Category Archives: Mini-lessons

Simple Annotation Strategies to Help Students Comprehend Informational Text

Students across all levels and in all content areas are expected to read and comprehend difficult informational texts. As an instructional coach, I work with our English teachers and other content area teachers to give students simple strategies to help them break down difficult texts and make them more manageable to read and understand.

Step One: Give students a purpose for reading the text. Students need to know WHY they’re doing the reading in the first place and what they’re going to do with the reading AFTER they’re done.

Step Two: Teach students how to preview the text and use to predict what they think the text will be about. Strategies that I have found easy for students to use:

  • Look at headnotes, abstracts, graphics, etc.
  • Check author’s credentials.  Is he/she credible?
  • Look at the type of text (news article, textbook, research abstract, etc)
  • Pay attention to the layout of the text (subtopics, sections, chunks of text, etc)

Step Three: Teach students how to chunk the text into smaller parts to help them break up the information. Sometimes there are subheadings to make it easier and sometimes they will have to do this on their own.

Step Four: Model and practice annotation strategies. The ones I have found most helpful for students to improve comprehension are:

  • Respond to the three “big” questions from Reading Nonfiction (Beers & Probst) in the margins:
    • “What surprised me in this text?”
    • “What did the author think I already knew?
    • “What challenged, changed, or confirmed what I already knew?”
  • Circle repeated words and phrases in each chunk and look for common ideas.
  • Star* ideas that clarify, explain, describe, and illustrate the main idea (examples, quoted words, reasons, numbers and statistics, etc.) and ask themselves if these support the main idea or are just minor details.
  • Note of the techniques/”moves” the author makes in the margins. Write down why they think the author used that in the text?
  • Annotate the 5Ws and use those to figure out the main ideas.
  • Underline the author’s claim and subclaims. Note the evidence he/she uses to support those claims.
  • Look at your annotations.  Summarize after each chunk.
    • What is this chunk about?
    • Write a one-sentence summary.

My one bit of advice is to pick and choose which annotation strategies will work best for your students. I teach my students different strategies depending on my purpose and the text they are reading. Don’t give them all of these at once – I have learned this the hard way. Start with one strategy at a time and as they get confident, add additional ones as needed.

Step Five: Have students revisit the purpose for reading and respond to the text using their annotations. Students can:

  • Summarize the article.
  • Respond to a prompt, using evidence from the text
  • Use evidence from the article in a class discussion.
  • Synthesize evidence from multiple documents to answer an essential question.

When my students are active readers, critically thinking about the words and their meaning, their understanding of the text improves. What are the strategies you have used with your students to improve comprehension of nonfiction texts?

Melissa Sethna is co-teaching a freshman English class this year in addition to her full time job as an instructional coach at Mundelein High School in Mundelein, IL. Her favorite part of coaching teachers is sharing strategies with colleagues and then watching the light bulbs go on in the students’ minds as they see how helpful the strategies are in their learning.

Finding More Time…

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

My notes for this blog  (notes that I made in July when I was a VERY different person – pregnant, rested, unfamiliar with the work of Mo Willems…) say that I should write a blog about – not focusing on test prep as testing season begins to rear its ugly head. 

I’m not going to write that blog post…yet (growth mindset…?). 

No, instead, I want to discuss how conferencing and station rotations (which Shelby Scoffield wrote about here just a few days ago) are making my return to the classroom from maternity leave a lot less daunting than I feared it would be. 

First, I really hope that non-moms/dads (paternity leave is just as important as maternity leave) didn’t stop reading…give me a few paragraphs and I’m hoping you’ll find there’s something for everyone. 

Here we go –  there’s a lot of stuff out there about GOING on maternity leave: lesson plans on TPT, blogs, questions about finding subs, questions about who should do the grading while the teacher is gone, questions about structure and organization (elementary teachers rock this part)…and lots and lots of ink shed on how important it is to leave school at school to focus on time with your new baby. Let’s just say I tried my best to go full Elsa and let it all go once our little nugget finally arrived. But with my return to school looming, I knew that I needed to start thinking not just about WHAT we would do when I returned but HOW we would do those things. What attitude did I want for my first few days back? What messaging did I want to send my students? And… I haven’t found a lot out there about HOW to return to class. Apparently, it just goes smoothly for everyone, right?

So with all of that in mind and disappointed that the Internet didn’t just provide a magic answer, I decided to treat this return kind of like the beginning of the school year – a fresh start for us all. So I took a good hard look at what was working for this group of students and what needed to change and began to make plans with those thoughts in mind. 

