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

Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Author’s Intent (Part II)

Welcome to Part Two 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 on nonfiction reading and determining point of view, check out the link here

I have been working on a letter of recommendation for a teacher I’ve worked with over the past few years. I’ve admired her work for years and can’t imagine a better candidate for this educational program. As I sat at my computer, I felt an urgency to express her thoughtful and innovative work to the application committee. I wrote and rewrote each sentence a number of times, concentrating on creating a vivid, accurate portrayal of her classroom and teaching. I chose my anecdotes, words, and thoughts on her work with attention and care. My driving intent – to give her the best shot at in getting into this program.

And this driving intent – this author’s intention – fueled the piece of writing. It informed decisions around craft and structure; it influenced word choice and tone. As a writer, the intention comes from within. When reading another’s writing, we imagine the intention. Figuring out an author’s intention reveals the purpose behind the piece and adds a layer of insight to the reading. Now, is it possible to completely determine someone else’s intent without asking him or her? Perhaps not completely. But engaging in analysis of an author’s intention leads to layered reading, as well as going beyond figuring out the main idea.

Now, you might ask, “What’s the difference between an author’s point of view and an author’s intent?” We asked the same question! My colleagues and I muddled in this fog for a bit this past summer, teasing out the differences between an author’s point of view and an author’s intent. It’s a slippery slope, really – one informing the other and visa versa. But we came to a understanding that worked for our learning community and it was this: Author’s intent is the drive behind a piece of nonfiction. It’s the why of the piece, the intention of the author. Like point of view, sometimes it obvious and easy to determine, where other times, more subtle and difficult to discern.

Another way to examine the different between point of view and author’s intent was this:

If a text is a car, then an author’s intention is the driver. Yes, the driver has a point of view, a vantage point of the road, but she also has a plan of where she wants to take the car and how she’s going to drive it.

This exploration in truly defining author’s intent in our learning community provided a fruitful, engaging and dynamic conversation – one that we encourage you to take up with colleagues, as well. As you come to your own understandings around author’s intent, perhaps some of these strategies, language prompts, and instructional charts will help your students access this work when reading nonfiction.

Strategies for Author’s Intent

 Here are some starter strategies to use when exploring author’s intent:

●      Readers read to find out what the author is making us feel, and how. We pay attention to how we feel after reading a text. Then, we step back and ask ourselves, “How did the author get me to feel this way?” (see sample instructional chart for this strategy below.)

●      Readers investigate an author’s intent by paying close attention to words and phrases the author uses. We then use this information to step back and think, “Why is the author using those words and phrases? What is her or his plan?”

●      Readers examine an author’s intent by looking at the information he or she includes, and thinking about the information he or she has left out. What is included or excluded can lead readers to figuring out what the author is trying to do with his or her writing.

●      Readers can examine an author’s intent by analyzing the inclusion of text-features, such as illustrations, photographs, charts, and graphs, to determine how these features make readers feel or what charts/graphs are designed to show.

●      Readers pay attention to whom an author cites as an “expert” or “source of knowledge” on the topic.

●      Readers notice when words or certain phrases are repeated throughout a text. They try to put those words and/or phrases into a larger category to see what an author’s intention might be centered around.

Language Prompts for Author’s Intent

Here are some language prompts to use when exploring author’s intent:

●      This is making me feel…because…

●      The author uses the word(s) _____ because…   This makes me think he or she is trying to…

●      The author doesn’t include…    This makes me wonder if…

●      Because the author is part of _____ organization, his/her intent must be to _____.

●      I noticed that the author repeatedly uses _____ (phrases, theme, setting, etc.) and that makes me realize that the author is trying to show/teach me about _____…

●      The author wants me to know (or do) …

●      I think these images fit/don’t fit with the text because …

●      I think the author is trying to persuade me to think/do … because they he or she says/does … in the text.

A Possible Teaching Chart that Supports Nonfiction and Point of View 

A helpful instructional chart detailing a strategy to access and determine an author's intent. This chart provides a strategy for children to replicate, steps to follow, and an image to engage in guided practice.

