Interpretation Series: Tracking Themes (Part II)

Thank you for the kind response to our first installment in this Interpretation Series! Many of you shared that our last post helped students begin the complicated process of uncovering rough draft versions of themes. It brings to mind Chinese philosopher Laozi’s adage, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Now it is time to take the second step on the path towards rich interpretation. While some of your students might have leapt out of the gate ready to analyze with great insight, many of your kids might be left holding post-its that say “Love is hard.” And while this is a great first move, we want to nudge students from there into deeper, more nuanced, more complex interpretations.

Today’s post will examine how to help your students begin to track these rough draft themes across a text, discovering layers of meaning they may have missed the first time through. We have found that this work – taking a beginning idea of  theme and tracing its progress across a text – is a good way to help students begin to see that themes are more complex, more contradictory than the ubiquitous: “We shouldn’t be prejudiced.”

Tracking Themes

The work of tracking themes is familiar to us as adults. After all, we track the themes of our lives as the years roll by and we are faced with our same issues over and over again. When things come up for me at 41, I can trace them back to events on the playground – the circumstances and reactions have changed, but the root emotions feel similar. Take the universal issue of “fitting in.” Like many of us, this struggle has stayed with me from the time I first went to elementary school up until the present day.  I could even easily and truly say that a theme of my life is that “fitting is hard.” But I know there is more to it than that. I know that right now, in my adulthood, my relationship to this idea is way more complicated that a three word sentence can capture. If I track the development of this theme throughout my life, I realize there have been many turns in the road, many ways this theme has manifested, many layers to this concept of fitting in.

When we reach the end of a book, we are in a similar place as a reader. The big idea is not too hard to suss out – our rough draft themes. But we can sense that there are many more layers to be reflected upon. And tracking a theme across a text can help us to do that work.

Here are three steps that can help us to track a theme, be it across a text or across a life.

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

Here I am going to model these steps on the issue of fitting in throughout my life. First, I can look for what Katherine and Randy Bomer call critical scenes, (in their brilliant text For A Better World) –  times in my life where fitting in felt like an really big deal. Next, I need to live inside those moments for a bit. I need to retell the story so that it is fresh in my mind, so that I can remember the details. Finally, I step back and reflect on what this moment taught me about the theme I am tracking. If I track this idea of “fitting in is hard” across the critical scenes of my life, I see a more complex view of this issue:

1. As a young kid I never fit in, but I also didn’t really notice that often. I always had one best friend. I liked playing alone. But then there was the goodbye party when I was moving at the end of third grade. The teacher had thrown it for me but I didn’t have any friends, so while the rest of the class partied, I sat in the corner and played my favorite 45 on the record player over and over again.

I felt small and invisible and humiliated. Not one kid talked to me. (Neither did the teacher, but that’s another blog post.) So if I reflect on that moment in my life, and what it taught me about fitting in, I would say something like, “Not fitting in can make you feel totally alone, can make you burn with embarrassment.”

What I did: I chose a scene from my life where fitting in was a big deal. I then retold it to myself a bit, and reflected on what that moment revealed to me about this idea. Let’s try it again on another critical scene:

2. In early high school I continued to not exactly fit in. I had my friends, but I couldn’t seem to get “it” right. My hair, my clothes, my way of being, all seemed so far away from where everyone else was around me. But I tried. I tried to learn how to spray my bangs so that they defied the laws of gravity.

Actually, these hairstyles defied ALL natural law.

Actually, these hairstyles defied ALL known natural laws.

I scoured the mall for the right clothes (Claire’s Boutique, anyone?) I watched the other girls to see what they were doing and then tried to roll up my cuffs like they did. But it just didn’t seem to add up to anything. I always felt like I was wearing a costume, like I was pretending to be someone and failing onstage every day. What this taught me about fitting in is that if it does not come naturally, fitting in is an incredible amount of work.

Right? Same process: Pick a scene from my life, live in it a little, reflect on issue. One more time:

3. In my twenties, living in NYC, I started to find my own style, to know what I liked and who I liked. And things were better on the fitting in front. I could hang at a party and not feel totally idiotic most of the time. And yet I still was plagued by feeling like everyone had it together when I did not. Confident people terrified me. Once a woman talked about “reclaiming her power” and I felt like she was speaking in an extraterrestrial tongue. I still felt small, I just knew how to exist in the world as a small person. I had come to terms that I did not fit in, and accepted it, and in some weird way, this allowed me to find the people I could fit in with. Fitting in was unnecessary.

I could go on, of course. Later I learned that only through true self acceptance can you fit in anywhere, and I have had the opportunity to learn the joy and camaraderie of fitting in with groups of people. Tracking a theme across my life allows me to see the multiple ideas and lessons I have learned about a given issue or problem. Similarly, when we track themes across the books we read, we can deepen our understanding of the theme we are examining. The process can remain the same, whether we are examining themes in our lives or in texts:

Step One: Identify Critical Scenes.

Step Two: Reread/Retell the Scene

Step Three: Reflect on What Scene Says About Issue/Theme

(Rinse and Repeat)

We have found that sometimes having a visual for kids can help them when tracking themes across a text. For example, this page from our demonstration notebook has helped us work with small groups on a class text to give kids some practice doing this work before they go off on their own.

