Pairing Poetry & Nonfiction

One of my favorite literary pairings is that of a nonfiction piece and a poem. Opinion columns, argumentative essays, editorials, and biographies strike me so much more strongly when I connect them to a short, sweet, descriptive text like a poem.

Maybe it’s because I feel like the prose of Leonard Pitts, Jr. reads more like poetry. Maybe it’s because when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates I feel like I’m listening to a song. Maybe it’s because when I read Mary Karr or Tina Fey or Roxane Gay or Elizabeth Gilbert or Joan Didion I feel like I’m enjoying a piece of performance art rather than just reading “nonfiction.”

So, connecting nonfiction and poetry seems natural to me, which is perhaps why I so loved “Black Like Me” by Renee Watson. Watson, a prolific YA author who’s also an educator, reimagines John Howard Griffin’s original book into a combination essay/poem that feels like a cohesive narrative rather than two separate genres. I loved reading it alongside students this week and discussing how relevant this piece still is, although it’s describing a time fifty years in the past.

The pairing of a poem with an essay was a powerful one with which our students practiced intertextuality and close reading. I urge you to take a look at this text with your students, or try out the poem-nonfiction pairing of your choice…and consider sharing those pairings with us in the comments!

Shana Karnes works in Madison, Wisconsin alongside fabulous students, colleagues, and a professional learning community second to none. She works with teachers in the Greater Madison Writing Project and 9th through 12th graders in all content areas. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

The Power of Multimodal Composition

By Sarah Krajewski

Writing, Redefined by Shawna Coppola

I’m always looking for new ways to change things up in my classroom, and this year my plan was to revise my research units. Both my 9th and 12th graders have to incorporate research, and in the past, that always meant writing a paper. Recently, however, I read Shawna Coppola’s latest, and highly recommended book, Writing Redefined: Broadening Our Ideas of What It Means to Compose. This book made me rethink what my research units could look like.

Why go multimodal?

Coppola makes the case for incorporating “multimodal compositions,” which incorporate more than one mode instead of just the traditional alphabetical form. Instead of leaving these other modalities behind in early elementary school, students of all ages can (and should) incorporate illustrations like sketches and maps, or digital components like infographics, photos, and audio. The more modalities, the more decisions our students are making. Talk about rigor!

So, how could one go multimodal? Though my seniors and I are still in the early stages, here’s what we’ve done so far:

Begin by Taking an Inquiry Stance – As Coppola says, taking an “inquiry stance” allows students to “coconstruct and better retain knowledge” (23). Start by assessing what students already know, and then immerse them in that multimodal text. For my 12th grade research unit, we immersed ourselves in various multimodal mentor texts (like this one) in order to study how to put our own together. After sharing our noticings, I looked for patterns to create mini-lessons my students would find helpful.

Work with Your School’s Tech Integrator – I don’t know if all schools have one, but my tech integrator is fabulous! After explaining how I wanted to incorporate multimodal compositions into my curriculum, she introduced my students and me to Google Sites (see my sample below). Our interests were peaked! We are now in the application stage, so my students are in the midst of creating their own Google Site. As we move along, I often direct them back to our mentor texts so they can further explore.

My Google Site
Ways to go multimodal

You May Already Incorporate Multimodal Compositions – After reading Coppola’s book, I realized that I already incorporate multimodal compositions quite often. I do, however, plan to add more. With my upcoming 9th grade research unit, we will create infographics and work in audio. My students will still learn all the necessary research skills, but they will present their findings in more than just the alphabetical form. Afterward, I look forward to exploring many other modes of learning, for there are endless possibilities.