A helpful instructional chart detailing a strategy to access and determine an author’s intent. This chart provides a strategy for children to replicate, steps to follow, and an image to engage in guided practice.

This is an example of four model jots or annotations to show determining an author's intent in action. The teacher not only shows the work in action, but names the strategies she used to produce the jots or annotations.

This is an example of four model jots or annotations to show determining an author’s intent in action. The teacher not only shows the work in action, but names the strategies she used to produce the jots or annotations.

Teachers trying this work shared that one of the mantra’s around this work is asking why. Why do you think the author wrote this piece? Why do you think the author chose to use these types of words? Why did the author include this evidence, this image, the fact box? This mantra of why positioned students to embrace a more critical stance when reading nonfiction and fostered a conversation between reader and text. Please continue sharing your journey with this work!

-Kate & Maggie

Big Idea = Nonfiction Reading      Tiny Detail = Practical Strategies for Analyzing Author’s Intent of Nonfiction Texts

Teaching Beyond the Main Idea: Nonfiction and Point of View (Part I)

I’ve had ‘organize the file cabinet on my household to-do list for about two years now. And I’m proud to say, I now have the satisfaction of crossing that off the list

I noticed some trends as I came face-to-face with these files:

  1. Early on in my teaching, I had a quick obsession with graphic organizers that looked like food.
  2. I have a knack for keeping multiple copies of the exact same thing.
  3. Transparencies were a thing – I mean, they were THE thing.

I came across my Nonfiction Reading folder, began organizing it, and was struck by a huge trend. Upwards of 80% of what was in that file had to do with determining the main idea. I had prompts to coach kids on figuring out the main idea, strategies to teach main idea, proficient examples of student writing illustrating the main idea, nonfiction articles that were main idea-friendly with supportive sub-headings.

And there is good reason for all of this main idea support. Determining the main idea is one of those reading skills that’s tricky, takes a lot of practice to get really good at it, and requires synthesis work across swaths of text with a hearty dash of interpretative thinking: What IS this text mostly about? The overall message of idea of this piece is…? What is the author teaching me about this topic? We also find ourselves continuously teaching into this skill because as nonfiction texts get harder and more complicated, one could argue figuring out the main idea is, then, harder. Just imagine reading this article on string theory and then being asked to talk about the main idea (no pressure:).

But here’s the thing. When we study the Common Core Standards, when we tap into the conversations of all that kids can talk and think about when reading nonfiction, when we study the questions on high-stakes exams, kids need to be able to think about way more than just the main idea. And, they should! There is a whole wide world of great things to think and talk about when reading nonfiction:

What’s the point of view of this text? Why did the author choose these words or use this language here? What’s the shape and structure of this text and how does that impact how I receive the information? Is there bias here? What information is left out?

We can also  put this conversation in the context of the Common Core Standards. Specifically, when studying the reading anchor standards, you’ll notice how the craft and structure reading standards guide students to engage in work beyond the main idea: interpreting words to figure out their connotative meaning; analyzing word choice and how it creates tone; analyzing text structure and how specific sentences or paragraphs relate to each other; assessing the point of view and how it shapes the content of a text.

So. This blog post is part 1 of a 3-part series on additional ways to support the reading of nonfiction beyond teaching into the main idea. We’ll give air time to lesser-explored nonfiction reading skills – well, they were were lesser-explored for me and some educators I worked with over the summer in an advanced course at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s Annual Summer Institute. We spent a week pushing ourselves to develop curriculum, charts and examples of other important areas of nonfiction work:

  • Part One: Nonfiction and Point of View
  • Part Two: Nonfiction and Author’s Intent
  • Part Three: Nonfiction and Critical Reading

Nonfiction and Point of View

Many argue that all texts, nonfiction & fiction, carry a point of view and perspective. Stephanie Jones, in her book, Girls, Social Class, and Literacy, argues

All texts (i.e., spoken, written, performed and multimodal) are constructed by people who are informed by particular ideologies – they are entrenched with perspective.