Everybody likes a game board.

Everybody likes a game board.

For the next installment in our interpretation series, we will take a look at how to help students refine, choose and back up their themes, say for a literary essay or discussion. Without work like tracking their theme across a text, however, we have found that students’ rough draft themes never get much fuller. Like all good thinking work, of which interpretation is certainly an example, it is essential to allow things to get a little messy before the thinking gets all cleaned up and perfect. This is the messy step, the place where we encourage students to think a whole lot of things about their books and their interpretations before they are asked to prove anything.

After all, it takes a lifetime of messy thinking to get a grasp on the issues in our lives. Certainly we can give kids at least a few days to deepen their thinking before they have to decide what they believe about a book.

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpretation               Tiny Detail: Tracking Themes Across a Text in Three Steps

Live Near Chicago or Indianapolis? Come Talk Close Reading!

Hi all! I promise that our next Interpretation post is coming, like in a matter of days. In the meantime, I (Kate) wanted to extend an invitation for all you fabulous midwest educators. Chris Lehman and I will be holding two workshops on close reading, one near Chicago and one right outside of Indianapolis, and we would love it if you could join us!

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 7.59.30 PMWe have had a blast on these days so far, and hope you or a friend/colleague can come. Here is how to register:

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 8.04.10 PM


See you there!


The Grateful Teacher.

Here is one thing I have learned about parenting so far:

It’s all in the attitude.

As we packed up for a three stop, week long trip yesterday, I noticed something. When I got anxious, tense or annoyed at life, Bo got fussy. When I was chill and content to be doing the thing I was doing, even if it was unpleasant, Bo was smiling and talking and being pretty much the cutest baby in the know universe. (My completely unbiased opinion, of course.)

This feels so true: The circumstances don’t change, but the way I approach them changes everything.

I know we are in the midst of an interpretation series here at indent, and I promise we will get back to that right after Thanksgiving, but the approaching holiday, being at NCTE, and some struggles I am experiencing made me wake up this morning wanting to write this post instead.

It’s about gratitude.

Because it’s the same with teaching, isn’t it? I can’t always change the circumstances I find myself in. I can’t change the kids in my class, they way they act up or shut down, what they come to me knowing how to do. I can’t change the people I work with, the politics of my school building, or my salary. Even if I work to change the testing culture, in the short term, I can’t change that either. What I can change is my attitude, the way I think about the circumstances of my teaching life.

Once, I was complaining to a mentor and friend, Frank Vogt, about someone I found very difficult to work with. When I was done, he smiled and said, “It sounds like she is your teacher.” This was an incredibly annoying thing to say. And confusing – what does that even mean? (I tried to keep the snark out of my voice as I asked him.) He explained that any struggle we have is an opportunity to grow, and so anytime we have difficulty with someone, we can choose to see them not as our enemy, or as an obstacle, but as the person who is going to teach us something greater about ourselves.

It was still really annoying.

But, it’s true. This is the choice I have – to take the difficulties in my life as a burden that I feel sorry for myself over, or to take them as gateways to greater wisdom, fulfillment, and serenity.

Admittedly, this is really hard to hold onto in the midst of said difficulties. In the middle of a long school day, an impossible class, a failing unit, or a Pearson testing marathon, it can prove out of our reach to stay in gratitude, at least when left to our own devices. Sometimes I find myself waiting to feel grateful, and I just don’t. I feel frustrated, depressed or anxious, and I stand there hoping that by willing it to happen, gratitude will just fill me up magically. But it almost never happens like that.

Instead, I have been taught by my spiritual community to think of gratitude as an action, not an emotion. It is something we do, not something that happens to us. By taking grateful actions, then, we become grateful people.

As we go off to our various holiday scenarios, let’s take on grateful actions. One possibility: for the past ten years I, along with a group of friends, have written a Gratitude List regularly. (I wrote a little about the gratitude list here awhile back.) On the surface, it’s a simple tool. You make a list of what you are grateful for. Recently this has become a Facebook thing – “write down three things you are grateful for for three days!” I email a list with some friends of mine.  On my list every day? Coffee. I am very, very grateful to coffee.


Bless you, sweet nectar.

But what I would like to suggest today is that the real work of the gratitude list is not when things are good, but when things are hard. The magic happens when we list things we are grateful for within the struggles we face. It’s easy to write a list of stuff we are happy about. “I’m so grateful that everything is going so awesome for me!” But it’s hard to sit in the tough stuff and ask ourselves where there are places for thankfulness. For example:

1. I have a confrontation with a kid in my class that doesn’t go well – the kid still misbehaves and I get upset. Instead of stewing on how bad the kid is, or sinking into shame over my failings, I can take a step back and look forward. On my gratitude list that day, I write:

“Grateful that I know what I could have done better. That I took the time to reflect on my choices instead of blaming the kid. Grateful that I didn’t yell like I wanted to.”

2. Heading into testing season, I am angry and outraged at the injustices of high stakes testing. I write:

“So grateful for my beliefs about kids and teaching. Grateful that I am not alone, that I have a community of educators that stands with me. Grateful there are things I can do to help change things. Grateful that I can be a source of comfort and confidence for my kids.”

