Tags: close reading

reading ladders

Press-ing Matters

Read Paul Thomas' post about the need for a press that covers education reform by doing due diligence, researching the facts, reporting the facts. You can read the post here: http://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/u-s-and-education-reform-need-a-critical-free-press/. And if you are not reading this blog regularly, do so. Thomas is one of the clarion voices in our field.

I want to tie his call for a better press to a post Donalyn Miller sent me to last week. Titled An Obituary for Close Reading, it is a piece from the Teaching the Core blog site. So, be aware of the source when you go to read this piece: http://www.teachingthecore.com/an-obituary-for-close-reading/. I agree that there is too much buzzwordification. Actually, the real problem is the commodification of learning. But in being critical of buzzwordification, this blog actually ignores the person responsible for close reading becoming a buzz word. That person would be the architect himself, David Coleman. Go look at the "lesson" he presented for what close reading should look like under CCSS. That is where it all started going wrong. The blame rests squarely with CCSS and not with the professional books this blog criticizes.

I have been more than a little critical of "close reading." It commodified what used to be called critical reading, something that has been the cornerstone of literary practices for a loooong time. But CCSS had to have its own buzzwords so that books could be replaced, PD conducted, old practices supplanted. So, when this blogger notes the demise of close reading it is, of course, tongue in cheek. Would that it were true. And if everyone has a different definition or notion of close reading, perhaps the standards are not what they need to be? Perhaps the implementation has been disastrous? And, perhaps it is time to declare the death of CCSS? It does seem to be in critical condition of late.

Why the push back to close reading? Because much of what we heard went smack up against what we knew were best literacy practices. If there is blame, let us point the finger to outward but inward. Lay off the snarky and ill-informed remarks about professional books. Start the snark with CCSS and the "standards."
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T and A

Got your attention, yes? Sorry for the teaser. I have been following links down rabbit holes of late, reading about text complexity a la CCSS. One of the rabbit holes took me to a protocol for group reading of an article that asked each member of the group to name one thing they AGREE with and ending with one thing each person ASPIRES to from the text. This is apparently a tool for educators to use when reading professional literature closely. Another rabbit hole asked me to view an article through six separate lenses, reading through that lens separately. Hence, I am reading the article 6 times, each time with a different lens. After 6 readings, I am asked to provide 3 main ideas about the text.


While this might be close reading from someone's definition, it is not CRITICAL reading. It also presents a false concept of how we read. I do not isolate lenses as I read, searching for personal connections in one reading then metacognitively a second time, etc. This artificiality ignores what we do as readers. As I read, there are so many things occurring. Depending on the text, I might be making connections between the current text or simply reading critically for some specific information.

For instance, I took a GN with me to the car dealer this week. I know that their estimate of 45 minutes will always be incorrect (2 hours was the correct wait time). As I read, I made connections between this book and the author's two previous books, both GNs. I moved on to some personal connections as the book was about siblings, rivalry and all. Been there. Done that. STILL doing it to some extent. Simultaneously, I was thinking of other texts I loved that talked about the pains and joys of siblings from Nancy Drew (an only child I wanted to emulate in my tween years) to Beverly Cleary to dozens of other books. I was mentally creating a reading ladder. I was thinking about the use of color, of line, of perspective (artistic decisions that influence my reading). And I was thinking this might make a great book to require for my YA lit class. All these things were pinging and yet I was able to follow the story from start to finish without too much trouble.

When I see convoluted approaches to text such as the ones I saw today, I fervently hope that if a teacher decides to do this with a text, he or she will use a text kids already will hate. Perhaps a classic? Or something that has no connection to kids' lives? I really do not want this lovely GN spoiled with the lenses and As approach. Hey, teachers, leave those books alone! All in all, you're just another reason why more kids graduate vowing never to read again.
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Critical Condition

I am in the process of developing a course for YALSA on the critical evaluation of YA literature along with my friend and colleague, Karin Perry. As someone who has served on more than a few committees charged with selecting best books (including Printz, Morris, Excellence in Nonfiction, Odyssey, Quick Picks, Edwards, Walden, Children's Choices, YA Choices, Teachers' Choices), I am reflecting first on what we mean by critical evaluation. Karin and I are pulling together resources, definitions, and other items to include in the course. We are fashioning some assignments. In short, we have both been rather preoccupied with this topic of late.

