Monday, March 3, 2014

Called by a French Man

Forty years ago today, I was called. Forty years ago today, I learned that reading can save your life.  Forty years ago, I knew I had to help give children - all children everywhere - the light of literacy.  To save their lives. To save the lives of those they would serve.  You see, a French man gave me my path.  My life's mission.

Over a deer forest outside of Paris, my brother's airplane broke open.  364 beloved souls - mamas and grandfathers, soccer pals and sisters, daughters and baby brothers - were violently tossed to Earth.  The right rear cargo door had not been latched properly by the French mechanic assigned to this task.  He could not read the directions for closing the DC 10's cargo door.  And because of his reading void, I lost my best friend, my brother, and, for a while, my energy to live.  Because this French man could not read, thousands of us became orphans, childless, widowers, or half selves.

I think of this French man now.  I think of the guilt he has endured and hurdled over as he tries to go about the daily tasks of his life. The toxic swill of shame eating at his spirit every day.  For forty years.  All because the gift of reading was not given to him.  All because the words were mysterious symbols rather than clarifying messages.

Taking this journey has not been easy.  I share what I believe is part of the French man's journey.  Learning to read was elusive and hard and shaming for me.  Whether it was because I was the very youngest kid in class, over moved over a dozen times, struggled with undiagnosed learning difficulties, or all of these, reading felt like trying to hold my breath under water.  The words were hard to hold on to and even harder to understand.  Stringing together beads of words was a ssssllllllooooowwwww process.

I could see everyone in my class flying through books.  I could see my classmates run through all the SRA kits.  They got to the aqua, silver, and even the gold levels.  I was stuck in the potty colors.  
Stuck in the mud of black ink on a page. Forever.

Luckily forever turned into Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden.  Mrs. Piggle Wiggle and Charlotte's Web.  Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Keller.  Words turned into joy and light and laughter, too.

The path took longer.  I knew that.  And now, as a literacy teacher, I can see the wisdom in giving me that long journey.  Because I struggled, I can come to students with a knowing heart.  I can share ideas with colleagues with compassion and hope.  I can give my students my brother's Tigger sense of humor.  And I fuel every step with the French man's legacy in my life.

For Ronnie, for the 17 souls of our school, the American School in London, for the 364 passengers and crew of that Turkish Airlines flight, for that French man, all of us who lead and guide and nurture the awakening of words in our students' minds and spirits, thank you.  You are saving lives.  And you carry my love and awe with you forever.  You save lives with your teaching.  Never forget that.

Laura Lynn Benson

"...a book only needs the energy of a human spirit..."  Daniel Boorstin

Sent from my iPad 

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Best Book Bridge Ever - Dr. Carol Wilcox!

Often I am asked about books.  I adore these questions because I looooooovvvvveeeee books.  We have them in every room of our home...including our bathrooms (This is what happens when your and your spouse are teachers...You just run out of room for all the books you need to have and want to hold close.)!  As much as I earnestly try to keep up with birth of new books, I fall short.  Fortunately, I am richly blessed with the most incredible book bridge - Treasured friend Carol Wilcox. 

No one I know reads more, reflects more, or shares more about books than Dr. Carol Wilcox, a brilliant Denver Public Schools coach and mentor.  Her book shares on her blog are absolutely gorgeous.  Each entry is a love letter, an invitation, a portal into her latest reads.  When you are looking for something delicious or edifying to read, turn to Carol.  Your heart will be bigger.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

CLOSE READING: Connecting Growing Readers to Texts Responsively


More than one way...Many great ways...

It may not be a popular stand to take these days but, from over 34 years of teaching, I have learned that there is not just one way to engage students in close reading apprenticeships.  Close reading lessons are edifying when they are customized to what the reader can do and where he needs to go next in deepening his capacity to harvest more from text and understand diverse texts.
Purpose is everything.  Intention is critical.  Moving students forward, I chose edifying close reading experiences in response to students' strengths, "not yet" goals, and the kids' passions and interests.  Developing a menu of supportive options for close reading learning helps me be able to make responsive, efficient "on the spot" decisions.
Menu?  I know this can sound a bit strange as a teaching tool but there is a method to my madness.  Truth is, right now it feels like a lot of people making decisions for teachers are grossly forgetting what life is really like in classrooms with students everyday.  We do not have hours of planning time.  And when we have planning time, there are at least 548 tasks we have to accomplish in the those precious minutes.  Most of our teaching decisions are like that of an emergency room nurse - Stat!  You and I have about 30 seconds to two minutes to make most of our planning decisions because we have multiple subjects to teach (as elementary teachers) or triple digit numbers of students to plan for (as secondary teachers).  Thus, I advocate taking a proactive stance in developing even a few solid ideas for standards-based lessons in my summer planning or with my teammates as we develop curriculum collaboratively during our grade level/department meetings or professional learning communities.  This way, I am "at the ready" to serve my students where they are developmentally as growing readers.
Here's a window into one of my close reading instructional strategy menus:
Close Reading Strategies

