Ruminating on the Core

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Archive for Text Dependent Questions

April 21, 2013

Grappling and Struggling to Expand the Mind

We were middle school teachers looking at the texts on myth and we agreed that the majority of our students wouldn’t have enough prior knowledge to make sense out of the readings.  We knew if we passed out these texts without substantial scaffolding, we would likely encounter frustration, boredom and, possibly, acting out.  In the good old days, that is the pre-Common Core days, some of us might have given a definition, led students through a guided reading of a myth pointing out features of the genre, maybe read another, have them read one on their own…. But we had gotten together to look at a lesson designed using Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and we were looking for more.

Instinct told us to change texts.  To find something more accessible.

But we knew Common Core (a bit of personification, I think) is asking for something else—what Charlotte Danielson, (in an interview with Anthony Rebora in “Charlotte Danielson on Teaching and the Common Core”) calls “a real change in mindset.”  That change starts with close reading.  Sheila Brown and Lee Kappes define it as “an investigation of a short piece of text”—a journey of multiple readings, text-dependent questions and discussion that leads the reader to deep analysis, comprehension and, in some cases, appreciation.  Brown and Lee continue their description of close reading in “Implementing the Common Core State Standards:  A Primer on Close Reading or Text” as a “way of thinking and processing text” that is a cornerstone of Common Core.  Close reading, we read, was a way of giving a measure of equal access to rigorous and challenging text—the kind that our students need to be able to read, process and use information as they continue in school and/or start careers.  We had to challenge them so they would be able to challenge themselves.

Okay.  So how do we figure out how to enable those readers who may have never heard of Artemis, Athena or Atlas?  Front-loading?  Scaffolding?  Yes and no.  Brown and Kappes say yes, we do tap into the students’ background knowledge, but with a very specific intentions.

The student who enters the class, who may have read Percy Jackson or D’Aulaires book of Greek mythology has a foundation.  The myth lesson would require them to update, discard or realign pre-existing information.  We knew that before CCSS.  The approach to the less experienced reader requires more selective scaffolding.

Brown and Kappes say we have to be clear about what we’re doing.  We have to differentiate between providing students with enough background to make the text comprehensible and telling the students what we want them to discover.  Enough access to allow them to participate and struggle in a meaningful way, but not so much that there is no struggle.  They must have the discipline and stamina to “discover the content independently”.

Our (teachers) work is in selecting “high quality, complex texts” and developing text-based questions that call attention to significant elements of the text and build comprehension to make these discoveries possible.  The students’ work is to struggle with, to decode, to analyze and evaluate ideas and information.  To struggle.  Brown and Kappes assure us that struggle is okay.  In fact, they report that teachers who have implemented close reading are finding that their students are not discouraged by the more complicated readings.   Instead, they are motivated.  “Implementing the Common Core State Standards:  A Primer on ‘Close Reading of Text” promises that “grappling with rich, complex texts is an exciting, thought-expanding experience that can change minds and mold beliefs”.

Which of course is what every teacher wants for their students, right?   So we looked at our lesson on mythology and prepared ourselves to struggle and grapple and see Common Core State Standards as “an exciting, thought-expanding experience” for us and our sixth graders.  After all, Rick Riordan got kids to read about Daedalus.



April 15, 2013

Cagey sages, frantic manics, and pragmatic practitioners

As I read article after article and blog after blog about the Common Core State Standards, I find that much of it exists to calm fears – yes, you can still teach literature! Yes, you can still teach the texts you love! Much of it seems to still be mired in justifying the why rather than elucidating the how. As for the resources that actually get down to what implementation will look like, they seem to fall into three categories.

The first are the “cagey sages,” the so-called “experts” who write much, but say little; their breathless endorsements of the shift in focus filled to the gills with jargon and abstractions but little of practical value. The second are the “frantic manics,” who desperately and narrowly pick through the standards and articles to find support and justification to continue doing what they already do, and then gleefully publish their message that all is well, and nothing has to change “that much.” I’ll discuss the third later.