Exploring point of view and perspective inside nonfiction is a layered journey, where some texts carry a more obvious POV, whereas other texts are more subtle. The Common Core Standards devote one anchor reading standard to this work:

Reading Standard #6: Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

We can wrap additional words around this standard, exploring and teaching point of view of nonfiction as a viewpoint, a stance the author takes on the topic, or a perspective.

Strategies for Teaching Determining the Point of View of Nonfiction

Here are some starter strategies to use when exploring point of view of nonfiction:

  • Readers notice the words the author uses to help determine how the author might feel about the topic and then use that feeling to determine a possible point of view.
  • Readers determine the author’s point of view by imagining which side the author would take in a debate on the topic.
  • Readers read more than one text on the same topic in order to be able to recognize different viewpoints about the topic.
  • Readers determine what information is missing from a text. Then readers can wonder why the information may have been left out. That reason for omission can help determine the author’s point of view.
  • Readers pay attention to numbers, facts or statistics that are used in a text.  By analyzing what the numbers, facts or statistics are showing, a reader can help determine the author’s point of view.

Language Prompts for Determining the Point of View of Nonfiction

Here are some language prompts to use when exploring point of view of nonfiction:

  • When the author says ___ it makes me think he/she may believe…
  • The author seems to be making the point that … The sentence or words giving evidence of that point is ___
  • The author doesn’t say anything about ___, so I wonder if he/she thinks…
  • If the author was debating this topic, his or her side might be ___.  I think this because…
  • The visual images in the article (photographs, illustrations, diagrams) are included to maybe make the reader think or feel ___. Therefore, the point of view might be…
  • When the author uses words like ___, ___, and ___, this tells me he/she might feel ___ about the subject.
  • If the central idea of the text is ____, then the author’s point of view might be ___ because….

A Possible Teaching Chart that Supports Nonfiction and Point of View 

NF Reading and POV

A helpful instructional chart detailing a strategy to determine an author’s point of view. This chart provides hints & steps for students to follow, as well as a demonstration & a guided practice section.

Teachers trying this work with colleagues and their students found an instant boost in student engagement, as it sets up an investigative stance when reading nonfiction (versus a passive, hands-off stance that sometimes infects students when reading nonfiction). Teachers also found a jump in students’ overall meaning making and critical thinking practices. We’d love to hear how this goes for your and your students!

-Kate and Maggie

Big Idea = Nonfiction Reading         Tiny Detail = Practical Strategies for Exploring Point of View of Nonfiction

Edublog Awards, #Nerdlutions, and NCTE13: It’s About Community, Silly.

     Right before the start of 4th grade, we moved to a new town. One summer night, the neighborhood kids invited me out to play Kick the Can. This was great, except for two things:
          1. I was extremely shy and scared of people.
          2. I had no idea how to play Kick the Can.
     I went and hid. And, not knowing the rules, I stayed hidden. While others snuck out to kick the proverbial can, I stayed hidden. While my peers laughed and ran and shouted, I stayed hidden. When they became concerned because they hadn’t seen me for a long time – hidden. Even as they yelled out my name I stayed crouched under the bush I was hiding under. I also cried.
     See, I didn’t know the rules of this community, this game. And I was so, so scared of people.
     Now I am a grown woman with friends and a relationship and a career. I like to think that I have developed a whole host of social skills across the years. And yet when faced with a new community, a new game, I feel that familiar fear: What if I do the wrong thing? What if I embarrass myself? What if no one likes me?
     Luckily, the communities I have found in the past two years, both online and IRL, have been supportive and wonderful and warm. They have allowed me my hiding-under-the-bush-moments, and they have coaxed me out gently. This post is devoted to three such communities: The blogosphere, Twitter, and conferences.

