led to other ideas, which led me to an insight about a character in a story I’ve been writing this summer. This cascade of memories reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Ratatouille, when Anton Ego takes his first bite of the dish Remy and Colette have lovingly prepared for him.
Why wouldn’t we want our students to have this same kind of opportunity to see where their writing takes them? Who knows what they might discover about themselves?
More Jane Yolen, of course! After highlighting just 10 (well, maybe a few more than 10) picture books by one of the most prolific authors ever for Picture Book 10 for 10, I can’t stop reading (and rereading) books by Yolen.
One of her more recent volumes is a book of poetry, co-written with Rebecca Kai Dotlich. In Grumbles from the Forest: Fairy-Tale Voices with a Twist (Wordsong, An Imprint of Highlights, 2013; illustrated by Matt Mahurin), Yolen and Dotlich use fifteen well-known fairy tales as a spring board for pairs of poems that let the characters speak for themselves. Snow White has her say, as do Gretel and Goldilocks. There are also poems that give voice to supporting characters, such as the the Wicked Fairy from Sleeping Beauty, who admits she “should’ve read/that page on tips.” While some of the poems do have a humorous tone, others reveal the dark side of the fairy tale. Beauty’s isolation is tinged with sadness as she wonders “what sounds children/might have made/running across the marble halls…”
These poems are naturals for reading after reading the original tale. Anchor Standard 9 of the CCSS states that students will “analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to compare the approaches the authors take.” At many grade levels, students are expected to use fairy tales, myths, and legends for this purpose.
In a note to their readers, Yolen and Dotlich also urge their audience to “try writing a fairy tale poem yourself [and] make a little magic.” By “juggling different perspectives,” students will develop a deeper understanding of characters who, in many retellings, are often no more than stereotypes.
Of course, there are numerous versions of these tales that do adopt the point of view of a character who doesn’t usually have a voice. Since the huge success of The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka (Viking Press, 1989; illustrated by Lane Smith) these “fractured fairy-tales” have become their own sub-genre. There are also other poets who have given a voice to favorite fairy tale characters. Marilyn Singer has written two books of reversos, pairs of poems which use the same words in reversed order to present the perspective of two different characters. Singer’s poems in Mirror, Mirror (Duttons Children’s Books, 2010; illustrated by Josee Masse) and Follow, Follow (Dial Books, 2013; also illustrated by Josee Masse) are similar to Yolen and Dotlich’s as they have humor but don’t shy away from the hard lessons these characters have learned. Masse amazingly repeats this feat in her illustrations.
Grumbles from the Forest and both of Singer’s books will be best understood by students in third grade and up. Why should they have all the fun? Mary Ann Hoberman’s You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You series has a collection devoted to fairly tales, Mother Goose, and Aesop’s fables that are perfect for sharing with younger readers.
Sadly, I’m no longer surprised when students arrive at school not knowing these classic stories. My library, though, is well-stocked with classic versions of these stories, as well as many of the fractured variety. I share them with students every chance I get. I believe Yolen is absolutely correct when she wrote in Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, (August House, 2000) “that culture begins in the cradle…to do without tales and stories and books is to lose humanity’s past, is to have no map for our future.”