Neither the first or second group is very helpful. Both ignore the fact that we’re not just building an airplane while we’re flying it; we don’t even have blueprints.

The cagey sages like Charlotte Danielson tell us that Common Core “requires instructional strategies on teachers’ parts that enable students to explore concepts and discuss them with each other, to question and respectfully challenge classmates’ assertions” without offering what one of those instructional strategies might be or look like. How do I get students who refuse to read or participate to “question and respectfully challenge” each other?

Timothy Shanahan wisely informs us that “these changes [are] considerable and will require better and more appropriate professional development, instructional materials, and supervision.” Descriptions like “better and more appropriate” earn my students’ essays a big V for vague. These Emperors seem to be in danger of being scandalously underdressed.

Some advise that we continue using our beloved texts, but look at them with “new eyes.” This sort of vague platitude is not only unhelpful, it reinforces the attitudes of many veterans who, having seen reform come and go, brace themselves to ignore common core as they’ve done with reform gone by. The “old wine, new bottle” argument is heard often from this quarter, and who can blame them when the only direction they’re given is to “look at your texts with new eyes”? Charlotte Danielson tells us the students should be “invited, or even required, to think.” Even the greenest of rookies fresh out of teacher preparation understands that – but how?

The frantic manics, on the other hand, seem to want to validate their old practice, to point to their tried and true methods as needing little or no adjustments, perhaps for fear of facing a legacy of years spent “doing it wrong,” or perhaps out of a sense of dread of having to “start all over.” But if we’ve truly found a better way, that means accepting that some old ways were insufficient to our task and must be discarded. However, if we’re going to ask professionals to bravely walk away from aspects of their practice they’ve spent years or decades developing, they need something to replace that. They shouldn’t have to “start all over.” And that means concrete guidance and models.

We can’t change the fact that this airplane is in flight, or that we’ve been tasked with building it. Can we at least get a blueprint? Where is the curriculum? Where are the assessments and questions to ask? Where are the models? What do meaningful text-dependent questions look like? So much of this is being left to teachers, many of whom lack of experience, expertise, or time to create curriculum, assessments, or appropriate models. This does not make them poor teachers or diminish their professionalism. Rather, it highlights just how unrealistic it is to expect teachers to be all things at all times. We need help.

Which brings me to the third category of articles and resources I’ve found, that most extraordinary of treasures: resources from those who actually tackle day-to-day teaching practice: the “pragmatic practitioners.” It is upon this group that the future of public education rests. I aspire to join this category, though I must candidly admit I’m much more of a groupie-apprentice at the moment, particularly given how elusive these pragmatic practitioners are in the jungles of professional journals.

One of the best and most thoughtful discussions I’ve found is about the practice of “pre-reading” anticipatory strategies, deep in the debate over whether pre-reading activities should be eliminated. Cheryl Dobbertin encourages us to go straight to a “cold read” of a text with our students so that they build “comprehension by actually reading a text rather than listening attentively to what others are saying about that text.”

Timothy Shanahan similarly advises, “too often, [a teacher’s] notion of how to address [student reading skill] gaps has been to tell students what the text is going to say rather than offer information that might help students interpret the author’s message on their own.”

Okay, solid rationale, I see their point: students should discover, not be told.  I’m sold – how do I do it? Cheryl Dobbertin distinguishes herself as a pragmatic practitioner by actually offering an example.

She contrasts the act of summarizing a text for the students, which “doesn’t create a need to read, and actually makes it easy for students not to read,” with asking them text-dependent questions that help them understand key elements of the text. Modeling the exchange, she writes, “What are some of the rhetorical devices we might find in a memoir? Ok, now let’s read the first two pages of this memoir together. When you see one of these devices, put a checkmark beside it. Then we will stop to discuss what is going on in this text. Be ready to discuss at least one spot you’ve marked.”

This is concrete. This is clear. Most importantly, this is something I can begin trying tomorrow.

Rather than having faith that hundreds of thousands of teachers will infer what something as complex and nuanced as deep level and complex text-dependent questions looks like, models should be plentiful and varied in order to let teachers see and discuss with one another, to either affirm their practice or support their growth.

