Tag Archives: Reading Skills

To Kill A Mockingbird Socratic Seminar

This year I implemented socratic seminar into my classroom to encourage close reading. The trial scene in To Kill A Mockingbird is a perfect place to encourage discussion and deep reading. Prior to the seminar, students were to prepare a “One Pager” – A one pager is a single-page response to reading. Some might say that the purpose of a one pager is for students to own their reading and showcase their understanding with images and words.


The One Pager Contains the following:

  1. Choose three or more meaningful quotes from the reading: passages/quotes that relate to the theme or main idea of the story. Be sure to use quotation marks, and include the page number where you found the quote.
  2. Provide a thought provoking explanation of the importance and meaning of the quote: (how does it help you, the reader, get a better understanding of the story, character, theme, etc.).
  3. Use graphic representations: a drawing, magazine pictures, or computer graphics that go with the piece you read, and the quotes you chose.
  4. Include a personal response to what you have read: this is NOT a summary of the story. This is a thoughtful, insightful response. Think about the message the author is trying to get across, how the author uses different types of literary devices (suspense, mood, point-of-view) to make the story more interesting. This response must be a paragraph minimum, with specific examples from the story.
  5. Remember the following guidelines for this assignment:
    •   It MUST be on a standard sized (81⁄2 x 11) unlined sheet of paper.
    •   It MUST fill the entire page (no white space showing)
    •   Writing MUST be in ink or typed…no pencil.
    •   Use colored pencils, crayons, or markers
    •   The title and author of the story (correctly formatted) MUST appear somewhere on the front of the paper.
    •   Reference the page number in parentheses after each excerpt.


To help guide my students’ analysis of the trial scene in Mockingbird, I included eight (8) questions on the back of the one-pager assignment and suggested that students answer three (3) questions regarding the trial and to answer with direct textual support. The questions addressed how likely is it that Tom Robinson committed the crime of which he is accused, Mayella Ewell’s attitude about race, the response the children had to the trial, who is the mockingbird, was Atticus successful during the trial, and Atticus’ character displayed during and after the trial. For students not sure which quotes to pull from the text, these questions helped students hone in on some key ideas. In addition, they were the jumping off points for our Socratic Seminar.

The one pager assignment was completed in class and then if extra time was needed, students could work on it outside of class. The quality of the one-pagers I received from 95% of my students was exceptional and helped to carry out a robust Socratic Seminar.

IMG_8610  TKAM One Pager

The procedure for the Socratic Seminar included moving all the desks into a large circle for all the participants to see each other. Students put all books away and only had their one-pagers out in front of them with the text. I reminded my students that this is a conversation and not a debate, rather it is a chance to uncover deeper meanings about the author’s central ideas within the text and communicate our interpretations with the class. I told students that there are no right  or wrong answers. In even posted discussion stems on the SMARTBoard to help students frame their conversations and support one another throughout the discussion.

While students were speaking, I kept track of who spoke and contributed to the discussion in meaningful ways. I told students that in order to earn points during the discussion they had to speak at least three times and build on another’s point using specific examples. I told students that I won’t call on them to speak, they are to jump into the conversation and say something to receive full credit for the discussion. In one class, students spoke around the first question for more than twenty minutes.

I have to give credit to my amazing co-teacher for introducing me to both the one-pager and encouraging me to do a Socratic Seminar with my students. It was such a success that I wish I had done these activities earlier in the school year and conducted the seminar more often. This is something that I will implement with all the units that students read and write in the new school year.

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Gamifying English Language Arts

For more than two years that I have infused gamification elements into my English Language Arts classroom to improve engagement, community, and learning. This upcoming Wednesday, April 19th I will be presenting a Webinar for Classcraft Games on using gamification in English. As a Classcraft user, I will address how I use Classcraft Games in my classroom, plus share additional add on games I have created over the past few years to teach concepts related to reading, writing, and critical thinking.


