Category Archives: Nonfiction Themes

Critical thinking across multiple texts – Part I

In a 7th grade social studies class I visited a few weeks ago, the students used an evolving definition of “honorable” as a lens for reading multiple texts on warriors – ancient and modern. In the image below, the blue text was our original definition. As the students engaged in discussions about what it means for ancient and modern day warriors to be honorable, we added to the definition. Our ultimate goal was to get at the complexity of what it means to be honorable. What are abilities, qualities, achievements that demand honor? What training or life experiences are necessary? What is the role of codes of conduct? Is it possible to be perfectly honorable 100% of the time? What is tricky about this? What are sacrifices involved in pursuing being honorable?

Honorable anchor chart

Here’s an outline of the lessons we gave:

  1. One day interviewing a veteran – The class interviewed a modern day warrior, a veteran who works at their school. The students were asked to fill out an anticipatory set in advance. This was a very powerful experience that would launch their thinking as we moved forward.
  2. Two days on knights – The teacher and I modeled and then encouraged individual and partner close reading of multiple passages on knights in the medieval period – training and code of ethics. modeled annotations knightsDuring this close reading, the students underlined and annotated information in response to the question, “What are you learning that might help you think about how this warrior is honorable?” We provided lots of opportunities for 2-3 minute student-led conversations around what students were thinking regarding “honorable” and the content they’d just read and regarding how they were adding to their thinking as they read each additional passage. I quickly modeled having a conversation with a student as my partner (referring to our notes & thinking about what a partner had said before responding). Below is one student’s annotated texts.Student 1 annotated notes
  3. Two days on the samurai – A similar routine. Knight and Samurai texts
  4. Two days on modern day warriors – the marines. Students visited – a website that describes marines as strategic warriors and then they also visited a site that discusses posttraumatic stress disorder and includes videos (primary sources) of veterans talking about their PTSD.Screen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.44.55 AMScreen Shot 2016-06-03 at 6.58.11 AM
  5. Time to write in response to what they’d learned – Students were given a menu of options for responding – poetry, illustrating/creating art, writing a letter of appreciation to a veteran. In the future, we’re planning to encourage students to submit to for publication.

Throughout all of these lessons, we continued to refer to the definition of “honorable” as a way to help students articulate what they were learning.

I LEARNED SO MUCH FROM THESE STUDENTS. In my next few blog entries, I’m going to write about what the students revealed in their annotations as well as how we determined which texts to use.

And a BIG THANK YOU to CHRIS, the classroom teacher who co-planned and taught with me!

Hope this helps.



Review & teaching ideas for new book Seeds of Freedom


The new trade book Seeds of Freedom (Bass, 2015, Candlewick Press) is a good fit for 4th-6th grade students because it’s complex and has content worthy of close reading and collaborative discussions. Bass, the author, does not just tell a straightforward narrative about what happened in Huntsville, AL; instead her narrative requires the reader to make inferences about what was going on. The way she presents the information requires the reader to think critically about what was going on. Bass uses the metaphor of planting and growing seeds of freedom–tapping into what these seeds need to grow. For example, she writes, “But the seeds of freedom need news to grow, so another plan is hatched.” From there she describes “Blue Jean Sunday” when the African Americans boycotted local businesses and wore denim for Easter in 1962. The way she tells it, though, the reader has to make an inference that this was the “hatched” plan and the reader also has to infer how this was “news” to grow the seeds of freedom. With her audience in mind, the author has provided just enough content for the reader to do this. She continues to build on this idea of “needing news to grow the seeds of freedom” throughout the book.

While the publisher has listed this book for k-3rd grade, I think the ideas are conceptually way too challenging for this age group. If you get a copy of it, you’ll also see right away that there’s a large amount of text on each page (not too much for a read aloud to older students, though) and some of the illustrations are abstract. The illustrations are also mature enough for this older group of students; the book doesn’t have a “primary” feel.

