Close Looking: An “After the Storm” Beach Alphabet

At Beyond the Apple, we’re always looking for an interesting image or piece of text to create an engaging anchor for a lesson. Who knew we’d find our next image on a Nova Scotia beach after a mid-summer Nor’easter?

After the storm raged, the outgoing tide revealed a beach littered with individual strands of beach grass. As we walked along the beach, we noticed that each strand had been shaped into a unique curve or angle; many strands of grass were in the shape of  a letter. At that point, a lesson beginning with a close looking experience began to take shape.

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While this close looking lesson begins with a search for naturally occurring letters, it quickly moves into learning opportunities focused on science, categorization, the arts, and language use. Here are some of our ideas:

  • After viewing the samples above, begin your lesson on close looking with a search for naturally occurring letter shapes (not shapes created by manually placing twigs, leaves, rocks, etc. into letter shapes). If you live by the sea, finish our beach alphabet with shapes found on a beach; if you live inland, create a nature alphabet with shapes found in plants, rocks, or in the clouds.
  • Discuss the force(s) of nature that created the shape. Was it wind, water, angle to the sun, erosion or a combination of several forces?
  • Brainstorm a word bank for each letter that links the letter to the location. For example, “b” is beach, ball, baleen; “s” is sand, sea, storm; “c” is for castle, conch, crest.
  • Do some research about the words in each letter’s word bank and create labelled diagrams, definition trees, or “Did you know?”  fact sheets.
  • Use the words chosen to create poems.
  • Illustrate each word with a scenario that brings the word to life.
  • Link the beach / nature alphabet to the stories and language of home; for example, if “c” is for “conch”, invite a community member to share their knowledge about how conchs are used as a food and as a wind instrument.
  • Honour the home language(s) of the school’s community by using the same letters to create a multi-lingual alphabet or personal thesaurus.
  • Let us know your ideas! Contact us at

Close looking encourages learners of all ages to take time to observe, to think, to discuss, question, to debate, to read and to write. Close looking is a great example of  learning in action. To get started, all you have to do is open your eyes.

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Close Looking: Using logos to develop critical thinking

You may know about close reading as a “thoughtful, critical analysis of a text that focuses on significant details or patterns in order to develop a deep, precise understanding of the text’s form, craft, meanings, etc.” (

But have you heard of close looking? If not, simply reread the definition above, and replace the word “text” with “visual image”.

Hackberry General Store’s front window is covered with logos for everything from highway markers to blacksmith shops to political statements. This window provides a great introduction to the process of close looking.



When an intriguing image such as this is first displayed in the classroom, students will search for the familiar and the unfamiliar. But once they learn how to close look, they  will appreciate how each seemingly simple design is strategically crafted to share a message. The closer they look, the more they:

  • wonder (about the message of the image)
  • search (for information that clarifies the message)
  • think critically (about the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of that message)

That sounds like something worth exploring, so here’s a suggestion about how to use this image as an anchor to develop critical thought through close looking:

  1. Display the image for a day or two and simply observe how students respond. Make note of the questions they ask and observations they make.
  2. After a few days, divide the image into 6 sections and assign each section to a group.
  3. Each group chooses 2-4 images for a close look. The process of choosing the images is actually an exercise in close looking, so make notes about the questions and comments generated during this decision making process.
  4. Once the groups have decided on their images, bring the class back together and  co-construct a set of “close look” research questions. Set the stage for this co-construction with the questions you collected during Step 1 and Step 3. As students generate additional questions, listen for and highlight questions that provide opportunities critical thought. These questions are often linked with the verbs such as connect, analyze, interpret, question.
  5. Now provide time for the groups to do some product or message based research. This research will lead to many languages, many communities, many varying political messages and a “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from
  6. Be prepared for some very interesting and highly charged discussions, so encourage students to choose presentation style or medium that will encourage their audience to take a close look at their research.
  7. Now shift from this teacher supplied image to a student generated collection of common logos found in their social community. Throughout the year, share one of these images and engage the class in a close looking exercise to encourage a critical analysis of the obvious and subtle, intended and unintended impact of a visual image.