Model, practice, and encourage students’ independent close reading of text with…


  • Close Reading by Employing Thinking Strategies
    • Establishing a purpose with Questioning, Determining Importance, and/or Inferring
    • Begin with the end in mind – Synthesis as your starter
  • Close Reading by Previewing and Predicting
    • Picture Walk
    • THIEVES (Zweirs)
    • SQ3R
  • Close Reading by Priming
    • Read Alouds
    • Viewing video “texts”
    • Marinating students in key vocabulary


  • Close Reading by Employing Thinking Strategies
    • Monitoring and Synthesizing with stop, notice, and note (Beers & Probst)
    • Monitoring, questioning, predicting, and summarizing with Reciprocal Teaching
    • Reading to answer early and new Questions and Inferences
    • Making Connections and establishing patterns
    • Ask text dependent questions and answer with text evidence
    • Ask and generate text dependent questions with Touch Pads and Show Me Your Thinking
    • Studying questions with Question and Answer Relationships
  • Close Reading by Writing
    • Annotating text (notes in the margin, WIKI sticks, Thinking Ink)
    • Coding text:  Student/Class generated codes; Brain Stains
    • Keeping a Writer's Notebook (harvesting favorite quotes, recording responses to reading next to seed ideas for writing, noting observations and/or questions)
    • Note Taking:  Key Word Notes; Cornell Notes; 2-3 Column Notes; RAN
  • Close Reading by Going Deep
    • Genre studies
      • Nonfiction/Informational Texts
      • Argumentative Texts
      • Narrative Texts
    • Text Sets (short and spirited texts; genre-based; thematic; content area-focused; Thinking Strategy studies)


  • Close Reading by Writing and Talking/Oral Composition
    • Summary discourse:  Turn and talk; Socratic seminar; book club
    • Summary writing:  One sentence summary; opinion/argumentative piece summary; book review; exit cards; headlines; cumulative writing; chalk talks
    • Summary writing from note taking:  Key Word Notes; Cornell Notes; RAN

Monday, September 9, 2013

Closing In On Close Reading

There is no passion more rewarding than reading itself. . .it remains the best way to dream and to feel the sheer carnal joy of being fully and openly alive.     
Pat Conroy in My Reading Life
Writing, combined with close reading, is among the most valuable, 
but least understood elements of schooling.  Mike Schmoker (2006)
Close reading is a goal, a disposition, a skill outlined in the Common Core State Standards as Reading Standard #1.  Of course, we have always wanted and worked to help our students be discerning, deep thinkers as they read a variety of texts.  With our responsive data-guided literacy instruction, our focus on Thinking Strategies to help students learn why and how to ignite and nurture understanding as readers and writers, and our caring efforts to create an edifying community of learning with our students, close reading is a constant focus in all our classrooms.
As close readers, over the course of their Kindergarten through 12th grade literacy learning journeys, our students are expected to know and do the following as detailed in the CCSS Reading Standard #1 for Literature and Informational Text:
Know (concepts identified by the nouns of this standard)
  • evidence
  • textual evidence
  • details
  • examples
  • question
  • inference
Do (skills identified by the verbs of this standard)
  • CITE (textual evidence)
  • ANALYZE (what the text says explicitly)
  • ASK and ANSWER (questions)
  • INFER/DRAW INFERENCES (drawn from the text)
  • DETERMINE (where the text leaves things uncertain)

