Tag Archives: Mentor

Five Ways to Approach Close Reading as a Detective


In today's blog, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen, coauthors of Teaching Interpretation, remove the abstractions from close reading to make it easier and more approachable for students.

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The Power of Questioning

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In today's blog post, authors Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen argue that standards for close reading have led to a decreased emphasis on student inquiry. What happens when teachers leave room for questioning?

The Power of Questioning

by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen.

Recently, we’ve noticed that something is missing in the conversations surrounding close reading: Questions. Teaching has been dominated by talk about close reading strategies that help students arrive at answers about texts. But what about the students’ questions?

In these standards driven times, has an emphasis on close reading resulted in a de-emphasis on questions raised in response to reading? The underlining, annotating, and making note of specific words and phrases are close reading strategies that can help students comprehend complex texts. However, it seems the basis of whether or not students comprehend well is hinged on their answers to text-based questions. In this standardized, “close-reading world” that values strategies and leads to specific, pre-determined conclusions, is there room for questioning?

Close reading can help students, and teachers, determine comprehension gaps. It provides opportunities to teach strategies students can use to recognize when meaning has broken down and how to repair such misunderstandings. However, it seems that the power of questioning has been undervalued. Asking questions is an essential part of active reading. Educators such as Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, Richard Allington, and many others recognize questioning as a higher-level thinking strategy that strengthens comprehension and turns students into critical readers. Therefore, it is important to broaden the narrative around close reading from simply what students do to find accuracy when answering a text, to what helps students to monitor their own comprehension and spark their own inquiries.

Taking a questioning stance toward complex texts enables students to read beyond the text.

An emphasis on questioning, as part of the close reading work students do to read stronger, is essential. Taking a questioning stance toward complex texts enables students to read beyond the text; to speculate, critique, and hypothesize. Such work can lead to more complex questions. For example, in response to reading several chapters of Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, a 6th grade student wrote the following questions in her reader’s notebook: What does freedom really mean? How it is that a person can be free, but not-free at the same time? This student was thinking deeply about the main character, a young African-American girl living in the late 1800’s after slavery was abolished. She was grappling with the concept of freedom, and her questions helped her to realize that freedom is more than the opposite of being enslaved; it’s about being able to control one’s own destiny. In an effort to gain new understandings, she researched and read about the Reconstruction Period and the significant new challenges it brought about for African-Americans. When students are encouraged to include questioning as part of close reading, they are inspired to pursue their own inquires, which leads to more reading! Research supports that we as teachers must be as concerned about increasing the volume of reading for our students as we are about the strategies to teach them to read. Getting our students to read more is the single most powerful thing teachers can do to help our students become better readers.

Honoring students’ questions leads to inquisitive students who make their own choices, pursue their own inquires, and find enjoyment in reading. Therefore, a shift away from teaching close reading strategies that simply leads students to answers, to teaching close reading strategies that encourage and emphasize questioning is essential.

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Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Together, they run the website LitLearnAct, a collaborative blog for literacy teachers. Follow them on Twitter @LitLearnAct.

Teachers College Reading and Writing Project’s fall Twitter chats

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has announced the lineup for their fall 2014 Twitter Chats.  Chats will be held Wednesday nights at 7:30 PM.  The weekly chats will focus on various books, literacy topics and methods of staff development. 

The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project was founded and is directed by Heinemann author Lucy Calkins.  The mission of the Project is to help young people become avid and skilled readers, writers, and inquirers.


Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Georgia Heard, Part 2

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In part 1, Georgia told us about her two newest professional books. Now, in part 2, she gives us a glimpse into her own life as a writer and teacher.

What in your life as a writer has given you the most insight into teaching young writers?

When I was a writing student at Columbia University and at the same time a member of TCRWP, I traveled to classrooms all over NYC teaching writing. Those hundreds of hours in the classroom, along with reflections with my colleagues at Columbia and TCRWP, gave me invaluable insights into teaching writing. Also, my classes at Columbia University with some of the best writers in the world expanded my vision and knowledge of writing.

In Finding the Heart of Nonfiction, as you discuss mentor texts, you mention Stanley Kunitz and Anne LaMott as personal and in-print mentors for your writing life. Who are your mentors and go-to authors for teaching writing?

I have so many mentors, go-to authors, and colleagues I could fill this whole page with their names. There is a renaissance in the field of teaching writing, and I feel so lucky to have been part of such an amazing group from its very beginnings. I’m afraid if I started listing all my mentors I might leave someone out, but I’ll always be grateful to the very early days of TCRWP with Lucy Calkins, Shelley Harwayne, Hindy List, Ralph Fletcher, JoAnn Portalupi, Martha Horn, Jenifer Hall, and Jim Sullivan. And, of course, I’m indebted to the foundational work of Don Graves, Nancie Atwell, Don Murray, Tom Romano, Linda Rief, and Mary Ellen Giacobbe. Here I go, I’m already thinking about all the people I’ve left out!

As Don Graves taught us, a teacher’s own writing life is vital source material for teaching writing. What suggestions do you have for teachers who don’t feel confident as writers?

Write. Write. Write. Write at least one page in your journal every day. And if you’re just beginning to write, don’t stop to reread your words just yet and don’t listen to any critical voices in your head. Also, find a loving and gentle reader whom you can trust to give you wise, insightful guidance.


Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Georgia Heard, Part 1

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Finding the Heart of Nonfiction Cover

Georgia Heard is the treasured author of numerous Heinemann resources. She brings a poet’s ear and a teacher’s eye to teaching writing. This week we published the second edition of her Revision Toolbox; last fall we brought you her Finding the Heart of Nonfiction. Today we’re asking her about her new books. Tomorrow, in part 2, we’ll ask her about her writing life and her teaching life.

