National Donut Day 2016

I have written previously about how Liam enjoys helping others with math.

Kieran’s fifth-grade year was a great year to see that help in action.

Kieran does well in math, but when he doesn’t initially understand a concept, he shuts down.

Liam was consistently able to “bring him back” to an understanding and calmness so that he could finish his nightly homework.

He is still doing so to this day.

Around the end of second grade, we asked him to help Mea, at least to check her work.

She understanding math in a very different way. There were many times that her dad could not help her understand the “new math.”

Liam has always been able to.

Now he’s been helping both Kieran and Mea with their instruments, although different from his own.

He will play a song for Kieran so that he can hear the notes and rhythm.

Now, he is actually helping Mea play two instruments that are different from his own.

Last night, he held her music for bells for her, and kept time, humming along as she played. She actually practices for about 40 minutes with his help, replaying a song until she gets it right (she just picked up bells, so is about six weeks behind her peers).

While he once said that he thought that teaching was too hard a profession to pursue, I see him having the heart of a teacher, nevertheless.

15 seconds…

In seventh grade, Liam performed well in his local MathCounts competition. He even made the newspaper:


He was the first place seventh grader and second place finisher overall.

“Top 10 individual, after the written exam: 1. Cassidy Bolio, Southern Middle School; 2. Liam Hower, Emory H. Markle Intermediate School” – his 15 seconds of fame.

He seemed calm and excited about his work. He prepared diligently for regionals…

Where he came in 11th place.

One place out of the top ten, where competitors go on to compete in the countdown round.

In his quiet, humble way, he noted how he had done so much better than the year before locally and was up three places from regionals from the previous year.

He said he enjoyed his first try at countdown round (locally), which he had not been able to the prior year.

He was proud of his team. He congratulated them all, as his arms were full of awards.

And that was it.

Time to turn his attention to track.

He replaced the previous year’s medals and certificates hanging in his room with the new ones and was happy.

He taught us a lesson about how to be content with hard work and effort too, despite the results (which were much to be proud of).

Reflecting on #NCTE17

Visiting with dear virtual and close friends.

Making new acquaintances.

Listening to inspiring speakers.

Learning from the best!

Eating fabulous food.

Trying out some firsts (martini and Uber).

Finding encouragement and kindred souls.

Planning for the future.

Thank you to Stacey Shubitz and the Slicers, Stenhouse Publishers, Rose Cappelli, Lynne Dorfman, Clare Landrigan, Tammy Mulligan, Paula Bourque, my PCTELA family, and many authors and speakers for making this year’s trip to St. Louis an incredible learning and inspiring experience.


Adding to our Teacher’s Toolbox for Inferencing


Inferencing is a literacy skill that students on the spectrum find particularly challenging because they have a difficult time with tasks that ask them to consider associative meanings or recognize relationships and common features.

To help, just like with main idea and detail questions, teachers should use explicit modeling, scaffolding, and providing direct feedback to reinforce correct answers.

Teachers, likewise, want to place a student with ASD in a reading group where they can hear a “more knowledgeable other” infer aloud in a conversation. Again, teachers should use the think-aloud strategy to model their own inferencing process.

Students on the spectrum are not used to thinking about larger constructs or themes. They need a teacher or peer to help them learn what to notice, understand how to consider all of those details, and to decide how they all fit together.

Returning to graphic organizers, there are many that will support readers who struggle to identify the key pieces of information that would help them make an inference.

The Common Core Standards in this section ask that students do a lot of comparing and contrasting.  There are many compare/contrast and similarity/difference graphic organizers available. The teacher should choose ones that she likes to work with best.

A unique one shared with me by Eric Shipman, a third-grade teacher ( – see Compare/Contrast with Summary). He appreciated it for the same reasons I am mentioning it here: it explicitly identifies the categories that are to be contrasted. Being able to target specific information to contrast (i.e. food, habitat, predators), is more beneficial than just tasking a learner to compare and contrast two animals. In what ways? About what? This way, the teacher can provide additional guidance for how the students should organize their thinking around the task.

This graphic organizer caught our attention because it added an additional layer of support to the typical compare/contrast strategy. In reality, Mr. Shipman and I found this to challenge students because it deepened the thinking beyond comparing and contrasting appearances or other lower level information. Then, it helps the student with ASD because of how explicitly it directs them to categorize the information garnered from the reading.

Graphic Organizers to Scaffold Thinking

When students gain the capability of discriminating the main idea from a detail, they can use a three column system that categorizes “topic,” “details,” and “responses.” Alternatively, they could use an FQR worksheet.

These scaffolds explicitly categorize the information contained in the book and allow the student to reflect on the information being presented in the text. This supports executive functioning as well, in that there is a support system for noticing various aspects of a text and organizing them for the student to analyze.

Additionally, graphic organizers support a student on the autism spectrum’s ability to filter out extraneous information.

They “teach children to give the main topic more weight than secondary themes and secondary themes more weight than details” (Fein & Dunn, 2007, p. 178).

Graphic organizers support a student’s central coherence, as they lead the student away from unimportant details, to highlight what the main or essential ideas were in the reading.

Some graphic organizers that seem to work especially well are ones that scaffold students’ understanding of the difference between the main idea and the details that support it.


When I use this with students, I first read the “definition” of the terms: main idea and details. I share the “Ask Yourself” box next to help students know what questions we will answer by the end of our steps. I also draw their attention to the “Look for these Words” box, so that when we start to follow the steps, they can be on the lookout for any of those words.

Then we “Follow These Steps.” In a book that the students can write in, we use highlighters. In a regular book, we used highlighter tape. I think aloud as I notice words we were looking for and text that connects to our prediction.