Educational Equity & Access: Student Formulated Text Dependent Questions as a PBL Strategy

One Common Core strategy that can help teachers is to allow students to create text dependent questions enabling them to take ownership for their learning. According to Fisher and Frey, “Teachers should ask text-dependent questions, but students can also ask text-dependent questions of themselves and one another as they learn to read and think this way” (Fisher & Frey, 2012, p.73). This does not mean that teachers should not also ask text dependent questions,  but rather that they could give students the opportunity to struggle with the text by formulating their own text dependent questions. If this democratization of learning is allowed it will help provide educational equity and access for all students. Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana argue that student formulated questions can “serve as the catalyst for figuring things out and overcoming previously insurmountable obstacles” (Rothstein & Santana, 2011, p. 107). Both the students and the teacher could utilize these questions to diagnose student learning and to make instructional adjustments.  Isn’t this one of the functions of the new optional interim Common Core assessments?

This is the strategy that I have implemented in the classroom.  Students are given the opportunity to generate their own text dependent questions as one of the steps in Project Based Learning (PBL). The challenge has been getting students to formulate higher level text dependent questions as advocated by Fisher and Frey’s “Progression of Text-Dependent Questions” (Fisher, p. 73). To address this challenge I have utilized the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) developed by the Right Question Institute (Rothstein & Santana, 2011, p. 4). The QFT is a six-step protocol where students are given the opportunity not only to produce questions,  but also to improve, categorize, prioritize and reflect on their questions. Along this process students learn to analyze the text and support their own questions with evidence from the text. Isn’t this what the Common Core standards and assessments would like our students to be able to do? In the article, “Can Student-Driven Learning Happen Under Common Core?” Marsha Ratzel states that the common core assessments should reflect “the broad principles and effective pedagogy that the CCSS authors have envisioned” (Ratzel, 2013, p. 1). According to Ratzel, teachers will be able to provide a supporting role and students will be able to take ownership of their learning. In other words, classrooms environments will be more student-driven rather than teacher-centered or teaching solely to the test.  In his inaugural address at UCLA, Howard Gardner, who is best known for his theory of multiple intelligences, stated that today’s learners are doers. If this is the case, shouldn’t teachers provide more opportunities for student-driven learning to occur in the classroom?

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). Text-Dependent Questions: Effective questions about literature and nonfiction texts require students to delve into a text to find answers, Instructional Leader, 70-73.

Ratzel, Marsha (2013). Can Student-Driven Learning Happen Under Common Core? MindShift, Feb. 2013,

Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions. Harvard Education Press.


Equal Access to the Core

Tim Shanahan, in his article “The Common Core Ate My Baby and Other Urban Legends”, admits that when David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, the architects of the Common Core, presented their ideas to the publishing industries and school districts, they faced contentious responses and frustration. Shanahan, in this article, demystifies five concepts he calls legends that we were exposed as CCSS took center stage. He clarifies these concepts to ease the frustration and help make Common Core approachable. Educators across the U.S watched how David Coleman presented a close reading of  ”Letters from Birmingham” to demonstrate how to help students find meaning and construct knowledge without building prior knowledge. Shanahan clarifies this idea of building students’ prior knowledge to support educators’ concerns. He states that in order to help students construct meaning, teachers will have to decide when it is appropriate to pre-read and frontload for students. He further explains that when there is a huge gap between students and text, pre-reading is necessary.

I admit that as a teacher, when I watched Coleman teach this lesson, I was concerned. I have found it essential to frontload for students when I know it is a new concept, and the possibility of them knowing who was Martin Luther King, for example, were slim. Therefore, I prepared clips and questions to make that connection between the students and the text. This frontloading facilitated understanding among low performing students. I did not use pre-reading solely. I found it extremely important to require students to go back to the text several timesand look for meaning. Each time, students were requested to examine a different literary element and that was helpful and powerful. Shanahan advocates for the same idea. He clarifies and states, “Although it may have made sense to thoroughly prepare students to get everything they could from a text they were going to read a single time, that kind of preparation isn’t as necessary if students will be going back to the well two or three times. Letting kids give the text a try without over-preparing them is not unreasonable if you can add needed information back into the equation between a first and second read.” This idea of purposeful reading or reading for multiple purposes has proven to be vital. It has always helped students expand their vocabulary and enriches their understanding.