I’d do the following with intermediate (at least 4th) and higher students (through 6th) –
1) Read this book aloud during an integrated unit of study;
2) Read aloud the author’s notes and discuss;
3) Ask the students to read excerpts from this text closely with an essential question in mind for discussion and for writing in response. Examples of questions (some that could be used with multiple excerpts) include –

“How does the description of Blue Jean Sunday serve to support one of the author’s main ideas?”

“Explain how the author uses evidence to support the idea that ‘seeds of freedom need news to grow.'”

“What is the author’s perspective on the movement in Huntsville? What in the text makes you think so?”

“What role did perseverance (patience, compassion, etc.) play in this movement?”

Background knowledge about Jim Crow and segregation would be helpful in understanding this book, but students could also read this book at the beginning of a unit of study as a way to begin an inquiry project into this period. They could generate questions for research as they hear this read aloud a second time or as they read it with a partner. This would be a good opportunity to compare texts on the same topic – even just comparing one page of text from this book with a primary source (news article, photo, memoir, etc.). It would be interesting to research others’ perspectives on what the author calls “the peaceful integration of Huntsville, Alabama.” The metaphor “seeds of change” or “growing seeds of change” could serve as a frame for thinking about/reading about other events in the civil rights movement and how it took time and perseverance for change to occur.

One disappointment (but not a deal breaker) – I thought the metaphor of growing seeds of freedom was powerful and used well in the first half of the book. I like the growing versus planting – it increases the rigor of this text. I felt like the development of the metaphor was weak in the second half of the book, though. For several pages in the first part of the book, the metaphor remained at the seed stage. Then late in the book there is one page where the “tender plant of freedom” is mentioned; at the end of that page, I was confused when the author wrote, “Are the seeds of freedom wilting?” I was thinking it should have been “Are the tender plants of freedom wilting?” There is no other mention of the tender plant and then on the last page, the last sentence, after the schools of Huntsville have been integrated, the author writes, “to taste the sweet fruit homegrown from the seeds of freedom.” It felt like a leap given the heavy emphasis on the seeds earlier in the book. BUT why not have students go back and think about events that revealed the growth of tender plants and how they might have wilted at certain points and then how the fruit was growing and so forth? This could help students move forward in reading other texts on the same topic and using this metaphor.

If you know me, you know I LOVE books on this period of American History. If you want more information on books I’d recommend reading with students, visit my Goodreads bookshelves–I have a general shelf of books on the Civil Rights Movement (1950-1970) and then two additional shelves with “text sets” for 3rd and for 6th-8th grade.

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Okay…hope this helps.


Book review & text-dependent questions for War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs Churchill and Rufus

War Dogs: Churchill and Rufus (Selbert, 2013) has a lot of potential for teaching in grades 4-5 with students studying World War II.  While this book is listed for grades 2-5, I think it would be hard for 2nd and even 3rd grade students to understand the main ideas. For all readers, the author assumes some background knowledge about WWII–the conflict, the players, and the geography.

For 4th-5th grade students, this would be a good opportunity for partner reading or for a teacher read aloud with a focus on text-dependent questions like, “How does the author develop the idea that Churchill and Rufus are ‘war dogs’?” (CCSS RI 8 & L5). Selbert, the author, positions Churchill as “dog-like” at many points in the book–some more explicitly than others. For example, there’s a page that describes Churchill speaking to Parliament – “Winston, his shoulders set like a tenacious bulldog’s, wades to the front of the hall and begins to speak.” On another page, Churchill’s wife, Clementine, visits him and Rufus in a war bunker where Churchill’s office was during the war; the text states that she holds her husband’s hand and then kisses his cheek and, on the same page, she holds Rufus and “rubs behind his ears until he falls asleep.” Clementine is showing affection for both war dogs in a sense – Churchill and Rufus.

