Author Archives: sundaycummins

About sundaycummins

I'm a literacy consultant with a focus on helping professional learning communities tackle teaching with informational texts.

End of the Year – Immerse Students in Fun Nonfiction

Figuring out how to keep students engaged in learning until the last minute on the last day of school? I know you have lots of tricks in your back pocket. Just want to put in a good word for immersing your students in “free reading” of high-interest nonfiction. Below I’ve shared some tips and a few favorite authors & titles.

A Few Tips

  1. Make a grand display with dozens of books. The photo above is from a third grade classroom (thanks, Cate), but you could do this in any classroom grades k-8, huh?
  2. Book talk titles and read aloud a few pages.
  3. Stand in a circle and do a book pass. Ask students to stand in pairs in a large circle. Give every pair a book. Set your timer. They browse and chat for thirty seconds and then pass the book to their left (or right). After their done, they choose a favorite to keep reading (with a partner or independently.)
  4. Help students find books they’d be interested in.
  5. Encourage students to engage in quick, informal conversations with their peers about what they liked about or learned from a book.
  6. Find books at the public library. I know a lot of librarians are taking inventory. If you need books, raid the public library shelves. You don’t have to look for specific authors. Find the shelf with frog books and take them all!
  7. Most importantly – encourage the students to have fun–talking, sharing, reading, learning.

A Few Authors/Titles

ANY TITLE BY Nic Bishop and Steve Jenkins AND A LOT OF TITLES ABOUT ANIMALS

BOOKS ABOUT FAMOUS PEOPLE including Barb Rosenstock’s playful versions of historical figures like Ben Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt

BOOKS ABOUT GROSS THINGS LIKE HOW PEOPLE croaked and choked

Hope this helps.

BTW – Sorry I’ve been absent for awhile. I am finishing a manuscript for Heinemann. Hopefully the book will be out next winter. 🙂

S

 

 

 

Orally rehearsing with key words can boost writing

Do your students struggle to compose sentences about nonfiction topics that make sense or sound right? Do they lack structure at the sentence and paragraph level? Here’s a few tricks I’ve been trying with small groups of late-early and transitional stage readers.

As part of a conversation generate key words they will use to orally rehearse and then write. I’ve started including a key word for the introductory sentence and the closing sentence as well. The “conversation” aspect of this is important. I position the students as writers with a clear audience. With late-early stage readers and the book Beetles by Edona Eckart, the students and I generated the words many kinds, glow, wings, colorful, interesting. I started the conversation by saying, “If we were going to write about what we learned, how would we start? Then what would we say?” (I don’t say, “Let’s list five words we will use.”) When a student shares a sentence aloud (after I coach or scaffold as needed), then I say, “What’s a key word from that sentence that we can write down to help us remember what we want to write?”

The photo below is from the lesson with the book Beetles. Each of these words would be used in a sentence to compose a response to the prompt What did you learn about beetles in this book?

With a transitional stage group reading The Future of Flight by Anna Harris (part of McGraw-Hill’s Wonders), the students had done a close reading of the two pages about the myCopters (small flying vehicles). The prompt for writing was “In a letter, convince someone in your family to buy a myCopter instead of a new car.” Our key words – included believe for an introductory sentence and please for a closing sentence. I started the conversation by saying, “If you are going to convince someone to buy a myCopter instead of a car, what do you want to say first?”

Then model for the students how you might use each key word to compose as sentence and draw them into orally rehearsing. So I said to the students, “Listen to me as I use these words to help me practice what I will write. I’m going to use the first word…There are many kinds of beetles. Who can compose a sentence with our second key word?”

As students practice using the key words, gently push them to use correct syntax or sentence structure. You might say, “That was tricky. Did that sound right? Let’s think about how we can make that sound right.” I had a student write “The weedy sea dragon has features that help it survive from predators.” I talked with him about how the sea dragon’s features help it avoid or escape predators and then together we revised his sentence aloud until he had the hang of it.

Ask them to practice with a partner. Students can alternate – composing sentences with every other word.

Encourage them to elaborate further (aloud) if they are ready. One student reading Beetles wanted to add details in the sentence with the key word “colorful” about the different colors of beetles. I told her “Go for it!” The key words are just triggers for remembering what they learned so if they can compose a more complex sentence or add additional sentences – yes! This also encourages students to make the writing their own and not just copy what other students are saying or writing.