Classcraft fits seamlessly into any content area classroom and I use the gaming platform as a way for students to track game points earned throughout the school year. Within the Classcraft platform additional gaming elements such as a random student generator, boss battles, and daily events inspire more gaming variety. Classcraft encourages teamwork and motivates many of my students to go beyond simple classwork. For example, each month I moderate Twitter Book Chats and students can earn 1,000 XP (Experience Points) for reading the book and participating in the chat. This is a win win for the students because they are reading new books, talking with others about their reading, and earning games points that can unlock additional powers and privileges. Privileges include preferential seating, previewing quiz questions, and even a free homework pass.

In addition to utilizing Classcraft, I am always building new games and add ons with each unit of study. This year I used bottle flipping on a target board for specific writing prompts. After learning about the “old school” Nickelodeon show Legends of the Hidden Temple, I created my own version of the game for a reading unit on courage.  I am always transforming traditional board games like Bingo, Connect Four, and Snakes and Ladders into theme based games for classroom learning.

Join me for a discussion of gamification to promote reading, writing, and critical thinking.  Register for the Webinar here. 

Preview the slide deck below.

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What do you see? Close Reading Interactive Foldable

When we read for school and academic purposes we have to read differently than when we are reading for pleasure. When we read for school we know there is going to be an assessment of our reading during and after reading. That assessment can be a reading comprehension quiz, an essay or short response, even a project to show your understanding.

We tell our students to read closely? But what does that really mean for middle school students to close read?

I tell my students to think of an onion. There are many layers to an onion and similarly, there layers to the text we must uncover.

What does the text say?

How does the text work?

What does the text mean?

I created an interactive foldable to help reiterate close reading and the layers of reading or “ways of seeing” a text. This foldable offers students a visual and guiding questions reminding them of what is expected of them when reading in middle and high school.

The layers of close reading on the foldable are based on Fisher and Frey’s TDQs: Text Dependent Questions (2016) which I describe more in this post and connect with state assessments and the Common Core Standards in this post.



The foldable and directions are below.

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Tackling Words & Images Critically and Closely with Students

As technology and schooling are continuously evolving, teachers must equip students with literacy skills needed to participate, engage, and succeed in our global and digital society. To do so, students must read, decode, and  think critically, moving between printed texts and digital interactions for communication and producing information.

Non-oral human communication has come a long way from cave drawings and cuneiform inscriptions. Communication in both the visual and written media continues to co-evolve. Writing has continued to permeate more than books, and students now find themselves reading more and more diverse texts and in more and more places – paper texts, online texts, informational text, literature, images and video on media platforms, game platforms, and social media. Whether the writing is in print or on screens, students are required to transfer reading skills to these different visual mediums for comprehension, communication, and creation.

Transliteracy, coined by Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media at De Montfort University and the Transliteracy Research Group,strives to set aside the typical ‘print versus digital’ dichotomy in favor of a more holistic integration of the ways in which we utilize various mediums to access information and make meaning. From pen and paper to moveable type to social networking, technology has changed the way in which we interact with one another and with information.” (Trimm, 2007) As a result, teachers are not just content area specialists but also literacy advocates, coaching students to be successful readers, writers, and critical thinkers.

Teachers must continue to equip students with literacy skills needed to participate, engage, and succeed in our global and digital society. To do so, students must develop skills to read in print and online, decode these messages, and critically think about text and media. As Turner and Hicks point out in Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World (NCTE, 2015), “The process of ‘reading’ is complicated by many factors including experience, skills, motivation, interest the reader brings to the text, and the difficulty and reading level of the text itself.” Educators today  are being called to teach reading that encompasses critical thinking skills.

Teacher and author, Kristin Ziemke has a great article in the January/February International Literacy Association magazine Literacy Today (2016 v.33, n.4) on “Balancing Text and Tech.” The central idea of her article is that teachers are not teaching a text, rather we should teach the reader and focus on (critical) thinking skills. Teachers need to explicitly teach students how to read both print and digital texts, as they require some different skills navigating and coding the text. Ziemke calls on teachers to model and scaffold to support our students so that they can “interact, respond, and think to read the world differently.”

