Tag Archives: Staff Development

Teaching Interpretation: Individual Instruction and Independent Students


In their classrooms, Dana Johansen and Sonja Cherry-Paul use flipped lessons to create a kind of "controlled chaos" learning environment. The classroom is more productive, more energetic, when students have the chance to explore their independence and, according to Sonja, "move in the direction he or she needs to move in."

 In today's video, the coauthors of Teaching Interpretation discuss how they've evolved their classrooms.

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How Do You Teach Theme?


When Dana Johansen first started teaching, her students would describe the theme of a work as "family," or "friendship," or "love." She wasn't ok with those answers so, with Sonja Cherry-Paul, she started thinking about how to actually teach theme. In today's video, the coauthors of Teaching Interpretation discuss their process.

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Five Ways to Approach Close Reading as a Detective


In today's blog, Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen, coauthors of Teaching Interpretation, remove the abstractions from close reading to make it easier and more approachable for students.

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The Power of Questioning

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In today's blog post, authors Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen argue that standards for close reading have led to a decreased emphasis on student inquiry. What happens when teachers leave room for questioning?

The Power of Questioning

by Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen.

Recently, we’ve noticed that something is missing in the conversations surrounding close reading: Questions. Teaching has been dominated by talk about close reading strategies that help students arrive at answers about texts. But what about the students’ questions?

In these standards driven times, has an emphasis on close reading resulted in a de-emphasis on questions raised in response to reading? The underlining, annotating, and making note of specific words and phrases are close reading strategies that can help students comprehend complex texts. However, it seems the basis of whether or not students comprehend well is hinged on their answers to text-based questions. In this standardized, “close-reading world” that values strategies and leads to specific, pre-determined conclusions, is there room for questioning?

Close reading can help students, and teachers, determine comprehension gaps. It provides opportunities to teach strategies students can use to recognize when meaning has broken down and how to repair such misunderstandings. However, it seems that the power of questioning has been undervalued. Asking questions is an essential part of active reading. Educators such as Stephanie Harvey, Anne Goudvis, Chris Lehman, Kate Roberts, Richard Allington, and many others recognize questioning as a higher-level thinking strategy that strengthens comprehension and turns students into critical readers. Therefore, it is important to broaden the narrative around close reading from simply what students do to find accuracy when answering a text, to what helps students to monitor their own comprehension and spark their own inquiries.

Taking a questioning stance toward complex texts enables students to read beyond the text.

An emphasis on questioning, as part of the close reading work students do to read stronger, is essential. Taking a questioning stance toward complex texts enables students to read beyond the text; to speculate, critique, and hypothesize. Such work can lead to more complex questions. For example, in response to reading several chapters of Sugar by Jewell Parker Rhodes, a 6th grade student wrote the following questions in her reader’s notebook: What does freedom really mean? How it is that a person can be free, but not-free at the same time? This student was thinking deeply about the main character, a young African-American girl living in the late 1800’s after slavery was abolished. She was grappling with the concept of freedom, and her questions helped her to realize that freedom is more than the opposite of being enslaved; it’s about being able to control one’s own destiny. In an effort to gain new understandings, she researched and read about the Reconstruction Period and the significant new challenges it brought about for African-Americans. When students are encouraged to include questioning as part of close reading, they are inspired to pursue their own inquires, which leads to more reading! Research supports that we as teachers must be as concerned about increasing the volume of reading for our students as we are about the strategies to teach them to read. Getting our students to read more is the single most powerful thing teachers can do to help our students become better readers.

Honoring students’ questions leads to inquisitive students who make their own choices, pursue their own inquires, and find enjoyment in reading. Therefore, a shift away from teaching close reading strategies that simply leads students to answers, to teaching close reading strategies that encourage and emphasize questioning is essential.

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Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Together, they run the website LitLearnAct, a collaborative blog for literacy teachers. Follow them on Twitter @LitLearnAct.

Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen Part 2

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen are the authors of Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning. Both are completing their doctorates at Teachers College, Columbia University, and teaching full time. In part 1 of our conversation they talked about what interpretation really looks like in the classroom and what led them to write Teaching Interpretation.

