What is Explicit Teaching?

We got into a little difference of opinion around here recently about the definition of explicit teaching. Okay, well maybe not a difference of opinion, maybe a full on disagreement. We got into issues of style and philosophy of education and all kinds of other things.
So I decided to seek out the experts on this one. What is commonly agreed upon about what it means to teach explicitly? What is essentially not up for argument anymore.
We came up with the following five characteristics
What to do
: the teacher MUST tell the students specifically what to do
: preferably, the teacher will give the new strategy a name (in order to help students access it later)
: there MUST be a clear, specific task for the students to complete

How to do it
:the teacher MUST tell the students HOW to go about doing what is being asked
: the “how” must actually result in being able to DO the task

: the teacher MUST demonstrate the process, or the “how” so that students can see the process in action

Opportunity for Practice
: students MUST have an opportunity to practice the new strategy
: teachers must either provide corrective feedback OR clearly assess for future action (another group lesson)

When to do it
: students must be told the conditions or non-conditions for using this new skill or strategy. This helps with over-generalizations into inappropriate application of the skill.

Shared Reading and Close Reading

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since the Literacy Coaches in our district spent some time thinking and talking about Upper Grade Shared Reading with a consultant. We looked at the work from Text Savvy and others and eventually attempted to draw parallels between Primary Grade Shared Reading and what we might want to do in the Upper Grades.
That got us all thinking about the demands of close reading in the CCSS and how we might handle some of that work in Shared Reading.
Close reading has been a hot topic of late, and no two experts seem to have arrived at any kind of agreement about what the term even means. So, I decided to be a bit logical about it. The CCSS were written by lawyers and wonks who were working backwards from the demands of universities. The Ivy League universities have long complained about the prevalence of Reader Response theory in the work of their incoming freshman. They have long re-educated these freshman in the demands of Ivy League reading — and they’ve always called it “close reading”. So, why not take a look at the online tip sheets for freshman at these universities to see what they want when they say “close reading”? Made sense to me.
I started with Harvard (why not?). Harvard’s tips for incoming freshman regarding close reading are simply these three:
1. Read with a pencil in hand and annotate the text.
2. Look for patterns in the things you’ve noticed about the texts –repetitions, contradictions, similarities.
3. Ask questions about the patterns you’ve noticed — especially how and why.

That’s it. They have some explanations in between the tips that explain them — but that’s it.
So, what would those three tips mean for Shared Reading in my upper grade classrooms?
1. Mark up the text. Use highlighter tape, real highlighters, the mark up functions in the SmartBoard software, whatever. Mark up the text. I love the directions from the explanations — mark anything that strikes you. This is where you begin to think along WITH the author about the evidence.
2. Notice things that relate to other things. Is there fairy tale language? Are there idioms or cultural references that position this text somehow? Which shades of meaning are present given the choices of vocabulary the author made? Notice it and mark it up.
3. Think about what you’ve just noticed. Wonder about it — but more importantly, go back and look at the text to see what else it there that helps you resolve some of your wonderings. This is about staying in the text. We’ve always wondered — and wandered — right away from the text. Close reading ties us right there with the text. We still wonder —- we DON’T wander away from the text.

Two New Books for Young Writers

I’m in love with two new books that I found recently. One I found while browsing around at the school book fair, the other was recommended by a colleague. I’m loving both of them when I’m working with younger writers who often get very stuck before the pencil ever hits the paper.
First off, I have some wonderful young friends who truly think they have nothing to write about. These poor souls cannot seem to come up with a topic or a story that they can use.
Enter Ralph.

516khvKX0yL._AA160_ Ralph is one of these kids. He desperately wants to write a story. He wants to make his teacher happy. He wants to be one of the gang, like the rest of the kids in his class. But he just can’t do it. He just can’t seem to come up with what to write about.

I love this book! The classroom is such an excellent model of what an early grade writing workshop is like. It models the value of collaboration and partnerships. And, in the end, yes, Ralph does come up with a story. In fact, he discovers that he is actually quite the author.

