Tag Archives: close reading informational texts

Do you have high-reading kinders you need to challenge?

Some our of kindergarten students read above grade level. How do we keep them challenged? A colleague of mine, Lisa, engaged a small group in close reading of an informational text about energy with great success. Here are some photos and tips she shared with me.

Just some background. These nine students were reading at a late first grade level or higher in the spring of their kindergarten year. Lisa met with all nine of them at once. The text they read closely was A to Z’s Where We Get Energy – a level K text. You might just pick some key paragraphs from the text you choose. There’s no need to closely read a whole book.

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  1. Take notes together and then gradually release responsibility. The students might read the whole text on their own to start so they can get some sense of the big picture.  Together closely read a sentence at a time. Discuss the meaning and then pick important words to write in their notes. Release responsibility – maybe they just tackle a sentence at a time and then you regroup. The photo below is a little fuzzy but it gives you an idea of what a student at this level can do as far as note-taking with support. img_0513
  2. Give it a couple of weeks or more. Lisa said it took several weeks – a few lessons each week. She had a wide variety of readers in her room and many other lower groups to meet with more often.
  3. Provide lots of opportunities for them to summarize their notes ORALLY with a partner. This builds bridges to writing and to speaking fluently on a topic. You might prompt them by saying, “Turn and talk to your partner. What did you just learn in this paragraph? Use your notes to help you.” Some groups will need to orally rehearse with you before they talk with a partner.
  4. Discuss how they can present their information and then let groups of three work together to tackle this task by creating some type of visual.  img_0509-1img_0511
    These photos are fuzzy BUT you can still tell there’s so much thinking that must have happened in this group – they have arrows and visuals as well as text boxes! They are clearly organizing their thinking into categories as well.
  5. Provide time for them to present! I saw pictures of these kids with their posters – oh, the proud smiles!!!!!

BTW – All kindergarten students can do some level of research. Tony Stead proved that to us in Is That a Fact?  After I read this, I was a convert to the idea that even our Pre-A and emergent readers can engage in deep thinking and learning about nonfiction topics – with their peers and on their own. 21353134

Hope this helps.

S

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Liberate your students! In the beginning, give them the main idea!!!

Do your students hesitate when you ask, “What is the main or central idea?”  I find that many students have not had enough experience with concepts like extraordinary, perseverant, determined, tenacious, collaborative, compassionate, ambitious to pull these ideas out of an informational text easily. ALSO, many times if they do identify a main idea like, “Mary Fields was courageous,” they have only a superficial understanding of what “courageous” means. If I ask, “What is courageous?” I get a response like, “It means to be brave” — a synonym or “she was courageous when she…”–an anecdote. I don’t get “courageous is when you’re willing to face an obstacle or a difficulty without fear.” Liberate your students. Give them a main idea for the text–with a clearly defined concept like “extraordinary” or “courageous” and then provide time for them to grapple with identifying and explaining supporting details.
With enough experiences like this, they will begin to identify and explain main ideas more easily.

Last week I had the honor of teaching a class of 5th grade students who are studying the American West. We engaged in close reading and writing in response to four paragraphs in an essay on Mary Fields–an extraordinary historical figure described in the book Wild Women of the West by Jonah Winter.

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Below is a description of the lesson. I’ve also attached Guidelines for Close Reading Lesson.

  •  In advance, the teacher read aloud the essay about Mary Fields as well as several other essays in Winter’s book. I handed out a copy of the essay to each student and asked them to review by reading silently. I also asked them to number the paragraphs – because we would only be reading closely paragraphs 4-7. I felt like these paragraphs were worthy of rereading and provided enough meat for our discussion and written responses.
  • I introduced the word extraordinary and set a clear purpose for close reading – Why might we consider Mary Fields to be an extraordinary person? I chose the Tier Two vocabulary word extraordinary because I think this is an idea that students will recognize in a lot of texts they read about the American West. See my definition posted for all students to view. After a brief discussion of the word extraordinary, I posed the purpose for close reading and asked the students to write the purpose across the top of their copy of the essay – like I had done on my copy projected by the doc camera.