3. It’s winter. I’ve been teaching five paragraph essays for what feels like forever. All I want is sunshine, and a poetry unit. I am depressed. I write:

“Grateful that all things pass. That spring will come. Grateful for hot chocolate and for the fact that if I need to I can just push pause on everything and teach my kids to write essays off of songs. Grateful for my kid’s patience, and how good kids are, even when things get boring.”

You get the idea. By pausing in the midst of difficulty and acting grateful, by looking for the things that are good and positive and true (even if I don’t feel them in that moment), we allow ourselves to let those positive parts grow bigger. We feed the good and starve the bad.


photo by Gregory Colbert.

This is not to say that we cover up the bad feelings, the anger or the sense of wanting to be better than we are. (I am not, for example, saying that in light of the Ferguson ruling last night we should all just make a gratitude list and feel better.) Instead, by focusing on the things we are grateful for, we create the energy we need to keep fighting, to keep improving. Focusing only on anger or dissatisfaction saps us of energy. Gratitude fills us up again.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Staying Grateful in Education.                                 Tiny Detail: Gratitude Lists.

Interpretation Series: Discovering Themes. (Part I)

As most of you know, we have recently become parents. It’s pretty awesome. I am currently spending a lot of time home with Bo, which I feel lucky to be able to do. Thing is, it can get lonely. Just me and this amazing baby who, well, can’t really do too much. There are only so many times that I can sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” in a high pitched voice before I start to feel a little loopy.

I realized quickly that I was going to have to get out of the house at least once a day or I was in serious danger of becoming a little frazzled…

Except for the hat/hair, this is totally me.

…and getting out of the house meant making new friends. Mommy friends. So out I went with my stroller and a smile, looking at each parent I saw with hope and a probably very obvious desperation.

I hung out at the coffee shop. I loitered at the playground. Day after day, I tried to enter into the intimidating and strange new world I found myself in. And…nothing. Sure, a couple Moms smiled at me. A nanny gave me some advice about Bo’s socks. I got some fresh air. But no new friends.

And here is the point: This was not a new feeling for me. It felt very much like middle school. (And if I’m honest high school, much of college and a good chunk of my twenties) Entering into new communities has always been hard for me; it has always brought up insecurities. I have always struggled to get out there and be widely social, even as I have craved the connections.

You could say it is a theme of my life.

Themes are tough to identify – in life and certainly in texts. The way we know something is a theme – like my story above – is that it is recurring or persistent, it centers around a problem or issue, and it reveals something about the person or the world. In life, we identify things are themes because they keep happening. They are the things we always talk to our best friends about, the obstacles we continue facing, and they are the subject of the exasperated groan, “Why is this always happening to me?”

But in texts, themes can feel more hidden. How many times have we looked out at our students, repeatedly asking, “What is the theme?” only to see them shrug, look around, and say, “Um, love?” But without a sense of the themes in a text, our kids are reading just for plot and character – not a bad thing by any means, but certainly more superficial than we dream for them.

This post starts a series on teaching students to interpret the theme of a text. Today we begin at the beginning – teaching our students to identify possible themes in the texts they read. These are the rough draft themes they will later make more text-based and sophisticated.

So – how do we get kids to see the possible themes in a text? (I mean, beyond saying “But what is it really about?” over and over with greater and greater frustration) Here is one “recipe” for having kids develop rough draft themes:

1. Name the problems in a text.

Themes often live in the troubles of a text, so it helps if we start with the difficulties. Have your students name what problems the character is facing:

photo 2

It’s likely students will begin to retell the whole story. (“So, like, there is the land where there are 12 Districts…”) That’s fine, because soon you will ask them to…

2. Put those problems in one word or phrase.

Some kids may jump here automatically, but we will need to get to a place where we say, “Friendship” or “Loss of our Identity” or “Bravery” or even, yes, “Love,” if we are to move forward. Have students list out all of the problems they see the character facing in the text in a word or a phrase.  Then have them rank those problems from “Most important” to “Least Important.”

photo 3 (2)

This will help them to zero in when they…

3. Think about what the text (or scene or chapter) is saying about that problem.

Right? Ok. So the book is about love. Now, what does it seem to be saying or teaching us about love? Simple.

photo 1 (1)

Except you will want to watch your expectations here. Remember your kids are trying to develop a bunch of rough draft themes here, not a full-fledged dissertation on the deeper symbolic and archetypal meaning of the Mockingjay in The Hunger Games. Which means your kids are going to say lots of things like…

“Love is hard.”

“People with power hurt people.”

“You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.”

…and this might hurt your heart a little, but it is so important that you high-five your kids when they get here on their own! Remember, thinking about the theme of a text is really hard. These rough drafts themes are important stepping stones on the way to more brilliant and impressive interpretations of the text. If you have kids who do more than this, awesome. But if you have a classroom full of “love is hard,” take heart. We will teach them to do it better. For now, smile, say “Yes, that is probably a theme of The Hunger Games,” and wait for the next blog post, where will will look at how to complicate and make more sophisticated our fledgling themes.

