DigiLit Sunday: Agency


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. Please be sure to visit her there to read more Digilit Sunday contributions.

When Margaret suggested the word agency as our topic this week, my first step was make sure I was using the term correctly. This Merriam-Webster definition confirmed my working ideas about agency:

“the capacity, condition, or state of acting or exerting power”

The next day, a teacher came to me with concerns about one of her students. The teacher felt that Anna (not her real name) wasn’t decoding well or understanding what she read. The teacher had administered a Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment, which indicated that Anna was reading in the instructional range for her grade level expectation. Because it’s still early in the year, and this assessment had just been done, the teacher really hadn’t tried anything to address her concerns. But it was clear she wanted something specific from me—an intervention, a strategy, anything that might improve Anna’s reading behaviors.

I was at a loss. The information shared by Anna’s teacher was so general, and none of Anna’s previous teachers had ever expressed concerns about her. So I suggested that I come in to visit and read with Anna so I could get to know her better and understand the teacher’s concerns.

Arriving in the classroom during independent reading time, I noted that Anna was intently reading a book that looked like an appropriate choice. I observed her for several minutes as she read. She sub-vocalized in some spots, used her finger to guide her in others, and seemed completely engaged with the book.

After about five minutes, I went over to her and asked her to tell me about her reading. She did a fine job retelling what had happened in the book so far. Then I asked her to read the next page to me. She didn’t hesitate and read the first line fluently and expressively.

Just as I was wondering why there was such a disconnect between what the teacher had observed and what I was seeing, Anna stumbled. “Cloud giants” became “could grants.” This made no sense, and she knew it, so she stopped and looked at me.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about Anna. Everything I had seen suggested that she did have agency when she read. She was reading an independent level text independently and with understanding. She even knew that meaning had broken down for her and she stopped. As we know, many students would have just plowed ahead!

When she said, “that doesn’t make any sense,” I praised her for noticing that and asked her what she could do. She knew that sometimes rereading helped, so she tried that. When that didn’t work, she tried looking for a smaller word she knew. She found “ants” in “giants,” but because she didn’t know (or wasn’t sure about) soft /g/, this strategy didn’t help. I asked her what else she could try, but now she was truly stumped. Her go-to strategies hadn’t helped, and there were no visible supports in the classroom to help her.

Anna did roll up her sleeves!

I noticed that the picture held a lot of information that might help her, and she hadn’t even glanced at it. After I reminded her that sometimes readers use the illustrations to help them, she took one look and the light bulb went off. She went back to the text and read it easily. We talked about what she had done to figure out the unknown words, and she told me that using the pictures was a strategy she would use the next time she came to new words.

I’ll talk with Anna’s teacher about using anchor charts to support growing readers.

Now I was feeling a little frustrated. It wasn’t Anna who didn’t have agency. She was doing the best she could with the skills she had. But there were supports that should have been in place for her that weren’t. Where was the anchor chart for this reading unit?  And why hadn’t her teacher already had this conversation with her?

I began to wonder if I had provided too many scaffolds for Anna’s teacher in the past. Had I swooped in too quickly when she came to me with questions about students? But isn’t that my job as a literacy specialist? 

This is the tip of the iceberg for my work with Anna’s teacher. By sheer coincidence, yesterday I watched Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan’s session about listening to and learning from our students as part of The Educator’s Collaborative’s Online Gathering. (If you missed this, go there now and watch as many sessions as you can.) They confirmed what I had done when I sat down with Anna. “Every single day, when we slow down and get to know the people around us, that’s data.” But sitting down with Anna not only helped me get to know her, it gave me insight into how I can work with her teacher to develop her agency. Watching Clare and Tammy’s session together will be our first step. I anticipate many many follow-up conversations, and I’ll be sharing more about our work together in the future.

Slice of Life: Close “Reading” in Kindergarten


Be curious always! For knowledge will not acquire you; you must acquire it.

