From September, 2013

Embracing “What Makes you Say That?”

Moving from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” is a large, and at times uncomfortable, proposition.  I don’t think any teacher would argue, however, that the best learning takes place when students are at the center of the classroom taking an active, rather than a passive, role.

So how can a teacher begin the process of creating a student-centered classroom?  I would propose that the first shift happens within.  It is about being curious and maintaining a sense of wonder as an educator.  It is about asking questions when one does not already know the answer (as teachers so often do- myself included).

So many times in a classroom conversation, the teacher already knows what the “outcome” of every question “needs” to be.  When a student gives an “incorrect” answer, it is not explored.  When a student pauses to think, the teacher often fills in the holes.

Silence is uncomfortable.  Ambiguity is confusing- to everyone.  Not just in classrooms, but in life.

I am proposing a shift, however.  What would happen if every time a student gave an unexpected or interesting answer (or even any answer at all) they were asked the question, “What makes you say that?” and someone really listened to and cared about the answer?  Not because he or she wanted to see how it was wrong, but because they were curious and wondered what was happening in the mind of that student.  What would happen if everyone became a little more comfortable with silence?  How much knowledge could be gained about the ways students think?  About new perspectives?  How much more valued might students feel?

Note: “What makes you say that?” is a primary focus of Harvard Project Zero’s Visible Thinking research.

Close Reading and “Gist” Statements: What’s Important Here?

Giving the “gist” of complicated matters is not always easy.

I worked with Jillian Walters this week to do a close reading on an article about Treacher Collins Syndrome to provide a context for students to better understand the character of Auggie in the book Wonder which students are reading for their English classes.  The article dealt with scientific information about the disease including its symptoms, causes and treatments, and the first stage of the reading consisted of the “gist” statement.

To begin, we had students highlight the “important things” in the text before working in pairs to write a statement together.

One of the things we noted as students were working was the variety of highlighting methods.  While some students highlighted almost everything, others only had a few things underlined.  Then, as they worked in pairs, we also noticed there was some variety in the information included in the one sentence statements.  Here are examples they created:


This lead to a conversation with students about how to choose what is important from the text.  Walters asked students to share how they decided what to highlight and made this list on the board.


We also discussed text features that might have led students to recognize important elements (such as titles and bulleted lists).

Students then came and wrote their “gist” sentences on the board.  The end goal in doing this was to look at the commonalities and differences.  In the other classes, we used these to build a common “gist statement” together based on evidence in some of the text features.

This entire process and the reading took about thirty minutes.  We had yet to even begin the vocabulary and question readings.

This brings me to a point about close reading: it takes time.  However, the long-term benefits in thinking are worth it.  Students learn comprehension skills, determine how to make meaning from complicated texts, examine vocabulary in context and answer worthwhile questions.

Here are the resources used in the lesson:

Beyond Narrative Arc: Exploring Intentional and Emotional Arcs in Literature

Exposition, rising action, climax, resolution; students have probably studied these narrative elements since elementary school.

However, Melissa Larisch found a resource published by a William Kenower about the use of the emotional and intentional arc.  While this idea was originally intended to explain what author’s should do when writing narrative, some teachers at North (including Sam Bosse) have been using it analyze literature, providing a deeper focus for understanding the nuances of the narrative structure.

As teachers used them, the narrative arc describes the physical action of the piece, the emotional arc describes the emotional development of each of the characters (there may be multiple of these), and the intentional arc describes how the author relays their “deeper purpose” or theme to the audience.

Bosse and I also discussed the possibility of an “arc” for the reader’s response that could be added to this.

In his classroom, groups of students were given one of the three arcs to map out for “To Build a Fire” and put up on the board for comparison and (see below).


These arcs might allow students to “dig deeper” into the text and examine how these different narrative elements interact with one another.  In addition, in accordance with CCS, a teacher might ask student to create arcs for multiple themes and see where and how the themes interact with one another.

I am excited to use this analysis tool in other teachers’ classrooms and explore it further.