In the meantime, I will keep going out with my stroller, and my smile.

Stay tuned for the next installment in our Interpretation Series!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Interpreting Texts                    Tiny Detail: Recipe for Theme

How to Take a Hit: On Embracing Critique.

The best thing I ever heard about conferring is that when the conference is over, the kid should feel excited to get to work, like they can take on the world. Lucy Calkins and Carl Anderson taught me that, and it’s a lesson I have taken to heart.

Of course, it’s not that easy. Instead, I sometimes look into my students’ eyes after a conference and I see something else. A shrug of the shoulders, or worse, a sagging. Confusion in their eyes. A vibe that says they feel just a bit badly about themselves as readers or writers, not better.

This kills me. And I work to prevent it. I compliment, I work on my wording, I show them my own flawed work. I channel my years in theater to be sure that my energy going into the conference is positive and loving and cheerful. And yet still, that downward cast of the eyes. The shuffle back to their seat.

Recently it occurred to me that maybe it’s because I haven’t taught them to take tough feedback that my kids are having a tough time hearing critique as anything but negative. Maybe I haven’t refined our ability to give and take critique. More specifically, maybe my students do not know how to take criticism, which means any bit of of it feels like an insult, a judgement.

After all, it is really hard to take critique. We are not very good at it, as, like, a species right now. Take a look at the comments under any political article, or any entertainment piece, heck pretty much anything written on the internet, and you will find people just unleashing upon each other at the very hint of a critique on their sensibilities, tastes or opinions. We in education are not immune to this knee jerk “you’d better not be telling me what to do” mindset. Recently Donalyn Miller, one of my reading heroes and all around favorite people, was forced to disable comments on her blog for a spell after she posted some misgivings she has about certain kinds of assignments in certain situations. Some fellow educators could not take the critique she was offering and fought back with vitriol and insults.

Why do we get so upset when people critique us? Why do our kids lose energy when offered help to make their work better? I would argue that it is partly because we have not learned – and have not taught – how to take a hit.

Like on my first day of first grade, when a boy named Matthew walked right up to me, and for some reason (because I was new to the area, because I looked like a boy) punched me right in the gut.


I like to think that when I get punched I look like an anime character.

All the wind was knocked out of me, and the pain was extreme. And I cried. A lot. From the pain of the punch, but also from the pain in my heart. I wasn’t ready. I had no tools to handle the assault. It felt out of nowhere.

We are living in the Age of Feedback. Whether it be teacher evaluations or the research that shows us how important response is for student growth, it is tough to get through a week in school without everyone critiquing everything else. Admin critiques teachers, teachers critique students and students critique each other and themselves (and secretly, all of us). And I believe this can be a force for good. As long as that critique does not feel like a punch to the gut. As long as we have the tools to handle it. As long as we are able to hear feedback without getting defensive, insulted, or furious.

Maybe it would help if we taught our students  – and reminded ourselves – what it means to give and take critique:

How to Give Critique

Ask Questions.

Giving feedback doesn’t just mean dumping what we think on our students and then walking away. Listening and questioning is just as important as talking. From the very start you can ask your students for permission to give them feedback. My favorite line in a conference these days is, “Do you mind if I push you a little?” By asking permission to critique, as David Rock suggests in his book Quiet Leadership, (thanks to Brooke Geller), you allow your student to open their minds to what you are about to say, and you allow them the freedom to say that this is not a good time.

Asking questions also involves trying to get at the root of things. Asking students what they were going for in a piece of writing, or asking them to say a little more about that thought they had about their book, allows you to see the whole picture, and not just the sliver that is available on a piece of paper or a post it note. There are many questions that can help you to get to the bottom of something. Here are a few.

Do you mind if I push your thinking/work?

Tell me a little about what you are trying to do.

Why did you choose ______?

What are you hoping for with this (work)?

What do you think could go better?

What are you most proud of here?

Be Specific, but with a Sense of the Universal

Have you ever had someone come into your classroom, watch a whole lesson, and then comment on one bulletin board in the back corner of your room, hidden by bookshelves, that was not adequately decorated? Conversely, have you ever gotten feedback on your teaching that felt so broad as to be unusable, like “you should work on engaging students” ? Helpful critique is both specific AND general. It helps you create a category for the work you need to do while giving specific places to work, or specific ideas to try. Helpful critique says “Hey you could think a bit more about how you are engaging your students, like at the start of your lessons, you could try out a little more storytelling, a little more of your personality. Let me show you.” When giving critique, see if what you have to say could fit into one of these two templates:

You could work on _______ by _________ .


You could work on _______ when you ________.

 How to Take Critique

When you Get Defensive, Listen Harder.

It’s so easy to take offensive to criticism or feedback. I, for one, somehow feel devastated if I am not perfect 100% of the time, and am terribly offended if anyone notices my lack of perfection. But I have to get over that if I want to grow. So when I notice myself getting defensive, I know that’s the moment that I need to breath and focus on what is true in what the person is saying. That is tough, because my mind amplifies criticism so that someone saying, “hey you might want to write down those instructions next time” sounds like “You are a horrible educator and a sham and you should quit.” So when I see myself getting tense, angry, defensive or panicked, I Stop, Breathe, and Listen.  What is it that is being said to me? What is the heart of what they are saying? Do I agree, even with a little bit of it? By choosing to look for what is true rather than what is wrong, I give myself the opportunity to grow. After all, as Aristotle said:

To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.

