Land of the Lost: Allusions, Annotating, and Anagnorisis


Metacognition is the mind-map that is the survival tool in reading comprehension: it is that ‘thinking about thinking,’ the big picture, and knowing where you’re going, and, perhaps more importantly, when you’re lost:

Anagnorisis is the moment in the story where the character, usually the protagonist, says, “Uh-oh.”

According to Merriam-Webster, it is:

Main Entry: an·ag·no·ri·sis
Pronunciation: ˌa-ˌnag-ˈnr-ə-səs
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural an·ag·no·ri·ses


Etymology: Greek anagnōrisis, from anagnōrizein to recognize, from ana- + gnōrizein to make known; akin to Greek gnōrimos well-known, gignōskein to come to know — more at know
Date: circa 1800

: the point in the plot especially of a tragedy at which the protagonist recognizes his or her or some other character’s true identity or discovers the true nature of his or her own situation

We teachers are merely the sherpas to our students’ quests for higher learning, deeper thinking, with all the oxygen and rations they need at K-2, or Knowledge Exponential 2 Base Camp. The reason this post begins with with ‘metacognition’ and ‘anagnorisis’ is because we want our students to realize that they’re doing both — they need to recognize that ‘oh, snap!’ moment when they’re lost in their understanding of any reading material. And, it’s our worthy task to help them find their way up, and safely back down, the moutain.

Any. Reading. Material.

And before I go further, I am compelled to acknowledge and recognize one of the greatest teachers, my master’s mentor, Dr. Candace Shulhauser. She helped synthesize for me everything I know about metacognition, Before, During, and After, and helped guide me through my first novel guide/unit. She took all of the great information out there, made us all see clearly and with strength, and added her own personal experiences and narrative to the mix to make it truly meaningful. She was there, making it happen for the hardest and most challenging of students, and showed us that it can be done with grace, courage, and wisdom. Thank you. (And yes, I think it’s super cool that her name takes on a Dickensian edge meaning “candy schoolhouse.” How sweet!)

Over time, one of the most fundamental alterations that has taken place in my own brain is I have a hard time reading books now without looking at them through the eyes of a teacher. In some ways, this kind of stinks, like a busman’s holiday. I am constantly looking for a myriad of functions and examples in books. This summer, for the first time in years, I put my book-brain on ice. Yesterday I was vindicated for doing so by a quote from Charles Bukowski–in essence, sometimes it’s good to do nothing for awhile. And this summer, I did, oh boy, did I. But more on my ‘do nothing’ summer later.

So, the point is, while I have a hard time reading anything without making a novel guide out of it, I will share some of my processes, and how I synthesized the processes of other great reading teachers, such as Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Nancy Atwell, Kylene Beers, etc. (There is not much of a difference, in my estimation, of teaching a novel and teaching someone how to read. It’s all about access. To get into the nuances between teaching great “literature” and teaching reading, well, I’m just not up for that one right now.)

So, I have never read The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke. It was a very popular book several years ago, and she is a wonderful children’s author. This summer, in between long stretches of some serious goofing-off, I decided to read it. (My younger son said it was a read-aloud when he was in fourth grade. That’s too bad, because now he won’t touch it. Again, blog posting for another day.) I haven’t finished it yet, so don’t be a spoiler.

  • The front cover tell me has a person wearing a cloak, making only a shadow with a full, bright moon. Hmmm, I wonder if that person is the thief lord?I know what a thief is, and a lord is someone powerful…
  • The back cover has a blurb. STOP – introduce the book and show students all of these things. This is how they might find something they want to read. Yes, teach them to judge a book by its cover, but take time to make an informed decision!
  • The story takes place in Venice. How do I know? This is when you STOP — time to teach some background knowledge:

MapYou can click on this image to view larger, of course. Here’s where some decisions need to be made: depending on your students and access to technology/information, you will want to decide how much you want to give and how much inquiry you want them to create. Here’s the deal, though, with our brains, we love patterns. So, if students get misinformation or misconceptions about what they’re inquring about, to re-wire these pathways will be doubly difficult. Inquiry and constructivism are wonderful tools–but remember, if someone doesn’t know anything about a topic, the potential for missteps grows. Imagine you’ve never been to Venice (like I have never been) or seen a picture, or been on a canoe, or little boat, or imagined a city built entirely around canals, with bridges, and ancient pathways, nooks, crannies, or have ever heard of Italy at all? This is part of a safe environment of learning. It’s okay not to know, but not okay not to learn. (I didn’t know for a long time that the ‘underground railroad’ wasn’t like a subway. I’ve had students who believed the same thing. I had a student from New York City tell girls about subways, and they didn’t believe him. It goes on…)

So, short or long lessons, and time spent on Venice. Your choice, and your students’ needs.

