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Change is constant and necessary for learning

I have two grandchildren ages 7 and 9. They are so curious about life. They often ask questions about how things work or about the meaning of something. I just love being with them! I watch how they interact with each other while attempting various tasks, such as playing board games, making up beds, or taking care of their new puppy, Inzo.

This Christmas, I got the pleasure of spending five days with my grandchildren and my niece and nephew, who are also 7 and 9. As I reflect on the five days, these four beautiful children helped me develop an awareness about children that is important for every educator to know. Here is what I learned about children over the Christmas vacation.

The children we see right now are not the same children we will see at the end of the day. Every second of every day children are engaging with life. The life experiences help children understand how the world works. As their understanding of the world changes, the ways in which children interact with the world (their thinking and behaviors) change to match their newly discovered understanding. They learn how to solve problems when they play games. They develop rules to help them play games they create. They learn how to depend on others and support each other when working on a common task. They learn that they each have unique skills that they can share to make the work easier. They seek knowledge to deepen their understanding by asking questions of each other and the adults around them. They learn new words and explore the use of the words by using them as they speak and using the words to capture their experiences in writing. They create images to support their writing.

Over the five days we were together, they were learning and changing. At the conclusion of our vacation I was left wondering how teachers might use what I learned to support children’s academic achievement of grade level standards. Isn’t this the question all educators ask?

Let’s think about the roles and responsibilities of the children and the adults during this vacation. The children and the adults had vital roles during our vacation. Everyone took on the responsibility of having fun and create lasting memories. The adults and the children were responsible for teaching and learning. The adults intentionally planned experiences that took us outside to explore and experiences that keep us inside to explore. The children selected specific activities during our explorations. The adults followed the children’s lead and facilitated experiences and provided support and information to the children when requested (the children asked questions). The facilitation encouraged the children to wake up every morning more curious then they were the day before. Each morning the children asked questions about the previous day’s experiences and often wanted to revisit the experience (use other tools to make another clay ornament, mix paint colors to create new colors, try to swing the golf club in different ways to see how far the golf ball would go and if using different techniques would help them reach the next level in the video game, etc.). We all would test the ideas the children had and decided together if we were happy with the results or if we needed to make changes to the idea to get closer to the results we wanted. We were all learners. This experience leads me to I hypothesize that intentional planning of experiences where student and teachers are jointly responsible for exploring, questioning, generating ideas, testing and revising ideas as needed might strengthen academic achievement of grade level standards.

When our vacation was over and we prepared to return to our homes, we talked about all that we learned over the vacation. It was apparent that the children and the adults were returning home having experienced many things that changed the way they understood the world and life. My grandchildren and niece and nephew will return to school different children because of new learning. I wonder if their teachers are ready for the different individuals they have become? Will their teachers consider how experiences over winter break changed my grandchildren, my niece and nephew, and the other children in their classroom? Knowing that all children have different yet similar experiences that change the ways in which they understand the world, what will you do differently to teach them? Think about my hypothesis. What questions does this generate for you? Be curious and explore one of your questions or my hypothesis and see what changes happen in your classroom!


I open my eyes and grab my phone to check the time and check-in on Twitter. That is the beginning of my morning routine. However, in the past 3 months my morning routine ended there. I have “fallen off  the wagon”. But yesterday, while checking Twitter, I stumbled across a post from Cindy Minnich describing the #nerdlution invitation and her #nerdlutions. #nerdlution is like a resolution-set a goal and Tweet your progress using the hastag #nerdlution for 50 days beginning December 2.

As soon as I read her post, I knew I was in! I, too, was accepting the invitation because as I have stated above, I have “fallen off the wagon”. I need the challenge of publicly stating my goals and being accountable to a community of supporters to help me get back on the wagon. So here are my #nerdlutions:

  • Exercise-I love to walk,however, it is cold now and I don’t like to be cold. But when I exercise I feel so much better…about life, work, family and friends. I am a better person when I exercise. Actually, after reading Cindy’s blog, I did 30 minutes on the elliptical! Go me!!
  • Writing-I am working on a book with a colleague and need to write everyday. Now, I know this is what I need to do, but, being the slacker that I am, I put writing off until the last minute. Then I am stressed to get the work done. The pressure of having to post my progress daily will get me going.

