#celebratelu: Books, book communities, and book talk

Celebrate with Ruth Ayres Writes …. because we need to celebrate moments in our lives every chance we get.


Today serves as a mid-marker of sorts, as of today, I will have been out of school on summer break for exactly one month…with exactly one month to go.  When anyone asks me what I’ve been up to over the past weeks, the first thing that comes to mind is reading.  I have read more over the past four weeks than over the last six months!

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What I’ve read…so far.

This is not to say that all I have been doing is reading, but I am amazed at the pace I’ve been able to keep without losing either the energy or the enthusiasm for reaching for another book the moment I finish what is currently at hand.

Of course, my summer reading has me thinking about the new school year and the readers who will be walking into Room 202 at the beginning of September.  What am I learning about my own reading life that can be put to use for them?

Choice, yet pre-selection: Although I could choose to read whatever I wanted and in whichever order I preferred, every book in my TBR pile (whether YA or middle grade or for professional development) was pre-selected carefully, based on reviews or word of mouth.  This meant that I could count on each reading experience to be a pleasurable one, some more than others to be sure, but not one of them a disappointment – each good reading experience fed the desire for another.   This is what I want for our classroom library as well: it must be consistently good, carefully selected, every read a worthwhile one.

Communities of reading and responding: some of my books were “book group books” and some were ones I read on my own.  But, even in the case of the latter, I had a group to share my thoughts with, enthuse and mull over, problem solve and commiserate with. Our conversations helped spur rich questions and thinking that I would not have had if I had read alone.  This makes me think that in addition to book groups that meet when we do our genre studies, when each group is reading the same text, I should build in some time every week for just “book turn and talks” about whatever it is that my kids are reading.

Latitude in how to respond: There was great freedom in my book groups to find our own ways in which to respond, and to experiment with each response.  We sketch noted, jotted, drew webs, asked questions and wrote long, and in the process we learned new ways of note taking and communicating  ideas.  I want my sixth graders to have this freedom and flexibility as well, which means that I will have to plan for it both in terms of modeling/sharing example as well as assessment.

A sense of responsibility:  We trusted the process, purpose, and value of our reading communities, and felt an obligation to show up prepared each time we participated, so our conversations were always meaningful; best of all, they always pushed our thinking. In my “share whatever you’re reading” group, we could not wait to tell each other (across many miles and a time zone) what had moved us, made us laugh, brought us to tears: it didn’t matter that we did not have a book in common, all that counted was the rich experience we just had to share.  Of course, I would love to see more of this joyful sense of responsibility with my kiddos as well.  I think I will begin laying the groundwork by simply speaking of my summer experiences and how much the fact that others took their reading lives seriously impacted my own desire to show up prepared.

Time: Well, this one needs no explanation.  I have time to read and I am making the most of it.  But, all of the above ensure that I  am using this gift of time to read.  And, for my students, time in our classroom comes down to one person – me. It’s my responsibility to toss aside anything that gets in the way of large blocks of time for my kids to read/confer/share.  That’s on me.

So, this “mid-marker Saturday”, I celebrate all the reading done, the reading to come, for myself…and for those soon to be Smithlings.

#cyberpd 2017: Dynamic Teaching For Deeper Reading #3


I’ll say this for Vicki Vinton, she makes me think, think, think, in spite of the fact that it’s summer and I should be giving my thinking self some time off!  Chapters 7 and 8 of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading tackle the issues of teaching readers how to problem solve with a focus on interpretation, and in the reading of non fiction.