Selbert also includes quotes from Churchill that are critical in understanding the brevity of the war and even the ideas in the text. (FYI-Most of the quotes would be conceptually difficult for 2nd or early 3rd grade students.) The quotes are separate from the running text–see image below–and could be read carefully and discussed further after reading the whole book. A question for students to consider might be, “Why is this particular quote relevant in this part of the book?” (CCSS RI 4 & 5, L5)


Students should have the opportunity to read and reread additional features the author includes at the end of the book–a timeline of WWII, a short essay about Churchill and his beloved pets, and another short essay about Churchill himself. In the intermediate grades, a teacher might read aloud the book and then engage the students in close reading of one of the two essays for the author’s main idea or in response to prompts like, “How would you describe Churchill based on your reading of this essay? Why? What parts of the text made you think so?” or “Churchill was an important figure in WWII. Identify and explain evidence in the text that supports this idea.” (CCSS RI 1 & 2).

A strong book introduction should emphasize the meaning of the title or a short discussion predicting the meaning behind the title. I didn’t pay much attention to the title, assumed I knew what I was going to read about – Churchill’s dog—and then as I read, felt like I wasn’t learning much about Rufus. When I rethought the title – War Dogs (plural), the book made more sense to me. My point is that students shouldn’t assume the book will be mostly about Rufus–actually it’s more about Churchill and his role in WWII. Rufus, a dog, is an access point for more important content.

This book was awarded the International Literacy Association Children’s and Young Adults’ Book Award for primary nonfiction 2014 which is awarded to new authors. I am going to be on this committee this next year – looking forward to it!

Helping students identify two or more main/central ideas in a text

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I’ve been thinking about how we can help students identifying multiple main/central ideas in a text. Traditionally we’ve focused on identifying one main idea, but beginning in 5th grade (and continuing in 6th and 7th), the Common Core Standards for Reading Informational Texts expect students to be able to “determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.”

An easy access point may be to read an article or essay about a historical figure and ask the students to think about and list the character traits of that person-as revealed in the trait. We did this in a lesson with a group of fifth grade students who were reading a four page text about Frederick Douglass (in their Wonders basal). (BTW-This lesson only used the Wonders text as a resource; we were not following the lesson plan provided in the basal.) The students had already read the text once with a focus on the text-dependent question, “How did How did Frederick Douglass try to bring about positive (good) change for African Americans?” The students were able to identify important details to answer this question easily–he spoke in public, he published a newspaper, he wrote a biography and so forth.

Then I posed a more difficult text-dependent question, “What character traits did Frederick Douglass exhibit (while advocating for African Americans)? What in the text makes you think so?” We started by talking in small groups to generate a list of traits and then shared out. I listed their suggestions on the dry erase board. (See image below.) Notice how I wrote the students’ language to the left (next to bullets) and then added Tier Two vocabulary as we went. For example, one student said, “He never gives up.” I wrote this down and so, “So another way we could say that is that he was determined?” The student nodded and I added that to the list as well.


Each one of these traits listed could serve as a main/central idea in the text. There are multiple details from the text that could be used to make the case that he was inspirational or determined or tenacious. We tackled one together as part of shared note-takinghe was able to overcome his fear of speaking. (See the image below with three-column notes; these notes were projected on a screen with a document camera–for all students to see.) We explained our thinking (2nd column), cited evidence from the text and explained why it was evidence (3rd column). These notes helped the students begin the body of an analytic essay in which they described three main ideas in the text. The list of traits we’d created would serve as a resource when they continued taking notes and writing about additional main ideas in the text.


For me, this experience revealed an easy way for students to start identifying multiple main ideas in the same text.

Hope this helps.

New Book – Accessible Intro to Microorganisms for 1st-3rd

tiny creatures

LOVE THIS BOOK. An accessible introduction to microbes for 1st through 3rd grade. Definitely read aloud to students, pausing for space to “oooo” and “aaah.” I’d even be tempted to use it with older students as an introduction to more complex texts on this topic. Davies, the author, talks to you, the reader, in a conversation-like tone, with clear descriptions and explanations and simple analogies. The pace is gentle, providing the reader time to absorb the ideas–in other words the text is not dense with a lot of facts like so many texts on this topic. I learned a tremendous amount–maybe as a result of the the pace, and the layout and design. The illustrations are magnificent, supporting the ideas in the text but also leaving some room for thinking on your own. You could read this aloud and then leave it in the classroom library for rereading.

