Close Reading in the Workforce #CloseReading Blog-a-thon

The current iteration of Close Reading was born of the Common Core Standards, and the Standards are designed to support college & career readiness. What close reading looks like on the college level seems clear. I am imagining students pouring over snippets of Virgil or Faulkner, analyzing word choices, subtle changes in tone and mood, and searching for evidence to support emerging themes. 

Moreover, even though the Common Core Standards do not necessarily emphasize the importance of life-long reading, in addition to close reading in college, I can imagine what close reading might look like in an adult’s reading life. When I asked James, one of the people I interviewed for this post, about close reading for his career, he needed some time to consider what this might look like. But he was able to tell me immediately about his personal close reading. He adores Jorge Luis Borges, and says he must read snippets of Borges’s writing multiple times in order to begin to grasp it. He reads once just to get the lay of the land, then again to notice patterns, and often only on the third read does he begin to read to get a sense of the text’s internal logic.

But what I struggled to visualize is what close reading looks like in the workplace. When I am working in primary grade classrooms, it sometimes strikes me that I cannot imagine what these children will be when they grow up, nor can I imagine what jobs will even exist. Instead of training students for jobs, we must train them for the transferable skills they will need for future success. As Tony Wagner posits in the Global Achievement Gap, the abilities to conduct analysis and weigh evidence, skills that are developed by close reading practices, are tantamount to future success. He writes:

“Thus, work, learning, and citizenship in the 21st century demand that we all know how to think—to reason, analyze, weigh evidence, problem solve. These are no longer skills that only the elites in a society must master; they are essential survival skills for all of us.”

With this in mind, I interviewed family members, colleagues, and friends with a range of careers about their reading practices in the hopes of uncovering some universal ideas about close reading. Below are brief descriptions from some particularly interesting conversations.

James, Senior Director of Strategy, Branding Consultancy

In branding, which is related to marketing and advertising, close reading might involve pouring over case studies multiple times, first to get smart on a client or a field, then to consider the kinds of evidence the text contains that might support a particular idea or theme, then possibly to look for bits of insight to color an approach to a pitch or a presentation.

Or, close reading might involve multiple reads of one’s own or a colleague’s work, first looking for diamonds in the rough – hidden gems that might spark new ideas, next looking for quotes that might turn into a message the presenter wishes to convey, and perhaps another time, considering structural elements that would work well in the final presentation.

Jennifer, Attorney 

Lawyers spend thousands of hours pouring over various documents again and again as part of preparing for cases. According to Jennifer, lawyers read the vast majority of documents multiple times, searching for the following:

  • the validity of a document and whether it should be admitted as evidence
  • evidence to support one side or the other
  • flaws in the author’s logic
  • sections that might evoke an emotional or otherwise charged response in a jury

Tom, Hedge Fund Manager

Tom’s daily reading often involves closely scrutinizing short texts, such as news articles related to his current holdings, looking for subtle clues that signal shifting trends that might affect major decisions. As he reads, Tom often considers the article’s source and any motivations the author might have for presenting information in a certain way. Tom also studies filings done by companies that are planning mergers, first reading to understand the terms of the merger, then re-reading to look for ways in which the merger might affect his holdings or to collect evidence he can bring to investors to support deals he is working on.

Some patterns I am beginning to notice about close reading in the world:

  • The vast, vast majority of close reading in the workplace is informational.
  • Multiple reads of a text often are driven less by an outside suggestion of what to look for and more by the reader’s changing goals, uses for, or understanding of the content. Readers often return to texts with very specific lenses once they have studied and developed more knowledge about the text’s topic.
  • Readers often consider an author’s stance on an issue or topic and the author’s purposes for creating the text during at least one reading.
  • Time sometimes passes between reads of a text: days, months, or possibly years.
  • There is often a place where information and ideas extracted from a close reading of a text will go, perhaps a meeting, presentation, report, one on one discussion, etc. At the very least, there least an audience and purpose in mind when conducting close reading.
  • Readers choose the texts they will closely read to suit their needs.