I have served on committees, though, where we were cautioned against the use of "I" statements. Basically, we were permitted to discuss anything in the book but without using that first person pronoun. So, we could say, "the plot contained a bit of a hole in it." But we could not say, "I believe there is a hole in this plot." It made me nuts during my tenure on those committees. I understood (one could understand is how I should phrase this, but really, ONE???) the rationale behind the rule: we should be commenting on the text and not on our personal response to the reading. I get that. I do. But sometimes this rule leads only to awkward phrasing and the use of that third person ONE in situations where it need not apply. For me, the real difference comes in something like this: "I hate fantasy." Or "I do not care for first person." These are "I" statements that have little or nothing to do with the merits of the book.

However, before I can move on to a more critical or evaluative stance, there is a need for me to respond on a personal level. I did this yesterday about my #bookaday THE BRONTE SISTERS by Catherine Reef.

bronte sisters

I posted it to Facebook and before long lots of folks were asking my opinion. Many of them were huge fans of the work of the Bronte sisters. I admitted that I did not care for their work, but I did love the work of Catherine Reef. Because I bring a dislike of the works of the artists to the book, and because the book drew me in and provided a terrific reading experience, I think I can add something to the more critical discussion which will follow.

And that brings me to this excellent post: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Common Core found here: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/28_02/28_02_ferguson.shtml. This is a brilliant piece about the difference between a close reading a la David Coleman and CCSS and a critical reading (something we have known about for a while, not new, not less rigorous, not less deserving of being a standard). The final paragraph should be required reading for anyone who thinks they understand close reading as bring some venerated practice that elevates reading to a more rigorous activity.

"Critical literacy argues that students' sense of their own realities should never be treated as outside the meaning of a text. To do so is to infringe on their rights to literacy. In other words, literacy is a civil and human right; having your own experiences, knowledge, and opinions valued is a right as well. Despite praise for King's rhetoric, Coleman promotes a system that creates outsiders of students in their own classrooms."

On this day that celebrates the life and work of Dr. King, perhaps we should reflect on these words a bit more.

And if you have not listened to "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", here is a link to King reading the letter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knFojb020bY and listen to Dion Graham's stirring audio as well. Here is a link to the audio which was available for free download this summer from YA Sync: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=knFojb020bY. If you are not familiar with YA Sync, remedy that, too.
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Closing in

No surprise that I have been reading quite a bit about close reading. This post pointed me to a power point presentation on a strategy for using close reading wit young readers and a picture book. Here is the link to the power point : http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/2012/07/planning-for-close-reading.html. First, some background.

Picture books have 32 pages, generally in 16 double page spreads (two facing pages). Generally, the word count is rather spare since illustrations are to convey story as well. If I were to select a book to share with kids, I most likely would begin with some of the books recently honored by the ASSOCIATION FOR LIBRARY SERVICES TO CHILDREN (ALSC) such as the winners of the Caldecott. Here are the criteria for the award which should serve to underscore that they are RIGOROUS and worthy of sharing with kids: http://www.ala.org/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottterms/caldecottterms.

I have been sharing the recent Caldecott winner and Honor titles as I go out for staff development. I hope to high heavens that I have not spawned the practice of reading through these books three times, one for each of the reading bands. Each reading should have a distinct purpose as follows:

The first reading of a text should allow the reader to determine what a text says

The second reading should allow the reader to determine how a text works

The third reading should allow the reader to evaluate the quality and value of the text (and to connect the text to other texts)

The count of questions for the first reading (comprehension) was 20 questions. That is TWENTY. TWENTY. Twenty questions over 16 double page spreads. For the second reading (style and craft) the count was 11. So far a total of 31 questions, about one per page. The final reading questions were rather generic so I did not make a final tally. So, let me review the situation (I think of the scene with Fagin in OLIVER! where he reviews the situation). We read a book to kids three separate times for three separate purposes. We ask a myriad of questions, all text dependent (because there is no SELF to be involved here, just the text as focus).