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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Close Looking: What is this?

Spotted on the door of a classroom:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.38.37 PM

When students enter this classroom, a “Wondering Prompt” such as an image, soundscape, or object invites them to look closely, listen closely, or read closely. Students begin each day with a mindset focused on wondering, questioning, and problem solving.

Here’s an example that focuses on close looking.

Close looking is  “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s or object’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from

Wrap a few small unusual objects (avocado seed, darning egg, piece of bamboo, an old and worn shard of pottery, etc.), and place them throughout the classroom with a note:

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.49.45 PM                                                                                                                         Screen Shot 2017-04-26 at 2.31.21 PM


The wondering begins. Listen as the students look closely and gather information about the object’s size and possible shape.

Next, open the door to problem solving a bit wider.

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Now, more information about the object can be gathered and shared – the shape, the hardness, the thickness, and possibly the scent.  Listening to the students guessing and sharing ideas is a great opportunity for formative assessment of background knowledge, problem solving, and the depth of vocabulary, so listen closely and take notes.

Give the students a cue to unwrap the object.

Screen Shot 2017-04-24 at 2.50.37 PM

NOTE: You may or may not know what this is. If you don’t know, continue the exploration with your students; some of the questions will provide clues (and we’ll provide lots of information at the end).

Now, encourage the students to extend their “close looking” skills with information gathered through research into these questions:

  • If you were told this was found on a beach, how did it get there?
  • Is the blue colour significant?
  • Does this object come in other colours?  If so, how are the other colours significant?
  • Why is this translucent? Was it always translucent?
  • Originally, this object had sharp edges. How did the edges become dull?
  • Can you predict the age of this object?


From a small object, many lessons are born – a lesson in how to search for information, a history lesson,  a science lesson, and a vocabulary lesson focused on descriptive words.

And it all started by taking a close look.

Click here for all you need to know about this object

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at


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Close Looking: What Does Problem Solving Look Like?

Close looking, “a deep, precise understanding of the (image’s) form, craft, meanings, etc.” (adapted from provides an opportunity to stop, look, and think.

We can learn a lot by taking a close look at problem solving in action – particularly when the problem solver is very young and the challenge is just difficult enough to encourage them to build on what they know. A close look at problem solving is ideal opportunity to view what it means to approach a challenge from a perspective of possibility.

Have a close look at this video – a really close look. Notice the child’s facial expressions, movements, pauses, and decision making. Make note of how the challenge is noticed, how the search for information unfolds, and the satisfaction of completing the task.

Share this close looking activity with your colleagues. It’s a great way to start a professional conversation about how to establish effective levels of challenge by building on the known, how to encourage problem solving, the roots of intrinsic motivation, and what is really meant by the zone of proximal development.

Share this close looking activity with your students. Their challenge is to search for and observe other problem solving opportunities and create a “Close Look on Problem Solving Diary”, which can be created with images, sound, or words. The components of this diary are:

  • How do we notice a problem?
  • How do we search for information?
  • How do we make sure we’ve solved the problem?

This diary becomes a student’s go-to reference when personal challenges are encountered.

Here’s another video to help you get started.

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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Using Home Language as the Foundation for English Language Learning – A Win Win Situation

Home Language: The language to which children are exposed in their homes and communities; it is the language that they use as their primary means of communication, and identifies them with their community.

The benefits of English language instruction that builds on and encourages the development of a student’s Home Language are well documented. This sort of language instruction is based on the perspective of contrasting languages, rather than comparing languages. Why? Because contrasting languages acknowledges the differences and similarities between languages, while comparing languages may send the message of correct and incorrect usage.

To learn more about the research, visit The Home Language: An English Language Learner’s Most Valuable Resource by Fred Genesee. 


