A Slice of My Summer Learning Journey

“Learning is a journey; art is a map”
~ Tom Lee ~

One frustration I often have after attending workshops or conferences during the school year is that when I get back to school, I’m immediately caught up in day-to-day demands. This leaves little time to process and implement what I’ve learned. Presenters always advise to “pick one strategy or activity” to weave into your practice, but this too can be a challenge. So I’ve loved having some uninterrupted time to process my learning from the four days I spent at the Yale Center for British Art, which I wrote briefly about here

I’ve also been reading Vicki Vinton’s wise and thought-provoking new book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (Heinemann, 2017). The reverberations between Vicki’s book and my learning from YCBA are striking. Having met Vicki, attended many of her sessions at conferences and reading her book, written with Dorothy Barnhouse, What Readers Really Do, this really didn’t surprise me.

As I reread my notes, some overarching ideas stood out:

  • possibility
  • observing
  • thinking
  • understanding
  • skill development

I created a document with five columns, sorting my notes according to these ideas. I quickly realized that I was “tackling complexity” by “putting the pieces together, rather than taking them apart, [which allowed me] to see connections, relationships and patterns of interactions.” (p. 4) It was deeply satisfying to see these relationships emerge.

Vicki’s underlying argument is that, in our rush to scaffold our students for success, we have deprived our students of opportunities to engage in critical thinking. They need many opportunities to engage in “productive struggle…the process of thinking, making sense and persevering in the face of not knowing exactly how to proceed” (p.13).

Visual literacy teaches children that, as Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education at YCBA, pointed out  “images have an underlying narrative.” They automatically provide an accessible text that allow students to engage in productive struggle. Images allow students to think “for themselves, with a minimum of scaffolding.” (Vinton, p. 27). Reading images develops the same skills readers need when they read any text, including vocabulary, identifying key details, precise word choice, observation, and formulating and defending a thesis. (What Vicki and Dorothy refer to as “first-draft” thinking). Importantly, visual literacy makes abstract comprehension skills more concrete.

By incorporating visual literacy into our regular literacy routines, we create opportunities for students “to wonder, generate questions, and form hypotheses, then to test out those hypotheses, using reasoning and logic, to arrive at a final judgment or claim” (Vinton, p. 37).

Give it a try. What do you see in this painting? Images such as “The Young Anglers,” by Edmund Bristow, offer students a chance to orient themselves to the narrative of the image, just as readers have to orient themselves when reading  written text.

Edmund Bristow, 1787–1876, British, The Young Anglers, ca. 1845, Oil on panel, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

After observing and gathering information, students share their thoughts. Just as with a piece of writing, students’ ideas have to be grounded in the details of the painting. Again, the process of reading a painting parallels and supports what we do when we read a book. If someone says they think the dog above belongs to the two boys, they have to share the exact detail from the painting that makes them think that. This is a critical step. As Vicki states, “the more opportunities students have to talk about their thinking, the more likely they are to transfer that thinking from one text to the next” (p. 77). This is true for images as well as written texts, and will also transfer from images to written texts.

Once students have developed an understanding of the narrative of the painting, the response options are limitless. Students can sketch or draw their response, write about their thinking, or (ideally), both. And, just as writing deepens our understanding of a text we’ve read, sketching deepens our understanding of visual images by drawing us ever deeper into the fine details.

The possibilities incorporating visual literacy into our classrooms are endless, and I’m excited to get back to school and working with students to build their thinking skills. In the meantime, I’m going to finish reading Vicki’s book and continue gathering images that will “give [students] a chance to build up the muscle to deal with the problems texts like this pose” (p. 79). 

Thank you to the incredible educators and speakers at YCBA, including Jaime Ursic, Patti Darragh, Tom Lee, James Shivers, and Darcy Hicks, for your insights on incorporating visual literacy in the classroom.

Intent: The Teacher I Want to Be…


This post is part of “DigiLit Sunday,” hosted by Margaret Simon at Reflections on the Teche. This week’s topic is INTENT

“What we learn with pleasure we never forget.”
Alfred Mercier

Photo by Tina Floersch, via unsplash.com
Photo by Tina Floersch, via unsplash.com


These words echoed throughout the rooms at the Sable Oaks Marriott in Portland on Saturday. Teachers from around New England and beyond gathered to learn from superstar educators Ralph Fletcher, Tom Newkirk, Vicki Vinton, Kathy Collins, Matt Glover, Jeff Anderson, and Katie Wood Ray, among others.