Again, these goals fire our work.  Key gifts we help all growing readers discover are the absolute rocket fuel of questions and inferences.  If a reader has no questions and generates no inferences, he/she is very likely to harvest nothing from his/her reading.  With the energy of questions and inferences, even developmentally young or struggling readers can and do work diligently to make sense of what they read.  And, by attending to the text to find answers to their own curiosities and predictions, growing readers naturally return to the text to cull evidence or name insights (especially when they live with someone like YOU who constantly shares your thinking work with them). 
The goal of close reading has also become an instructional strategy which can make having a clear vision of close reading a bit fuzzy if not down right confusing.  There are excellent models of engaging students in intentional reading experiences to help them better see the thoughtful ways proficient readers interact with text as they read all with the goal of understanding.  But there are also some very bizarre methods of close reading being marketed all in the name of the Common core.  It's important to be highly discerning in embracing (and purchasing) close reading rituals and resources. 
Thinking about what your students most need to learn as growing readers.  Offer them well-aligned apprenticeship in why and how you read text closely so that their close reading learning is not artificial to your goals for them.  The Common Core Reading Standard does not define close reading as reading short text exclusively nor does it say that students are expected to read every or even most texts multiple times.  And yet some close reading instructional strategies may give students these false understandings because they limit close reading to short bursts of text and repeated readings.  A few do not even encourage students' independent reading of text but rather rely solely on teachers read alouds.  As Vicki Vinton and Dorothy Barnhouse (2012) advocate in What Readers Really Do, we must engage students in literacy learning which puts them in the driver's seat.  By actively participating in their own reading, even when it is a struggle (or especially when it is a struggle), students better see, name, and own their thinking work.  Thus, it vital to craft our close reading instruction deftly.
In truth, when we encounter complex texts, we respond to the text with a variety of thinking maneuvers.  It is our habits of close reading that we want to demonstrate and practice with students.  When a text is demanding and I am finding it difficult to understand, I do reread the text.  But that is not all I do.  So, while I will model and collaboratively practice rereading with my students, over time, I will also share multiple ways of negotiating complex texts with my students.  This way, they can be truly strategic - Our students can better respond to the demands of a text if their thinking tool belt is richer and more diverse than just rereading. 
Included below are a few ways thoughtful guidelines as you sculpt and chisel close reading practice for and with your students - with cautions to diversify your close reading apprenticeship with students throughout this year.  Toward that goal, in the upcoming days and weeks, I will profile numerous ways to strengthen your students' close reading habits and detail how to help students be skillful at text dependent questions without being text bound (i.e. only able to read this text vs. very able to read all texts of this genre).  So, please return to the Open Book soon!
Close reading has the following characteristics:

*      It works with a short passage.

*      The focus is intense.

*      It will extend from the passage itself to other parts of the text.

*      It should involve a great deal of exploratory discussion. 

*      It involves rereading. 
*From the excellent Note and Notice: Strategies for Close Reading by Kylene Beers and Robert Probst (2012)
Phases of a Close Reading Lesson                                                                              Timothy Shanahan (2013), International Reading Association

  • Set the context for the text without revealing too much information and thus denying students the opportunity to think deeply for themselves.
  • Keep it short and to the point. 
First Reading ~ What does the text say?
*       Guide students to consider the most important elements of the text, and clarify confusion. 
*       Ask students to summarize the information or retell the story, including the key ideas and details.

Second Reading ~ How does the text work?
*       Lead the students in considering the author’s craft and the text’s structure as tools for conveying ideas.
*       Develop an awareness of the choices an author and illustrator make to convey ideas.
*       Focus on why and how the author told the story or shared the information.

Third Reading ~ What does the text mean?
*       Consider what the text means to a reader and how it connects to other texts and the reader’s life. 


Suggested Close Reading Steps – Five Readings

  1. Paraphrase the sentences.
  2. State, elaborate, exemplify the author’s claim/thesis.
  3. Identify the author’s purpose, including the most important problem(s), issues, concerns, implications, and/or point of view.
  4. Evaluate or assess the text based on clarity, accuracy, relevance, precision, logic, significance, and fairness.
  5. Role playing – author and questioner.

*From The Thinker’s Guide to How to Read a Paragraph: The Art of Close Reading by Richard Paul and Linda Elder (2008).  Their theory is that if you can read a paragraph critically, you can read a chapter and then a book in the same way.

For a wealth of ideas in supporting your students as readers, writers, and thinkers, I highly recommend Gretchen Owocki's (2012; 2013) lighthouse books:
And Sunday Cummins' (2012) compelling and practical book...

Too often, and for very understandable reasons, we want things to be black and white.  The thinking word of understanding readers is not tidy.  Understanding cannot be easily named with one or two descriptors.  It's messy work and we will do better by our students if we do not narrow the definition of close reading too simplistically.  More on all of this soon!  Until then, happy reading, joyful teaching!

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Building Literacy Bridges as We Close The School Year

The end of the school year is always a bit painful...A bittersweet mix of joy, dread or denial, celebration, anxiety or excitement...We have grown so close to our students...We know each other well...Our workshops are running smoothly and productively (Well, most days, right?).  We have become a true community of learners ready to share, support, and strengthen our thinking with one another.  But then there is the good-bye, the letting go, the right of passage for our students to journey to their next grade level.  And we have to do this when everything in our classrooms is in such a lovely place of independence, investment, and flow...and just when everyone is so on fire as thinkers, readers, writers, learners, and collaborators!