At the moment, I am also deep into a brilliant work of adult fiction, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones having finished making my way through  the equally stunning Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.  Both books have involved putting into practice much of the work Vicki is asking us to do with our students, since they are incredibly complex and multi layered, both in terms of meaning as well as craft.  Luckily, I have two of the smartest and most patient book club members in my corner, with many opportunities to think out loud and problem solve my way through interpreting meaning and craft.  I was thinking this, especially, when I read this in Vicki’s book:

Once a reader has developed a coherent interpretation that takes into account all of a text, not just the selected parts, he can turn that into a thesis or claim and repurpose the very same details he used to build his interpretations as evidence to support his claim…

So, if we believe…that reading is a transactional act, with a text’s words only coming to life as they interact with a reader’s mind and heart, and that the students who leave our schools will need to know how to interpret many things, not just analyze them, we need to bring interpretation-and feelings-back into our classrooms.” (pgs 131, 133)

Interpretation, Vicki explains, results from noticing patterns the author establishes in the text, “patterns, which, once established, change and break”.  Our big questions lead us to notice patterns(what always seems to happen), which leads to hypotheses (maybe this is why), problem solving conversations, and then newer, richer, interpretations.

I was so appreciative of the way Vicki laid out the core principles, pedagogical reasoning, and classroom methodology in the way she is wont to do: i.e. in an organized step by step fashion.  It helps that this work builds on the work from her brilliant book with Dorothy Barnhouse, What Readers Really Do – the “what do I know/what do I wonder” lens through which to process meaning making in a text.  Having done this work, I could more easily see extending its scope in this way.

This chart is one I will be returning to again, for planning and for conferring, for it perfectly lays out the scenarios my kids most struggle with:

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I loved that Vicki acknowledges the trickiness of this kind of problem-based approach to teaching – it goes counter to any neatly packaged, “here’s how to say this” minilesson, it invites a bit of on the spot thinking on our parts, as well as confusion.  But, it also leads to complex and rich thinking:

The secret is in the nature of the task itself.  It’s what, in mathematics, is called a rich task”, one that presents students with an open-ended problem…and is accessible to a wide range of students because it provides multiple points of entry and ways of solving – that is, it comes with built in differentiation… (pg. 127)

I used the students’ thinking as a model, not my own, and I took time to situate the work within a larger transferable process when I explained why and how writers use patterns…This means I teach into what students are doing, not teach them what to do-and given the complexity of reading for meaning, that rarely involves just one thing. (pg.128)

Chapter 8 got right to the heart of the matter for me when I read, “readers often read right through facts, unaware they don’t fully understand them” (Pg. 139), because…YES!!!!  I can’t remember how many times this is exactly what my sixth graders confront in their nonfiction reading lives.

…unlike fiction, expository nonfiction writers frequently give readers only one chance to catch something that has been stated indirectly. That’s because fiction unfolds…Expository nonfiction, on the other hand, often compartmentalizes information into subcategories or sections so readers have only one opportunity to figure out something that has been stated indirectly. (pg. 141)

This chart is immediately indispensable to  my teaching practices, for it anchors the issues that often arise for my students and allows me pathways through which to try to lead them to problem solve and figure out what they are confused about/what they understand:

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As I made my way through Vicki’s process of explication, and the way this approach looked and sounded in a real classroom, I both appreciated the wisdom of this way of teaching, as well as the preparation it will take to be ready to choose a text, chunk it, set kids up to recognize problems, and how to figure it out in such a way as to be transferable when it occurs again (which it will). Here’s the reason it’s worth it:

I think we risk something even more profound when we turn a blind eye to students’ confusion as long as they’re able to cite evidence from a text: We encourage students to think school is a place where things don’t always make sense.  We also risk giving them a warped vision of what it means to succeed, especially in college, where they’ll be expected to do their own thinking and use their own words to explain things.

So, instead, I believe we need to open the door to confusion as wide as we possibly can so that we and our students can see how a mind works as it strives to understand. (pg.161)

After all, is that the kind of lasting work we hope to be doing in each and every one of our classrooms?


Poetry Friday: The Round by Stanley Kunitz

Poetry Friday is hosted by Katie at The Logonauts 

This has been a different kind of summer – a summer of giving myself over to the quiet beauty of the farm, where the sounds of birds calling to each other across the valley and corn rustling into its green growth is often all I hear all day.  This is by choice.

