When the Key Clicks: A Poem About Close Reading

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I’ve been joining Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts in a Blogathon as they explore Close Reading skills. The other day, I was writing with my students and began this poem, thinking of that moment when something “clicks” with a piece of text.

When the Key Clicks

with this text –
I seek to break the code.
Contained, confused, confounded
by intent: I’m spent!
And more than a bit belligerent towards this writer
whose words spiral around meaning like
a swirling subterfuge of ideas just out of reach
when I’m not gleaming anything …
Until …
Until ..
Until somehow the key clicks.
Perhaps it was a word you said
or a question you asked
or another angle on which to lay my head upon this table.
For suddenly, I’m awake for the very first time, seeing
beneath the lines
between the words.
I unfold this story in all of its glory
as if I’d just turned a child’s simple drawing
upside down
inside out
only to discover a masterpiece hidden beneath
to be explored.

And the podcast:


Peace (in the light bulb moments),

Close Reading: A Presentation

close reading button

Last year, in our school district, I facilitated a series of PD sessions with colleagues around ELA and the Common Core, and we spent one long session on understanding and using Close Reading strategies. This is the prezi that I created and shared with my colleagues, and I am digging it up as part of Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ blogothon around ideas of Close Reading.

I see now that more than 3,000 other folks have viewed this presentation, so I hope it has been as helpful to them as it has been to us. (And I want to note that I have set the Prezi as “public and re-useable” so feel free to steal it, adapt it, remix it and re-use it as you see fit. It’s yours.) For me, just making the presentation helped me frame the ideas in my head, and then sharing with colleagues built those ideas out even further. It’s sort of like writing — when we write, we make sense of the world. When you present, you dive deep into a topic – sometimes, a relatively unknown topic — and get a better grasp on it.

I think one of the take-aways from our group of teachers was how deliberate you have to plan to introduce the strategies and value of reading closely with students, who mostly read what we ask them to but they read quickly and therefore, they often resist having to go back and re-read with a focus and a purpose. I can’t say I have become an expert in teaching close reading with my students. Not even close. I still struggle with it even as I do see the potential for engaging readers with a text, particularly a difficult text, on a number of different angles and perspectives.

But I am working at it.

Peace (in the reading),


Crowdsourcing the Annotation of the Common Core

Annotation Activity Common Core

I am one of a team of facilitators leading a technology-infused professional development series this fall with a fairly large group of educators in school district nearby. We kicked off the series on Thursday night. Like many teaching cadres, this one has a large mix of those who are wary of technology (but are feeling the pressure to use it) and those who are already pretty deep with using technology (and want to go farther). Knowing this, we moved deliberately and slowly, with extension activities for advanced teachers, and lots of hands-on activities.

One of the themes of our first session was thinking about the Common Core and our state’s new learning standards, which are built off the Common Core, and digital literacies. I designed this annotation activity in Google Drive in which we did some “close reading” of the Common Core writing standards as a way to better understand what is being expected of our students. What we hoped that folks would do is not just see the shifts in expectations of young writers in the Common Core, but get a larger sense of the overall development of writing over time. By going deeper into the document itself, we hoped to frame opportunities to talk about how to teach writing.

The activity was quite successful, with the teachers sharing their observations along grade bands and then reflecting on how a collaborative annotation activity might unfold in their classrooms. It tied in nicely to an earlier discussion about how to teach “close reading” skills to our students through the coding of text, commenting in the margins, and more.

I stole this activity from Bud Hunt (aka, Bud the Teacher) who had used a WordPress Plug-in for his activity a few years back in a P2PU class. Since we will be exploring Google Drive with this group, I figured this collaborative activity using documents would work to set the stage for some of the future sessions in Drive. What I like is how they all dove in and began to realize the power of shared annotation as a way to examine a text together. There was a big “aha” moment when I finally got them to realize  the potential of shared documents and crowd-sourcing ideas this way.

And of course, it allowed them time to go deeper into the Common Core writing standards with a critical lens.

Note: I set this activity up by creating a folder in Google Drive, and then creating an index/title page. Each grade band writing strand was its own page in the folder, and each page was linked off the index page, which was our starting point (linked off our Edmodo space). I then changed the settings on the pages to allow for “comment only” for this activity, and I made sure the setting allowed for “anyone on the web” to access and write comments on the document. While some folks did use their Google accounts, most participants just clicked and started writing as “anonymous” and that was fine. We were designing “low hurdle” activities here to eliminate as much frustration for folks as possible. (And they all got a kick out of Google’s use of obscure animal avatars to represent anonymous writers).

Peace (in the annotation),

Slice of Life: Sowing the Seeds of Confusion to Spark Comprehension

(This post is doing double duty here. It is part of the regular Slice of Life feature at Two Writing Teachers and part of the Close Reading being examined by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts. Now that I think of it, this makes sense since Teachers College is a connection between Chris, Kate and Stacy at Two Writing Teachers. Right? Anyway …)

crazy reading passage

I’ve written about this activity before but I am starting to think about it in terms of the idea of Close Reading and the Common Core shifts even more closely lately. Here at the start of the year, as we talk about difficult texts and reading strategies around meaning, I share this piece of story with my sixth graders. Yesterday, I put this on the board and, with stern face, I told my students we were doing a “reading assessment.”

