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The Big Fresh May 2, 2015 Navigating Boston

Brenda Power


Not until we are lost do we begin to find ourselves. 

                                                            Henry David Thoreau

I recently went to a conference at the JFK Library in Boston with my colleague Karen. Neither of us knew Boston geography well. It probably would have been safer if we had taken the subway once we reached the city limits, but we didn’t. Karen drove. Even with my talking navigation tool (the one that tells you when and how to turn ahead of time), we managed to miss a turn or two (or three). Once we'd missed a turn, my navigation app would beep and after a few seconds call out directions for a new route. Some of the roads eventually looked familiar, since we ended up retracing our steps once or twice (or three times). We arrived at our conference in time, but I had no idea where the JFK Library was in relation to the rest of Boston until I looked at a map, and I definitely would not be able to drive there again without my handy dandy navigation app.

Throughout our tour of Boston, we relied on a digital voice. She told us how many feet to travel, the names of roads, the turns to take, and exactly when to take them. The roads were so confusing with the diagonal intersections, merging cars, and traffic circles that we did not even try to navigate independently. We had no idea where we were going except for the name of the place. We had a wonderful day of learning at the conference, but we had absolutely no new learning about Boston geography.

When we were driving home with a long stretch of highway in front of us and no need to worry about turns and traffic circles, Karen asked me about one of her fifth-grade students who is struggling with research-based essays. The complexity of the task overwhelms him. He has to read, take notes, integrate information, organize notes, realize what information he might still need, locate additional resources...and that’s all before he has to write an introduction, developmental paragraphs with facts, details, and transition words, and then a conclusion that calls readers to action. This task, to a student who doesn’t read, organize, integrate, and write proficiently, must feel navigating Boston without much of a road map.

As Karen asked about her student and I thought about our experience, I made a connection. Even though I have written about the zone of proximal development before, I had never made such a clear connection to my own learning. Having someone tell me exactly what to do every step of the way meant I didn’t even try to learn. I just waited for my next direction, never trying to figure out a single thing for myself.

Maybe I would have tried if I’d known something about Boston streets.

Maybe I would have tried if I’d studied the route and a map before.

Maybe I would have tried if an object next to me didn’t beep and speak in an annoyed voice when I made mistake.

I am sure that if I’d had no help and just a bunch of crazy roads in front of me, I would have pulled over to find help, or I would have just given up.

Karen and I talked more about her student, asking ourselves,  “What part of the task could he do alone, without a constant need for directions?”

As tasks become more and more complex for our students, I think we need to remember the sense of confusion and panic when we are lost, as well as the fact that when we receive directions every step of the way, we don’t learn.

Now, if only I had a little more time to spend in Boston to break those navigation tasks into more manageable steps...

This week we looking at teaching theme, a tricky concept that requires a fair amount of navigational support from teachers. Plus more as always -- enjoy!

Melanie Meehan

Contributor, Choice Literacy


Melanie Meehan is the Elementary Writing and Social Studies Coordinator in Simsbury, Connecticut. She has many fictional works in progress and blogs with Melanie Swider at Two Reflective Teachers.

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Franki Sibberson shares Two Lessons for Teaching Theme:


Sara Johnson has posted a nifty video on teaching theme:


Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan have collected many texts for teaching perseverance on a Pinterest board. This is a popular topic now for schools and classrooms promoting a growth mindset:


Create a DVD professional library instantly and save big with our DVD Bundle Sale. Order the 24 DVD Collection and save 50% off the list prices of individual titles. The bundle includes over 40 hours of video and features Jennifer Allen, Aimee Buckner, "The Sisters" (Gail Boushey and Joan Moser), Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, Franki Sibberson, and many other master teachers working in classrooms with children. Choice Literacy members receive an additional discount of $100 off the sale price:


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Jennifer Allen uses commercials to promote the importance of rereading to students while teaching theme during an author study of Patricia Polacco:


How do you teach theme to very young learners? In this week's video, Bitsy Parks uses the term "big Idea" with her first graders:


Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris present some of their Favorite New Wordless Picture Books for Teaching Inference:


Katherine Sokolowski finds Padlet is a great tool for compiling learning and building community:

In an encore video, Karen Terlecky is Thinking About Theme with her fifth graders:

That's all for this week!

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Brenda Power

Brenda Power is the founder of Choice Literacy. She worked for many years as a professor at the University of Maine and an editor at Stenhouse Publishers. Her publications as an author include Living the Questions and The Art of Classroom Inquiry. She has worked as a book editor and video producer for many of the authors featured at this site.