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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Finding Flow in Writing

Recommended Reading! See Review below.
If you're like me, you have read tons of student essays where you've found it hard to follow the train of thought, due to the fact that it has already derailed in the student's own mind.

So the the question is, "How can we improve the flow of ideas in student writing?"

Outlining and organizers and transitions can play a critical role in focusing writing, but once the words hit the page they tend to form sentences which stand only shoulder to shoulder, rather than arm in arm, with one another, failing to effectively carry the reader from one point to the next.

I stumbled upon a piece of the puzzle recently while reading a pdf on Paragraph Writing from The University of Adelaide Writing Centre. What that guide calls following "the natural order of information in English – i.e. the position of the ‘theme’ of a sentence and the ‘new’ information that follows" is illustrated in the excerpt below from the Learning Guide:

As you can see, the new idea introduced at the end of each sentence becomes the "theme" of the next. It's a simple way to keep the reader (and the writer!) on topic.

I pulled a similar example from our sixth grade social studies textbook, which I've paraphrased here:

Sumerians found a way to use symbols instead of picture to stand for words.

These symbols came to be known as cuneiform.

Cuneiform, or wedge shaped writing, could be combined to stand for words or sounds.

Once I pointed out this "natural order of information" to students, they began to see it in many of their content texts, and in fiction as well. In Cynthia Lord's Rules, for example, the author begins the second chapter with this passage:

When David was three and starting to come to the clinic for occupational therapy, I tagged along because I was too little to stay home alone. Now I'm twelve and I can stay home if I want, but I still like to come. I like talking to Mom on the ride over and back and shopping in the stores across the street, and I love the road between our house and clinic.

When I asked students if the author had written this way on purpose, their answers revealed that they were beginning to understand the purpose of this structure:
"She might have done it on purpose, but only because it sounded right."

"I think she wanted the reader to follow her thoughts."

"It keeps you reading because you see that for each new idea she mentions, she'll explain it more in the next sentence."

"Since she's the narrator, we can't ask her questions, so she needs to tell us what we need to know. And the more she tells us, the more we might get confused if we can't follow what she's thinking." So? "So it's important that she writes like this so she doesn't let us get confused."

This same classroom conversation led a students to ask, "Can't you create flow in other ways?" This in turn led us to a discussion of parallel structures, as well as simple repetition within writing.
In The Palace Thief (the story which inspired The Emperor's Club), author Ethan Canin describes how a young Sedgewick Bell arrives at a new school to discover his new classmates "wearing the togas they had made from sheets and safety pins the day before, spreading their knees like magistrates in the wooden desk chairs." When Bell unhesitatingly treats the boys and the lesson with disdain, he is rebuked by his new master:

"Young man," I said, "this is a serious class, and I expect that you will take it seriously."

"If it's such a serious class, then why're they all wearing dresses?" he responded, again to laughter...

Students liked this example, since the repetition of ideas in this instance was very true to life in how such a conversation might take place.

They also enjoyed hearing the very short chapter "A House of My Own" from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The combination of simile, personification, repetition, and rhyme make the prose so rhythmic that students couldn't believe it wasn't a poem until I showed them the words on the page.

Public domain speeches are another terrific source for finding examples of flow, and many of these documents have been identified as exemplary texts for study in the Common Core Standards. One such text is Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman" speech of 1851, which like the Cisneros text incorporates repetition to build a flow:

I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
    That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
    Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech is another beautiful example of flow created through repetition, alliteration, metaphors, and familiar literary sources.

Putting It Into Practice

For one of our first attempts at creating flow, I asked students to respond to a question based upon Island of the Blue Dolphins, our current classroom novel. The prompt read, "Why would the dogs, which were previously owned by the villagers, attack and kill Ramo?" A class-sourced response read:

When the men of the tribe were killed by the Aleuts, the village dogs lost their alphas, or leaders. Without leaders, the dogs ran off to join the wild pack that already lived on the island. Because this wild pack didn't fear Ramo, who was just a boy, they killed him. They most likely killed him to show dominance, and not because they were hungry. The reason didn't matter to Karana, however, who took her brother's death as a huge blow.

Later that same evening, in responding to an article about Facebook on Tween Tribune, one student attempted to create flow between nearly all of her sentences:

In response to "Is the Problem Facebook or You?" I definitely agree that people shouldn't be blaming their problems on Facebook. Facebook wasn't made for you to blab your whole life story. Your life should be private and only shared with friends. But even your so called "friends" on Facebook might not be your friends, and they'll tell someone you're going away Friday night. You shouldn't tell anyone online that you were going away and your house was empty! If you tell someone your house is empty, your house could be robbed! Finally, Facebook shouldn't be blamed for your addiction to be on 24/7. It's your choice to post everything you do on the web. Even though some people might disagree with me, I think that it's not Facebook's problem that you "ruined your life!"