They gulped at that term, and then began to read it.

Then they laughed, and giggled, and when I asked volunteers to read it out aloud, they got a kick out of reading and listening. We read it out loud three times (I did it the third time). I then told them that there are strategies that can be helpful when you come across some text that, on first brush, seems vexing and confusing, or even downright odd. It’s not enough just to shake your head and move on. Good readers learn to stop, re-read and then think about the words and meaning in context of the larger system of writing.

Readers become detectives.

So, for example, as we use this small piece, they begin to realize they know when this event took place, who was involved, what was happening, and what was being communicated from one character to another. That’s a lot of information from a reading piece that on first glance makes no sense at all. (And by the way, this short piece was adapted from a text someone once gave me that is used with dyslexic students, to nurture reading strategies.)

This activity ties into teaching them Close Reading skills on a few levels: re-reading the text for clarity and understanding, narrowing the focus on elements of the text, grappling with writer’s intent and meaning even when that isn’t clear. My hope is that as we revisit these elements this year, we will have this anchor text (even if it is ridiculous, or maybe because it is ridiculous that they will remember it) to return to to remind ourselves some of the strategies.

Or as Flinkledobe would say, “This ditty strezzle is tunning in my grep!”

Peace (in the read),

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close reading button

A Few Ways of Thinking About Close Reading

close reading button

Work and insights being shared each Friday by Chris Lehmann and Kate Roberts around the concept of Close Reading (as they get ready to release a new book on the subject) has me, well, reading their posts closely. They are inviting other bloggers to write about their own views around the concept, and while I have done my own inquiry and even led some professional development work around Close Reading, I am still struggling at times to bring those strategies into my sixth grade classroom.

I appreciated Kate’s post the other day about the “five corners” of close reading, as she critiqued the notion of the Common Core writers about the “four corners” of the text (found in the Common Core companion Publishers Criteria) – meaning that understanding should be cold and not influenced by past experiences. This element of cold reading of text — of reading the text for what it is in relative isolation – has come under a lot of criticism from teachers who regularly use student background knowledge to activate understanding. Kate argues that we all bring our experiences to our reading and we should value that.

Kate writes:

“Flat, ‘four corners’ close reading will not be enough for our students – it will not fuel their engagement to learn and innovate, it will not develop their critical thinking, it will not even at the end of the day help students to achieve higher marks on ever evolving test questions.  Only by holding what we are reading in the text against the “fifth corner” of what we know and have experienced can we create truly close, engaged readers.” – from http://kateandmaggie.com/2013/09/05/the-five-corners-of-the-text-close-reading-and-personal-experience/

Chris explored the concept of the term of “close reading” and explored what it is not in his blog post. I appreciated the examples and the references he shared out around the terminology and then found myself shaking my head in agreement with his own ideas.

Chris wrote:

“… we believe that close reading is not simply a way to analyze texts. It is a way to study the things that we love more carefully and appreciate their subtleties more fully. Close reading can be applied to texts, but we also can look to songs, video games, television shows, art and even our daily lives. ” — from http://christopherlehman.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/blog-a-thon-post-1-what-closereading-isnt-or-at-least-shouldnt-be/

Simply put, I like to think of close reading as paying attention to the text. And yes, while I often read for enjoyment and don’t even wonder about the writer’s intent, or use of syntax or style, there are times when I do step back and think: now what the heck is really going on here? Close reading provides the kind of frame to look at writing and other texts in a meaningful, constructive way so that the reader has agency in the compact between writer and reader. It can be critical thinking at its best.

So why do I struggle with it in the classroom?

As I consider this way of thinking, I realize that I do teach my students a lot of these skills, but it feels scattered right now and not at all an organized system of thinking. And, to be frank, teaching explicit close reading skills has the potential to suck all of the fun out of reading a text. That worries me. What I need to do is use more of the shorter texts for close reading so that those skills can be developed for tackling longer texts. I am working towards that right now, and learning more about close reading from others has been helpful.

I am appreciating the sharing of other bloggers, too. For example, Collete Bennett does a great job of examining Hemingway’s famous Six Word Story through the lens of the Five Corners. Kim Corbridge notes that using picture books is a great way to foster close reading skills, and that is certainly true for any grade level. And Mindi Rench’s points about “textbook questions” now being re-labeled as close reading activities hit home with me as I see everything from publishing companies being printed with the “Common Core aligned” sticker.

We need to resist that move by publishers — that close reading is a strategy for standardized testing — and keep our eye on the real rationale — that close reading provides a scaffold of critical thinking for young readers. The terminology might be new, but I suspect many of us have been doing this kind of reading analysis for years. We just didn’t call it close reading.

Peace (in the read),