1. Edublog Awards:

Awards make me feel like hiding under a bush. And there are so many blogs I love. But here are a few I would love to shout out:
  • Best individual blog: Blogging Through the Fourth Dimension.I love Pernille Ripp’s ability to waltz between hope, critique, humor and warmth. I find at least two of these qualities at home in every post.
  • Best group blog: The Nerdy Book Club. What else can I say about this crew? Oh I know, they have rekindled my dormant reading life and warmed my heart more times than I can mention. Perhaps more than any other group of people online, N.B.C. has helped my teaching and my life.
  • Best new blog: KinderConfidential. Kristi Mraz has just begun her blogging career, but her posts are insightful, mind-bendingly brilliant and, well, funny.
  • Best class blog: Books Upon Books. Here is the thing about Kristen Robbin’s class blog – it is not so much the classroom blog, though she uses it masterfully to model for kids what she hopes they will achieve. It is the work that her kids do off of this class blog that is transformational. Check out the student links on the side. Boom. Also, Kristen’s personal blog- A Kind of Library- is a beautiful testament to books and the power of reading.
  • Best administrator blog: Practical Theory The other Chris Lehmann in my life is a former mentor but more than that he is a true visionary in education. His blog is a testament to his beliefs about education – namely that without engaging and listening to kids, we are lost.
  • Best individual tweeter: @iChrisLehman. Chris is admittedly my compatriot and my friend. But his influence on twitter is palpable and widespread. What I love about Chris as a tweeter is his range – he is able to in the course of 24 hours offer helpful advice to teachers, critique the state of high stakes testing, and comment on popular culture or current events. Chris is also an incredible Twitter friend – he supports and guides and converses.
  • Best twitter hashtag: #Nerdlution. Brand new. But helping countless teachers already to set goals for their life and their teaching.

2. #Nerdlution


Recently Colby Sharp and friends kicked off a new hashtag – one that encompasses the absolute best of twitter. #Nerdlution is a way for all of us to stay motivated. All you have to do is name something that you would like to do every day from the next 50 days – and then join the community online to help you stay motivated. Here are my Nerdlutions:

1. Break a sweat every day. If it’s good enough for Matthew McConaughey it’s good enough for me.

2. Write every day.

Twitter has helped e to stay connected no mater what – now it will help me stay connected to my goals, to what I truly want out of life. Thanks, Twitter.

3. NCTE13

I never used to go to conferences. My introverted self struggles to stay present, to stay engaged with all of the people and stimulus. As those who know me well know – there is a point in every large gathering where I kind of shut down, Tin Man style. But what I have found out this year is that despite my limitations, I LOVE conferences. I love the people that I meet, the rich conversations I have, the way my thinking is always pushed and my heart full when I leave. I may need some strategies for survival (like I blogged last year here) but going to conferences has fed my professional and personal life in ways I did not expect.

So – while there are times that I still may want to hide under the bushes and stay there until every one goes home, I am indebted to the new communities I have found in the past two years.

Don’t Get Off the Bus, and Other Holiday Advice

One time, twenty years ago now, I was returning to college on a Greyhound bus after a perfectly fine Thanksgiving with my family. It was raining, my head against the glass watching the rain trail down the windows. As we pulled into the Albany station – still a good three hour drive from my college in Hartford, CT – a thought came to me:

Get off the bus.

Of course, it made no sense to get off of the bus. I was three hours away from my destination and had little money. I was perfectly safe on the bus and had mandatory classes to attend the next day.

But I did. I got off the bus. I left my duffle bag behind thinking I could recover it in Hartford later. I took my Sony Walkman, a handful of cassette tapes, my nearly empty wallet, and hit the road.

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It was, of course, a colossally stupid thing to do. In the hours that followed, I hitchhiked on I-90 singing “Old Man” by Neil Young at the top of my lungs, fought my way out of one tractor trailer when the driver decided I owed him more than my gratitude, got another ride from some gas station guys smoking something illegal as they drove, and accepted a final ride from another truck driver, who remarkably resembled Charles Manson, but wound up being a kind father of three girls. After he dropped me off at my dorm and I waved goodbye, my body turned to liquid with the realization of the danger I had faced. I was terrified.

