Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning

Our first book, Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning has arrived!

Screen shot 2013-11-24 at 1.27.39 PMAfter more than a combined two decades of teaching, you might think that for Dana and I, teaching our students to interpret texts is easy. And yet, each year we are challenged in ways that continue to surprise us. Each year, we spend countless, (sometimes pull our hair out), hours puzzling over ways to make our teaching stronger. We continue to question, how do we teach our readers to take a piece of literature and examine it from every direction, from every facet. To see inside of it and let it spark an idea they can stoke and turn into a brilliant flame. We question whether we’re asking too much of our students; if our expectations are simply too high. And yet, during conferences and small group conversations about texts, we witness again and again, the insights our students bring to and gain from their reading.

We are reassured each year that by setting high expectations, our teaching becomes more focused and  we renew our commitment to our students. This is what led us to write Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. We’ve written this book as much for ourselves as for all teachers who continually strive to improve their practice and teach in ways that stick.

We know that the work of dedicated teachers is tireless and often without validation. In these standards driven times filled with talk of teacher accountability and too little talk of teacher support and recognition, we’ve written this book to pay tribute to the indelible ways teachers influence the lives of children.

And so, we dedicate our book to teachers everywhere. We hope you enjoy!


Accountable Talk Fuels Book Discussions

Think about the experience of sitting at dinner with friends and family on Thanksgiving. If your dining experience is like mine, conversations are spirited. Charged, in fact! Raised voices, laughter, many people talking at once, and probably a few sidebar conversations surround you. All of this occurs simultaneously. Certainly, this image in its entirety isn’t exactly what we envision happening with our students during book discussions. But, there are aspects of this Thanksgiving dinner analogy that we can use in our classrooms to help students engage in lively, meaningful, and memorable discussions.


Accountable Talk is an approach to whole and small group classroom discussions where students, not teachers, assume responsibility for their talk time. Breaking away from the traditional structure in school where students raise their hands and wait to be called on in order to participate in conversations, talk time is self- initiated, fluid, and dynamic–similar to the Thanksgiving dinner experience. This instructional strategy shifts the student-teacher power dynamic as students take agency and ownership of their conversations. What students discuss and how the conversation evolves is completely up to them. These discussions can be centered on a shared reading experience such as an article, picture book, or novel. Students learn to build upon the responses of their peers, ask each other questions, elaborate to bring clarity to an issue, and generate new ideas sparked by the multiple perspectives of their classmates and the ways this influences thinking.

Of course, there are specific instructional strategies we’ll need to teach. I like to think of it as being the “conversation coach” who prepares students, prior to the discussion, with the tools they’ll need for success. Here’s where classroom rubrics and discussion guidelines come in! In order to cultivate the “Thanksgiving dinner energy” during discussions without the chaos, setting simple guidelines that can be extended as students become more proficient at this is helpful.

For example, novice discussants might begin with two or three expectations such as:

  • We spoke without raising our hands.
  •  We looked at the speaker and watched the conversation.

Discussion Starters

Charts or handouts that feature sentence starters like, “I agree/disagree because…” and “Why do you think that?” are helpful, particularly for students who have quieter voices in the classroom and need extra support to participate.  Students who have louder voices will needed coaching to learn how to pull back in order to create spaces for others to get in the conversation. A quick tip such as, “Wait until at least 5 peers have spoken before speaking again,” can help students avoid dominating behaviors.

In addition to these expectations, advanced conversationalists might have two or three more such as:

  • We responded to each other’s ideas, rather than simply laying out our own.
  • We used text-evidence to support ideas.

The criteria for discussions can evolve across the year as students get better and better at group conversations.

Feeling like your students need more direction? Identify a small group of students who seem to have the hang of this. Ask them to model a discussion for the class. Create an outer circle with the rest of the class that surrounds the focus group. Using clipboards and paper, students in the outer circle can jot down their observations of what the focus group is doing that can be helpful in their own small group discussions. Also, if you can videotape a group of students who become proficient at Accountable Talk you’ll have a model that can be used each year.

Evaluating the talk time is an important step that helps students mark their successes as well as set goals for future discussions. Students can decide upon a simple rubric that they can use to assess their work each time they have small group discussions.

When you’re launching Accountable Talk in your classroom, it may feel look and feel like you’re back at the Thanksgiving dinner table. But with continued practice and reflection, students blossom into focused, powerful discussants.

Book Clubs Need Clubhouses


Build Student Engagement in Book Clubs with Clubhouses

I find that my students are more engaged and excited to participate in book club meetings when they sit in clubhouses. These cardboard clubhouses are ideal settings for club meetings because they allow each club to feel special in their own space, away from the noise of other club meetings. The house itself can also serve as a book club management tool and large graphic organizer. Since students relish opportunities to be in their clubhouses, they must follow the rules for book club or else this privilege may be revoked.

