Join a Nonfiction Book Club this Summer

Here’s how it went down.

1. Jessie Miller came to an IRA session with Amanda Hartman and me titled Thinking, Talking and Writing about Nonfiction Reading in Read Aloud, Small Groups, and Book Clubs. 

2. I posted about the book clubs portion of the session on Two Writing Teachers. 

3. Jessie and I had a conversation on Twitter that started like this: 


4. Then, Jessie tweeted this: 


5. Which brought us to the idea: Let’s gather a few interested folks and hold a teacher nonfiction book club this summer.

We always talk about how important it is to DO the work we are aiming to teach. I preach this all the time. And yet I often need to be reminded to practice it. And when I am reminded, when I do the work, it is simply one of the best forms of professional development I receive. 

So let’s do it. Here’s how it could work. We can suggest our top picks for adult nonfiction and we can take a vote. We’ll choose the book by the end of the school year. Then, we can set up a few times over the summer to meet on Twitter to chat about our thinking, our writing, our learning, and, of course, ultimately, our implications for instruction. 

Who is with us? What would you like to read? Please leave suggestions in the comments below or tweet them to me at @AnnaGCockerille. 

Here are a few ideas: 
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Lean In: Woman, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg with Nell Scovell

I am looking forward to reading and learning with you. Thank you Jessie for the inspiration! 



SOLSC: La Pluie

Today is Tuesday, Slice of Life Story Challenge Day.

A favorite Don Graves quote I’ve posted before, as a reminder of why we teachers should write:

 Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do what we’re doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.


A reminder of what Slice of Life Writing is: 

At Two Writing Teachers, teacher writing is supported and promoted each Tuesday and all month long in March with the Slice of Life Story Challenge. Teachers and students from all over the world come to Two Writing Teachers to share their stories, small moments, or segments of a day in their lives. Writers, or Slicers, as they have come to be known, respond to each other with encouraging comments and warm support. This post is my Slice of Life story for today. I welcome others to click here to find out how to join the challenge. Whether you are a teacher of writing or have a different profession entirely, writing is a sure way to uncover truths you didn’t know existed.

Our students are currently in a poetry unit of study. Click here to hear about our process. As such, I decided to try my hand at some poetry today. 

Today’s Slice: 

La Pluie

Walking in the rain today
I’m back in French class
Turning the words over in my mouth
La pluie

There is the back of the boy’s head
A thrill from just his hunched shoulders
He chews his pencil
Straining at the words

The teacher says
La pluie The rain

Twenty years later
Who would think
I’d still be that girl. 

WRITE a slice of life story on your own blog. SHARE a link to your post in the comments section. GIVE comments to at least three other SOLSC bloggers.


Reading and Writing Workshop Methods in a Montessori Classroom

Jody Quam and Katie Hunt co-teach in a Lower Elementary Montessori classroom in New York City. Their classroom is made up of twenty-plus students, ranging from first through third grade. They teach all subjects using a Montessori approach, in which they guide students to become independent learners and thinkers using a carefully crafted curriculum and set of methods.

According to the American Montessori Society (AMS), true Montessori schools share the following principles and characteristics:

  • Multi-age classrooms
  • Student choice within a range of options
  • Long blocks of uninterrupted work time
  • Student learning through exploration and interaction with a carefully prepared environment
  • Specialized materials developed with Montessori principles in mind
  • Student freedom of movement around the classroom
  • At least one Montessori trained teacher in each classroom

Katie and Jody’s classroom certainly exemplifies all of these. As a way to supplement and compliment their strong Montessori curriculum, Katie and Jody implemented reading and writing workshop during the 2012 – 2013 school year. Katie and Jody were part of a school-wide initiative to reimagine the literacy portion of the Montessori curriculum. The decision to supplement the Montessori approach to literacy with reading and writing workshop was borne out of several recognized needs. One need was to provide teachers with a strong, clear framework for literacy instruction, particularly at the emergent reading level. In other subject areas, such as math and cultural subjects, the approach was fairly consistent from classroom to classroom. Teachers had shared language they used to discuss students’ progress, but they didn’t have this same language when discussing children’s progress in reading. Another need was to support not just decoding and phonics, but that crucial other arm of reading development, reading comprehension. Teachers had long noticed that there were gaps between the words that children were able to read and the meaning they were making from their reading. This gap became increasingly pronounced as children became older and expectations became higher.