But earlier in the day, when I was safe and warm on the bus, the idea to get off the bus felt so right, so compelling, that I didn’t have a choice but to listen. I craved an experience, I craved a risk – something much more vital than rows of plush seats, the steady drive of 55 miles per hour, and the classes I was to attend. It seemed at the time like there was nothing for me on the bus – like I had been there, I had done that.

There are kids in our classrooms who feel like I did twenty years ago – kids who suddenly wake up one day (usually in middle school) and notice the plush seats and steady pace of their school life and think, ‘I’ve got to get out of here.’ For them, it seems as though there is nothing for them in school. We want to be on the lookout for the kids who want to “get off the bus” and examine why. Can we make our schools a place where kids want to stay, a place that feels safe and secure, but also provides adventures and risk – real things that many students (and many of us) crave?

When students want to get off of the bus of their school careers, they make it perfectly clear. It may look like disengagement, it may look like disruption, or it may look like dropping out. Whatever the outer sign, we have a choice as their teachers of how to respond. We may not be able to convince all of our kids to get back onto the bus at every moment, but we can find ways not to push them further away.

Of course, the safety record and comfortable seats of school are not going to be viable selling points for students who are craving something faster. We need to change in order to stay relevant to younger generations. To help kids stay on the bus, we need not so much strategies as mindsets that can help them to see the worth in keeping the faith, even staying on the road of school. Here are a few mindsets that have worked for me with my kids:

1. Understand.

When we have lost faith in something, whether it be Greyhound or graduating, it does not help to have someone tell you that you are wrong or dumb to feel that way. The feeling is real. It even makes sense. School is weird. If you grow up not seeing educated adults around you happy and fulfilled, or if your deepest interests have absolutely nothing to do with school, it’s tough to stay motivated to do your homework and show up for math class. When talking to kids who are getting off the bus, you may not want to say, “I get it, school stinks,” but it is important to communicate that their perspective is understandable. Try letting them vent their frustrations with school without you editing or clucking in disapproval. Many of us have said that teachers are teachers, parents, coaches….and therapists. For our students who need us, let’s embrace that role a bit more actively and show our students that we are listening.

2. Shift.

As educators, it is in our nature to get wrapped up in our own rules, our own guidelines. Don’t get me wrong, I love rules. I am an avid rule follower. I also get kind of persnickety when others don’t follow the rules. But in my classroom, I had to understand that if I wanted to reach my kids who were getting off the bus, I might have to bend the rules a bit. Not that Jimmy should be allowed to do whatever he wants with no consequences. But perhaps there are some kids who might write a literary essay on a movie they love, or a video game, and not always on a text, especially if the skill I’m most hoping kids practice is the skill of essay writing. Or perhaps my kids could choose what book they will read on book club. Or I could let some kids listen to the book on tape while they work.

There are countless opportunities to find individualized ways to get to the same destination in our classrooms – in fact Universal Design for Learning (UDL) pushes us all to think more about what it is we want kids to learn or be able to do, and then to consider all of the ways that we may invite them to get there. The choice of pathway, according to UDL, should be theirs to make, not ours.(Future blog posts on UDL forthcoming, especially if we can convince Colleen Cruz to guest post!)

3. Expand.

If, when I look out into my classroom, I see a sea of faces in danger of disconnecting to school, I need to rethink my curriculum and stance on how to teach the young people of this generation. Perhaps my kids need more project based learning, or internships in the community. Maybe I could launch an independent writing project unit, where students get to choose what they will make and what their schedule will be. Maybe I need to step back and ask students what they want out of school, what would feel relevant to them. When students don’t see the relevance of school, I need to help them find it. I also need to expand my vision of what school is for my students, especially in these days of high-stakes testing and standards. I may need to use a wider lens at times, pausing to ask: how does this activity fit into my students’ world?  What would help them navigate their world a little better?