Next Generation Science Standards – this could be used to as part of units that integrate the 2nd Grade Biological Evolution–Unity and Diversity standards and the 3rd Grade From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes standards.

Common Core Standards

  • First just enjoy the book with students! Read it aloud providing time for students to look closely at the illustrations and just wonder or be in awe of this amazing creature, the microbe.
  • Then–reread and think about the author’s main topic/idea–what is the author trying to tell us that’s important? There are tiny organisms everywhere. Some are bad, but most are good and have important roles in nature. Engage in shared writing of a main idea and then ask students to elaborate with illustrations and additional details. (RI 1.2, 2.2, 3.2)
  • Take time to look closely at one of the amazing illustrations – what does Emily Sutton do in one of these illustrations to contribute to and clarify the text? How do both the text and illustration convey a key idea? (RI 1.6, 1.7, 2.5, 2.7, 3.5) Copy one of the illustrations (once, for school-use only) and ask students to write their thoughts on a sticky note and then post the illustration and the sticky notes for all to view. You might do this for several pages or several books and make a display over time. You could also turn this into a reading response center.
  • Use this book as a mentor for writing – pull excerpts that describe, or excerpts with comparisons, engage in shared writing to “try out” what Davies does, and then coach students to try this in their own writing – on whatever topic they are studying.

This book is a gem. I didn’t want it to end.

Close Reading Lesson with Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine

Elijah Mccoy

All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine by Monica Kulling (2013)

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching demonstration lessons in several third grade classes. In one class, the students were immersed in a unit of study with the essential question “How can learning help us grow?” The text for the lesson was All Aboard! Elijah McCoy’s Steam Engine from the Wonders curriculum; this story is also available as a paperback on Amazon.

In this district, Wonders is a source for the teachers, but they are not mandated to follow the teacher’s (essentially scripted) guide; instead they are encouraged to use it consistently as a resource for concepts and strategies to teach and texts to use. While many of the texts  included in this basal system are decent or even pretty good, the Wonders approach to “close reading” is too broad for me. The directions for this text (and others) were to engage in a close reading of the whole story. This is too long a text for close reading when we want students to read and reread a text. Also he essential question that is posed for close reading of this text – “How can problem solving lead to new ideas?” — is actually quite difficult. When you look for the answer to this question in the teacher’s guide, the guide states –

How can problem solving lead to new ideas? Explain that problem solving leads to new ideas and that the solution, or answer, to the problem might be an invention.

The authors of Wonders have not answered the question here.

And yet, Wonders as a source has a lot of potential here – with this text in this unit of study with a focus on “How can learning help us grow?” The third grade teacher and I decided to rewrite the question for close reading and choose a short excerpt from the text for close reading. We thought it would be pretty easy for the students to identify Elijah’s problem – oiling the engine was dangerous and a constant hassle.  Instead we read through this biographical narrative, thinking about where the problem solving happened or was described by the author. We identified two pages (my study notes are below) that revealed how Elijah solved the problem–he developed a metal cup that would serve to oil the train’s engine. Just within two pages of text, there were many difficult ideas–his mind sparked with ideas, he made a model, he applied for a patent. A close reading of this excerpt seemed rigorous and yet appropriate for this whole class lesson.

