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Friday, April 30, 2010

Convince Me: Real-Life Uses for Persuasive Writing

We engage in negotiations all day long:
  • convincing ourselves to eat that healthy cereal instead of that frosted donut,
  • assuring our teenage daughter that her shirt was not shrunk in the dryer and that, yes, it looks fine;
  • convincing our six year-old that she still remembers how to tie her own shoes since yesterday and doesn't need help;
  • imploring the stranger in the car at the intersection to let us cut in;
  • assuring a parent via email that yes, we do know what we're doing;
  • guaranteeing an administrator that a professional release day will, in fact, improve our teaching practice, and
  • convincing students that their best efforts will produce better results.
Persuasion is a life skill. At the same time, however, it is too often taught and tested as a formalized, discrete, and isolated exercise. For that reason, students fail to realize the importance and pervasiveness of persuasion in their own lives.

The following video, produced by Education with Vision, helps students understand some of the key aspects a persuasive argument, along with some real-life examples.

Looking for some simple yet effective extensions? Check out So What's Your Point? over at Teach with Picture Books. You'll find some great online resources for students at all grade levels to practice persuasive writing.

If you're looking for a ready desk reference, Nonfiction Craft Lessons by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher (Stenhouse) and Writing to Persuade: Minilessons to Help Students Plan, Draft, and Revise, Grades 3-8 by Karen Caine (Heinemann) are two titles that I use and recommend.

Have other resources to suggest? Leave a comment below or email me. Would love to hear from you!

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Shape of Story

Whether trying to understand the plot structure of a story they've read, or trying to write a story for themselves, students will be greatly helped by an understanding of basic narrative structure.

For a few years on the Web I saw this article titled "How a Story is Shaped" resurface time and time again, and with good reason. It's a succinct and accurate analysis of typical Western narrative (Western Hemisphere, mind you, not Western as in John Wayne or Clint Eastwood). Author Lynn Maupin Webb describes how stories as disparate as Snow White, Romeo and Juliet, ET, Indiana Jones, and Pulp Fiction rely upon common elements for narrative flow.

If you're a teacher who feels that your students' stories are often rambling and pointless excursions, it may be time to provide them with a proper scaffold. Once they see for themselves that many effective stories share this pattern, their own attempts will be more purposeful and satisfying.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Video Writing Prompts

Tis the season to be practicing writing, if the number of emails I've received recently is any indication.

I have to admit I've moved from the relatively generic, random prompts to those more directly related to my instructional content. Over at Teach with Picture Books I described a persuasive essay prompt (about midway down that post) which creates a real moral dilemma for students; these are the types of starters that usually get great results.

Just today in class I presented my students with "Should sixth graders read books about the Holocaust?" following our unit on The Devil's Arithmetic. Prior to writing time, students were asked to argue for and against that position, and we heard lots of compelling ideas. Some students, in fact, who felt strongly one way before the discussion chose to write from the opposing viewpoint once we began our drafts.

Unfortunately, reality and history tell us that the writing assessments demanded of our students each spring are rarely connected to the themes and topic they've studied throughout the year. That's why it's important to have students practice with truly "random" prompts.

One great source I've discovered is TeachHub's Video Writing Prompts. These prompts incorporate one thing students love (video) with fairly open-ended prompts (written for four grade levels: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12). Even if you're not crazy about the writing task provided, the videos themselves offer great raw inspiration for a number of response options.

One of my favorites is the Softball Player Carried Around Bases by Opponents (I think my first writing task would be for students to give it a better title!).

Even here, however, a teacher might choose to use an alternative version of the same event (this time, a news feature) for a different writing purpose.

Now, I have to admit, I'm a real softie, and even watching that for the fourth time, I still get teary-eyed. But why? What was added to the storytelling that increased the emotional impact of the second video? (And by the way, I would cut out the buzz kill commentator at the end. Seriously. Stop the video before that guy ruins it for your students).

