Reading Comprehension 101: Five Strategies for Scaffolding Challenging Texts for Not-English Teachers

Welcome, Teachers!

A few weeks ago, our instructional coach Val Hoose asked me to help her plan and run a professional development session on reading comprehension for teachers who teach math, science, social studies, and various electives, as well as for new and experienced English language arts teachers. I readily agreed.

Below, you’ll find all of the information from our professional development session, as well as links to various resources you may share with your colleagues. You may also participate in our professional development session from the comfort of your own home! Just follow the directions below! Continue reading

My Soul in the Mirror

Howdy, dear reader!

Here is my response to the first Quills and Thrills writing prompt: Use imagery and figurative language to define the importance of writing in your life.

For me,
writing is like
looking at my soul in the mirror.
And I don’t mean writing for
school
or for Continue reading

Curriculum Planning: A Seven-Step Process

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This year has been a year of unofficial professional development. I’ve had to develop not one but three new curricula mostly from scratch. All of the things I took for granted in the past were suddenly challenges: what books should I teach? Well, crap. I haven’t read most of the books available in the book room. How do I teach advanced writing skills? What do I do when my seniors still don’t understand the difference between literary analysis and plot summary? Needless to say, I made a lot of mistakes.

But mistakes are good. They are humbling, and grounding, and extremely educational. I learned that I need to go back to the standards, something that I thought I was doing at my old school but, as I learned this year, I was lazy about it then. I kind of knew the standards, but I really knew what I wanted to teach my students. Then I wondered why they weren’t getting higher scores on their standardized assessments at the end of the year. And, I’ll admit that I didn’t look at the standards as closely as I should have this year either. I was overwhelmed, and I was in survival mode. But today, I am focusing on my learning, not on my mistakes.

I’m moving to the ninth grade next year. Officially, my job is to realign the ninth grade curriculum by bridging the communication gap between the freshman teachers and the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth-grade teachers. I’m expected to help the freshman teachers take the awesome things that they are already doing individually and channel their ideas into a collaboratively designed new curriculum that aligns with the new standards, the new PARCC assessment, and the English department goals.

After spending a considerable amount of time developing my English 11, English 12, and AP Literature curricula this year, and after developing the first two of units for my English 9 curriculum, I’ve realized that my original method for curriculum mapping was missing one key component: I didn’t fully understand the standards. I looked at the standards as separate entities requiring separate lessons instead of as connected skills. I treated the CCSS document as a checklist instead of as a roadmap. Once I “covered” a standard, check! I was done! No need to cover that again!

I forgot that the standards are end of year goals, and they need to be addressed constantly. They also were not designed to be taught in isolation. For example, Anchor Standard RL 1 requires students to cite textual evidence to support analysis of a text. To truly achieve student mastery, teachers need to expect their students to use that skill any time they complete an assignment targeting RL 2 (analyzing theme), RL 3 (analyzing characters), RL 4, (analyzing words and phrases), RL 5 (analyzing authors choices), and RL 6 (analyzing point of view) – and those are just the Reading Literature standards.

Any time students write anything, they should be expected to pull textual evidence, which means they should always be writing about a text. Every time students are expected to interact with a text, the specific tasks should target one of the five standards categorized as Key Ideas and Details and Craft and Structure. The two standards under Integration of Knowledge and Ideas are much more specific and would best be taught using specific lessons, but even these lessons require students to cite textual evidence (RL 1), and they can easily be connected to RL 2-6. Basically, everything the students do in class should target multiple standards.

In order to prepare for next year and become better acquainted with the 9th grade standards, I broke out my handy-dandy notebook and outlined the standards, intentionally moving parts of one standard to another to make connections and create a unit framework. Observe:

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The CCSS Writing standards are on the top, and my simplified notes are on the bottom. As you can see, I’ve narrowed down the specific skills the students will need to learn. You will also notice that I’ve arranged the key skills to align with the specific text type. Simply by looking at my notes, I now know that I need to have my students write at least three large texts this year: one argumentative text, one expository text, and one narrative text. Suddenly, the standards seem much more manageable. 

Woah! Light bulb alert! The standards list the most important skills first, and the least important skills last. Don’t believe me? Think about the PARCC assessment. Every question on the ELA PARCC assessment targets R.1: using textual evidence to support claims. Appendix A specifically states that Argumentative Writing (W.1) is the most important of all three types of writing (skip ahead to page 24 for Common Core’s explanation). As for Language, L.1 requires students to “demonstrate command of the conventions of Standard English when writing or speaking,” and SL.1 focuses on the students’ ability to collaborate and communicate with any person in any situation.