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For many of our students, there will come a time when they feel frustrated with school. They will not see the point, beyond following the rules and behaving. Some of these kids will try to get off the bus, like I did (quite literally) twenty years ago coming back from Thanksgiving. How we respond to these kids – to these classes of kids – will determine whether they keep walking down those dangerous highways, or whether they will find a reason to get back on the bus, plush seats and all.

Big Idea: Engagement     Tiny Detail: Trying on different mindsets to reach students

-Kate and Maggie

Thank You.

The book is out today!


Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts – and Life, my first book and my wonderful co-author Chris Lehman’s fourth, is being put into boxes and shipped out as we speak (at least that is what I am envisioning this morning).

I am not sure what I expected to feel when I got my copy in the mail, but what I have felt from that moment is just rolling waves of gratitude. It seems strange to have only my and Chris’ names on the front – it seems like there should be a scrolling list of people who helped make this project a reality.

I have a daily practice of gratitude – a group of friends and I email each other each day with a “Gratitude List,” where we name things we are thankful for each day, no matter how hard the day. (Hutch and coffee make the list each day.)

So here, on the day our book comes out, is a small portion of my Gratitude List – for the people who have been so foundational, so supportive in the writing of this – my first book. I included some favorite quotes on gratitude along the way.

“If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
― Meister Eckhart

Tobey Antao, our editor, has this amazing ability to both fill your sails with wind while also absolutely letting you know what should probably change in your writing or thinking. It is an amazing balance, and one that made all the difference. She is smart as a whip, sweet while embracing sarcasm, and as we say up in Utica, a good egg.

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh,

Heinemann Publishing. I don’t know what I expected from a publishing company, but feeling like they are part of my extended family was certainly not on the list. From marketing to design to editing – this company has what is important in its sights – teachers and students.

“In the end, though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
― Elizabeth Gilbert,

Lucy Calkins has been my boss and mentor for almost a decade now, but she has influenced my thinking and teaching since the moment I stepped into a school. I have had the honor to learn from her, to follow her as she leads a mass of educators through tricky times with thoughtfulness and fortitude, and to enjoy her company.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

- AA Milne.

Colleen Cruz and Nadine Baldasare are a part of my family, though we met when I was 23. They have supported me through every kind of rough time imaginable, celebrated all the good bits, and passed much of the time in between. While our acknowledgments didn’t leave room for friendships, these two are much more than that, and they deserve all of my thanks. More specifically, thank you Nadine for the beautiful author photo, and thank you Colleen for always being a professional inspiration.

“Po flickered. “Thank you?” it repeated. “What is that?”

Liesl thought. “It means, You were wonderful,” she said. “It means, I couldn’t have done it without you.”
― Lauren Oliver

Maggie. In my life, there is before Maggie, and after Maggie. I am so glad to be in the “AM” years now.

And then there is Chris. I am so glad that we decided to move forward from that first birthday dinner conversation, and not only because we now have this book that I am so proud to have co-written.  Yes, you are a brilliant educator, yes, you are a great writer, but more than all of this you are a fine human being, and I am honored to be your friend. Thank you for writing this book with me. Thank you for showing me the ropes.  I did not find a quote to represent my gratitude for you, so instead, here is this tribute:

Lastly, thank you. Having such a supportive and smart community to bounce ideas off of is a joy and an honor. I am nervous, of course, having my first book out there, but knowing that I am sharing it with you all makes it so much easier. I so hope that it is helpful, that you enjoy it, that it sparks more conversation.

Thank you!

A Day in the Life of a Close Reader

We are almost at the end of our 7-week blog-a-thon on #closereading! We invite YOU to join in! Find more on how-to here. Several selected posts have already been linked to on the Contributors page and we are looking forward to your addition. Let’s closely read the practice of close reading together!

close reading button

In our book, (which is coming out next week – October 17th!), Chris Lehman and I offer lessons and ideas for helping students to become more powerful and independent close readers of texts –  both fiction and nonfiction texts, both print text and media. But we also argue that close reading is not just something that we do when reading, it is a basic human skill –  a skill we link to the ability to love. We encourage you at the end of each chapter to consider not only how the work in this book challenges us to think about texts, but how we can use these same moves to reflect upon and “read” our lives more closely. As we write in Chapter One:

We know, in our bones, that loving something or someone involves knowing that thing or person very well. Returning to it repeatedly, gazing at it for hours, considering each angle, each word, and thinking about its meaning.