This has been a summer of also giving myself over to the life of being a reader and being a writer.  Not the “I’ll read a chapter or two when I find the time” kind of reading.  Not the “I’ll write a few lines when I can” kind of writing.  But an immersive reading and writing that is at the center of my day, every day.

Because, from September through June, I am immersed in the lives of fifty readers and writers – my days are all about their journeys.  This summer is all about mine.  And, in the serenity of the farm, the ever changing unchanging of  its everyday beauty, I am discovering again the glory of being lost in an exquisitely written book for hours upon end…the joy and discipline of the writing life.

Jane Kenyon, the poet of my heart and soul, advised this: “Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”

So, that has been my summer work.  Unlike Stanley Kunitz, however, I don’t have quite enough discipline to find a cellar in which to hide from the view, which is after all, a rather fleeting summer view:



The Round
Stanley Kunitz

Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
“Light splashed . . .”

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.

#cyberpd 2017: Dynamic Teaching For Deeper Reading #2


Chapter 5 in Vicki Vinton’s Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Readingour #cyberpd book for this summer, explains how a problem solving approach can help students navigate texts when comprehension is most likely to go awry – at the very beginning of a story, when readers have to figure out the who, where, where, and why with the least amount of information.  This is when many of my students tend to tend to get stuck without even knowing that they are stuck!  Vicki neatly summed up these “sticky” areas of comprehension, and the types of problem solving we need to help them figure out:

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I loved the step by step examples of what this kind of teaching sounds like in a classroom, especially the tricky work looking for, planning out, and creating opportunities to show kids how to do this work for themselves, for, as Vicki points out:

Giving students opportunities to wrestle with problems provides them with concrete examples of what monitoring comprehension can look, sound, and feel like, and it lets them experience how thrilling it can be to figure things out on their own, which can help them become life long learners. (pg. 80)

The “Core Practice” sections were full of explicit advice and strategies, and I tagged the following as guide posts to my planning:

Choosing a text: “For a problem-based approach whose end goal is meaning, you’ll want to choose a text based on two criteria: Look for a text that’s relatively accessible at the word level but is complex because the writer conveys information and meaning indirectly and that presents the specific kinds of problems your students could use practice grappling with.”

This thinking will allow me to sift through the shared texts (both fiction and nonfiction) that I plan to use over the next teaching year.

Crafting a teaching point: “At the beginning of a problem solving session, you’ll want to offer an initial teaching point that sets students up for the thinking work you’ll be inviting them to do.”

I will be looking at each mini lesson as an invitation to think and problem solve – this shift in thinking will be something I will need to practice this summer, and learn from as I go along in the school year.

Offering choice: “while students may not have a choice in what they read and how they read it, they have an enormous amount of choice in how and what to think as they develop and share ideas and theories.”

I know this will mean some messy sessions – but so worthwhile aiming towards!

Considering scaffolds: To model or not: “a you-we-I-model. This reversal invites students to think individually first (you), then share their thinking with the class…(we), as the teacher (I) notices and names what students have done in a more generalized way so the teaching can be transferred and applied to other texts.

Making student thinking visible:Noticing and Naming: “Noticing and naming is…a form of feedback…It helps build students’ sense of agency and identity as readers, makes the invisible work of reading more visible, and by employing generalized language, turns one student’s thinking into a strategy that both he and others can use in other texts.

Both of these practices will take a concerted and intentional shift in the way I conduct mini lessons – Vicki’s charts are helpful guides to what reading issues may surface, but I also know that this shift depends on my own flexibility in terms of teaching thinking.  Listening carefully, and looking for the specifics of how students have problem solved so that I can name the way in which the reading thinking can be made visible to all students for future reading, will be the order of the day and what I need to prepare for.

My two big take aways from Chapter 6 were these:

Low stakes writing prompts which “can open the door for students to take risks and discover insights…”.  We do lots of turn and talks in my classroom, but I don’t believe we do enough of these “writing about our reading thinking” when we meet to share a text and share our ideas.   I can definitely see how this practice can set in motion the “contagion of thinking” that Vicki writes about – and that would be wonderful.

