Sidelined but Ready to Get Back into the Game

By Cris Tovani

It’s easy to feel sidelined by this pandemic.  Negotiating everyday life is a whole new ballgame.  It’s hard to know what is true, what to believe, and how to act.  Even grocery shopping proves to be an epic adventure. I put on a mask, believing it will protect me from spreading virus germs.  I vacillate on wearing gloves.  I’ve heard they act like as an extra layer of skin that keep germs from one’s face.  But they make my hands sweaty, so I decide to take a calculated risk and not wear them.  Instead of grabbing a cart from the parking lot like I usually do, I decide not to because I’m sure the handle is a virus hotbed.  I limit what I buy so that it fits into my own bags.  Surely, they are cleaner, but who really knows?  Upon entering the store, I head straight for aisle six and notice several packs of toilet paper AND Bounty sitting on the shelves. I fight my urge to grab one of each.   My head reminds me that there is no longer a shortage and I need to leave what’s there for those who aren’t stockpiled.  Still, my heart tells me that while they are available, I should get one of each. After circling back to the produce section, I head to the baking aisle and I see a man without a mask, coughing all over the spices.  I decide to skip this row even though I need garlic powder. My actions are driven by the belief that the man’s cough has infected the aisle and his germs will linger way longer than I want to wait.  I skip the garlic powder deciding to substitute the recipe with another ingredient.

I am feeling vulnerable in this new reality.  Every aspect of my life is changing. I recognize as I work on this blog post that anything I write has the unintended potential to trivialize what others are experiencing.  I feel like a phony because when the pandemic hit, my work stopped.  Teacher workshops were postponed.  Demonstration teaching lessons with kids were canceled and planning with groups of teachers ended.  I was standing on the sidelines.  Unlike classroom teachers, I haven’t been responsible for trying to figure out how to do the heroic job of helping students learn remotely.  This makes me not qualified to tell those who are, how to do it.  So, with humility, I ask that you humor me as I try to figure out how to get back into the game.

When I’m in a classroom, I’m constantly in the “Hey whatcha doing?” mode.  I watch students interact with other kids, I listen to their sidebar conversations, I talk to them during conferences about what makes them tick.  I use these conversations as resources to keep up with their passions and pop culture.  I ask them questions about music, athletics, video games, anything that I think they care about.  In the classroom, I can peek over their shoulder and see their annotations.  I can listen to their discussions in small groups.  Even for kids who aren’t participating, asking them what they need often leads me to another instructional move.  I share with them what makes learning hard for me and then ask them to reciprocate.  If I know who my learners are, I can find text that they will read, targets they will shoot for, and tasks that they care enough about to do.

But now, what? In a remote environment, where I can’t rely on physical proximity to make connections, look over student’s shoulders, or monitor the time they have their eyes on text, I need to make adjustments.  I ask myself, “How do I get back in there and teach?”

I worry about the kids.  I fret about the ones who don’t have books at home or a place to study.  I worry about the ones who struggle even when they were with their teachers.  I think about the students who have given up on school–the kids who don’t show up for class much less for an online lecture.  I worry about the students who won’t graduate because there will be no summer credit recovery.  So, instead of worrying, I need to pull myself together and join those who started working on these problems three months ago.  How can I help? Could I teach an online credit recovery class? What would a pandemic summer school literacy class look like?  How might I engage our most disengaged learners?

Staying connected to my beliefs has always helped me keep kids at the front and center.  They drive my practice and this keeps my instruction anchored in authenticity and purpose. I reread my list of twelve beliefs, ones I’ve shared at workshops to help others flesh out what they think matter most to teaching and learning.  I’ve kept them close to my planning to remind me of what matters most.  But for a pandemic summer school, twelve beliefs are too many.  I pare the list down, knowing that my top three will help me decide what matters most:

  1. The time that students spend behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged in reading, writing, and discussing matters most to their learning. My concrete goal, backed by research is to help students engage for 67 minutes per day of reading, and 60 minutes per day of writing (Guthrie, 2004; Calkins, 2006).
Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.11.48 AM
Photo courtesy of Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash 
  1. I need to learn what students care and wonder about in order to get a variety of texts into their hands and to give them a variety of genres in which to write about.


  1. I have to see and hear students’ thinking, even if their thinking is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” Learning what they know and need is the only way I can figure out what their next steps are in terms tasks, texts, and learning targets.If I can see what they get and need, I can do a better job helping them to fulfill their reading and writing minutes. Providing the right “Ts” will enable them to get smarter and more skilled each day.