Choose to Be Happy Rather than Right.

Sometimes feedback feels so unfair. Like the person giving it missed the best part, or is way off base, or is kind of a jerk. Sometimes, a hole burns in your stomach because you know, just know, that You. Are. Right.

There is a time for arguing our points. There is a time to fight for what we believe. But I do not believe that those moments are when we are receiving criticism. When my spouse is brave enough to tell me why she is upset with me, it is not the time to name all of the reasons why she is wrong and I am right. Even if I think I am (see first point above). When we are receiving feedback, our job is to listen, to take what we can. And that means that I have got to let it go if someone gives me feedback that I think is unfair. At least for now.

Bonus Tip: Ask Questions.

(See above). The same thing is true when getting feedback as when giving it – critique goes best when it is examined and analyzed. Ask what someone means if you aren’t sure. Find out what’s at the root of their critique if you can’t see what they really mean. Many of the same questions as named above will help.

Feedback is important, but only in so far as people are listening. Otherwise, our conferences with kids, and our conversations with each other, are in danger of feeling like this:


…Not that any of us have ever experienced conversations like this before…:)

-Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Feedback                       Tiny Detail: Ways to give and take critique.

You have to see it to believe it. (Or learn it.)

Originally posted on indent:

Making claim writing work visible, one strategy at a time.

When I was a kid taking math, I had a bad teacher. It wasn’t just that she hated children (she did), or that her lessons were written in pencil on crumbling yellow paper (they were). It was more that whenever I was confused about a math concept (read: everyday), she would stand before me and repeat the steps over and over again as if loud repetition would do the trick. “Volume! You just do blah and blah and then you get the Volume!”

The thing is, even though I consider myself a decent teacher, I fall into the same trap in writing every day. I see a kid struggling to elaborate on their evidence in an essay, and I kneel beside them and say “Say More! You just do blah and blah and then you Say More!”

It really helps…

View original 673 more words

Chasing Imperfection.

Hello after a long and joyful break from blogging. Joyful (and long) because our time was spent loving and learning this little guy:



As many of you know, becoming a parent is a steep learning curve.

Just kidding. We haven't done this. (Yet.)

Just kidding. We haven’t done this.

It took us awhile to get pregnant. At some point, we had to accept that our story was not going to be”perfect.” And while that was tough, it helped prepare us for the first weeks of Bo’s life. Because – spoiler alert – having a newborn is not a “perfect” experience. It is beautiful, full of love and laughter, but not perfect. Let’s be clear – the baby is perfect in our eyes. But we are not. Far from it.

Like, I have, um, a friend who forgot to put the diaper on right and was greeted with a whiz to the face. Or, er, another friend who may have thrown out some milk accidentally. Or the screwing up of nap schedules in the beginning (turns out, babies need to sleep! Like a LOT!) and not knowing the right way to soothe and, and, and…the list of imperfections goes on and on.

But, you just have to dive in. You have to accept that you might mess up daily, mostly from simply not knowing, or from exhaustion, or just that you’re not great at this huge, difficult thing yet. You have to dive in because hanging back means the kid’s needs are not met. Hanging back means you don’t improve – you stay a scared novice longer. Hanging back means you torture yourself with self doubt or guilt. Nope. You got to dive in and try a whole bunch of stuff to see what works as you get better each day.

As a new parent, you have to start chasing imperfection.

I went a year with my glasses like this. I hoped at the time that it gave me a nerdy chic...

I went a year with my glasses like this.

The start of a new school year is a little like having a newborn.  If you have experience teaching, you know many engagement moves, you have pedagogy to play with, but it takes time to get the mixture right with your class composition. If you are new to teaching, well, you know what they say about learning curves: get ready to hike up that beautiful, terrifying, imperfect hill!

As we begin the school year, we can try to get everything right immediately, feeling skittish each day, or we can embrace our imperfection. We can chase down the areas of our teaching that feel weakest, that give us the most nerves. We can dive into the work ahead of us with gusto and look for (and look forward to) the places where we might mess up. After all, this is how we will learn, how we will find the new moves and inspiring moments that keep us going.

In the essay “Failure is a Good Thing,” Jon Carroll writes that every week, he knows that no matter what, one of his columns will be the worst one of the week. He says that while he used to try and avoid this each day, now he looks forward to it.

I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I’ve never done before, something I’m not even sure can be done.

We can think of our lessons and units in a similar way – that only by trying new things, by venturing out into uncharted territory, will we discover ourselves and our students as teachers and learners.

Of course, it is difficult these days to embrace imperfection. We are in the age of teacher evaluations and multi-faceted performance assessments at every turn. While it may be true that these new initiatives will give us insight into what makes good teaching, it is equally true that our current climate does not lend itself to a spirit of “hey you guys, let’s mess up a lot!” But without this spirit, we will be in a choke hold. We will hang back. And if we hang back, it often means the kids’ needs are not met. Hanging back means you don’t get better, you stay scared longer. Hanging back means you plague yourself with self doubt or guilt.