I have said it before, but it bears repeating here: if someone wants to mange a text for this type of reading, please select a text that is NOT one kids will enjoy reading. Why? I fear that kids will now turn up their noses when we mention picture books or Caldecott or CSK or Belpre or Geisel instead of welcoming a chance to hear WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE one more time or to see the hilarious situation in I WANT MY HAT BACK! or even to delve into the glorious HUGO CABRET with its double page textless spreads that move the story forward without words. If teachers want to pound a book into the ground, I hope they opt for books that are not destined to be favorites of readers. Leave the good books alone. Better yet, use the old basals. Take Dick and Jane and Spot into the land of 20+ questions. Oh, that's right. We cannot do that as they are not rigorous. OK, take the celebrity books then. Rush Limbaugh has one coming out this month. There are books by Madonna, Kenny Loggins, Danielle Steele, and others that deserve to be interrogated and found wanting.

Using picture books to drill kids with questions is NOT a good idea. Using picture books to introduce a lesson is fine. Reading the same book over and over and over again to drain every last drop of fun from it is not.
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Here's the pitch!

I was reading through the status updates on Facebook this morning when I saw a piece posted by Kim McCollum-Clark. I followed the link and landed here eventually (http://fightcommoncore.com/christians-should-reject-david-colemans-common-core-charm-offensive/). At Facebook, there was quite a discussion among FB friends like Paul Hankins, Kim, Cindy Minnich, and others. I must admit the title of this piece, Christians Should Reject David Coleman’s Common Core Charm Offensive, is what drew me in. I was expecting something of the same posting as I have seen on the far right anti-Common Core blogs (i.e., Glenn Beck) that are calling for an end to CCSS because it infringes on state's rights and makes for a federal curriculum (and there is, of course, a kernel of truth to that assertion). Instead, what I learned was this:

1. Coleman had met with a select group of Christian leaders to let them know that CCSS was perfect for them as Christians. Here is the quote: "According to Mr. Coleman, students "educated" under Common Core will be better readers and better able to understand Scripture, and thus will enjoy deeper and more satisfying spiritual lives."

Wow. I was happy I had not sipped my coffee at that moment as it might have gone spewing and hit one of the cats. I made some sort of strangled noise of disbelief. This pitch reminded me of one I saw a few years ago from AR (who is already "aligned" with CCSS) that asserted using AR reduced discipline problems in schools in addition to raising test scores and creating readers (none of which it really does, but that is for another post).

2. More importantly, I learned that this writer was someone who is questioning CCSS and its pedagogy. This careful and reflective analysis is well written, even in tone (I should learn from this), and raises some interesting questions. Among the questions is this: "What is Coleman’s evidence that switching focus from classic literature to nonfiction (including Federal Reserve documents and the EPA’s "Recommended Levels of Insulation") will create better readers?"

The writer, Jane Robbins, goes on to discuss the fact that the reading of Scripture requires some close reading, of course, but it also needs that reading to be done in context and with some background information. I encourage you to read the entire piece to see the reasoned response to someone pitching curriculum as "aligned" with Christianity.


And, of course, now I wonder how many other meetings such as this one took place. Other religions? Other groups with special interests? I wonder how Coleman pitched CCSS to different groups? I think there are some parodies out there waiting to be written that show Coleman speaking to other groups, altering his pitch, making CCSS seem as it if is indeed THE answer, the magic bullet, the panacea for all our fears (and the fears are mostly those he has created himself).

