Close Looking (2): 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 conversations about education, please visit:Beyond the Apple . . . Reframing Conversations in Education or contact us at

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Close Looking (3): What is this?

Spotted on the door of a classroom:

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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:

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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.

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


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What Does Problem Solving Look Like?

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

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The Stories of Home

Daniel Wicks’ poem, A Voice to Tell Stories  capture how a family’s stories are not only an integral component of a young child’s learning, they keep the family’s history alive.  Share this poem with your school community and invite community members in to share their stories of times gone by.  Use the stories as anchors for class discussions and shared writing.

A Voice to Tell Stories

Remembering when I wanted so badly

to have something to say

to have someone to listen to me

like they listened to my Uncle Scott

how his stories made everyone laugh

how everyone listened to my Grandpa

how his stories reminded everyone of the past

how I would listen to my Mom

how her stories would lull me to sleep

how I would listen to my Dad

he gave me someone I’d like to be


I wanted a voice to tell stories

but my voice was quiet and shy

I didn’t know too many stories

so I would make them up sometimes

I tried to mimic my Uncle’s stories

but they didn’t laugh the same way

I tried my hand at Grandpa’s stories

but they lacked history

I even tried my Mom’s stories

but I forgot them halfway through

and when I tried my Dad’s stories

he said, How ’bout a story about you?”


I learned that the best stories to tell

aren’t copied at all

if you’re patient you’ll have dozens

and a voice to speak as well

I’ve been taught ‘bout storytelling

it makes me who I am

my stories sound like my Uncle’s,

my Grandpa’s, Mom’s and Dad’s

my inflections come from them

some jokes I’ve borrowed just for laughs

and someday soon my son’s Jibreel’s stories

will sound like his old man’s.

Daniel Wicks, Bermuda 2010

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

This sort of language instruction is based on the perspective of contrasting languages, rather than comparing languages. Why? Because contrasting languages is about learning  the differences and similarities between languages, while comparing languages may send the message that one is correct and one is incorrect.

Genesee’s research is put into practice with both English and Home language versions of Bill Martin Jr.’s book, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? 

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 that are used in a meaningful context The story is well supported by Eric Carle’s beautiful 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 translate the book for you.

In the set of lesson ideas that follow, 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

  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 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 English and Home language Readers Theatre. The English version is available at
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

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

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Close Looking (4): Lots and lots of angles

Share this image with your students image and ponder the thinking questions below.


What is it? (If you’re not sure, search for “transformer towers”)

How many different shapes can you see?

How many different angles can you see?

When does an angle become a triangle?

Are all of the 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 a section of the tower?

Now try making a section of the tower:

making angles

For more 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 sofa. Upon completion, he declared, “Look! I wrote my story in grown up writing!” (For those of you who are wondering, yes, it was a permanent marker.)

With great pride, he read us his story. As he pointed to each “word” 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 the formal school 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 sofa, my daughter’s first piece of formal writing survived.  Have a look:



I think you’ll agree that my daughter’s story, 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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This somewhat misplaced grouping of letters:

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Screen Shot 2017-03-21 at 2.52.43 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:

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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.

As young 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, it’s important to remember that correct spelling is a component of good writing, not a definition of good writing.  Encourage children to explore and develop their ideas through interesting word choice and sentence structures as they learn how to spell

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.

If you’re not sure what the developmental progression of writing looks like, check out  Education Northwest Grades K-2 Illustrated Rubric K-2. 

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


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The Gradual Release of Responsibility: Canadian Style!

The gradual release of responsibility model requires an instructional shift from the teacher shift from assuming “all the responsibility for performing a task…to a situation in which the students assume all of the responsibility” (Duke & Pearson, 2002, p. 211).” While the gradual release of responsibility is most often linked to effective classroom instruction, the images below demonstrate how far ranging its applications are.

                To begin, lots of support . . . regardless of the age

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With less support, confidence grows . . . regardless of the age

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Until independence . . .

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and new directions are explored . . . regardless of the age!

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Know the Community; Know the Student

The term “funds of knowledge” refers to a community’s “historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 2001). Regardless of the location, a school’s community has many funds of knowledge.

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Funds of knowledge are found throughout the community in the “lived text” of the community, such as:

  • language
  • text and oral biographies, stories, and songs of the community
  • names
  • local monuments
  • architecture
  • geography and geology
  • newspapers
  • signage
  • galleries and craft stores
  • occupations

A community’s funds of knowledge provide authentic anchors for lessons in all subject areas. We start with the familiar, link the familiar to subject area content, and engage learners in extended learning and applications of the familiar.