So what do you say? Here are some ways to get started looking for the imperfect places in our teaching to dive into this year:

1. Pick a unit/topic/issue/text you have always wanted to teach but aren’t sure how. 

Do you love graphic novels? Teach your kids how to write them! Frustrated by the lack of poetry in the CCSS? Teach the heck out of poetry, knowing that the skills found there will certainly be used elsewhere. Thinking that now is an essential time to teach your kids about the forces at play in places like Ferguson, MO? Dive in and try to do it right, knowing that even if you are clumsy now, you will teach it better next time.

2. Try out a new “thing.” 

Maybe it’s a new device, like using your iPad to track student conferences (we suggest using the Evernote App for your notes), or maybe you’d like to start a class blog. Or you were at a workshop where someone shared how their kids made movies to go along with the stories they wrote and you thought, “my kids would love that!” Take this year to play with a new whatchamacallit.

3. Take on an impossible challenge.

Right now, some gauntlets have been thrown down in education. The standards ask us to help our kids reach great heights. High-stakes testing asks kids to do extremely specific and challenging tasks on demand. Then there are the challenges we have always faced – our students who read far below grade level, our kids who feel unconnected to school. One way to dive into imperfection is to take on something that you may not be able to accomplish, but feel would help your kids succeed. Do a full court press this year on a challenge you believe in and see what happens. Lucy Calkins suggested to us years ago that we choose one child and decide to change their lives this year. Yes, more would be better, but if we do everything we can for one of our students, while still doing a great job with the rest, we can make a huge difference.

4. Invite people to watch you teach (and vice versa).

Of course, the ultimate test of our desire to find areas of imperfection in our work is to work publicly.  Teaching in front of colleagues is the heart of our work with The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. We strive to get groups of educators in a classroom as often as possible and try things out in front of each other, seeing what works, brainstorming solutions to tricky bits. This means that in my job I fail publicly around 50% of the time. And it’s awesome. Once I got over my own ego (which took a year and lots of blushing) I realized that this is the best possible way to grow as a team –  to show each other our teaching moves and lean on each others’ expertise. Set up some classroom visits this year with people you like (or are intimidated by). Practice with each other and be sure to have fun.

5. Learn how to frame your failures.

The thing about inviting imperfection into your life is that you are going to have to develop a good, healthy relationship with failure. And, knowing that Murphy’s Law is always working in the universe, the day of your biggest stumble will most definitely be the day that a group of people in fancy clothes come in with clipboards and frowny faces. In that moment, you have a choice to make. Do you treat the chaos around you as a bad thing, something to be ashamed of, and apologize to the group in nervous tones? Or do you smile broadly, walk right up to the scariest person there and say, “Welcome! I’m so glad you are here – we are working on our debate skills. Today we focused on being sure to debate with passion and a sense of the counterargument. Clearly, we need to work tomorrow on a structure for our conversation. Any tips?” This ability to frame any imperfection against the goals you are aiming for allows you to name what your focus is, while allowing room for growth.

We hope you will share some of your gloriously imperfect ideas and days in the comments below, in the teachers’ lounge and at the dinner table. As we do, remember to be kind to each other and keep a good sense of humor. While there might be moments of failure, seconds of embarrassment, chasing imperfection leads life to feel way more perfect than if we tried to do everything just right.

Happy New (School) Year, everyone!

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Growing as Educators                   Tiny Detail: Chasing Imperfection

Book Club Confidential: Overcoming Conversation Anxiety by Focusing on Critical Scenes

This is a blog post on fear. Now, I could write about one of my many, many fears, some of which include:

  • Enclosed spaces – elevators, airplanes, subways, all of New York City in summer.
  • Taking a medication and then realizing it expired yesterday.
  • Anything expired really – taco shells, orange juice, sun screen, passports.
  • Thunder.

But this is also a blog post on taking risks. I could also write about one of the many risks I take, such as:

  • Drinking a purchased beverage even though the safety seal was maybe (but not really) broken!
  • Wearing black, brown and gray all at the same time!
  • Admitting to a large public audience that I’ve watched every single season of The Bachelor series.

But my fears and risks aren’t limited to being trapped inside metal objects and expiration dates. No, they pop up in all aspects of my life – including my reading life.

I’ve always been a bit shy in a book club. One of my insecurities centers around bringing up the ‘right’ thing to talk about – a great scene, a fresh idea about a character, an interesting theory about plot. My go-to move is usually to let others bring up something interesting to talk about and then I tack on my thoughts and fuel the momentum of the conversation.

But starting the conversation? Kinda terrifying for a reader like me.

I’ve noticed many adolescent readers struggling with the same insecurity. Now, they know the moves to kick off a conversation:

What ideas did you have since the last time we met? What are you thinking about this character? What have you found surprising in the book so far?

They also know the moves to keep a conversation going:

What makes you say that? Is there another place in the text where that’s true? Does anyone else see it the same way? A different way?