~ Sudie Back ~

It’s hard to believe NCTE was almost a month ago! Amidst the chaos of the holidays, I’ve been reading books snagged in the Exhibition Hall (thank you, publishers!), reviewing my notes, and sharing the wealth of knowledge I gained from the terrific sessions I attended.

I was lucky to get into Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, and Kristi Mraz’s standing-room-only session, CLOSE READING AND THE LITTLE ONES: HOW IT’S DIFFERENT (AND INCREDIBLY FUN AND EFFECTIVE) IN EARLY ELEMENTARY GRADES. With their characteristic blend of common sense and humor, these three inspiring educators shared routines K-3 teachers can use to capitalize on the natural curiosity of kids.

Chris, Kate, and Kristi pointed out that close reading in these early grades is akin to close study, or observation, “something that little ones are doing already.” Giving students opportunities to engage in close observation accomplishes many goals that support young learners, including opportunities to talk to others about their ideas. It also encourages students to “open up” their thinking through “meaningful, enjoyable experiences”

Close reading is only one part of “a balanced diet of reading instruction” that should

  • serve a specific purpose
  • focus on details in high success texts
  • allow kids to discover new meaning through carefully looking at details

Adapting the paradigm for middle and high school readers Chris and Kate laid out in their book Falling In Love With Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013) for young readers resulted in this structure, or instructional routine, which should be repeated so often that it becomes a habit, which leads to independence.

Photo courtesy of Fran McVeigh
Photo courtesy of Fran McVeigh

Kristi, Kate, and Chris emphasized that this close reading isn’t about teaching kids how to read, nor should everything be read closely. Rather, this routine is about “teaching kids a way of looking at a text or an image or an object so they can develop ideas about it.

This makes so much sense! I was excited to get back to school to share this thinking with my wonderful Kindergarten colleagues. Using Kristi, Chris, and Kate’s ideas about “close looking,” we designed an object study that coordinated with the Kindergarten’s current unit on the animal kingdom AND laid the foundation for daily close observation. As Kristi so wisely pointed out, “If you want to do strong work in reading, you have have to do strong work in other places.”

So we began by closely observing seashells. I modeled the cycle by looking closely at a shell, pointing to its surface and saying something about the color. Then I thought more about the color, and added more details about the variations of color on the shell. The kids couldn’t wait to get their hands on a shell to observe with their partners.

photo 1

Soon the room was filled with the hum of the children’s voices. They talked about the colors and the shapes and the textures. They noticed that some shells had bumps on the outside and others had spikes. They ran their hands along the smooth surface on the mouth of the shell and wondered why the texture was so different from the top of the shell. And they talked about the sounds they heard when they held the shells to their ears.

When we came back together so the kids could share their findings, it was clear they had developed some “big ideas” through their observations. Several children mentioned protection and camouflage when they talked about the colors of the shells or how hard they were. They all wanted to spend more time with the shells, comparing them and “getting to know [them] better.”

This is work we will return to daily. There are countless opportunities for close observation throughout the day, opportunities for kids to look at the world and say     “Wow!”

Thank you, Chris, Kate, and Kristi, for sharing your insights and pushing me as a teacher! Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Why Poetry?

Chris Lehman recently invited teachers to join him in an online poetry workshop, TeacherPoets. He also invited people to respond to the question “Why poetry?” Many smart, insightful responses have been shared here. How to answer this question without restating what so many have already contributed? I decided to read through a few of my favorite poetry resources and create a found poem (some lines are slightly altered to work in the sequence).

By Phyzome is Tim McCormack (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons
By Phyzome is Tim McCormack (Own work) , via Wikimedia Commons

Why Poetry?

Feel in touch with that universal rhythm.

Lift the veil from the hidden beauty of the world;

Find the mystery in everyday things and objects.

Rekindle a latent sense of wonder.

Have a good eye and a sharp ear.

Find your own voice.

Discover the perfect word for your purpose.

Use fresh imagery that rattles the senses and

Some wordplay that makes it sparkle.

Group them together in a shape or rhythmical structure.