So, with these beliefs in mind, what would I do first?

From recent conversations with colleagues who are teaching, I learn that kids are over this new norm of school.  They need a better reason than an online Powerpoint to get out of bed in the morning.  Now more than ever before, figuring out what makes each student tick before I plan will be crucial.  If what I’m teaching doesn’t connect to their lives, why should they bother?

My plan is to set up a schedule where I call/video chat individual students before we gather as a group on the first day.  On this call, I will spend a little time getting to know individuals to see what they care about most during this time of disruption.  There are so many things I will want to know about my new students.  How are they currently spending their time? What’s surprising them? What’s frustrating them? What are they feeling good about or wishing for?  What do I need to know about them as learners and people to better meet their needs?  What are they curious about?

To build an initial connection, I will share with them a list of questions that I am currently wondering about and ask that they send me a few of their own.  I have no idea what I will get as a response, but I’m thinking that some kids might be curious about:

  • When will things seem normal again?
  • How does human contact and friendship help us navigate learning?
  • How is propaganda used to manipulate?
  • Who gets sick and why?
  • Is the US losing its place of power in the world?
  • Why is there a rise in racism?
  • Can video games teach us about the world in which we live?
  • What are the effects of cancelled professional sports?
  • How do vaccines work?

I am also prepared for snarky responses like:

  • When will this stupid pandemic be over?
  • Why are my parents so annoying?
  • Who cares about your questions?
  • Do we even need school if we can’t see our friends?

Once I get some information from individuals about what they care about, I can then figure out topics, texts and tasks that are worthy of their time.  I will search for texts that will help them answer their questions, making sure that I have different text structures and levels of reading.  I will consider options for small groups because it will be important for students to stay connected and have accountability to each other. Depending on schedules, I will set up a few whole class meetings and then make the Zoom breakouts more flexible.  I will pop into their small group chat rooms in real time to learn more about students and provide individual instruction.  I also want to empower students to decide how they will use group time.  They will need flexibility to schedule their own meetings so they can connect with their group.  When I can’t be present, they can hold their thinking on a simple google.doc to keep me in the loop. I recognize that initially, students may not meet in their small groups.  This will circle me back to my beliefs that it’s my job to facilitate how students behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engage in worthy work.

As I notice patterns within the smaller groups, I will use our ten to fifteen-minute Zoom time to do mini-lessons or give kids some input like a short article, to provoke and draw them back to their small groups.  Small groups could be based on questions students have, novels, or topics they care about.  While kids are in their clusters, I can enter different chat rooms to confer or do small group instruction.  Similar to when I’m in the classroom, I will monitor the whole class in between each chat room conference to decide where to go next.  Once I confer with one group, I will pull back and observe the other chat rooms to decide where to go next.  This is just a start.  But thinking about this, has allayed some fears and has made me feel like a participant again.

Last week, I was feeling pretty down.  Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being on a Zoom chat with Cornelius Minor and several other consultants.  We were brainstorming a bit and also bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t be with teachers and kids.  In his patient and wise way, Cornelius very quietly said, “We’ve lost some of our jobs but we haven’t lost our work.”  He’s right.  There is so much work out there to be done.  The trick is figuring out how to do “work” that is helpful to teachers and students.  I’m coming to grips with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to go back to teaching the way I did in the past.  And maybe that’s a good thing. I readily admit that I am struggling to figure out next steps.  So, I need to get off the sidelines and get back into the game, figuring out with the rest of you, how to do the work of teaching and learning.

This is only a start.  Now, I need to find some takers who I can serve.  Any teachers or kids out there who want a thought partner–I’m all in.

Chris Tovani is the recipient of ILA’s Adolescent Literacy Thought Leader Award in 2017,  a veteran teacher, staff developer, and nationally known consultant on issues of reading, content comprehension and assessment in secondary classrooms. She is the author of  I Read It But I Don’t Get It, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? and So, What do They Really Know?

Cris Tovani is coauthor with Samantha Bennett of the Heinemann Digital Campus course Adolescent Reading RX, which shows a variety of ways to reach reluctant and struggling readers.