But somehow, even with these conversational moves in hand, so often the conversation seems to fall flat, to skim the surface. So when I watch an adolescent book club that’s awkwardly quiet or staying superficial, it seems sometimes that the struggle, the insecurity, is simply what to talk about. It’s risky to throw something big out there to talk about with a group of peers, especially around the middle school age, when, if you were like me, you panicked over having to go to the bathroom because that meant having to actually stand up and walk in front of the class. (This fear, luckily, has faded over the years.)

There are many ways to empower young readers with the confidence in finding interesting, compelling, exciting things to chat about when reading a book together. One of my favorites is teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in a text.

I was working with some wonderful teachers in a small middle school on the Lower East Side in New York City a few weeks ago. Instead of teaching students how to talk with each other, we invited them to think about what they might talk about. Check out our chart:

Teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in books

Teaching students to locate and talk about critical scenes in books

In this lesson, we first acknowledged how it’s sometimes tough to bring up something to talk about, especially if you’re not feeling that confident. We then invited them to do some thinking about the critical scenes in their books. As to not overwhelm them, we described critical scenes as places a character does something out of the ordinary (or says or thinks), places where there is a big shift of events, or places where the character (or the reader) discovers something about themselves, other characters, or the world.

After we modeled this work on the scene from The Hunger Games where Katniss volunteers herself as tribute, we observed students trying this work in book clubs. We realized this work had two tiers:

  1. First, students worked at identifying critical scenes in their books. They took post its or paperclips and searched for critical scenes they wanted to chat about. They debated with their clubs what scenes were, indeed, critical.
  2. Secondly, students wrote a bit to prepare for a conversation around these critical scenes. They took to their notebooks (or could be post its or blogs) to record their thinking about these critical scenes. Some thought prompts for this work can be found here.

Talking to people can be scary. Sometimes the fear and risk-taking around book club conversations isn’t so much how to talk with each other – it’s what to actually talk about. It’s about the moment you take a risk, throw something out there to talk about, and see how it goes. Anchoring this risk to something concrete, like discussing critical scenes, can be just the thing to settle a fear.

Here are other favorite anchors to help nurture conversations about books, both with students and ourselves:

If you have other ways you define a critical scene, let’s continue the conversation – please share them below in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

Big Idea – Book Club Conversations      Tiny Detail – Locating & Discussing Critical Scenes in Books

-Kate & Maggie

Spring is here! Bring out the FUNK.

It’s undeniable.


Photo copyright: Inga Sarda-Sorensen 2010-2011, all rights reserved.

Spring is here!

After what seemed like a very long, somewhat grueling winter, we seem to have made it to the other side, if the flowering trees and sunshine are any indicator. Here in New York City, like so many other places, this time of year marks another kind of crossing over as well – the end of another year of testing, give or take a few. The teachers I know, my colleagues, and myself, well, we are pretty tired. We are creeping out into the sunlight, stretching our cramped and aching limbs, squinting into the sunshine.

Yesterday I was working with the fine 3rd grade teachers at PS 59 in Manhattan. Earlier in the week they collectively wrote to let me know what they wanted to work on together – Writer’s Notebooks. My friend Lindsey Reyes wrote “It’d be nice to see writer’s notebooks breed more writers and the love of writing the way they used to.”  So we did. And as I left the building, walking into a sunny day, after spending the morning reflecting on joy and creativity and voice, my ipod offered me the perfect soundtrack, as it so often does, the perfect song to capture how it felt to talk about Writer’s Notebooks. 

It gave me funk.

You remember Writer’s Notebooks, don’t you? Where we let kids follow their interests, be themselves, have fun, and work on their writing all at the same time? Where we encouraged them to find their base line, and take it all the way?

Writer’s Notebooks are a place where students can find their voice, their rhythm, their stride as writers. In our current landscape of five paragraphs and topic sentences, we have to pause, now that the sun is out, and ask whether or not our kids’ writing is really getting better, or just more logical, more precise, more backed up by evidence. If the answer to this question is no for you or your kids, maybe focusing on Writer’s Notebooks would be a good, funky place to (re)start.

Yesterday, the teachers of 59 and I discussed how to launch a Writer’s Notebook study. We went back to the basics. We called on Nancy Atwell to help us out. Taking Atwell’s writing territories – where we coach students to collect the topics that they like to write about, we riffed a bit, like good springtime funkologists. Instead of focusing on only topics to write about, we went further and created a three column chart: One for topics we are interested in and could write about, one for genres we could write in, and one for audiences – people or institutions we could write for or to. The combination looked like this:

There are an alarming number of refernces to being frustrated with NYC on here....

There are an alarming number of references to being frustrated with NYC on here….

To launch Writer’s Notebooks we want two things: we want the notebook to feel generative – that is, we want it to be relatively easy to think of something to write or try out, and we also want it to be open and creative – we don’t want to do all of the work for our kids by telling them what to write. This three column take on writing territories can help on both counts, as now the writer can, essentially, choose one from each column. I can look at my writing territories and say, “Ok I think I’ll write a poem about rudeness to my upstairs neighbor,” or “I’m going to draft a photo-journal of small moments and photos for my partner about becoming a parent.” This way, our notebooks can become a bit like those awesome flip books where you make strange animals by mixing and matching different animal parts:



And what is more funky than that?

Happy Spring everyone. Let’s have some fun, shall we?