Hence the title: Falling in Love with Close Reading. In order to love something or someone – whether it be your partner, a poem or your remodeled pantry – you must know the object of your love very well. You must read it closely, paying attention to every detail, letting those details be your teacher. We argue that it goes the other direction as well, that in the process of choosing to look at something or someone closely – by choosing to see the details and by choosing to reflect on them – you can create a love that may not have been there before. Chris and I believe that the skill of reading our world closely allows us to live richer, more beautiful lives.

So I decided to do an experiment: I would spend an entire day as a close reader of life, and share what insights I find. Here are five moments from my day as a close reader:

1. Time – see what’s become of me?

I kicked off my close reading day with coffee, looking at my schedule, feeling the now common tug of stress and excitement when looking ahead to a full, action-packed day. Because it was 5am and because I had not had much coffee yet I almost forgot my purpose – to read everything closely – but I remembered in the nick of time. I thought, ‘Wait. Why would I read my schedule closely? What could I get out of that other than a huge headache?”

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Then I remembered a blog post Chris wrote awhile back about how what we spend time doing reveals what we value, and that we should spend more time doing what matters most to us. And so I read my schedule a little more closely, looking for the details of how I spent my time. I noticed that my time was mostly spent doing one of three things:

1. Working.               2. Writing.             3. Seeing friends.

Now, each of these things matter to me. I care about my job, the schools I work in, the teachers and kids. Writing has become a huge part of my life, and my friends fill up my life and give me the energy to do the rest of it. But as I looked more closely, I saw that there were some things not on the list – some things that matter too, or in some cases, matter more that what I was spending all of my time doing:

1. Marriage/Romance.           2. Exercise.             3. Tending to my spiritual life.

Of course, my intention is always to fit these things in – to find an hour here and there to go work out, to wake up early and meditate, to remember to bring home flowers, or be sweet, or have an impromptu dinner date. But isn’t it true that these are the first things to go when we are faced with a busy week?

As I sat in my living room at 5am, now fully caffeinated (thank you, Lord Coffee), I realized that when you look closely at the way I structure my time, it doesn’t seem like I care as much about the things that actually mean the most to me – my partner, my health and my spirit. That has to change, I thought, and I went to work balancing my schedule – erasing a writing night and putting “date night” in its place, writing a quick email to cancel dinner with a friend so I could have one quiet night at home, writing in the times I would exercise so I would be sure to do it.

In our book, Chris and I focus a chapter on reading closely for the structure of a text. In this moment, I read my life closely for how I structured my time, and found that some important changes could be made to live more of the life I want to live.

2. Look for the signs.

One of the joys (and hardships) of my job is that I go to a different school every day. Today I was walking to a school 30 minutes from my house. I have walked this path at least a hundred times over the years. But today I was reading closely. All of a sudden my walk was a journey of inside jokes, absurd truths and beautiful details. I could not possibly write everything I noticed, but here is one example: I walk through a neighborhood that is in between two fancier neighborhoods. Over the years people have tried to make this neighborhood fancy too, but it just hasn’t stuck. As I walked through the streets reading my surroundings closely, I saw signs like these:

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The word choice struck me all of a sudden as both inviting a certain demographic while also gently mocking them. The Yuppy Puppy is more obvious – yuppy is not really a compliment, but signals to people that perhaps here you will find the organic dog biscuits you are looking for (says the girl who buys her cat organic cat food). But it was the choice of the word “haven” that fascinated me. “Haven” means a place of safety and refuge. I started to laugh. Is the store a haven for juice in a land of pizza parlors and bodegas? Is it a haven for the aforementioned yuppies? What exactly is the danger surrounding this “haven for juice and yuppies?” High calorie count? Non-organic juices and dog biscuits? (Says the girl who buys organic peppers.) I began to see this neighborhood as advertising the tension of store owners who want the business that comes with gentrifying but who also resent, even slightly, what comes along with that influx of “yuppies.”