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Before the lesson, the teacher read aloud the whole story to the students (early in the day) and they discussed the text in general. For the lesson, I posted the question “How does Elijah solve his problem?” with the definition of solve in a different color marker. (I didn’t want to take for granted that the students would have a solid understanding of what “solve” means.) The blue printed words “do action” were added during the lesson. This question supports the larger unit question of “How can learning help us grow?” In other words, by answering this question, in a later lesson, the teacher can pose the question, “So how did what Elijah learned help him grow as a person?” The posted question was our purpose for reading and drove our decisions about what words to underline and what annotations to write–I referred to it continuously throughout the lesson. It’s like a lifeline for some readers–providing focus and direction.

close reading question Elijah

The text was projected for all students to view – using the document camera and each student had a copy of these two pages. (That’s a flaw in the Wonders curriculum – students are not asked to annotate the text. This is easy to fix!!!!) During the lesson, I gradually released. We started out thinking about the question as we read, annotating together – I annotated on the text on the document camera and they annotated on their copy of the text. Then I released responsibility–giving them the reins to read and annotate, with the question “How does Elijah solve his problem?” in mind. I moved around and conferred with individuals and small groups. Some students needed a lot of support. Others were ready to fly. At the end I asked the students to write an answer to the question on a sticky note–a manageable amount of writing in just a few minutes. Our assessment of their responses afterwards revealed that every learner–striving and flying–was able to access the text and gained something from this lesson. Some of the students wrote responses with a conceptually easier idea — Elijah made a model; while others grappled with the idea of applying for a patent (which the teacher had discussed during the read aloud).

This teacher also meets with small guided reading groups–which is critical. The whole group lesson lasted about 25 minutes. For students who needed more support, she could easily return to this text in small groups (if it’s an appropriate instructional level). This lesson with the whole group establishes identity as a community of readers–that all of us can make meaning with a grade level text. Not every comprehension lesson should be whole group like this – maybe 25 minutes a day. The students still need guided reading and independent reading and so forth.

Okay…hope this helps.


Close Reading 2nd Grade Text – Tricky Details for Students

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As we ask transitional level readers to engage in close reading, let’s be aware of tricky details. Below I share my analysis of one informational text that is very similar to other texts we use in our classrooms.

A few weeks ago, I taught several second grade “close reading” lessons with informational texts from the Wonders program. Wonders interpretation of “close reading” is a little too broad for me–the texts they provide are too long and the time they suggest is too quick. Instead of focusing on one question, the teacher’s guide has several questions (focused on a myriad of skills) for students that basically assess understanding versus teaching students how to read to comprehend.

That said – there is an essential question for each unit in the system and each week. That’s a good thing. For the lessons I taught, I focused on reading the text closely with students to answer the essential question. For an informational article entitled “A Look at Families,” I led a whole group lesson (20-25 minutes on the carpet – text projected by document camera, all students had a clipboard, pencil and copy of the text) and we worked on the first four paragraphs. That was it! AND that was enough! Ideally, you might do a second lesson gradually releasing responsibility further or, with students at a transitional reading level, take the text back to guided reading and complete in small groups. There were students reading below grade level – but with the type of scaffolding I offer, they were able to access this text; definitely using instructional level texts with these students during small group time. (Pre-A and emergent readers do not need to work on close reading!)  For more information on the logistics of a lesson like this, see a previous blog entry –  “I can’t live without doing” during close reading lessons.

To the text – the essential question was “How are families the same and different?” Now, really, this is two questions. For some of our students, this would be too much of a cognitive load and I might modify the question at first to “How are families the same?”

Sept 10 2nd grade essential question

The strength of many of the informational (non-narrative) texts in the Wonders system is that there are clear topic sentences. So in this text, the following four sentences stand out and lead into a description of a particular aspect of family life in different cultures –

  • All families need homes.
  • All families share food.
  • All families talk to each other.
  • All families celebrate together.

So if you’re working with students on identifying the main topic of a multi-paragraph text and the focus of specific paragraphs in the text (RI 2.2), this text lends itself to that.

The tricky part comes with the types of details that follow. Check out the following excerpt:

All families need homes. Some families live in large cities. They might live in tall apartment buildings. Many families live in the same building.

Some families live near water. Some families live in houses on stilts. Stilts are tall poles. They keep the homes safe from the water.