I am going to stop at two #nerdlutions! My nature is to bite off more than I can chew and then I have to let something go. I know that these #nerdlutions are very important to me and I do not want to do anything that will jeopardize my ability to accomplish them, so I am going to stop at two. After the 50 days, I can take on new #nerdlutions for the other things I want to accomplish.

Have you “fallen off the wagon”? Do you have something that you want to accomplish in the next 50 days? Accept the invitation! You will be so glad you did :).

Moving Toward COMMON Understanding of Close Reading

Effective Implementation of the CC is grounded in common understanding of the anchor standards and key terms. The one term that has generated a lot of discussion is close reading.  From reading and talking with teachers, it appears that the term has many definitions. This over generalization is dangerous because lack of common understanding impacts how teachers teach close reading and how students learn to do close reading.  In one of my earlier post, Close reading vs. reading from a critical stance: Is there a difference? I describe a conversation with a colleague about the definition of close reading. It was this conversation that prompted me to engage in conversation with others about what close reading is and what it looks like in the classroom. In addition to discussions, I have spent a lot of time reading what others have to say about close reading. Interestingly enough, my PLN on Twitter has also taken on the challenge of developing common understanding of close reading. Together we have grappled with what close reading is and what it looks like in the classroom.

 So here is how I have come to understand close reading. Close reading is when the reader moves from literal understanding to abstract understanding. Close reading is when the reader analyzes the text to discern the author’s intended meaning. Text analysis in close reading requires the reader to observe what they notice about the text. What I have discovered is that the commonly known word notice can cause confusion in this definition. By notice, I am referring to the ability to be aware of what catches the reader’s attention.  Usually this is something that is of interest to the reader or something that surprises the reader. It can also be information that is new to the reader. An awareness of these observations helps the reader become aware of the metacognitive thinking the reader engages in, such as connections, visualizing, questioning, inferring, determining importance, and synthesizing. Close reading continues as the reader then looks for patterns across what was noticed. Finding patterns across the observations helps the reader discover the big ideas presented in the text. Discovering big ideas allows the reader to weed out observations that do not contribute to understanding the author’s intended meaning. Beers and Probst in Notice & Note identified “signposts” or patterns that occurred in all books. These “signpost” can be taught to students to support close reading. Beers & Probst also suggest that when students are taught these “signpost” the likelihood of students engaging in metacognitive thinking increases. Finally, as the reader continues to read closely, the reader uses the patterns to draw conclusions about the author’s intended meaning. The reader uses the big ideas to explore the significance of the ideas presented.

 The one thing that I have neglected to mention here is that close reading happens often during a reading of text. It can happen each time something in the text catches the reader’s attention. Something else that I did not mention is that close reading should not be done with everything that is read. Overuse of close reading will become another thing that turns a reader off from becoming a critical reader for life. 

How do you define close reading? How is my definition similar or different from your understanding? Let’s keep the conversation going until we reach a common understanding. A common understanding will only enhance teaching and learning. I’m in, how about you?

Click on the button below to read more and continue the conversation.

close reading button

Walking and Talking

Today was no different from any other day.  I expected the usual challenges-my mindset (Am I doing this today or am I looking for an excuse?), the weather, which in the past couple of weeks has been hit or miss, and the terrain (oh those hills!). I was getting ready for my daily exercise-walking about 4 miles. I laced up my sneakers and headed out the door because when the time is right I have to just do it. As I said, today was no different from any other day except that today before my walk I read the first chapter of How We Think by John Dewey. In this chapter Dewey defines thinking in two ways; random thinking-the mind in a relaxed state, unconnected thoughts flowing in and out without conscious effort and reflective thinking-connected, focused thoughts based on beliefs and seeking evidence to support beliefs to draw conclusions. I needed some walking and talking time to process what I had just read.

I headed out the door, down the driveway and onto the street. I could feel the humidity in the air but today that did not bother me. As a matter of fact, I barely noticed the humidity. My mind thinking about something else-seeking a connection between Dewey’s ideas on thinking and my thought on metacognition. I have toyed with this idea of metacognition and its importance in teaching reading and writing. But the way Dewey defined reflective thinking kicked my thinking into high gear! How is metacognition and reflective thinking the same or different? With every step I took, my awareness of my surroundings diminished and the conversation in my head took over.