At the end of a panel discussion about a trip to the Italian school Reggio Emilia and the book which grew out of that trip, The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching, Kathy Collins invited us to complete this statement: The teacher I want to be…

Here is my response to Kathy’s appeal:

I want to be a teacher who grows passionate, joyful, independent learners. A teacher who, in the words of Thomas Dewey, gives students “something to do, not something to learn; and when the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results…”

I want to my students to be curious and observant.

I want them to be thoughtful readers who understand that reading is about more than answering questions about the main character and his problem. I want them to understand that when we read, we learn about ourselves, our lives, the lives of others, and the world around us.

I want to be a teacher who gives my students time to think and write about what they want to think and write about. I want to give them the time and tools they need to follow their thinking wherever it leads them.

I want my classroom to be a greenhouse where students thrive and see possibilities in themselves they hadn’t ever imagined.

I also want to be a teacher who can rise above the day-to-day frustrations that could distract me from this goal.

I want to be a teacher who doesn’t let demands and pressures of the inevitable changes in standards, assessments, etc., deter or sway me from this vision. In the words of Katie Wood Ray, I want to make myself  “as smart as I can be about my work so that I can articulate” my beliefs.

This vision is one I’ve strived to fulfill through all my years of teaching. Thank you to all the wise, passionate educators at NERA whose words helped me express these ideas. Thanks to them for also showing me how this vision can become a reality.

SOL: Knowing and Wondering With Fifth Graders


I’ve been a fan of Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse’s “Know/Wonder” chart since I first discovered it on Vicki’s blog a few years ago. Since then, I have read and learned much from Vicki and Dorothy’s book, What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann, 2012). If you aren’t familiar with Vicki & Dorothy’s book, a Know/Wonder is a simple tool students use to chart their thinking as they read.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend the day at the Educator’s Institute in Rhode Island and hear Vicki speak about comprehension. She focused on ways we can help students think deeply about complex texts independently. I always feel like I gain new understanding when Vicki shares her ideas. She articulates her thinking about reading comprehension in such a way that I say, “Of course!”

     51MGRQ28D0L._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_     51TzuMPYTPL

Earlier this week, I took Vicki’s advice and got “kids involved doing the thinking right from the get go.”  After a very brief introduction, I began reading The Fourteenth Goldfish (Random House, 2014), by Jennifer L. Holm, to a group of fifth graders. The first chapter generated a number of unanswered questions. The narrator isn’t named, and there is only one clue as to whether it’s a boy or a girl.  We find out that the goldfish who just died is really goldfish number thirteen. “So why is the book called The Fourteenth Goldfish?they wanted to know. Right away, they were:

  • gathering information
  • asking questions
  • making predictions
  • thinking about the plot—which has to come first in order to be able to problem solve for deeper understanding—both at the inferential level and the thematic level

In Vicki’s words, they were engaged in a “productive struggle” to make sense of this book.

Engagement is key. How often have you shared a book that you absolutely love, only to find that your students don’t love it? We take it personally, right? Vicki reminded us that “kids have to be engaged with their thinking about a book, not our love of it.”

So book choice is important. Vicki suggested that it isn’t Lexile levels that make a text complex; “texts are complex because they interact in unpredictable ways.”

Unpredictable things happen in the first three chapters of The Fourteenth Goldfish, but because students were engaged and were charting their thinking, a chorus of “I KNEW IT” erupted spontaneously at the end of one revealing chapter.

I will be working with these students over the next week or so. We will continue to “pay close attention to the details,” and develop ideas about this book. Once we have done that, we can start the next phase of this work by looking for patterns. Then we can “develop a line of inquiry” from these patterns and follow it as we continue reading.

Vicki ended her talk with a reminder that “kids can notice a lot if we open the door for them to notice.” Who knows where their thinking will lead us?

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: Opening Doors


I spent the day yesterday at the Rhode Island Convention Center where The Teaching Studio at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island, held their 2nd Annual Educators’ Institute. Hundreds of teachers spent the day with noted educators Vicki Vinton, Cornelius Minor, and Sharon Taberski, learning new ways to improve their practice.