Here is a link where you can download a file on the different types of narrative arcs mentioned.

Poetry uses the Left Brain: Creative Writing, and Research?


By digitalart, published on 05 August 2011 from

When one thinks of creative writing, he or she might imagine it as a “right-brained” activity with little room for the analytical aspect of the mind.

While this is sometimes the dominating perception, it is far from the reality.  To expose students to the true nature of the professional writer’s craft, there will almost always be some discussion of how “left-brained” activities, like research, come into play.

I watched Carrie Eneix’s class have a discussion over The Secret Life of Bees a few weeks ago, and we planned a unit of study that began with students being exposed to the type of research Sue Monk Kidd did for the book and analyzing examples from the text.   It was inspired by the following quote by Kidd describing how she went from knowing “not much at all” about bees to writing a book where they are a primary focus.

“I began my bee education by reading lots of books…  I discovered bees were a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth.  I will never forget coming up with medieval references which associated the Queen Mary with the queen bee…  Books couldn’t tell me everything I needed to know about bees, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina.  Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked…  I experienced when the hive was lifted.  I became lost in a whirring of bees.  So many, I could hardly see.  The scent of honey drifted up, the bee hum swelled…”

Taken from “A Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd” in the introductory materials for The Secret Life of Bees.

Here were the learning targets for the lesson:

  • —I understand how authors’ use short and sustained periods of research for a variety of purposes.
  • —I can identify the types of purposes (to add specificity, develop metaphors, and enhance imagery) for which an author might use research.
  • —I can utilize purposeful research in a variety of mediums to meet specific purposes in my  own writing.

The first two were targets of the specific lesson for the first day, and the third was a long-term goal by the end of the project.

On the introductory day, students were given three categories for which an author might do research.  Here are the slides we discussed for those:

Reseach for Specificity jpeg Research to Develop Imagery jpegResearch to Develop Metaphor jpeg

After we discussed the types, then we looked at passages from the text and analyzed them in two ways:

  • What research might Sue Monk Kidd have done to gather the information (book, video, primary source etc.)?
  • For what purpose (to add specificity, develop metaphor or enhance imagery)?

Here are some examples of those:

Research in Creative Writing EX 2 Research in Writing EX

Students wrote from where the research might have come and to what end it was used, and we discussed each one.  This entire concept is new to most students, and there was no definitive answer, so this was something with which they struggled.  However, they were provided with other models and examples later in the unit which I will talk about in an additional post.

On this same day, they were given their assignment.  It was the following:

  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that focuses on a “self-selected” community that becomes a “family” or provides a sense of belonging to its members to positive or negative ends.  This is not a personal narrative, so choose one that will provide a venue for research.     
  • Examples/possible options: a tribe (at any point in history), gangs, immigrant communities, fraternal orders (Freemasons for example), religious communities (such as Amish or Mennonite), communes, cults etc.    
  1. A short narrative (250 words or less) or a poem (approximately 25-50 lines) that is based upon an insect/animal as a metaphor for some larger idea and is built on the real-world aspects of that creature to develop the metaphor.  
  • Examples/possible options: butterflies, a type of fish, lion, polar bear etc.- really any living creature but humans

Ultimately, students would be presenting these pieces of writing to the class.  More to come on this later.

Here are the resources we used for the lesson:

Why the “Wind Whispers”: Abstract Concept to Concrete Language Lesson

Students can most times identify figurative language in someone’s writing, and they can often state what is being compared and described; however, they sometimes struggle with the question of why and how authors make specific choices about the language they use.

To this end, I worked with Melissa Larisch and Sam Bosse on a lesson designed with the following learning targets:

  • I understand how writers use figurative language and imagery to relay an underlying theme or a tone and what effect these tools have on the overall piece and the reader.
  • I can use concrete details to represent an abstract idea.
  • I can choose important details and appropriate metaphors to enhance the development of tone and theme in my own writing. 