But the adoption of reading and writing workshop methods across the school was not without challenges. One particular challenge is that the reading and writing workshop curriculum is designed for single grade groups. Another is that it is designed for classrooms in which one subject is taught at a time, simultaneously to the whole class.  Katie and Jody not only embraced reading and writing workshop with open arms, they designed solutions for some of the toughest integration challenges. Following is an interview with Jody and Katie, in which they offer some insights into their process.

Q1: First, why reading and writing workshop in a Montessori classroom? How does it benefit the students?

JQ & KH: A reading and writing workshop approach helps students to be more independent, more motivated, and more aware of their strengths and weaknesses in reading and writing.  Students learn to monitor their own learning through goal setting and reflection.  This kind of instruction lends itself well to cross-curricular integration because it is taught in the context of the world, as well as the context of the other topics we are learning about in school.

Q2: What are a few key ways workshop teaching fits with Montessori principles?

JQ & KH: The workshop approach has more differentiated instruction than other programs offer, and that is the whole goal of the Montessori philosophy, to follow the child. Workshop teaching promotes independence in that children choose their own books and they keep track of their own reading. Also, children choose their own writing topics and decide how to revise and edit their own writing. Finally, they set their own goals for both reading and writing.

Collaboration is another large component of the Montessori philosophy which aligns perfectly with the reading and writing workshop, because there are book clubs in which children collaborate with each other, many opportunities for peer feedback, and one-to-one conferencing between the teacher and child to tailor instruction.

Q3: Reading and writing workshop curricula are mostly designed for single-grade classrooms. How do you plan and implement instruction for multiple age groups in a Montessori classroom?

JQ & KH: Teaching in a multi-age setting is really not much different than teaching in a single-grade classroom because you still have students of different abilities, it is just different in that the span of abilities is greater.  Therefore, you plan according to the abilities of the students.  For example, if you have second and third graders that are around the same instructional level, you would put them in a group together and make the teaching points match their needs.

Teaching such a range of students definitely requires a lot of planning ahead of time because you need to be familiar with more than just a single-grade level of curriculum.  Once you have become familiar with the curriculum it helps you see the larger picture and the general scope of where the curriculum is headed.  For example, the first grade unit about getting to know characters in books provides the foundation for the more sophisticated character analysis and inferencing work that is taught in the second and third grade character units.

With two teachers, it is really only possible to teach two mini-lessons a day, so instead of teaching each grade level separately, we break up our class into two different groups.  All of the students receive the first grade curriculum during their first year with us to lay the foundation, and for the older students we pick and choose from the second and third grade units depending on student needs.  We might repeat some units every year (such as the poetry unit) and we may only teach some once (such as the mystery reading unit or lab reports writing unit).

In a Montessori classroom, we approach the reading and writing workshops like any other lesson that we teach.  We don’t have time to teach a mini-lesson every day because of the importance of providing students with independent work time; therefore, give a full reading and writing workshop three times each week, making sure to hit the teaching points that will benefit our students the most.  Students can always choose to work on their reading and writing during independent work times, which gives them even more practice.

Q4: Studying children’s work process and meeting individual children’s needs are very important in Montessori teaching. How does workshop teaching support observation, feedback, and individualized instruction?

JQ & KH: One-to-one conferencing: When we meet with students one on one, we ask them to read or share some of their writing with us.  We give a compliment and some targeted feedback, and then we give them a next step, which is individualized based on our observations and feedback from the conference.

Running records: The running records provide us a structured opportunity to observe and assess our students’ reading.  We give feedback based on our observations, which allows us to ensure that each student is reading at a level that is correspondent to their current reading ability. Then, we can provide individualized instruction based on each child’s reading level.

