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Land of the Lost: Allusions, Annotating, and Anagnorisis


Metacognition is the mind-map that is the survival tool in reading comprehension: it is that ‘thinking about thinking,’ the big picture, and knowing where you’re going, and, perhaps more importantly, when you’re lost:

Anagnorisis is the moment in the story where the character, usually the protagonist, says, “Uh-oh.”

According to Merriam-Webster, it is:

Main Entry: an·ag·no·ri·sis
Pronunciation: \ˌa-ˌnag-ˈnr-ə-səs\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural an·ag·no·ri·ses


Etymology: Greek anagnōrisis, from anagnōrizein to recognize, from ana- + gnōrizein to make known; akin to Greek gnōrimos well-known, gignōskein to come to know — more at know
Date: circa 1800

: the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character’s true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation

We teachers are merely the sherpas to our students’ quests for higher learning, deeper thinking, with all the oxygen and rations they need at K-2, or Knowledge Exponential 2 Base Camp. The reason this post begins with with ‘metacognition’ and ‘anagnorisis’ is because we want our students to realize that they’re doing both — they need to recognize that ‘oh, snap!’ moment when they’re lost in their understanding of any reading material. And, it’s our worthy task to help them find their way up, and safely back down, the moutain.

Any. Reading. Material.

And before I go further, I am compelled to acknowledge and recognize one of the greatest teachers, my master’s mentor, Dr. Candace Shulhauser. She helped synthesize for me everything I know about metacognition, Before, During, and After, and helped guide me through my first novel guide/unit. She took all of the great information out there, made us all see clearly and with strength, and added her own personal experiences and narrative to the mix to make it truly meaningful. She was there, making it happen for the hardest and most challenging of students, and showed us that it can be done with grace, courage, and wisdom. Thank you. (And yes, I think it’s super cool that her name takes on a Dickensian edge meaning “candy schoolhouse.” How sweet!)

Over time, one of the most fundamental alterations that has taken place in my own brain is I have a hard time reading books now without looking at them through the eyes of a teacher. In some ways, this kind of stinks, like a busman’s holiday. I am constantly looking for a myriad of functions and examples in books. This summer, for the first time in years, I put my book-brain on ice. Yesterday I was vindicated for doing so by a quote from Charles Bukowski–in essence, sometimes it’s good to do nothing for awhile. And this summer, I did, oh boy, did I. But more on my ‘do nothing’ summer later.

So, the point is, while I have a hard time reading anything without making a novel guide out of it, I will share some of my processes, and how I synthesized the processes of other great reading teachers, such as Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Kylene Beers, etc. (There is not much of a difference, in my estimation, of teaching a novel and teaching someone how to read. It’s all about access. To get into the nuances between teaching great “literature” and teaching reading, well, I’m just not up for that one right now.)

So, I have never read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. It was a very popular book several years ago, and she is a wonderful children’s author. This summer, in between long stretches of some serious goofing-off, I decided to read it. (My younger son said it was a read-aloud when he was in fourth grade. That’s too bad, because now he won’t touch it. Again, blog posting for another day.) I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t be a spoiler.

  • The front cover tell me has a person wearing a cloak, making only a shadow with a full, bright moon. Hmmm, I wonder if that person is the thief lord?I know what a thief is, and a lord is someone powerful…
  • The back cover has a blurb. STOP – introduce the book and show students all of these things. This is how they might find something they want to read. Yes, teach them to judge a book by its cover, but take time to make an informed decision!
  • The story takes place in Venice. How do I know? This is when you STOP — time to teach some background knowledge:

MapYou can click on this image to view larger, of course. Here’s where some decisions need to be made: depending on your students and access to technology/information, you will want to decide how much you want to give and how much inquiry you want them to create. Here’s the deal, though, with our brains, we love patterns. So, if students get misinformation or misconceptions about what they’re inquring about, to re-wire these pathways will be doubly difficult. Inquiry and constructivism are wonderful tools–but remember, if someone doesn’t know anything about a topic, the potential for missteps grows. Imagine you’ve never been to Venice (like I have never been) or seen a picture, or been on a canoe, or little boat, or imagined a city built entirely around canals, with bridges, and ancient pathways, nooks, crannies, or have ever heard of Italy at all? This is part of a safe environment of learning. It’s okay not to know, but not okay not to learn. (I didn’t know for a long time that the ‘underground railroad’ wasn’t like a subway. I’ve had students who believed the same thing. I had a student from New York City tell girls about subways, and they didn’t believe him. It goes on…)

So, short or long lessons, and time spent on Venice. Your choice, and your students’ needs.