These learning goals were established for two reasons.  The first was that while reading “Rules of the Game,” both teachers noticed consistent recognition of the figurative language Amy Tan was using, but a lack of understanding as to what purposeful effect these tools had on the reader.  For example, the wind is used as a metaphor throughout the short narrative.  Students struggled to understand why at points the “wind whispered” to Tan, as opposed to “shouted” or “barked.”

To this end, we compared how the same metaphor was used in different contexts for different purposes.

Here is an example:

Abstract to Concrete Example jpeg

The second reason for the lesson was the desire of both teachers to enhance their students’ ability to make thoughtful language choices in their own writing using Amy Tan as a model.

For this second goal, we began by brainstorming “abstractions” together.  Then, students were given a random object on a card and asked to use descriptive and figurative language to make that object represent the abstraction.

Before students began, the teacher modeled the writing by creating one together in class with students.  The object for the example is a moldy orange, and the abstraction it represents is “forgotten” or “forlorn.”  The class brainstormed descriptive language to use in the paragraph and then thought through the process together to do the actual writing while the teacher prompted them with questions (see resources for examples) and typed the piece.

This part of the process can be a little “messy” because it is impromptu; the teacher is as surprised as the students about what develops.  However, this also allows students to see the thinking process behind the writing, especially as the teacher reads the work aloud and revises it with students.

Model Paragraph

Both teachers continued the lesson the next day in interesting ways.  Larisch had her students share their writing aloud to a partner and had the partner guess the abstraction it represented.  She told them if they could guess it or get close, they had done a good job.  If not, they needed to revise.

Bosse had his students post the pieces of writing on Edmodo (more to come about the later) and respond to one another via posts.  His students also had to guess the abstraction represented in the writing.

Larisch reported that her students were eager to share their writing with one another, and they willingly read aloud to the class after the lesson.


“Zoom In” with Leslie Harris

Leslie and I worked together on the “Zoom In” strategy using the same content and goals as I had used with Laura Laborde.  However, I have streamlined the process, and I think it works a little better as listed here.  In addition, I tried using the same image and “zooming in” on another part.  The strategy seemed to flow better with the image this way.

Here is the updated version:

1. Introduce 3-2-1 Strategy and complete for “injustice”

2.  Have students get out a piece of paper and put up the first Power Point slide for the image.

Zoom 2 Crop 1

3. Write down notes for what you see in the image

4.  Discuss

5.  Write down any questions you have about the image

6.  Discuss

7.  Write down what you think the image means

8.  Discuss

9.  Reveal the next part of the image

Zoom 2 Crop 2

10.  Write down new things you see in the image

11.  Discuss

12.  Write down any new questions you have about the image

13.  Discuss

14.  Look back at what you think the image “meant” the first time and revise where your thinking has changed

15.  Discuss

16.  Complete the process until the entire image is revealed

Zoom 2 Crop 3

Zoom 2 Crop 4

17.  Discuss how students thinking about the image changed throughout the process.  Consider how these skills will translate to texts:

  • Looking closely and carefully at texts- individual words, phrases, sentences.
  • Looking at chunks of the text and forming a flexible hypothesis as one is reading.
  • Stopping to ask meaningful questions and seeking to answer them as one is reading.

A couple of notes about this.  I am learning that the 3-2-1 strategy is a difficult concept for students to grasp and needs to be explicitly taught, discussed and practiced to be effective as a measurement of students thinking.  I think this is ok, but time is needed the first time it is introduced in order for students to understand the concept and expectations.  I would be interested to see how it works once students have had this experience.

Here is the Power Point I used with Harris: Zoom for Leslie Harris

Lord of the Flies Part II: CCS Conferences with Students

Previously mentioned, Susan Turley gave a diagnostic assignment in which students were asked to present about a theme in Lord of the Flies in small groups.  These presentations were to gauge students current levels in a variety of areas including: writing, speaking and listening and analysis of literary and non-fiction texts.