With some students, after we rehearse, I ask for a thumbs up when they know what they are going to write for their first sentence. I ask each student to rehearse aloud and then I give them the “go” to start writing. Sometimes they will simply say what the student said before them – that’s okay. The writing becomes more their own the further they get in to it and the more frequently we engage them in doing this kind of guided writing, the risks they will take.

This works best in small groups. The lessons here were done as part of guided writing – which takes place after 1-2 guided reading lessons (20 minutes each) focused on reading and learning from the book.

If I’m working with a whole class, I use this approach to writing during individual conferences. I ask the student to tell me what they are going to write next. If they need me to, I jot down a few key words on a sticky note–from what they said.  Then, if I feel like they need additional kind of support,  I say, “How can we put this in a sentence? Let’s try this aloud.”

Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

Discourage students from taking notes like this. Here’s why.

If students are reading multiple texts on a topic and taking notes on each of those sources, I require that (or strongly suggest) they write notes in phrases–just enough words to help them remember what they learned or what the author was saying or the student’s response to information. In most cases, I strongly encourage them to NOT write their notes in sentences.

Here’s why –

  1. If they write notes in sentences, the student may be easily tempted to just copy the sentences they are reading in a source and not do a lot of thinking. (How many of your students do this??????) Instead, we want them to think about what the author is trying to say or what they are learning from the source and then determine what is really important to remember. Then they can jot down a few of the author’s words or their own paraphrasing of the text.
  2. If they’ve already written sentences in their notes, they frequently just want to lift those sentences and insert them into their writing or presentation or whatever. Then they have missed an opportunity to combine details from multiple sources. When students are done taking notes from multiple sources, we want them to look across their notes and combine ideas from multiple sources. They have to be able to look at their notes and categorize details. Oh, all of these details are about what the raccoon eats! Or Yes! I see several details on how the Cherokee used their environment to create art. They may want to draw arrows between notes or circle details they want to combine with the same color of pencil. Conceptually, this is harder to do if they are looking across “sentences” versus words and phrases.

Here’s an example of what I mean by notes written in phrases (versus complete sentences)–

OKAY…I’M LEAVING OUT A LOT HERE like the fact that taking notes is a complex task. The students need to know their purpose for researching, reading, taking notes. They need clear questions they are trying to answer or grapple with as they read and take notes like How did this Native American tribe use resources in their environment to survive? or How did the members of the Jewish resistance exhibit courage during the Holocaust? or How can we be prepared for severe weather? They need a way to organize their notes like using an inquiry chart (Hoffman, 1992). See example below. (If you need more info on teaching with inquiry charts, see Chapter 8 in my book Close Reading of Informational Texts). AND they need examples of good texts to use as sources or access to a vetted set of sources before they go off to find their own. And, and, and…

Example of an inquiry chart…

Below is an example of a student’s inquiry chart. This fifth grade student was researching the Apache. Notice the questions across the top that drive her decisions about what to write in her notes. Her sources are listed on the left hand side. She’s circled details she wants to combine with a colored pencil.

The reason I wrote this blog entry is because I have an article in the February issue of EL “The Case for Multiple Texts” and on the sample inquiry chart I submitted, the editor changed my list of bulleted notes to look like sentences (although they are not all complete), deleting the bullets and adding capitalization and punctuation.  UGH.

Hesitate to do it this way. Many, many students will struggle when they go to synthesize and write or plan for presenting if they  have to look across a bunch of “sentences.” Many, many students will be tempted to just copy the sentences from their sources!

I did not get to see this change before it was published in EL. I’m sure this was an edit done with good intentions, BUT I feel the need to clarify. Encourage your students to take bulleted notes, short phrases or just enough information that they can look at it and remember what they learned.

I’d still recommend the article 😉 if you are looking for tips on teaching with multiple texts. I’m also working on a manuscript for Heinemann on this topic–the book should be released next winter.

Hope this helps.

S

 

 

 

Do they really get what the main idea means?

Can your students explain what their main idea statement means? Is a superficial understanding or misunderstanding of the main idea impacting their ability to identify or explain supporting details?

We need to give students time to unpack the main idea. It’s worth it and pays off when they begin to identify key details and explain how those details support the main idea.