What I have yet to hear is a pitch for the kids themselves. I wonder how that would go? "Hey kids, want to FINALLY see teachers doing a dog and pony show? Aching for standards that will make you feel like failures? Ready for even MORE tests? Have I got a answer for you: CCSS! Everything you have grown to hate in school but MORE and BIGGER and MEANER."

Now, back to some reading that requires me to go beyond the four corners, the BOX Coleman would like to put around me and books and reading. Not. Gonna. Happen.
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Questions in search of answers

Yesterday, as I was reading my Twitter feed, I found a link to an example of close reading. Students had been given a passage. During one of the readings of the passage, they were asked to highlight various parts of speech in different colored highlighters. One reading instructed them to annotate any unfamiliar words. On another pass (same passage), students were instructed to write predictions about the text. Another reading was supposed to result in students writing questions they had in the margins of the text. Those questions were to be open-ended. A shot of the pager after it had gone through all of these different readings was offered. It was colorful. But it also bore NO resemblance to the original text. There was so much "stuff" on this page that I would have struggled to make sense myself as an outside observer.

So, here are a few questions I have about this process:

1. Is this a process we, as adults, use?
2. If so, how often do we use it?
3. In what careers would this type of annotating the text be part of the job?
4. How many college classes require this?
5. What does this teach kids about reading?

mo willems

So, let's see how this unfolds in an elementary classroom. Here is the opening page of GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE DINOSAURS. If I follow the process I saw yesterday, I would ask kids to highlight pronouns using orange highlighters, verbs using green, and adjectives using yellow. Maybe we could use blue highlighters for proper nouns, too. Then, I would instruct readers to note any vocabulary they do not know (perhaps NORWAY?). On the next reading, kids would note predictions for what will happen next. Finally, they would be asked to note the questions they had in the margins of the text making sure they were open ended. OK, this would never happen. I know that. We knows kids' developmental abilities well enough to know that even thinking about doing this to a text would be ridiculous.

But I do want to come back to question #5 above: what does doing all this teach kids about reading? As we celebrate National Poetry Month, I once again recall the words of my friend and former colleague Bob Seney who commented that poetry made him smell formaldehyde. It is about dissection. Call it close reading, but it is picking apart text. At the end what remains? A bunch of pieces. And I worry that those pieces are the very thing that kids will think is the goal of reading: reducing a text to pieces is the goal, not comprehension. If comprehension were the goal, we might think about stopping after the initial read and seeing if kids understood the text instead of asking them to pick up the highlighters one more time.


I do have one thing that I do not question: if you are going to muck about in a text repeatedly with markers and marginalia, please do so with a boring piece of canonical literature. Please keep your claws off contemporary literature. I would hate to see kids develop a strong distaste for YA or children's books. I want to have those on hand to give these kids when they hit MY classroom as a grad student so I can reawaken the inner reader that fell dormant during close reading time. Our reading will be OPEN.
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Audience and Purpose

It is that time of year again: spring conference time. How do I know? My Inbox is being besieged with emails from Pearson and other companies inviting me to come to a demo presentation of a new PROGRAM guaranteed to help me (the clueless one) meet the mandates of CCSS and/or STAAR. It happens in the fall, too. Ads for PROGRAMS. They offer me $$$ in coupons for their OWN products if I will sit in on a sales pitch. Having been married to a salesman (now, thankfully retired) for 40 years, I know the drill. I also know that if I were offered REAL money, I still would elect to stay away. Now I have a delete key, and I know how to use it. I have also mastered the art of walking the exhibit floor and ignoring all the enticements to come into the booth and see the latest lifesaving product. No thanks. I hit the publishers' booths, look at forthcoming books, chat with reps, and then take some ARCs and head back to the hotel room to read. Better PD than sitting through those presentations on the NEXT BIG THING. The problem here is that these companies and their overly eager booth workers do not know their AUDIENCE. If they did, they would jump away from me and instead lick their fangs over some other person in the aisle, someone looking for the panacea that does NOT exist.