Calkins, L. (2006) A Guide to the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Guthrie, J. T., A. Wigfield, and K. C. Perencevich.  2004.  Motivating Reading Comprehension:  Concept-Orientated Reading Instruction.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

An April (Mostly) Inside

By Tanny McGregor, 2021 CCIRA Conference Presenter

There’s a visual cliché that you’ve likely seen in film, where a calendar is pictured with its pages peeling off one by one. The calendar in motion is an effective way to show time flying, right before our eyes. During the past year, quarantined months notwithstanding, time has rushed past like those pages curling into the wind.

At the time of this writing, I’ve been alive for 640 months. Something inside me has risen up, a new longing to make those fleeting months accountable. What happens to small moments if not captured in a poem, a photo, or quick sketch? I know what happens. The moments fade and the calendar pages fly away.

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 10.15.47 AM
Created by Tanny McGregor, April 2020, on an iPad with Paper by WeTransfer (@WeTransfer).


Creating a visual calendar changes the way I think about time. Due to the stay-at-home orders in my state, I have more unstructured time to navigate than I can remember. The memorable moments surface daily, though, same as before. So with five minutes each evening, I pick up my stylus and think about the day behind me. What happened that was important, surprising, or interesting? Maybe it’s none of those, but an ordinary moment instead. 

In each empty calendar square, something is remembered. A simple symbol, accompanied by a word or phrase, preserves a fleeting memory, giving it permanence on the page. A visual calendar clutches the everyday, one tiny square at a time.

In our community of readers and writers, time is noticed and named in a variety of ways, through journals and poems, photographs and videos, audio recordings, sketches, and social media posts. A visual calendar is yet another way to create a thought-filled curio cabinet, a place to stow away the moments and take them out again from time to time. 

Note: Last December, Tanny’s sketchnoted thinking was featured on Mike Rohde’s Sketchnote Army blog. Take a look at this visual calendar, created in more typical times:

Tanny McGregor has been teaching and learning for 31 years in Cincinnati, Ohio. Since 2007, she has been writing and presenting for teachers near and far. Tanny’s books include Comprehension Connections: Bridges to Strategic Reading (Heinemann, 2007), Comprehension Going Forward: Where We Are & What’s Next (Heinemann, 2011), Genre Connections: Lessons to Launch Literary & Nonfiction Texts (Heinemann, 2013), and her most recent publication, Ink & Ideas: Sketchnotes for Engagement, Comprehension, and Thinking (Heinemann, 2019). Find her on Twitter @TannyMcG.


Ask First, Teach Later

By Julie Wright

Last week, I ordered my daughter a “Zoom University” tee-shirt. She’s gonna get such a kick out of this, I thought, as I put it on the counter where she was fixing her breakfast, getting ready for another day of distance learning.

My daughter smiled a little bit when she glanced at it. 

“You can wear it for your chem lab Zoom this morning!” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, as she headed off to the basement, where she is now finishing out the school year. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 10.00.30 AM

Then, it hit me. I had made a misstep. And, if you are reading this blog, I bet you have made a few, too. Teachers are blithering, open-hearted rescuers, empaths, cheerleaders on steroids. Combine that with being a parent and the miscalculations are exponential. 

We care so much about the well being of our kids and students, that we want to make it better. This new moonscape of distance teaching and learning has us all hyper and forgetting the basic tenet of effective teaching:  Step back. Take measure of your students. Ask questions.  

Had I asked my daughter directly what she needed right now, her answer would not have been a  pandemic-oriented t-shirt. My gut says that adults are buoyed by social media jokes, but not kids. They don’t have the long stretch of experience. For them, this particular  time is many things, but it’s not funny. 

My misstep is ironic, given I’m an educator, and fortuitous in that, as a literacy coach, I’ve spent the last few weeks supporting administrators, coaches, and teachers in designing distance learning experiences. When I saw the Zoom U. gift land, it confirmed for me that I need to slow down in giving advice, and ask questions first or risk making assumptions.  Assumptions are short cuts, when we fill in the blanks with information from our own past or similar experiences. In short, what we think will work for distance learning based on the hazy memories of our own student psyche, won’t work now. At all. We are all in uncharted territory.  

Lean Into Being a Newbie

Ask questions. Start by brainstorming with colleagues questions that we might ask ourselves before we ask students. THEN build learning plans based on what we hear.  Here is a list to get you started; but, by no means is this list “the right list” or a complete list.