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  • With the purpose in mind and the essay projected, I read aloud paragraph #4 and then thought aloud about details in the first two sentences. I explained why I would NOT underline any details in the first sentence – there were no details that really implied Fields was extraordinary. I thought aloud about how I might underline “haul stones, lumber, and grain and supervise men” and explained why I would choose those details – because these jobs are not normally what a woman in that period would have been doing.

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    • Then I began to release control. I asked students to read and think about the details in the next sentence. I asked them to explain to a partner why those details would support the idea that Fields was extraordinary. We continued through paragraph #7.
    • Next I engaged the students in shared writing of a main idea statement, a definition of the term “extraordinary,” a supporting detail, and an explanation of that supporting detail.
      IMPORTANT NOTE: Asking the students to define “extraordinary” or “perseverant” or whatever main idea/central idea/theme term they are exploring helps them focus on and articulate why particular details support the main idea. In future written responses, I would require students to include this!

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For the supporting detail and explanation, I elicited responses from the students and then helped individuals craft a sentence that I could write.

  • The students followed by choosing a different detail to write about including explaining how this detail supported the main idea–on a sticky note. Below are some examples. As usual, there were some students who stated a detail and their explanation made sense, BUT there are always others who need further instruction!!! That’s the way it should be if I’m in their zone of proximal development, huh? What I learn from their responses can inform my next lesson–probably with another text on an historical figure and an opportunity to grapple with the term extraordinary.

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  • We closed by sharing in small groups. I included asking the students to check their peers’ writing to make sure their reasoning made sense and then to offer feedback as needed.

Hope this helps.

S

 

 

Tip #3 for Locating Paired Informational Texts – By Same Author

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What do you notice regarding the similarities in the types of details included in these sentences from two different books by Seymour Simon?

Your backbone, or spine, is a flexible column of bones that runs down the middle of your body. It is made up of a chain of thirty-three small bones called vertebrae, which are fastened one on top of another. Each vertebra is hard and hollow, like a bead or a spool of thread. The joint between each vertebra allows only a small amount of movement, but together the vertebrae form a flexible chain of bones that can twist like a strong of beads. Your spine lets you bend down and touch your toes, and at the same time it keeps your body upright. (n. pag)

From Bones: Our Skeletal System (Simon, 2002)

Point to your stomach. Surprise! It’s not behind your belly button, but higher up, tucked just beneath the left side of your rib cage. An empty stomach is shaped like the letter J, and it’s only about as big as your fist. Deep, soft folds called rugae line the inside of the stomach. After you eat a meal, the folds flatten out and your stomach swells up. It can get as big as a boxing glove.

                                                                    From Guts: Our Digestive System (Simon, 2005)

This is what I notice –

  • In the first few sentences, Simon names the part of the body and the location of that part within the body. “Backbone, or spine” – “runs down the middle of your body” AND “stomach” – “not behind your belly button, but higher up, tucked just beneath the left side of your rib cage.”
  • Simon uses comparisons to real life objects to help the reader understand the physical attributes of these parts of the body – “like a bead or a spool of thread” (density) AND “like the letter J” (shape) and “only about as big as your fist” (size) and “as big as a boxing glove” (size)
  • Simon describes sub-parts of the body part – “vertebra” and “rugae”; if you read further in Guts (Simon, 2005) (the next paragraph after this excerpt), Simon describes additional sub-parts – “three sets of powerful muscles.”
  • AND more.

How might comparing two excerpts from books or articles by the same author be used as a way to help students think critically? (And also align with the Common Core?)