It's a start. 
Lessons on transitions, sentence variety, and opposing viewpoints are in order, but this writer was certainly able to help the reader follow her train of thought.

In Conclusion

This idea of flow holds a lot of promise for helping students develop and elaborate upon ideas in their writing. What they need to get started is just a few good examples and some practice with controlled, familiar topics. As they experiment further, the concepts of transitions and the need for greater sentence variety will likely become self-apparent, and the time will then be ripe for teaching them.

Recommended Reading

For some time now, readers have asked that I begin recommending books in addition to simply mentioning them in passing in my posts. I'm happy to oblige

This Girl is Different
by JJ Johnson
Peachtree Publishers

In a bold experiment, homeschooled Evensong Sparkling Morningdew chooses to spend senior year in a public high school. Book smart yet naive to the "social minefield" of high school, Evie soon finds herself increasingly ensnared in a struggle for power and freedoms which she, herself, initiated. Her attempt to give students a voice backfires as the voices become cruel and out of control. In no time at all, Evie has endangered not only her college future, but also the new and fragile friendships she has forged. Someone else might give up under these trying circumstances, but this girl is different.

In a style of writing which is John Green meets John Hughes, JJ Johnson crafts a funny and engaging battle of wits and wills which keeps the reader engaged until the very end, which in my opinion came too soon. For ages 14 and up, I recommend this title for book groups or as a welcome addition to any classroom library.

You  might also want to check out this author's most recent book, The Theory of Everything, which explores one teen's struggle to deal with the loss of a friend. While everyone else is ready to move on with their lives, Sarah still needs to find some meaning to it all. From the publisher: "But Sarah's not ready to move on... Her grades are plummeting, her relationships are falling apart, and her normal voice seems to have been replaced with a snark box. Life just seems random: no pattern, no meaning, no rules - and no reason to bother." A last ditch effort might just rescue Sarah from sadness, and from herself.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Six Ways to Improve Close Readings

"How do you effectively structure and guide classroom discussions about novels?"

"What's the best way to get students to engage with texts?"

"How can you ensure that students read the required chapters for homework? Mine never seem to do it."

I receive questions like these often, and although each deserves a separate answer, as a whole they seem to originate from the same desire: to engage students with texts through close readings.

In Implementing the Common CoreState Standards: A Primer on “Close Reading of Text,” the Aspen Institute provides a formal definition of close reading:

Close Reading of text involves an investigation of a short piece of text, with multiple readings done over multiple instructional lessons. Through text-based questions and discussion, students are guided to deeply analyze and appreciate various aspects of the text, such as key vocabulary and how its meaning is shaped by context; attention to form, tone, imagery and/or rhetorical devices; the significance of word choice and syntax; and the discovery of different levels of meaning as passages are read multiple times.

Timothy Shanahan defined the practice of close reading more succinctly, explaining that close reading "is an intensive analysis of a text in order to come to terms with what it says, how it says it, and what it means."

So is it a rereading of text? Yes, but with a clearly defined purpose. Those of us who teach with novels in the classroom know it can't be a rereading of the entire text; instead, it's a focused analysis of a selected excerpt in order to study a limited number of text attributes such as organization, sentence structure, vocabulary, symbolism, character development, plot advancement, etc. The purpose and focus of each close reading depends upon the text itself, thus leading to the CCSS push for more complex selections.

Below I've provided six suggestions for making the most of close reading experiences with students.
1. Read the Text Yourself

This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many teachers skip this step. They rely either upon teaching guides or margin notes, or their perceived understanding of the topic or theme, regardless of its treatment in a particular text.

I recall a conversation with a teacher who was reading Stone Fox with her third grade class. I casually remarked, "Have the tissues ready when the dog dies," and with a look of horror she gasped, "The dog dies?!" 

When I pressed her why she hadn't read the entire novel in advance, she replied, "I wanted to be surprised along with my students." In my opinion, she was vastly unprepared to discuss the intricacies of even this simple text. A teacher who likewise relies upon a third-party teaching guide rather than the source text neglects the very literature immersion and interaction which we desire for students.

Bonus: When you've read the entire book, you're prepared for those students who will read ahead. You know who they are: those students who attempt to engage you between periods or during homeroom, asking questions about what's to come, or pointing out connections based on previous close readings. Read the whole book, and you'll be ready to respond appropriately. I rarely dissuade these students from reading ahead, but I do discourage them from providing spoilers for the rest of the class. 

