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Books in Translation

Reflective Leadership
June 20, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 19
Table of Contents 

Reading Like a Leader

Matt Renwick

"The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size."

—Oliver Wendell Holmes

Much of the education world has been talking about "close reading" and its association with the Common Core State Standards along with related assessments designed to measure student learning. Although the concept of close reading seems to be getting a lot of attention, there appears to be as many definitions for the term as there are voices.

Close reading is nothing new. In 1998, Patricia Kain from the Writing Center at Harvard University wrote the article, "How to Do a Close Reading." She recommends three steps:

  1. Read with a pencil in hand, and annotate the text.
  2. Look for patterns in things you've noticed about the text—repetitions, contradictions, similarities.
  3. Ask questions about the patterns you've noticed—especially how and why.

Doug Fisher, Nancy Frey, and Diane Lapp expand on these three steps in their book Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives. In this resource, the skill of close reading is part of a more overarching concept called "critical literacy." The authors state that all readers should read any text with a critical eye, use a variety of thinking strategies while engaging in the text, and stay close to what is written to avoid tangents.

The key to introducing and modeling these instructional strategies in the classroom is for educators to practice and learn these skills through collaborative inquiry. My leadership team tried out close reading by circulating an article from the December 2012 issue of Education Update titled "Rethinking Teacher Evaluation: Leaders Advocate for More Meaningful Measures" by Laura Varlas.

Step 1: Annotate

I specifically chose this article for two reasons. First, it is highly engaging for the staff in my school; teacher evaluations are a hot-button topic right now. Second, this issue is something we are wrestling with in our building. We have been piloting an instructional walk-through process, and the information presented by the author was relevant and would definitely add to our pool of knowledge.

I started the process by reading the article with a pencil in hand and annotated in the margins. I put down questions, comments, and opinions to model the initial process of close reading. Once I finished, I passed the annotated copy to a member of the leadership team to do the same. She noticed what I had written to help guide this practice. After she completed the article, it went on to the next member of our professional learning community. This continued until everyone had a chance to read and respond to the article. As you can see below, teachers annotated not only the text but also their colleagues' comments.

Collaborative close reading annotation example

Step 2: Analyze

Close reading asks that we read a piece of text multiple times, especially complex text such as the Educational Update article. Once the article had been routed to everyone, I scanned it, annotations and all, and then printed off a copy for each member of our team. During our next collaboration, we quietly reread the article with our thinking now evident in the margins. The added content (our annotations) helped us slow down in our reading and think more deeply about the topic of focus.

Before getting together, I considered my team's makeup. Each member is a professional in a specific area, such as 2nd grade or specialists. Although each member brings a unique point of view and an area of expertise to our focus group, some members may not have a whole building perspective that is necessary for considering issues that affect an entire school.

My goal was to broaden our minds in order to consider the many perspectives that are present in our community before making a building decision. How might a paraprofessional look at this issue? What about the students? Would parents agree with our current thinking? When I was a classroom teacher, I did not always think about an issue with a schoolwide focus. Yet to read like a leader, one must consider multiple perspectives to make the best decisions possible.

With that in mind, we had each member go around the circle and share something that resonated with them as they reread the article. We actively listened to one another and offered feedback in the form of a question, a connection, or just a simple nod in agreement. Although you could not tangibly see it, our team was building a collective understanding of teacher evaluation by using various reading strategies, such as connecting the text with our experiences as professionals and making predictions about how this process might look in our school.

Step 3: Reflect

Too often, reflections on what people say or do are forgotten during the learning process. We might run out of time, or we just forget. Yet reflection is a crucial step if we want to take our new knowledge and skills to a deeper level of understanding.

One way we reflect on our learning in a professional learning community is by writing and posting minutes. For this article, I wrote a number of the educator statements that best summarized our thinking:

  • "Evaluations can be scary. This article took some of the scariness away."
  • "Multiple measures mean professional accountability."
  • "Our current evaluations are more flexible than other districts."
  • "Are students really being considered part of the evaluation process?"

We then shared these minutes with the entire staff as a Google Drive file via e-mail. All staff members were encouraged to respond to our thinking either individually or at a future staff meeting. Because we know the work we do will be available for our colleagues to see, it becomes more authentic and meaningful. Looking back on our final product, it is clear that we stayed close to the text as we attempted to make meaning. Because we used a dynamic document, we can come back to it if our thinking changes in the future.

Two Birds, One Stone

Our collaborative time as a staff is limited, so when we do get together we need to accomplish as much as we can. This occurs when we are purposeful about our meetings and treat them as opportunities for professional development in addition to "getting things done." Reading critically is a skill that we honed as we learned about staff members' current understanding of teacher evaluation. We can now apply what we know and are able to do in our classrooms and future collaborations. Reading like a leader involves broadening our minds to consider the bigger picture—which happens when we are willing to take our teacher hats off and don a learner mind-set—and is essential to being able to introduce and model any strategy with our students.

Matt Renwick is principal of Howe Elementary in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 19. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit

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  • Joe_Phelan 2 years ago

    EDSITEment loves close reading and the work of Patricia Kane for Harvard. See our feature about Close Reading and Analysis of Primary Sources
    We also have a whole blog devoted to "Closer Readings" on