Whether or not the reading experiences described above fall under current definitions of close reading, I am uncertain. However, I am certain that studying how people read and re-read portions of texts closely in their professions has taught me much about the implications of close reading as a life-long skill. I am also certain that I will need to continue to study close reading in the world. In their highly-anticipated, soon-to-be-released book Falling in Love with Close Reading Kate Roberts and Chris Lehman suggest that close reading isn’t just a tool to study texts, it is a tool to study life. The requisite cocktail party small-talk opener,  “So, what do you do?” will now take on a whole new meaning for me. 

As I await my copy of Kate and Chris’s book, and as I consider what close reading will look like in my own teaching practice, I will keep in mind some of what I extracted from studying close reading in the workforce. Close reading instruction, like all good instruction, should aim to teach skills that are transferable to future experiences, both long and short term, and skills that will serve students well always in their lives, career or personal.

             close reading button

Beyond Outlines: Launching a Note-Taking Curriculum in the Content Areas

Note-taking has many connotations. When you think of note-taking, you might imagine this:

Or even this:


As with instruction in other areas, we often bring to note-taking instruction our own experiences, however grand (or limited) they might be. I admit, I am not the best note-taker. It’s not that I don’t take notes. Quite the opposite. I take copious notes, when I’m reading, when I’m taking a class, sometimes even when I’m watching a documentary. Recently, I took two-day intensive childbirth course with my husband. I ended up with pages and pages of notes, many of them nearly verbatim transcriptions of what my instructor said. My problem is not capturing information in my notes. My problem is using my notes as a way to sort through what really matters and what doesn’t. Take, for example, this page from my notes:

childbirth notes

You can see I scribbled down essentially everything the instructor said, with a minimal amount of organization or hierarchical categorization.

My husband, James Cockerille, inspires me in many things, including note-taking. He uses a variety of note-taking techniques and strategies. He plans each part of the page wisely. Many of his notebook entries look like little works of art. What’s perhaps most important about his note-taking is that he takes in information, digests it, synthesizes it, and presents it in such a way that it becomes his own, and not just a restatement of what he has heard or read.

Here is a sample from his notes. He took notes digitally at our class, so I snapped these from one of his notebooks, but they provide a sense of the way he thinks:

James Notes

Establishing a note-taking curriculum can be a powerful way to encourage deeper understanding about a topic, synthesizing across one text and/or several texts, and growing ideas about information. Here are some considerations for getting started.

Establishing a Baseline: Note-Taking Assessment

The best instruction starts with meeting kids where they are, and instruction in note-taking is no exception. As a way to determine what your students already know about note-taking, it is helpful to give them an informal assessment toward the start of the year. First, choose a passage – even a couple of paragraphs will do. You might want to choose a passage on a topic you plan to study, but this is not necessary, though of course it makes sense to choose a passage in the genre kids will mostly be reading across the year in your class (expository nonfiction, i.e.). What is most important is that you choose a passage that kids can read with a high level of accuracy, because, of course, it will be difficult to assess what kids know about note-taking if they can’t read the text you give them. You may want to say something like, “Read the following excerpt. Take notes in the best way you know how so that you understand the information and ideas in the text.”

If your class is anything like mine, you might notice some common note-taker archetypes:

  • Minimalist note-takers: Kids who jot down only a few phrases and facts
  • Partial note-takers: Kids who take thorough notes on some portions of the texts but not others
  • Kitchen-sink note-takers: Kids who jot down anything and everything
  • Personal reflection note-takers: Kids whose notes are only loosely based on the text and veer widely into the realm of their own thoughts about the topic (Note: some reacting to the text is wonderful, but note-takers should also be sure to capture the big ideas from the text itself.)

In addition to paying attention to the content of your students’ notes, it is helpful to also pay attention to the structure. Most students without a great deal of experience with kinds of note-taking will default to making lists or writing in paragraphs, often copying from the text, sometimes word for word. While these forms of note-taking certainly have their place, there are a myriad of ways to teach students to take notes that can support synthesis, analysis, and finally, true ownership of the content.