Next, annotating text: I had a big lesson myself when teaching annotating text. Thought students were ‘getting it,’ and doing okay. Asked a girl how her annotating this one Greek story was coming along, and she answered confidently, “great!’ Something told me to stop and ask her to explain the first paragraph. She didn’t know every other third word. Okay, let’s try again – highlight the words that seem confusing. And I tried to sweeten the deal with reaffirming again that the more one reads, the more automatic understanding/fluency becomes, and the more fun it is to read.

Like I said, I can’t read a book anymore in the same way. It’s just now my job means I make my brain processes as transparent as possible so students can look inside my head, so they are better at looking inside theirs.

There are many ways for annoating text; you may decide you want to teach one specific strategy at a time, such as a vocabulary skill for reading comprehension strategy: Vaporetto In this particular example, the word “vaporetto” is used. I’ve never seen that word before, but the image I put together demonstrates some of my thinking process.

Another vocabulary buggaboo are context clues. We assume, too often, that students know more than they do.  For example, this sentence:

“A party of tourists (blank) past the (blank) while their guide described the (blank) above their heads in a (blank) voice.”

There are four words in that sentence that are potential mental gopher holes: shuffled, confessional, mosaics, and muted.

How would you teach those? Have student act out “shuffled,” look up a confessional, make a connection if they’re Catholic or have been to a Catholic church, infer, what a mosaic is, or look it up, and then maybe make one, and make an educated guess (inference) on if they are in a church, would they be yelling in a loud voice (questioning text)? Not one single reading ‘strategy’ can effectively be taught in isolation, but we don’t think ‘in isolation.’

(*The ‘say blank’ strategy is Dr. Schulhauser’s.)

Allusions are one of my all-time favorite concepts to teach, even though inevitably I will be corrected by a student telling me it’s “ILLusion, Mrs. Love, not ALLusion.” Um, well, no, my darling middle schooler, let me continue…) So far I haven’t found any specific allusions in The Thief Lord, although there are plenty of connections. An allusion is a specific reference to another work/character. The connections are abundant. It’s Oliver Twist, The Goonies, and The Pink Panther/Inspector Clouseau to start. But, boy howdy, when you use your strong metacognitive skills and spot an allusion, it’s like a reading golden ticket. Allusions to other works show us that we are not learning in isolation, that we are connected, and our thinking, based on knowledge. Now I can’t get Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song out of my head, when Robert Plant wails, “To fight the horde, to sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…” If you remember your sixth grade Norse mythology, you know what Valhalla is, and why you may want to go there someday. Or, at least, what the Minnesota Vikings might want to sing in the locker room showers. In my goofing-off summer, there are so many allusions in this game I play, but it makes me laugh when I recognize something, such as little goblin men speaking the words of Elton John’s Rocket Man to each other in conversational tones. (And for the record, Rocket Man is the only song I can sing and score big on Guitar Hero.) Allusions add a richness and texture to our reading/listening/viewing that would otherwise be lacking. Teach them as part of metacognition to students recognize those connections to other works when they read/see/hear them. We all feel smarter and more creative when we do.

Characterization and connections lead me to themes…

But another day. Ciao, bella!

Postscript: If you would like some of the excerpt .jpgs for your own classroom instruction, send me a Tweet @mrskellylove and your e-mail address; that is, if the links don’t work.

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Goof off.

I realize I don’t need to apologize to anyone, but just wanted to say I was goofing off, hanging out with my sons, and enjoying the last bit of summer. Writing my blog isn’t work, it’s not paid for, and I’m purely driven by my own essential need to write. I gave myself arbitrary deadlines, and missed them by miles. It become work.

But, I’m back, and I hope you will keep reading.

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That’s a horse of another color: Finding what makes us giddy-up and GO!