So, when preparing students for high-stakes assessments (especially if they are expected to pass a standardized test to graduate), prioritize the standards listed first over the standards listed last. 

It isn’t enough to simply break down the standards into manageable pieces, however. The next step is to connect the Writing standards to other parts of the curriculum. I did this by connecting each piece of writing to the texts my students will read next year: The Odyssey by Homer, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I know that I want to start the year with writing in order to establish good habits from day one, and I also know that the students will need something text-based to write about (this targets the RL 1 standard as soon as possible). From what I can remember about my high school experience with The Odyssey, the students will also need some prior knowledge about Greek gods and goddesses before tackling the text, so they’ll need to read some informational texts and conduct some research (Ooh! Reading Informational Texts, here we come!).

The answer is obvious, isn’t it? Teach writing habits and writing structure by writing an expository text on Greek gods and goddesses. Since this is the first expository text I will expect the students to write, the focus will be on basics such as sentence structure and purpose, paragraph structure (I use the eleven-sentence paragraph format for many reasons, which I plan to explain in a later post), and Standard English. If you refer back to the Common Core State Standards, you’ll see that lessons on paragraph structure target RL. 1, W.2a, W.2b, and W.2c, and lessons on sentence structure target L.1a, L.1b, L.2a, and L.2b. When trying to pound the nitpicky specifics of grammar and mechanics into students’ heads, I’ve found that it is best to teach the lessons after the students have realized that they need it, not before. By creating the need, you create relevance. And by creating relevance, you create engagement. Engagement leads to learning. Bam.

But wait! I’m not done with The Odyssey! In fact, my hypothetical students and I haven’t even started reading it yet! Now that I’ve started building proficiency toward the expository Writing standards and the Reading Informational Texts standards (and notice that I said started, not accomplished), I can segue into another standard: Reading Literature.

I’m going to pause for a minute to ask you a question, dear reader. Why do we teach literature? Seriously. Take a moment to ponder this question. Why do we insist on making kids read stories that were written however many years ago? Why read poetry, or drama, or any other works of fiction? If you don’t have an answer to these questions, you had better figure it out before you make the kids read a text, and that answer should go beyond “because the district makes me do it” or “because it is in the standards.” If you cannot articulate the purpose for reading a specific text, your unit will be unfocused and pointless.

Why am I going to read The Odyssey with my students? Several reasons: because it provides insight into the unchanging human condition across cultures and eras; because it is alluded to in many of the texts the students will be expected to read before graduation; because it is an excellent mentor text for students to use to analyze various narrative techniques; because it teaches the students valuable lessons about their own lives; because reading strong writing teaches students to become better writers; blah blah blah. I could go on and on.

While reading The Odyssey, we’re going to focus mostly on the Reading Literature standards – but I’ll assess my students’ progress on those standards mostly through writing, which means that in addition to teaching the Reading Literature standards, I’ll also have to teach Writing standards. Endlessly. How do I possibly do that in the little time available for this unit? By teaching reading through writing, and by assessing students’ analysis of craft and structure through writing.

Most of the big important Reading Literature standards require the students to analyze technique: How is the theme developed? How are characters developed? How does the diction impact the reader, the mood, the tone, the setting, etc.? How does the structure create suspense or surprise? How does the point of view relate to concepts outside of the text? These are excellent questions to ask the students because they are all standards-based, and they would make excellent exit tickets, discussion questions, one-pager topics, and bell-ringers. Notice how every question will require students to pull textual evidence to support their claims. Oh, and they need to avoid plot summary while answering these questions, because the standards require analysis, another skill that requires explicit instruction (check out my post on teaching analysis here).

So, as we’re reading The Odyssey, I need to provide lessons on:

  • Specific techniques used by writers
  • How to analyze texts for those techniques
  • How to write about the significance or impact of those techniques
  • How to avoid plot summary while writing a textual analysis
  • Writing strong sentence structure and paragraph structure (because let’s face it, kids need constant exposure to proper sentence structure and paragraph organization).

Oh, and I need to make sure I’m preparing the students for the summative assessment as well, which has been on my mind while planning the entire unit. Whew. That’s a lot.

Speaking of, on to the summative assessment. After carefully studying various techniques, the students need to put these techniques into practice by writing their own narrative poem. I will expect them to use the same techniques they found in The Odyssey, but requiring them to create something ups the ante, nudging some students to proficiency and others to mastery. Furthermore, it also targets the narrative Writing standard and reinforces the standards taught while reading.