1)  Gradual release during a close reading lesson – modeling with one excerpt and then providing a second and third excerpt for partner and independent analysis. A lesson using this framework might be focused on one of the following –

    • identifying the author’s main idea and explaining how it is supported by key details (R.I. 4.3)
    • explaining the structure of a text excerpt (R.I. 4.5)
    • analyzing how a particular sentence, paragraph…fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas (R.I. 6.5)
    • determining the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative… (R.I.7.4)

This would be a way – working with excerpts from multiple texts by the same author – to deepen students’ understanding and thinking in so many ways. So many times, we barely touch the surface of learning during lessons and then move on. By using multiple excerpts from texts by the same author -students may begin to see patterns in structure, in how main ideas are developed, in how particular types of details are employed.

2)  As mentor texts for students writing information/expository pieces – in particular, students who are focused on developing the topic with “facts, definitions, concrete details…” (W.5.2.b) or for writing arguments. Frequently we teach a structure of writing without providing numerous mentor texts – I think looking at how one author writes several pieces in a particular author might be an eye opening experience for student writers.

Other authors whose writing in multiple texts might be used…

  • 3-5th GRADE  – Nic Bishop – consider how he describes animals in two books like Frogs and Snakes
  • MIDDLE SCHOOL – Stephen Ornes – look at the multiple articles he’s written for Science News for Kidshttp://www.sciencenewsforkids.com.php5-17.dfw1-2.websitetestlink.com/wp/author/stephen_ornes/page/2/. How does he use experts to support his points? How does he introduce the topic? What other types of details does he use consistently?
  • 3rd-8th GRADE – Some published-for-school magazines use the same authors in multiple issues. Check out articles written by Beth Geiger –

Geiger, B. (2010). Active earth. National Geographic Explorer! Pathfinder Edition, 10(1), 8-13.

Geiger, B. (2013). Extreme ice. National Geographic Explorer! Pioneer Edition, 12(4), 15-23.

  • MIDDLE – HIGH SCHOOL – Another option is choosing multiple essays written by the same columnist for a newspaper like Thomas Friedman for the New York Times.

Hope this helps.

Here are links to previous blog entries with Tip #1 and Tip #2 for locating and using paired informational texts. 🙂

Lesson: Teaching Term Perseverant Through… Part 2

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Lesson Experience – Even when definitions of vocabulary words are carefully planned for discussion during close reading, these definitions can be problematic…

In a blog entry from last December about a lesson experience, I discussed the needs of a specific group of 6th graders I worked with in an urban school. Many seemed to lack depth of understanding of key theme words used to make claims.  I promised to blog later about the lesson specifically and failed to follow up – sorry! (Alas, where does time go?)  So here it is.

I planned a lesson that would focus on understanding the term perseverant as it relates to the work of the social rights activists pursuing the right to vote – specifically in Selma, Alabama in the early 1960’s. My theory is that if students understand vocabulary words like “perseverant” in one context, they will be able to take that understanding and apply it to many, many other contexts they are reading about in nonfiction texts. Easy, right? Ha!

When I teach a word like perseverant, I start by asking myself what I know about this word. Actually, I just start by looking up the definition on-line. I never assume I know enough about a word to just start teaching. Just by looking up the definition, I gain more depth in my understanding of the word and my ability to articulate its meaning to students.

The online definition for “perseverant” is “to persevere.” Great. The definition of “persevere” is to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/persevere). Okay. I can play around with this. Thinking about “kid-friendly” definitions, I came up with the following for “perseverant”:

When a person is persistent in pursuing a goal through a series of actions in spite of difficulties or obstacles.

Now, wait. Even with careful planning, this definition would prove to be problematic – but I wouldn’t know it until I was working closely with the students.

For close reading, I chose an excerpt from the award-winning Marching for Freedom: Walk Together Children and Don’t You Grow Weary by Elizabeth Partridge (about 190 words – two paragraphs total, p. 4 about the work of activist Sandra Boynton.) (LOVE THIS BOOK!!! Highly recommend for all 5-8th grade classroom libraries.)