Also, due to the fact that a Montessori classroom typically only has 5-10 kids at each grade level, the mini-lessons can be tailored specifically to each group, essentially creating ready-made strategy groups.

Q5: What are your biggest challenges in embedding workshop methods in your Montessori classroom and how do you surmount them?

JQ & KH: The two biggest challenges are scheduling and planning. We talked a bit about planning already. Scheduling can be tough, and we are always making tweaks to the schedule and trying out different ways to fit in reading and writing workshop. Of course, we always want to make sure to preserve the Montessori work cycle. We’ve found that when we do either reading or writing workshop at the very beginning of the day, and the other at the very end of the day, that seems to work well. We might flip which one comes first each year, or perhaps more often, because children have different attention levels at the end of the day versus the beginning of the day.

Last year, we gave all of the children reading or writing workshop at the same time, and this year we don’t. This year, we put it in the schedule for each age group like any other Montessori lesson. Because the second and third years have the same curriculum, this means sometimes we give the same minilesson twice. After we give a minilesson, we ask that the children spend some time engaged in reading or writing so that they can practice the strategies they learned in the lesson. During that time, we confer with them.

We give a minilesson to each group 3-4 times per week. We feel consistency is really important. On days that they don’t have a minilesson, we encourage the children to choose reading or writing during their work cycle to practice what they have been learning.

We do a lot of goal-setting with the children on working within time frames while still maintaining their independence. We might discuss deadlines well in advance for particular parts of the writing process (for example, everyone should have a draft finished and should be starting revision by such-and-such date), but the children can choose when during their work cycle they complete this work.

Q6: What are three tips you would give other Montessori teachers considering adopting a workshop approach?

JQ & KH: One, become familiar with the curriculum. Read units of study carefully so you can pick out the important parts and let the rest go.  Remember, you always have next year – if you didn’t get to a teaching point or even a whole unit this year – teach it next year!

Two, allow yourself to make mistakes. Phase workshop in gradually, and don’t expect to launch it fully the first year.

Three, try social media! Pinterest is your friend, and so is Chartchums. Google image searches for charts is also really helpful. Remember there is a whole community out there doing this kind of teaching, and there is tons of support to be found.



Can Writing Daily Lead to World Peace? Maybe!

In March, I joined the Two Writing Teachers month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge (SOLSC). I wrote every day for a month. Each day, I wrote a Slice of Life story, a story encapsulating a small part of my day, in accordance with the parameters of the challenge. I experimented with genre, with mentors, with tense, with voice. I explored perspective. I wrote about my son. A lot.  I pushed through when the going was tough. And it was, at many points.

Many of us who undertook the challenge, which included both teachers and students, also undertook some reflection about it afterwards. One student wrote a post that nicely summarizes the trials and tribulations of challenging oneself to write daily. Others wrote about ways that writing daily changed them, see here and here.

Here are a few of my own reflections.

Writing daily encourages the letting go of perfection. Over the course of the challenge, I found I took my writing much less seriously. I found each piece to be less and less precious, and I found it much easier to hit “publish.” And this was a very good thing. When we strive for perfection, it is easy to become mired down in our own struggle to define what perfection is and then to create something that lives up to this ever-changing definition. Because I was writing daily, I knew that I would always have the next day to try something else, and the next day, and the next. What became important was just to show up at the computer, not to create a magnum opus with each post.

Writing daily helps one become a better writer. To get better at something, one has to do it. Period. Not read about it, or think about it, or talk about it. Do it.

Writing daily helps one become a better teacher of writing. As teachers, we have at our fingertips an incredible amount of resources on how to teach writing. New professional texts are constantly flooding the market, consultants and coaches demonstrating methodology visit our classrooms, team meetings are dedicated to lifting the level of our writing instruction. While I do believe in the value of all of these, I can safely say that nothing has helped me to become a better teacher of writing than actually writing. When a student is stuck, I can say, “Here’s what I do when I get stuck like that.” Then, I can whip out my writing as a model.

