Films can—and should—be more than time-killers in your classroom.
We all know the stereotypical image of the teacher who, tired of direct instruction, dims the lights, turns on the DVD player, and sits quietly while students stare at the screen. The problem here is not that students are watching a film in class—it's that the teacher is not constructing an educational experience around that film.
Incorporated effectively, films can support content and instruction in a brief, clear, and elegant manner, enticing a generation of viewers into a more engaged learning experience.
While we wish that all our students walked into class hungry for traditional texts, this is simply not the case. Jennifer Rowsell and Maureen Kendrick, in their article "Boys' Hidden Literacies: The Critical Need for the Visual," suggest that some learners prefer to read on screens, such as computers and televisions. Consequently, reading on screens may be one possible "in-road" to teaching literacy skills and may even stimulate an interest in print-based text.
Don't Just Sit There
Several years ago, my students were watching clips from the film "The Spiderwick Chronicles." In this movie, one actor plays twin brothers. Toward the end of the third or fourth segment we watched, my students expressed some confusion about whether the actor was playing one character or two.
I was a bit taken aback. I had assumed that the dual role of the actor had been established for them in the first clip we watched. Looking back, I realized that teachers cannot assume that a passive viewing experience will translate into a meaningful cognitive interaction; like all learning, viewing must be discussed, critiqued, analyzed, and scaffolded.
Just as teaching a novel or short story involves ongoing discussions of theme, vocabulary, and structure, instruction with a film must be intentional and include consideration of the elements of what makes the piece work. Reading or viewing without activity and follow-up discussion is simply "flicking the lights off" and hoping that learning takes place.
Learn in Under Five Minutes
Consider the analysis of the hero's journey presented in "Batman Begins," as modelled by the SpringBoard curriculum. Students watch video clip segments, rather than the entirety of the film, and answer questions about the main character's inward and outer journey as a protagonist. Classes can use this multistep analytic process to talk about elements of character development as the main character progresses through the story. What's more, this conversation can happen without spending time watching the entire film.
Students might examine the specific aspects of a scene in a film. Elements like lighting and camera angles can communicate a variety of messages, as can design details like music. Auteur theory in film studies discusses the director of a film as a kind of author and, like all authors, the director chooses what elements to include within a scene. In the same way that an author chooses the words on a page, a director acting as the auteur chooses the elements that viewers see on the screen.
Have students spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for a Daniel Craig James Bond film, discuss the elements of design, and then spend less than two minutes viewing the teaser trailer for an Adam Sandler film. In less than five minutes of total viewing, this brief activity can provide a meaningful and culturally empowered introduction to a discussion of mood and tone, character development, or theme. Students who are not readers will likely appreciate this visual and engaging introduction to content, which can then be extended to a traditional reading experience.
Consider the "Captain America: Civil War" trailer. YouTube reported that 17,030,584 viewers watched the trailer within 24 hours of its release by Marvel. No doubt, that viewership included many of your students. The "auteurs" behind this audiovisual presentation build suspense through a series of scenes collected from previous films, highlighting the emerging conflict between two primary Marvel Comics characters, and then close the segment by revealing yet another popular protagonist in the film. This use of these design elements capitalizes on suspense and surprise.
Interaction with the elements of film can be discussion-oriented or related to storyboarding activities or higher-level critiques. Moving beyond the surface-level system of critique, which usually consists of "I liked it" or "I didn't like it," students can use literary or content-specific terms in an open-ended critical dialogue about what they are viewing.
Consider these 10 stems as potential discussion starters for viewing experiences:
How did the director communicate to us in this clip?
What was the director trying to get across to us in this clip?
How does the director build suspense, create tension, or surprise us in this segment?
What did you hear in the clip that reminds you of our previous discussion?
How did this clip present information to you in a new way?
How does this clip add to our understanding of this concept?
What did the director include that made this clip helpful or understandable for you?
What visuals did you see that helped you think about our content?
How does the use of music, camera angles, light and shadow, and other design elements help us see what the director wanted us to see, or feel what the director wanted us to feel?
- How does this video clip support or refute what we previously learned about this topic?
Screen to Print
Film is part of our students' culture, and we should include film in such a way that, through an analytic and thoughtful process, students who may struggle to read can engage with content in such a way that may encourage them to read!
Jason D. DeHart, an eighth grade English teacher at Ocoee Middle School in Tennessee, is also a student in the Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Teaching students to skim and scan can hone their skills for college and beyond.
Regardless of their achievement level, students sometimes reach the end of a difficult reading passage with no recollection or understanding of what they have read. Even highly proficient readers may find themselves struggling with long and intricate textbook chapters and research articles.
You can come to the rescue by teaching students the techniques of skimming and scanning.
The Art of Skimming
Students have already been introduced to skim and scan techniques, whether they realize it or not, simply because of their interaction with social media, online learning, and text features in their textbooks. However, at some point, they will need to read from sources that have no such aids.
Basically, skimming is reading selectively to determine the main idea of a piece. Most teachers begin by teaching students to skim and deduce meaning from a limited amount of text and then gradually increase the length and complexity of the text. Abby Marks Beale, author of 10 Days to Faster Reading and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Speed Reading, suggests teaching skimming this way:
Choose a page or chapter for students to skim. Ask students to read just the first sentence or just the first and last sentences of each paragraph, keeping an eye out for proper nouns, dates, and unfamiliar words. Students might jot these words down in a notebook or journal to help with comprehension later.
When they've read first and last sentences of each paragraph, have them go back and read the entire page or chapter, reading closely this time and noting important information as well as questions about the information in the text.
Mark Warner (Teachingideas.com) suggests pairing students up and giving them an article that is obviously too long for them to read word for word in two minutes. Begin this exercise by asking the students to read the title and then state what they think the article is about. Students may make notes about what they believe is the topic of the article.
Next, have students read the first and the last paragraphs of the article and guess what the piece is about based on that information. Students may note how their idea about the topic of the piece changed based on the additional information.
Students then read the first line of every paragraph and make another guess based on what they read what the article is about. Finally, students read the entire article in two minutes and again to see if their predictions about the content based on skimming matched the actual topic.
Scanning for Specifics
Similar to skimming, scanning involves a much different process. Readers use scanning when looking for a specific piece or a specific category of information. Scanning is not reading and comprehending so much as searching for one thing, like Waldo in a Where's Waldo? book.
For middle school students, finding a specific word pertaining to a specific idea is a good way to focus on meaning. The key to scanning is making sure that, in spite of the fact the students have not closely read a piece, they have gained enough context to accurately represent the author's words and intentions.