Sharing a Vision: Setting Goals and Defining Progress

As a way to set a vision right from the start for what good note-taking looks like, study some examples of notes that exemplify the kind you hope your students will be able to create by the end of the year. Many wonderful examples can be found online, done by famous note-takers, such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Ben Franklin. It is great fun to study these examples as a way to launch note-taking work.  However, to set a vision and goals, it makes sense to stick with note-taking samples that are within reach of those your students can create. The below excerpt from Alexander Graham Bell’s notes is an example that may be somewhat more attainable.

agb sketch


Of course, you can also use samples from previous years, or your own note-taking samples. In fact, the latter work very well because you can write and show the exact kinds of notes you hope your students will create.

My students and I studied some sample notes I had collected from previous years, as well as some that I had created for the occasion. Together, we identified four note-taking lenses that would use to set goals:

  • Understanding
  • Choosing Kinds
  • Ideas
  • Neatness and Organization

Of course, I did plenty of heavy-handed guiding to nudge students towards these categories. (Credit note: I leaned heavily on thinking that came out of a group on note-taking I was in with the brilliant Kate Roberts, Chris Lehman, Audra Robb, and Brooke Geller. For great note-taking tips, see Chris’s inspiring book Energize Research Reading and Writing.)

Next, we made a rubric that students could use to assess their own note-taking. This is a first-draft of the rubric, and I expect that it will continue to evolve as the year progresses.

note taking rubric

Launching: Starting with a Strategy with a Powerful Impact

In note-taking, as in many things, it is highly motivating for kids to feel they are making tangible progress right away. There are a few note-taking methods that have a huge impact on the quality of kids’ notes (and thinking!). One such method, encouraged by Kathleen Tolan and TCRWP colleagues as a way to launch content area note-taking, is sketching. In Unit One, Grade 4 of TCRWP’s content area curriculum, currently available to affiliated schools, they write: “When students translate words into images, they are forced to monitor their own understanding and actively process the information they are learning, versus copying down words verbatim without processing them.”

One of the very first teaching points in your note-taking curriculum can be that note-takers use sketch notes as a way to hold on to ideas or images. Demonstrate with a read aloud or shared text how you use sketches to envision descriptions, to understand a process, or to remember lists of information. Then, send students off to try this work as they read. You might want to consider having them revise the notes they took in the earlier assessment, translating these notes into sketches. Then, have them compare the two versions of notes to consider ways in which sketching helped them to understand the text or grow ideas.

As a way to begin thinking about your own note-taking curriculum, you may want to study yourself as a note-taker. Do you typically default to one way of taking notes? How do you use your notes after a learning experience as a way to make meaning?

Watch this space for more on note-taking. I would love to hear your realizations about note-taking as the year progresses.

Teaching Tolerance and Celebrating What We Have Created: Some Thoughts for September 11

I was torn about how best to approach September 11 in classrooms. On the one hand, this day, now known as Patriot Day, is an important one to remember. It is seared into our national memories and has become part of our psyche, a painful, painful moment that brought us to our knees and in some heartbreaking way united us then and unites us still. On the other, many children we teach were not yet born when this day happened. Why dredge up an uncomfortable past, one that these children don’t remember, and that to most adults around them, is still raw? Further, I wasn’t sure what I believed was an appropriate way to address the day. Somehow talking about the buildings coming down and the aftermath, or even rehashing my own experience of that day in a classroom in New York City didn’t feel quite right.

And then I thought: This is one reason I believe so much in history education. To strive for a better future than the past. Hence my middle of the night quest to find an appropriate way to address September 11, and this middle of the night post.

As I was searching for clarity, I came across a list of lesson plans for grades K-12 curated by the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Two themes stood out in particular as I perused the list:

  • Celebrating and shining a spotlight on what we have created, not what was destroyed
  • Teaching tolerance and accepting differences, no matter which group of people is considered the “other”.

Following are some lesson ideas that address these themes.

Celebrating landmarks in our communities with a read aloud. Me and Momma and Big John by Mara Rockliff is a beautiful picture book about the building of the Cathedral St. John the Divine in New York City. Some lines from the beginning of the book:

Momma’s first day on the job, she comes home late, trudging up the stairs as if they laid that heavy stone right on her shoulders. She is grey and ashes, from her headscarf to her boots. Even her bouncy beaded earrings have gone dull as dirt.