I think metacognition is important for teachers to understand if they are going to teach reading and writing well. A teacher must become aware of what happens in his/her mind when he/she reads and writes. Becoming aware of the strategies used to understand text when reading and strategies used to communicate ideas in writing are important for effective instruction. Once the teacher is aware of  his/her understanding, the teacher is able to decide when and why he/she used strategies and the result of the strategy use. Awareness and reflection is the experience needed to form the foundation for instruction. This is how I understand the role of metacognition in teaching reading and writing. However, Dewey presents this idea of reflective thinking in which one thought determines the next thought threaded by a common idea. Is metacognition paying attention to what connects thinking, or analyzing the relationship between thoughts?

Did I feel a rain drop? Oh, it can’t rain now, I have not fully understood my thinking yet! AND I am far from home…where can I find shelter? Oh well, I’ll just keep going and see what happens.

Is metacognition an awareness of what prompted the first thought and later thoughts?

Go away clouds! I have thinking to do!

Here’s how I see the relationship between reflective thinking and metacognition:

first thought=awareness of understanding

later, related thoughts=investigation to deepen understanding (how do I understand this?)

draw conclusion=knowledge (what I now know because of strategy use)

Oh, wow, I’m almost home.”

As I approached the crest of the final hill, my house in sight, I realized that what was usually an exhausting walk was almost over and I had not noticed my usual challenges. Yes, I was winded and there were a few raindrop stains on my clothes and glasses, but as I slowed my pace (walking and thinking) I had a sense of accomplishment. Today, this sense of accomplishment was different from most days. Today, not only did I complete my walk but I also came to an understanding about the relationship between reflective thinking and metacognition. What a powerful feeling!

How has walking (or any thing else you might do) and talking helped you sort out your thinking?



Summer is for…

This week I participated in the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writing Project Advanced Institute and I joined Teachers Write!, a virtual writing camp. Ambitious, huh? Especially for a person who struggles to find time for writing. I always say you find time for what you value but I have not been living my words. So I decided that this was the summer for practicing what I preach!

My goals for these endeavors are to push myself to reconnect with writing, to develop a habit of writing (find time to write everyday), and to use my writing for publication via my blog and professional journals. It is my hope to have an article by September or at least an outline for an article. I also hope to use this writing for several blog post (this post is one of the several :)!).

Participating in the two events at the same time was a coincidence. I had planned to take part in the Institute  but the writing camp just happened. I learned about the writing camp from my PLN on Twitter. At first I thought that sounds like something I would like to do but I don’t have the time, especially since I am already participating in the Institute.  Also, the focus was on fiction writing and I wanted to focus on nonfiction writing. I tweeted Kate Messner, who launched  Teachers Write! on her blog and she replied that there would be some focus on nonfiction writing. But that was not enough to get me to commit. I shared the information about Teachers Write! with in-service teachers who enrolled in a class I was teaching. Several of the students expressed interest and signed up. Now the pressure was on. If students were signing up, I felt compelled to join also. So I did and I am so happy that I joined the writing camp.

It is the writing camp that opened the space for me to revisit my interest in metacognition. It was the Institute that provided space for me to hone my understanding of metacognition. The writing camp prompts focused on  fiction writing. However, I have been able to spin the prompts to meet my needs. The prompts have jump started my thinking about my writing. I now know that I was hung up with my writing sounding formal and the “formalness” was my road block.  I did not know this on Monday when I started writing. The “Ahh” came on Thursday during the Institute when  prompted to select an idea and list events and experiences that make this idea jump out at me. The joint experiences have pushed me to look at my topic from a new perspective-informal. However, I still have this lingering question-can  informational writing have a formal and an informal tone? I hope that I am not breaking any informational writing codes. Anyway, this is what I have decided to do.

Honestly, this approach has allowed me to do the most writing I have done in a long time and I am enjoying it! I look forward to having the time to write. I think it maybe helping me free up some brain space-helping me to clear some of the clutter (thoughts) in my head. It’s freeing, liberating! I look forward to next week’s discovery about my writing.

So for me, summer is for… writing. How will you complete this sentence? I look forward to hearing about how you are pushing your boundaries this summer.

Close reading vs. reading from a critical stance: Is there a difference?

A few months ago, I sent an email to several colleagues describing a proposal to begin a conversation to help pre-service and in-service teachers develop the skills of critical analysis and close reading. In response to my email, one of my colleagues suggested that I not use the term close reading because what I was proposing was not close reading but “more like deep comprehension – reading from a critical stance”. My colleague suggested that close reading is a literary device that does not activate background knowledge.