Twitter this morning had a link to an article entitled "Common Core Checklist: What to Know Before You Buy." How nice of CCSS to tell me what to buy. Predictably, the checklist for ELAR was a recitation of the CCSS doctrine (here is the link to the article, see for yourself: http://www.techlearning.com/magazine/0007/site-we-like-race-in-the-usa/53649). It is all about evaluating PROGRAMS on a tech site. I was hoping for maybe some insight into APPS and not PROGRAMS. Is this app more than simply a worksheet online or on the screen? Is this an app that extends beyond the text and offers something extra (if not, why have it)? Is this an app that will work in a classroom that is not fortunate enough to have 1:1 tablet access? Is it a mobile app that could be used on a cell phone (since they are more available in the classrooms I visit)? Better yet, is this an app whose underpinnings aligns not with CCSS but with what we know works to motivate and engage readers, to build community, to create more independence? If not, why should I spend time buying it and learning all about it? Why not invest instead in buying BOOKS? Invest in readers.

Yesterday I watched a how-to guide for close reading that just about brought me to my knees. The page of text looked very much like a madman with markers and sticky notes and pencils had just decided to create art from a static page of text. Is this how we do close reading in real life (or as Donalyn Miller's new book indicates "in the wild")? If this is truly what we want teachers to do, promise me this: use the classics, please. Do not mess with YA or children's books and ruin the reading experience. Go ahead and mark up something that is hundreds of years old and inaccessible to kids today (because it is no longer relevant) and leave the GOOD books alone. Kids deserve to read without having to have utensils in hand. They deserve to read and NOT DO A DARNED THING. They have the right to just read. Now, I think that I wll go practice what I preach: time to start a new book. No markers necessary.
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The Wiz?

First, happy birthday to my kid sister, Jo Ann, who reads my blog and still loves me. Hope it is a terrific day, Jo. Next, since I know I will spend today driving to Dallas for TCTELA and then setting up the LS exhibit booth (come by and see us and get a free book!), I am actually scheduling this post in advance. I will be love tweeting and trying to work in a blog from the conference, too.

Now, to the heart of things once more. I watched a video produced by CCSS the other day. I think I have whiplash. The video opens with charges against NCLB, chiefly that that law resulted in tests being dumbed down and made easier (which should come as a surprise to some). The standards under NCLB and within districts were too broad and, therefore, the curriculum was unteachable. Other charges include their facts that while reading of complex texts has increased in the work place (no sources cited for this), the reading of complex texts has decreased in K-12 classrooms (again, would love to see their data). The video went on, then, to point out the advantages of CCSS. For one thing, the video states, the standards are broad. WHOA! Wait a minute! My neck hurts here. If a criticism was that NCLB and state curriculum was too broad, why praise CCSS standards for being broad? Better, why make the changes? OK, moving on. Next the video makes a great fuss about having two different set of standards: one for fiction and one for nonfiction. 50% of reading by 4th grade and 70% by high school need to be focused on nonfiction. Yes, there is a mention that this reading should be done in disciplines other than English, but we know that this is not happening in most places. And here are those dicey percentages again. Toss in another fact that adults read informational texts for 80% of their reading (and the current Pew Internet Study might have issue with that plus the stats today that over 80% of YA sales are to adults) and we have the case made for CCSS, a curriculum that will save mankind.

As I continue to dig deeper into the videos and articles, I feel a bit like Dorothy from the WIZARD OF OZ when she and her friends discover the truth about the Wizard. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." In this case, perhaps it is pay no attention to the fact that this is curriculum written without input from leading literacy organizations (they were not invited to the table despite their requests to be included) or even from many teachers at all. And pay no attention to the backtracking some of these folks are doing as pushback comes from actual teachers. And pay no attention to the fact that there are not many models coming from PARCC (and the few I have seen are deeply flawed). And forget that a chief component of their assessments will be multiple choice basic comprehension questions. And forget that some of what is being asked of kids is beyond their developmental abilities (use of computers for instance, abstract thinking for kids who are not quite formal operational). Better yet, let's just forget this whole debacle that is shuttling money into pockets instead of into classrooms.