After writing my last post about my desire to add more joy into my classroom, I have found that multimodal compositions do just that. I see that creative spark in my seniors’ eyes as they venture beyond the typical research paper to create their Google Sites. They are making myriad decisions than the typical research paper would allow for. They feel empowered as they prepare themselves for the digital world they will soon go into on their own. Our students need more opportunities like this.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism at Cleveland Hill High School near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and is always looking for new, creative ways to help her students enjoy learning, reading, and writing. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

Three Reasons We Should Stop Teaching the 5-Paragraph Essay (and what we can do instead)

Wait! Before you get ticked off, hear me out.

I had never heard of a “5-Paragraph Essay” when I was a student. We wrote essays. Sometimes stories, sometimes research, sometimes about the books we read. In college, my professors wanted me to have a strong thesis, but never did they talk to me about how many paragraphs I should have.

When I became a teacher, though, I was inundated with this new (to me) way of thinking about writing. I had no clue how to teach kids how to write. I was just good at it, I thought. Therefore, this formulaic approach to writing clicked with me. I liked the directness, the accessibility. And frankly, I liked how it made it just a little easier for me to assess writing. “It’s like training wheels,” I told myself.

Here’s the thing, though. We never took the training wheels off. Kids were going to college, or into life, without knowing how to ride the bike.

So, why do I think we should abandon this idea of the “5-Paragraph-You-Know-What” (a term coined by my favorite writing teacher, Tom Romano)?

This writing doesn’t exist in the real world

I can’t remember the last time I clicked on a blog, or read a newspaper or a smart analysis of a film, and counted the paragraphs. I read to find the idea, to see how the writer leads me through their thinking. There are no editors anywhere telling writers, “Okay, this is a good start, but you don’t have five paragraphs.”

Because I want to develop students who see themselves as writers beyond my classroom, I have to ask myself why I continue to privilege a genre that seems to only live in school (if your answer is the test, keep reading). Can high quality writing be five paragraphs long? Sure! Does it have to be? Nope.

This writing privileges form over content

Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.28 PMWhen students are overly concerned with how long their writing is, they lose sight of the important stuff, like content. They fill paragraphs with half-plagiarized evidence, or sprinkle in cumbersome transition words. They’re more concerned with adornment than substance.

Conversely, for many students, focusing on the number of paragraphs shuts them down. They see it as insurmountable, so they don’t even try. And before anyone accuses me of saying kids don’t have to know how to organize their writing, let’s just stop right there. Writers organize their writing. What writers don’t do, though, is say “This has to be a body paragraph with 5-7 sentences, and evidence.” No, instead writers focus on WHAT they want to say and then they figure out HOW to say it.

This writing doesn’t grow writers

About four years into teaching, I had an epiphany. Students weren’t getting better at writing 5-paragraph essays. Many of the kids I’d taught as 9th graders still needed the support when I had them again as juniors. Often kids ended up filling in a graphic organizer I created just so they had something to write about (and by graphic organizer, I mean fill-in-the-blanks dressed up like an outline. Cringe.)

I realized that this kind of writing wasn’t helping them to become better at thinking, at teasing out a train of thought, and developing it across a piece of writing. And if the thing I kept doing wasn’t working, than maybe… I should think about doing something else.

So what do we do instead?

  • Read Like Writers: I have a total teacher crush on The New York Times Writing Curriculum. When I read through one of the winner’s of last year’s Student Editorial Contest “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Sushi...Except Plastic” I notice a few things:Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.27.53 PM When I model for my writers what it looks like to read like a writer, we start to notice thing we can do in our own writing, and more importantly, we can start to think about HOW we can do them in our own writing.