If you can't access YouTube in your school, you might be interested to know that the free and easy web site Zamzar allows you to download videos from online and save them to a number of formats including wmv, which can be played by Windows Movie Viewer, available on most computers. (I'm not a lawyer so I can't attest to the legality of downloading every video in this way. I'm just saying I know that it's possible).

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Connection Between Content and Reading Comprehension

I'm a big fan of UVA cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham (I have all his trading cards and posters), and in a previous post at Teach with Picture Books I linked to his fabulous piece on The Privileged Status of Story (check it out; definitely worth a read).

So I was pretty stoked when I found a link to Willingham's video Teaching Content is Teaching Reading at Julie Niles Petersen's TWRCTank site (TWRC rhymes with “work” and stands for think, wonder, reflect, and connect).

Using some simple yet effective examples and statistics, Willingham shows that background knowledge is really key to raising comprehension.

If that's not enough evidence for you, E.D. Hirsch came to pretty much the same conclusion regarding content knowledge, as expressed in his N.Y. Times Op/Ed piece Reading Test Dummies (and he uses the same example of students with baseball knowledge which Willingham mentions in the video). While I don't always agree with every little thing Hirsch has to say, I'd still be shoulder to shoulder with him when it comes time to choose sides.

So what does this have to do with teaching novels?

This emphasis on content knowledge seems to support the practice of providing students with some fundamental context of a novel's historical period, genre attributes, author, and themes.
Jerry Spinelli's Milkweed, for example, takes place in Warsaw's newly built Jewish ghetto. The Nazis have restricted Polish Jews to a walled section of the city where they're forced to live, work, and survive by any means. Young Misha, already an experienced thief and scrounger, struggles to find an identity in a world in which he's known by many names: Stopthief, Jew, Gypsy, Runt.

While students could read this novel "cold," with little or no prior understanding of the Holocaust, I think some background knowledge of the ghetto's social complexities would really add to the story's plot, as well as help to explain many of the characters' actions and reactions to the story's events.

For this particular novel I'd recommend Children in the Ghetto, an interactive site which describes itself as
"...A website about children, written for children. It portrays life during the Holocaust from the viewpoint of children who lived in the ghetto, while attempting to make the complex experience of life in the ghetto as accessible as possible to today’s children.

Along with the description of the hardships of ghetto life, it also presents the courage, steadfastness and creativity involved in the children’s lives. One of the most important messages to be learned is that despite the hardships, there were those who struggled to maintain humanitarian and philanthropic values, care for one another, and continue a cultural and spiritual life."
By examining artifacts, writings, and first hand interviews, students gain an understanding of the "anything-to-survive" mentality which the ghetto created and demanded of its inhabitants. Students can either explore freely, taking advantage of the interactive elements, or additionally respond in writing using the printable handouts (I downloaded the handouts, available in Word format, and tweaked them according to my students' strengths and needs).

Once they've completed this exercise, students will have a mental bank of sites, sounds, stories, and symbols from which to draw upon, greatly increasing their understanding and appreciation of the novel.

Other ways to build background knowledge? Primary accounts, guest speakers, articles, web sites, picture books, video clips, personal stories, artifacts, field trips, and images. Better yet, ask the students to become the researchers. What materials can they find to construct their own knowledge?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Reading Comprehension and Mind Theory

Katharine Beals, PhD, author of Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, posted a great write-up of a recent New York Times feature on Reading Comprehension and Theory of Mind.

The source article says that

Literature, like other fields including history and political science, has looked to the technology of brain imaging and the principles of evolution to provide empirical evidence for unprovable theories.
That's good news, since too often our grade level peers will argue that their subjects are more difficult to teach since they deal in hard, provable facts; literature, they argue, is fuzzy and subjective by nature and instruction and assessment of it is hit-and-miss at best. I tend to argue 1) that's not true, and 2) if it were, doesn't that make teaching literature that much more difficult?

