Thursday, January 31, 2013

Exploring Changing Landscape with Intermediate Grade Children: Recommended Books

Fourth and fifth grade teachers I have the pleasure to work with are going to be exploring the topic of change. Here are a few favorite children's books where the concept of change plays a most significant factor.  These books also share another commonality.  They are exquisitely illustrated and that alone makes them worthy of study, especially the works by Jeannie Baker, Roberto Innocenti and Jörg Müller.

Collage by Jeannie Baker

Baker, Jeannie. (2004). Home. New York: Greenwillow.

Wordless picture book that explores through collages the transformation of an urban area. 

Baker, Jeannie. (2002). WindowNew York: Walker Childrens Paperbacks.

Wordless picture book that explores through collages the practice of exponential change on a landscape via human activity. The artist calls this work a picture poem.I couldn't agree more.

Collage by Jeannie Baker
from The House
Lewis, J. Patrick. (2009). The House. Illustrated by  Roberto Innocenti. Mankato, MN: Creative Editions.

Explores via poetry and image, a house during 15 different time periods across the 20th century. Amazing and detailed level of illustration.

Lyon, George Ella . (2011). Who Came Down That Road? Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto. La Jolla, CA: Kane-Miller.
A mother and child are out walking and the child asks the question, Who came down that road, Mama? The answer is rich and historical stretching from the present to mastodons. 

from The Changing Countryside
from The Changing Countryside
from The Changing Countryside
from The Changing Countryside
Muller, Jörg. (2006). The Changing Countryside. Alhambra, CA: Heryin Books.
An unbound book. Seven large, detailed, trifold posters make up this unique depiction of a small village as it changes, over two decades, from a town to a city. You will want o purchase this as it is still available. Muller's books become collector items. This one is still available.

Paxmann, Christine. (2012). From Mud Huts to Skyscrapers: Architecture for Children. Illustrated by Anne Ibelings.  New York: Prestel.

An over-sized non-fiction text that provides background information about the types of building humans have done from 10,000BC to present. Richly illustrated and detailed.
Add caption

Steiner, Jörg. (2007). The Bear Who Wanted to Be a Bear. Illustrated by Jörg Müller. Alhambra, CA: Heryin Books.

When a bear awakes from hibernation he finds his world has changed and the forest he knew has been replaced by a factory. This text helps to raise important questions about identity and environmentalism.

Front Cover

Wheatley, Nadine. (2009). My Place. Illustrated by Donna Rawlins. New York: Walker Children's Paperbacks.

A classic picture book that traces the history of one place from 1988 to 1788, accounting for the changes in landscape and intention.
Add caption

Zelvar, Patricia. (2005).  The Wonderful Towers of Watts. Illustrated by Frane Lessac. Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press. 

Provides and account of how Simon Rodia, an Italian Immigrant to the Watts section of Los Angeles, built intricate and beautiful towers in his Watts backyard across 33 years. Now a landmark.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Reading State Exemplars With A Critical Eye

I was reviewing a model ELA unit of study for a client that is aligned to the ELA CCSS.  The unit was produced by a state Department of Education and is intended to be used with fifth grade students. I expected that a state DOE would produce apt models--given that the K-12 series is intended to (in)form teachers' work.

So, it was particularly shocking when I read these directions for students:

Read the summary of A Wrinkle in Time, Chapter 1, from SparkNotes, then read the description of Mrs. Whatsit from the text.

Students would repeat this process for chapters 2 and 3, beginning with the SparkNotes and then reading a only small portion of the actual literary text.

Yep, SparkNotes is the main text.

It seems incredible that SparkNotes are an equivalent to any literary text.  I mean it's SparkNotes.  Read all of the SparkNotes and just a small portion of Madeleine L'Engle's actual words? How can this make sense and why would a DOE put this out for educators to emulate?

In the SparkNotes version of A Wrinkle in Time, the 21-page first chapter is reduced to three paragraphs of information. Gone is the press of weather. Gone are the tensions among daughter, mother and brother.  Nothing but the bare facts remain and it couldn't be sadder.

Surely this isn't a vision of literary learning we want to encourage.


Monday, January 28, 2013

Critical Differences in Effective Primary Grade Classrooms

My company, Blueprints for Learning, currently has early literacy projects in more than a dozen inner city schools in the northeast (US). One critical difference I find in effective primary grade classrooms is that these classrooms have been established by their teachers for learner independence.  

These rooms hum with meaningful learning.

At these schools and in these classrooms, children learn well and independently (no waiting for the teacher) due to:

  • daily and known routines that are developmentally appropriate, 
  • appropriate and available materials, 
  • managed choice of tasks and texts ,
  • sustained opportunities for critical feedback from teacher, peers, and in connected classrooms--a wider audience

In exemplary classrooms, teachers are also leveraging the power of connected learning and their learners are using handheld devices to connect with others, produce and consume texts in order to develop foundational literacy skills, dispositions, and strategies.