And from the end:

I think about the hands that worked on every stone until it was exactly right, knowing that it had to hold up all the rest. Knowing that it had to last a long, long time. Then I think of all the people who will come together in Big John. Not for an art to look at. For an art to be.

What a beautiful way to celebrate construction, not destruction. There are many buildings across our country, in every community, that were built with love and care and that serve to bring people together. This book honors those buildings and the men and women who built them. The read aloud could follow with a discussion of the important buildings in children’s communities and the ways in which those buildings are unique and enhance the lives of the people who use them.

Teaching tolerance and accepting differences with a read aloud. There are many, many lessons that aim to teach tolerance. Of course, our society continues to be rife with racial tension. And, of course, racial tension played a role in the 9/11 tragedy. Racial intolerance may feel too huge an issue to address in one lesson, with one group of children. But by aiming to teach tolerance and acceptance, and by discussing small ways in which children can take a stand against injustice, we are planting seeds for the next generation to be better. More tolerant, more accepting, and less likely to cultivate the beliefs that led to an event such as 9/11. It’s easy to think, someone else was responsible for September 11. It’s not us who should learn tolerance. But tolerance starts with each of us. The more we contribute to a collective belief that differences are to be accepted, not stamped out, the more we can create a world in which living together peacefully is possible.

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles is about a young white boy, Joe, growing up in the American South in the 1960s. His best friend is John Henry, an African American boy. Joe and John Henry ignore the racial tension that surrounds them until a mandate that leads to the filling in of a local pool makes this ignorance no longer possible. John Henry finally gives voice to his hurt and anger, and Joe must decide whether to take a stand for his friend. This book shows that tolerance starts with each person, and each of us can work toward a more accepting society, a world in which events like 9/11 are fewer and farther between, just by taking one action.

I wish for all of you a safe, reflective September 11, and I wish for all of our children a future where a day such as that one never happens again.

Note: These ideas were adapted from lessons that can be found here and here.

Image           Image

The Content Area Read Aloud: Cross-Genre Skill Integration

shadbush         The iroquois englar cover

This year, I am teaching social studies for the first time in quite a while. That isn’t to say I haven’t been thinking about social studies. I have been studying it, talking about it, writing about it, in short, obsessing over it, for several years now. This obsession has taken the form of instructing at several Content Area Literacy Institutes for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, helping to author the Project’s new content area curriculum, presenting workshops on Writing in the Content Areas, and co-authoring Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the new Units of Study for Writing series. But all that aside, I had to wonder what would happen when I was charged with actually teaching social studies three times per week. Could I put all of my lofty ideas into practice?

These were some of the questions plaguing me as I sat in front of a blank google doc the other week, attempting to plan my first day. Where should I start? Should I be thinking about content (what my students need to know in order to start learning about Native Americans of New York State), or should I be thinking about constructs (what methods will best reach them one day one)? Then I remembered one of the most important principles of workshop teaching: begin by studying yourself as a reader and writer. Where would I begin a new study as a historian? Personally, I would start by reading about the big picture. But of course, workshop teaching is so much more than just asking students to do what we would do. We have to break down huge tasks into small, surmountable steps. I couldn’t just hand my students a book and say, “have at it”.  Further, I couldn’t just model what kinds of books historians read, I had to model how historians read when they are just beginning a study. Often, historians read several texts on a broad topic in order to get a lay of the land. I decided there would be no better way to model this kind of reading than with a cross-text read-aloud.

Richard Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers that one of the top reasons readers abandon books is that they are not able to envision what is happening in the text. This is just as true for content area reading (the bulk of which is nonfiction) as it is for reading literature. So I decided to begin with a goal of bolstering students’ skill in envisioning, with a secondary goal of building background knowledge. I chose When the Shadbush Blooms by Carla Messinger with Susan Katz, a lovely picture book about a young present-day Lenape girl who connects with her past through the seasons, and The Iroquois: The Six Nations Confederacy by Mary Englar.