I also knew that I wanted to hear from the students about their progress while I was gone as soon as possible. So I’m conferencing with all 135 students for 10-15 minutes over the next two weeks. At the suggestion of a friend, I offered them the metaphor of swimming to help them prepare for the conversation. I want to know how they “swam” while I was gone. Did they turn into Michael Phelps and just crush AP Lang while I was gone – putting in extra time, going the extra lap, eating multiple pizzas in a day? Did they just tread water – keeping their Lang muscles moving and loose but not really going anywhere in the pool? Did they get out of the pool completely and take up residence in a nice desert somewhere with no pools or water in sight? I’m going to let them drive the conversation for the first part of our conference – here’s where I am – and then take their temperature (I know, I know – mixed metaphors) to see what they need from me in the next few weeks to feel more comfortable. I’ve made a list of the items they covered while I was gone, and I want us to converse in the last few minutes of the conference about the top 2-3 we should focus on together. Plus, I teach neat students, and it’s going to be nice just to catch up with them. A lot has happened for me in the last 10 weeks; I’m sure a lot has happened in their lives as well. I want to hear about it. 

From here, I’m hoping that the conversation with each student will help put them at ease as we start working together again AND will help me figure out where we are as a group. After these “Check-In Conferences” are over, we will begin our regular writing conferences – looking at pieces they wrote while I was out. 

Now – this second stage of conferencing is where station rotations are key. Before the baby, I would get to work around 7 and stay until 430 or so – holding 15ish conferences throughout the day, using most of my time at school to meet with students and then taking home the grading and the planning. I’m not sure I can sustain that pace right away – if ever again. So I need to find time IN CLASS to make conferences work. Enter MCM’s – for the normal person this is Man Crush Monday – for us, it’s Multiple Choice Monday. 

We work a multiple choice passage from released AP Lang tests every Monday. Normally, students take their MCM individually for 15 minutes. Then, they turn to a neighbor and discuss their responses: “I got A for #1 – here’s how I chose that answer. What did you get? Oh, you got B? Let’s figure this out together.” This process can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes depending on the passage.  I give them the correct answers, and they self score. Then they turn back to their partner and discuss just ONE tricky question now that they know the answer. Finally, we regroup as a class and discuss any questions they are still confused about. I rarely do the talking here but ask for student volunteers who got the question right to explain their thinking. Honestly, if we have to do test prep (and we kind of do), this metacognition/discussion/student driven prep is the best method I’ve ever used. 

So, knowing that I needed some class time to conference, I began looking at how we spent our time and where I could work in conferences routinely. MCMs seemed like the perfect place. Here’s my thinking (and any feedback would be appreciated because while station rotations, MCMs and conferencing aren’t new to me, combining them all together is): 

  • Station 1: Students individually take their MCM
  • Station 2: Students chat in pairs about their MCM results – this would be my empty starting station – students can’t complete this station until they’ve done Station 1 obviously. From here, they would either place their MC answer sheets on my desk/in my hands at the end of this station OR grade their own/discuss and then turn their work in.
  • Station 3: Some kind of writing/peer review station working on a skill we’ve been discussing in class
  • Station 4: Conference with me – I think this would be a good time to group students based on their feedback from the “Check In Conference” and work on those skills in small groups.
  • Station 5: Apply what we discussed in Station 4. (For students who start in station 5 – they will do Station 3 work here and then do Station 5 work where other students do Station 3 work. This group will probably be my most self directed group.)
  • Closing as a whole class – we return to the answers and either grade OR discuss as a whole group. 

For all of these stations, I’m stealing an idea from Catlin Tucker about using video directions at each station so students have your overview of each station, written directions AND a video of verbal directions to rely on. I LOVE the possibilities this simple tweak opens up.

This process can obviously be finetuned, but I’m excited to work in small group conferences into my class every week in another routine way while still maintaining my individual conferences at a less breakneck pace. 

Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I was planning on writing something else entirely. I 100% used this post as a place to process some of my thinking. Thanks for following along – if you have suggestions or feedback, I’d love to hear it. Happy Monday!

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language and Composition, AP Seminar, and Film as Literature in Murfreesboro, TN. She is currently binging old episodes of Jeopardy with her husband like the two little nerds they are. She tweets @marahsorris_cms.

 

Layering Notice and Note Signposts over the Plot Triangle

Teaching seventh grade is both a challenge and a joy. Students are inquisitive, silly, maturing . . . and in the seventh grade. Until last year, I hadn’t taught this grade for about eighteen years, and I wasn’t expecting to. But, life can be unpredictable, and in a strange and wonderful turn of events, I have found myself teaching seventh grade students.

I couldn’t be happier.

Recently, because of some standardized testing they were involved in, the concept of the plot triangle was raised. My students, for the most part, stared at me blankly, not understanding what it was. I realized that the plot triangle is a simple diagram, but can be a difficult concept.