We are finding that a critical first step is to design and enact learning spaces where independence can be realized.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Close Reading and the Arts: BE the Body

Happiness is the Longing for Repetition (Reilly, 2009)
I.  Close What?

So much talk about close reading and the clutter of ideology obfuscates (perhaps like this sentence) meaning, intention.  The phrase, close reading, carries with it an ideological history informed by new criticism and as such, I think it a poor choice by the CCSS authors to convey the idea of attending to text with intention.

Attending with intention makes sense. Close reading offers learners one method, but not the only.

Here's a list of critical approaches we can and some of us use with/alongside and in the composing of text:

Now ask yourself: Why would 9 out of 10 methods be removed from public education and only one privileged for 13 years?  Whose voice is privileged? Muted?  In such scenarios what happens to one's language?  (Language is more important than love, for language is how we know and name love.) 

Limit one's capacity to know and name love and well--and as Edward Said said: 
Everyone lives life in a given language; everyone’s experiences therefore are had, absorbed, and recalled in that language. (Said, 1999, pp. xv!/xvi)
Why must we make children settle for so stingy a literacy, when gregarious and embodied literacies are in our hands?

We need to talk back to this single mindedness.

II. (Un)method

Method is often easier to talk about and we do that often, a lot, more than is healthy (at least for learners). It has remained, as Allan Luke terms it the not so great  'great debate.' Luke said it well:
Many of us working from sociological and cultural perspectives on literacy education have tried to change the subject of the great debate, to shift it sideways. We have argued that there is no ‘right’ way of teaching reading and writing, but that different curricular approaches – and their attendant textbooks, classroom events, assessment instruments and adjunct materials – shape literacy as social practices differently. The ways that literacies are shaped have uneven benefits for particular communities and, unfortunately, the outcomes of literacy teaching continue to favour already advantaged groups in these communities. The matter thus is not one of finding the right and correct scientific methods of teaching literacy and ‘targeting’ these at marginalised groups. Rather it is about reconstructing and realigning the ‘selective traditions’ of curriculum, instruction and assessment in ways that better address the knowledges, practices and aspirations of communities most at risk in the face of the new technologies and economic conditions.

III. a tisket a tasket... text

Along with method, what also gets a bit sticky is the idea of text.

The new critics would tell us to look no further than the marks on the page: "New Critics treat a work of literature as if it were a self-contained, self-referential object" (Think epic.) David Coleman refers to this as the four corners of a book.

These are pithy statements, but are they true?

What constitutes a text? Is it merely marks made within the four corners of a text?  Can it be confined to the page, or even the page and you? Is this 'the' site for meaning making?

James Gee (2013) points out:

human intelligence and creativity, today more than ever, are tied to connecting— synchronizing— people, tools, texts, digital and social media, virtual spaces, and real spaces in the right ways, in ways that make us Minds and not just minds, but also better people in a better world.

So the text is an expression, a desire, a want  of connecting,  synchronizing readers, marks, sounds, images, gestures, and movements. I deeply believe that meaning is made, not found.

This is the poem that Louise Rosenblatt referenced: the art that happens when reader, text and intention meet.

IV. Here's A Body

So what does attending look like?
What does it sound like?
How does it move across a room? How do you stand inside it? Feel it?

(Shh. We mustn't forget we have bodies and sit about like big heads -- [thank you sir ken robinson for such a vital image]).

Again Gee (2011)

When a person has images, actions, goals, and dialogue to attach to words, they have an embodied understanding of those words. When they can only substitute other words, like definitions, in order to understand words, they have only a verbal understanding (Gee 2004).

So close reading is an embodied reading--it our intention to meet word with the physicality of self and know the first through the former.

The arts open such possibility, yes?

V.  Arts and Close Reading

Here's a partial list of arts-based ways of engaging the whole child in close reading.