My teaching point:

read aloud envisionment chart

I began with When the Shadbush Blooms, and modeled how I used the text to envision the actions and surroundings that the little girl was describing, then how I used what I was imagining to spur some thinking about what I was learning. Then, I guided students to try the same work, telling a partner what they were envisioning and what they were learning. At the end of the read aloud, I modeled for students how I put together some of the details we had learned – such as: the Lenape often ate what they grew or caught – to come up with larger ideas about what I was learning – such as: the Lenape have an important relationship with nature. I invited the students to talk in partnerships to try the same – putting together some of the details they had learned into larger concepts. Finally, I invited students to join each other in a whole-class conversation, sharing some of these ideas into the group. While students talked, I captured some of what I heard them saying in an idea web. (Side note: I decided to model this kind of note-taking as a way to plant the seeds for future note-taking experiences to come, more on that topic soon.)

Lenape idea web

Though I kept the conversation brief, as I found students’ stamina for whole-class conversation to be at about five minutes (for more on talk stamina, see my previous post), from this charting, the students and I were able to see how much real information they had gleaned from a picture book and a brief amount of discussion.

Next up: trying the same work with an informational text. I read few passages from The Iroquois by Englar, modeling and then inviting students to try the same strategy process as before. Of course, envisioning the text can be more difficult in an informational text. To support students in transferring this skill, I chose passages that were similar in content to some of the concepts that are explored in the picture book – for example, passages that described jobs of men and women, and ones that described ways in which the tribe gathered food.

We added some of the students’ new thinking to the web.

iroquois lenape idea web

Finally, we compared the ideas we had come up with after reading the two texts, annotating similar categories and starring ideas that seemed particularly important.

iroquois lenape web annotated

A thoughtful (albiet brief) discussion ensued, about gender roles and how these might translate in the students’ own culture, and about the similarities between the two tribes’ approaches to living from the land. Students tried to imagine present-day New York as the place where Native American tribes such as the Lenape and Iroquois depended on the nature around them in order to survive, laying the groundwork for a concept that is central to the Unit of Study.

Some big ideas about cross-text read alouds:

  • It is not necessary to read whole texts, or huge sections of texts. In fact, carefully chosen snippets of texts often work best. Researchers often read short excerpts of texts in conjunction with one another to corroborate what they are learning. It is perfectly acceptable to model how to do this with a read aloud.
  • You can model several skills at once with a read aloud. Note-taking is a perfect skill to model in a cross-text content area read aloud. Keep in mind that a major purpose of read aloud is to model skills and strategies that are just beyond what students can do on their own.
  • It’s not too early in the year to start with skills and strategies that feel lofty, such as reading across texts or taking notes in a web format. By modeling skills such as these early in the year, you are showing students that they are attainable, and you are also setting the groundwork for skill development along higher trajectories of learning.

The First Days of School: Laying the Groundwork for a Year of Rich Conversation

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing

The First Days of School. The endless possibilities stretch out before us, the days ahead lined up like neat little packages, waiting to be opened. Even if we are returning to a room full of children we already know well, who they’ll become under our guidance in this new year remains to be seen. There is so much to do in the year ahead. We have so many plans, so many ideas we’ve tossed around all summer long. So why, when faced with an empty plan book opened to the first weeks of school, does it seem we have to spend so much time covering “basics” before getting to the real work?

Some popular start-of-the-year agenda items include:

  • Tours of the classroom (or school)
  • Getting-to-know-you activities or ice breakers
  • Debriefs about rules, procedures, and expectations
  • Setting up and organization of materials
  • Sharing of agendas and/or syllabi
  • Introductions to subject-specific content

All of the above serve a purpose in giving students information they need at the start of the year. However, the way in which these agenda items are presented goes a long way toward laying the foundation for the ways in which our students will participate in the classroom community. Will they be bystanders, waiting to be ushered into the day’s plan, or will they be participants, actively engaged in constructing the ways in which they will behave, learn, and think?