But not only that, when I have tried to teach writing without actually writing, I have found myself removed from my students’ process. I’ve found myself less sympathetic to their struggles, less able to get into the muck with them and shepherd them safely to dry land. Being a writer myself enables me to look at a piece of writing, or talk to a writer, and know exactly where they are in their writing process and what I can do to support their next steps.

Writing daily means we have time to write daily.  I once read a message on a coffee cup that went something like, “There is great freedom that comes from commitment.” That message has stuck with me. When we commit to something fully, when we view it as a non-negotiable part of our day, we don’t waste energy debating with ourselves over whether to do it, or justifying ourselves out of it. We just spend our energy doing it. Also, that which we discipline ourselves to commit to, that which we choose to devote our time and energy to, is what we will grow more of in our lives.

Writing daily changes the way we see the world. One student who undertook the challenge put it so well. He wrote:

This challenge has taught me so many things.

I learned to look closer at my day to find things to write about.

Certainly, when we write, and when we study the world as writers, we cultivate a certain non-judgemental detachment that comes from observation. We take ourselves out of the fray. We allow ourselves the space to see beauty, sadness, or poignancy in small moments that might otherwise frustrate, anger, or befuddle us. We see what really matters, but we also see that what matters to us may not mean a thing to someone else. We see the forest, and the trees.

None of what I’m writing feels new. Most writing teachers have heard this all before. But still, we (and I include myself wholeheartedly in this group) struggle to find the time. With my work responsibilities, my professional writing, and now with a small baby in my charge,  I understand time pressure more than ever. I don’t have the sage advice or magic solution to make finding more time in the day any easier. But I do know this. Holding yourself accountable to a community helps. Planning ahead helps, even if you only plan for one day at a time. And a few minutes of writing are better than no minutes.

Meditation teachers often say that if everyone in the world spent a few minutes engaged in daily meditation, we could achieve world peace. I am willing to go so far as to say that if we all spent a few minutes engaged in daily writing, we could achieve the same.

Peace and happy writing.


When Students Just Aren’t Getting It: Looking for the CAN before the CAN’T

In infancy, a child’s growth is so rapid that it seems nearly perceptible as it is occurring in real time. My eight week old son looks different daily; indeed he often looks bigger just after a nap. He constantly masters new skills, making developmental leaps that both amaze and move me to tears. (The other day he looked right at me and smiled.) As children get older, their rate of growth slows, of course. They can do so much more, and we expect so much more of them. Their mastery of skills becomes a matter of course, and as teachers of older children, it is easy to slip into a content mindset, rather than a skills mindset. We may focus more on children learning the information that fills our curriculum, not on the skills it takes to learn this information, such as nonfiction reading and writing in social studies. We become frustrated when their output comes up short of our expectations. 

What happens then, is it becomes very easy to fall into a habit of seeing children’s work for what it is lacking, not for what it has. Sometimes we expect that students should already know how to do things they haven’t yet been taught, or that they should be able to master skills after we have taught them once. However, As Dick Allington reminds us in What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (2000), students often need to be taught a skill twenty to thirty times before they master it. Allington is writing specifically about struggling students in his book, but the case could be made that ALL students benefit from repetition and plenty of opportunity to practice. Further, if students aren’t demonstrating mastery of a skill, shouldn’t we, as their teachers, take responsibility for this? 

Take, for instance, the following excerpt from a fourth grader’s information writing in social studies. 

info writing dark years Dec 18

This is a portion of the student’s final report, one he wrote after spending weeks researching the Iroquois. I could notice all that is lacking in the writing and bemoan the fact that there is little evidence of the research the class conducted. I could notice that some of the facts even seem fabricated, added in as filler because the student didn’t have much information to go on. Further, I could choose to be frustrated not only with the student’s lack of research, but also with his apparent lack of understanding of the content he was supposed to be learning.