2. Ensure that Students Read the Text

In order to engage in a productive close reading, all students must have read the text a first time. As Nicholas Provenzano at Nerdy Teacher explains in a recent post on the importance of homework to the Reading/LA class:

Students need to read at home and come to class ready to discuss what they have learned. At the high school level, English teachers do not have the time to let kids read all they need to read in class.... Learning to read at home and annotate is an important skill that needs to be practiced at home after the skill is taught in class. So this work that is assigned to be done at home is homework, but it is valuable and important.

So how do we make this happen? I've used a number of methods, including response sheets and reflection sheets (having students respond to one theme-oriented question in context of a chapter), online quizzes such as Testmoz or those included in Edmodo or Schoology (completed either at home open-book or in class the following day), and polls seeking student input on a particular character's actions. I've also indicated that we would stage a debate the following day, and that they should be prepared to argue either side of the issue with text-based facts (the issue of contention itself is only revealed ti students after they read the required selection).

Perhaps the most effective method, however, has been to regularly schedule close readings for the next day. When students learn that they will be put on the spot to "pull a text apart," they're more likely to come prepared. Especially if the close readings are constructed in such a way that encourages lively, if not heated, dialogues. Middle and high schoolers are extremely social by nature, and most enjoy engaging in a lively exchange over a good text. Even the most reluctant contributors to classroom discussions will interact if we, as teachers, are prepared to discuss the intricacies of writing.

When discussing just the first two chapters of The Outsiders, for example, I share a chart which requires students to select which of the Greasers they would choose to take on a double date, back them up in a fight, teach them to drive, and so on. While at first glance it seems to be opinion based, students soon discover that they need to provide textual proof for their choices. (The chart is embedded below, and can be increased to full size using the fullscreen button in the lower right corner).

The students who neglected to read the assigned chapters for homework are ill-prepared to defend their choices in the discourse that ensues. See more on this lesson here.

Bonus: When students are expected to complete first readings on their own, they begin to welcome short assessments for each chapter. In their minds, their time spent reading assigned chapters is now serving "double duty" as it prepares them for class assessments as well as close reading and discussion sessions.

3. Choose Close Reading Excerpts in Advance

This can only happen, of course, if you followed step one and read the book for yourself. Having done this, you're ready to judiciously select those pages or paragraphs which warrant analysis and discussion.

How to best manage this? Keep your mind in the gutter. In other words, liberally annotate the pages of your own text, making liberal use of the margins and the gutter, that no-man's land formed by the inner margins of two facing pages. I prefer to do this only upon my second reading of a book, in a process I call Deconstructing the Novel.

As you reread the novel,
  • Assign each page a title. This will allow you to reference specific events more quickly. Critical quotes make excellent titles, as well as excellent discussion points.
  • Form anticipatory questions for each chapter. These are for your own reference, as they will cue you to what you felt was most important in this chapter.
  • Jot down questions throughout the chapter. Some questions may review information which is critical to unfolding events, while others may ask students to predict what will occur next, based upon the information that author has provided. It’s important to write STOP at those points where you would like students to predict or reflect; often in the “heat of the moment” we have flown past a point in the story where I had meant for students to stop and share their thoughts, or to predict what action the character might next take.
  • Underline vocabulary which is critical to understanding the story. Since close reading is text dependent, can students define these words using context clues? Or, is the term introduced here and then later defined using the “read on” strategy? Which words are unfamiliar, yet not critical in understanding the text?
  • Mark any literary devices. Which are employed by this author often? Which are central to the story’s theme or plot?
  • Continually ask yourself these questions: What’s worth knowing here? How can students take what is worth knowing and make it their own? How can they organize their own thinking about this novel’s contents in order to comprehend it better? In what ways does this excerpt rely upon, relate to, or affect other portions of the text? In what ways does this excerpt relate to the book's theme and essential questions about that theme? What has the author explicitly stated? What has the author hinted at? What has the author omitted?
Bonus: Students can learn to annotate texts in a similar manner following your model. Using copies of public domain documents is one excellent way to do this with pen and paper, and the Internet provides many sites and apps for practicing this skill digitally. Both Google Docs and WikiSpaces allow students to highlight and comment upon text selections, or Thinkport's Annotator provides an easy, registration-free stand-alone option. 

4. Allow Students to Choose Close Reading Excerpts 

This seems like self-contradicting advice, since it's the antithesis of what is suggested above. However, if we are to give students ownership over reading, and eventually "release them to the wild" to practice close reading on their own, then we should be willing to entertain examinations of those passages they find most troubling. challenging, important, and or entertaining.

Students may also begin to share writing from other sources which they come across in their own reading experiences. While not all of it may be suitable for classroom reading or discussion, you might be surprised by a rare gem.

Bonus: Ownership. And a pretty good reason to get the reading done at home. Most importantly, however, we're encouraging students to read critically, with an eye and ear toward what the author is doing.