A few other suggestions:

  1. Help students unpack a main idea by asking them to define a particular vocabulary word or phrase in the main idea statement. This may mean they have to look the word up!!!!! For example, if the student is writing about how tornadoes are powerful, do they understand that powerful, in this case, means having or producing a lot of physical strength or having an impact on something? Or if they are explaining the achievements of a historical figure, do they understand that achievement means something done successfully with effort, courage or skill?  And if they are explaining how skyscrapers have changed over time to become safer, do they understand ideas like change over time (how something becomes or is made different during a period of time) and safer (free from harm or risk) mean?
  1. Ask students to underline and annotate key words and phrases in the main idea statement. Below is a photo from a shared “unpacking the main idea” experience with a small group of 3rd/4th grade students in response to a NewsELA article about a blind student named Amare. The annotations might include:
  • definitions,
  • synonyms,
  • “this makes me think…” statements
  • connections to background knowledge or details in other texts
  • etc.

  1. Provide time for students to used their annotated main ideas to discuss what they are thinking or understanding–during think-pair-share. I find it helpful to model thinking through the annotated statement and how I would explain the main idea using the annotations.
  2. If the students are writing an essay that begins with a main idea statement, ask them to explain the main idea (in a few sentences) before identifying and elaborating on supporting details. The photo below is from the shared writing experience with third/fourth grade students. The second sentence is one that I wrote – but student “H” composed orally first.

An instructional thought—engage students in a shared experience unpacking the main idea. Together define key words, underline and annotate, write. This might be for the first article in a text set. As the students read and respond to additional texts, they begin to take charge of unpacking the main idea.

Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

 

Explode to Explain

Are your students citing “text evidence” without really having control of the meaning of the quote they choose? Do they state “in the text it says” and then fill in the next blank with a quote they may not really understand? Do they forget to explain further or elaborate?

Here’s an idea a group of teachers and I tried last week. After a lesson that provides time for the students to read and discuss the article, give them the luxury of time to contemplate what one quote from the text means – to explode the meaning of this quote in order to explain it further. One sentence in an informational text can be loaded with a lot of meaning – it’s worth the time for students to slow down and really think about what the author is talking about and the implications of what the author is saying.

For the first small group lesson (20 minutes), I introduced a NEWSELA article about the eco-boats that were hired to clean garbage from the Rio Bay in preparation for the Olympics. My introduction included defining and discussing the difference between garbage and sewage (important to understanding the article), previewing and making informed predictions about the content of the article, and then the students reading while I conferred with individuals.

img_8343

For the second lesson, we talked about one of the main ideas – “Water pollution is a problem in the Rio Bay” – written in purple ink in image below.  (Remember – this is just one of the main ideas in this article.) I shared a supporting quote from the article with them – written in blue ink on chart- and we worked our way through the details in that particular quote. In the image below, notice how I jotted what the students were thinking in red ink.

I modeled talking about what this quote means using the notes in red to help me explain my thinking. Then I asked a student to do the same. THEN I asked partners to turn and talk to do the same. My goal was for them to speak fluently about what they understand this quote to mean–and then be able to write about it.

img_8349

I closed this lesson by asking the students to explode an additional quote from the text that supports the main idea – “Tons of garbage and raw waste flow down rivers each day.” They wrote this quote in their response journals and attempted to explode.  I conferred heavily. They will continue to need support doing this for awhile.

For a day 3 lesson, we reviewed the notes on the quote we’d exploded together and engaged in a shared writing to explain that quote. See the image below. Then they returned to the quote they’d exploded, orally rehearsed with a partner what they planned to write and then wrote.

img_8350

Notes – I determined the main idea we’d use. I chose the two quotes. This is more about saving time and cognitive energy to get to the heart of what we needed to do–thinking through and explaining “text evidence.” Later the students can take on more of this. During these three lessons, this small group of students just began to get what we were talking about as far as explaining. They need to do this a LOT to get a grip on explaining the text evidence they are citing.

In the end, there’s a lot of power in this exercise–increased comprehension, increased content knowledge, and being able to speak and write more fluently (and knowledgeably) about what they’ve read.

A big thanks to the 3-5th grade teachers in the NKC School District who went on this day long journey with me and to RENEE for being my think partner!!!

Hope this helps.

S

Yup Part 2 – Teaching Suggestions

scan-3

How do we help students have back-and-forth conversations about nonfiction that build understanding? Conversations that include continually returning to their notes and the text to think about what to say next?