Pairing text and tech is one strategy that I use in my classroom to help students practice their critical reading and thinking skills. Below I share some of the text and tech sets I have used this year.


Students read excerpts from

Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Young Reader’s Edition (2015) by Michael Pollan

Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food (2007) by Charles Wilson and Eric Schlosser

What’s Wrong with Our Food System TEDx Talk by Birke Baehr


Plastic Bag (sottotitoli in italiano – voce di Werner Herzog)


22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It) from Eco Watch (2014)



War Poetry from Africa

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah (2008)


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Think Tac Toe Reading Response

The Common Core Standards identify reading competency for students and teachers (based on the Academic Literacy Skills Test (ALST) as someone “capable of proficient, close, and critical reading that reflects, wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with a range of high quality, complex informational and literary texts.” Students and teachers must demonstrate “command of evidence found in texts and use cogent reasoning to analyze and synthesize information, and structure for a given task, purpose, and audience.” (NY State Education Department, 2014)


I have implemented an article of the week with my 8th grade students. I adopted this reading strategy from Kelly Gallagher, to help my students practice reading and read a wider array of texts to build world knowledge. Students are to read a selected article each week and show evidence of their reading by marking up the text. After reading, students are to write a response to the article using our Google Classroom. The reading response is a multi-paragraphed reflection that shows his or her understanding of the text. To tackle the Common Core reading skills I have created a Think Tac Toe response activity to help scaffold how to respond to a text. Students are to complete THREE squares. They must complete a Tic-Tac-Toe, either horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Students must go in a straight line; a student cannot just choose any three random squares. Students are practicing the Common Core reading skills, build prior knowledge and knowledge about the world.


Determine what the text says explicitly Make logical inferences based on textual evidence Draw conclusions based on textual evidence
Determine the central ideas or themes of the text and analyze the development of the central ideas or themes of the text Free


Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of the text
Interpret words and phrases as they are used in the text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings Analyze how specific word choices shape meaning and tone in the text Determine the author’s attitude, opinion, or point of view and Assess how point of view and purpose shape the content and style of the text
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Book Review: Kelly Gallagher’s In The Best Interest of Students


About eight years ago I had the opportunity to take a one day workshop with educator and author, Kelly Gallagher. It was write after he wrote Deeper Reading and since then, I have devoured every book (Readicide and Write Like Us) he has written. His writing resonates with so many ELA teachers and the classroom practices he offers throughout his texts are trustworthy and build literacy in rich and meaningful ways. Gallagher’s newest book, In the Best Interest of Students: Staying True to What Works in ELA Classrooms (2015, Stenhouse Publishers) is no different. In this book Gallagher takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the Common Core Learning Standards specifically for reading and writing and offers 20-30 literacy building activities to support the readers and writers in our classroom. He reminds teachers, “teaching is not an exercise in checking items off a list of standards . . .good teaching is grounded in practices proven to sharpen our students’ literacy skills.” (Page 7) Here is a list of the good that has come out of the Common Core and where the Common Core learning standards are lacking.

The Good of CCLS:

Students are being asked to “do deeper, closer reading of rigorous, high quality literature and nonfiction.”

Essential reading skills include answering – What does the text say? What does the text do? What does the text mean?

Students must  read like writers – examine techniques used by the writer, the writer’s “moves,” and what makes something an effective piece of writing. Reading and writing is recognized as interconnected.

Recognize audience and purpose to clearly decipher the text’s meaning.

Writing is seen as a process and narrative, informative, and argumentative writing are valued the most. Students need to collect data, research, and see lots of models to write well.

Speaking and Listening are key skills students need to be working on always.

What’s Missing with CCLS:

Connections – Nowhere in the standards does it address making connections – text to self, text to text, or text to world connections. Students need to apply what they are reading to their understanding of the world.