In the new-this-week edition of The Revision Toolbox, you write that we need to help kids re-see revision as process not punishment. Where do you think their misperception comes from?

When students write from assigned prompts, write only occasionally, or don’t feel invested in what they’re writing about, revision becomes another task they have to complete rather than something they are motivated to do to make their writing better because it truly matters to them. When we tell a story to a friend, for example, we try to get the details right because we want our friend to understand what we have experienced. Let writing become a vehicle for students to express what they’re passionate about and what they care about. Once they feel fluent as writers, revision won’t seem like a punishment for not getting it “right” the first time.

What do you know now about teaching revision that you didn’t know when you wrote the first edition?

What I know now is similar to what I knew then in that writing and revision are the same process. When I teach writing, I’m really teaching revision. Revision is so hopeful—it’s paying attention to the vision you have and making changes in your writing to achieve that vision. In this new edition, I focus more on nonfiction writing, and I’ve included hands-on sections dealing with strategic conferences, student revision checklists, and structural templates, among many other additions.

Last fall you came out with Finding the Heart of Nonfiction. How would you use it together with The Revision Toolbox?

The two books go hand in hand. In Finding the Heart of Nonfiction I include dozens of craft lessons accompanied by exemplars from all genres. In The Revision Toolbox I show how to extend craft lessons to include revision. For example, if a student is writing a draft, how can he or she try on different points of view to change the voice of the piece or shape a new focus? There is a thin line between teaching craft and revision, and both books touch on each.

You also wrote the classic Awakening the Heart, about teaching poetry. As someone with a poet’s background, what do you love about nonfiction writing?

I’ve always loved nonfiction, and I’ve always felt that nonfiction and poetry share the same love of particulars. In order for a poem to work, the language must be filled with concrete details. Nonfiction is all about details as well. A poem usually has an emotional layer to it, and nonfiction must also exude a passion for and love of the particular.





Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen Part 2

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Both are completing their doctorates at Teachers College, Columbia University, and teaching full time. In part 1 of our conversation they talked about what interpretation really looks like in the classroom and what led them to write Teaching Interpretation.

In part 2, Dana and Sonja talk about their writing influences, their mentors, and what it was like to teach and complete doctorates while writing a book.

You both are teaching full time and completing doctorates. How did you manage to write a book at the same time?

When you’re doing something you truly love, you find the time. Like most teachers, we’re stretched incredibly thin. But a common thread running through our lives is a commitment to practice. We view everything we do through the lens of practitioner research: how can we teach this better? how can we make our teaching stick? how can we help our students grow exponentially during our year together? We push ourselves to answers these questions, knowing the answers are not static and will change from year to year, unit to unit, even day to day. This may seem daunting, but we are invigorated by this challenge and fortunate enough to be surrounded by incredible educators who are too. We maintain balance by treasuring the time we spend with family and friends, enjoying long walks with our dogs, and grabbing the chance to read a great book or catch up with a favorite television show.

Who are your inspirations?

The unique ways in which many of our colleagues approach instruction and help students learn is inspiring. Whenever we’re struggling with a teaching concept, it’s incredibly helpful to reach out to other teachers for insights and new perspectives. Also, our shelves are stacked with books by amazing practitioner/authors who put great teaching strategies at our fingertips. Lucy Calkins is such a beautiful writer! Curling up with one of her books is like reading the latest must-read novel. The way she helps us see inside a topic to the steps required to teach it well, combined with her wonderful way with words, is inspiring. But most of all, our students inspire us. When Joe, who has dyslexia and difficulty writing, proclaims, “I can take a picture of this graphic organizer with my iPad and complete it on the computer,” or Tara announces, “I finished my chapter book in a week,” we are in awe. We continue to be profoundly inspired by the ways our students challenge themselves and work so hard to reach their goals.

You seem to find inspiration everywhere. You write that using digital texts can make a difference. What role do you think digital texts play in classrooms now, and do you see them playing a greater role in the future?

As educators wrestle with how to teach twenty-first-century skills, the conversation centers on digital literacies. Everywhere we look we see people reading and taking in information using smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices. We’ve broadened the definition of reading to include the way we process and come to understand all texts: videos, photographs, illustrations, as well as words on paper or screen. Innovations in technology will continue to change the ways we access information.  Students who struggle to read traditional printed texts are able to use a variety of features when working with digital texts, including audio components. They can listen to interviews or watch a digital short. Embracing our students and their digitally mediated lives means acknowledging and honoring the forms of learning they find meaningful.

What was the writing process like for you? What do you like about it, and what do you find most challenging?

We are each other’s sounding board, so the writing process was therapeutic. We laughed, screamed, and vented about the successes and frustrations of teaching. Our writing sessions were the best part of our week. Teaching can be isolating, and our collaboration let us voice our doubts about instruction and problem-solve together. We learned from each other and strengthened our practice. After every meeting, we were excited to go back to our classrooms and try out the strategies we’d brainstormed. As doctoral students we spend a great deal of time immersed in educational theory and formal, academic writing. The writing in this book is grounded in practice, our true passion, and was therefore a joy. That being said, we experienced our fair share of challenges, as all writers do. We had to make hard choices about what to include and what to leave out. Another challenge was finding a structure for delivering our ideas clearly; we tried and discarded a variety of formats. We were eventually able to communicate our ideas in a way we believe is user-friendly and engaging: readers know what to expect from each chapter and can access the information easily. Writing this book has truly been a journey; we’ve grown so much as educators. Looking back, we realize we wrote the book as much for ourselves as for our readers.

Read a sample chapter of Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and be sure to check out Dana and Sonja’s blog. You can also follow them on Twitter; join the conversation using hashtag #tchinterp