OR… I could choose to first notice what this student is doing well, upon which I could build my teaching. This student has some nice elaboration skills. He paints a picture for the reader by including details that help us to imagine how that time period might have looked like or felt like. He says, “There were arrows flying everywhere, people yelling, birds squawking, flying away from their perches. It was crazy!” Even if those details didn’t come from a social studies text, clearly this student knows how to use his visualization skills as a way to help teach information. I could build upon this skill, teaching the student that in research-based information writing, it’s important to have a balance of information from credible sources, as well as snippets that come from the writer’s thinking and imagination. I could also teach him that it’s helpful to let the reader know which parts are the writer’s speculation, with phrases such as: “Imagine what this might have looked like…” or, “There could have been…”, or, “Possibly…” I could also teach him phrases that might support him in including more research, such as: “According to the text (insert name of text)…” or, “The author (insert author) says…”.

To be sure, it can be frustrating to teach your heart out, only to collect student work and notice that many students have mastered only a fraction of what you were teaching. This frustration comes from a good place, a place of concern and care for your students and their well-being. However, it also feels disheartening and can derail your future teaching. If our students haven’t mastered what we would like them to master, they may be showing us they need more practice before moving on. Indeed, it would be very rare that their lack of mastery comes from a desire to frustrate their teacher.

As we approach the winter holiday, I am presenting a challenge to myself, and my hope is that others will join me. I am challenging myself to take ownership of what my students cannot yet do, to reframe what could be considered gaps in their ability as my responsibility to teach or reteach. Instead of using language like. “Beverly can’t organize her writing clearly”, or “Kyoko won’t make inferences in her independent reading book”, I will say: “I need to think of a different way to teach Beverly to organize her information. Maybe a few models will help, or maybe I could set her up with Brian, since he would be a good mentor.” About Kyoko I will say, “The ways I have been teaching inferencing haven’t been effective for Kyoko. I need to think of other ways to help her reach for this skill.”

Have a wonderful holiday break, and I would love to hear how you reframe your frustrations when your students aren’t mastering what you would like them to master.


SOLSC: A Walk in the Park

sols_6 blue image

The late Donald Graves, widely regarded as the father of the writing process approach to teaching writing and one of the foremost experts in the field, heavily encouraged teachers to do their own writing. In an interview with Scholastic Instructor, he was asked to choose the one, most important thing writing teachers should do. His response:

 Write yourself. Invite children to do something you’re already doing. If you’re not doing it, Hey, the kids say, I can’t wait to grow up and not have to write, like you. They know. And for the short term and the long term, you’ll be doing yourself a favor by writing. All of us need it as a survival tool in a very complex world. The wonderful thing about writing is that it separates the meaningless and the trivial from what is really important. So we need it for ourselves and then we need to invite children to do what we’re doing. You can’t ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself.

At Two Writing Teachers, teacher writing is supported and promoted each Tuesday and all month long in March with the Slice of Life Story Challenge. Teachers and students from all over the world come to Two Writing Teachers to share their stories, small moments, or segments of a day in their lives. Writers, or Slicers, as they have come to be known, respond to each other with encouraging comments and warm support. This post is my Slice of Life story for today. I welcome others to click here to find out how to join the challenge. Whether you are a teacher of writing or have a different profession entirely, writing is a sure way to uncover truths you didn’t know existed.

A Walk in the Park

I am out walking in the park with my three week old son and talking to my father. My father is telling me that he is planning to downsize his business. For nearly forty years, he has run a music store, mainly selling and repairing pianos, and also selling guitars, sheet music, and offering music lessons. His business has become a pillar of the town in Indiana where my parents live. When people from the town meet me, they say, “Anna Gratz, as in, Gratz Piano?” Somehow, this small, niche business has managed to thrive, even though every chain store imaginable has gone up around it and most other small businesses were forced to close their doors long ago. My father raised five children on this business, sent all of us to college and gave us enough of a head start that we all have the luxury of choosing our own paths, but not so much of a head start that we don’t know how to work hard.