Skimming and scanning exercises not only help promote alternative reading strategies, they also promote cognitive processing and literacy skills—skills that are the foundation of the Common Core State Standards. By varying our methods as teachers, and providing more skills in reading, we are encouraging our students to achieve well beyond the Common Core Standards.
Skimming and scanning are great techniques to help students read long, complex pieces. As they practice these skills, their research skills will improve as well. We need to give students permission to use strategies like skimming and scanning, emphasizing that there is nothing wrong with taking the “shortcuts.”
As we implement these basic strategies our students will become more versatile readers. The more strategies they have to pull from, the less they will need our assistance and the better prepared they will be for high school and college.
Kaitlyn Hartling is an English and secondary education major at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. She hopes to teach middle school students when she graduates.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Using writing as opportunities for students to grieve and grow.
Teachers are perpetual students. Each day we learn some new piece of information from a book, an article, or a podcast, but we often learn a great deal more from our students. This following story is inspired by an experience with an 11-year-old student named Josie and who helped me understand the power of love.
Josie was a typical sixth grader – full of life, enthusiasm, and bounce! Not a day went by without her bounding into the classroom asking, "What are we doing today?" Her infectious laugh, collaborative spirit, and intellect found favor with peers as she navigated her first year in a middle school. Homework assignments were never late, projects generally preceded deadlines, and volunteerism was her middle name when it came to helping others. Additionally, she was a sophisticated writer who incorporated emotion into her work.
During the December holiday break, I received an e-mail from Josie's mom regarding the passing of the family's matriarch – Josie's grandmother. The note explained that the family would need to travel out of state to attend a memorial service, and the parents were requesting homework from their children's teachers for the duration of the trip. I responded with condolences and assured her that Josie could catch up upon her return. My only request was for the family to take the time necessary to grieve and focus on the matters at hand.
School resumed in January, and I launched into a new unit on analogies, metaphors, and similes. Josie returned five days into the new semester, when her smile and the bounce in her step were gone. After school she stopped by to pick up missing assignments, and to turn in an essay she had been working on.
She explained that her friend had stayed in touch with her while she was gone and gave her updates on assignments. Since she loved writing, she decided to start on the "Analogy" task during the airplane ride home. "I wanted to write something that would honor my Gramma ...", she paused, "... but I'm having trouble with the ending," her voice caught as she handed me the folder. I assured her that I would give it my undivided attention, and that we would work on the ending after the weekend.
On Saturday morning, I decided to pull out the draft essays turned in by my sixth graders earlier in the week. Since Josie's was the last essay submitted, hers was the folder I grabbed first and began reading:
The Love Bubble
by Josie C., Period 5 English
Analogies are the way two things are compared to show similarities. An example would be "He walks as slow as a turtle," this is comparing how the boy has a slow pace like the animal's. Or, "the pillows were as fluffy as marshmallows" compares the soft, squishiness of cushions to the same treat we put in our hot chocolate. The analogy I will use for this essay is to compare my Gramma's love to a soapy bubble.
To compare a grandmother to soap may seem unusual, but in this case it's the perfect fit. Gramma was my best friend, my secret-keeper, my smile-maker. When we would wash dishes together she would wrap her wrinkly fingers around mine and squeeze the soapy bubbles until the white foam oozed out and made us both giggle. "Josie," she would say, "Bubbles are like love – they are clean, limitless, and spread the more you share them." We would make a game of looking for bubble-love in our daily lives: like washing her dog, blowing air through a straw into chocolate milk, taking a bubble bath (of course), and even when my little brother blew a snot-bubble - I thought it was a gross example, but Gramma said any bubble that makes you smile is a Love Bubble.
I once asked her what happens when a bubble pops, "Is the love gone?" Laughing she would say, "No, sweetie. When a love-bubble pops it spreads even more - think about it." I studied her face for the answer, for the realization, for the light bulb moment (as our teachers always say). Sensing my hesitation Gramma continued, "A bubble's job is to expand to its fullest potential by cleaning, reflecting and working together (with other bubbles) - but, its most important role is making people smile! When its job is done it is absorbed in order to continue the cycle. Do you understand, honey?" I nodded, but still wondered how true the bubble cycle really was.
The more we would look for bubble-love, the more I found similarities with Gramma's love. If bubbles were considered clean, reflective, limitless and spread joy – then Gramma could be a HUGE Love Bubble! She was the most honest and moral person I knew, she always operated with a CLEAN heart. Gramma and I would have long conversations during meals, bedtime or even watching our favorite movie for the 20th time, each time she taught me how to REFLECT on my decisions, actions and character. Her love for family was LIMITLESS and came from a very selfless place – her heart. She told stories with details that made me feel like I was there, even if the event was decades old. No one SPREAD more unconditional love then Gramma did. And, she didn't just love us, she taught us "how" to love by forgiving mistakes, supporting others, and always looking for the good in situations. And, for my parents, brother, aunts, uncles & cousins she was the JOY-zone anytime we needed a boost in our spirits.
Gramma's bubble-love covered me from head to toe and oozed affection, tenderness, warmth and devotion. Even when we didn't see each other, I could feel her bubble-love surround me, like the way whipped cream seeps into hot cocoa, she sent warm hugs from far away. Our phones calls were chatter-fests (as she called them) and could go on and on, we would spend hours in the kitchen making gourmet meals out of the most basic supplies, and our slumber parties put any of my friends' sleepovers to shame (but don't tell!). Gramma was a fixture in my life just like eating, sleeping and breathing.
But then my Love Bubble burst. I couldn't feel her anymore or comprehend how she was no longer here or anywhere. I couldn't find the cycle she spoke of, where bubbles were supposed to continue. I looked around at our family to see smiles disappear, people moving away from each other, and even some family members arguing–very unbubble-like.
And, instead of feeling safe and secure, I feel like I'm just washing down the drain...
It was at this point Josie's essay ended. I choked back tears and reread it, her words, analogies and love-lost was so powerful I wanted to experience it again. She may have questioned her ending, but I found it to be exactly how one feels during grief. Her poetic descriptions and symbolism were spot-on and moved me, as an outsider, to connect with her emotions, and to empathize with her regarding this immeasurable loss. After offering some feedback on cosmetic corrections and mechanics, I reassure her this piece met all expectations.
The following week, Josie was somewhat back to normal, although sorrow remained in her eyes. Her BFF Rose had taken on the role of protector and sat with Josie during class, at lunch, and on the bus. Soon the duo was spotted giggling at recess and skipping through the halls: Josie's rebound was in motion.