If you, like me, are constantly trying to juggle the variables involved with reading comprehension, you might find that post (and the author's book) will challenge and broaden your thinking on the topic.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Breaking All the Rules of Writing

In a recent post at my Teach with Picture Books blog, I mentioned the success my sixth graders had experienced with short story writing using a selected picture book as a mentor text. The fact is, our students can learn an awful lot about improving their writing by studying how the "real writers" (that is, the published writers) get the job done.

In analyzing mentor texts, my students never cease to be amazed when real writers break the rules of writing! Students, after all, are indoctrinated for years in the do's and do not's of writing. Then along comes a fantastic author like Andrew Clements who just ignores those rules and with great results. For example, check out these three paragraphs which end Chapter Two of Clements' upper elementary/middle grade novel Extra Credit. Sixth-grader Abby Carson, a passionate climber, reflects upon the one section of her school's rock wall which she's been unable to conquer after six attempts:
She gave it her full attention for two reasons. First, she wanted to make a better climb next time - a perfect climb. And second, thinking about the wall was much more fun than dreading all the math and science and reading and social studies she was going to have to endure for the next six hours. After first period gym class, Abby felt like the rest of the school day was zero fun - like a winter with no snow. Or a summer without sunshine. And these days, she was under a ton of extra pressure.

Because the truth was, Abby had never been a very good student. And during the first half of sixth grade, her academic problems had gone from bad to worse.

And then, about two weeks ago in February, her problems had moved beyond worse - all the way to rotten.
Incomplete sentences? Beginning sentences with And? Using hyphens instead of punctuation? Using "and" multiple times in a list, rather than commas? What about sentence variety? How many sentences can you possibly begin with And?

The fact is, Clements is a fabulous author. Earlier titles such as Frindle, The Janitor's Boy, The Landry News, The Report Card, and A Week in the Woods are student favorites. Extra Credit continues in the tradition of those books, offering up well-rounded, believable characters whose trials and triumphs are entirely engrossing. And although this book extends far beyond the simpler plots of his earlier titles, it's still Andrew Clements' style of writing that makes this story so accessible to students.

So if I were to ask a student in my sixth grade, "So what's up with his writing? Didn't the author ever go to school?" the answer I'd likely receive is this: "He writes the way that kids think." Which is absolutely correct, and helps to forgive all the sacred rules of writing that he breaks.

But Keith, can we really allow students to do the same? Well, read any magazine or newspaper article in which writers are expressing their opinions or straying just a bit from the facts, and you'll find the same style of writing. It's conversational. It grips the reader. Clements' writing in the above paragraph helps the writing gain momentum, and the reader is captured right up to the cliff-hanging moments of the chapter's end.

So yes, I think students can, and should, write like this. But it's our obligation as teachers to help them understand when their purpose and audience is right for this no-holds-barred style of writing. And that, of course, is another lesson altogether.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The #1 Skill for Reading Comprehension

I'm often asked, "What do you feel is the most important reading comprehension skill?" If I'm asked this in a workshop, I typically direct the question back to my audience, and participants are eager to share their thoughts. Rarely, though, do I hear what I feel is my answer to that question. I'll get to it, I promise.

What I often hear is teachers talking about the importance of preteaching vocabulary. Their argument: if students don't understand terms specific to the historical fiction novel (or the fantasy novel, or the mystery, etc.) then they're apt to be distracted from the story's plot.

Other teachers recommend providing students with graphic organizers so that they can sort characters, plot events, and otherwise order important "literary stuff" as they read.

I have a problem with both of these strategies. They simply aren't strategies which "real readers" use. How many of us are pretaught vocabulary before we crack open a new novel? Think of the most recent New York Times bestseller you read. Did you use a graphic organizer to parse its elements as you read? I don't think so. Neither of those strategies is employed in authentic reading. Do those strategies ever have a place in literature study? Absolutely. But on my list, they won't even make the top ten. (Note to self: create a list).

So what's the one strategy I so highly recommend? The Read On strategy. It is both the simplest to understand and the most difficult to put into place, since it requires a high level of trust. A student must trust in his/her own abilities as a reader, and a student must trust the author's ability to pull the pieces of the story puzzle together.