In part 2, Dana and Sonja talk about their writing influences, their mentors, and what it was like to teach and complete doctorates while writing a book.

You both are teaching full time and completing doctorates. How did you manage to write a book at the same time?

When you’re doing something you truly love, you find the time. Like most teachers, we’re stretched incredibly thin. But a common thread running through our lives is a commitment to practice. We view everything we do through the lens of practitioner research: how can we teach this better? how can we make our teaching stick? how can we help our students grow exponentially during our year together? We push ourselves to answers these questions, knowing the answers are not static and will change from year to year, unit to unit, even day to day. This may seem daunting, but we are invigorated by this challenge and fortunate enough to be surrounded by incredible educators who are too. We maintain balance by treasuring the time we spend with family and friends, enjoying long walks with our dogs, and grabbing the chance to read a great book or catch up with a favorite television show.

Who are your inspirations?

The unique ways in which many of our colleagues approach instruction and help students learn is inspiring. Whenever we’re struggling with a teaching concept, it’s incredibly helpful to reach out to other teachers for insights and new perspectives. Also, our shelves are stacked with books by amazing practitioner/authors who put great teaching strategies at our fingertips. Lucy Calkins is such a beautiful writer! Curling up with one of her books is like reading the latest must-read novel. The way she helps us see inside a topic to the steps required to teach it well, combined with her wonderful way with words, is inspiring. But most of all, our students inspire us. When Joe, who has dyslexia and difficulty writing, proclaims, “I can take a picture of this graphic organizer with my iPad and complete it on the computer,” or Tara announces, “I finished my chapter book in a week,” we are in awe. We continue to be profoundly inspired by the ways our students challenge themselves and work so hard to reach their goals.

You seem to find inspiration everywhere. You write that using digital texts can make a difference. What role do you think digital texts play in classrooms now, and do you see them playing a greater role in the future?

As educators wrestle with how to teach twenty-first-century skills, the conversation centers on digital literacies. Everywhere we look we see people reading and taking in information using smartphones, tablets, and other electronic devices. We’ve broadened the definition of reading to include the way we process and come to understand all texts: videos, photographs, illustrations, as well as words on paper or screen. Innovations in technology will continue to change the ways we access information.  Students who struggle to read traditional printed texts are able to use a variety of features when working with digital texts, including audio components. They can listen to interviews or watch a digital short. Embracing our students and their digitally mediated lives means acknowledging and honoring the forms of learning they find meaningful.

What was the writing process like for you? What do you like about it, and what do you find most challenging?

We are each other’s sounding board, so the writing process was therapeutic. We laughed, screamed, and vented about the successes and frustrations of teaching. Our writing sessions were the best part of our week. Teaching can be isolating, and our collaboration let us voice our doubts about instruction and problem-solve together. We learned from each other and strengthened our practice. After every meeting, we were excited to go back to our classrooms and try out the strategies we’d brainstormed. As doctoral students we spend a great deal of time immersed in educational theory and formal, academic writing. The writing in this book is grounded in practice, our true passion, and was therefore a joy. That being said, we experienced our fair share of challenges, as all writers do. We had to make hard choices about what to include and what to leave out. Another challenge was finding a structure for delivering our ideas clearly; we tried and discarded a variety of formats. We were eventually able to communicate our ideas in a way we believe is user-friendly and engaging: readers know what to expect from each chapter and can access the information easily. Writing this book has truly been a journey; we’ve grown so much as educators. Looking back, we realize we wrote the book as much for ourselves as for our readers.

Read a sample chapter of Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and be sure to check out Dana and Sonja’s blog. You can also follow them on Twitter; join the conversation using hashtag #tchinterp





Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen Part 1

Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dana Johansen have been friends since meeting on their first night of classes at Teachers College. Sonja discovered the true work required in interpretation while listening to her fifth graders’ book club, and she and Dana then decided they needed to find out what interpretation really looks like in the classroom.

In Teaching Interpretation: Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning, Sonja and Dana show how students can successfully form interpretations whatever their reading level or age. In today’s post Sonja and Dana discuss the evolution of the book and point out that even experienced readers have a hard time with interpretation.