This description baffled me. In my mind there was no difference between close reading and reading from a critical stance. After I read this description I immediately went to Tim Shanahan’s blog post What is close reading?, which I had just read. I reread the blog post (for the third time) “closely” looking for evidence of the similarities and differences between how Shanahan described close reading and my colleague’s description of close reading. What I discovered is that Shanahan’s description strongly supports deep comprehension (reading text three times, each uncovering more about the text (what the text says, how the text works and critical analysis of the text), which ends in a thorough understanding of the text or deep comprehension.

It appears that the difference between close reading and reading from a critical stance is the evolving definition of the terms and how the context defines how the terms are used. At one time the term close reading referred to a technique to analyze literature. This analysis happened in English class and allowed for  discussion of  text structure. It was not used to support the reader’s understanding of the text. In reading class, text was read from a critical stance, where the reader used their knowledge to think deeply about text. With the implementation of the Common Core Standards, the term close reading describes the process of using the technique of analyzing literature to develop a thorough understanding of the text, which will enable the reader to critically evaluate the text.

As I reflect on this conversation, I am wondering if my proposal should have read “…help pre-service and in-service teachers develop the skill of close reading”, leaving out critical analysis since close reading ends in a critical evaluation of text?  How do you define close reading?

Setting Goals for 2013

Each new year brings new challenges. In education, one of the new challenges is the Common Core State Standards. The standards and its underlying principles-developing students who are self motivated, critical thinkers who clearly articulate their opinion and evidence to support their opinion, seek knowledge, value diverse perspectives, uses knowledge of pragmatics to adjust purposes for reading, writing, listening and speaking, and who can work collaboratively to solve problems-are valued by educators. However, The Common Core State Standards are viewed as an overwhelming document, even though there are less standards than what we were working with previously. The Common Core State Standards are overwhelming for several reasons. It is written in language that we understand, however we are struggling with common understanding. Lack of common understanding leads to insecurities about how to prepare students who are college and career ready. The standards require the use of skills and strategies that we use automatically, but we are not aware of when, how or why we use the skills and strategies. We are also struggle with how to implement student centered learning rather than teacher centered learning. In addition, we are worried about students being assessed based on the Common Core State Standards when we are not sure how to implement the standards. These reasons (in addition to others) are the reasons for educators being overwhelmed and unsure of what’s to come. It is a time of uncertainty and confusion.

Teachers and administrators alike are actively seeking knowledge and understanding of the standards as they prepare for full implementation. In my opinion, the challenge with the Common Core State Standards is that it requires shifts in beliefs about teaching and learning. This is easier said than done since our beliefs are the core of our being as educators. Our beliefs are what informs our practice. When we are faced with situations, events, and or behaviors that rebuke our beliefs we go into survival mode-fight or flight. Many of us are in fight or flight mode as we quickly approach full implementation of the Common Core. Unfortunately, in this situation, fight or flight will not help us survive.

Once when I was confronted with a overwhelming challenge and I was in fight or flight mode, a friend and colleague gave me this advise, “How do you eat an elephant? One bit at a time.” This advise helped me put the overwhelming task into perspective. I used the following plan to tackle the task. First, I set an achievable goal and a timeframe for accomplishing the goal. An example of this is instead of trying to digest the entire English Language Arts Common Core Standards, select one of the strands at your grade level to read and understand. Create or look for lessons that reflect the strand. Track your progress towards understanding the strand and identifying lessons. Tracking your progress helps you keep your work intentional and focused. Share your thinking with others. Engage in conversation with your colleagues about your understanding. You can also engage in conversation with other educators through social media like Twitter. This will help you refine your thinking and also engage your colleagues in thinking deeply about the standards. Invite colleagues to observe a lesson you want to try out. Through collaboration everyone benefits. Finally, celebrate your work. The accomplishment of any goal should be celebrated. The celebration can be personal to you but the biggest celebration will be the look of achievement on your students faces.

This is just one way to begin the Common Core journey. What are some ways you are working towards implementation of the Common Core?


Each morning I wake up and my first thought is, “Are you going to exercise today?” Most mornings I find that I have to motivate myself to exercise. I have to focus my thinking on the benefits of exercising. Thinking of the benefits helps me to prepare for the work I want to do. When I think about all the other things I have to accomplish in the day, I can quickly talk myself out of exercising.

When I think about reading and teaching children to read, I wonder about how motivation is used to help prepare children for the work to be done while reading.