I help students start to do this by demonstrating a conversation with a student-partner…

  1. I start by asking a student-volunteer to be my conversation partner.
  2. I ask the student volunteer to come to the front of the room WITH her notes and/or the text.
  3. I project my notes about the text or the annotated text for all students to view. For example, if we have completed or started taking notes on an inquiry chart – I will post my inquiry chart for all students to view.
  4. I pose a clear question for my partner and I to discuss like “What are critical components of an ecosystem?” or “How did members of the Jewish resistance reveal their courage?”
  5. I encourage her to look at her notes and think about what she wants to say before she responds. I might say, “What do you see in your notes that you want to talk about when we think about answering this question?”
  6. After she responds, I demonstrate how I listened to my partner and how I use what I heard her say and my notes (I point to specific details in my notes) to think about what to say next. For example, I might say, “I heard you say…and I have that in my notes right here. I’m thinking about what I can add to that. Let me look at my notes. (Pause to visibly skim in front of students.) Oh, yes. I want to add this to what you said…”
  7. Then I prompt the student to be strategic in contributing to our conversation. I might say, “Now what can you contribute to what we’ve both just said. Look back at your notes.”
  8. The student and I continue moving back and forth, continually thinking about what was said and looking at our notes to think about how to build meaning.

Other moves I make with my conversation partner…

  • “I wrote a note about this, but I didn’t understand when the author of this text wrote that…what did you think about that?”
  • “I never realized that…until I read in the text that…”
  • “I think I heard you say…what did you mean by that?”
  • “When I read…I started wondering about…but I never figured that out…”

And so forth.

The critical moves during this demonstration include –

  • Modeling looking at my notes to decide what to say
  • Prompting the student to look back at her notes before responding
  • During the demonstration, taking several turns between partners, turns that build on what was already said
  • During the demonstration, being explicit with students about what’s happening like saying, “Look at how I used my notes to think about what to say…” or “I just heard my partner say and I don’t understand that so I’m going to ask her to clarify…”
  • Modeling asking for clarification or sharing what you didn’t understand or didn’t remember, etc.

But this is not all…when students turn to think pair share after this demonstration–I lean in to listen and coach with prompts like

  • What did your partner just say that you can build on?
  • Look back at your notes. What did your partner already say? What do you see in your notes that will help you add on to that?
  • Did you understand what your partner said? Is there a part of what she said that you need to hear again? Or ask for clarification about?

Hope this helps.

S

Think-pair-share can go awry. Yup.

scan-151

I’m a strong believer in students talking about what they’ve learned from informational texts. Good conversations about nonfiction have the potential to –

  • increase students’ understanding of texts,
  • help students clarify their thinking,
  • help students expand their understanding,
  • build bridges to stronger writing.

But a critical component is teacher support. Without teacher support, even our best students sometimes have low level, little-thinking-required conversations. Not conversations that build meaning and understanding of content.

More thoughts on what I’ve been working on in my own practice soon.

S

Ban “same” and “different” during discussions

A few weeks ago I visited a fifth grade class of students who’d done some amazing work researching Native American groups. They were planning to meet in groups to compare/contrast the tribes they’d researched. Before they began their discussion, the teacher, Kelli, and I led a quick discussion–we banned the use of the words “same” and “different” and we offered alternative vocabulary. The students brainstormed with us, adding to the alternative list. This was “fast” vocabulary instruction–just enough to tickle the students’ interest and challenge them to “give it a go.” See my notes on the dry erase board in the photo below. img_7692

This quick conversation added a whole new dimension to their conversations.

Special thanks to my colleague Kelli who always asks questions about teaching that push my thinking!

Hope this helps.

Sunday

 

Be choosy, even snobby – close read just the good stuff

Do you ever look at a text and think, “Ugh. Poorly written!”? Or “OMG that’s WAY TOO MUCH information in one paragraph!”? And yet you’re doomed because you’re required to use the text or it’s what you have access to in the heat of planning a million other lessons?