So now, my father is telling me he is planning to downsize so that he can be freed up to try new things in the next phase of his life. He wants to be able to spend more time in warm weather, to be able to visit his first grandchild more often. He tells me that life is all about change, and that in order to survive, we have to be willing to change. I look down at my son, whose face seems to become rounder each time I pick him up from a sleep, whose miraculous transformation from a dot inside my body to a breathing, separate human being is the epitome of change.

And I have changed. I am no longer the kind of person who walks in the park without a heart that is filled up to the point of bursting by her child. I am also no longer the child. I am the parent. But of course, I am also the child. My father, who was recently informed that his cancer has returned, but who is brave enough to continue to look forward, is still my hero. I hang up the phone and tuck Thomas’s blanket closer around him. I hope that I can be as good a parent as my father, the kind of parent who accepts that change is the way forward, and who adapts to the new with grace and courage.




Happy News and a Blogging Hiatus

Dear Readers,

There are few moments of joy  in life like that of holding your firstborn for the very first time. I am humbled and extremely grateful to have been able to do this quite recently. My son, Thomas Hudson Cockerille, was born on October 24th, a couple of weeks before his due date. We are all doing very well and are basking in these early moments in our lives together. Needless to say, it may be some time before I am able to keep up a routine blogging schedule. I look forward to being back in a few months.

All the best,



A Jerry Spinelli-inspired Close Reading #CloseReading Blog-a-thon

“We were awash in tiny attentions. Small gestures, words, empathies thought to be extinct came to life… We discovered the color of each other’s eyes.”
― Jerry SpinelliStargirl

Admittedly, I am a late-comer to the Stargirl fan club. (Note: There actually are several fan clubs for the book Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli; check out examples here and here.) Stargirl was published in 2000, and its sequel, Love, Stargirl, in 2007. Thousands have read and loved and cried and had their hearts broken alongside the titular character and her ambivalent love interest, Leo. The book has spawned “Stargirl Societies,” groups of young people determined to make the world a better place with simple gestures, such as dropping loose change for others to find, cheering for both teams, and dancing whenever the urge strikes. I read both books as part of my #summerreading 2013 campaign, as they had been on my list for a long, long time. Though I knew the plot lines of both books, and had heard many reviews,  while reading them for myself, I felt as if I was uncovering a secret. I became a transported reader, laughing out loud, shedding tears, and feeling a deep sense of loss upon reaching the final page.

As Chris Lehman and Kate Robert’s Close Reading Blog-a-thon nears its close, I thought I would commemorate all of the learning it sparked for me (and I’m certain many others) by simply trying out some close reading. One impetus for this exercise was certainly to study myself as a close reader and to possibly distill what I learned into a useful tip or two. I’m not implying that these tips are necessarily earth-shattering realizations about the teaching of close reading. Based on the sample released by Heinemann of  Falling in Love with Close Reading,  Chris and Kate’s new book, there one can find many beautiful lessons with more specific strategies than the ones I list here.  Admittedly, perhaps an even greater impetus for this exercise was to revisit the Stargirl books, to study them closely, to uncover something I may have missed the first time. Because, as Chris and Kate point out in their book, that is what we do when we fall in love. We revisit, look more closely, accumulate all of the tiny details we can. Ultimately, we just want to be around the object of our love. So that is what this post is really about — spending some more time with Stargirl.

When I originally read the Stargirl books, I did not classify what I was doing as close reading. I simply read the books, letting their beauty and language wash over me, and highlighting parts that stood out or seemed to matter. Because I was reading on an iPad, I used a color coding system to delineate the kinds of highlights I made – orange for parts that gave me clues about the characters, yellow for parts that were clues about the theme or message or the book, and pink for parts that I just loved, lines that were so beautiful I had to read them again.