Bringing in the author: “Making students aware there’s a writer behind the scenes calling all the shots-and that their job, as readers, is to consider why she made the choices she did – helps students understand and internalize the concept that writers choose details purposefully to convey whatever aspect of people and life that they’re exploring through the story.”

This is something to aim for in a more consistent way in my own classroom. I think my students have this notion that writers just tell the story they are in the midst of reading, without giving much thought to the “why” of the way the story is told.  This kind of intentional stopping to think about the craft will help them deepen their thinking about the story in reading workshop, as well as enlighten their writing workshop thinking.

Looking forward to learning more as I read Chapters 7 and 8 for our next #cyberPD “meeting”!

It’s Monday! Here’s What I’m Reading: The Goldfish Boy, Hello Universe & Lucky Broken Girl

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It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Jen Vincent @ Teach Mentor Texts

I read three very different middle grade books last week with two things in common: gifted authors and a common message of carrying compassion with us as we make our way through the smallest of actions and tasks – kindness matters.

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Lisa Thompson’s debut novel, The Goldfish Boy , is a hard-to-put down mystery with a twist: there is one mystery to be solved in the disappearance of a neighbor’s little grandson, and there is another mystery to be solved within the main character (and chief detective) himself, twelve year old Matthew.

Ever since his baby brother’s death, Matthew just cannot seem to get his hands or his room clean enough – germs are everywhere, no matter how much he washes and scrubs, and things have reached a point where Matthew can’t leave his house…or his room.  The big front facing window of his house, and his own back yard facing room, give Matthew great vantage points from which to survey the goings on in his cul de sac, though, and Matthew keeps track of his neighbor’s movements with careful and detailed notes: time, place, etc. all duly noted.  For their part, his neighbors (a wonderful cast of characters, each of whom are interesting and well crafted) see the pale boy who seems to wear cleaning gloves all the time and watches them furtively through his windows, as very, very, odd.  And rather sad, too.

Needless to say, Matthew’s parents are terribly concerned and are determined to help. Just as he begins to see a specialist, the neighbor’s grandson vanishes, and Matthew now has another concern to worry and obsess about.  His notebook and his noticings may finally be put to good use!

Lisa Storm is able to get into Matthew’s OCD mindset with great sensitivity and honesty. You feel Matthew’s discomfort with his compulsions, his struggle to try to understand why his mind is telling him to do things that he also knows he somehow ought not to do.  I love the fact that his parents, although troubled and exasperated, love their son and make it clear that they want to help him.  The Goldfish Boy is just a beautiful story – one that helps many of us understand what it’s like to be OCD, even as we read on to see how an engaging mystery is solved.

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The main action in  Hello, Universe takes place in the course of just one day, but Erin Entrada Kelly manages to weave a deeply moving portrait of the messiness, neediness and unpredictability that is being in middle school and trying to figure out who you are and how to fit in, when it seems as though you don’t fit in at all.

Here’s the jacket copy:

Virgil Salinas is shy and misunderstood.

Valencia Somerset is clever and stubborn.

Kaori Tanaka tells fortunes and reads the stars.

Chet “the Bull” Bullens is the biggest bully in the neighborhood.

They aren’t friends, they don’t go to the same school. But when Chet pulls an unthinkable prank on Virgil and Virgil’s pet guinea pig, Gulliver, the lives of these four middle schooler collide in surprising and unexpected ways.

There are a lot of funny parts in Hello, Universe, but also parts that will bring a lump to your throat.  Virgil, for instance, has been nicknamed “Turtle” by his family, because he is so shy.  Every time he hears this nickname, Turtle wishes he could say out loud what he feels out loud inside:

Don’t call me that.

It makes me feel like I’m six years old.

It makes me feel like a loser.

Erin Entrada Kelly has created a lovely story with characters that stay with you longer after you have finished reading.


Ruth Behar’s Lucky Broken Girl may well be my favorite book of the summer – it’s just one of those wise books that breaks your heart even as it heals.