Okay. Seriously? A 2nd grader has to do A LOT of work here. How do these details support the topic sentence “All families need homes”? The details are actually more about “Families live in different types of homes.” That said, we can still glean some information about how families are the same and different.

If we think about the essential question, “How are families the same and different?” then we have to infer that if some families live in large cities and some families do not – or they live in small cities. So the child has to make some inferences when he or she thinks through how these details are answering the essential question – while also just making sense of what he or she is learning. (Stilts? Really?) We need to be aware of this kind of detail and coach for this kind of thinking.

I’m not saying cast this text aside. For many, these texts are the primary source of text in the classroom. I also think that students need to grapple with texts that are tricky.

One phrase I would definitely teach students while close reading a text like this is “the author is sharing examples.” After each of the next three topic sentences in the text, the author gives examples of the topic. (Better than after the first.) So after the topic sentence about all families celebrating together, the author gives the example of the Indian holiday Diwali and the U.S. holiday Independence Day. Second grade students can handle the concept of “examples.”

One of the benefits of a unit of study that has essential questions is that students do not have master the content in every article they read. I wouldn’t ask students to completely understand the concept of “stilts” or “Diwali.” Over the course of several lessons, their understanding of content will deepen and their ability to articulate how families are the same and different should increase.

My biggest caution then is to beware of the types of details authors use after the topic sentences. They may not even answer the question or they may require inferring or they may just be tricky to fathom. The solution is not to find another text – but to do your own close reading of that text and be aware of the hurdles students will have to jump to comprehend the text. You’ll notice in the image above – I studied and took notes before teaching. I can’t live without doing this. I’m a stronger reader for it – and after doing this many times, it’s become much easier to think about these texts for and with kids.

Hope this helps.



4th to 6th grade – Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl


Book review and recommendations for close reading (excerpts, CCSS-aligned questions, etc.)

Maritcha: A Nineteenth-Century American Girl (Bolden, 2005).

I found this book when I started searching other titles by one of my “go to” authors Tonya Bolden. The book is put together in a way I’d like to explore with 4th-6th grade students. The author’s purpose is to tell the story of Maritcha’s childhood in New York City as a free-black during the mid-1800’s AND to describe the people, places, events that Maritcha “may have” experienced based on other historical artifacts, writings of that period. For example, Bolden knows that Maritcha’s grandmother met Frederick Douglass once – so she describes who he was and his role in the anti-slavery movement. You see where I am going? Maritcha’s childhood is a frame of sorts for learning about that period of time.

Bolden’s main primary source is an autobiography Maritcha wrote the year before she died and then additional sources were dug up and researched further by Bolden. The text is rich with well-chosen primary sources – photographs, illustrations, publications and so forth. Bolden is careful to use “qualifiers” when writing about what Maritcha may have experienced like (put words in bold)-

As for play, make-believe games with dolls, a spinning top, ring toss, and making a clackety-clack dance with a Limber Jack may have ranked high among Maritcha’s delights. (p. 8)

When Bolden knows for sure that something happened – based on her research – she does not use the qualifier language, but instead states it as a matter of fact.

As periods of history are being pushed further down in the grades, I think that books like Maritcha –with a focus on the Civil War and anti-slavery movement and the life of a free black during this period – would be developmentally appropriate and rigorous as a read aloud. Place the book on the document camera so students can view the primary sources as you read aloud. Or book talk it and place it in a text set for independent reading during a particular unit of study.

AND WRITING – a discussion of Bolden’s organization and use of primary sources and so forth could serve as a launch for students researching and writing their own historical narratives – fiction or nonfiction, making arguments about the life of a free black, writing informational pieces on particular aspects of this period. Oh, the possibilities!

Lots and lots of potential.

There are several places you could read aloud or excerpt a paragraph for close reading and discuss the author’s main idea and textual evidence or discuss how an author develops an idea. There are three paragraphs on page 20 that begin with the following:

What enabled Maritcha to endure whatever the weather? True grit. And she had plenty of examples around her.