During our Writer's Workshop sessions, students served as peer-editors and provided feedback and constructive criticism. Josie's piece made it through the editing and revisions stages smoothly as she prepared the Final Draft for assessment purposes. Upon final submission Josie turned her folder into the Period 5 basket, with a renewed twinkle in her eye she simply said, "Thanks for the help," then darted off to her next class.
Anxious to read her piece I grabbed it from the pile and began to read. The beginning stayed true to its course, so I just skimmed through, eager to see if she had revised the ending.
But then my Love Bubble burst. I couldn't feel her anymore or comprehend how she was no longer here or anywhere. I couldn't find the cycle she spoke of, where bubbles were supposed to continue. I looked around at our family to see smiles disappear, people moving away from each other, and even some family members arguing–very unbubble-like.
And, instead of feeling safe and secure, I felt like I had just been washed down the drain ... however,
She had changed the last line from present tense to past tense, and added a conjunction:
I remember Gramma pointing out the rainbow colors seen in a bubble when the light hit it just right, and how rainbows serve as reminders and promises. She had taught me to see a simple dome of soap as an analogy for a bigger purpose. And, even though my personal Love-Bubble was no longer with us, her absence reminded me that bubble-love is contagious and can be spread by love and a smile – something I can do in her honor.
Josie's conclusion put a smile on my face, and joy in my heart as I set the folder down, satisfied that she had successfully completed the task, while also using the writing process as the catalyst for her healing process. As I glanced across the room where a drippy faucet was pinging in the background, I noticed a bottle of liquid dish soap teetering on the edge of the sink. When I crossed the room and approached the counter I couldn't help notice the self-inflated bubble rising from the bottle's spout. Pausing to look closer I could see light reflecting through, and rainbow bands sparkling in the midday light. Smiling I realized although it wasn't grandparent's visitation day, it was pretty cool that Josie's Gramma decided to stop by to spread some Bubble Love.
Sandy Cameli is an author and educational consultant.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, October 2016.
Imagine students wanting to improve their writing—just because!
What if students improved their writing because they wanted to, not just to get a good grade? What if their motivation to do better was fueled by teacher conferences and quick feedback?
That fantasy could be closer to reality than you ever imagined.
At Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania, our path to improved writing began with changes to our state-mandated assessments. When Pennsylvania's Department of Education unpacked the text-dependent analysis (TDA) question, it sent an enormous ripple into the stress pond for both teachers and students.
AMLE talks with Joy Smith and Pelle Nejman about Analytical Writing
Text-dependent analysis questions call on students to synthesize answers based on specific evidence within a reading passage and demonstrate their ability to interpret the meaning behind that evidence. Students must construct a well-written essay to demonstrate their analysis of the text rather than simply summarize the content.
We pushed our students and ourselves to master text analysis in writing, but after the first year, our results were mediocre at best. At worst, the students began to hate writing and we were all stressed out. Clearly, our plan needed work.
Part of the frustration we felt stemmed from students' inability to do what we asked of them. We expected our middle school students to analyze, yet we had not taught them the concept of analysis. For years, the push had been on comprehension, but it stopped short with the deeper literary analysis through writing.
Our initial throw-it-all-at-them-and-hope-for-the-best plan had proved unsuccessful for the majority of our students. So last year, we started with the basics, modeling our expectations and creating graphic organizers to help students map out the steps required for the reading analysis. We also included another key component: interdisciplinary collaboration.
When the language arts and social studies teachers began to discuss the TDA and its ramifications for all of us, the blurry line between content areas slowly vanished. We adopted the "divide and conquer" mentality.
Our first step as a team was to develop a common language. Students no longer needed to guess what this teacher wanted in an essay versus what the other teacher wanted. Our students heard a unified message about the importance of writing with an academic focus. We were on the same page. And so began what was in many ways a learning process for us all.
We started slowly. The language arts team collaborated to write the first TDA of the year. We read three passages as a class, and teachers modeled how to construct strong introductory and body paragraphs. We presented students with the state grading rubric and evaluated state-released samples that we scored and discussed as a class. When they were able to analyze the work of others, students were closer to being able to recognize and emulate the components in their own writing.
Students typed their first TDA response and, with the convenience of Google Classroom and Chromebook technology, language arts teachers printed their essays without their names and distributed them with detailed scoring rubrics that focused students on the specific skills required in each paper.
These essays were shared with groups of students wielding colored pens—perfect for positive reinforcement or gentle revision suggestions. For three days, students pored over their classmates' work, focusing on specific aspects of the writing and comparing them to the state evaluation tools.
During this exercise, small groups were able to discuss their opinions, compare responses, and recognize both good and poor examples. More than one student remarked, "I have a new respect for what you do for a living, Mrs. Smith," after muddling through a paper with typos and sentence structure issues.
When students got their original papers back, now covered in multi-colored comments from their peers, they set about revising them with renewed enthusiasm. Their only grades at this point were for class participation—a reward for a job well done when it came to wearing the editor's hat.
It was in social studies classes that students sank their teeth into their first "independent" TDA. By this time, our four-person social studies/language arts team had revamped the previous graphic organizer for writing and developed a student-friendly rubric that made expectations clearer for students and grading easy for teachers. The rubric also threw in a few tips for those students who struggled along the way:
- A checkmark system for "observable skills." (Did your teacher see a thesis statement? Was a graphic organizer completed?)
- A column for identifying "skills to practice" in order to improve.
- The all-important ownership section where students complete the sentence, "On my next TDA I will…"
Along with the ownership piece, one of the most valuable aspects of this collaborative effort has to do with the one-on-one attention students receive after each TDA. It may seem impossible to get 100 student-teacher conferences done within a short time period (we work with an average one-week turnaround time for grading and conferencing), but somehow we make it happen. Part of that success comes from expertly managing class time; the other part calls for maximizing "free" time during the day like advisory and RTII classes where groups are smaller and students can use that time for revision as needed.
Key Ingredients to Success and Sanity
How can teachers fit "one more thing" into an already overflowing to-do list? We work together. We split the team of 100 students into two classes each, and we alternate who grades which classes after each TDA
so we can track all students' progress.
Something miraculous happens to teachers when the daunting task of scoring 100 essays is cut in half. It's like a rush of adrenaline. Suddenly, the marathon has become a half marathon, and we just scarfed up a box of energy bars. Sure, it's still 50 essays, but the TDA rubric that's student-friendly is also kind to teachers. It makes scoring essays much less painful. We use a system of checks:
- Thesis statement: That gets a circled "T" on the paper.