Shanahan clarifies four other concepts that were not that clear when the Common Core was presented. To the teachers who claim students cannot decode, Shanahan explains the phonemic awareness and fluency is addressed in the foundational reading standards in the CCSS  in K-3. For those who are worried that students will not be exposed to literature, he says that it is imperative to keep on teaching literature in English classes. Since other subjects will address literacy, students will be exposed to more informational text.  To those who question the text complexity, Shanahan refers to Appendix A in the Common Core and explains that instead of lowering the level of the text we should expose students to various texts so they can construct meaning. To those teachers who say, “Oh I already do that!” Shanahan says, “No old wine in new bottles.”

Educators are given an opportunity to change and bring rigor to the classroom; we cannot continue with the same teaching practices that created those gaps in students’ knowledge and consequently performance. Too many of students graduate high school and still need remedial classes. Common Core standards are rigorous and significantly harder.

I agree with Shanahan: Common Core promotes habit of thinking and higher level of thinking, which will prepare student for the future. Educators know that if we teach students to read and re-read, to question the text, to form ideas, state arguments and support them and to reflect on their learning process, not only we will create lifelong learners we will improve the quality of life. With focusing on the “how” and not the “what” I believe Common Core will help close the achieving gap.







April 12, 2013

Help! They Can’t Read It!

As I have aged, I have begun to ascribe to the notion that a person gets exactly what they need when they need it.  I recently took a position as an Instructional Coach at the school where I had been teaching.  When I began arranging things in my new office, I opened a cupboard and found a treasure trove of professional reading materials.  Among the books, I found one published ten years ago by Kylene Beers entitled When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do.  In the rapidly changing world of education, a ten year old book may seem more like a garage sale item, but knowing how demanding the new Common Core State Standards will be for students, I found the title intriguing and could not help but pick it up.

It did not take me long to devour it.  There are a plethora of good ideas for helping students make sense of complicated texts: pre-reading strategies, during reading strategies, after reading strategies, fluency strategies; the list goes on.  In every one of those strategies there is a focus on modeling through metacognition.  Something I know I rarely did in my own classroom.

I am sure that I am not the only teacher who shied away from Think Aloud activities.  I always felt strange and uncomfortable doing them.  One of the best strategies in the book might help me get over that fear.  Beers suggests doing something called Syntax Surgery.  This Think Aloud activity provides an auditory and visual structure for wary teachers to mark up the passage as they go so that students can see not only, “how pronouns related to nouns or how you used a context clue to define unknown words or how you added details to events in the passage”, but in your marking and thinking aloud, students are taught how to make inferences; something we know even our most gifted students struggle to do.

The Syntax Surgery strategy for making inferences is not the only strategy in the book that requires the teacher to think out loud for students.  If I were to embrace any of them, I will be required to step outside my comfort zone.  As students begin working with the Common Core State Standards, we will be asking them to do that a lot.  We owe it to them to help them in this process.  After reading this book, I decided that I want exactly what Beers does.  “What I want to do is to teach them how to struggle with a text, how to develop the patience and stamina to stick with a text, how to figure out on their own what is separating them from success with a text and what they should do to fix it.  In short, I want to teach them how to struggle successfully with a text.”  Ten years ahead of its time, that statement is at the heart of what students will be doing with the new standards.

Beers, Kylene. When Kids Can’t Read: What Teacher’s Can Do. [S.l.]: Bt Bound, 2003. Print.

April 7, 2013

Common Core: Implications for Teacher Librarians

Ruminating on the Core activated my curiosity for implications for Teacher Librarians, Technologists and other Specialists in the school.   In particular, Teacher Librarians have long endured the pinch of the budget, each year fearing the worst, losing their jobs.  After five consecutive years of RIF’s  for Teacher Librarians, this year is different in that it serves as a chance for Teacher Librarians to plan for the new school year and be the frontrunners for the Common Core Standards.  Like other school districts, LAUSD district offices have began to support this sub-group of professionals with promotional materials such as the one pictured below.