My next find was this one.
Bear doesn’t have Ralph’s problem. He has a story. He knows what that story is and he’s ready to tell it. Bear’s problem is that no one will listen to his story — or, at least that’s Bear’s problem to start with. After the long winter hibernation, Bear’s friends do, indeed, find the time to gather round and listen to Bear’s tale, but by then, Bear can no longer recall what the story was. I have students like Bear. They start our conferring with me with a fantastic idea for a story. We do some oral rehearsal and off they go. And somewhere between sitting with me and trying to put the pencil to the paper, the story sneaks away on them. They really and truly cannot recall what the story was and what they wanted to write. Well, Bear would fit right in with this group. But Bear’s friends save the day. They suggest that he tell the story of wanting to tell his story, having friends who are all way to busy to listen to his story, and then forgetting his story. Won’t that make a wonderful tale for Bear’s writing workshop work today? I’d love it if one of my “forgetters” would write that story instead of sitting in frustration, staring at the empty paper and grinding the pencil in desperation. That’d be great. Ralph and Bear can join my writing workshop any time.

Teaching Board

Every once in a while, I stumble upon something that becomes an absolute hit. This is one of those times. I created a teaching board to support some of my teachers in using the language and architecture of the mini-lesson. I was working with the idea of stickiness and wanted to help them use some of Shanna Schwartz’s ideas about repetition within the delivery of the mini-lesson.
So, I took Shanna’s phrases (let’s give credit where credit is due!) and put them on a small, lap-sized whiteboard. I covered the whiteboard with heavy-duty packing tape to protect the writing and allow my teachers to use it as a write-on-wipe-off board without disturbing the structure I’d provided.
The result looks something like this:

Well, this thing took on a life of its own. If you see one of these in one of my schools, you’ll know I’ve worked directly with that teacher. Right now, they’re prompting each other to ask me for one. And holding them out to each other like candy to lure a toddler. It would be really humorous, except they’re so darn effective — I really can’t laugh.
My teachers are writing their teaching points on them, or sticky post-its on them and then teaching with them in their laps. Even the students are in on the trick. I overheard a fifth grader remind her teacher “You wanted to practice teaching with your new board, remember?”. So, they’re really using them.
And their teaching is getting better. I’m hearing the repetition. I’m seeing more explicit modeling.
So that’s my hot new thing.

Book Club: Notice and Note

A group of us are beginning a study of Kylene Beers and Robert Probst’s new book Notice and Note.  Want to join us?  Here’s our plan:

Note and Notice Reading Plan

The Questions We Pondered  pgs 1-63

  • There are 10 questions posed in this section.  As you actively read the section, generate a 1 sentence answer to the question to share with the group .

The Signposts We Found  pgas 64 – 111

  • There are 7 signposts — Choose one favorite novel at from among levels R-V.  Annotate for the two signposts for which you’re listed (yes, you can do more – just try it out with the two, please.)  Bring a post-it-ed copy of the novel with you to our meeting.  We’ll be working in small groups to share how this worked and what we think about the signposts and what working with them was like.

The Lessons We Teach pgs 112 – end

  • (in case you haven’t detected my pattern yet)  There are 6 lessons in this section.  We’ll sign up at the meeting about Signposts for a lesson to “try out”.  (We want to have all of the 6 lessons tried out – so think creatively).  Try out the lesson with a group of kiddos – this can be a class, a small group, a tutoring session or even your own child – whatever works in your life.  The point here is for us to try out the work and be able to talk about our experiences together.


  • Take a look at the the Twenty Five Most Commonly Taught Novels for grades 4-8.  I’ll grab the levels for them before our meeting.  Lets think about these books (and others) in terms of creating Touchstone Texts and Gateway Texts (remember our conversation with Ginny?).  How might we integrate our work here? What do we want to integrate?  What doesn’t fit?
  • Look at the Worksheet for Analysis of Text Complexity (pg 204)  How can this support our work BEYOND the Fountas and Pinnell levels?  How can this support us as we expand the thinking and conversations of our teachers?  In what ways does this deepen our own thinking about text complexity?


Movie Trailers — Critical Issues Synthesis

Just before the break, I was in my friend Mary’s classroom. Now, I need to pause here and note that Mary has computer skills that make me downright envious. Sit this woman in front of a computer screen and stand back to await the magic.
Mary’s fourth graders have been working in a character study for the past month or so. They’ve been reading with an eye to critical thinking lenses. Mary and her colleagues have been working with Bomer and Bomer’s work from For a Better World. They’ve been helping their young thinkers and readers to think more deeply about their books and their characters using the critical lenses.
Mary was looking for a way to have her students synthesize their thinking about the critical lenses. With only a few days before the holiday break, they were in need of a creative project. Mary helped them to use IMovie to create movie trailers that highlighted their books and synthesized their thinking around critical issues in the book.
I’m working on getting her to let me upload a sample of what the kids did with this. It was pretty amazing to watch.