At the beginning of the lesson, I read aloud the first chapter of Partridge’s book, placing the book on the document camera so the students could view the stunning photos Partridge included to support her points. As I posted each photo, I asked, “What do you notice? What makes you think so?”  (10 minutes)

Then before we started close reading, I briefly defined and explained “perseverant.” This part of the lesson could take up the whole period, but I kept it short. I posted the definition (see image of anchor chart) for all students to see and I posted another piece of chart paper with the students’ purpose for conversation (see additional image below). I asked the students to turn and share a time they’d been perseverant. I pushed in and coached trios of students in sharing and then after a few minutes, I asked one student to join me at the front and share his example of perseverance. What I quickly noticed was their examples of perseverant were about overcoming inner-obstacles – learning to play basketball, run faster, do math. The excerpt I’d chosen and what I’d been thinking about were – external obstacles like government policies, or racists, or fear created by others as obstacles to the work of the activists. I needed to differentiate this for the students – internal and external obstacles.

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So I went back to the anchor chart with the definition and added notes – look at the anchor chart again and notice the notes regarding “our ability” and “other.” Our purpose for close reading was  – How were the activists perseverant in pursuing the right to vote? (See anchor chart below.) As we began the close reading and I gradually released control to partners to close reading, I noticed (while conferring) that some of the students did not know what “obstacles” meant. So I took advantage of another teachable moment and added “problem gets in the way” to the anchor chart with the definition. We worked forward in this manner – continuously referring to our definition to help us clarify what we were or were not understanding AND what we were learning in regards to the purpose for close reading.

I closed this lesson by asking the students to gather in a circle – with their notes. With a volunteer student, I modeled in the middle of the circle how to look at the annotations I’d written (and the volunteer had written) on the text excerpt (on the doc camera during close reading) and refer to the anchor chart with the definition of “perseverant” to discuss what I’d learned. Then I coached pairs of students when they turned to talk with a partner – using their notes and the anchor chart as references. They revealed some depth in their learning during their discussions with partners. Follow up instruction for a group like this would be to work with this key vocabulary word and others over time – with many different texts and in many different conversations.

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This lesson experience has influenced many lessons I have given since then. I carefully craft definitions that are part of close reading prompts – to be rigorous and to present students with enough language to explain what they are learning during close reading. IN ADDITION, I observe and assess students’ understanding of the work and add to/revise the definition as needed. I blogged recently with some more examples of how I’ve done this. I really think this helps students explain evidence they are identifying related to the purpose for close reading.

A dear colleague reminded me that I had not followed up with a description of this lesson! Thanks, Tara!!!

Hope this helps.

 

 

Choosing info text excerpts for close reading

Close reading can be used for the purpose of moving students towards deeper understanding of a content area concept or theme. How are excerpts of text for close reading chosen, though? Here are a few suggestions.

If you are just working with ONE (well-written) text (versus a text set) and want students to grasp the author’s main or central idea for that text in particular –

1) Read the whole text and determine the key idea in that text you’d like students to walk away understanding. For an example of an article to consider, visit this middle school article – The Real Cost of Fashion (Junior Scholastic, 9/2/13) – about issues related to clothing being made in factories in developing nations. The author details how this benefits the consumer’s pocketbook and even the workers (who do not have many choices), but how it can also be risky and potentially life-threatening. It’s actually more complicated than pros or cons when you consider the country’s policies and the corruption involved and how difficult it is to change the way things are for these workers.

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2) Choose an excerpt from the article that reveals the key ideas. It is tempting to try to get at all that the author is conveying in an article. RESIST. Be selective. What do you really want students to walk away understanding better? For this article, I wanted the students to see how having our clothes made in developing nations is not a black or white, pro or con issue. I wanted them to understand that it’s a messy issue. Leaving the country and making clothes somewhere else is not necessarily the right answer because many of the workers in these factories rely on these jobs to survive. But making change happen is complicated by many factors. So I chose ONLY six paragraphs from the article beginning with the 2nd paragraph. (See the paragraphs I marked in image below.) Also remember, before close reading, the students will have read this article through once on their own or with a partner.