Poems hum,

The breathings of your heart.

And words are nets to capture

The secrets you didn’t know you were keeping.

Here are the authors and sources of these lines, in order:

Lillian Morrison, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

Robert Farnsworth, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Joyce Sidman, “Touching the World: The Importance of Teaching PoetryRiverbank Review, Spring 2002

Karla Kuskin, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Michael Dugan, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Mary Ann Hoberman, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Nikki Grimes, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Jane Yolen, Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft; Writer’s Digest Books, 2006

Lillian Morrison, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003

Julie Larios “Playing with Poetry

William Wordsworth

Muhammed al-Ghuzzi, “The Pen

Robert Farnsworth, Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko; Candlewick Press, 2003




SOLC 2014: Finding Gold in the Classroom


“The text awakens associations in the reader’s mind, and out of the mix, meaning is created.”

~ Kylene Beers & Robert E. Probst ~

Like many of you, I have been working with my colleagues to teach students to read more closely and gather evidence to support their thinking. I am thankful for the work of Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts in their book Falling in Love with Close Reading, Vicki Vinton on her blog, To Make A Prairie (I’m embarrassed to confess that her book, What Readers Really Do, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, is still in my TBR pile.), and Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst, for helping us in this endeavor. 

Last week, I mentioned sharing King 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.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Poetry Friday: The Secret


I finished reading Christopher Lehman and Kate Robert’s new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading (Heinemann, 2013) last week. Kate and Chris have done a terrific job articulating the elements of close reading. At the same time, they encourage teachers to be purposeful about using close reading strategies. Close reading is not something to be done on every page of every book. Their main point it that close reading should be done when there is a deeper understanding to be gained.

All week I’ve been thinking about the application of these ideas in the classroom. I have been looking at texts differently since reading Falling in Love With Close Reading. Noticing patterns I might have skimmed over in the past, or asking myself, “I wonder why the author chose that word.” All this thinking reminded me of “The Secret” by Denise Levertov.

The Secret

by Denise Levertov

Two girls discover

the secret of life

in a sudden line of


I who don’t know the

secret wrote

the line. They

told me

(through a third person)

they had found it

but not what it was

not even

what line it was. No doubt

by now, more than a week

later, they have forgotten

the secret,

the line, the name of

the poem. I love them

for finding what

I can’t find,

Read the rest of the poem here.

“Two Girls Reading”
Pierre-Auguste Renoir [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Please visit Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference for the Poetry Friday Round Up.

Poetry Friday: Love after Love


Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman have just written a new book, Falling in Love With Close Reading. For the past seven weeks, they have been hosting a blog-a-thon to celebrate their book’s publication. Last week, Kate’s contribution on her blog, Indent, was about closely reading her life. She shared a few the insights and revelations she gained by spending one day being truly observant of her actions and reactions. One of her statements resonated with me:

“Chris and I believe that the skill of reading our world closely allows us to live richer, more beautiful lives.”

This line made me think of an episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being which featured an interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn about the science of mindfulness. At the end of the interview, Zinn shared this poem.

“Love after Love”

by Derek Walcott

The time will come

when, with elation,

you will greet yourself arriving

at your own door, in your own mirror,

and each will smile at the other’s


and say, sit here. Eat.

You will love again the stranger who was

your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life…

Read the rest of the poem and learn more about Jon Kabat-Zinn here.

Only through knowing ourselves can we be open to the love of others and fully love them in return. Thank you, Kate and Chris, for reminding me of this. Thank you for helping me find my way back to this poem. For poetry is all about reading our world closely. Poetry allows us to live richer, more beautiful lives.

Be sure to visit Cathy Mere at Merely Day by Day for more enriching poetry.

Slice 2013 9 of 31: My Day at Teachers College Saturday Reunion


This morning, I left my house at 5:30 and drove to Teachers College at Columbia University for their spring Reading and Writing Project Saturday Reunion. I spent the day with thousands of dedicated teachers soaking up the wisdom of the amazing presenters. Because I am now quite tired, here is my day in pictures.