To learn about the funds of knowledge of a community new to you, be present in the community. Take advantage of opportunities to:

  • walk through the community, notice the scenery, and listen to the sounds
  • buy your groceries at the community grocery store and chat with the folks in the store
  • attend local sporting and cultural events
  • read local publications
  • have coffee in a local coffee shop
  • ask questions

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Once folks are used to seeing you out and about, take some pictures of the community and bring the pictures into the classroom. Begin the school day with a picture of a local monument, store, an empty space, playground, or office space and ask the students to tell you what they know about it and what they don’t know about it.  This provides the students with an opportunity to develop oral language skills by sharing information about something that’s familiar to them and to search for answers to questions about the unfamiliar.  Post these images on the class website and ask parents to contribute information and answer the student’s questions.

Search for community members who have knowledge of local history or search archival sites for historical photos of the area. Build these stories and images into social studies, reading, and writing lessons.

Ask community members or search the archives for biographies of community members. Link the person’s life experiences to a practical application of the grade level curriculum content.

Ask community members to share songs or stories that were important to their families. Use these songs and stories as anchors for reading and writing workshop mini lessons.

The benefits of using the funds of knowledge go well beyond anchoring learning in the familiar. Using a community’s funds of knowledge is the foundation of a culturally inclusive classroom.

Culturally Inclusive Teaching and Learning

  • Builds respect among all members of the classroom and school community
  • Honours the funds of knowledge of all members of the classroom community
  • Uses home language as a foundation for learning additional languages
  • Maintains high expectations for all
  • Focuses on effective communication: teachers and students develop their skills of listening through a appreciative perspective
  • Values oral language: time is provided for students to talk about topics that are authentic and meaningful to their lives
  • Understands the reciprocity of teaching and learning – everyone in the classroom community has a role as a teacher, learner, and provider of feedback
  • Uses information about a wide range of cultures in purposeful and authentic ways:
    • Fiction and nonfiction student reading materials are intentionally chosen by the teacher to provide a “sample of the world”
    • Classroom projects extend the sampling of the world to deep learning about the people of the world
    • Teacher read alouds reflect the literature of the world
    • Community members are invited to share their stories and knowledge
    • Global current event discussions do not perpetuate “single stories” about people and cultures
    • A wide range of oral and written languages are introduced, sampled and discussed in authentic ways
    • Genre studies include text and videos from a wide range of authors and cultures

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

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Re-framing Conversations About Disengaged Students

At a recent a professional learning session focused on re-engaging the disengaged student, we asked each participant to write a few words on a post-it to describe a disengaged student. The completed post-it notes were attached to a white board.

Here’s what it looked like:


As participants had their early morning coffee and introductory chats, we arranged the post-its in two columns.  Here’s a copy of what it looked like:

Left side comments included: gets distracted a lot, always late for class, work is incomplete,  disruptive to others, not focused, can’t read, work is incorrect, interrupts teacher by making a joke, not working, in conflict with classmates, goofs off, frustrated, leaves classroom, no sense of pride, never asks questions, goes to the bathroom a lot, frequent tantrums, has ADHD, poor writing skills.
Right side comments: thinks in abstract ways with strong communication skills, works well in a quiet environment, easily engaged in everything.

The number of comments on left side focused on a student’s problems. These comments far outnumbered the comments on the right side, which focused on a student’s potential. The contrast was sobering. Clearly, it was time to re-frame our perception of a disengaged student.

We know this, but in today’s overcrowded and diverse classrooms, how is that possible?

Here are some start points:

  • First, don’t make assumptions based on the student’s behaviour or past levels of academic success.  Remember that students of any background or ability may become disengaged.
  • Review the student’s assessment results. Rather than focusing on the score, focus on the student’s answers. Even with scores like 25% or D, a teacher should be able to find evidence of what the student can do. This information, referred to as “the known” is the foundation on which to build the next steps of instruction. It might not seem like much, but it’s a start point that provides a re-entry to engagement.
  • Provide feedback about what you noticed to the student. Be honest, don’t over embellish. A simple, “I looked over your work and I noticed that you can . . . The next step is  . . . ).
  • Gather information about the student’s funds of knowledgewhat does the student know about, what is he interested in, etc. Why is this information useful? Units of study, linked to all areas of the curriculum, can be developed around these interests. For example: If a student’s interest is hockey, the possibilities for K-12 lessons or units of study include: counting the numbers of players on the ice, examining the physics of a body check, determining the economic impact of hockey on the family budget, comparative studies of sports throughout the world and reading fiction and nonfiction accounts of hockey players, and using hockey vocabulary as anchors for spelling lessons. The possibilities are limitless.
  • Once the unit of study is determined, design lessons that provide just enough challenge for the student to build on his known.
  • Remember that the focus is on re-engagement in learning. So, once the unit of study is established and lessons designed, set high expectations for progress, monitor actual progress, and when progress falters, rethink instruction, but don’t blame the student.

An example of how this shift in perspective actually occurs in a real school setting would be helpful. Interested? If so, click here. 

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

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