- Text-based support in the form of a quote: That gets a circled "Q."
- Well-placed analysis: That gets a circled "A" (and sometimes even a few exclamation points depending on how excited or tired the grader has become).
We do very little, if any, line editing. As writers and teachers, and teachers of writing, it was difficult to train our brains to overlook glaring errors at first, but the reality of the state's holistic scoring process dictates that teachers be more concerned with content and analysis than the finer details of perfectly placed commas. Also, students who are not strong writers don't see their page saturated with purple ink, and therefore don't get discouraged from continuing to improve their essays.
After we score the essays, we divide and conquer again to review TDA results with individual students. They are eager for our undivided attention and task-specific conversation. As teachers using the same language, graphic organizers, and expectations across the board, we are sure our students are well-versed in what we expect, striving to improve, and seeing the evidence in their scores.
With manageable goals, even the students who struggle the most are making strides without feeling overwhelmed. The key is baby steps. Through scaffolding, we target the small pieces—structure and solid thesis statement writing—before moving on to analysis. More advanced writers get a nudge toward strengthening transitions and varying word choice.
The Home Stretch
As a final push before test season was upon us, the students filled out a bar graph charting their progress on TDA writing for the year. They honed in on the areas where they continued to struggle, but they also celebrated their accomplishments—and there were many.
Whether the standardized test results prove that our strategy worked is almost irrelevant. We have witnessed the progress, celebrated individual milestones, and instilled strong writing skills and structure in our students.
Although we have scored their TDAs, we have not counted them as grades to include in their average. No one seems to ask, and no one seems to care.
Joy Mushacke Smith is a seventh grade language arts teacher at Danville Middle School in Danville, Pennsylvania. Her awesome middle school team includes fellow language arts teacher Pelle Nejman, who contributed to this article, as well as social studies teachers Rebecca Blansfield and Christy Yohe, who helped develop the content discussed in the article.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Exploring the five plagues of complex text.
One of the most important aspects of teaching literacy in the classroom is text selection, the process by which teachers choose what their students will read.
For many teachers, text selection boils down to choosing something that will engage students and motivate them to read. Reasonable diversity in genres and authors should be enough. But in fact, what students read shapes how well they read and how well they comprehend the topic in far more ways than what might at first seem obvious.
Common Core State Standards emphasize the importance of student interaction with complex texts. As teachers identify which texts to select for their classroom, they should be aware of some of the unique challenges—we call them plagues—of reading and understanding complex texts.
Plague 1: Archaic Texts
Charles Dickens' classic novel Oliver Twist begins with a 98-word first sentence crammed with not only anachronistic words and phrases such as "to wit" and "inasmuch," but also with the syntax of another era—as in "in this workhouse was born … ."
People spoke and wrote differently 50, 100, and 200 years ago. They used different words, in different sequences, within different syntactical structures.
No amount of practice reading even the richest contemporary young adult fiction will prepare students to be able to read those older texts, be they Oliver Twist or the Declaration of Independence. However, the task will clearly be required of them in college, so it's important that students be exposed to more dated as well as contemporary texts.
Plague 2: Nonlinear Time Sequence
Donald Crews's book, Bigmama's, is a meditation on the nature of memory and time. The narrative subtly switches back and forth between recollections about a specific trip to the narrator's grandparents' house and recollections of a series of visits made over the course of several years. It's the similarities of those trips—and just maybe the way the memory of them all blends into one—that make the book both a beautiful read and a challenging one. Even strong readers would struggle to tell you what happened when, making it a good choice for young readers.
Plague 3: Complexity of Narrator
R. J. Palacio's popular youth novel, Wonder, uses six different narrators to tell its story. One of them is the protagonist, Auggie, a middle school student with severe craniofacial disfigurement. Auggie narrates three of the chapters; five other characters narrate a chapter each—each one in a different voice, and in one case, without uppercase letters and with idiosyncratic punctuation.
It's a useful book, first and foremost as an object lesson in kindness and understanding. But it's also a starter kit for understanding books with complex and potentially confusing narration. The challenges that narrators present can be tricky and, like the other plagues of complex text, can challenge students' comprehension regardless of their skills.
Plague 4: Complexity of Story (Plot and Symbolism)
Grace Lin's Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, is a modern story that melds the tradition of Chinese folk tales with a western journey-of-discovery narrative. Lin describes it as a bit like The Wizard of Oz retold as a Chinese fairy tale, although the novel is more complex than that; it weaves fairy tales into the plot of the book. Characters tell other characters' stories, and those stories are inserted within the novel—texts within a text.
Not only that, but the characters in the book, who are imagined to hear the fairy tales as the reader reads them, often react to the tales, which shapes the plot. It's recursive—the tales change the story; the book reacts to itself.
A plot that happens on multiple levels like this poses challenges to readers. This makes Where the Mountain Meets the Moon an especially good book to prepare students to read the complex narrative structures of William Faulkner, for example.
Plague 5: Resistant Text
Some texts set out to be difficult to understand, often because part of the point is that the story cannot be told simply. Telling it stretches the bounds of the tools storytellers have available.
Consider the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse-Five, written in the form of a memoir of a fictional writer who, like Vonnegut himself, was taken prisoner in World War II and experienced the fire-bombing of Dresden firsthand, and has set out to tell the story of that destruction, but struggles to do so.
Many readers find Vonnegut exhilarating precisely because of these resistant elements. The elements create a thrilling narrative unbounded by traditional rules. But confused readers—readers unaware that a text might deliberate try to disorient them, readers who have never struggled with that disorientation—may in fact be confused by the premise, not comprehend that they are not supposed to comprehend, and fail perhaps even give up on the narrative. What to do here?
As the example of Slaughterhouse-Five suggests, highly resistant texts are often made resistant by the use of a combination of the other four plagues. Exposure to those elements will help students unpack even the densest texts.
Poetry frequently does not conform to the "expectation of logic" that is characteristic of (most) prose. Because of this, poetry can be an outstanding tool for preparing students for resistant prose. Imagine the benefits of a lighthearted reading of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," a primer in filling in the gaps between tiny islands of meaning in a text, as a prelude to reading Slaughterhouse-Five.
Closely reading and unpacking short examples of resistant text are great ways to expose students to intense challenges without overwhelming them.
What About Student Choice?
Do students benefit from occasionally reading exactly what they and they alone desire? Yes! But it is important to recognize that the books students read and study in school are finite—a scarce and valuable resource.