 

  • Focus on Content Before Form: When I look further into this piece of writing, I notice how the writer develops an idea. She’s doing all the things I hope for my own writers. In addition to what’s above (a thesis, a hook, incorporating research), she also anticipates the counter argument AND pushes back. She’s not dropping this counter-argument in because it’s what she has to do. She’s doing it because it makes sense. She has been building up to it.Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 1.26.24 PM

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  • Teach test-writing… and LOTS of other kinds of writing too: If you feel you absolutely have to teach the 5-Paragraph Essay because they’ll need it on The Test, then I encourage you to spend most of the year immersed in the study of the craft of writing (start checking out The AV Club, Players Tribune. Follow #wildwriting or #beyondanalysis). Teach students about the moves writers make in writing. We still talk about transition words, thesis statements, adding reasoning, and writing effective conclusions. But now, it is within the context of the craft of writing. Then, a few weeks before the test, teach students how to transfer all those skills to the test. Remember that nowhere in our standards does it mention that students have to write five paragraphs. They have to write multi-paragraphs, sure. But that could be three, or seven, or five. Nowhere in the rubrics from the state (if you’re using Common Core or something like it) does it talk about how many paragraphs students should have. Instead, it looks at content development, ideas flowing. 

Still not convinced? That’s okay. I encourage you to read John Warner’s book Why They Can’t Write: Killing the 5-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Screen Shot 2020-03-02 at 2.02.12 PMIn here, Warner, who’s a college professor, talks about how limiting this kind of writing is, and explores other ways of teaching. For ways of thinking about literary analysis, check out Rebekah O’Dell and Allison Marchetti’s book Beyond Literary Analysis. And Kim Campbell and Kristi Latimer’s book Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay is a great resource. Sign up for a class at your local National Writing Project site.

Whatever your next step is, I encourage you to help kids take the training wheels off, to ride the bike on their own. They might crash, and that’s okay. That’s when the learning is happening!

Angela Faulhaber is a literacy coach in Cincinnati, OH. She is blogging this month as part of the Slice of Life challenge at Two Writing Teachers, and thus, is seeing every interaction as a potential writing piece. Join her!

 

Moving Around the Bend

bendLike so many teachers blessed with a growth mindset, there are always several ideas bouncing around my head that, if realized, might temporarily satisfy my constant need to innovate my teaching practice. Hopefully, new moves and ideas lead me toward maximizing the delivery of instruction and the transfer of learning. Heading into the TCTELA convention back in January, my head was like a Dumbledore’s pensieve, ideas swirling like memories.

My sophomore classes had been building towards a persuasive essay major grade and their writing showed me that they needed some direct instruction centered on the elements of argument: claim, evidence, and commentary. Instead of focusing on the persuasive task from the outset, we worked hard on building arguments and then we “bent” our writing towards persuasion at the last moment.

Reflection on the genesis of this move points my thinking towards the argument writing that is so often the learning focus of my AP Lang classes and the learning progression of authentic writing instruction that focuses on the process rather than the end task.

Last year, I learned how writing can focus on specific, foundational elements that we practice over and over, gradually increasing the complexity of the task up to the point that the data tells us that the learners are ready to put their newly developed skills on display. In this philosophy, the publishing piece is merely a chance to showcase our writing prowess and highlight our growth as writers. I hear over an over that we should teach the skills, not the essay. We should teach the student, not the subject. This is my “how.”

Each lesson cycle circled through a routine that included deep dives into the skills we see demonstrated in mentor texts. At a recent campus professional learning session, I got to learn more about teacher clarity. Specifically, I can be more clear in designing the learning intentions if I understand the skill and teach to the level of the standard. It was an effort to approach our state standards, the TEKS, that helped me determine which parts of a mentor text we would magnify and dissect. Hopefully, that sentence level instruction will support our reading comprehension in addition to increasing the effectiveness of our writing.

Each lesson cycle blended reading and writing, providing multiple opportunities for both. I started each lesson by reading the mentor text aloud, and students only had one task: circle words you don’t know. After the brief read-aloud, we would take three minutes for a quick write connected to a big idea from the text.  Each quick write starts with “write about a time…” so that we tell real stories from our lives that we might be able to use as concrete evidence when we approach argument writing tasks at a later time. Before digging back into the mentor text, we would take a few moments to review the words we didn’t know and to look for the “big ideas” that we noticed while we were reading. I’m obsessed with readers seeing the “big ideas” in what they are reading because I believe it helps us recognize arguments, and maybe we can support our arguments with textual evidence if we make the connection.