Geez, and I haven’t even created my daily plans yet. That comes last.

When designing curriculum, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. In fact, that is true for any type of leadership position. After all, isn’t that what good teachers do? Lead their students through a year’s worth of learning opportunities?

When planning curriculum, it is tempting to start with strategy. Teachers have to do something with their kids every day, so they are first tempted to ask themselves “what will I actually do with my students during this unit?” and “what will daily instruction look like?” instead of “what is the point of teaching this unit?”

I’ll say it again, you have to know where you’re going before you can possibly know how to get there. 

Don’t plan the daily details until you know the structural details. You cannot fill a house with furniture before you’ve built it.

But once you have planned the structural details, you can use Marzano and AVID strategies to create daily plans. You can decide when to use technology, when to hold a Socratic Seminar, and how to balance individual, small group, and whole class activities. You can add time for routine lessons and tasks such as notebook checks and unit-based vocabulary quizzes.

Finally, you need to make sure the students are aware of the standards you’re teaching. I do this by writing unit objectives and daily learning objectives on the board and by listing the targeted standards on rubrics, project descriptions, and my class website. I even have the standards hanging in my classroom so I can point to them during lessons.

Basically, when planning curriculum at the beginning of the year, follow these seven steps:

  1. Break down the Writing standards. I start with writing because most standardized assessments test students reading comprehension and analysis through writing.
  2. Connect to anchor texts. Basically, your summative assessments for each literature unit should be one of the three types of writing, if not a combination of all three.
  3. Break down the Reading standards. Make connections! How can the Reading standards support the Writing standards?
  4. Use “smaller” Reading standards to create text-based writing tasks. Each task’s prompt should target one of Reading Literature standards 2-6. These could be bell ringers, one-pagers, discussions, exit-tickets, etc.
  5. Design writing lessons connecting smaller Language and Writing standards to reading tasks. This is where you can create mini-lessons to tackle the tedious rules of Standard English, discuss diction, practice embedding quotes, or reinforce sentence structure and paragraph structure.
  6. Create daily plans using technology, AVID Strategies, and Marzano Strategies. Make sure you’re communicating the learning goals to the students, preparing them for the summative assessment, and checking their progress for proficiency!
  7. Fill in routine lessons and tasks. Design vocabulary quizzes to reinforce reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, plan time for notebook checks, etc.

Analysis Shmanalysis: Making Analysis Accessible for All Students

Man, I haven’t published anything in a while. I let life get in the way. And Netflix. Lots of Netflix (New Girl, anyone?).

I also think that I’ve been a little burnt out on writing, and I know I’ve been burnt out on teaching. It’s been difficult to bring myself to spend brainpower on anything aside from lesson planning, grading, and all of the administrative tasks required of teachers. Basically, I haven’t wanted to spend any time on anything extra. Hence the Netflix.

But perhaps I’m leaving that strange funk because I’ve been thinking a lot about analysis lately, specifically about why my seniors are struggling with it so much. I started this school year thinking that they would already know how to analyze a piece of text. Isn’t it something that they’ve had to do since sixth grade? I mean, check out the progression of textual evidence and analysis in the RL. 1 standard:

  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts (ELA) specify that by the end of their sixth grade year, students should be able to “cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 6.1)
  • When they get to seventh grade, they should be able to “cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” (RL 7.1)
  • The eighth grade standards are even more specific, specifying that they need to “cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports analysis of” blah blah blah. (RL 8.1)
  • When they get to high school, they need to “cite strong and thorough textual evidence…” (RL 9-10.1)
  • And by their junior and senior years, they should be using textual evidence for everything mentioned before, but they should also use it to determine “where the text leaves matters uncertain.” (RL 11-12.1)

Whew. That’s a lot of fluff, don’t you think?

So, why are my students struggling with analysis so much?

If you’ve been paying any attention to anything related to education in the United States (which I’m assuming you have since you’re reading this), then you’re already aware that this is the Big Scary Year for teachers and students living in Race to the Top states. In just four short weeks (hot damn, that’s soon!) my students will be taking the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessment for the first time. Never heard of PARCC? Other Race to the Top states opted for the Smarter Balanced Assessment System. Same difference.

The whole point of the CCSS and the PARCC assessment is to prepare our student for college and choice careers. The fact is, American students have already fallen behind many international students, and it’s freaking everybody out. Ergo, the CCSS and the accompanying assessments (born of the grand Pearson Demon, but that’s a bedtime story for another day) have graced American educators with their unwelcome presence.