Next, annotating text: I had a big lesson myself when teaching annotating text. Thought students were ‘getting it,’ and doing okay. Asked a girl how her annotating this one Greek story was coming along, and she answered confidently, “great!’ Something told me to stop and ask her to explain the first paragraph. She didn’t know every other third word. Okay, let’s try again – highlight the words that seem confusing. And I tried to sweeten the deal with reaffirming again that the more one reads, the more automatic understanding/fluency becomes, and the more fun it is to read.

Like I said, I can’t read a book anymore in the same way. It’s just now my job means I make my brain processes as transparent as possible so students can look inside my head, so they are better at looking inside theirs.

There are many ways for annoating text; you may decide you want to teach one specific strategy at a time, such as a vocabulary skill for reading comprehension strategy: Vaporetto In this particular example, the word “vaporetto” is used. I’ve never seen that word before, but the image I put together demonstrates some of my thinking process.

Another vocabulary buggaboo are context clues. We assume, too often, that students know more than they do.  For example, this sentence:

“A party of tourists (blank) past the (blank) while their guide described the (blank) above their heads in a (blank) voice.”

There are four words in that sentence that are potential mental gopher holes: shuffled, confessional, mosaics, and muted.

How would you teach those? Have student act out “shuffled,” look up a confessional, make a connection if they’re Catholic or have been to a Catholic church, infer, what a mosaic is, or look it up, and then maybe make one, and make an educated guess (inference) on if they are in a church, would they be yelling in a loud voice (questioning text)? Not one single reading ‘strategy’ can effectively be taught in isolation, but we don’t think ‘in isolation.’

(*The ‘say blank’ strategy is Dr. Schulhauser’s.)

Allusions are one of my all-time favorite concepts to teach, even though inevitably I will be corrected by a student telling me it’s “ILLusion, Mrs. Love, not ALLusion.” Um, well, no, my darling middle schooler, let me continue…) So far I haven’t found any specific allusions in The Thief Lord, although there are plenty of connections. An allusion is a specific reference to another work/character. The connections are abundant. It’s Oliver Twist, The Goonies, and The Pink Panther/Inspector Clouseau to start. But, boy howdy, when you use your strong metacognitive skills and spot an allusion, it’s like a reading golden ticket. Allusions to other works show us that we are not learning in isolation, that we are connected, and our thinking, based on knowledge. Now I can’t get Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song out of my head, when Robert Plant wails, “To fight the horde, to sing and cry, Valhalla, I am coming…” If you remember your sixth grade Norse mythology, you know what Valhalla is, and why you may want to go there someday. Or, at least, what the Minnesota Vikings might want to sing in the locker room showers. In my goofing-off summer, there are so many allusions in this game I play, but it makes me laugh when I recognize something, such as little goblin men speaking the words of Elton John’s Rocket Man to each other in conversational tones. (And for the record, Rocket Man is the only song I can sing and score big on Guitar Hero.) Allusions add a richness and texture to our reading/listening/viewing that would otherwise be lacking. Teach them as part of metacognition to students recognize those connections to other works when they read/see/hear them. We all feel smarter and more creative when we do.

Characterization and connections lead me to themes…

But another day. Ciao, bella!

Postscript: If you would like some of the excerpt .jpgs for your own classroom instruction, send me a Tweet @mrskellylove and your e-mail address; that is, if the links don’t work.

6 thoughts on “Land of the Lost: Allusions, Annotating, and Anagnorisis

  1. I’m at a new school where reading is highly emphasized and student choice is encouraged. The climate has a built-in sense that reading is cool. Even the badass wanna be gangsters are reading (though a few of them picked some gritty narratives).

    I’m slowly getting them to do annotation. It’s hard, because they want to “just read” the way they do during independent reading time (shh . . . don’t tell anyone our school encourages SSR – people think it’s a dirty word, but it’s part of what gets kids to love reading) but sometimes a text requires annotation.


    1. Whew – my mistake – I guess I should have made it more clear that annotating and all of these other tools are to boost comprehension when it fails. It’s rule number 1- don’t stop kids, or anyone, who is reading (i.e., understanding and making meaning from text). The point of these deep comprehension strategies is intended to address when comprehension breaks down. If the mental car is going down the road just fine, gassed up, tuned up, and no obstacles, then no one would pull it over and change the tire. (Dang – that’s a good analogy! I’m going to use it when we get back next week!) Teach them how to change the tire just in case. Their cues are “I’m bored” or “I don’t get it.” I don’t think SSR is a dirty word, but it does have to be done with intention. Meaning, watch for signs that kids are not engaged in their reading materials. I think the reason it’s a dirty word is administrators don’t like to see kids sitting around ‘doing nothing.’ Sigh. Don’t they know that their little brains are doing more than rocket science? It’s not state test-prep.