After working through the mentor text, we would look at an argument prompt that forced us to take a position.  This was a chance for us to practice our argument writing every day for between ten and fifteen minutes, and we could share our ideas with other writers in the room so that we could give each other feedback.  We took a position and defended it every single day. At first, some of us struggled with the surface level skill of deciding on a position while others struggled with providing concrete evidence to support their claim. That’s one of the difficulties about writing instruction: we are all in different places. A class of twenty writers are going to be in twenty different places in their learning progression, and we have to be ready to teach to the standards while scaffolding for our writers who find themselves struggling. By lesson seven, the writers looked forward to flexing their argument muscles and eagerly dove into the writing tasks. We still encountered struggle, but our newfound skills gave us the confidence to attack those struggles without fear.

This unit asked writers to work hard and switch back and forth between reading and writing, blending literacy skills in a way that demanded significant effort from the students. The lessons were organized so that the students would have to move quickly between tasks, linking their reading and writing. This work is not easy and sometimes the students find gaps in their capabilities that cause them to react negatively. Teachers must balance high expectations with an awareness of students’ needs. They deserve it.  They crave it. They embraced the process.


Charles Moore is a father, teacher, writer, and obscure pod-caster. He’s starting to get his pool ready for warmer weather and kicked off the crawfish season in peak form. In May, he will receive his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Houston.

Lessons from #100DaysofNotebooking

notebookThe first of the year I began participating in the #100DaysofNotebooking. The goal is to write in our notebooks for 100 days. Although I have missed a few days, notebooking has certainly become a habit.

Writing for over 50 days, come many lessons. Some of these lessons I learned as a writer and others as a teacher of writers.

What I have learned as a notebooker and how that will help me as a teacher of writers:

  • Notebooks are personal – Our notebooks are an extension of ourselves and consequently become personal. They become a container to hold our thoughts, our rants, our emotions, our struggles, and our hearts. If I want my students to see value in notebooks, I must allow them time to make them personal. I can do this by giving them choices and the freedom to write what they want.
  • Sharing is not always easy – The #100DaysofNotebooking group uses social media to share pages. Sometimes, this was not easy to do, and some days, we decided to keep them personal and not share. We acknowledged that we had written but kept the words private. I must allow my students to maintain that level of privacy as well, even from us, their teacher. Not everything they write is shareable, and I must respect that.
  • Writing creates more writing – I think I first heard that writing is generative from Kelly Gallagher. Writing daily in a notebook and developing a habit created other ideas and led me in new directions. I have written more in these 50 days than I have in a long time. I currently give my students time for independent reading but often neglect independent writing. Adding more notebook time in our day will help to develop this habit as writers, which will lead to more writing.
  • Notebooking is not a competition – When I saw the pages from other notebookers, it was difficult not to become envious. Their pages were gorgeous with sketchnoting, doodles, and lettering. I needed to remind myself that this was my notebook, and it was perfect for ME. Middle school is a breeding ground for competition. I must remember how it felt when I saw the pages from my fellow notebookers, and remember that notebooks are personally perfect for one person only – ourselves. 

Looking toward the second half of the challenge, I want to begin mining my notebook to gather ideas for longer pieces. Yes, the notebook is a container to hold ideas, a playground to play with words, and a garden to grow as writers, but taking these seed ideas in my notebook and developing them into poems and blog posts and stories is the next step. This experience has taught me lessons as a writer, but more importantly, it has taught me lessons about being a better teacher of middle school writers. I can’t wait to continue notebooking and taking what I have learned about myself as a writer into my classroom.

 

Leigh Anne is a 6th grade ELA teacher at a middle school in Southern Indiana. She has been a notebooker wannabe for many years and is close to shedding that label. You can find her slicing the month of March on her blog, A Day in the Life, or you can connect with her on Twitter at @teachr4.