  • How are students doing — social-emotionally, academically, physically — and how do we know? 
    • What can we see/hear based on our interactions and what can’t we see/hear?
    • How should we find out what we need to know to better serve our students?
  • Are students “showing up” for the learning opportunities we are providing? 
    • If not, why not? 
    • How can we figure out what’s getting in their way and what can/should we do to support them?
  • Have students figured out how to use or structure their time? 
  • Where are students working at home?  
    • Have they found a quiet, productive place to complete their work? 
  • How have our plans changed from short-term digital plans to longer-term digital plans? 
    • Do students feel and understand the changes? 
    • Where do they / will they need support?
  • Do students know what counts? 
    • Are we grading assignments and if so, have our grading practices changed?
    • Are we providing feedback and if so, can students respond in independent ways to our feedback from a distance?
  • How are parents doing?  
    • What’s going well?  What’s not?
    • What do parents need?

Next, Ask Students

  • How are you doing? 
  • How do you feel?
  • What’s going well? 
  • What’s clunky?
  • What’s agitating you?   
  • What do you need?  
  • What do you wish or want?
  • Have you figured out your schedule?  Your pacing? Tell me about it.
  • Where do you do most of your work at home?  Do you feel productive in that space?
  • What are you doing by yourself?  With others remotely?
  • What are you doing for yourself?

Now, Use Students Responses to Design

So much of the feedback students give will depend on geography, age, socio-economic status, access, connectivity, not to mention the stress associated with these changing times.  The heartbreaking part of course is that the students you want to reach most and who may need us most might not be reachable. I can’t presume to know what your students will say, but I can say it might be helpful to organize the feedback you hear into a kind of assumption/solution format. Here it goes: 

Assumption:  Students can easily type with fluency and accuracy.

Solution:  Investigate and offer voice functions [such as voice typing] so that students have options. 

Assumption:  Students brought home all the needed materials from school.

Solution: Take stock of what ALL students have and what they don’t have.

Assumption:  Students have the hardware and software available at the point of need.

Solution:  Ask students (and possibly family members/caregivers) what they have available and when (what time, how often) they can access it.

Assumption:  Bedtimes are similar to that of face-to-face school days.

Solution: Offer choice and flexibility in timing of assignments, due dates, video conference sessions Reminder–some families / caregivers might need or want kids to sleep in so that they can get their own work started / done.  Additionally, some may not be available to help with school work until evening.

Assumption:  Family members / caregivers understand the current methods students are being taught as well as the intended learning.

Solution:  Be creative in ways to teach / re-teach content and when in doubt, ask students what you can do to make the content more understandable.  Communicate with and family / caregivers.  

Assumption:  Someone is checking in or sizing up students’ social-emotional, academic, and physical well-being and helping to make needed adjustments. 

Solution:  Create reflection-oriented surveys or protocols so that you can learn first-hand how students may or may not be connecting with friends, completing assigned work, and getting enough exercise.

Assumption:  Students are completing their own work.

Solution:  Ask students or family members / caregivers if work is being completed independently or if support from home or peers is needed.

Assumption:  We are providing the “right” level of support for each student we serve.

Solution:  Use student work products and reflections to gauge the students’ needs and, if possible, collaborate with colleagues to brainstorm possible support mechanisms and structures.

Assumption:  Students are able to successfully read all of the digital information coming at them efficiently and effectively.

Solution:  Provide recorded options as a support for anyone who needs or wants it.

Assumption: Students are able to seperate and prioritize the work coming from multiple teachers and content areas.

Solution: Collaborate in teams to coordinate your efforts, making things clear and consistent.

Assumption:  Our digital assignments take into account students’ insecurities and/or experience levels (e.g., recording yourself singing for music class, seeing yourself and sharing ideas via video).

Solution:  Create choices so that students have more than one way to make their knowledge, skills or understandings visible to others.

Assumption:  Content and messaging are being received the way they were intended.

Solution:  Ask students to share back with you in their own words what is being asked (e.g., restate the assignment, explain these directions in your own words)

Assumption:  Students’ eyes can handle (and are not being impacted negatively) by the number of hours spent via digital learning.

Solution:  Ask students and family members / caregivers to take stock of device-related eye fatigue (e.g., blurred vision, double vision, dry or irritated eyes, redness, eyestrain, headache, neck pain, stiff neck).

Two Takeaways

  1. Explain changes to students and families / caregivers.  Explaining the WHAT and WHY is important.
  2. When we make a misstep, which will certainly happen, let’s apologize.  “I’m sorry”goes a long way. Everyone will understand because everyone is making missteps right now.