From middle school through high school, they will only read and discuss with their peers a handful of books. Because these few books form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society, teachers must select them like the precious resource they are. Teachers should consider not just whether each book their students read is "good" but also what the totality of the texts they themselves choose for students achieve as part of their broader education.
It is also worth reflecting on the fact that what students "like" or more precisely think they will like is inherently limited. We can all name a handful of texts we read against our better teenage judgment—infallible though it seemed at the time—but which turned out to be transformative—instantly in many cases, years later in others.
A Balancing Act
To ensure students are ready for the rigors of college, teachers must give text selection greater attention and intentionality. This does not mean that every book needs to be selected based on a "maximum value for learning" calculation. Some should be; we hope many will. Choosing books for pleasure or on a lark is fine as long as the overall portfolio of books is intentional and balanced.
Thinking more deeply about aspects of the texts we choose for students does not exclude enjoyment as a criterion—even a major one. Part of the joy of teaching, in fact, is seeing the joy students derive unexpectedly from texts that surprise them.
Doug Lemov is managing director for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Colleen Driggs is director of professional development for the Teach Like a Champion team at Uncommon Schools.
Erica Woolway is chief academic officer of the Teach like a Champion Team at Uncommon Schools.
They are the authors of
Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy (2016, Jossey Bass), upon which this article was based
Published in AMLE Magazine
, September 2016.
Meeting new science standards can be hard for students who struggle with reading and writing.
How do you teach the new science standards to students who struggle with reading and writing? Many middle school science teachers face this dilemma, which is especially challenging for science educators at my school. Like many urban schools across the country, we have a large population of students who are behind academically; many have specific learning difficulties. We also serve a large population of English Language Learners.
How can we ensure the success of these students and bridge their literacy gaps?
The South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE) developed new science standards in 2014 that are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education. These new standards require students to develop and use models, obtain and use information, analyze and interpret data, and construct scientific arguments. SCDE also expects students to use reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills throughout their scientific processes. Meeting these requirements can be difficult for students who struggle with reading and writing. They also challenge teachers to bridge the learning gap and develop students' abilities to successfully use these higher-order literacy skills.
AMLE talks to Theressa Varner about Bridging the Literacy Gap in Science
Students are expected not only to be immersed in authentic science investigations, but also to effectively communicate what they learned during those investigations using observable and measurable information and accurate science terminology. With that in mind, I combined several tried and true, research-supported strategies to scaffold my students' learning and bridge their literacy gaps.
Prior to doing an investigation, students learn key vocabulary terms in order to communicate their findings. They use graphic organizers to compare and contrast concepts, and they engage in argument writing using evidence to support their claims.
According to Nicole Stants in her 2013 NSTA Science Scope article, "Parts Cards: Using Morphemes to Teach Science Vocabulary," teachers can use morphemes—prefixes, suffixes, and root words—to help students learn vocabulary. So, we break down words into these basic components. When students become familiar with common morphemes, they can use that knowledge to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words.
Each week, I also present four new science stems that are associated with our current vocabulary terms. The scholars keep a master list of the stems in the front of their science journal; an entry includes the stem, its definition, the concept that it is related to, and a vocabulary term. They also keep an index card book that includes modified Frayer models for each stem (see Figure 1) that they've constructed.
Another learning strategy is graphic organizers. Students use them to organize notes, classify or categorize information, or compare and contrast concepts. Some graphic organizers also require the students to draw visual models of concepts. BrainPOP (www.brainpop.com) is a great source for a variety of activities that reinforce science concepts.
Following the 5E Model
All of the lessons follow the 5E Model of Instruction: engage, explore, explain, evaluate, and elaborate. We begin with an engagement activity such as a video or question related to the content being taught, then follow up with an exploration activity. If the engagement or exploration involves text, I use a variety of strategies to help bridge the literacy gap.
For example, sometimes I think aloud while reading the text and have the students follow along. I may divide the text among the students and have them do a jigsaw activity. Each group of students reads and annotates the text using annotation marks that have been standardized and used school-wide. Then, each group presents what they have learned to the rest of the class. As the other groups are "teaching" the rest of the class, students are writing information in their journals.
When the students have completed their presentations, I provide direct instruction related to the text, followed by a check for understanding, such as exit slips or a quick write. Quick writes may require students to answer a question, write a summary, complete a Venn diagram, or write a question of their own.
Next, the students engage in an authentic lab experience or performance assessment. For example, when studying acids and bases, the students participate in an investigation using indicators to identify solutions. They then demonstrate a neutralization reaction between an acid and a base. The students record their observations and write an explanation of what happened when the acid and base were combined.
Writing a descriptive explanation is the most difficult part of a lab experience for my students. I have been working with them on writing from the third-person point of view.
Some educators make the argument for using the first-person in argumentative writing because they believe texts using "I" can be just as well-supported as those that don't. However, my students struggle with starting every sentence with "I think." If they take themselves out of the experience, they are forced to think more critically and objectively about what they want to communicate. I also encourage them to avoid the use of pronouns wherever possible and to write technically using proper science terminology.
Finally, to reinforce the concept, students write an argument based on a real-world scenario. They copy the scenario into their notebook and create a graphic organizer. I provide them with sticky notes on which they write down the evidence to show what happens when an acid and base are combined. All the students place their "evidence" sticky notes in a designated area on the board, and we group them with other similar responses. As a class, we review all of the responses and determine what evidence we want to use.
Step two requires students to repeat the process by writing an inference as to how the scenario could be solved based on the evidence we chose to use. The final step requires them to make a claim by combining their evidence and inference. We review all of the responses as a class.
After the group activity is completed, the students work independently to construct an explanation that solves the scenario. Again, students are required to write in the third person using technical vocabulary.
Bridging the Gap
It is still too early to tell what effect these strategies will have on bridging the literacy gap and helping all my students learn science concepts, but I am confident they will make gains. The strategy extends and expands their scientific reasoning and motivates and focuses their learning, helping all scholars bridge the learning gap.
Theressa Varner is a seventh grade science teacher at the ARMS Academy at Morningside Middle School in Charleston, South Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Writing and reading "I Am" poetry through different lenses.
"Read this article about The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919 and then answer the questions on the board," the teacher directed as she handed out the printed pages.
Where did the pandemic start?
How did the pandemic spread?
When did the pandemic end?
How many Americans died from influenza?
From the article, what do you think a pandemic is?
Some students began to read; some peered at the questions on the board and skimmed the article for the answers; some stared at the board, not knowing how to begin.
When they finished the assignment, they had gained neither deep understanding of the pandemic nor empathy for its victims. They had all approached the subject from one perspective—that of middle school students reading about an event that took place a century ago and affected people with whom they felt no connection.