 Professional Development workshops have been provided for Teacher Librarians in preparation for this shift.  At the last LAUSD TL Professional Development, Teacher Librarians were provided literature and in particular an article by  Catherine Gewertz,  “Common Core Thrusts Librarians Into Leadership Role,”  which discusses TL’s as the “secret weapon” for Common Core integration. As the secret weapon, TL’s will be charged with leadership roles that include identifying text complexities, assessing students’ reading abilities, weeding collections, purchasing, selecting and introducing students and teachers to quality non-fiction texts.

However, library  professionals at San Jose State University SLIS (School of Library and Information Science) have long prepared for this shift in education for school librarians.  Professors like Dr. David Loerstcher have created platforms through social media and electronic documents that promote the ongoing conversation to utilize school librarians effectively within the purposes of the Common Core Standards.  Loerstcher writes,  ”Since the Core Standards as a whole stress that language arts permeates every discipline taught, teacher librarians can confidently link research, information use, and technology across the entire curriculum as a means of pushing the bottom line on whatever assessments are prescribed.”  He provides an example, “the teacher librarian had Mrs. Smith’s 3rd grade class for research three times over the year, each in a different discipline. Each time, the level of sophistication in writing went up; both adults included that track record in their annual reports (David Loertscher, CCS Google Doc 2010).  Loertscher further recommends a collaborative partnership formed between teachers and TL’s, “When collaborating with classroom teachers on any learning experience, check in the writing standards for the sophistication level expected of the product as a guide in building expectations, the support that will be needed, and the formative and summative assessments made jointly by the teacher and the teacher librarian”.

This year, the future of Teacher Librarians appears to be brighter than past years and possibly because of the adoption of Common Core.  The implications of these standards are likely a perfect combination for both TL’s and teachers to become more collaborative in their work and continue to bridge the achievement gap that has existed for far too long in LAUSD.   As a TL, I look forward to using the anchor Core Standards as an inclusive set for collaboration with all teachers at my school site.

April 2, 2013

Ruminations on Challenges and Opportunities

In preparation for this task I spent an entire afternoon perusing some of the texts suggested for this blog post. I read other people’s posts and comments. I followed leads and links. I found myself returning to two different texts — Kate Kinsella’s insightful suggestions for “launching an Academic Language Campaign” and the “3P Grading System” on the website, Teaching That Makes Sense .

Kate Kinsella shows us that we, their teachers, are the only avenue some of our students have to achieving the language skills that will enable them to be “college & career ready.” Through modeling appropriate diction and communicating clear & consistent expectations for our students’ verbal  & written expressions we can help them learn the lexicon of the educated world. But, just as importantly, she makes it clear that we need to rethink the way we formulate the questions we ask in the course of a class or small group discussion. Ultimately, according to Kinsella, we get what we ask for. Our questions tend to be vague, general, and not specific to what it is we want our students to do. (It’s as if we think they should already know how or will magically get there on their own.)

Although I use academic language – and explain through definition and analogy — in my classroom, I still found some of my practice represented in the “DON’T” examples of Kinsella’s article. There are several places where i have noted “GUILTY” in the margins.

These are not (yet another) new set of standards. The Common Core is a paradigmatic shift. “They must articulate their text comprehension, summarize, make inferences, and justify claims using complex sentences, precise vocabulary, and grammatical accuracy.” As I noted in the first page margin after reading this list of goals & expectations, you can’t just slap lipstick on this pig and call it a lady. We have to rethink much of what we do and revise how we do it. Simply identifying and inserting “complex text” without dealing with our students’ academic lexical and syntactic deficiencies is not going to be a whole lot of fun — for them or for us.