Here are some of the parts of Stargirl that I highlighted in pink:

I liked the feeling the moonlight gave me, as if it wasn’t the opposite of day, but its underside, its private side, when the fabulous purred on my snow-white sheet like some dark cat come in from the desert. (pg. 12)

The pronoun “we” seemed to crack and drift apart in pieces. (pg. 41)

A baseball bat could not have hit me harder than that smile did. I was sixteen years old. In that time, how many thousands of smiles had been aimed at me? So why did this one feel like the first? (pg. 76)

The echo of her laughter is the second sunrise I awaken to each day, and at night I feel it is more than stars looking down on me. (pg. 186)

And here are some from Love, Stargirl:

We were once so fresh, a dazzling snowfield. Let’s promise to each other that if we ever meet again we will never plow and push our new-fallen snow. We will not become slush. We will stay like this field and melt away together only in the sun’s good time. (pg. 29)

I love living in a world without clocks. The shackles are gone. I’m a puppy unleashed in a meadow of time. (pg. 168)

I will sail into the future on mystery’s wings and I will not look back. (pg. 273)

I placed these quotes side by side, looking across them to see what stood out to me. I noticed right away Spinelli’s use of comparisons. Spinelli makes comparisons that evoke powerful images – that of cat slinking through the desert, a hard-hitting baseball bat, a puppy unleashed, a dazzling snowfield. These powerful images act as descriptors, describing people, feelings, objects, and events in a way that one or two adjectives would not.

Many of Spinelli’s comparisons come from the natural world: animals, sunrises, snow. Stargirl herself seems to live in a world that is somehow beyond that inhabited by humans, a world that humans can see and only try to appreciate, but that is beyond the comprehension of most.

Though many parts are describing characters’ feelings and reactions, which are not typically associated with action, I noticed that many contain a sense of movement, through the use of carefully placed verbs.

Interestingly, the very last section of Stargirl is the same as the first. In chapter one, “Porcupine Necktie”, Leo explains that a porcupine necktie mysteriously arrives at his house after a local newspaper article mentions his desire to start a collection. Spinelli places the entire chapter again at the end of the book, perhaps inviting the reader to reread it with new eyes, with all of the understanding and compassion that comes along with taking Stargirl and Leo’s journey. By repeating this chapter, Spinelli automatically encourages a kind of close reading.

Below are a few of the possible teaching points I listed based on my close reading:

  • Readers formulate their own coding systems, based on what they know about good reading.
  • Readers first mark up places in a book where they feel deeply moved. They compare several places they marked, looking for patterns.
  • Readers not only name specific techniques that the author has used, but they also name possible purposes of these techniques, or effects these techniques have on the reader.
  • Readers not only notice lines, phrases, and sections that are repeated in a text, they pause when they encounter repetition, using repeated parts as opportunities to see a section with new eyes.

Since all the close reading buzz began, I’ve discussed it with colleagues, tried to define it, read about it,  and attempted to teach it. But one thing I hadn’t done very well was try it. I often need to be reminded of the power of trying even just a taste of the work we are asking students to do.

I tried a final bit of application, from which I gleaned one more teaching point: Readers apply lessons learned from closely reading texts to their own writing and to their lives.

Stargirl stopped me in my tracks like a full moon on a crisp November night. Though I knew that many, many others were bathed in its light, I felt as if it had been put there just for me, as a message, a gift, a promise. I know that I will move on and it will be part of my conscious awareness less and less, but I also know that I will never again be the kind of person who hasn’t been affected by it.  It will always be mine.

Perhaps we can say something similar about close reading. Studying the details of a text in this way may not always be a part of our students’ every day consciousness. But they will never again be the kind of readers who don’t know how to pause, gather, re-read, reflect, analyze. Close reading will always be theirs.



New Two Writing Teachers Team

New Two Writing Teachers Team

I am very honored and excited to have been asked by Stacey Shubitz to join the new team at Two Writing Teachers, the blog she co-founded in 2007. TWT is a wonderful resource for all teachers of writing. It has something for everyone – teachers of primary grade children and middle school; those with a passion for history or for poetry.

I will still be blogging here as well. As always, thank you for your support!



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.

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