What follows are a description of her godfather’s grit, another remarkable community member’s grit, and her parents’ grit. One of the author’s ideas here is that these people influenced and shaped Maritcha in many ways (RI 5.3). Students might explain how the author makes the case that Maritcha had several examples of grit in her life (RI 5.8). Students might analyze how first two sentences in this excerpt contribute to the development of the main idea (RI 6.5) and so forth. Some good discussion could happen here.

There’s also a lot you could do with the historical content. I did not know about the draft riots that occurred in New York City early in the Civil War–that put Maritcha’s family in danger. Students could analyze for the author’s point of view (RI 6.6) and analyze how this key event is introduced, illustrated, and elaborated (RI 6.3). The primary sources could be a focal point with a discussion about what can be learned from the source that supports the content (RI 4.7).

Hope this helps.


New book by Tonya Bolden – Searching for Sarah Rector

searching for sarah rector

New book for late-intermediate and middle grade students – Searching for Sarah Rector: The Richest Black Girl in America (Bolden, 2014). Let me start by saying that Tonya Bolden has become a “go to” author for me; her research is meticulous, thorough and her writing is appropriate for her audience with rigorous and rich content. I was surprised by this book, though. From reading summaries, I thought I was in for an adventure. Maybe an adventure akin to The Impossible Rescue (Sandler, 2012) or Chasing Lincoln’s Killer (Swanson, 2009). But this book is not a “can’t-put-it-down” adventure. Instead Bolden, uses Sarah Rector’s story as a frame for bringing to life the political and legal experiences of African Americans born and/or living in the Indian Territory and the state of Oklahoma as the culture of community-shared-land shifted to individuals owning land. Sarah Rector, a “Creek freedman” and, therefore, a citizen of an Indian nation, was eligible at birth to be allotted a piece of land. Her parents pursued this and then, through a lease to an oil driller, Sarah became very rich. Except that African American parents were not trusted by the government to be guardians of their children’s estates; generally, a white man had to be assigned. Except that many of these guardians were crooked. Except that…

A central theme in this book is how misunderstandings lead to unfair judgments or distorted views – in many arenas including those of journalists for The Defender in Chicago as well as lawyers for the NAACP in NYC as well as the judgment the author, Bolden, made about what kind of guardian Sarah had been assigned until she dug further into the primary sources available.

This is a case study in the limitations of what we know – in the present and regarding the past. There are actually no primary sources that provide insight into Sarah’s actual thoughts. There are only court documents, other legal documents like land ownership papers, newspaper snippets, a few photographs and so forth. Bolden notes how she aquired a lot of information through a “Dawes Packets” – files of information “tied to an application for a land allotment in Indian Territory, which includes a birth affidavit, census cards, and often testimony” (p. 58). The layout and design of the book integrates a lot of primary sources – including sources like photographs of cabins in the same place and time Bolden used to infer what might have been Sarah’s living conditions. Because Sarah’s personal voice (through journals or interviews) is not present in the primary sources, we only get to know her from a distance; this was an unpleasant surprise for me, but I adjusted.

The power of the author’s work is in Bolden’s perspective – she can only write what she has interpreted from primary sources, many times very dry ones 🙂 If you are working with a savvy group of readers/writers, I’d share this book with them as a mentor for doing their own research. Reading excerpts from this text might be beneficial to all (5-9th grade) students engaging in research, in reading, in writing – including the author’s notes (p. 51) about her research and about the care we have to take when consulting primary sources (that may present distorted pictures of what happened).

Lesson: Teaching Term Perseverant Through… Part 2


Lesson Experience – Even when definitions of vocabulary words are carefully planned for discussion during close reading, these definitions can be problematic…

In a blog entry from last December about a lesson experience, I discussed the needs of a specific group of 6th graders I worked with in an urban school. Many seemed to lack depth of understanding of key theme words used to make claims.  I promised to blog later about the lesson specifically and failed to follow up – sorry! (Alas, where does time go?)  So here it is.