Maybe we should take our cue from the heroic folks in Seattle who are pushing back against all of the testing madness?
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Curiouser and curiouser

I feel as if I am Alice and I have fallen down the hole as I am chasing the White Rabbit. Or perhaps I am the Alice in the Jefferson Airplane song "White Rabbit." In either case, I am befuddled, confused, and puzzled. Yes, all three apply, I think. And add angered to the mix, please.

I posted yesterday about reading a blog post on teaching close reading which began with Step One telling teachers to read the text themselves. I still find that insulting despite the number of folks who commented that there are teachers who do not read what they assign. (Insert SIGH here). However, even conceding that there are non-reading teachers (who need to leave the profession), this blog posting was still one that angered me as it went on to indicate that kids need to be doing the reading at home and not in the classroom. NO. I am sorry, but if you wish to make sure kids are reading "closely" (as opposed to "openly"?), I think this needs to be demonstrated in the classroom. Further, time needs to be spent in the classroom on actual READING (the last research I saw indicated that 90%+ of the time in classroom is spent with the teacher talking and very little time left for reading). Give kids time to read with your supervision. Let the at home reading be reading for pleasure, please.

Subsequent steps indicated the teacher should ask "So what?" for those pages, passages, etc. she or he had selected for close reading. Well, duh! Of course I want to ask questions that get kids thinking at a deeper level than simple text comprehension (however, one component of PARCC is that kids answer comprehension questions, HELLO?). For years I have advocated using broad questions. One of my favorite set of generic questions for fiction comes from Richard Peck. For nonfiction, I suggest those developed by Abrahamson and Carter in FROM DELIGHT TO WISDOM (one of the best books about NF). OK, now I have my questions. What next? Well, the blog post kind of ends there with suggestions that teachers now reflect on what they have done. But I di not stop there since the blog post directed me to an article in another journal about what makes text complex. That, my dears is the subject for tomorrow's rant, erm, post.

For now, let me just pause to reflect (Step Six) on why I am befuddled, puzzled, angered, and confused. First, I am angered at the tone of the discussion from CCSS. It seems to talk down to teachers (and if you really want to be made to feel small, watch some of the videos from the group that discuss why CCSS was sooooo needed in the wake of the dumbing down caused by NCLB (WTH?). I am confused about all of the contradictions about how much fiction versus nonfiction is required and who is responsible for what percentage. Maybe my math skills need some work, too? I am puzzled because I see some backtracking in terms of what should be read and analyzed in ELAR classes, too. And I am confused when even the authors of CCSS point to footnotes as evidence that the instructions are clear.

I realize none of this raving helps you if you are a teacher in a CCSS state. I know I could offer you ideas about texts, especially nonfiction texts, you can use. But I am loathe to do so. One of the reasons is that I do not wish to see ONE MORE BOOK ruined by "close" reading and overanalysis. If you need to dissect text, keep your hands off texts kids might actually enjoy reading on their own.

OK, maybe some of this harshness is because I pulled a muscle in my back turning on the light in the bathroom last night (how old am I). But I think my concern goes deeper than those muscles. It comes from my reader's heart and my reader's mind. I love books and reading. I see little evidence that CCSS cares a whit about creating lifelong readers.
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At a loss...

Read a blog posting today about six steps for teaching close reading. Never mind how I feel about close reading the the emphasis being placed upon it by CCSS. Step One in the "directions" told teachers to begin by reading the selection themselves. Really? If step one has to instruct the teacher to preview the text, what hope do the kids in this class have of ever becoming lifelong readers? I have much more to say about this and about close reading and the other steps outlined in this blog post, but it needs to wait until I am not quite so upset at the almost condescending way teachers are treated. That, plus the Golden Globes is on and someone needs to snark tweet!