Opening doors to new possibilities was a thread that wove its way through all of the wisdom shared by Vicki, Cornelius, and Sharon. I’m excited to return to school tomorrow and talk with my colleagues about some of these ideas. Today, I want to share a peek inside those doors that were opened for me.

Vicki Vinton shared her latest work, which centers around three strands of meaning making: comprehension, understanding, and evaluation. Vicki talked about how we can help kids “make their thinking visible through a handful of simple charts,” and she urged us to share books that are accessible and “get kids involved doing the thinking right from the get go.” For those of you who don’t know Vicki, she is co-author with Dorothy Barnhouse of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making and shares her brilliance regularly on her blog, To Make a Prairie.

During lunch, Cornelius Minor, a staff developer at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, talked about empowering kids to be the superhero of their own lives. He urged us to get rid of the idea of “my kids can’t…” because “we are the people who say the awesome things that help kids be awesome.” We have to respect kids and find ways to give them “a chance to live in text that is compelling and sustaining.” He cautioned us to be patient with this process, that learning is messy, and that kids will not get it right the first time. But through a cycle of doing, feedback, and encouragement, they will accomplish great things.

In the day’s final keynote, Sharon Taberski, author of On Solid Ground and Comprehension from the Ground Up, shared “Five Ways to Grow Critical, Engaged Thinkers.” Sharon urged us to “embrace the workshop model and its abundant opportunities for both balance and differentiation.”  She reminded us that brain research shows that both explicit instruction and time to practice are critical if students are to master the skills they need to be independent readers, writers, and thinkers. Sharon also emphasized the need to “let the students do the heavy lifting” and to teach kids to be “purposeful and strategic.” Finally, she talked about aligning our “belief systems about teaching and learning” with our goals for student learning and to design our classrooms in ways that are physical manifestations of what we value.

Each of these keynotes and the breakout sessions presented by Vicki, Cornelius, and Sharon deserve their own post. But each opened a door in my mind, and I’ll be thinking and writing more about these ideas in the weeks to come.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

Slice of Life: Books Worth Rereading


One of my favorite features of The New York Times Book Review is the “Bookends” column. Every week, two authors (from a group 15 journalists and novelists) “take on questions about the world of books.” These questions are varied and wide-ranging. Recent columns have addressed everything from “Why Do We Hate Cliché?” to “Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?”  I’ve been thinking about this week’s question, “which books do you read over and over again?” since I finished reading the column.

I was not a voracious reader as a kid. I did read and love Charlotte’s Web and James and the Giant Peach, and I’m sure I reread them. But I don’t remember reading them to the point where I had passages memorized or the books fell apart. Columnist Dana Stevens clarifies this distinction in her response to “which books do you read over and over again?” when she says “there’s rereading a book, and then there’s inhabiting it as an alternate reality…”

This is where the power of reading lies. It’s through this habitation that we truly begin to, as Dorothy Barnhouse and Vicki Vinton suggest in their book What Readers Really Do, “think about how those lessons and ideas might impact and inform our own lives.” (p.183) While we do have these kind of transformational encounters with books as adults, it is the books we read as children that often have the largest impact on our lives.

But I don’t think this kind of habitation necessarily happens without help. Many kids do find that life-changing book on their own, but more often, they need our help and guidance. In order to help with this, we need to know books and our students. We need to foster the kind of interactions with books that, as Dorothy and Vicki also state, “gives us an opportunity to give voice to the way that text let us feel validated and less alone. And naming that for children allows them to go forth with more awareness of the role books can play in their lives.” (p. 180)

The list of books with the power to change lives is as long and varied as children themselves. But there are a number of books that turn up again and again on lists of transformational books. I would include anything by Kate DiCamillo on such a list, although The Tale of Despereaux and The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses are my favorites. Pam Muñoz Ryan, Christopher Paul Curtis, Sharon Creech, and Jack Gantos all have written books that have the power to change young readers lives. And this year’s Newbery Medal winner,The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander is the latest wonderful addition to this list.

In her Newbery Acceptance speech for The Illuminated Adventures of Flora and Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo explained that everyone involved in making books for children has “been given the sacred task of making hearts large through story. We are working to make hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world.”

Books that do that are books worth rereading.

Thank you to StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth for this space for teachers and others to share their stories each day during the month of March and on Tuesdays throughout the year. 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 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.