Check Yes for a Writer’s Checklist

It’s been a hot minute since I used a checklist in my practice as an educator. I’d largely abandoned the checklist because it felt too simple, too bossy, too uninspired. But, as part of learning the in’s and out’s of being an instructional coach, I’ve confronted these assumptions–in theory and am starting to in practice. In fact, for a recent professional development, I created three different checklists about formative assessment from which my colleagues could choose to mediate their reflection. Watching them interact with these checklists rekindled my interest in the checklist as a tool promoting growth. So, I began to reimagine my writing classroom through that lens.

A writer’s checklist …. 
Reinforces the process or its parts 
Insures nothing is overlooked (curse of knowledge!)
Encourages reflection 
Provides direction
Allows for agency 

Reinforces the Process or Its Parts 

When I taught ninth and tenth grade English (early in my career), I created checklists for some of the writing students created: for the more formalized research paper, for instance, a checklist for folding in sources or for how to begin and end.  Though more prescriptive in some ways than I care to remember (see Allows for Agency), for some of my students this correlated more directly with the student samples, modeling, and mini lessons we explored. And, the concision of the checklist provided clarity and accessibility. 

Insures Nothing Is Overlooked 

Beyond providing clarity and direction, the checklist may also ensure writers employ the strategies proven to best impact their audiences. The checklist items can help users of the checklist confront that whole curse of knowledge thing.  When my colleagues used the checklists in our recent professional development, the checklist items grounded us back in the qualities of formative assessments. Of those I directly supported, I observed them grappling with a particular element of assessments and considering what adjustments they might make. They also engaged in this with a partner, an approach I used with my students (back in those early days) as well. This not only insures the quality but also promotes the dialogue that leads to reflection.

Encourages Reflection 

The checklist acts as a third point, a neutral document with a set of qualities that partners or small groups can reference or as the neutral point of comparison when placed adjacent to work. For students, it helped guide their peer revision and editing processes. For my colleagues, it prompted them to consider whether or not certain elements were present or what it might look like if they made adjustments to their assessment. In fact, these kinds of reflections help point learners in a direction when otherwise there may be too many ways to go. 

Provides Direction 

For learners, the checklist may break revision (or reimagining or retooling or relearning) into actionable steps so that they are not overwhelmed, directionless. For my colleagues , the checklist helped them zero in on one direction they may take to adjust their assessments and the necessary steps. Any no’s my students received from their peers on their checklists allowed them to seek additional feedback, ideas, and resources during our conferences. The precision of the checklist can incite more precise action. And the learner gets to choose what adjustment and how to adjust it, fostering more ownership.
Allows for Agency 

This is perhaps the most critical function of the checklist, and it’s the function I didn’t recognize in the classroom and have underemployed as a coach. With my more novice ninth and tenth grade writers, I got by with those prescriptive checklists. But with my AP Language and Composition writers and my College Prep senior writers, I didn’t use checklists (all too often). My colleague and I–in determining whether or not to use checklists–ultimately decided that checklists would do little to foster the kind of autonomy we hoped to nurture in our students. We felt it might be telling them what to do in a time where they needed (developmentally) to drive their own processes. And we weren’t wrong in that. Using that same prescriptive approach with seniors as I used with freshman would not have been productive. But we shouldn’t have wholly abandoned the checklist. We could have used checklists to elevate their autonomy. Maybe students could have built their own checklists based on a mentor text set. Maybe students modify a checklist–adding or subtracting qualities– based on the needs of their audience. Maybe students create a checklist of all the strengths they possess as writers they want to make evident in their writing. There are possibilities here. There were possibilities for my colleagues, too: why didn’t I invite them to adjust the checklist they selected in ways that made sense for their students and for them? Clearly, I needed to use the checklist on checklists!