After the presentations, Turley gave each of the students a copy of the CCS for grade bands 11 and 12.  Students then sat down with their group members, combing through the standards and assessing the presentations to see which standards they had addressed, missed or mastered.  They used the following scale to mark next to the standard:

  • + : Mastery
  • check mark : Did it
  • check mark – : Tried it
  • – : Not addressed

After students had discussed the standards in groups, the designated “project leader” sat in the inside of the two concentric circles of chairs in the classroom.  They were asked to share a “mastery level” standard and discuss “what they felt they had done well” to capture evidence of this standard.  They were also asked “Why they felt they had done this well.”  Afterward, they were prompted to share, “Where they felt they fell short.”  Turley reviewed her notes as students shared and gave her feedback.  She also asked prompting questions to the other students such as:

  • What do you all think?
  • Does anyone disagree?

Ultimately, Susan asked the group what grade they would give themselves on the project for the final outcome, stressing the fact that this information was to explore their own reflection and not utilized by her to determine a final grade.

Lord of the Flies Part I: Diagnostic Projects

Following up on Susan Turley’s work with Lord of the Flies in her Honors Thematic Studies 12 class, students gave fifteen minute group “diagnostic” presentations relaying a theme from the book this week.  The products had to display the following components:

  • Analysis of Literary and Non-Fiction Texts: Students analyzed the text within their groups via their own ideas and a scholarly article provided by Turley
  • Writing: Students could choose to write in any form about their theme (This could be via Power Point, essay, song lyrics etc.)
  • Speaking and Listening: Student presentations had to have the following components: an attention grabber, an overview of their analysis, and a summary/conclusion
  • Product: Students created a physical representation of their theme and analysis; see the pictures below as examples:

IMG_1330IMG_1333  IMG_1328 Lord of the Flies Student Project

This initial project was built upon the students’ summer reading assignment, the content for which the class had already been tested.  Functioning as a diagnostic to assess current levels of performance in a range of areas, students were not given much guidance in regards to the final vision they should be presenting.  Instead, they were allowed the opportunity to address the standards and expectations in their own way.  The diagnostic created a “building point” for future areas of improvement and a summary of current strengths.

In addition to this functioning as a gauge for Turley to consider current levels, students were also given an opportunity to be reflective about their own learning using the CCS after they had presented.  I will be writing about these CCS conferences in a second post about this project.

“Testing” in this different format is interesting.  In the literature and educational conversations I have been a part of, diagnostics often take the form of “pencil and paper” tests which are often lacking in student engagement, but why does this have to be?  Are there ways to explore the potential of students where they might even surprise us in how they fulfill the standards?

This reminds me of a speech used in my classroom, Randy Pausch’s “Last lecture” given at Carnegie Mellon.  In it he describes his class Building Virtual Worlds.  The first project he gave had few parameters for what the “worlds” students would create needed to “look like.”  He stated in his speech, “The kids said, ‘Well what content do we make?’ I said, ‘hell, I don’t know. You make whatever you want. Two rules: no shooting violence and no pornography.'”  He was concerned with programming skills they were acquiring- not set outcomes.

He explained how the very first project defied all his expectations.  The bar had been set very high for the rest of the year; but he would not have known that without giving the students permission to try and freedom to engage.

Close Reading: Additional Resources and Text-dependent Questions

Over the next two weeks, I will be presenting in a PD for both of the high school English departments on close reading.

One of the things I have grown to appreciate about the process is how it leads students to create meaning from the text for themselves without the interpretation being managed by the facilitator of the classroom, thus creating a student-centered experience with the text that supports critical thinking.

One of the major premises of the close reading strategy is that teachers do not front load the text any more than absolutely necessary.  Another is that any information that is given should not be able to be found in the text itself.  This increases the amount of time students spend engaging in the text while in the classroom.  It also allows them the opportunity to “struggle” with the text to discover meaning.  A third premise is that the majority of questions asked of students should require a close analysis of the text itself; furthermore, the questions should eventually push students beyond the text to search for what is implicit.