Kate and Maggie

Big Idea: Engagement                                                  Tiny Detail: Three Column Writing Territories.


Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction Reading and Critical Reading (Part III)

Welcome to Part Three of a three-part blog post series on nonfiction reading and the important reading work of determining point of view, exploring author’s intent and engaging in critical reading. If you missed Part One or Two on nonfiction reading & determining point of view and author’s intent, check out the link here and here!

Breaking news headlines come to us constantly nowadays. We hear of headlines while browsing Twitter, Facebook or the Internet. Texts and emails fly in rapidly when major events happen. But still, in this fast-paced climate of immediate information, I love to sit down and watch the evening news with Brian Williams. (Before him, it was Peter Jennings, RIP) The predictable schedule of the nightly program paired with a familiar (and personable) news anchor puts me at great comfort and ease. So much so that I find myself regularly talking back to the stories of the day – adding my two cents here and there, asking rhetorical questions, adding in the occasional Well, that’s ridiculous… or good for them!

My relationship with the nonfiction stories of the day is conversational and reactionary – really, it’s transactional – a conversation between myself and the news. This reading relationship, where reading is a transaction, can be traced back to the work of researcher, writer and professor Louise Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt famously posited that reading is a conversation between text and reader. She argued that it would be nearly impossible to separate a reader’s identify from the experience of reading and making meaning of a text. In Literature as Exploration (1938), she wrote:

“There is no such thing as a generic reader or a generic literary work; there are only the potential millions of individual readers or the potential millions of individual literary works. A novel or a poem or a play remains merely inkspots on paper until a reader transforms them into a set of meaningful symbols”

Case in point: me yelling at the nightly news. My identity, experiences and history shapes how I see the world around me. It affects the meaning I make when reading nonfiction texts. This transaction allows me to become a critical reader – one who reads actively, not passively. One who reads with a curious eye and investigative stance. So when I hear a news report of my hometown debating whether or not to frack for natural gas (my hometown looks like this and this and this), I bring an entire history with me as I read that text. And that critical reading leads me to make meaning, comprehend and think deeply about the text and topic.

There are many frameworks for critical reading. A favorite is one from Stephanie Jones’ book, Girls, Social Class, and LiteracyJones uses a critical reading framework of perspective, position and power. This framework assumes all texts are entrenched with perspective, all texts position readers, and all texts yield power. As readers, we get the opportunity to explore the perspective of texts (and our own), the position the text places us and others (as insiders or outsiders), and the power the text creates (who’s story is written and who’s voice is omitted).

When studying nonfiction reading and critical reading last summer, the teachers and I used this Perspective, Position & Power framework to generate teaching tools to help guide students toward this work. Here are some of our favorite strategies, language prompts and instructional charts that helped set students on a journey of critical nonfiction reading.

Strategies for Critical Reading

Here are some starter strategies to use when exploring critical nonfiction reading:

  • Readers think carefully about the intended audience of the piece of writing. We can ask, “Who is this text written for? Who will most likely read this text? Who is the audience?” Then, we think of talk about how this audience may have influenced the writing.
  • Readers think or talk about how a text makes them feel. Does it make you feel like an insider or outsider? In other words, do you feel like you have the inside-scoop on this topic or do you feel outside of the topic? This work helps us build connections with the text.
  • Readers keep track of the voices heard in the text and the voices not heard in the text. Listen for the sides you hear – this can help you understand which side has more power in a text.
  • Readers read closely to notice information authors assume you already know about a topic.  We can stop and consider whether there is missing information we may need in order to understand the message the author is intending to convey.
  • Readers notice how a text is trying to ‘position them.’ That is, “what is this text trying to get me to think?  Do I agree with that?”

 Language Prompts for Critical Reading

Here are some language prompts to use when exploring critical nonfiction reading:

  • This text is most likely written for… I can tell because…
  • This text makes me feel _____ because…
  • I hear _____ the most in this text because…
  • I hear _____ the least in this text  because………..
  • In listening to the voices presented in this text, I hear language supporting the position ____. This makes me think…
  • The topic of the text is _____ and as I am reading, I’m hearing _____.
  • I am mostly reading this text as an insider. This helps me understand _____.
  • I am mostly reading this text as an outsider.  This helps me understand _____.
  • The reason I feel like an insider/outsider when reading this text is because…
  • After reading the text, I am most interested in hearing _____’s side of the issue because…

A Possible Teaching Chart that Supports Critical Nonfiction Reading

A helpful instructional chart naming a specific strategy for reading nonfiction critically.

A helpful instructional chart naming a specific strategy for reading nonfiction critically.

Critically reading nonfiction invites students to read nonfiction actively. Inviting students to explore the intersection of their lives and history with nonfiction texts sparks a fresh way of nonfiction reading for many. The above teaching tools intend to create nonfiction reading experiences that feel more like a conversation and less like a one-sided lecture.

Here is a link to a handout that supports this nonfiction reading blog post series for you to use or share with colleagues. Happy (critical) nonfiction reading!

-Kate & Maggie

Big Idea = Nonfiction Reading     Tiny Detail = Practical Strategies for the Critical Reading of Nonfiction Texts