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.

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
Image courtesy of

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.

SOLC 2014: The Halfway Point


“Have the spirit to try things that feel hard.”

~ Kate Roberts ~

We are halfway through March, which means we’re also halfway through the daily Slice of Life Challenge. Like many of you, I questioned the wisdom of committing to a daily blog post. Writing in my journal regularly is one thing. Composing a piece worthy of other people’s valuable time on a daily basis is another.

One reason I worried is that, since September, I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing every day. I made dozens of excuses for not writing more often, most of them pretty weak. But after writing daily for two weeks, I’ve noticed a shift in my brain. My thinking is clearer and I’m more observant because I’m writing every day.

Early last week, when I was working on the haiku I shared yesterday, I went through an old journal looking for the entry where I first wrote about the snow being the field’s counterpane. Instead, I found this, from February 2000: “I think I’m too afraid to find out how awful a story I would write, so I don’t write one.”

Fourteen years later, I’m not afraid anymore. Thanks to many people, I “have the spirit to try.” I know that writing something bad isn’t the end of the world. It’s only the beginning.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for hosting the Slice of Life Challenge and helping me have the courage to write. 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.

Routines, Writing, and Excellence


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

Phil Jackson was interviewed on NPR about his new book not too long ago. He talked about the importance of practicing the fundamentals of basketball and how his teams  always started practice by working on the nuts and bolts of the game. Jackson related this to a story about Pablo Casals, one of the greatest cello players ever. When asked about his playing, Casals stated “I go through my fingering for an hour before I start playing a piece of music.”

This got me thinking about the fundamentals of writing. I don’t think we give students enough time to really practice the basics or build stamina for writing. We need to be more mindful of our established routines and ask ourselves “Is this activity/assignment helping the students become better writers?” If the answer is no, then we need a different routine.

The importance of keeping a writer’s notebook/journal has been underscored for me recently. For the past week, I’ve been participating in TeachersWrite! by responding to daily prompts. Some of this writing had nuggets taken from my journals, thoughts I’d jotted down without any specific purpose. Giving our students time to write each day about what interests them gives them the opportunity to practice the fundamentals in an engaging, meaningful way. Who knows what nuggets they’ll come up with when given the opportunity.

Providing our students with a daily opportunity to write about topics of their choice has the added benefit of getting them to think like writers. Since I’ve been writing regularly, I find myself observing the world differently. Telling students that they should see the world with “wide awake eyes” (Did Lucy Calkins write that? I can’t remember where I read it.) and actually getting them to do it are two different things.

A daily writing routine, one that offers students a period of time to just write, whether they respond to a prompt, take that prompt in their own direction, or just write about what’s on their mind, is critical if we want our students to be writers. Not just effective writers, but passionate writers. Writers who learn about themselves and the world through writing.

After I first heard the Phil Jackson interview and started drafting this post, I got side-tracked by work. In the meantime, Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts posted “The Do-Re-Mi of Writing,” a thoughtful and practical piece about students improving their writing by having them go through their “scales,” just as musicians do. Be sure to read their terrific post.

Maria Popova also recently wrote about the importance of habit in “The Pace of Productivity and How to Master Your Creative Routine” on Brain Pickings. She gives lots of examples of famous creators, their daily routines, and the excellence they achieved through habit.

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