Scaffolding – Students need to wrestle with the text but not at the expense of them losing interest and or getting lost. Students need important background knowledge and essential questions to frame their reading.

Reading for pleasure is nonexistent. There is nothing written about how much a student should read and the breakdown of how much  informational text versus literary text to be read is not equally distributed.

Differentiation is ignored throughout the standards

Argumentative writing is overvalued and narrative writing is undervalued. Students need to be able to write in other formats and go beyond the five paragraph essay.

Gallagher Text

As the state tests loom over so many teacher’s evaluations theses days we need to remember that we are not teaching to a test, but we are teaching young people. Our classroom activities should help students build their reading and writing muscles in order to help them succeed throughout their schooling and life outside of school. Gallagher’s book gives a wealth of ideas to support the good and add the skills needed based on what’s missing within the ELA CCLS. Here are a few of the strategies I will be trying out with my students this month.

17 Word Summaries – Before teachers have students peel back the layers of a text, students must be able to decipher what the text says and clearly articulate their “literal understanding” of the text. Gallagher chooses one student to pick a number between ten and twenty and based on that number, all the students must write a summary using only the number of words the student decides. This requires students to think about writing a lot in a short amount of words for everyone to understand.

Analyzing Photographs to recognize Audience and Purpose. Gallagher asks his students to read photographs. First students share what they see (literal understanding) and then he gives some background about this photographer and what was going on in history the time the photo was taken place to then ask, “What was the purpose for sharing this photo?” Lastly, he asks, who did the photographer hope to see his or her photo? (Page 44) Gallagher talks through this activity using Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother.

6 Things You Should Know About . . . & Other Writing Activities to practice more informative writing. Modelled from ESPN Magazine’s “Six Things You Should Know About . . .” students write their own.

Blending Story & Argument Together. A personal experience can strengthen an argument and Gallagher models how to weave a narrative into an argument paper through think alouds, LOTS of modeling, and text exemplars. Students collect data and then write their papers blending narrative into the paper to increase the effectiveness of the argument.

Writing Groups to Develop Young Writers. Gallagher has his students meet in writing groups once a week. The  writing groups includes five students of mixed writing abilities. Each week students bring a piece of writing (new draft or old piece that has been significantly revised) to share with their writing group. Each group member gets a copy of the writing piece to read and respond to. The group members have to “bless,” “address,” or “press” the writing marking up the draft that has been shared and write comments to the writer on note cards based on things marked up on the writing. The group members share their thinking aloud with the group while the writer listens.

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Helping Students Read Closely: When to Notice & Note

Close reading is one of the buzz words that is being emphasized with the Common Core Learning Standards. By close reading I am interpreting as the reading, rereading, and analysis of text for the purpose to understand it more deeply.  Close reading doesn’t happen on every page of a text nor is it something that students should be doing with every text they read for school. Rather, close reading happens with particular passages to help students look more closely at specific elements of the text like theme, characterization, and word choice in order to gain an understanding of the complexities of a text. One of my goals with my eighth graders is to get them to read closely and thoughtfully on their own.

I recently read Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading (2013) along with Christopher Lehman & Kate Rober’s Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts and Life (2014).  These are two wonderful books that offer lots of insight into close reading habits for any classroom.

Close Reading Texts

I have created an interactive foldable for my students with the six “notice and note signposts” described in Beers & Probst’s book.

Notice & Note Foldable 2Notice & Note Foldable 3

The six signposts are:

1. Contrasts and Contradictions – Why would the character act (feel) this way?

When authors show the reader a character acting in a way that contrasts with how one might expect someone to act or contradicts how that character has been acting, the author is showing the reader something important.

2. Aha Moments – How might this change things?

When a character realizes or finally understands something, then the reader wants to pause because the realization means something. It could be related to character development or a new direction in the plot.

3. Tough Questions – What does this question make me wonder about?

When a character pauses to ask him or herself or a friend some really tough questions, then the reader is getting a glimpse of what’s bothering him or her. This might be something the character is struggling with throughout the story.