What led you to team up and write Teaching Interpretation?

We were so lucky to meet each other at Teachers College and find a common passion in teaching! We instantly connected over the things we love: good food, dogs, picture books, and of course, teaching reading and writing. Over iced teas and Ollie’s Chicken Lo Mein, we talked about what we were teaching that week, the books our students loved, and what we were struggling with. In one such conversation, we confessed that teaching interpretation was challenging. What did this word really mean? How could we demystify this critical-thinking process for our students? We both wanted to improve this area of our teaching, so we made a plan. We read everything we could get our hands on about teaching interpretation, learned as much as possible from our mentors and advisors at Teachers College about teaching reading, and identified strategies we wanted to try in our classrooms. Inspired by the work of Lucy Calkins, Stephanie Harvey, Kylene Beers, Chris Lehman, and Kate Roberts, we brainstormed ideas and designed minilessons. Some worked, some didn’t. We discarded some strategies and revised others until we felt they truly raised the quality of our students’ interpretations. Sometimes we spent months discussing and debating a single topic—teaching students how to identify and interpret the tone of a text, for example. Teaching Interpretation is the product of our teaching, our research, and our (sometimes hair-pulling) brainstorming sessions. The strategies included are tried and true. After seeing the results in our students’ learning, we wanted to share our work with fellow teachers. We feel so grateful for this opportunity and have loved getting to know the Heinemann family.

You say in the book that your goal is to help teachers develop their students’ ability to “analyze, synthesize, and interpret literature and information texts.” How did you identify this need?

Looking back on our teaching careers, we remembered the difficulties many of our students had trying to analyze symbolism, theme, and figurative language. We recalled listening to the ideas of those few precocious students who seemed to interpret texts effortlessly while their peers looked on in clueless awe. We struggled with how to teach interpretation in ways that would reach all of our students. How could we help all students make strong claims, revise their ideas, and locate evidence in the text? When we asked our students to interpret a text, some would come up with ideas quickly but with no evidence to support them, while others struggled even to come up with an idea. We also had advanced readers in our classrooms, our precocious students, and we needed strategies that would challenge their thinking and push them to form stronger interpretations. We wrote Teaching Interpretation as much for ourselves as for our fellow teachers.

In teaching, time is precious; we need strategies that will meet the needs of all our learners and raise the quality of their work. In Teaching Interpretation we provide strategies, text recommendations, and teaching tips that can be easily incorporated into any curriculum. This way, you’re not changing your program, you’re raising the quality of the work you’re already doing. We wrote the book with our own “dream list” of teaching tools in mind. We love books that have strategies for differentiated instruction, text recommendations, and sample lessons, so these features are prominent. We include assessments and strategies for both novice and advanced readers, recommendations for print-based and digital texts, and sample lessons that can be used for preteaching, launching, reviewing, and solidifying concepts. Our favorite feature in Teaching Interpretation is the QR codes throughout the chapters that link teachers to “digital bins,” free digital text sets they can use to teach interpretation. These digital texts increase student motivation and engagement.

You point out that even experienced or fluent readers have a hard time with interpretation. Why do you think that’s the case?

The ability to construct strong interpretations is not related to reading levels and Lexile measurements. Just because students are considered advanced readers doesn’t mean they are thinking critically about what they are reading. Stephanie Harvey discusses this in her workshops and reminds us that text complexity is not about the words but about ideas. Interpretation is a circuitous process. Some of our strongest readers struggle the most with interpretation because they maintain myopic viewpoints and do not consider other interpretations. Or our students are afraid to take risks in forming interpretations because they fear being wrong. Thankfully, the process of forming interpretations can be demystified for all students. For advanced readers, this may mean having them look at a variety of texts and encouraging them to try on varied lenses and perspectives.

In our next post, Dana and Sonja talk about their writing influences, their mentors, and how they balance life while teaching, completing doctorates, and writing a book.

Read a sample chapter of Teaching Interpretation Using Text-Based Evidence to Construct Meaning and be sure to check out Dana and Sonja’s blog. Be sure to "like" them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter; join the conversation using hashtag #tchinterp.