Ruthie Mizrahi is a trying to adjust to her new home in America.  She and her family have left Castro’s Cuba for the new life of promise that her father dreams of, even though he mother pines away for all they have left behind: their extended family, their traditional ways, and the warmth of being surrounded by the familiar and the well loved.  Ruthie, though, is looking forward to new go go boots, new songs to learn, and being the neighborhood’s hop-scotch queen.

Just when it seems as though things are falling into place, a terrible car accident leaves Ruthie in a full body cast for a year, uncertain about ever being able to walk again. Through this experience she learns about patience, generosity and small acts of kindness and friendship that can transform hopeless and helpless days.

In the afterword, Ruth Behar writes that Lucky Broken Girl was her story – the story she “was supposed to forget”, because the experience had been so traumatic:

All those who have been wounded know what I mean.  Maybe all who have been wounded know what I mean.  Maybe all who’ve been wounded are told, as I was, “It could have been worse.”  In other words don’t ask for too much sympathy.  I remember feeling as a child that it was wrong to talk about my pain. Wrong to feel any pain.  I buried the pain inside, where only I could feel it piercing me…I don’t anyone wait that long. Pain is Pain. Speak up. Tell your story.

Ruthie’s story speaks to all adults who have been broken in one way or another, and had to somehow make our journeys to a better place; but Ruthie’s story also speaks to children who might be experiencing brokenness in one way or another, and trying to find a way out.  Ruthie’s story is one of healing and hope – I absolutely loved it.

Poetry Friday: The Sound of a Train by Faith Shearin

Poetry Friday is hosted by Tabatha at The Opposite of Indifference

Growing up in India during the 1960’s, we travelled by train when we travelled at all.  My favorite trip was the one we took every year from Bombay to Cape Comorin, which is at the very tip of the Indian continent, where three oceans meet: the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.  It was a long trip, but our traveling days were graced by the beauty of the Indian coastline and…the fabulousness of our sleeping car!   For four days, my siblings and I (along with two nannies who spent a lot of time sleeping, if I remember correctly) shared an entire railroad car with bunk beds, arm chairs, our own bath room and a dining alcove. It was bliss.

All these years later, I have many vivid memories of these journeys, especially the views of India’s coastline and some of the bridges we crossed as we made our way to our destination.  And all these years later, it takes just the sound of a train whistle to send me back in time.  And, today, in the midst of the cornfields of upstate New York, I heard the faint sound of a train somewhere off in the distance…and thought of my far away homeland, of travel, and the journeys I’ve taken.


The Sound of a Train by Faith Shearin


Even now, I hear one and I long to leave
without a suitcase or a plan; I want to step
onto the platform and reach for
the porter’s hand and buy a ticket
to some other life; I want to sit
in the big seats and watch fields
turn into rivers or cities. I want to eat
cake on the dining car’s
unsteady tablecloths, to sleep
while whole seasons
slip by. I want to be a passenger
again: a person who hears the name
of a place and stands up, a person
who steps into the steam of arrival.


#cyberpd 2017: Dynamic Teaching For Deeper Reading #1

Reading anything by Vicki Vinton, whether her books or her blog, always has the effect of making me sit up just a bit straighter and think a whole lot harder.  So, this is exactly what I have been doing since I turned my summer reading attention to her latest book, Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, our #cyberpd book for this summer.