The following lesson ideas use both English and Home Language versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? illustrate how to bring Genesee’s research into practice.

First, have a listen to this engaging, highly predictable text.:

Brown Bear, Brown Bear is available as a big book, a student sized book, and in many online formats. The vocabulary includes many useful sight words used in a meaningful context that are well supported by Eric Carle’s beautiful and supportive illustrations. The structure of the book is built around a question-answer format that leads the reader from the beginning to the end and back to the beginning.

Brown Bear is short enough to be easily reproduced on chart paper or in electronic format in both English and Home Language. If you don’t share the students’ Home Language, invite a parent or community member with knowledge of the Home Language to help.

In this set of lesson ideas, Brown Bear is the anchor text for a variety of comprehension, grammar, and word work lessons. As children interact with both versions of the text, they “notice cognates, make educated inferences based on phrases and words they already know, access nuanced ideas, and navigate complex grammar and vocabulary from the start.” (Pillars 2017) Using a gradual release of responsibility model, teachers provide just enough support as students learn to use and build on their Home language to become more comfortable with English.

  1. Read Aloud: As an introduction to the story, read Brown Bear to the students. Read it first in the Home Language and then in English. Use the illustrations and colour blocks to link the animal names and colour words of two languages.
  2. Shared Reading: After the read aloud, encourage the students to read along with both versions as they feel comfortable. Point out animal names and colour words. Demonstrate the natural phrasing of each language.
  3. Create an “Our Languages Word Wall” to build a bilingual vocabulary. This word wall uses a double entry model. Words chosen for the word wall are presented in the Home Language and in English. Pictures supplement the words. For example, in the “L” section of the word wall, write the words lous* / bear and include an illustration. In the “B” section, write and illustrate word bear / lous. Note: After an example or two, break the class into small groups and assign two animals and two colour words for each group to illustrate and add to the word wall. (*lous is Haitian Creole for bear)
  4. Develop fluency with Readers’ Theater: To begin, create your own Readers Theatre, using the animal names and sounds. Each student has an image and picture of an animal, with a line of text, such as: The bear says GRRRRR, the bird says Tweet Tweet,  etc. As facility with the language increases, try a Readers’ Theater script such as One side of the class asks the questions, the other side of the class answers the questions. Repeat with the Home Language.
  5. Mini Lesson: Learning about the question-answer format. Draw the students’ attention to the word “what” and the as indicators of a question format. Throughout the day, highlight question words as they come up in conversation and contrast with the questioning structures of the Home Language. Samples can be placed in a “phrases” section on the Our Languages Word Wall.
  6. Sight Word Vocabulary: Brown Bear repeats several useful sight words (I, you, see, what, do, etc.), all presented in meaningful context. These words, can be located by students and added to Home Language / English double entry word walls or personal dictionaries.
  7. Phonological Awareness and Phonics: Teaching rhyme, segmenting, blending as well as letter sounds and blends is only meaningful when the student understands the word, so plan word work lessons that start with the known vocabulary of the Home Language and then link that knowledge to English.
  8. Linking oral language and art:  Art activities provide lots of opportunities for oral language development. In Brown Bear, Eric Carle’s masterful tissue paper collages provide lots of opportunity for contrasting the Home Language and English vocabulary of colour, shading, and shape. Provide students with pieces of tissue paper to overlap and hold up to the window and listen to their oral language develop.
  9. Linking Reading and Writing: The repetitive pattern of Brown Bear provides lots of support for students to write another question-answer book, perhaps using the names of their classmates as they search for different objects. To take this one step further, the use of quotation marks, not present in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, can be introduced and practiced.

Bill Martin’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear is just one of many books, songs, and poems that can be used as anchors for lessons that use Home language as a foundation for English language learning.

Here’s another:

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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Looking and wondering: When does a line become an angle?