  1. art conversation
  2. assemblage
  3. block a scene
  4. blogging
  5. book making
  6. build a scene/representation (legos, blocks, Minecraft, paper/pencil, camera)
  7. caption making
  8. cartooning
  9. chants
  10. charades
  11. choral reading
  12. clay modeling
  13. collage
  14. comics
  15. conduct
  16. creative movement
  17. critique
  18. cultural characters
  19. dance
  20. digitize x
  21. docudrama
  22. dramatic play
  23. dramatize
  24. draw 
  25. drawing around a body
  26. ethnodrama
  27. felt board (app too) retells
  28. fixing space
  29. found poems
  30. framing
  31. giving witness
  32. go gangnam style
  33. "Hello. I must be going"
  34. hip hop
  35. his/her thoughts
  36. hot seat
  37. image transfer
  38. improvisation
  39. interviewing
  40. journal: art, audio, collage, double-entry, image, sound, video
  41. kinesthetic movement
  42. listening
  43. making
  44. mask making/performance
  45. mime
  46. mirror
  47. mixed media
  48. monologue
  49. narrate
  50. narrative pantomime
  51. one word at a time story (re)making
  52. oral interpretation
  53. painting
  54. photo voice
  55. podcast
  56. poetry out loud
  57. print making
  58. process drama
  59. quilting
  60. reader's theater
  61. recast the text as ...
  62. re-enactment
  63. role play
  64. role on the wall
  65. rhyming
  66. scrapbook
  67. semiotic masks
  68. sign
  69. simulation
  70. singing
  71. sketching
  72. snowballing
  73. soundscape
  74. split staging
  75. step into a character
  76. storytelling
  77. subtexting
  78. tableaux
  79. talk
  80. thought tracking
  81. videography (so many apps)
  82. visualize
  83. visual symbols
  84. walk about
  85. whose turn is it?
  86. wonder books
  87. yarn making
  88. zydeco impressions


Gee, James Paul; Hayes, Elisabeth R. (2011-03-04). Language and Learning in the Digital Age (p. 116). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.

Gee, James Paul (2013-01-08). The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students through Digital Learning (Kindle Locations 2961-2963). Palgrave Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Wonder and Beauty

Image made by the Cassini orbiter. (see Cassini Science Mission for more info)

from Seymour Simon's blog:

The Cassini orbiter - an unmanned space probe - sent back this magnificent image of Saturn last month. The reason this photograph is so spectacular is that the orbiter is shooting from the "dark side" of Saturn, so the planet is glowing with the sun’s light behind it.
Look closely at the bottom left-hand corner of the photograph - do you see anything there? Those two little spots are Enceladus and Tethys, two of Saturn’s moons.
Here’s what Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team at the Colorado-based Space Science Institute, said about this image:"Of all the many glorious images we have received from Saturn, none are more strikingly unusual than those we have taken from Saturn’s shadow. They unveil a rare splendor seldom seen anywhere else in our solar system."

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

What It Means to Observe

Galway Kinnell offers a pitch-perfect example of noticing, observing and naming. 


On the tidal mud, just before sunset,
dozens of starfishes
were creeping. It was
as though the mud were a sky
and enormous, imperfect stars
moved across it as slowly
as the actual stars cross heaven.
All at once they stopped,
and, as if they had simply
increased their receptivity
to gravity, they sank down
into the mud; they faded down
into it and lay still, and by the time
pink of sunset broke across them
they were as invisible
as the true stars at daybreak.
 - Galway Kinnell 

From: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, edited by Czeslaw Milosz (1998) 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

10 Essential Early Literacy Videos

What Are We Learning Today?: Setting Goals to Improve Student Learning

Interactive Writing in Kindergarten: Sharing the Pen to Promote Engagement

Interactive Writing

Literacy Centers: Promoting Literacy Independence in Kindergarten

Sand Table and Flannel Board: Contexts for Retelling Stories

The Drama Center: Building Oral Language and More (The Little Red

Hen Makes a Pizza)

Favorite Read Alouds in Kindergarten: Strategies for Fiction and Nonfiction Books

Interactive Word Wall: Spelling High Frequency Words in First and Second Grade 

Reading and Writing Stories: "Say Something" about Comprehension Strategies

Daily Five: Fostering Literacy Independence in Second Grade   

One Today by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco

One Today
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches 
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello| shalom,
buon giorno |howdy |namaste |or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound 
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Increasing Comprehension During Independent Reading

2nd grader independently reading with a flashlight. (Newark, NJ. 2014)

Please note: This post is based on a chapter for three upcoming e-books that explicate how to increase learner knowledge and comprehension through read alouds and independent reading at grades 3, 4 and 5. I am in the process of writing these books and they will be available through iTunes.