Of course, working our way out of job is the goal of our work.  We want our students to grow and progress.  From our thoughtful efforts, this is possible.  But, like having to brave through the empty nest when our own children grow up and leave our homes, we can celebrate everyone's growth by engaging in just a few more lessons with our students as we let go and they move on.  For me, I focus a lot of my end of the year work on helping my students build literacy bridges


Building literacy bridges is all about giving kids the tools and the heart to continue their daily rituals of reading, writing, and thinking. 
    Help all your students know and name favorite authors.  Encourage the kids to read widely from their favorite authors over the Summer.  This may include doing a bit of research together to develop a list of "must reads."  And talk with your students about continuing to view the authors they read as key mentors in growing their lenses as writers.
  • Immerse your students in books in a series, especially with a goal of having a good number of the texts "still to go" so that the kids will pursue the rest of the series over the summer break.
  • A key exit ticket for my students was giving each of them a brand new journal.  Sometimes I was able to scrap together some funding to purchase these from the dollar store.  Other times, I made them myself with a book binding machine.  I like to offer students a variety of styles, sizes, and colors or covers so that each child can chose one for himself/herself.  These journals may be extensions of our Writer's Notebook rituals or become something new and different - a science journal, a travel log, a diary, a place to collect favorite thoughts, ideas, or quotes, an album for beloved treasures and captions.  I offered my own students a great deal of choice in why and how they would use these parting gifts.  But I was open and passionate in sharing a key message about their journals - the importance of writing, writing, writing everyday. A new pen or special pencil is a lovely companion present, too, if possible. 
  • Make sure every student has a library card.  If they don't, work with your public library and students' parents so that by the last day of school every growing reader is a card carrying library patron. 
  • Send kids home with any extra or "about to be thrown out" school supplies so that they have resources to continue their own writing, reading, and research.  If your students are young, wit these resources, it can be edifying to nudge kids to play school and create their own literacy workshops at home.  If your students are older, encourage them to develop their own book clubs and writing collaboratives just as they have done with you this year.  *My husband Dave and I have belonged to book club of cherished friends for over 25 years...Here is one of gatherings from last year when we read a book Dave authored - The Cloud of Fire. 
  • As antique as it may sound, engage your students in letter writing as you close the school year.  Create or provide note cards and stationery for your students to take home.  If fiscal resources make this impossible, ask (or beg) for your PTA group's help or a local business to provide your students with notes, envelopes, and stamps so that students can experience the delight of receiving and sending mail. Enlist your students' parents and grandparents in this effort so that the kids gain receptive and answering letter writing partners. I often send my graduating and my new incoming students at least one postcard over the summer to connect with them and to extend and kick off a study of this increasingly rare but oh-so-beloved genre. 
  • Encourage your students to create a family blog or travel blog with their parents or caregivers. As you know well, students urgently need to keep writing over school breaks. Tap into the ways students engage in text as writers, readers, thinkers, artists, innovators, emerging scientists, social activists, etc. outside of school and legitimize these energizing literacy bridge vehicles.  Some from my own students and family have included blogging; song writing; earning Scout badges; fixing cars with an Uncle; scrap booking; pet care business ventures; summer camp experiences; captioning family photo albums; and creating a detective club to find lost pets. 
  • Send every student home with peer-authored text.  I made multiple copies of some of the books my kids authored each year.  I kept one copy for my classroom and distributed the rest of the copies to my students so that they would have a summer reading library.  Our student authors always give us permission to make copies of their work :) and, even with the cost of duplication, this is often the most affordable and delightful way of making sure every student will have "good fit" and very inviting texts to read during their break. I often set out these texts on one of the last days of school so that they kids can shop for books - and gain author autographs, too!
  • Teach your students how to play word games.  If possible, create games with your students and send them home with your kids on the last days of school.   My grown-up son Tim and I still play word games and he names these experiences as a chief reason was his was a early spelling bee champ of our school district :) and his love of writing - A skill he uses in his news reporting every day.) Word games like Scrabble, Upwords, Hangman (which we turned into "Build a Bird House" for a more non-violent version), and Scattegories help kids fall in love with words.  And having fun should always be a big goal for summer literacy bridges just as joy fuels our literacy workshops during the school year. 
For all of you who have guided students to live literate lives, to voice their thinking boldly, to become bigger not only in brain but hope, too...
I wish you a joyful Summer season full of all you love...
[I sincerely apologize for the long delay in completing my series focused on Synthesis.  The last few moths have been full of crushing challenges within our extended family but we are finding our way through these painful days to stronger places within ourselves.  Additionally, my treasured laptop crashed and, even with terrific cloud storage tools, retrieving files and reorganizing my writing are taking many hours - Time I just have not had with the fullness of end of the school year responsibilities.  Thank you so much for your kind patience and caring support and for not giving up on me!]