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3) Develop a clear purpose for the close reading. So for this article, I might post on the board the following question: What are the advantages and disadvantages to having clothing made in developing nations? What is textual evidence to support your points? Why is this a complicated issue?

4) Study the excerpt and think through the types of details the author has included. For example, what I noticed in the 2nd paragraph is that the author does not reveal any information related to the purpose until the last sentence in the paragraph. In the next paragraph, the author shares statistical evidence about the cost of making clothing in developing nations versus the United States. During my think aloud with students, I want to make clear how the initial information in this paragraph (2nd one in article) does not answer my purpose for reading. I want to highlight my “a ha” – how I realized the author gave me information I needed in the last sentence – “labor and other costs are cheaper.”

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5) Go for it. 🙂

Okay…more on this lesson soon. Just wanted to get at how I go about choosing excerpts. If you are working with a unit of study – you might want to look for excerpts of text or primary sources for close reading that reveal the enduring understandings related to the unit…more on that soon, too.

Finally – sorry it’s been a couple of weeks since my last entry. I spent two weeks working in Illinois and Wisconsin with some amazing educators. Thanks to everyone who opened their classroom doors for a close reading of their practice!

Please don’t overdose on “close reading”

I have been asked several times recently, “How often should teachers engage students in close reading?” I don’t have an easy answer on this. I’d like to start by saying that close reading of an excerpt of informational text should be part of a larger integrated unit of study. These units need to be filled with rich, purposeful, intentionally chosen learning experiences for students to pursue enduring understandings. (THIS IS A KEY POINT IN MY BOOK on close reading!!!!) I see “close reading” as an opportunity to reveal an author’s central idea by examining closely how the author develops that idea in a small chunk of text. This can have ripple effects for learning at other points. With these points in mind, how often does close reading happen? At key points during the unit.

Now – I know how we are as educators – we want a specific number of times! If you really need this, I’d say – if you are engaging students in a unit of study- close reading might happen once or twice a week. Or it may happen every day for a few minutes with a primary source photo or a quote or poem – through discussion. My biggest caution here is that it’s an approach to reading and thinking that needs to be used very purposefully – not just all of the time. Otherwise, your students will start to dread reading lessons and may even mutiny! In addition, that’s not close reading’s purpose – to be the sole approach to comprehending texts and getting at the bigger ideas in a unit.

If you need support to back this up in conversations with other teachers and administrators, the International Reading Association has released a paper entitled “Close Reading and Far-Reaching Classroom Discussion: Fostering a Vital Connection.” LOVED THIS!!!!! As I read, I kept writing “YES!” in the margins. The authors, Catherine Snow and Catherine O’Connor, dispel myths like “close reading levels the playing field” and “close reading should not include using any background knowledge” and “close reading should only be done with text dependent questions.” THANK YOU! The authors agree that close reading is “one of many practices that are useful in teaching comprehension and text interpretation.” They close with the following:

We celebrate the move to put text at the center of instruction across the curriculum, to delete talk about the topic that substitutes for reading, and to let students struggle productively with text. But we fear that too much emphasis on close reading will lead to unproductive struggles, will be taken as a prohibition on discussing and questioning texts, and will create an illusion of a level playing field even as the field is being excavated further from under the feet of struggling readers. (Snow & O’Connor, 2013, p. 8)

I highly recommend this paper as a text for educator discussion in Professional Learning Communities, as part of professional development experiences, during department and team meetings!

PARCC’s 3rd grade sample test items – make time to read and this is why…

This is a quick and dirty summary of the newly released PARCC sample test items. If you are in one of the 19 states that will be taking the PARCC tests in 2014-2015, thought this might help you think about what our students will be facing.

Third Grade Sample Items – summary and a few of my thoughts –

  • There are three sample test items; the third is the culminating activity that incorporates the thinking students had to engage in to answer questions in the first two items.