A checklist should not stifle. A checklist should not reject. A checklist should not merely confirm or affirm. A checklist should elevate (my other word for 2020). Yes!

Kristin Jeschke is watching the Cubs’ manager David Ross closely to see how he shifts from player and teammate to coach. She’s begun a mental checklist of his moves so far but most appreciates his intentionality. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

Discomfort Leads to Learning

I recently started working with a delightfully sadistic personal trainer named Carol.

Carol has five children, is in her late fifties, and can literally bench press me if I’m not doing squats or pull-ups to her satisfaction. The first time Carol pushed me through a workout, I couldn’t even lift up my two-year-old after our session ended. I groaned in discomfort basically every time I moved for 24 hours afterward and cursed Carol’s name from afar.

Image result for discomfort

But over the past few weeks, the challenging workout has become gradually easier. I can finish the routine without my legs turning to jelly and grimacing in pain every time I try to climb stairs the next day. What was once incredibly difficult is now the just-right amount of challenging, and the success I feel in surviving one of these workouts motivates me to attempt another one.

As I’ve limped around our high school on the days after my training sessions, I’ve noticed a connection between challenge and growth. My students are keen to avoid discomfort of any kind–social, emotional, and academic. They have a multitude of coping mechanisms that help them disengage from challenge, and it’s impacting their learning negatively, to say the least.

It’s only natural to want to avoid challenge. Recently, a colleague gently pointed out the implicit bias in some of the talk teachers engaged in when discussing students. Her attention to deficit-based language made me blush in embarrassment at first, but a day after thinking over her (fair and accurate) critique, I was grateful for her challenge.

Without feeling uncomfortable, I never would’ve realized that there was a lesson to be learned. Fortunately, this colleague framed her noticings as a call-in to action and revision, rather than a call-out of mistakes made that are unfixable.

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This attitude toward challenge is what Zaretta Hammond refers to as a “warm demander pedagogy” in her work on culturally responsive teaching. Warm demanders encourage students toward growth by forming a “therapeutic alliance between the person in need of change and the person there to help support the change process” (92).

Being warm demanders and encouraging our students to live in the zone of proximal development is difficult, but I believe inviting our students into a place of challenge and discomfort is the most valuable component of the learning process. As teachers, it’s our job to match our students to the challenges and resources that they need to grow as individuals. Indeed, Hammond urges teachers to position learners “so that they will take the intellectual risk and stretch into the zone of proximal development. That’s the point of rapport” (82).

In our classroom, normalizing and valuing intellectual risk–urging students to dwell in discomfort as we learn–is something my learners and I prioritize. This can look like valuing process over product, rewarding choice and challenge rather than compliance and conformity, or offering frequent opportunities to revise thinking and assignments. Within our professional learning communities, this can also look like inviting others to challenge themselves via call-ins and alliances as co-conspirators.

And so I urge you, first and foremost, to read Hammond’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. And then I invite you to challenge your students, your colleagues, and yourselves to spend some time dwelling in discomfort: the place where we can most genuinely measure ourselves.

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Shana Karnes lives and teaches in Madison, Wisconsin and enjoys working with her 9th graders and amazing teaching team. She continues to challenge herself as a learner alongside colleagues at the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

Lift Off: This One’s for You, Teachers

“For generations we have known of knowledge’s infinite power.”

I’ve been so fortunate throughout my teaching career to work within true professional learning communities. My colleagues have been passionate, informed, and welcoming, and as a result, those dreaded professional development days have never, in fact, been days that I have dreaded.

“But I’ve always been a thorn in the side of injustice. Disruptive. talkative. A distraction.”

Today is one of those days for our team, as we meet to discuss planning concerns, student successes, and vertical alignment. To frame the day, we began by reading the transcript of a truly beautiful spoken word poem: “Lift Off” by Donovan Livingston.

This poem was performed originally at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s 2016 convocation ceremony, and on reading the transcript multiple times, I only find more layers to unpack.