Had students read from a variety of perspectives through the eyes of citizens, doctors, and even President Woodrow Wilson, they might have developed a deeper, broader understanding of the significance of the influenza pandemic that swept the globe, killing an estimated 675,000 people in the United States alone.
They also would have begun to develop life skills, such as empathy, openness to new ways of thinking, and the ability and willingness to think reflectively—all skills that support the Common Core State Standards.
"I Am" Poems
One of the most effective ways to engage students with a text is through "I Am" poems. The I Am poetry format (see chart above) puts the readers into someone else's shoes, so to speak, requiring them to read more deeply, closely, and critically as they explore text from a particular point of view.
I Am poems can be used in all disciplines. In English-Language Arts texts, readers can take on the perspective of major and minor characters and even characters who don't directly appear in the text, such as the residents in the convent across the street from Mr. Pignati's house in The Pigman.
Social studies offers countless opportunities for students to consider the perspective of persons in history, from General William Tecumseh Sherman to a nameless Confederate soldier or a native child forced to walk the Trail of Tears.
Science students can write as a famous scientist, as a scientific phenomenon, as someone affected by a scientific event, or even as a tree. In health classes, students can respond to articles about issues such as concussion in "I Am a Victim of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy" or "I Am a Football Coach."
Incorporating I Am Poetry
Use the following steps to incorporate reading and responding in the I Am poetry format:
Distribute the text to be read.
- Assign the reading.
- Brainstorm with the class perspectives from which the text can be viewed.
Explain how students will choose the perspective(s) from which they will re-read the text.
Assign students to re-read the text from their chosen perspectives, marking details important to them from that viewpoint. This includes text evidence and inferences based on the text.
Explain the I Am poem format and examine and analyze the text for ideas.
Invite students to revise any verbs that may better fit their interpretations and responses and to add research from other sources.
I distributed the article, "The Great Pandemic of 1918–19," to a class of eighth graders. As they read, they used a during-reading response strategy that I refer to in my book, The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension, as marginal notes. As they read, they marked in the right margin of the article:
√ = I knew this
N = new information (I didn't know this)
! = important information about the pandemic
I then assigned the activity: Write an I Am poem, "I Am a Philadelphian in 1918–1919." The class reflected on the content of the article and brainstormed various perspectives from which readers could re-read the article and write a response.
I Am a Man/Woman Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am a Child Living in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am a Victim of The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919
I Am a Funeral Director in Philadelphia in 1918–1919
I Am the Mayor of Philadelphia, 1918–1919
I added an option to encourage creativity : I Am The Great Pandemic of 1918–1919.
Students based their poems on the facts given in the article, plus personal knowledge and research about influenza, Philadelphia, or the time period.
Students read, wrote, highlighted the facts they used in their poems, added "because" statements wherever appropriate, and shared their favorite lines. Some took their poems home to revise and further research. As they read each other's poetry, the students observed that some classmates focused on the same facts in the same way, some perspectives interpreted the same facts in dissimilar ways, and some regarded different facts in distinct ways.
Hinton wrote from the perspective of a victim. Here is an excerpt:
I am one of the many victims of the Great Pandemic of 1918-1919.
I wonder about the other 675,000 Americans who died, leaving orphans or widows.
I hear about the eighteen cases of influenza that were reported in Kansas.
I see the results of the three waves of the Pandemic that occurred in late spring and summer of 1918, the fall of 1918, and the spring of 1919.
I don't want the recovered men to develop secondary pneumonia, "the most virulent, deadly type."
I am starting to become fearful for the world.
I pretend to be strong.
I feel that the Pandemic shouldn't have spread from the military to the civilian population.
I touch my chest to make sure my heart is still beating.
I worry it will be too late before this outbreak is over.
I cry at the fact it has spread to Asia, Africa, South America, and back to North America.
I am trying to believe that everything will be all right.
The same format in a sixth grade science class required students to choose a famous scientist and conduct online research about that person. Integrating their class notes, they wrote I Am poetry from the perspective of the scientists.
Phoenix wrote as Maria Tharp, a female scientist born in 1920. Here is an excerpt:
I am Maria Tharp.
I wonder if the ocean floor is really flat.
I see girl scientists being neglected.
I want girl scientists to be excepted [sic] and respected.
I am Maria Tharp.
I pretend the ocean floor is rugged and bumpy.
I feel rejected because I was not allowed to board a research vessel that was going to cross the sea when all the men did.
I touch the maps that I create.
I worry that my theory of the ocean floor is incorrect.
I cry because girls are not being able to become great scientists even if they are smart.
I am a mapmaker of the ocean floor.
From this student's poem, it is evident that she not only learned what Maria Tharp contributed to society but also recognized the struggles Dr. Tharp endured at that time in order to make those contributions, something this young reader may have missed if she had written from the perspective of a young woman living in 2016.
Choice, Creativity, Comprehension
In addition to encouraging, and training, readers to read and interpret from multiple perspectives, I Am poetry can be used as an after-reading response strategy for readers to take themselves back to the text multiple times, comprehending at a deeper level as they analyze to synthesize and manipulate text. In that way readers actually learn material.
And because writing I Am poems allows for choice, creativity, and fun, more students are engaged, the point of any academic activity.
Lesley Roessing, a middle level ELA-humanities teacher for over 20 years, is a senior lecturer in the College of Education at Armstrong State University, director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project, and editor of
Connections, the journal of the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. The ideas for this article were taken from strategies included in her book,
The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
Literature circles bring reading to life for these sixth graders.
What did we just read?
I am so bored!
Why are we reading this?
What's the point?
Sound familiar? These were some of the responses to reading that I received during my first year teaching bright and talented sixth graders.
How could 24 students, who for the most part liked reading, have those attitudes? It had to be the way I taught. How could I engage all 24 students?
I needed a reading instruction strategy that engaged the students and held them accountable. Literature circles seemed to fit the bill. Literature circles keep students accountable within their group, incorporate discussions about what they read at each meeting, and provide a choice that will keep them interested and invested.
When I decided to implement literature circles I kept five things in mind: (1) students get a choice in what they read, (2) teacher models literature circles to the class, (3) students remain accountable due to roles assigned within the group, (4) students have discussions about what they read and complete journal entries, and (5) students have a final project by which the teacher can assess comprehension and understanding.
1. Giving students a choice.
I asked my students what types of books they were interested in reading. I had an idea, but wanted to show them that they had a voice in their learning and had a choice of what to read.