Reading the second article, “3P Grading System,” was a little like fantasizing about winning the lottery. You mean I never have to grade a stack of essays again?? sigh… 

And, for me, about as likely. A new grading system that looks at participation, progress and performance over time. That places a significant amount of responsibility for assessment and growth on the student. Novel idea. :)

And that is precisely where the intentions of the 3P Grading System intersect with the intentions of the Common Core: The goal of each is to move our students from being functional subordinates who do what they are told to being actively engaged and independent academic learners.

The 3P Grading System asks students to participate in their own assessment and, in the process, take ownership of their learning process; with the aid and support of (teacher-supplied and eventually student-generated) guidelines, criteria, rubrics students develop the ability to determine their own strengths and weaknesses. Then, they become responsible for “fixing” it. The classroom becomes student-centered and, eventually, the students are able to define criteria for their work and develop rubrics for successful work. The teacher becomes a partner in the student’s growth, a mentor.

This process dovetails with the goals of creating independent learners who are college- and career-ready embedded in the Common Core State Standards.

Neither article ignores the fact that our student population needs support and scaffolding to achieve these lofty goals.  I came to see that both articles shared the value of teacher modeling as a cornerstone of good teaching. Writing, Speaking, Listening, Reading…we must show them the way. We must be the mapmakers – and, then we must let them chart their own course.

Peha talks about grading a portfolio for the “performance” part of the system but never specifically details how that might work. Or, how it works for the students. I’m not sure how the work gets discussed throughout the semester. Or what justifies an expectation of progress. But I like the idea of portfolios and collaboration. Ironically, both Peha’s Grading System and the Common Core State Standards are short on the specifics of implementation.

But, that’s what makes the future possibilities of both of them so exciting.

March 28, 2013

A Reflection on the Use of Complex Text and Text Dependent Questions with LTELs

The use of complex text and text-dependent questions in ELA instruction is a practice that I have been cultivating over the years with a variety of different student populations.  In my present teaching context at ArTES, a Pilot School in San Fernando, I instruct a large proportion of Long Term English Learners (LTELs) in virtually every class I teach.  As suggested by Boyer (2012), an important factor in the use of complex text with this particular group of students has been scaffolding of manageable chunks of text, or the use of shorter texts that reach an appropriate level of text complexity for the grade level in question (p. 8).  Particular approaches that have proven useful include multiple readings for different purposes, the use of bullet-pointed summaries to access main ideas, repeated modeling of text-dependent questions, and the use of Socratic Seminars with student-generated text-dependent questions that are composed prior to the discussion.  In my current context, the best approach to accessing main ideas in a text seems to be whole group discussion after a first reading, as a student sits at my desk and takes notes on the document reader based upon student comments.  A key feature that that makes this work is eliminating hand raising and formality, while at the same time moderating student input to help students take turns making comments.  The final result is a sequenced, neatly packaged set of bullet points that summarize the passage in question, which students quickly copy into their notebooks from the document reader.  What is critical to the success of this process is letting students become a little bit loud while maintaining some structure, allowing them to correct each other on the finer details of summary points, and sending students back to the text to find their own correct answers when there is a point of contention about the content.

After this process, and on a second reading of the text, I model a few text-dependent questions with students on the document reader.  One strategy I have utilized in order to steer students toward the right type of questioning is to discuss the difference between “how,” “why” and “what” questions and the different type of functions they serve (students can easily answer “who” and “when” questions independently).  As I was reading “Engaging the Adolescent Learner,” by Fisher and Frey (2012), it occurred to me that figure 1, titled “Progression of Text-Dependent Questions,” would be of great utility in explaining various purposes, as well as the continuum of text-dependent questions complexity (p. 3).  As I continue to hone my practice on this particular teaching point, I will project this chart on the wall to help students conceptualize the composition of various types of questions in different categories and for different analytical purposes.   I predict that this graphic will serve as an interesting jumping off point for student discussion about the process of developing text-dependent questions in preparation for a Socratic Seminar Discussion.


Boyer, T. (n.d.). Adolescent Literacy in Perspective. Retrieved March 23,

2013, from

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). Text-Dependent Questions. Adolescent Literacy in

           Perspective, 1, p. 3.

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