Vintage Cowgirl 2Deep breath. This is really a dicey area. How do we help students one, know they must read; two, know that they should read, and three, want to read? Well, perhaps it all gels into one colloidal ooze of humanity – we all have one thing universally in common: we are unique. And because we are unique, we all need to personalize, and internalize, those matters closest to our hearts and soul.

My first year of teaching I had a student who only wanted to read books about horses; primarily fantasy and realistic fiction, but some sort of equine overtone was always at the books’ core. In my earnestness, I tried to have her break out of what I perceived was a rut in reading. (And I was never a ‘horsey” type of girl–sure, would I have like a pony? Well, duh! Even Lisa Simpson has a weakness for pretty ponies, but still…) So, between my biases and trying to be a ‘good teacher of reading,’ I tried, unsuccessfully, in pulling the reins on the horse books. What I probably DID end up succeeding in was making this student feel bad. I could crop myself now, thinking back on it. What was I thinking?! She was reading! And, after all, perhaps if I was so bent on getting her to open up access to other themes, perhaps I just should have said, “Hey (is for horses), I see you like books that have horses. Let’s explore that in genres, and see where that takes you?” Or something like that. I don’t talk like that in real life. I did run into her a year or so after the fact, and a charming young lady was she, and very gracious when I asked her if she was reading other books besides horse tales. She said yes, but I was still a schmuck.

As I alluded to in the post yesterday, the ALA has a good reading interest survey, which I’ve modified over the years. For example: Question No. 6 puzzles me a great deal. “About how many books do you own?”

Well, I know already that many of my students don’t have enough socks and underwear, so I would imagine books are low on the priority list. But, I can’t assume anything. Perhaps the question should be, “Do you know anyone who owns a lot of books? Why do you think they do?”

I confess: I am a bookaholic. (At the risk of having John Spencer call me out on using the suffix “holic” on a word–I know it’s cliche….my apologies!) Anyway, I am. I have no willpower or any modicum of self-control when I am in any bookstore, whether it’s a big box chain bookstore or the local (and diminishing) locally-owned one, or if I’m on an on-line bookstore. Imagine a swirling, sparkling vortex of gauzy purple smoke hovering over my brain, and this ‘woooo—woooooooo……” sound humming from some unknown shadowy source.A wave of confusion and hypnotic command takes over my higher brain functions, and the next thing I know the debit card is in my hand, the order has been placed, and we are scrambling for groceries for two weeks.

I buy a lot of books.

And…I also collect a variety of reading materials, wherever I can scrounge them. If I’m in the city, and there’s one of those tourist pamphlet stands, I grab all I can. Business cards, menus, magazines, catalogs, fortune cookie slips, etc., I gather and horde. Their use is simple: when it comes to understanding that reading is everywhere, I simply put all of this reading material on tables around the room, and have students actively look through as much as they can. They categorize, analyze, and simonize. Well, not the last one. But, the goal is, if they find something that looks like a promising possibility, they write the title/type down. Then…read. And then, think. Did they like it? Why, why not? Who are they now and why did this book fit, or not? Then saddle up again.

But here’s the key: the grand conversation. It still comes back to conferencing with the students as much as possible individually, and the (dare I say it?) a whole-class discussion (which can look an awful lot like a lecture). And, as much as I wish providing students with a wide variety of genres would be the magic elixir to get them all just as stoopified and voo-doo’ed as I am when it comes to books, it doesn’t. The mojo only carries so far. But, it does lasso a few. The rest of the non-believers still have a greater understanding that they are readers, whether they like it or not. They read to live (while some of us live to read).

Now, there is friction with this, make no mistake. My husband has asked me, begged me, not to spend money on books for my classroom. I have tried to slow down. But when I’m at a full gallop, I simply take the fences and dead-head until dawn.

I still want to give a big “Yee-haw!” to, whose participants equipped my classroom with thirty copies of The Lightening Thief by Rick Riordan two years ago. That truly is the gift for the long run.

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In the Zone: Brain research, reading, and responding

swirlEvery teacher worth his salt knows about Piaget and Vygotsky. And I am not going to pretend or fake that I understand everything about their theories on cognitive development. When I was studying their work, it just made so much clear sense, that I embedded a golden nugget into my own brain, and that was this: we learn from our world/each other. The more interaction, or appropriate interaction at the right times in our lives, the better. It doesn’t work for every brain/person, but I’m making a generalization. Take a baby. Cuddle, talk to him, give him safe, warm shelter, (thank you, Maslow!) show him the world, name things, tell stories, and guess what? Baby learns, and thrives. It’s like we’re all born in a bubble – and the bubble gets bigger to accommodate our experiences, memories, and surroundings. We are social creatures.