After discussing the types of books the students were interested in, which included dystopia/utopia novels, I began to research new and forthcoming novels that my students had not read and that seemed interesting to their age group.
I presented a list of books to our librarian.Not only was she enthusiastic about finding the books on my list, she gave me other options from schools around the district. We came up with the following books based in part on being able to have enough copies for the students in my class:
Barcode Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn
The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau
Among the Hidden by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Life as we Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
- Enclave by Ann Aguirre
I presented the titles and authors as a book talk and asked the students to rank the books in order from those they most wanted to read to least favorite or already read. Based on the results of the survey, students were assigned to their literature circle group.
2. Modeling the literature circle.
To help students understand the basics of book discussions I modeled the roles within a literature circle by reading a picture book to the class and then leading a discussion about the book using a fishbowl strategy.
In a fishbowl strategy, a small group of students are in the middle of a circle discussing the book while the majority of the class members are listening from outside the circle.
I followed the demonstration with a video of a literature circle. As a class, we talked about the positive and negative aspects of the literature circle discussion presented on the video and how they could improve it.
Now that the students understood how the discussion should work in a literature circle, I modeled the roles of connector, discussion director, summarizer, literary luminary, and illustrator which the students would rotate through during each meeting.
3. Holding students accountable.
Students each received a schedule indicating which roles they were to play each day. Having assigned roles made the students not only accountable to read the assignment, but also helped them prepare for discussions within their group.
Students had 15 days to read their book front to back and were responsible for calculating how many pages they had to read each day to complete the novel in the time allowed. Role sheets helped prompt discussions at the beginning, but toward the end of their literature circle, students were having open discussions about what they had read and did not need their role sheet for guidance.
4. Discussing and journaling.
Before each literature circle meeting, students spent 10–15 minutes in their small groups discussing what they had read and asking questions before jumping into their book. Every student had a voice and was accountable to discuss within the group.
Students made journal entries five times during those 15 days, writing about the characters, setting, plot, problems, and resolutions. Across the five journal entries, all students increased their higher-order thinking skills. They credited the discussions with helping them understand what they had read and their ability to write about it.
5. Assessing reading comprehension.
At the end of the 15 days, students completed two final projects based on their novel.
One project was a tic-tac-toe board where students completed three small projects relating to character, setting, and plot. Students had a choice of activities such as write a newspaper, create a wanted poster, write a skit, write a song, or develop a sketchbook with captions.
Given choices, students were invested in the project and had a voice in their learning. They had the motivation to complete their projects and were enthusiastic about presenting them to the class.
For the second project, students created their own society and tried to persuade their classmates to be part of it. Since these students were reading utopia/dystopia novels, the society project fit nicely. They could implement what they knew about societies and incorporate the information they gained from their novel, including social studies, technology, math, reading, and science. Students had the option of working independently or in pairs.
To "recruit" their classmates, students prepared a Google slideshow to present to their peers. Students' slides addressed all elements of a society, including money, government, family, education, recreation, and transportation. Students developed the presentations using Google Classroom, which made it possible for me to see their progress as they added slides.
Above and Beyond
Literature circles not only improved my students' reading comprehension, they also increased their love for reading and their motivation to read.
During the 15 days we spent with literature circles, every group finished the assigned book and three finished their assigned book plus the next one in the series. One group not only finished their assigned novel, The Uglies, but they finished the whole series! I didn't suggest that they read the whole series; I simply told the class to have their novel read front to back in 15 days. They enthusiastically read not one, not two, but four novels in 15 days!
With literature circles, the students take control and the learning is driven by the students, for the students. The teacher takes on the role of facilitator—and isn't that what we really want?
Samantha Schnoor is a fifth grade teacher at Century Elementary School in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, August 2016.
A student-produced magazine celebrates middle level student voice.
In October 2015, a team of seven editors—all eighth grade boys at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia—met during lunch to compare two digital publishing platforms. They judged entries for the Cover Art Contest and debated the potential of QR codes.
By mid-November, a staff of 36 students released the fall edition of PaperBoy, a 58-page magazine focused on student culture. Within a month, the digital magazine had been read by 700 viewers in the United States, plus a dozen viewers globally, including several from Australia, Thailand, and the UK.
Why a Middle School Magazine?
Authentic writing experiences have been credited with motivating students to compose their best work. Nancie Atwell's In The Middle, along with her subsequent publications, have validated the importance of empowering student voices. Writing for a publication allows students to explore a choice topic, serve as an "expert in residence," and build social connections with peers who share common interests.
Students write in an authentic way, collaborate meaningfully, and often strengthen their personal identity. Nate reviews classic movies, Brett writes humorous pieces, Lane views video games with an intellectual lens. Voices emerge with increased confidence when students have the safety net of a team initiative.
Although a school newspaper offers those same features, a magazine offers many more and varied advantages for young adolescents. Consider that if each student is given a page for free expression, that student has complete ownership of the space. Some may choose to tell their story with images, simply select a suitable background color, or designate fonts to customize the appearance of their pages.
And, there's plenty of room for partnerships: a student writer can pair with a friend who is a page designer. A savvy mathematician can collect survey data and analyze it with a peer journalist who translates findings into narrative form.
A "newspaper column publication" requires time-consuming page formatting to ensure consistency, yet each magazine page is formatted independently. Cohesion is achieved by shuffling pages into a reader-friendly sequence.
Paper Boy wasn't always this big or this popular. Five years ago a staff of seven boys worked the entire school year to produce a 20-page publication (http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/1/).
Our first edition was a recap of an event we call Activities Day. During this biannual event, all students sign up for an extracurricular field trip or focused project that runs for half of a school day.
For our first edition, our student reporters each chose a different activity, carried old-school digital card cameras, and wrote a short synopsis of their chosen activity. They loaded their content into Glogster Edu pages and hyperlinked the pages together. The first edition went live online.
The next year, three boys who were already contributing to a library-inspired book blog were invited to try something new: input their book reviews into a Glogster page and add some images. What would they think about publishing with the PaperBoy staff?
Not only did they accept the invitation, they harnessed animation tools to create Harry Potter-like moving-news images. By pairing Activities Day articles with reviews, PaperBoy increased its readership. Merging these two small groups also helped cultivate new friendships and generate more recognition within our school.
In addition to releasing the magazine digitally, we printed each page (about 12–15 pages at that time) and hung them on a hallway bulletin board with the URL address printed in large type. "Visit http://stcmsnews.edu.glogster.com/glog-3888-3190."
Students gathered around the display to note who was caught by the camera, to chat about Activities Day, or to point out books they had read.