      As a teacher who focuses much of her time addressing students who don’t even know they’re in the ‘car,’ it’s been the curse of when I read, I am constantly ‘changing tires’ when I don’t need to. I took a reading summer off–it was beginning to feel like work, and not a passion or even avocation. I forgot to plug in my Kindle literally and metaphorically!

      My master’s mentor hated having kids stop and use sticky-notes and all of those other ‘tricks’ when kids were ‘just reading.’ Me too. And your comment helps me remember to tell my students this year purpose, point, and practice – even more than I’ve already done in the past.


  2. I always have a purpose for SSR. I also create a clear purpose for guided reading and lit circles – both of which I push toward fluency and comprehension over annotation. My style has been to have them read for a longer period and then do a meaningful task that fits within the purpose (for example, articulte how the setting influenced the character or the language)

    My specific issue of annotation involves reading John Locke. The only students who were using annotation were the ELL students. The gifted ones struggled with the text, but wouldn’t admit it. The mid-level ones thought it just slowed reading down.

    I think it’s a powerful strategy that they need when accessing difficult text. I modeled it for them first and then moved to a guided practice and that’s when the groans began.

    Honestly, it shocked me. I’ve never had a group that loved to read so much and yet they also have a hard time with the notion of delving deeper into a reading that is a little over their heads at first glance.

    Any thoughts?


  3. I know you do, John. But unfortunately, many teachers don’t.

    And perhaps it’s my ignorance when I am confused by your comment “pushing fluency/comprehension over annotation” – annotating is one tiny little tool to help comprehension, not an either/or? Anyway – you hit the nail, though – the groans. I can hear them now. Maybe it’s the primal response to doing something someone else thinks we should do, and as adults, well, at least for me, that’s when I bump up against the ‘because I told you so’s!’ 🙂

    This thread of conversation is fascinating for me, incidentally – I am not close to being an expert, and those ‘groans’ are the great humblers, in my opinion. I love your question.

    So, here are some questions meant to be in a diagnostic tone:
    Were you clear that you were helping guide them through the material; that maybe because it wasn’t their ‘choice’ per se, it was something you wanted to share and help navigate them through?

    Did you warn them that they would be in over their heads a bit at first, just like you were (whether you were or not) and that making meaning of great minds, who are writing in the tone/context of their day, require, demand, and ultimately reward the reader who reads, discusses, and questions the text?

    Were the ELL student mimicking behaviors, and trying with effort, or were they really asking deep questions or making in-depth statements? I am not by any means suggesting ELL students are not capable of deep thinking – I only know if someone parachuted me into China right now I would mimic away, and not learn a darn thing.

    Ultimately, school is hard sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t taste good, but that is where it counts – just say ‘you have 30 seconds to whine–go.’ Just like I whine a little bit before I must do a chore that isn’t choice, but keeps me healthier, stronger, and out of jail.

    What do you think?


  4. Looking back on it, here are my thoughts:

    1. I should have presented it (the way I did with algebraic expressions) as a “cheat code” like one would use in a video game. Lame I know, but it works.

    2. I think the gifted students weren’t used to not knowing how to access the text and it was troublesome to them that they would have to move slowly.

    3. The ELL kids had used this strategy with the grade-level reading as part of the scaffolding. I think some of the mid-level kids had a real tough time that the ELL students were already experts on annotating. There was certainly a level of resentment that the “low” kids were “getting” the skill much faster. I’m being completely transparent here when I say the gifted kids were actually kind-of pissed off that the “lowest” students knew how to use annotation.

    There was a human dynamic to all of this that I just hadn’t anticipated.


  5. John, this has been one of the most insightful, useful, and meaningful discussions I have ever had with a peer –thank you so much for your anecdote and reflection on this. I know I use superlatives too much, but really – this is really helping me get my mojo going again before my school year starts.

    This harkens back to Carol Dweck’s work on fixed versus growth mind set. I heard her speak a few years ago in the context of a ‘gifted’ private school, and why gifted children tend to give up easily when the going gets a little rocky. The acquisition of knowledge has come so easy, they hate to admit when it doesn’t, and often don’t even recognize when the monster is a bit larger than their mental swords.

    This conversation is very timely, too– this is the first year I have “honors” students mixed with the ‘regular’ class. Even though I have always run my content/curriculum at the same level of rigor for all, the pace and customization was altered for the learner. Going to be an interesting year; with your insight and reflection, I now feel much more prepared to anticipate the dynamic human quality that I might otherwise have missed or been confused by.

    But, I’m sure they’ll find some way to surprise me. 🙂


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