Category Archives: Close Reading

Great Terror Tweetathon

Steve Graham and Michael Herbert (2010) conducted a meta-analysis of the literature on reading and writing called Writing to Read. Part of this work, reports the results from nine studies that demonstrated how having students respond to a text in writing has a large effect (0.77) on their reading comprehension. This research suggests that writing personal reactions and/or analyzing/interpreting texts can increase reading comprehension. Therefore, I asked my students to use textual evidence to create rhyming couplets about the Great Terror. They were given a document about Stalin and the Great Terror from The DBQ Project’s excellent materials and allowed to use their cell phones to access an online rhyming dictionary.

2015-04-17 13.18.08

A few students turned in rhymes that did not reflect understanding of the material. In a future iteration of this project I will add some peer review and quantify the results. Many students, however, were creative and demonstrated strong understanding of The Great Terror. The following couplets represent their work:

As a Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin made his enemies pay
His secret police would kill 1,000 people every day

The Russians launched mass arrests and forced labor
At times it seemed by killing you, Stalin was doing you a favor

Between 1937 and 1938, the Great Terror only lasted for two years
During this time, the Soviet people lived with many fears

The Great Terror eliminated people considered an enemy of the state
A history book would conclude that this time period was not great.

Russian intellectuals were broken and corrupted
Their contributions to society were disrupted

Mercy and dignity got in the way of survival
If you valued freedom, you were Stalin’s rival

The Great Terror tried to instilled fear in a citizen’s mind and soul
Constant threats from authority added up and took their toll

Soviet History books were just another propaganda tool
Until Roy Medvedev wrote one critical of Stalin’s rule

Joseph Stalin had a huge amount of power
Which made all of his citizens tremble and cower

This quick activity aligns with what Lopez (2011) terms culturally relevant pedagogy, which emerged in response to the need for increased engagement and educational success for all learners. Many teenagers aspire to be rappers and songwriters. This exercise allowed students to work in pairs and collaborate on a task with high social capital and improve their academic vocabulary and reading comprehension. Please make a comment and let me know how you could adapt this activity to your classroom.


Lopez, A.E. (2011). Culturally relevant pedagogy and critical literacy in diverse English classrooms: A case study of a secondary English teacher’s activism and agency. English Teaching: Practice and Critique. pp. 75-93. December, 2011, Volume 10, Number 4. 

Was Eugenics Science or Racism?

Reviewing my exams at the end of my WWII unit made me realize that my students didn’t really understand why Hitler easily rose to power in Weimar Germany. They had no inkling how he used popular science to advance many of his racial theories, nor that Hitler stole most of his theories on racial purity from American scientists in the eugenics movement. These students did not understand that eugenics was the 1900s equivalent to climate change, widely accepted by the mainstream, but vilified by extremist groups.  I blame this, not on my usual frantic sprinting along the historical coverage treadmill, but on our textbook, which doesn’t even mention the word eugenics anywhere in its 793 pages. Instead of re-teaching all of WWII, I put together a quick three-day unit and argumentative writing assignment on eugenics, starting with this wonderful lecture from 15 Minute History.

The next day, my students opened class with a Do Now: (quick write) that asked: Did the eugenics movement benefit or harm society? Then, I gave a short demonstration on how to use a Vee Diagram when writing an argument. After writing their initial argument, the students participated a gallery walk where they collected at least six pieces of evidence. The idea of the gallery walk was to see if their minds changed after examining the evidence. All of the materials in the gallery walk were collected from the Eugenics Archive.

American Eugenics Movement

For their Exit Ticket, students discussed which pieces of evidence they had collected with an elbow partner and described how the evidence supported their claims. That night for homework, they were asked to fill out their chicken foot and organize their evidence, so they could write their essay in class the next day.


For their in-class essay, students were asked: Was the eugenics movement positive or negative? They were asked to include a brief background on eugenics, as well as their definition of eugenics, and instructed to write in the third person. Lastly, I asked them to use MEAL paragraphs to explain how their evidence supports their claim.  Click here for additional information on MEAL paragraphs.

M – Main Idea: Topic sentence

E – Evidence: Proof found in research

A – Analysis: Describe how the evidence proves the main idea

L – Link: Explain how the paragraph fits into what the paper is trying to argue.

The students (N=142) who completed this task, wrote an average of 292 words with 2.7 claims and 1.6 counter claims. At this point in the year, they should be writing between 300-400 words in a class period. To my horror, I discovered many examples of the Jane Schaffer method thriving in my class after a whole semester of trying to break them of the habit. I suppose I should be grateful that they had some writing instruction in middle school, but in high school and in college this type of writing doesn’t work.

Jane Schaffer Method

My next post will show students how to use the third person and help them learn how to turn bad writing into good writing.

Close Reading Demo

Coronation of Napoleon

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon

CA Hist/SS Standard 10.2.4 Explain how the ideology of the French Revolution led France to develop from a constitutional monarchy to democratic despotism to the Napoleonic empire.

Objective: Students select textual evidence of Napoleon’s despotism by selecting quotes from his Account of the Internal Situation of France speech given before the Legislative Body aka The Consulate on December 31, 1804.

CCSS Reading Standard for Literacy in History/Social Studies:
Grades 9 & 10.

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information. 2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary source and provide an accurate summary of how key events or ideas develop over the course of the text.

Student Handout

Students will think/pair share in groups to collaborate on simplifying paragraphs of this speech used as a historical primary source document. Students will present their work to the class via a document camera and projector. Then leave a post-it copy of their work on a master document for the whole class.

Instructor will circulate and ask groups specific questions to assist students in comprehending this college-level primary source reading.

Annotated Instructor copy with questions

Students will be given a chance to turn and talk with an elbow partner to practice academic language in a small group prior to presenting before the class. To enable differentiation for diverse populations, students have been placed in mixed-ability groups by their scores on previous subject-matter quizzes. Each group has a high scoring student, a low scoring student, and two average students.

Each student will be given a chance to display their collaboration and critical thinking skills when presenting their translation-simplification. The teacher will check for understanding during the presentations. Students will complete Do Now & Exit Tweets that demonstrate their understanding.

Twitter Template

At the conclusion of the lesson, the teacher will model a simplified document. Prior to leaving class, students will be asked to provide a thumbs up/thumbs down to reflect their opinion on whether Napoleon was a Dictator or Democrat.

Teacher Master Copy

Students will have handouts of the primary source and be provided with dictionaries to help understand the academic vocabulary. Students with electronic devices may use them to access online resources such as

Close Reading Procedures

Close reading is 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 (Burke, 2014). It  includes: Using short passages and excerpts; Diving right into the text with limited pre-reading activities; Focusing on the text itself; Rereading deliberately; Reading with a pencil; Noticing things that are confusing; and Discussing the text with others.

The first read should be without building background; students should be integrating their background knowledge with the text as they read.

Nap IASF 1

After rereading, students discuss the text with partners or in small groups, focusing on the author’s craft and organizational patterns.

Nap AISF 2

The third close reading of a text should go even deeper, requiring students to synthesize and analyze information. They may record their ideas on sticky notes, graphic organizer, or a thinking sheet.

Nap AISF 4

Nap AISF 3


A Close Look at Close Reading: Scaffolding Students with Complex Texts. Beth Burke, NBCT.