Now, as much as I would like to get into a diatribe about how poverty, malnourishment, abuse, and fear affects our abilities to function well cognitively, not here, not now. John Medina has gathered all the information you may need if you want to explore this further; the holes in the hippocampus, the amygdala responding to stress, and why you need a nap. The effects of poverty on children’s ability to function are well documented. 

One of the frustrating aspects of my daily life is I cannot go in my time-machine (it needs some parts) and take my students in their toddlers selves and read picture books to them. Many of their parents did read to them, but many were fighting for survival. My students have not been to an art museum, library, park, or attend preschool, or had time with a lot of print (picture books) or see their parents read.

The other factor is even if they did read when they were younger, adolescence brings on its own set of challenges, and becoming a reluctant reader may happen. It is my thought that this happens because playing and succeeding in a video game can be much more satisfying than reading someone else’s narrative troubles in a chapter book. Think about it; if you’re having trouble with girls, your mom’s nagging you about cleaning up your room, and you’re not the cute adorable baby anymore, then who would want to read about Harriet the Spy and her missteps? (Well, I did.) Who gives a darn about Harry and his battles with a stalking, scar-giving lunatic? And for the love of armageddon, what’s so entertaining about a group of kids being stranded on a deserted island, just fighting over a conch shell and what to serve at a luau?

 So, here are some steps I take so that students recognize and reflect on their own reading:

  • Individual reading inventories: Yes–with sometimes 130-160 students this has been a Herculean task. We (teachers) sometimes complain about all of the assessing that is done TO our students, and it is not informing our instruction FOR our students. This is true. But since testing isn’t going away any time soon, let’s use it to our advantage. Show the students exactly what they’re being assessed on, and do your own.
  • Each student should have their own reading portfolio: Include in this a reading interest survey (if you’re ‘techy’ you can do this on line using a myriad of survey sites; however, make sure the results are visually available, tangible – oh, heck, I’ll just say it – have it on a piece of paper, man! It’s not for you, it’s for your students. The whole point is for them to chart and see their own progress.What goes in a portfolio? They should be able to draw on it, customize it, place their own test scores, surveys, reflections, book “wanna-reads” and “have-to reads” lists, creative book projects (I have another ‘boatload’ of these!) and their progress/goals.

Reading coaching, when it’s done well, is an incredible assesst to have in a school. If you are fortunate enough to have a literacy/reading coach in your building, district or state, hunt them down and have a conversation with them!

  • Understanding assessments: There are a boatload* of reading assessments and data numbers out there. Here are just a few, and some thoughts:

DRP: Degree of Reading Power – quick and easy – will really tell you how broad their vocabulary is, which for English language learners, is challenging to get a fair assessment on their reading abilities. But, if this is what you have to work with, again, be very clear and transparent with students about what their scores mean and how to improve them.

DRA: Developmental Reading Assessment:

Lexile:Lexile measurements are, in my opinion, one of the most accurate assessments out there. Check it out: We had a program in our district which quickly measured Lexile reading levels. It was too expensive, and went ‘away,’ as many great resources do. (Why is that? The ones that we really use and help us help students are canned too fast, while the ones that are confusing linger on, solidly entrenched? Or maybe that’s just me.) You can find out what the Lexile reading level is on many titles with quick searches, but here’s one resource:

And then again, there are just good, old-fashioned books that can help you find reading levels:

(And if you don’t know Fountas and Pinnell, you don’t know Jack. And you should know Jack.)

AR: AR stands for Accelerated Reader and is a commercially-based program. It may be all right for a thumb-nail sketch of reading abilitiy, but I cannot endorse its use. I can’t tell you how many students I had who would take the AR “test” on a book and through sheer intelligence and cleverness pass the test without cracking the book.

Reading Rockets is also a phenomenal website/resource for all things reading. One article, “A Critical Analysis of Eight Informal Reading Inventories” may be helpful.