In preparation for the PD, I have been doing some additional research and have found some worthwhile resources.  One I like is a blog by Timothy Shanahan, a professor at the University of Illinois who specializes in reading.  He provides a thoughtful context for thinking about different types of “text-dependent” questions to meet separate purposes each reading.

He states, “…close reading is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means.”

Here is a summary of the process he describes for building questions and exploring the text on different levels:

  1. Reading one: figure out what the “text says;” this is purely comprehension based
  2. Reading two: figuring out how “the text works;” this focuses on what the author was doing to accomplish his or her goals
  3. Reading three: figure out what the text “means;” this focuses on “going deeper” and asking questions about: the value of the author’s perspective, the skill or artfulness with which they delivered the information, and the connections students can build between this new text and others things they have read in the past

Here is a link to a blog post he wrote that provides a summation of the close reading strategy.  This second link is to a Power Point about close reading by the same source.

Harvard’s explanation of the close reading strategy is a little different, but equally as interesting.  It is also very student-directed and seems like a clear way to explain what a student should do when planning an analysis for longer, as well as shorter, pieces.

1.  Reading one: Read the text “with a pencil in hand” and annotate.

2.  Reading two: Look for patterns in the annotations from the first reading, specifically “repetitions, contradictions, similarities” in the text.

3.  Question the patterns noted, specifically, ask why and how.

4.  Reading three: Look back at the text and try to answer the questions generated in step three.

Here is a Close Reading Overview with an explanation of “reading shifts” and additional resources for these shifts.

Socratic Seminar: Organization and Surface Features

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Socratic Seminar

Ellie Wiseman conducted a Socratic Seminar in her AP classes this week where students were asked to study the writerly skills used by Rebecca Skloot in the text The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Her handout reads, “The book is an example of what good writers do.  We should take it as an example text to follow when we write; therefore, we are going to analyze the book in multiple ways, and we are going to do so in Socratic Seminar format so we can build on one another’s knowledge, ideas and insights.”

The seminars lasted for four days and focused on the following areas, one each day:

  • Rhetorical Situation where students discussed: exigence, audience, and purpose
  • Appeals and Tone where students discussed: appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos
  • Organization and Surface Features where students discussed: organization, diction, imagery, and figurative language
  • Narrative Techniques where students discussed: dialogue, setting, structure, pacing, description and multiple plot lines among other factors

Each day, students in the inner circle were “speakers” who answered and extrapolated on predetermined questions and the one’s on the outer circle were “listeners” who took notes which they turned in to the teacher at the end of each period.

The day I visited, they were discussing “organization and surface features.”  Students analyzed the author’s choice to utilize a chronological story with, in a student’s words, “blasts from the past” interspersed through the text.  Students supposed that when there was a flashback or shift in chronological structure, it was to show how the past affected what was happening in the “present” of the book.  Others suggested that the shift in time structure was utilized to emphasize important plot or character elements in the text.

The conversation I heard directly related to the CCS about pacing, multiple plot lines and narrative structure in a very organic way.

In addition, analyzing the writerly choices of published authors provides a wonderful context for students to study what “real writers” do and why they do it in order to improve their own writing.  It is a relevant way to examine a text beyond critical analysis for literary themes.

Here are some additional resources:

  • Here is Rebecca Skoot’s website with numerous resources for teachers studying the book with students.
  • Here is a source about the use of mentor texts and prompts for better student writing: Deeper Writing: Quick Writes and Mentor Texts to Illuminate New Possibilities by Robin Holland.  The mentor texts are sometimes based in form and sometimes theme, but they always provide a wealth of inspiration.  I have had the pleasure on numerous occasions to write based upon Robin’s prompts and mentor texts, and it is always an engaging and revealing experience for me.  Holland taught at the elementary level, but even her picture book choices are often challenging in regards to theme and inspiring in regards to writing style; she uses many of them with adults as well as children.
  • Here is a link to Holland’s blog.  She provides many useful resources to educators of students from kindergarten through high school.  I especially enjoyed, or was touched by, this post which gathered texts based in the theme of death and dying.