We were able to quickly recruit book reviewers and serious writers, but staff growth exploded when we asked, "Would anyone be interested in writing movie and video game reviews?"
We initiated a policy that limited reviewing games to those rated for teens or younger audiences; movie reviews covered those marketed as PG-13 or younger. Other popular features now include technology reviews, top ten lists, student survey results (favorite products, music, or hobbies), and teacher interviews. Offering a menu of categories can spark student interest, but individuals always feel free to propose original story ideas.
This is not a club and there are no cuts. Students "join" the staff by submitting artwork, a creative story, a feature story, or a review.
Platforms for Publishing
Students need a canvas on which they can work. Any digital word document can serve this purpose. If you select a specialized publishing platform, first ensure that it complies with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (www.coppa.org). Then, check end-user agreements and subscription costs.
We started with Glogster Edu (edu.glogster.com), which offers a multitude of design options, but requires a subscription for a "class account" where multiple students can create. The class account is key for its faculty-editing privileges.
This year, many students opted to work with Lucidpress (www.lucidpress.com). Our director of academic technology, Hiram Cuevas, added Lucidpress to our Google School account as part of our suite of apps. In addition to being free, Lucidpress allows us to share pages with digital collaborators. We collate our finished pages into a singular pdf document and upload them to issuu.com. Issuu requires a subscription, but it is far less expensive than printing paper copies and allows student work to be shared in the digital domain.
We do not offer a journalism class. We do, however, ask writers to model best practices. Reviewers are required to read professional reviews on Amazon or video game websites. Feature story writers are reminded to cover the 5Ws and 1H (who, what, when where, why, and how). All interview questions and student surveys are submitted to the faculty advisor before they are sent to their target audience.
We publish what students write as long as it is appropriate for our middle school community and respectful of the values and ideas of others. If the story needs extra work and doesn't make it in the upcoming edition, editors help the students revise it so it can be published in the future.
With regard to reviews, if a student dislikes a product, he is welcome to share his views in an objective way based on details. He may be asked to balance his perspective by citing a few strengths or by sharing a marketing quote from a vendor.
When we started the magazine, our school had two computer labs that housed a total of 30 desktops. We are now a 1:1 school, which has been an asset. If your school isn't there yet, allot more time for students to complete their pages.
How does our process work for staff members? A "draft deadline" is set for each edition, and a Google Document is established for story proposals. Students sign up digitally to request a story and/or to complete a page design. Drafts are submitted to the faculty advisor and a section editor via Google Drive. Feedback is returned within a week so students can make revisions and resubmit by the following week. At that time, page design begins.
Students search for copyright-free images and record all image links for the advisor to check. Text is pasted into the designed page and then shared with the advisor and editors for final review. Study halls and lunch periods have provided ample time for team communication and collaboration. If a one-to-one writing workshop is needed, a student can meet with the advisor or an editor during recess.
To celebrate the release of each edition, all contributors are invited to the library for a pizza party during lunch. We've never asked English teachers to give extra credit to staff. I do share the publication directly with teachers and parents to ensure that students' efforts are recognized.
You can see our fall 2015 edition at http://issuu.com/stc678/docs/pb246.
A Match with Middle School Culture
Launching a student publication presents challenges, but those very challenges empower student growth. With flexibility and creativity, the entire staff develops problem-solving skills to meet team goals.
From the start, we have been able to offer a meaningful realm for adolescent development. Ownership, leadership, peer relationships, and collaboration skills are all cultivated in authentic ways. Digital citizenship, writing skills, and technological savvy are embraced purposefully.
If you want to engage students in active literacy and celebrate middle school voices, a magazine may be the perfect match.
Lisa Brennan is the middle school librarian at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, May 2016.
Incorporating writing into math helps students understand their thinking.
In the minds of middle grades learners, math and writing typically don't go together. With the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) things have changed!
If you'd asked me not too long ago about the challenges of teaching pre-algebra to adolescents, I would have talked about procedural questions such as "What is the square root of 121?" or "What is the formula for volume of a sphere?" Today my response is very different because what counts as math in the middle grades is also shaped by notions of academic language within and across content areas.
Beyond the Numbers
More than strictly procedural fluency and factual recall, students today solve language-rich, complex, real-world application problems. For example, a problem from a unit on the laws of exponents today might read something like: "A shipping box is in the shape of a cube. Each side measures 3c^2d^2 inches. Express the volume of the cube as a monomial."
In short, adolescent learners need to not only know the exponent laws, they also need to apply prior knowledge about volume as they interpret and process a multi-step word problem.
Finally, and perhaps at the center of CCSS math reform, learners need to articulate on paper the thinking behind their solutions—step by step. Common Core math pushes students to think deeply and apply what they know and what they are learning. Freewriting on paper can help take adolescent learners there.
Sometimes students reject writing when it comes to solving mathematical problems. However, exploratory writing—thinking aloud on paper—can provide access to higher-level questions, word problems. Or, to paraphrase a quote by British novelist E. M. Forester, "I'll know what I am thinking when I see what I say." Discipline-specific exploratory writing allows problem solvers to tease out their reasoning and work behind each step of a solution with words.
Stop and Jot
One technique that I use is called "Stop and Jot." The Stop and Jot strategy is a brief moment when everybody pauses and writes about what we've been learning. I tell my students that they don't need to worry about correct grammar, spelling, or punctuation—they simply need to write their thoughts about the day's math activities: what they understood or what they are still trying to figure out. The idea is for students to see what they and their classmates are thinking.
For example, when a September lesson centered on the laws of exponents, the Stop and Jot prompt went like this: "Describe what law of exponents would help solve this problem. What do you already know about this question?"
To guide them, I provide the following instructions: "Write between 3–5 sentences about the day's problems. You can write about your understanding or you can extend a problem. You can write a question you have or you can explain how you solved the problem. Write silently and independently. We'll share our thinking on paper with desk mates."
Here's what three students wrote about the shipping box container:
"The question is asking me to multiply, so I use power to a power law."
"I know it is multiplication because in the volume formula you multiply; I know the volume of that shape is length x width x height."
- "I am not sure how to write the exponent law using those numbers."
Talking About Math
The great thing about Stop and Jot is that we can choose to freewrite as often or as little as we need. Students only need a journal, a pen or pencil, and a quiet place where they can write and then share with peers. Having my math students see what they think on paper has made them confident about doing math and talking about math!
Rebecca Stelfox is an eighth grade math teacher at Northeast Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Published in AMLE Magazine
, April 2016.