“She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”

As a learning community, we kicked off our day by standing and reading lines from the poem that struck us powerfully–lines I’ve italicized and woven into this post. Beginning a day with a whipshare of Livingston’s words was a centering way to frame discussions around our work with attention to equity and justice.

“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration.”

I highly recommend sharing this poem with your teaching team, students, or anyone else who might benefit from rich language around learning. If nothing else, watch it just for yourself–it will help you lift off as you begin your day.

“Together, we can inspire galaxies of greatness for generations to come.”


Shana Karnes is fortunate to live and work this year in Madison, Wisconsin alongside many professional colleagues both in the Madison Metropolitan School District, as well as the Greater Madison Writing Project. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

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.

Six Truths About My Technology Driven Classroom By Shelby Scoffield

The other day I ran into my old high school English teacher. We caught up and I told him about my career and classes I taught. 

He frankly told me: “Shelby, I have been teaching for over 30 years and I have never struggled with teaching more than I do now. I don’t know how to teach kids today.”

He was referencing the fact that kids “today” are addicted to cell phones and social media. They would much rather watch Netflix than read a book. 

Frankly, students today have so many distractions that it is very difficult for them to become invested in Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I was lucky to begin my teaching career at a school that encourages innovation. Because of this, I have learned six “truths” of teaching Secondary English in my technology driven classroom. 

While seemingly radical, these ideas and strategies have helped me adapt to individual student needs and ultimately “teach kids today.”

  1. I don’t get caught up in the fact that students don’t read.  When I have to teach a whole class novel or text I front load the students with the storyline before we launch into the unit. That way, they know enough about the story to start doing assignments. As we progress throughout the book, I am constantly exposing students to the text. This station rotation model in my classroom allows students to focus on excerpts, important passages, and significant quotes in the book.   
  2. I embrace Spark Notes and Enotes. If used strategically, these study guides can further enhance student understanding of the text. These ideas are further explored in an article by Jeraldine R. Kraver who talks about the importance of pushing students towards “meaning making.” Furthering the importance of these study guides, Kelly Gallagher talks about his process of using Cliff Notes to help his students understand Hamlet in a blog post. 
  3. I try to embrace cell phones and the many tools they offer. While I have classroom etiquette for cell phone use, I do not waste a lot of energy making sure the phones are tucked away in backpacks. Instead, my students use cell phones as a way to take notes, make videos, and use classroom sanctioned social media sites. The picture below is of my students using Rocketbook Beacons to take notes of a Romeo and Juliet assignment. The picture will go straight to the Rocketbook  app. 
  1. I use social media in my classroom. The use of Twitter has helped my students develop an interest in reading. Using my personalized classroom hashtags, #scoieaplang and #mhhsfreshies, I hold book chats with my classrooms. We also reach out to students across the globe and try to connect with authors. One year, John Green liked one of my classroom tweets and my students were thrilled. I have also used Tik-tok and Snap-Chat in the classroom with positive results. 
  1. I make sure I know my audience. My first year of teaching I quickly learned that I have a total of 3-5 minutes of lecture time with my students. Because of this short time frame, I learned to transition into a facilitator role in the classroom. My time is better spent one on one with small groups or individual students. 
  2.  I encourage students to choose their own books. This form of readers workshop is something that I am constantly doing in my classroom. I have developed my classroom library and am constantly bringing in more books.

As teachers, I think we have an obligation to change and adapt to our audiences based on our students’  present needs. This requires getting out of our comfort zones and trying new things. 

The above ideas might not work for everyone. But I think that as long as we are experimenting and trying new things– we can be satisfied that we are doing our job. 

Shelby Scoffield is a high school English teacher at Mountain House High School in Mountain House, CA. She loves to read, write, and watch movies. She loves experimenting with different teaching strategies and techniques in her classroom. You can follow her on Twitter at @sscoffield1. 

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