In its absolute simplest form, the Read On strategy helps when a student encounters an author's use of appositives. An appositive is a noun, noun phrase, or series of nouns used to define or rename another noun, noun phrase, or pronoun.

For example, in Pegi Deitz Shea's picture book biography Patience Wright: America's First Sculptor and Revolutionary Spy, the author writes, "To create life-size figures, Patience used wire, string, papier mache, and wood to make the armature, or frame, for the trunk and limbs." The reader knows, after reading just two words more, the meaning of the word armature. Only a rare student would throw up her hands in frustration mid-sentence to declare they didn't know this word's meaning. And yet, we still need to teach this.

Typically, however, clarifying bits of information aren't so readily available. The reader may need to read on for paragraphs, pages, even chapters to find the missing pieces. In Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, for example, my sixth graders read the following passage:
Gitl looked up and stared at Hannah. Putting her hands on her hips, barely covering the garish flowers on the red print dress, she smiled mockingly.
When I asked my student to define the word garish, they had many sugestions, but none that could be confirmed by the limited context clues of the passage. A student suggested the Read On strategy.

Sure enough, in the following chapter, we found this sentence:
Gitl was bending over one of the lowest shelves. Hannah recognized her by the awful print dress.
Instantly students were able to define the word, or at least the sense of the word. Trust in this strategy had let them do what "real readers" do when faced with a similar situation.

The Read On strategy applies to entire books, particularly those which create an entirely original world, a derivation of our own but differing in hundreds of minute ways. In the futuristic Fever Crumb, for example, our trust in the Read On strategy is tested by the title itself. What is a Fever Crumb?

Fever Crumb, it turns out, is an extraordinarily different girl, discovered as a tiny orphan and apprenticed into the male-only Order of Engineers. Her struggle to fit in is further complicated when she's chosen to assist an obscure archaeologist whose incredible discovery may be the key to uncovering Fever's true identity.

Author Philip Reeve (whom many know from Here Lies Arthur) writes with spectacular detail, clarity, and power. It is his very carefully crafted descriptions of a new London, centuries in the future, which allow us to inhabit it and live it and breathe it. Not since Hunger Games and, many years before, Harry Potter, have I been so totally immersed in a new world that does not ask disbelief to be suspended; it instead creates a new belief in an alternative reality. These books ask the reader to go along for the ride, with the many mysteries of characters, setting, and terminology revealed only over time. Those students who naturally know to read on can make the leap of faith; others must be taught the strategy directly. It's a simple thing to do.

After all, what good is a strategy if it can't be transferred to real-life reading?

87 Free Web 2.0 Projects

Peter Pappas over at Copy/Paste has the best blog description ever: Dedicated to Relinquishing Responsibility for Learning to the Students.

He also has a pretty cool resource posted in the form of British educator Terry Freedman's free downloadable book The Amazing Web 2.0 Projects Book, a compilation of lessons from ninety-four educators around the world.

In Peter Pappas's own words:
The book is organized by grade level and has curated links to all the web resources utilized. Each project includes a teacher-friendly "how to" with benefits, challenges, management tips, sample screen shots / links and learning outcomes. Terry's project is a great example of how the internet can be harnessed to share and collaborate. Who knows, the projects might even inspire your students to collaborate with their peers on their own book!
What does this have to do with teaching novels, you ask? If you teach writing or responding to literature, this resource will provide you with dozens of way to allow students to integrate technology to communicate their ideas. By taking advantage of free, widely available technologies, you can encourage your most reluctant writers while allowing your more gifted students to stretch their limits.

Another fab post over at Copy/Paste is 18 Literacy Strategies for Struggling Readers - Defining, Summarizing and Comparing. This post includes a downloadable pdf Strategies for Stuggling Readers which is an awesome reference for teachers at any grade level.

If you're on Twitter, you should also consider following Peter Pappas and Terry Freedman.