Take a walk with your students or your child. Search for a line that becomes in interesting shape. The stop, look, question and encourage students to wonder.

If it’s not a good day to go outside, have a look at this image and ponder the thinking questions below. All of a sudden, geometry makes sense . . .


When does a line become an angle?

Are all angles the same size?

When does an angle become a triangle?

Are all triangles the same size?

When does a triangle become a square?

Are all squares the same size?

When do squares become rectangles?

Are all rectangles the same size?

How many triangles fit inside a square?

How many triangles fit inside a rectangle?

Where is the biggest triangle?

Where is the smallest triangle?

How many triangles are in an X?

Are the angles the same size?

This tower is made up of repeating sections. Find a section of this tower. Can you draw it?

Now try making it:

making angles

One more thing to think about . . . which shape can carry the most weight? A triangle, a square, a diamond, or a rectangle?

For more professional conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at


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Becoming a Writer: What We Learn From a Child’s First Stories

My son’s first story consisted of a series wavy lines and curlicues written in black marker across the back of a leather couch. And for those of you who are wondering, yes, it was a permanent marker.

With great pride, he read us his story, pointing to each “word” (“I wrote my story in grown up writing!”) as he moved his hand from left to right across the “page”. He shared an action packed and well developed account of Spiderman’s most recent adventure. Although his first story was unreadable to anyone else, every other trait of writing (ideas, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency) was present. It was clear that my son was a writer, he just had to learn how to share his story with others. As a mother, I hoped that his instruction in spelling, spacing, and letter formation did not overtake his enthusiasm for sharing his stories.

While my son’s first story was lost with the eventual replacement of the couch, my daughter’s first piece of formal writing survived. Since she was making a card, she chose to draw her story. Have a look:



I think you’ll agree that my daughter’s card, written to wish her dad a speedy recovery from knee surgery, provides the reader with a clear sense of the event, the details of the event, and the impact of the event (yes, that’s just what her Dad looked like when he came home from the hospital).  My daughter was also using some of the conventions of text – a greeting at the top of the page:

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and a closing:

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and this somewhat misplaced grouping of letters:

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 2.54.15 PM is actually evidence of an almost correct spelling of her name, which is Michèle. (Yes, the orientation of “L” is a bit wonky and there are a few extra horizontal lines in the “E”, but she had a clear sense of what she was writing)

Michele was also editing her work, which is clear when she realized she’d made a mistake:

Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 2.59.02 PM.

The point of this is to illustrate that as soon as children start telling, drawing, or writing stories, they are writers. It’s our job as parents and teachers to acknowledge these early forms of writing, encourage more exploration, and provide timely prompts about how to share their ideas and stories.

Learning to write begins with oral language. A good conversation is never a waste of time, so talk to child/students about anything and everything and encourage them to talk to you. Ask questions that lead them them think deeply about their topic and encourage them to ask questions of you. Conversation is the foundation of writing – children learn that the words they speak are the words they can write.

As children start to experiment with print, ask them to read the story to you. Ask questions about the details of the story and acknowledge their developing use of print to share the story. As a child’s writing develops, develop lessons and provide feedback that focuses on writing as a process of sharing ideas. Encourage children to explore and develop their ideas through interesting word choice and sentence structures as they learn how to spell. It’s important to remember that spelling is a component of writing, not a definition of writing.

But how can we track progress from early scribbles to readable print?

These examples, borrowed from Education Northwest Grades K-2 Illustrated Rubric K-2, provide a developmental look at how children go from the earliest to increasingly sophisticated forms of story writing.

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The process of learning how to write takes time, practice, instruction, and ongoing feedback about what’s been accomplished and what’s next. Effective support maintains the early joy of sharing a story by focusing on the student’s learning, interests, and voice.

For more about student writing, visit:

Appreciative Assessment of Student Writing Part 1  and Assessing Student Writing Part 2: An In Depth Look at the Process

For more professional conversations about education, please visit: Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at


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