We know that close reading or any kind of careful reading that leads to thoughtful conversations or written responses only works when the text is worthy of this kind of reading and thinking. There has to be enough content to work with, chew on, grapple with. When I’m in this situation, I go back to the “ugh” text and look for the golden nuggets–a sentence or a paragraph or a few paragraphs or a page even. When I begin the lesson, I let the kids read the “whole text” to get the gist and then engage them in rereading just that golden nugget section. (BTW-sometimes I just don’t use the text for close reading…it has to be worthy 😉

Last week I gave a lesson with the golden nuggets in the text–a two page article in the Treasures supplemental anthology, “California’s First People.” The students previewed the text and made predictions. I posed the purpose for reading–How did the first people in California use natural resources? Then I gave them time to read the whole two pages in the supplemental Treasures anthology.

img_7678 img_7673

After they read the whole text and briefly discussed with a partner what they’d learned, we did a close read of the second page of text. It’s not that there wasn’t important information in the first page–there was just a LOT of information–too much to chew on and think about. Each sentence was a sub-topic to itself, you know? The second page provided more details on a few particular subtopics. Below are my notes from planning. (Another BTW – the text was at their instructional level for the most part and while I want to “guide” them in understanding this text, intermediate/middle grade students can at least get the gist on their own or develop some understanding before I teach. So I don’t sweat, “Will they comprehend it all easily?” because I know I’m going back in to coach and guide them in a productive struggle with a section of the text.)

img_7677

In another blog entry, I wrote about doing with a NEWSELA article for a lesson I taught.

My point is –be choosy about texts and if you’re stuck with “ugh texts,” look for nuggets worthy of your students’ time and energy. If this fails…ugh.

Hope this helps.

Sunday

Do our students understand “definition” and “example”?

Yesterday I was giving a demo lesson closely reading a science text when I realized the students did not understand the terms–definition and example. Many nonfiction authors use definitions and examples and other types of details like cause and effect when they describe concepts like forces, magnets, weather and so forth. Readers need to recognize these types of details to understand these concepts.

The 4th grade students and I were engaged in carefully reading an excerpt from Using Force and Motion (National Geographic Reading Expeditions, Phelan, 2003)–an easy introduction to the concepts of force, gravity, friction, etc.

img_7682

scan-38

Notice in the excerpt below that the author introduces the topic in the first paragraph. In the second paragraph, towards the end, he introduces the topic of force and defines it – “a force can be a push or it can be a pull.” Then he gives an example of a force – “The paddle gets a big pull from the person’s arms to push the kayak through the water” and a second example – “The kayak also gets a push from the water that is rushing behind it.” In the last paragraph, he offers details about the effect of forces like the wind  – “make all objects move” and “make objects slow down, speed up, change direction, or stop.”

scan-37

After students read this text, we want them to be able to say, “Oh! The author just defined what a force is when he wrote, ‘A force can be a push or it can be a pull’ and then he gave me an example of that which is when a person kayaks and they pull on the paddle, it pushes the kayak through the water. That’s like when I…”

During the lesson, I started an anchor chart entitled “What types of details does the author use to teach us?” and listed details like definition, example, effect. When I began to ask students to determine whether a new detail (after I’d modeled) was a definition or an example, they couldn’t do it. I realized that the students were not clear about what I meant by “definition” and “example.” I added definitions of the details to the chart, but there was still some confusion.

img_7685

So I stopped and led a short discussion with an easier concept. We defined “fruit” and listed examples. (When I asked for examples of fruits, one of the students said, “Squishy!” so I knew I was right in his ZPD 😉 This seemed to help as we moved to carefully reading the last paragraph of the excerpt!!!!!

img_7686

The more I do this, the more I’ve learned not to take for granted what students understand in grades 2-8. Even for words like definition and example, they (even middle school students 😉 may have a superficial understanding.

Below are common types of details used by nonfiction authors use. BTW – I WOULD NOT COPY THIS LIST AND HAND TO STUDENTS. Instead – I’d introduce a few at a time during close reading of excerpts of text.

  • Name of topic
    • Name of subtopic
    • Location
    • Function, purpose, or behavior
    • Duration, or when something takes place
    • Physical attributes (movement or action, color, size, shape, number, texture, composition, etc.)
    • Construction or organization
    • Explanation of how something works (may include causal relationships, sequence of details, and variables)
    • Real-life examples (see additional blog entry on teaching “examples”)
    • Comparisons (including similes and metaphors)
    • Other types of figurative language (alliteration, onomatopoeia, and personification)
    • Quotes from experts (for the purpose of sharing relevant knowledge or just sharing an opinion)
    • Attempts by author to connect with reader

Imagine if our students can understand and identify and explain these types of details while reading to learn.

Hope this helps.

S