5. Ask "So What?"

Once students have dissected the chosen text passage, they need to ask, "So what?" 
By "so what?" we're asking:
  • What does this text mean in context of the whole work? 
  • What has the author explicitly said, and what has the author perhaps implied? 
  • How does the new content affect what we already know, and how does it shape our expectations for what is yet to be encountered in the text? 
  • How does what we've read fit into historical contexts? 
  • Does what we've read have something to say about our theme? 
  • Does it answer essential questions we might have formulated? 
  • What questions remain unanswered?
  • What information am I lacking to fully understand what I've read?
  • What new questions emerged? 
Too many students take on reading as a decoding practice: reading one word after another, rather than putting them together into a meaningful context. Like a bingo caller reading random, singularly meaningless balls plucked from a spinning cage, these students fail to see how these isolated bits of information form patterns of meaning.

By studying the structure of sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters, and then analyzing the ideas within those constructs, we lead students to construct meaning from the texts. This process was somewhat simpler, I suppose, in the lower grades when picture books gave students a fighting chance to figure out what was going in; in the higher grades, however, these same students need modeled strategies and plentiful practice to make those same connections with text.

Simply asking, "So what?" and then waiting for answers, and thoughts, and epiphanies to happen is key. My most difficult challenge at this point is to shut up and listen and nod and listen some more, and let students piggyback on the ideas of their peers.

The "So what?" stage might be accompanied with written reflections or extensions on the close reading, but not as a matter of course.

Bonus: The answers to this simple question may yield indicators to what students will need to tackle next. 

6. Reflect on the Experience

This step is all on you, teacher.

Based upon the results of your close reading experience, where do you go next? With what concept or skill do students need additional practice? Based upon unanswered questions and confusions, which text excerpt would be best for the next close reading?

In my experience, what worked well one year didn't the next, so this is the stage where our professional knowledge, judgement, and sensitivity to the text and the students themselves must guide us to make the appropriate instructional decisions.

Bonus: The ability to do this is what makes the best teachers irreplaceable. 

In Conclusion 

Students who weren't expected to approach texts with such intensity and laser focus might need several opportunities to "get into it." Some students will be suspicious of your motives, others will be too shy to share ideas, and others, of course, will be content to ride on the coattails of the few who initially carry the conversation.

But by approaching close readings in a purposeful way, and demanding more intensive interpretation of what the texts have to say, we can bring about a change in students' default approaches to reading.

Need more ideas on building those skills that students need for reading texts with greater complexity? I recommend The Challenge of Challenging Text by Timothy Shanahan, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, from the most March, 2012 issue of Educational Leadership.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Responding and Reflecting; Colaborating and Collecting

If you've ever used Wallwisher, you know how powerful such a tool can be in creating collaboration and on-line dialogue between students.

Lino It is a similar online bulletin board, allowing anonymous and instant posting, permitting only the posters (and the administrator) to move or peel off the stickies that have been added. It's super easy with few frills to distract students. It's easily embeddable to most web sites and wikis, retaining full functionality.

Check out the example of students responding to Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Sparrow" which was read in juxtaposition to Poe's "The Raven." You can see that this group of four students generated a bunch of questions they wanted to discuss, and even posted a picture, the poem, and a related video to the wall. 

Interestingly, some groups assigned stickies by color to each member, while others decided that "blue is vocabulary, and pink is questions," and so on.

One neat feature of Lino It is History, which highlights the ten most recent additions, allowing users to quickly see what was added since their last visit (when you view the example, click on Highlight New, and then keep clicking the arrow beside it to view the ten latest additions).

Applications for the Reading/Language Arts Classroom:

  • Demand Exit Tickets: all students respond to an open ended question based on the day's lesson.
  • Collect Ten Word Stories, ala Sparky Teaching's Ten Word Stories page. This ten word story might be a reflection on a day's lit piece.
  • Ask students to list running questions or observations about a challenging text piece.
  • Encourage students to collect colorful figurative language and "cool sentences" from their reading that they would like to discuss during later close reading sessions. Some of these sentences can later be submitted to Notable Sentences... for Imitation and Creation (see my write-up here).
  • Add a "What's New and Notable" bulletin board to your teacher's page. Include assignment updates, links to current events, etc. See mine at the bottom of my main site.
  • Share files and videos related to classroom discussion topics.
  • Get instant student responses to poems, song lyrics, facts, and quotations, perhaps as a warm-up to each day's lesson.
  • Allow students to record thoughts and questions as they watch a video or read a chapter.
  • Check out more ideas at this blog.
Notes and Caveats:
  • Limit the number of users on a single board to five or less. Otherwise, you'll have too much traffic and many redundant responses.
  • If you care to know who posted which items, instruct students to include their initials on posts. As mentioned above, some students chose to assign a different color to each member to differentiate responses.