I planned a lesson that would focus on understanding the term perseverant as it relates to the work of the social rights activists pursuing the right to vote – specifically in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960’s. My theory is that if students understand vocabulary words like “perseverant” in one context, they will be able to take that understanding and apply it to many, many other contexts they are reading about in nonfiction texts. Easy, right? Ha!

When I teach a word like perseverant, I start by asking myself what I know about this word. Actually, I just start by looking up the definition on-line. I never assume I know enough about a word to just start teaching. Just by looking up the definition, I gain more depth in my understanding of the word and my ability to articulate its meaning to students.

The online definition for “perseverant” is “to persevere.” Great. The definition of “persevere” is to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement ( Okay. I can play around with this. Thinking about “kid-friendly” definitions, I came up with the following for “perseverant”:

When a person is persistent in pursuing a goal through a series of actions in spite of difficulties or obstacles.

Now, wait. Even with careful planning, this definition would prove to be problematic – but I wouldn’t know it until I was working closely with the students.

For close reading, I chose an excerpt from the award-winning Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge (about 190 words – two paragraphs total, p. 4 about the work of activist Sandra Boynton.) (LOVE THIS BOOK!!! Highly recommend for all 5-8th grade classroom libraries.)

At the beginning of the lesson, I read aloud the first chapter of Partridge’s book, placing the book on the document camera so the students could view the stunning photos Partridge included to support her points. As I posted each photo, I asked, “What do you notice? What makes you think so?”  (10 minutes)

Then before we started close reading, I briefly defined and explained “perseverant.” This part of the lesson could take up the whole period, but I kept it short. I posted the definition (see image of anchor chart) for all students to see and I posted another piece of chart paper with the students’ purpose for conversation (see additional image below). I asked the students to turn and share a time they’d been perseverant. I pushed in and coached trios of students in sharing and then after a few minutes, I asked one student to join me at the front and share his example of perseverance. What I quickly noticed was their examples of perseverant were about overcoming inner-obstacles – learning to play basketball, run faster, do math. The excerpt I’d chosen and what I’d been thinking about were – external obstacles like government policies, or racists, or fear created by others as obstacles to the work of the activists. I needed to differentiate this for the students – internal and external obstacles.


So I went back to the anchor chart with the definition and added notes – look at the anchor chart again and notice the notes regarding “our ability” and “other.” Our purpose for close reading was  – How were the activists perseverant in pursuing the right to vote? (See anchor chart below.) As we began the close reading and I gradually released control to partners to close reading, I noticed (while conferring) that some of the students did not know what “obstacles” meant. So I took advantage of another teachable moment and added “problem gets in the way” to the anchor chart with the definition. We worked forward in this manner – continuously referring to our definition to help us clarify what we were or were not understanding AND what we were learning in regards to the purpose for close reading.

I closed this lesson by asking the students to gather in a circle – with their notes. With a volunteer student, I modeled in the middle of the circle how to look at the annotations I’d written (and the volunteer had written) on the text excerpt (on the doc camera during close reading) and refer to the anchor chart with the definition of “perseverant” to discuss what I’d learned. Then I coached pairs of students when they turned to talk with a partner – using their notes and the anchor chart as references. They revealed some depth in their learning during their discussions with partners. Follow up instruction for a group like this would be to work with this key vocabulary word and others over time – with many different texts and in many different conversations.


This lesson experience has influenced many lessons I have given since then. I carefully craft definitions that are part of close reading prompts – to be rigorous and to present students with enough language to explain what they are learning during close reading. IN ADDITION, I observe and assess students’ understanding of the work and add to/revise the definition as needed. I blogged recently with some more examples of how I’ve done this. I really think this helps students explain evidence they are identifying related to the purpose for close reading.

A dear colleague reminded me that I had not followed up with a description of this lesson! Thanks, Tara!!!

Hope this helps.