The clubhouse can serve as a management tool: “Today’s Topics,” “Topics for Next Time,” “Next Club Meeting Time,” “Calendar,” “Pages We’re Reading,” “Book Club Rules,” and “Club Talk Rules.”

It can also serve as an engagement tool: “Mailbox,” “Growing Ideas About Our Books (with flower garden),” “Quote Wall,” and “Book Advertisements.”

For accountable talk: “Ways to Stretch Conversations,” “Conversation Starters,” “Club Discussion Leader of the Day,” and “Elements of Fiction and/or Nonfiction,” can be added to the interior of the house.

5 Steps to Make a Clubhouse Using 3 Boxes

In order to make cozy spaces for book club meetings, your students can make a cardboard clubhouse out of 3 large boxes. These clubhouses are quick and simple to build, and the best part about them is that they are collapsible and can be stored in a closet when you are not teaching with book clubs.

Step 1) Get 3 large cardboard boxes- all the same size. (If you want to buy the boxes, I recommend Walmart, Target, or Uhaul. They’re approx. $2 or $3 each).

Step 2) Cut 2 of the boxes on one side only. See picture below. Lay flat. These will be the walls of the clubhouse.


Step 3) Cut 3rd box in half, creating two equal parts. See picture below. Lay flat. These will be the two roof pieces.


Step 4) Set up box pieces as shown and secure roof pieces to the sides by cutting slits.


Step 5) Decorate! I like to cover the boxes in butcher block or colored paper so they are sturdy and colorful.


Best Part: Clubhouses are collapsible and can be stored easily! When you’re not using the clubhouses, fold them up and store. Simple!


Importance of Picture Books in Middle School Reader’s Workshop

Picture books are essential in the middle school classroom. Each is a short story that has a heartbeat that Theme Chartmurmurs gently, waiting to be heard. My students sit in rapture listening, smiling, giggling, and nodding as they allow the words and illustrations of picture books to whisk them away to another place. Part nostalgic, part thought provoking, these texts teach in a way that can only be described as captivating.

Some say middle school students are too old to hear and read picture books. I say no one is ever too old.

Often time teachers, including myself, steer students toward chapter books during reader’s workshop, instead of encouraging picture book reading. Of course, this is so students can build their fluency and stamina by delving into plots that unfold over many pages. We may hear ourselves saying, “You must read a chapter book. No picture books.” I have often wondered if other teachers have felt the way I have after saying these words. I feel a twang of pain and there is a small voice inside my head whispering that students should always choose what they want to read, no matter the length of the book. After all, aren’t picture books just short stories? Aren’t they the texts we use to model reading strategies, locating literary elements, and building schema? Why would I steer my students away from them during reader’s workshop? It just didn’t make sense. I knew I needed to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop in a new way.

A week later, I had a plan. I decided that we would dive head first into a world of reading picture books.

When I told my students that they were going to read only picture books for a week straight, cheers erupted. They shouted with joy, saying they couldn’t wait to reread childhood favorites and books by beloved authors. Sprawled out on the floor, bins overflowing with picture books from my collection and the school library, my students read voraciously.

We called it the “25 Picture Book Challenge,” and each student set a goal of reading 25 pictures in a week. Even as we set the goal, I knew it might be impossible. But I couldn’t help myself. My heart beat quickly with the hope that each student would have 25 short stories in their repertoire of texts. I couldn’t help but feel giddy thinking about all the possible text-to-text connections students could make and all the plots, characters, and settings they would read about.

Delighted squeals of “I read 5 books today!” was music to my ears each day. Enthusiasm soared as the humming heartbeats of the picture books echoed throughout my classroom. Both my avid and reluctant readers enjoyed recording their book titles on their reading logs. Everyone was reading. The joy for reading was palpable, and my students and I looked forward to reader’s workshop each day.

My minilessons could have been about many different topics- fix-it-up strategies for comprehension, Themesgetting to know characters, thinking about conflicts and solutions. However, I chose to focus my minilessons on theme. I wanted my students to think about the big ideas in each book- focus on the central messages of the stories they were reading. Exploring theme with picture books was very satisfying. My students blanketed classroom charts with sticky notes about themes. We sorted their themes based on frequency, commonalities, and uniqueness. We categorized some themes, such as family, as “Broad Themes” and webbed them to brainstorm other themes such as “sibling rivalry,” “family traditions,” and “conflicts between generations.” My students made lists of book titles that related to common themes, and we noticed how different books had similar themes across different genres. It was the type of learning that I always hope to have in my classroom.

In the end, we toppled our goal. Our total reached over 2,500 reads at the end of one week. I rejoiced in my decision to incorporate picture books into my reader’s workshop. I knew I would never look down upon picture book reading in middle school reader’s workshop again.