4. Words of the Wiser – What’s the life lesson and how might it affect the character?

When a wise character shares his or her understanding, insight, or advise on an issue or topic, stop and think about that. These insights could reveal something important about the theme.

5. Again and Again – Why might the author bring this up again and again?

Repetition is important. It gives insight into the setting or character or could even be a symbol of some sort.

6. Memory Moment – Why might this memory be important?

Memories of the past help to explain the present moment. A memory can give insight into what bothers or motivates the character, it can help to understand something happening in the plot, or give information about the theme.

I could teach these signposts one at a time, but I felt it necessary to give my students all the signposts together to help them label and identify them as we begin to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Throughout our class discussions of the text I will point out examples of the sign posts to help guide students’ close reading so they might have a new understanding about.

Lehman and Roberts write in their book, “Authors thoughtfully select details, hoping that we, the readers, are listening. When we take the time to do so, as carefully as we listen to the people we love, we see the complexity of ideas that reach beyond the page and impact our lives.” (p. 9)  I want my students to be good listeners as they are reading a text. When listening to a text students are gathering evidence and reflecting on what new information the evidence reveals about the text. Close reading habits help students to develop a clearer understanding of a text they read in school but a clearer understanding of the world they inhabit.

Below is the Notice & Note foldable to use with your students:

Notice and Note Foldable

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The Power of the Read Aloud

Reading aloud should not end in elementary school.  In fact, reading aloud has many benefits.  In a guest blog post for the Nerdy Book Club titled, How to turn your classroom into a hotbed of enthusiastic readers, Megan Ginther and Holly Mueller wrote:

“Read aloud EVERY DAY.  It builds a reading community (and vocabulary, fluency, and a sense of story) and provides touchstone texts.  Reading aloud creates a bonding experience and time to be together in another world.  It provides numerous opportunities to model good writing and teach reading strategies.   And it’s fun!”

Read alouds enable the teacher to stop and talk to students about the process and ideas about reading. During the read aloud, a teacher reads aloud to students in order to model and demonstrate strategies that characterize proficient reading.  The read aloud is also a time when students receive instruction that helps them talk well about books.  Thus, in addition to modeling the work of proficient, fluent, and engaged readers during the read aloud time, the teacher also teaches students how to have accountable conversations about books.

Here is some examples of dialogue a teacher can use to help model for students active reading and support students’ understanding of the text.

“Be ready to listen, think, and write.”

“Can you picture that.”

“Add that to your picture.”

“Think about how that would feel.”

“Think about how you would feel in that situation.”

“Turn and talk to the person next to you about . . . ”

“Stop and jot in your reading journal what this character is thinking.”

“Why do you think . . .”

“What is going on there?”

“Do you know why . . .”

“Stop and write what you are thinking now.”

“As we move forward, one thing I want you to take notice is . . .”

“As we get to the next page, think about . . .”

“What is this book really about?” — Turn and talk to the person next to you.

“Catch up with a partner what happened in the story and share two new things you learned about . . .”

When teachers are reading aloud we want students to pay attention to the words, make connections, visualize, infer what the author is not saying, ask questions, make predictions, build vocabulary, and draw conclusions.  Reading aloud help model for our students these reading habits so they can apply them when they are reading independently.

A few of my favorite read aloud books:

Social Studies Themes –

Social Studies based Read Alouds

Social Studies based Read Alouds

Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles

The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman

21 Elephants by Phil Bildner

Childtimes by Eloise Greenfield and Lessie Jones Little

The Bat Boy & His Violin by Gavin Curtis

Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell




The Love of Words & Books –

Books that promote the love of reading and words

Books that promote the love of reading and words

The Fantastic Flying Book of Mr. Morris Lessmore by William Joyce

Sparkle and Spin by Ann & Paul Rand

Exploding Ants by Joanne Settel

Books Speak! by Laura Purdie Salas

Wonderful Words edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins

The Boy Who Loved Words by Roni Schotter

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