The thing is, the real, deep, this is where it matters thing is: You MUST hear your student read, you MUST conference with them, one-to-one. I say this in this strident, finger-wagging way because I am really pointing the finger at myself. But there is no way around it. If you really want to know your students’ individual strengths/weakness in their zones of proximal development, or rather, how big is their bubble, you need to know where they are, and take an individualized measurement.

So, how does one find the time? I am still working this one out, but it takes a lot of mental elbow-grease and planning. No way around it. You must intentionally,  and explicitly, tell students what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how it will benefit them. Having said that, I have still had the flare-ups from extremely needy students who interrupt me while I”m conferencing with other students. This may just be the time you let them play computer math games, or use some other electronic babysitter. Hopefully not: other creative solutions are to use this time for them to write, go through a variety of genres/reading materials, and critique what they find. Or, have them work on vocabulary/grammar instruction during this time. A little skill-drill never killed anyone. Really.

Okay – where can it all go horribly wrong?

  • Students will answer with one-word responses: “I hate to read, I don’t read, no, never, etc.” Many of them are doing this for shock value. Let them know and reinforce this is a safe place. You don’t expect everyone will be sitting around cafe tables discussing great literature if that’s not their thing. You just want to give them the CHOICE. They CAN talk about great literature, but they can choose NOT TO when they’re older. But for now, it’s choice time.
  • Students are ashamed of a low test score. True story: had my ‘honors’ students look up and analyze their DRP scores. Many were competitive and compared notes with others, and some were truly embarrassed by a lower than a peer’s score. Explain ahead of time what they might find, and that they may have an emotional reaction, but don’t let that become an obstacle. (Yeah, I have a lot of luck with that – stupid self esteem!)

Finding low-level, but high interest books is a huge factor, too:

Things you should just know before the first pencil is sharpened:

Make sure you believe with your heart and soul that teaching reading, using textbooks, anthologies, maps, diagrams, other content areas, informational texts, narrative texts, poetry, fairy tales, cereal boxes and phone books are all forms of reading, and check your personal biases at the door. Students are looking to you to model a love of reading. If they love you, and they will, they will judge as you do, and be ashamed if they like a book that you have stated you don’t. Let them find their own path, and reflect on their own journey. Nothing is more personal or important than that. Perhaps they will only ever read video game logs or Facebook postings. So be it.

Also, know that reading standards are not evil. If you really look at your state’s and the national standards, they are not out to ‘get you.’ I am one of the most paranoid persons I know, and I believe there is no conspiracy here. It is good and right to teach students about text features in a textbook, or how to access information using a glossary, index, table of contents, etc. It is good and right to teach students the difference between a fable, folktale, and fairy tale. It is good and right to teach students to question and critique writers (including me).

If you need any further inspiration on customizing your students’ reading needs, look no further than Kylene Beers and Kelly Gallagher:

Kylene Beers, especially when Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do:

Kelly Gallagher:, especially Readacide:



International Reading Association:

*”Boatload” in an internationally recognized unit of measurement which means “a lot.”

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If I blog it, they will read…

 Field of DreamsI think if I say it publicly, I’ll have to honor the promise to myself to write about reading. Disclosure statement: This is not everything I know about teaching reading, and I don’t know much, paradoxically! My experience is with “average” middle school-aged students, 11 to 15, with a large population of diverse languages, backgrounds, and cultural experiences. (I love it, by the way.) Oh, and they don’t have much money. But we’re not going to let that stop us from a world-class education! Take that, misguided ed reformers!

The thing is, for all of the great reading strategies, they cannot work independently. It’s like explaining how a carburetor works, and tires, and fuel injector, but not explaining all the parts go into making a vehicle GO. So, let’s see if we can build something together–all comments, resources, and insights are welcome!

Monday (later today): In the Zone: Proximal Development and Background Knowledge

Tuesday: The view from here: Understanding a child’s reading interest, abilities, and desires

Wednesday: Dr. Watson, I infer? Using inferences, allusions, connecting, metacognition, and clues

Thursday: Sass Back:  Questioning and talking back to your books/writers

Friday: Reading like a writer, and writing like a reader: How language connects us all

On Friday, I’ll provide a list of some of my favorite professional development books, too.

Now — for some more coffee.