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  • SAMPLE ITEM 1 – Students are asked a question that requires synthesis. Four events in Eliza’s life are listed in bullet form (these are drawn from the passage students read) and then the following question is posed: “What do these details show about Eliza?” So this isn’t about just recalling facts from a text to answer a question. Instead, as aligns with Common Core, this is about thinking across events and identifying the author’s main idea.
  • SAMPLE ITEM 2 – Students are asked to reread three consecutive paragraphs in one of the passages and answer a question about how the events described in these paragraphs are related to each other. So again – they have to synthesize, contrasting events and thinking about what this reveals. BUT THEN PARCC also includes a follow-up question which asks students to identify the best quote from those three paragraphs that supports the answer to the question they just answered. So this is getting at students’ understanding of textual evidence.
  • SAMPLE ITEM 3 – This is the culminating activity that previous items have built toward. Students are asked to write an article for the school newspaper how Scidmore and Carver faced challenges to change something in America. With the additional prompts of – “In your article, be sure to describe in detail why some solutions they tried worked and others did not” and “Tell how the challenges each one faced were the same and how they were different.”

This is just a brief summary of the items. If you go to the PARCC site with sample items you can read PARCC’s assessment claims (how the sample items meet the standards for assessment), their justification of the answers to the sample items, which standards the questions align with and so forth. There’s also a rubric for scoring the final response, but notice that it’s only for responses to prose or narrative texts.

Just by reading the sample items, I recognized which CCSS Reading Informational standards were being assessed. (Maybe because I live and breathe this stuff.) This is good material to think through when planning. Just the time spent analyzing these docs and writing this blog has helped me start to formulate ideas for materials and instruction.

Oh…one beef. Why do the test questions refer to Scidmore only by her first name – Eliza and to Carver by his last name? Why not Eliza and George? Or Scidmore and Carver?  Hmmmm….is that a sexist thing? Okay…maybe it’s because in the texts (I haven’t read the one about Eliza), the authors refer to Eliza and Carver so PARCC wants to use the names they are referred to throughout the text. Maybe I should let go of this 🙂

Okay…hope this helps.

Ann Petry’s Harriet Tubman does not meet current standards for “nonfiction”

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While there might be value in reading this book to get a “feel” for Tubman’s life, it should be considered historical fiction not nonfiction (despite being listed as an exemplar informational text in the CCSS Appendix B). It was written in 1955 and Petry’s purpose was to provide readers with a viewpoint of slavery that was not being represented in textbooks of the time. Her purpose was noble and should be noted. What writers in the field have agreed on since then, though, is that to be accurate when writing “nonfiction,” you cannot make up what was said during an event in a person’s life – without asserting that you are doing just that. You can use quotes from primary sources or from people you’ve interviewed during your research, but you cannot just make up what might have been said (even if it’s based on research) and present these conversations as fact. If you read Russell Freedman’s book Lincoln: A Photobiography – he tells a lot without ever making up what someone said. Petry, on the other hand, from the beginning of Harriet Tubman, writes specifically what was said during a discussion that took place in Harriet’s parents’ cabin the night Harriet was born and continues to do so from there. There is no documentation of what was said -specifically at events like the night Harriet was born. Petry is conjecturing. This is not acceptable in 2013  – despite this book’s continued publication as “nonfiction.”

Petry does end each chapter with factual statements about other events that were occurring during a particular period. At some points late in the book, she includes quotes by Harriet and a few others, BUT the majority of the book is a narrative that includes what was happening, being said, and so forth without reference to specific documentation or quotes from primary sources. It’s clear Petry did some research – although there is no author’s note included in the book. She passed away in the 1990’s and I haven’t found any kind of description of her research on-line so it’s hard to know her research and writing process for this book.