It goes without saying that kids learn just as much from how we say things as they do from what we say. When giving introductions and presenting rules and procedures, we must consider the way in which we present them. Is our language inclusive or exclusive? Are we using first classroom experiences to establish ourselves as the authority figure, or are we using them set up a community of co-learners?

Below are five tips (and one bonus tip) for orchestrating whole-class conversations at the beginning of the school year that build community and lay the groundwork for more rich conversations to come.

  • Begin with authentic questions. Whether you are a classroom veteran or novice, you likely have some ideas about the way in which you would like your classroom to run. You know which rules and procedures feel particularly important and you would like to establish an environment in which these rules are respected. It’s likely that your students have some ideas about classroom expectations and norms. Before launching into your expectations, why not ask students how they think an ideal classroom should be organized? You may find that many students already understand what is expected of them without you having to tell them, and you may find that you get some new ideas after hearing theirs. Most importantly, when students help to author the expectations for the class, their investment in them will increase exponentially.
  • Let students lead. Although it is so easy to default to that standard way of running a discussion, hands raised, teacher calling on one at a time (often the same few), there is magic that happens when we say to students, “put your hands down. I’m not going to call on anyone. Just speak when you have something to say.” Doing this sends the message that your students’ voices are just as valuable as yours, and that you trust that they can participate without shouting all over each other. Of course, you will also be conducting a kind of informal assessment. You will find out right away whether students can listen to each other, take turns speaking, connect their ideas to previous ones, or whether they need more guidance from you about how to conduct an effective discussion. It may well be that your students’ stamina for this kind of conversation is at about five minutes. If this is the case, keep in mind that marathon runners must train their way into their levels of stamina, simply make a note, and use the experience as valuable data to plan your teaching.
  • Encourage listening. The single most effective way to encourage your students to listen to each other right from the start is to listen to them. One way to model that you are listening is to repeat parts of class conversations in a way that shows you are really trying to understand. “So what I hear you saying is…” This simple phrase carries so much meaning. Its subtext is, “I am listening. What you are saying is important, and I want to understand it.” It is a phrase that will hopefully become integral to your classroom culture as your students learn to say it to each other in an attempt to truly understand.
  • Shift your focus from content to skills. As teachers, of course we must plan with learning outcomes in mind. We bring to each interaction an agenda: “Today I will cover X, Y, and Z.” However, there is power in letting go of some of the content outcomes and shifting our intentions to some of the skills outcomes that will serve students well no matter what they are learning. One such outcome is that they learn to use talk as a way to explore ideas, to question their previous thinking, and to ask, “what if?” Approaching discussions in this way can be incredibly effective whether the topic is how to organize a social studies notebook or who instigated the Boston Massacre.
  • Teach connective language. The Common Core State Standards for Opinion and Informational Writing highlight the use of words and phrases to link ideas and information. A perfect place to practice using these words and phrases before practicing them in writing is in talk. The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has long suggested using “thought prompts” to help students make connections between ideas in conversations and in writing. These thought prompts, including phrases such as: For example… This is important because…, On the other hand…, and What I’m starting to realize is…  are taught as part of early essay work as a way to connect ideas and help kids to grow their thinking through writing. (You can see examples of these phrases in action in the 4th Grade book Personal and Persuasive Essay, part of the new series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing.) Teach students a few simple phrases early in the year to help them to connect their ideas to those of others in conversations. Making these prompts visible in a chart such as the one below and referring to them often will ensure that these phrases become an ingrained part of the way students talk, and eventually, the way that they think.


And the bonus tip:

  • Establish a place for humor. The old adage that teachers shouldn’t smile until December has long been retired. And what a better place to show that a little bit of humor is ok than in conversations about  rules and procedures. True, that may seem counterintuitive. But letting students see that it’s acceptable to laugh at ourselves when we make mistakes (or when we even talk about making mistakes) will show them that you are all in it together, and that your plan for the year is to, as Donna Santman, author of Shades of Meaning, has said, “love your students into being.”

Welcome back to school! I look forward to sharing thoughts, tips, and stories with you this year about classroom discussions and building literacy skills though talk.