Close Reading: From Picture Books to Novels

After our fourth graders did such amazing work with the picture books, noticing color, size, body language and facial expressions, we got to work transitioning that close reading work to their own independent reading books.  This is where the work got a little bit tricky.  The books in their independent bins were ALL novels.  These students were reading in the PQR range, which places some of them in the NOPQ band and some of them already edging their way into the RST band — different comprehension work to be sure.

The teachers and I borrowed from Beers and Probst, Notice and Note — and created a signpost that we thought would work at these levels: Descriptive Passage.  Our thinking was that when an author stops the flow of a story’s action to provide a description, that author has done so with great intention.  The description means something.  There is something there that the author wants the reader to “see” before moving on.

We started with a Safe from Cynthia Rylant’s Every Living Thing. Every Living Thing This poignant short story about a young boy afraid of nuclear war, hiding outside with a herd of cows in Maine provided several opportunities for our students to spot a descriptive passage, STOP and read closely for clues.

We analyzed passages like: “Denny watched the map as they drove north, and at times he felt they were driving straight to the edge of the world, risking a drop into Nothing“.  We noticed how Rylant made Denny seem very small in that sentence and made Maine seem very big.  Later, Rylant’s “He knew he could easily carry four hundred granola bars in a laundry bag.” showed us the extreme difference in how Denny felt back in Canton, Ohio and how he now felt in great, big Maine.

That night, the cows were there.  It was nearly dark outside, but just enough light was left to walk without a flashlight and to see the shapes of things. Denny saw the five cows standing up against the fence surrounding the barn, and he went to them.” allowed us to analyze the use of dark and light (a form of color) and the mood the author planted there in that passage.

Facial expressions and body language jumped off of the page as well.  “The cows’ eyes were all large and shining and very, very peaceful.  Denny stared at the eyes and he felt reassured.  He felt stronger.  He felt safe.   Denny moved up against the fence, and the cows wobbled among themselves for a minute, then were still again.  He put his hand through the fence and gently touched the muzzle of the cow nearest him.  It watched him with soft eyes and did not move away“.  What a beautiful description of how the cows began to calm Denny’s fears and provide him with a safe place and sense of stability.

We made a bookmark together — sort of Notice and Note style — to remind ourselves to STOP whenever the author takes the time to provide us with descriptions, to pay attention to the choices the author makes in those descriptions and to what it means for us in understanding the book.


Close Reading: Boot and Shoe and Where the Wild Things Are

I came back from spending a week with Chris Lehman all jazzed up and wanting to try some things with some of our readers.  Since my fourth grade team was nearing the end of a partnership unit, we thought some of Chris’ ideas might be strong fodder for the partner discussions.  If we read with close reading lenses, could those observations fuel Accountable Talk partnerships and meet our focus of Accountability to Rigorous Thinking — in other words, would it help our young readers to grow bigger ideas in their conversations?

Short answer:  YES.

What these young readers were able to do was AMAZING!!  (thanks Chris!).

First, we did a close reading together of Boot and Shoe.   boot and shoe Essentially, I repeated a lesson that I’d watched Chris do in a lab classroom.  My goals were for the students to begin noticing things they had perhaps not noticed before, and for students to begin speculating about why the author might have made those choices.  I wanted them to dip their toes into the water of hypothesizing about use of craft.    We read.  They noticed an amazing number of things (things that my colleagues and I had NOT noticed when Chris used this book with us).  They began having conversations about Marla Frazee’s use of symmetry in the illustrations and then about what it meant when she BROKE the symmetry.  (Hey, all I asked for were body language, colors, and size — symmetry was ALL them!) They hypothesized about how the symmetry impacted the mood of the story.  One or two of them even had a deep conversation about whether symmetry around a horizontal line versus around a vertical line made a difference. (yeah, I was pretty blown away too)

Next, their teacher planned out a second experience in looking at a picture book through those same lenses (plus the symmetry lens that the kids developed).  The second books was the beloved Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.    wherethewildthingsareThis experience was quite a bit different.  Boot and Shoe had been an unknown story.  They were building a sense of the plot at the same time that they were analyzing Marla Frazee’s craft choices.  Where the Wild Things Are is a beloved, familiar text.  The students know this story VERY well.  They didn’t need to construct the storyline as they worked.  They were able to draw on their knowledge of the storyline to check on their hypotheses as they went along.  The close reading work was both forward and backward in the text (Is it still re-reading when you go forward??) Again, they saw things that the adults had never noticed.  They followed their ideas about symmetry and how it impacts mood.  They noticed symmetry’s effect on a sense of safety versus a sense of danger.  And without being prompted, their conversation returned to Boot and Shoe to verify whether that hypothesis would hold in that text as well.

So, what’s up next?  Well — we’re thinking of using a signpost from Notice and Note to transfer the work into the novels that the partnerships are currently reading.  Maybe some work with short stories to try out the work.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  (Thanks, Chris — great experiment!!)