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I want to contrast her book with others on Tubman. For example, I want to read Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman by Susan Bradford – who knew Harriet and interviewed her extensively for the book (to raise money to support Harriet). I’d also like to read two more authoritative books – Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom by Clinton and Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of a Hero by Kate Clifford Larson. While the first book by Bradford was criticized for accuracy – it is based on the perceptions of Tubman (who did not know how to read and write). This text might serve as a primary source that represents one person’s viewpoint – similar to Frederick Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

If students do read Petry’s book – there’s room for teaching about an author’s interpretation of historical documents and how that influences what is written, what can be written from our study of primary and secondary sources and what cannot be written without some assertion from the author that the text is an “interpretation” or “conjecture” of what might have happened. In addition, Petry’s book could be contrasted with others – a good learning experience for students and a way to help them achieve Common Core standards related to contrasting multiple texts on the same topic.

Intriguing Notices as Mini-Lessons

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I’m always intrigued by the notices posted around us. Many are perfect for mini-lessons focused on close reading of informational text. Check out this one I saw in a restroom in Chico, CA. For a close reading exercise, I would put this on the document camera or Smart board and ask students some of the following questions –

  • What is the author’s main/central idea/point of view/purpose? (Common Core State Standard – Reading Informational Text 2, 6)
  • What can you infer? (If you don’t wash your hands, you are not a decent person!) (CCSS RI 1)
  • What is meant by “common decency”? How does that position an employee who does or does not wash their hands? (CCSS RI 4)
  • Why do you think so? What’s the textual evidence (as well as your background experience) that makes you think so? (CCSS RI 1)

Below are two notices I saw in the airport – loaded with content for teaching. Challenge small groups to engage in close reading and discussion of these signs (using similar questions to those above) and to share out what they noticed or came to understand – independently and collectively.

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The tricky part is transferring skills developed with short texts like notices to longer more complex texts. What did we do here as readers that we can do when we read other longer, more complex texts independently? That would be a follow-up lesson (or several) with more opportunities for students to read and discuss texts.

Review of Exemplar Text in Appendix B – Grades 6-8 – Oh, my!

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So I’m reading all of the texts on the Common Core Appendix B Exemplar Informational Text list. My reading is focused on what makes these texts rigorous for a particular grade band, what makes them hard for students, what do we need to think about when students are reading texts like these with a lot of guidance or independently with some coaching. Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (Greenberg & Jordan, 2001) is one of the exemplar texts listed for 6th-8th grade history/social studies. Now – I want to remember that these are simply “exemplar” texts – they are not to being suggested for adoption. But at the same time, reading this text (and the others) has been a good exercise for me in thinking about the kinds of texts our students should be grappling with in school and be able to read independently at some point.

What have the authors done to make Vincent van Gogh (2001) accessible to students?

  • The book is clearly a biography and includes the typical structure of a biography. It follows a logical order – the sequence of van Gogh’s life and specific dates are in the title of each chapter.
  • The content is cohesive – there are clear themes running through the text.
  • There are access features  – a map (don’t get too excited, though – see my notes below), a timeline, a glossary of artists and terms.
  • The authors lend authority and accuracy to the text with extensive notes at the end of the book. These notes list chapter by chapter which primary sources were tapped to create this narrative of van Gogh’s life. In addition, van Gogh’s letters and other’s letters are quoted throughout the book as just such.

So what makes Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001) a challenge for students?