The sky was just beginning to lighten when I pulled out of my driveway.
The Nave of Riverside Church when we arrived.
People choosing which sessions to attend as the Nave fills up.
Katherine Patterson begins her keynote address, “The Richness of Creation”
“In this bleak time, what our children need is beauty.” Katherine Patterson
Chris Lehman urging us to use our literature instruction to build social emotional skills.
Elizabeth Moore modeling how to use demonstrations and experiments as the basis for shared or interactive writing.
Brooke Geller explaining how to immerse students in articles to prepare them for a research-based argument essay unit.
I was so excited to meet fellow slicer Melanie Meehan at Brooke’s session. She was sitting right behind me!
Amanda Hartman reading Seymour Simon’s Super Storms during her session on deeping students’ comprehension of informational text.
During her closing remarks, Lucy Calkins urged us to treat each other with kindness as we weather “the perfect storm” that is about to hit education.
Last stop, Bank Street Bookstore!

As you can see, Saturday Reunions are an incredible experience. I learned so much today! You can also explore what others learned by checking out the #TCRWP hashtag on Twitter.  Thank you to Lucy Calkins and everyone at Teachers College for a fabulous day!

Thank you to Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers for hosting this Slice of Life Challenge!


Poetry Friday: Something Told the Wild Geese

ImageAs I was walking my dog this morning (thanks to another no-power day at school), a flock of geese flew overhead. “Something told the wild geese…” came to mind immediately. It is a typical November morning here in western CT: low, gray clouds, a light, chilly breeze and trees that are mostly bare. So even though the weather isn’t exactly like that in the poem, it still seems like a perfect poem to share today.

Something Told the Wild Geese

by Rachel Field

Something told the wild geese

It was time to go,

Though the fields lay golden

Something whispered “snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,

Berries, luster-glossed,

But beneath warm feathers

Something cautioned “frost.”

All the sagging orchards

Steamed with amber spice,

But each wild breast stiffened

At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese

It was time to fly,

Summer sun was on their wings,

Winter in their cry.

Although I’ve never “taught” this poem, I’ve had a poster of it hanging in my classroom many times. Today, rereading it with the CCSS in mind, this poem seems tailor-made for the second grade Reading Literature standard: “Describe how words and phrases (e.g. regular beats, alliteration, rhymes, repeated lines) supply rhythm and meaning in a story, poem, or song.” The repetition of the word “something” adds an element of mystery. What is this force that’s urging these geese away from the golden fields and summer sun? Vivid verbs personify the inescapable coming of winter in a way students will easily relate to at this time of year. (At least here in the northeast.)

I would begin a discussion by asking simply, “What’s going on in this poem?” As Calkins, et.al point out in Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012), “…the absolute first order of business (Reading Literature Standard one) is that students need to be able to grasp what a text actually says and suggests.” (p. 39) Letting the students gather the details that point to autumn is excellent practice in inferring. I’d also ask the kids what questions they have, and hopefully they’ll wonder about “sagging orchards.” If not, pointing to this line and asking “What would make the orchards sag?” will get them thinking about trees heavy with fruit.

This poem also offers wonderful opportunities for vocabulary learning. The demands aren’t heavy, but “luster-glossed” and “amber spice” are marvelous phrases and are perfect for discussions of word choice. (Language Standard four and five)

A Google search turned up at least two different musical versions of “Something Told the Wild Geese” and many performances of the Sherri Porterfield tune. I prefer this clip, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6sRIYcTNMhg sung by a group of very talented fifth graders. Repetition of “winter” at the end of the song offers a chance to discuss why the musician made the decision to emphasize that word.

I’m anxious now to share this poem with our second graders next week. I have some other ideas about how to follow up the discussion of the poem and song, but want to try them out with the kids first. I’ll share the results of our work next week.

For those of you who were affected by Sandy, I hope you’re lives are getting back to normal.