At the end, I record our evidence from the highlighted parts of the book. Then, we return to the “Ask Yourself” questions to determine the main idea.

Most importantly, I explain that the topic (or title) of a book is not its main idea. It can be part of it, but the main idea is going to share more about why the author wrote the text.

With each practice, especially with other types of thinkers in our small group, I release more of the responsibility of noticing and answering to the students.

Finally, I have them practice “independently,” in strategically grouped pairs, then truly independently, by themselves.

Depending on the difficulty of the text, I might have to re-support a student in figuring out which portions of a text are key details versus just interesting information (see above), or re-model how to take the details and synthesize them into the main idea.

This type of protocol supports students in taking steps toward understanding how to identify the main idea.

What’s Important versus What’s Interesting


Another scaffolded strategy that supports this type of thinking involves having students read a text, and record what is important, what is interesting, and then their thoughts about why the details fell into each of the categories.

Once, when working with a third-grade student, he initially recorded the first sentence he read on the page into the “what is important” category.

His rationale was, it comes first on the page, so it must be important. The book was about the Blue Morpho Butterfly.

The sentence read, “Did you see that flash of blue in the forest?”

Through a think-aloud conversation, the small guided reading group was able to show this student that the sentence neither provided important information nor was an interesting fact.

We wrote in the reflection column, “the author wrote the first sentence to grab the reader’s attention.”

This conversation was a powerful model to the student about how to track the types of sentences an author includes in a text.

Then, through an analysis of the important facts, putting the interesting ideas in their own column, we were able to discern the central idea of the text.

Previewing Guided Practice


Students benefit from guided instruction in how to differentiate between and less significant material in a text.

Previewing is an excellent strategy to support students’ understanding of the difference between primary and secondary details.

First, ask students to look at the pictures, and predict what each seems to be about, and well as why they are included in the section.

Second, have students review photographs within the text. With the latter, draw students’ attention to what additional information the caption provides. Ask students if the pictures (and captions) support, or alter their initial prediction.

Third, have students look at any other text features or chapter titles/headings. Lead the small group in a discussion of what information these details provide them as a reader. Ask them why they think the author may have included the features in the text.

Fourth, provide students with a list of important vocabulary (may be bolded in an informational text). Determine which words they know, which words need to be defined (or redefined if their current definition does not fit the context of this text), and what clues the words might give about the main or central idea of the text.

Fifth, ask students to read the first paragraph (introduction) and the last paragraph (conclusion) of the text (or first chapter).

Guide students to notice what the focus of the text/chapter seems to be. List any key ideas that emerge. Have students confirm or adjust their initial prediction in light of the reading. Invite students to share what they are thinking and why they are thinking it.

The teacher will need to model this protocol a few times (I Do) with the entire class and discuss how the students can use the strategy in their own reading. Guided practice would be the next step (We Do) before allowing students to work independently (You Do).



There have been many times when Kieran’s willful disposition has gotten the best of me.

One time occurred yesterday.

He made a point to step over a cricket carcass, announce its existence (and grossness) to the family, and walk away from it.

In the spirit of finders clean up “the mess,” I asked Kieran to pick up the cricket and throw it in the trash.

This is when his willfulness set in.

An hour later, I noticed that the cricket was still lying at the bottom of the step.

I called out, “Kieran, that cricket is still where you left him. I asked you to clean him up. Please do that now.”

About 20 minutes later, that cricket was unmoved, untouched.

“Kieran, can I see you please?”


“Why is that cricket still on the floor?”

“Oh, I’m not touching that thing.”

“I asked you to clean it up.”

“I know, but I don’t touch bugs, dead or alive.”

“Clean it up now!”

“I’m not going to. You can take my iPod away from me for a month. I’m not doing it.”


Finally, “It’s going to be worse for you than a lost iPod. Clean it up!”

After five more minutes of this type of conversation and my walking away, I glimpsed him emerge from the kitchen with an oven mitt and a roll of paper towels.

“Great! Clean up the cricket.”

He got a half a flight of steps closer to it and stopped.

“I can’t touch it.”

“You won’t feel anything through the oven mitt and a roll of paper towels. Clean it up!”

“I can’t. I won’t. You cannot make me,” said my twelve-year-old son.

I was beaten. I couldn’t make him. I was infuriated and defeated by the lost battle. I didn’t know what else to say.

All of a sudden, Liam, who is more afraid of bugs that Kieran, said, “Mom if it’s that important to you, I’ll do it.”

(As an aside, Liam dropped the cricket on the way to the trash can, due to not being able to feel or grasp it through the mitten and wad of paper towels).

Sometimes, a compliant child is a breath of fresh air.


Ideas for How to Teach Main Idea and Detail to a Student with ASD


The first strategy that I would like to share to support a student’s understanding of main idea and the key details came from observing second graders.

The strategy involved highlighting the most important detail on a page to arrive at the main idea of a text. This strategy works with text that is in guided reading levels C through L.

Michelle Hartlaub, a reading specialist in my district, modeled (I Do) for the students how to look for and highlight one key word on a page.

The small group was reading a text about duct tape. The text started with the history of duct tape. The teacher modeled for students how to find what she thought was a key word from each page she was reading, highlight it, then explain through a think-aloud technique why it was important. Then, she had students read a page of text, highlight what they thought was the most important word, and discuss why each student chose the word he did.

The teacher kept track of the words students highlighted on a portable whiteboard, and then discussed how all of the words fit together, to support students’ understanding of how to “find” the main idea.

This strategy can be approached through a bottom-up method (as described) or a top-down method, starting from the title and seeing how “key words” support the title as a topic, then answering the question, What does the author suggest is important about this topic? to arrive at the main idea.