When reading, many times I find myself thinking about an issue that is in the forefront of my mind rather than thinking about the text I’m reading. Sometimes I find myself noticing connections related to my thinking rather than to the intended meaning of the text. When this happens, am I truly reading? Knowing that the brain is a pattern detector, (it is seeking stimulus that is similar to the current thinking) the brain is scanning the stimuli it is receiving to make connections to what it is focusing on. In other words, when reading the brain is scanning the information received from the text and trying to connect the information to what the brain is thinking about.

When planning lessons, motivation is seen as a way to get students hooked on the lesson, a way to get students interested and engaged in the learning. However, what happens is that teachers plan elaborate activities that take away from the intentions of the lesson. Many times the motivation activity is not even directly connected to the lesson’s focus.

Motivation would be most effective if used as a way to prepare the brain for the work (thinking) it is about to do. This makes a lot of sense to me since reading is about making sense of text, which requires the reader to think about the text being read. In order for the brain to focus on the meaning of the text, the brain has to be ready to pick up on the clues that will support the readers understanding. Preparing the brain allows the brain to know what patterns to look for since the brain is a pattern detector. Without preparing the brain for the work necessary for reading the brain self selects from the many streams of thoughts, which one to focus on, ignoring anything that is not related to the chosen focus.

Viewing motivation as a way to prepare the brain for the work of reading will allow the reader to read text in a way that will support deep understanding. It will allow the reader to seek clues from within the corners of the text rather than from the streams of thoughts that occur when the brain has not been prepared for the kinds of clues is should be seeking.

So think about motivation in a reading lesson as a way to prepare the brain for the thinking it will need to do to make sense of the text. Motivation should be just enough information to awaken the brain but not overwhelm it. Motivation should provide essential information necessary for focusing on the meaning of the text rather than an activity. Motivation should be quick-if it is too long the brain loses is curiosity and wonders about something else. Once the brain is awakened it is important to engage the brain in the work it has been prepared to do immediately.

What role does motivation play in your lessons?


Intentional Lanugage

“The better you know something, the more risk there is of behaving egocentrically in relation to your knowledge. Thus, the greater the gap between teacher and learner, the harder teaching becomes.” – Peter Johnston


I just finished reading Peter H. Johnston’s book Choice Words. The quote above came from chapter one of the book. After reading these sentences, my mind lingered on them. I returned to read these lines over and over again. My repeated readings were for several reasons. At first I did not grasp the meaning of the words but I was intrigued by the words. With each repeated reading I deepened my understanding of the underlying message in the words. I connected the meaning to events in my teaching. Making the connections allowed me to make the lines meaningful and relevant to my teaching. As I continued to read and go back to reread these lines, I realized that these lines represented a very important message of the book.

Choice Words is about how the language teachers use impact student learning and intellectual growth. Johnston reminds us that not only do teachers have to be intentional in the instructional practices they use; teachers must also be intentional in the language they use as they facilitate instruction. Intentional language will lead to developing students’ critical literacy, which is one of the key elements of the Common Core Standards.

The intentional language that Johnston refers to is language that helps students create a literate identity; such as what have you learned most recently as a reader? Facilitating students’ identity helps to build their competence. Competent readers are engaged in their learning, more likely to take risk, take responsibility for their learning, build stamina and develop strategies for overcoming challenges.

As I was reading this book, I reflected on the language I use to facilitate instruction. Often during instruction, I will catch myself saying something that is teaching as telling rather than teaching for understanding. When this happens, I pause, rethink my statement or question and restate it in a way that encourages the learners to create understanding.

Also as I reflected, I realized that intentional language reflects what teachers believes about the abilities of their students and the goals they have set for who they want their students to become. Because intentional language is grounded in beliefs, it cannot be planned. It is authentic otherwise it sounds contrived and fake. Intentional language closes the gap between teacher and learner. When we use intentional language, we demonstrate an understanding of ourselves as readers and an awareness of how we are similar and different from others.  Intentional language helps students develop the same awareness. It is the understanding of oneself in relation to others that supports the development of critical literacy.

Here are some questions to ponder as you thinking about the choice words you use in your lessons:

Who are you as a reader?

Who are your students as readers?

What do you think you are doing in your reading lessons?

How is the language you use influenced by your thinking about your students and your instruction?


Are there other ways to think about intentional language? I look forward to hearing your ideas!


Johnston, P. 2004. Choice Words. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.


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