Each week brings about new celebrations and new challenges.  We are bound to make missteps. It is not about the misstep but how quickly we recover.  We can ask important questions about the assumptions we might be making so that we can reflect and make adjustments. 

On behalf of all students and the caregivers and educators we serve, thanks for all you do!

JULIE WRIGHT is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings.  She holds National Board Certification as well as a B.S. in Education, M.A. in Language Arts and Reading, a K-12 Reading Endorsement, and extensive school leadership post-graduate work, including a pre-K through grade 9 principal license from The Ohio State University. Julie serves as an Adjunct Faculty Member at Ashland University and is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers–Not the Book (Wright & Hoonan, 2019). Follow Julie on Twitter @juliewright4444 or for more information on how she can support your efforts, visit


All For the Love of Books

By Jennifer Allen

We often don’t know the ripple effect that occurs when we share our passions and loves with others.

A year ago, I wrote to author Andrew Clements asking if he would like to be a guest at our bi-annual Writer’s Day.  Mr. Clements responded with a beautiful letter that he would be honored to be part of the event. In his letter he stated that he did not want to take a speaking fee, but asked that we take the money that we would use for his fee and put it towards books for classroom libraries. He also asked that we use an independent bookstore for the purchases. 

At the start of school this year,  I shared with staff the news that Andrew Clements would be coming to our school.  He held star power for staff and students. I shared his proposition of not taking a speaking fee but that we use the money for our classroom libraries.  It was because of him that each teacher would get money to spend on their classroom libraries.

The next part of Mr. Clements’s request was that we use an independent bookstore. This part was easy since we have an amazing bookstore right in town, walking distance from the school. I called Ellen, the owner, asking if we could do grade level teacher field trips to the store. Ellen was beyond grateful.  She shared that January is her slowest month and that this support would help her get through the tougher winter months.

Teacher field trips were set up. Instead of after school grade level meetings, teachers rotated through the store as grade level teams on two different Monday afternoons. Teachers spent their meeting time in the bookstore talking about books with one another, finding books to match their students’ interests, and discovering new authors and titles. The conversations were rich and meaningful.  I watched as books were handed off from one teacher to the next. If one teacher ran out of money, another often scooped up the books into their own piles to purchase. The experience was one of sharing and collaboration. It was a reminder to me the importance of getting into bookstores and physically browsing through the stacks. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-07 at 8.43.02 AM
Photo courtesy of Johnathan Kalifat at Unsplash

Unfortunately, Mr. Clements passed away last November.

He won’t be a part of our school Writer’s Day, or get to see all the books we purchased in his honor for our classroom libraries, or get his personal  thank you from Ellen who still says when I see her,” I wish I could have thanked Andrew for what he did.”  

He also won’t know that because of those field trips, we extended the idea to two other grade levels at our K-3 elementary school and that we were able to get even more teachers into our local bookstore, and even more books into our classrooms.

Mr. Clements won’t know that we have already budgeted for field trips to take place next year for all K-5 teachers at our two elementary schools (about 40 teachers).  The trips are planned for next January when teachers know their students as readers and can find the just right books for them with school funds to support their purchases. The trips are also intentionally planned for January so that the winter months won’t be so hard on our local bookstore.

What started as a simple gesture of an author payment, has turned into a reminder of the importance of books to our schools, students, and teachers. I suppose that Mr. Clements knew that when he sat down and penned his letter to me last year.

I am grateful for the ripple effects of Mr. Clements love of books and his wishes to support our classroom libraries. Ultimately, our classrooms, our schools, and our professional collaboration were enhanced and renewed.

Thank you Mr. Clements.

Jennifer Allen is a literacy specialist in Waterville, Maine. She has worked in education for the last twenty-five years.  Jennifer started as a classroom teacher in the primary grades and has been working in this position as a literacy/specialist coach for the last sixteen years. She is the author of Becoming a Literacy Leader and A Sense of Belonging, both published by Stenhouse.

Entering Stories Through Mood

By Trevor Bryan, 2021 CCIRA Conference Presenter

One of the easiest paths to take into a story is to think about the mood or moods that the author or illustrator is showing their audience. Whether you are reading a wordless picture book, a picture book, graphic novel, middle grade novel, novel or watching an animated short, TV show, movie or play, the same holds true: narratives are told through mood and so thinking about the mood and what’s causing the mood is the straightest shot to getting at the heart of the story. If we think about what a story is, it can help us to understand why entering narratives through mood is so effective.