Section One (Chapters 1 through 4) presents  an argument for a shift in the the way we teach reading, from a “skills based to a meaning-based focus”, from “direct instruction to an inquiry or problem based approach”, where we teachers practice “shifting the emphasis from complex texts to complex thinking”.   This “problem based approach to teaching reading” Vicki maintains, does more than just help our kids to become better readers, it helps build habits of mind that make them better thinkers, too.  Instead of teaching discrete strategies and concepts in isolation she posits (i.e. those mini lessons with their attendant charts), let’s make a shift so that the text sets the agenda and the reader is put

in a problem-solving stance where you read not to practice a strategy or a skill or to answer a text dependent question, but to wrestle with the “real problems” these texts posed, which … entailed figuring out what kind of world you were in as a reader and why the characters were doing and feeling what they were.  And by fitting pieces of the text together and using whatever strategies you had up your sleeve, you developed a first draft understanding of the big picture whole. (pg 11)

This is a stance that appeals to me because it calls on students to dig into the text and go through the messy process of figuring things out themselves, rather than assuming a teacher dependent and centered one in which they are looking to me for problem solving and using terms I  give them through my mini lessons.  I think there is great of merit to what Vicki says when writes about scaffolds as “shortcuts for more complex work”, in that we teachers want our kids to succeed in their reading tasks so much that we over provide these scaffolds and thereby create dependency rather than independence.

I love each element of the five steps she provides on page 24, especially #3:

Instead of launching independent reading with a mini lesson where you demonstrate a strategy or skill, remind students of what they have already done and experienced in the read aloud and invite them to deliberately try to do that same work in their independent books.  This acknowledges that it’s far easier to transfer and apply something you’ve already done before than something you’ve just watched and heard.

Thinking about what this will look like and sound like in my sixth grade classroom, I can see that it makes the work of our readalouds that much more intentional and powerful – this is where the reading thinking and concept naming is introduced, mulled over, problem solved together first, before students return to their own reading to practice and practice and practice again.  The goal is to help our kids become first comfortable with and then adept at this approach to their reading lives; this shift in approach, though worthy, is also risky, as Vicki acknowledges: “readers will need to experiment, explore, and test out a variety of ideas, not all of which will pan out, and your challenge will be to figure out how to gently steer the class while preserving the agency of all of your students as readers, which initially can feel daunting.” (pg. 13).  True.  But the best teaching I have done has always begun as a risky endeavor – one in which I have to have faith not only in the soundness of the teaching idea to begin with, but also in my students’ capacity to take that learning risk and run with it.

I loved Vicki’s validation of creative thinking as being as important to reading work as critical thinking:

On the one hand, these two types of thinking can seem like complete opposites: One’s objective; the other is subjective.  One is closed, the other is open-ended. However, I believe that creative thinking is actually the invisible and often unrecognized thinking that helps readers eventually make more nuanced and insightful judgements and claims.  Or, put another way, thinking creatively is the behind-the-scenes work that’s needed for students to more thoughtfully complete many of the Common Core-style tasks they’re being asked to do.” (Pg 34)

I spent a great deal of time studying this chart, and thinking about the best conversations I’ve had with my students over the past school year:

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and came to realize how much the creative thinking part engaged my kids in their books and kept them invested enough in the text to want to do the critical thinking part, which then led to great conversations and also more meaningful writing about reading.  Yes, I want my kids to feel confident and capable in their reading skills so that they can answer those awful PARCC questions, but, above all, I want them to care about their reading lives and to be deeply committed to the idea of growing as readers.

Finally, I was moved by Vicki’s thoughts about “the power of language to reposition”.

But what if, instead, teachers expressed uncertainty in response to students’ questions and then asked how they might figure something out? That language sends a very different message about who students are and what they’re capable of doing…That language also invites students to see us not as authority figures who hold all the answers and power, but as learners who are sometimes unsure and must figure things out as well…Rather than showing students how to do a strategy or skill, we’re implicitly modeling how to be something.  Specifically, we’re modeling the dispositions and habits of mind of complex thinkers, readers, and learners who are comfortable with  uncertainty and know that stumbling is simply a part of the process.” (pg. 53)

This is the “where it gets messy” part for us as teachers – making the shift from sage on the stage to a more collaborative form of teaching.  It’s easier to say, “here’s the strategy, now use it” to “hmmm, let’s see if we can all figure this out together.”  But, it’s through the latter kind of learning opportunities that learning really sticks for our kids; they tend to remember those collaborative learning moments much more clearly – which is our goal, after all, learning that sticks.