It was really perfect timing because we were starting to read some short stories together as a class, and we needed some common language for when we discuss and write about them.

I created a chart I and posted it on our classroom wall.

plot triangle

As the students digested the ideas in the plot diagram, I was peppered with eager questions.

Why is the climax so close to the resolution? 

What is the falling action? 

How many events belong in the rising action? 

We talked it through, and students started to feel more comfortable with the ideas, but the next question was one that made me smile. Why does the plot triangle matter?

Fair question. Why? is always a fair question in my classroom, and I had a proud teacher moment.

In trying to explain why the plot triangle matters, I tried to share that a visual representation of a story helps us to understand more deeply.

We made the connection that the fiction signposts also help us to more deeply understand a story. Since we’ve been studying the signposts as we study short stories and narratives, it was a great connection to make.

IMG_6285

So, after class I annotated our wall chart with the fiction signposts. It took some thinking, and I’m hoping I got it right.

I didn’t want to limit anyone’s thinking by suggesting that a signpost might only be found in one part of the story, but I did want to let them know where they might start noticing them.

They started to create plot triangles with some of the stories we had recently read together, and then layering some of the signposts into the plot triangle.

  1. Charles by Shirley Jackson
  2. Thank You, M’am by Langston Hughes
  3. The Medicine Bag by Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve
  4. Fourteen by Alice Gerstenberg

Here are some examples of what they did right at first:

 

My students aren’t done creating their plot triangles, and they aren’t done thinking about how the layering of the plot diagram and the signposts complement one another, but so far their thinking is going in the right direction.

They are asking questions and making connections. They are talking to each other and challenging each others’ thinking. They care more deeply about the stories and the characters they are reading about.

I’ll call it a win.

Update: I had another “aha moment” and asked my husband to help add another layer to the wall chart. What do you think?

plot triangle w tape

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon,  four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school year in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

Q & A: How do I know what mini-lessons to teach? #3TTWorkshop

Questions Answered

When I first started trying to implement readers-writers workshop, I was the master of the quickwrite and pretty much nothing else. It wasn’t until after a lot of volume writing that didn’t go far in helping students improve in style or structure that I knew my instruction was missing something. I had to teach into these quickwrites. Ohhh.

Over time, I’ve learned how to develop lesson plans that not only engage students in the non-negotiables of workshop instruction, but to actually feel confident that I am teaching the ELAR standards.

We all have standards, right? These might be Common Core —  or determined by whichever state we teach. Texas has their own standards (Of course, it does).

The beauty of workshop instruction is that we can practice independent reading and writing — and teach into students’ skills development independently. We just have to plan accordingly. . . and leave space, knowing we will do more on the fly.

Take a look at this —

Minlessons

So how do we know what mini-lessons to teach?

When planning, I start with my state standards. In Texas we have Student Expectations, SE’s. Each one of those can be a mini-lesson. I introduce the SE to students, model what it looks like in a text or task. We discuss, question, and practice it by applying it to our own independent reading or writing.

Then, I pay attention. Sometimes, based on formative assessment or conferring, I may need to teach the mini-lesson again to the whole class, or sometimes small student groups or specific individuals.

These are the mini-lessons I plan in advance. However– and this is a big however — just because I know I must “teach” the standards, does not mean readers and writers must “master” them. (Don’t even get me started on standardized testing.) When it comes to writing, especially, student writers may choose not to apply specific moves in their own writing. That’s the beauty of teaching writers instead of teaching to rubrics or a specific format (Ugh, five-paragraph essay). Real writers makes choices depending on their intent for meaning and their audience. I love how Linda Rief explains more about this here.

So what do responsive mini-lessons look like?

These are the pop ups — the ones I know I’ll need to teach on the fly — based on what I see in students’ learning and growth. Maybe students are struggling with strong thesis statements or putting punctuation in places that actually aid the meaning of their sentences. I respond to their needs, and I teach specific mini-lessons, using mentor texts, to help students see how language works to craft meaning.

There is no list of mini-lessons we may teach in any given year. Your students’ needs are different than mine, and probably different than the teacher next door. Lean in, listen, identify their needs as readers and writers, that’s the best way I know how to know what mini-lessons my students need me to teach them.

 

Amy Rasmussen has taught all levels of high school English, except AP Lit, which is still on her teaching bucket list. She lives in North Texas and will be at a new-to-her high school in the fall. Alas, all gap years must come to an end. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass — and if you have questions about Secondary Readers-Writers Workshop, shoot her an email amy@threeteacherstalk.com. While she doesn’t claim to be an expert, Amy’s been imperfectly practicing the routines of workshop for a long time. Maybe she can help.

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