How Stories Work: Three Main Ingredients

What’s a story? How do they work? These are straightforward questions but ones that don’t get talked about too much. But it makes sense that if we want our students to be able to discuss narratives well, and if we want them to craft narratives that will resonate with their intended audience, they know what a story is and how they work.

All stories are built using three basic ingredients: events and action, reactions to the event or action and reasons for the reaction to the events or action. In stories, things have to happen. There has to be some event or some action that takes place. There has to be a plot. Often, we think of this, the plot, as the story but, in fact, the plot is not the story. This is why, when students write “stories” where they explain a sequence of events (this happened, and then this happened, and then, and then, etc) they not only don’t sound like stories, they are excruciating to listen to or read.

The story is actually the reaction and the reason for the reaction to the events or action taking place. Let’s look at a quick example of what I mean.

Imagine that I wrote a story that started:

I woke up. I never felt so excited in my life. It was my birthday.

We have an event: I woke up. We have a reaction: I felt excited. We have a reason for the reaction: It’s my birthday. This all makes sense to us as readers because we can infer why a character would feel excited on their birthday.

Now imagine I started my story this way:

I woke up. I never felt so sad in my life. It was my birthday.

In this case, we have the exact same event but a totally different reaction which creates a totally different story. Furthermore, we have the same reason for the reaction, it’s my birthday, but we can’t really infer why a character would feel so sad on their birthday. For the audience, more information is needed. As the writer, my job would be to explain the reason for the reaction further so that the story makes sense. If an audience doesn’t understand all three ingredients, at least at some point, then they are going to feel confused and disconnected from the story.

Two Real Life Examples

Let’s look at two examples from the real world. I chose two books that I think (that I hope) you are familiar with, The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds and Wonder by R. J. Palacio. We’ll look at the opening of The Dot first.

In the opening illustration of The Dot we see an illustration of the main character, Vashti, sitting backwards with her arms folded, all alone, a scowl on her face, engulfed in a murky, greenish , grayish color. She does not look happy. Besides the illustration are the words, “Art class was over, but Vashti sat glued to her chair. Her paper was empty.”

Event: Art class happened.

Reaction: Vashti is frustrated and didn’t do anything.

Reason for the Reaction: ?

At this point in the story, the audience doesn’t know the reason for the reaction. They can make a prediction based on the question, “Why would Vashti feel frustrated right now?” but it is difficult to make an exact inference based on the information given. However, once we turn the page, the reason for the reaction, the reason for Vashti’s mood, the reason for Vashti’s frustration is given. “I just can’t draw!”

Because the reader now clearly knows the event, the reaction and the reason for the reaction, they are in the heart of the story.

Wonder is set up a little bit differently. The first chapter, which is one page (pg. 3) starts with the main character, Auggie, giving some background information about his facial disfigurement. “My name is August, by the way. I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” One thing that background information does, is that it often provides a reason for the reaction. So unlike in The Dot, where the audience finds out the reason for the reaction after the event and reaction are shown, in Wonder a reason for the reaction is provided upfront.

On the very next page (pg.4), with the first two sentences, we find out the event and Auggie’s reaction to the event. We even get a second reason for the reaction. R. J. Palacio writes, “Next week I start fifth grade. Since I’ve never been to a real school before, I am pretty much totally and completely petrified.”

Event: Fifth grade is starting.

Reaction: Totally and completely petrified.

Reason for the reaction (stated): Auggie has never been to a real school before.

Reason (inferred): Auggie has a facial disfigurement that can make interaction with other people difficult and uncomfortable.

Whether you are reading a simpler narrative like The Dot, or a more complex narrative like Wonder both stories are built with the three ingredients: having a clear event, a reaction and a reason for the reaction. By understanding these three ingredients, the audience can settle into the story being shared.

Reactions are the Mood

As humans, we react to everything emotionally. When we see a sunrise, wake up on a rainy day, when it’s time to go to gym class, hear our favorite song, see a dog, we feel a certain way. If we have a strong enough reaction, a strong mood, then we have a story that might be shareable. Stories are told through mood. Showing the mood or the reaction to whatever events or actions are taking place, is one of the main jobs of a writer, illustrator or actor. What’s interesting is that although they all use a different symbol system to present the information to the audience, they all show the same information. An actress can frown, a writer can write, “She frowned,” and the illustrator can draw the character frowning. Following are the Access Lenses (illustrated by the incredible Peter H. Reynolds!), a tool that can help you and your students to identify key details that will help them to figure out a character’s reaction and mood.


