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!”

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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: 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.