  • The first page after the contents page is a “map.” The authors assume a lot of the reader’s background knowledge in their choice of this map. It is a map of part of Europe (but Europe is not labeled or identified) – England, Spain, France, Belgium, and Holland. Catch that? Holland. Holland is no longer a country. North and South Holland are provinces of the Netherlands. The map does not have a title or any textual support to identify the larger region and the time period; there is no indication it is a map of a part of Europe and that the map reflects the countries of Europe at some point in the 19th century!
  • The page after the map is the start of the “prologue.” The authors begin –  “Hunched like a porcupine from the weight of his easel, brushes, tubes of color, and folding stool, Vincent headed out of Arles at dawn—too early for the gang of street boys to chase after him, to call him crazy” (p. 1). (If the reader looks back at the map, he or she will find Arles in southern France.) This first sentence for the whole book is a complex sentence with a LOT of information – the reader needs to visualize the dependent clause that begins the sentence to get the “how”. The middle part has the subject and predicate of the whole sentence  (Vincent van Gogh is the subject and “headed out” means he is leaving early in the morning – probably to go paint because of the information shared in the beginning dependent clause). Then the reader must catch on to a problem as he or she reads the last part of the sentence – two dependent clauses that indicate van Gogh is not well regarded by local boys and sometimes even taunted. This sentence alone deserves a close reading because it says so much. This one sentence captivates themes that run through the rest of the book.
  • There is a multi-page insert of glossy, colored images of van Gogh’s paintings. BUT the reader is required to seek the images in the insert out as they are mentioned in the text. In other words, the reader has to be savvy enough to realize that the authors are describing one of van Gogh’s pieces of art and it might be helpful to see that piece of art. Then the reader has to turn to the insert and find that piece of art except that not every piece of art referenced or even described in detail is included in the insert.
  • The central idea(s) are abstract – this book is about how van Gogh searched for a purpose to his life – that embraced his compassion for all human beings, particularly the common folk, about how he failed many times, about how he persevered in finding his identity/technique as an artist, and how he dealt with physical and mental (although the authors do not call it “mental”) illness. Conceptually, it’s more difficult than “this person wanted to end slavery.”
  • At the end of the book, van Gogh commits suicide. As I read the book, I kept thinking “this guy is bipolar or manic depressive” and “he’s depressed, depressed, depressed.” The authors never mention this, though. They state that van Gogh had epilepsy. In truth (based on further research after reading), there are lots of theories about what van Gogh suffered from and if it was epilepsy (which is really one of the theories) – this would not have caused the angry outbursts and depression described in the book. (From what I can tell from my own research – I have been wrong before, though.) Depression (maybe as a result of, but not a side effect of epilepsy) was clearly a problem. I think the authors do the student reader a disservice by not just saying this and putting out there that we are not sure what he had, here are some theories. It makes the whole book easier to understand – without decreasing the rigor.

Suggestions for scaffolding students who are reading books like this (or this book :)) –

  • Teach students to examine the structure of the books. If it’s a biography, there’s a good chance there will be a timeline established.
  • Spend time examining important quotes cited in books like these – as an opportunity to coach students in thinking inferentially about what’s being said when they read quotes on their own and what was the author’s purpose in including this quote. (In this particular book, there is a quote by van Gogh that begins each chapter.)
  • Model for students how to recognize patterns of behavior or events that serve to reveal the authors’ central ideas.
  • Arm students with a helpful understanding of Tier Two vocabulary that they can use to name and elaborate on what they are thinking. For example in Vincent van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist (2001), the words could be utilized by students – discipline, passion, humanitarianism (concerned with or seeking to promote human welfare; doctrine that people’s duty is to promote the welfare of others– online def); persistence/perseverance/tenacity, compassion.
  • Model for students why and how you might seek out digital sources related to the topic of the biography (the person or the person’s work, etc) before reading.  For Vincent van Gogh (2001), familiarity with art, the skill and discipline it requires, and pieces by van Gogh would make many of the ideas in the text easier to understand. (BTW – for kids who are getting no art instruction, this is critical.)

Just a last thought. I don’t know any middle grade students who would pick this book up independently and who would stick with it if they did. I just doesn’t strike me as an engaging read. Nevertheless, students need to read these books. So what to do? I’m thinking about it. At the least, it should be part of an integrated unit of study – on that time period during Europe, on post-Impressionists, on the past and the present in art. Something.

Okay…finished another exemplar text todayHarriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad (Petry, 1955!!!!!!) and working on Narrative of the LIfe of Frederick Douglass (Douglass, 1845!!!!) If you know me, you know I’ll have a lot to say in a blog about these in the near future.

S