Mood Structures

Narratives normally have more than one event. The different events (the action) are shown using the building blocks of stories, scenes. And because different scenes usually have different events taking place, there are also different reactions or moods being shown. And because there are different moods, this means that stories have a change of moods or what I call, Mood Structures. So once audiences identify a mood, their next job is to get ready for a change of mood. Below is a simple drawing that shows the three most basic Mood Structures. In simple stories, such as The Dot, there is often only one major mood change. In longer, more complex stories like Wonder, the audience might see several mood changes. For example, each chapter might have it’s own mood structure. The mood changes are what cause the emotional roller-coaster that makes stories fun.


Symbols in Stories

Anything that causes a mood is symbolic of that mood. For Vashti, drawing is a symbol of frustration. For Auggie, going to school makes him feel petrified. School equals scary. Thinking about things that cause a mood as a symbol makes it easier to make a meaningful text-to-self connection to a story. We all have things in our life that make us feel frustrated or that make us feel scared. Furthermore, we also know other characters who have felt frustrated or scared about something and so thinking symbolically can help us make strong text-to-text connections too.

Positive and Negative Symbols

Just like with moods, symbols can be positive or negative. Characters, settings, objects or events that cause a negative mood are negative symbols. And characters, settings, objects or events that cause a positive mood are positive symbols. Often in stories, the way an author changes a mood is by having a positive or negative symbol show up. In many stories, positive symbols can be thought of as symbols of hope and support and negative symbols can be thought of as symbols of obstruction and destruction.  For instance in The Dot, when Vashti is feeling totally frustrated, her teacher ( a symbol of support) shows up and helps to get her started drawing. And in Wonder, when Auggie enters the dreaded lunchroom and is blatently excluded and forced to sit all by himself, Summer ( a symbol of hope and support) decides to sit with him. We could all use more Summer in our lives!

Symbols can also change in stories. Art clearly starts out negative for Vashti but by the end of the book art is a symbol of creativity and Joy for her. Likewise, in Wonder, school starts out as a place where Auggie feels uncomfortable, scared and gets picked on, winds up being a place where he is celebrated and embraced.

Finding Themes through Moods

When we don’t know how to do something it can make us feel frustrated.

Doing something that we’ve never done before can make us feel scared.

Sounds like two themes, right? Two big ideas? Two lessons that we can learn from stories? One way to arrive at a theme, big idea, or lesson learned is by combining the mood and what is causing the mood. Some of the most important themes, big ideas, or lessons in stories will come from thinking about what causes a character’s mood to change.


One of the nice things about helping students to learn to enter stories through moods is that it’s extremely consistent across grade levels. All narratives, whether they are targeting young children, or teenagers, are built using the same ingredients. They all will have events, reactions to those events and reasons for the reaction to those events. And because they have a reaction, they will have a mood. By paying attention to how the mood is shown, audiences will be studying craft. And by noticing how the mood changes, audiences will be studying story structure. This means that studying craft and story structure can help students with their comprehension. Studying craft and story structure also puts audience members in a better position to create narratives that will resonate with their intended audience.

Pay attention to the moods both in your own lives and in the lives of your characters. Mood truly is where you’ll find the heartbeat of a story.


Trevor Bryan has put together a family friendly resource to help students engage with some of the ideas he discussed above while at home. It’s a free 14 page document that can be found here:

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.

Trevor Bryan has been an art teacher in New Jersey for 20 years, spending the last 16 in Jackson Township. Trevor’s first book, The Art of Comprehension: Exploring Visual Texts to Foster Comprehension, Conversation, and Confidence, was published in 2019 by Stenhouse Publishers. Since around 2012, Trevor has presented at various national and state conferences, consults The Princeton University Art Museum on utilizing AoC for school and other group tours, and he provides professional development for several school districts across the United States on using and implementing The Art of Comprehension. Trevor also consults for award-winning and bestselling author/illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds’ education company, FableVision Learning.

Feel free to reach out to Trevor with any questions. Find Trevor on Twitter, @TrevorABryan, on Facebook, The Art of Comprehension or through his Blog, Four O”Clock Faculty.