Important Research on Independent Reading

In addition to developing children’s knowledge through reading aloud quality texts--ones that students would likely not be able to read on their own--independent reading is also essential.  The volume of reading children do matters as volume helps to build stamina and content knowledge.  When considering independent reading we will want to keep two things in mind:
  1. We will want to teach children how to name and explore topics of interest. 
  2. We will want to ensure that children can find texts that reflect those interests.  
We will also want to know explicitly which methods of independent reading work best at increasing students’ comprehension of text. What are the best uses of independent reading time? This was the question that researchers studied in order to determine which practices yielded the mist significant increases in comprehension. Cathy Collins Block, Sheri Parris, Kelly Reed, Cinnamon Whitely and Maggie Cleveland (2009) concluded: 
The highest comprehension scores for all populations occurred through three approaches. When struggling readers received 20 min of instruction with 1 of these 3 approaches, their literacy growth was equal to or greater than that of their peers. Implications are that treatments using classroom books produced significantly higher comprehension scores than workbook practice or extending basal treatments.
The approaches they studied included:
  1. Workbook practice (meaning pages of practice containing short passages) 
  2. Individualized schema-based learning (meaning that the teacher circulated in the room and had mini-conferences with students, providing one-on-one support with a three-step strategy of praising the student, doing a quick re-teach and/or think aloud, and then returning to check back in with the student later on) 
  3. Situated practice (meaning that students were asked to use their independent reading to practice the skill that had been taught during the whole-class lesson) 
  4. Conceptual learning (meaning that students choose two non-fiction books on the same topic and read them back-to-back, and use that to answer higher-order questions) 
  5. Transactional learning (meaning students read a teacher-chosen book related to a thematic topic the class had been studying and then had a 5-minute class discussion) 
  6. Traditional instruction (meaning the control condition where students simply read out of the basal reader for 20 minutes) 

The three best practices that produced significantly higher comprehension scores were:
  1. individualized schema-based learning, 
  2. conceptual learning,
  3. transactional learning. 
The three shared these features:
  1. allowing student choice of books to be read for guided independent reading practice,  
  2. the reading of more than seven pages of continuous text from fiction or nonfiction classroom books, and 
  3. 15–20 min of silent reading that contained specific teacher actions.

Individualized Schema Based Instruction: Recalling Detail
One way you can maximize the reading aloud lessons is to scaffold students use of strategies they learned during the read aloud  lesson with their independent reading in order for them to problem solve at points of difficulty and to delve deeply into the text. Fifth grade teacher Rich Kleine demonstrates  this in the video in the next page. Watch as Rick circulates in the room and has mini-conferences with students, providing one-on-one support with a three-step strategy of praising the student, doing a quick re-teach and/or think aloud, and then returning to check back in with the student later on. In this portion of the film we watch Rick as he confers with a student about word knowledge and reinforces a reading goal he has established with the student. Individualized Schema Based instruction produced the greatest gains for recalling details.

Conceptual Learning: Main Idea
Conceptual learning is silent reading of two student-selected, same topic, nonfiction books that are read back to back. The researchers found that  
when students read two nonfiction books on the same subject back to back, they become stronger at finding main ideas (p. 278).
Creating classroom libraries that contain multiple expository titles about the same topic is important so that students are able to read two texts about the same topic back to back and have choice while doing so. In the Year of Wonder project I am doing with Jazleen Othman, an elementary teacher at Park Elementary School in Newark, NJ--students have spent the last few weeks immersed in the study of Charles Darwin and adaptations. I began the project by reading aloud Jason Chin's Island: A Story of the Galápagos and the students, Jazleen and I worked hard to make sense of how some of the finches adapted and produced larger-billed finches.  Through dramatic tableaux, students retold the story the next week and instead of continuing the read aloud, Jazleen and I provided students with a collection of books that they worked together in small groups and pairs to read. 

The books included:

We scaffolded the reading as needed and students had been immersed in reading and writing nonfiction based on their interests for the prior month.

Transactional Learning: Summarizing
Transactional Learning is silent reading of a fictional text related to a thematic unit followed by a brief  group  discussion of the text. Transactional learning produced the greatest gains for summarizing. The researchers clarify how transactional learning occurred during the study:

In the current study, transactional learning occurred when students read teacher selected fiction classroom books related to a thematic unit under study. After reading, students conversed about how the information in each book tied to the theme and could be applied to their lives. This learning environment replicated thematic units that included independent silent reading of classroom books and a class discussion following the reading of these books (p. 264).
James Britton (1970) told us that “All learning floats on a sea of talk” (p. 164).  Creating the conditions where students can engage in meaningful discussion is important. Teaching students specific discussion protocols and strategies can greatly help them to build ideas with each other. Above is a slideshare containing information about ten different discussion protocols that is based on this work of Stephen Brookfield and Stephen Preskill. 

Block, Parris, Reed, Whiteley and Cleveland (2009) concluded that:
silent reading periods appear to need teacher monitoring so that students’ questions can be answered as soon as they arise and students can be held accountable for what they read through teacher-led discussions relative to a general theme (p. 279).

Works Cited
Block, C.C., Parris, S.R., Reed, K.L., Whiteley,C.S. and M.D. Cleveland. (2009). Instructional approaches that significantly increase reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Society, 101 (2), 262-281.

Britton, J. (1970). Language and learning. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press.

Brookfield, Stephen D. and Preskill, Stephen (2009-05-18). Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.