In our book, we focus a chapter on studying the word choice in texts. Of course, words are all around us. Reading the language we use closely can help us to be in on the joke.

3. Reading Between the Lines.

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I mean. . . really? I like having 5 trees, but do you really need a plaque for that? And I kind of think a trash receptacle is actually an expectation, not an add-on. Ahem, anyways, moving on. . .

4. Speak Softly…

So I’m at work, talking to some teachers I like and respect and feel comfortable with. We got talking about testing. All of a sudden, I realized that almost every other word I uttered was the F-bomb. Just a torrent of filth, really. Now, I am sure this has happened before and I haven’t noticed it (please don’t tell me if this is true). But today I was reading my life closely and I noticed. And stopped. And said to my colleagues, “I am so sorry that I am cursing like a sailor. Please forgive me.” (I think they may have been disappointed that I stopped.)

The words we speak matter. Reflecting on the language we use, how we describe things, the tone in our voice helps us to be the best part of ourselves, but it takes a whole lot of close reading to notice and to change.

5. Embrace the Moment.

When I got home from work, our 17 year old cat, Hutch, was in a state. His thyroid issue, his deafness, his general age has made it so that he becomes delirious at times, meowing what we call his “rage meow,” running through the apartment like wildfire, and, most charmingly, vomiting. I wasn’t in the mood. (A few more F-bombs may have escaped my lips.) But then I looked at him – my faithful friend. My cat who puts those articles about the aloofness of felines to shame. My pet who feels like a part of my heart.

He is thin now. I call him ‘my bag of bones.’ His muzzle is gray, his teeth starting to decay. He kind of smells funny, and his rage meowing literally wakes me up four times a night.

But I put these details next to the past 17 years of his companionship – the way he ran to greet me at the door every day like a dog. How he liked to jump up into my arms and rub his face against mine. How he used to follow me from room to room before his hearing went. How he sleeps on a pillow above my head and in the night I can feel his paws patting me from time to time. How he is this perfect balance of wanting to be near you but not wanting to be on you like some cats.

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The closely read details of now – rage meow, vomiting, no sleep – can only live truly next to the legacy of my time with him. When I read something closely, I don’t want to only focus myopically on what is in front of my face, I want to place that close reading next to something – in this case the other moments I have spent with my sweet Hutch.

Chris and I spend some time in our book thinking about how we can closely read a text in the company of other texts, and how that comparative work helps us to see the bigger picture of each. My time with Hutch is in the last chapter. I owe him not only his present tense. I owe him the perspective of his whole life.  After all, he has been reading me closely for 17 years.

Closely Reading Texts, Closely Reading Lives.

There are many more examples – moments I spent with kids and read their expressions differently because I was paying closer attention, a time noticing the way a teacher spoke dismissively of her kids and challenging her language, an evening with my partner where I listened more deeply to her stories from the day. There were more signs on the way home, more things I saw in myself and in my life that I could change or appreciate.

It was wonderful. It was exhausting. I don’t think I will do it again. For just as no one can closely read a whole novel, our entire lives are not meant to be so closely examined. However, the ability to zoom in on special moments, either from the texts we read or the lives we lead, is an important one. Chris and I hope that our book helps you to teach your students to read texts more carefully, more analytically, but we also hope that it will help them – and perhaps you – to see their own lives differently. To find the moments that deserve a closer look, and to focus in on the details, seeing what wisdom they have to offer. Like this graffiti outside of my supermarket suggests, the future is ours to make what we want of it, but we might have to start paying closer attention to the little things in order to help it shine bright:


Big Idea: Life                                       Tiny Detail: Reading Life Closely

Kate and Maggie