Don’t get me wrong; I support the CCSS for English Language Arts. I like how the standards build on each other, how the standards are designed to support student learning. I think they make sense. Sure, they’re super rigorous, and yes, the Math CCSS are ridiculous, but I truly believe the ELA standards will do good things for our students as long as ALL teachers, not just ELA teachers, are given the tools, resources, and professional development necessary to teach the standards well. Hopefully, my analysis of teaching analysis (HA!) will be helpful for other teachers, not just myself.

Now, back to analysis. Check this out: I plugged all of the anchor standards for reading literature and reading informational texts into Wordle to create a beautiful word cloud. After eliminating the common words, the image below is what popped up:

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Notice that the most commonly used word in the reading standards is “text.” Well, duh. So, after eliminating “text,” along with some other unnecessary words such as “two” and “e.g,” I created the lovely little cloud below.

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It appears “analyze” is the most commonly used verb in the reading standards, followed closely by “determine.” Let’s dive deeper into the reading standards though to make sure we really understand just how much today’s high school students have to analyze a text.

The first two Reading Literature Anchor Standards state:

  • 1: Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • 2: Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

Both of these standards require students to “determine” something, yet the standards seem to use the verb “determine” as a synonym for “analyze” in order to avoid sounding too repetitive and redundant. You can’t “determine” a theme of a text without some degree of analysis.

Analysis: meaningless buzzword, or meaningful skill?

Since the CCSS have come out, the concept of analysis – whether used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective – has become a popular buzzword for teachers, administrators, and politicians alike (well, maybe not politicians), yet it is the skill that challenges students the most. This is unfortunate considering it is also the number one skill required by the standards. In order to remedy this problem, we must ask why the problem even exists.

I believe (and I don’t have any scientific proof to back this up, just my own experiences) that despite their best intentions, many teachers don’t actually know how to articulate what analysis is. They know how to do it, they know what it looks like when they see it, but they cannot actually articulate what it is and how to do it in kid-friendly language.

– OR –

They think they know what analysis is because they’ve never had to define it before. Considering the standards require the students to start analyzing a text in the sixth grade, it’s possible that teachers in the later grades assume that the students already know what it is and how to do it. I certainly did at the beginning of this year. Then, students turn in “analytical” papers that mostly contain plot interpretation, and because that is a step above plot summary, the teacher is satisfied. I’ve done that before too.

I’m not trying to cast blame on America’s teachers, but it is a hard fact that we have to accept if we hope to make progress. Society expects teachers to be experts in their fields, and it is very unforgiving of teachers who don’t “know everything.” When I first started teaching, my friends would give me a hard time for not knowing specific historical facts or for not being able to recall obscure grammatical rules off the top of my head. They would say, “You should know that! You’re a teacher!” Many people don’t understand that teachers often have to review and relearn the material they’re planning to teach the week before the lesson. It’s almost as if people forget that we are human, and then they punish us for reminding them of that unfortunate fact.

I think that’s why many teachers are afraid to admit when they don’t know something or when their understanding of a concept differs from their colleagues’, especially something as heavily stressed as analysis. I’m not blaming teachers for not knowing how to distinguish it from plot interpretation or how to teach it, I’m blaming society for creating a culture in which teachers are afraid to admit that they need help with something. Instead of acknowledging the problem and confronting it head on, with support, they ignore it, hide it, and struggle to resolve it on their own.

How can our students hope to learn what analysis is if their teachers can’t figure out how to explain it to them? I don’t know about other teachers, but I was never taught how to teach analysis in college. I don’t remember being taught how to analyze a text. I just remember writing a paper for English 201 and everything fell into place. Someone must have taught me how to analyze though, right?

Not necessarily. Tulane University’s article titled “Teaching Analysis” suggests that analytical skills come naturally to people who read a lot:

“What is it that enables English teachers to find so many interesting things to say about something we’ve read? The simplest answer is this: all the other things we’ve read. More specifically, strong readers are those who have read a very great deal and who can thus carry into every act of reading something like a vast catalogue of memories of other texts. When we look at a new piece of prose, we do so ‘through the lens’ of the many dozens of other things we’ve read, texts that are at once very similar and very different from the one at hand. When we look at a new text this way, all sorts of unique features in the piece we are reading become visible, all sorts of ways that this particular piece is saying something new or making an unfamiliar move – or, conversely, repeating ordinary messages in fairly standard ways. In the simplest sense, experienced readers are able to supply the sort of context necessary to make a text seem more and more thickly dotted with meaningful moments and significant turns.”

Does that mean that only our avid readers will be able to dive deep into a text and use analysis to tease out the subtle nuances that make it worth reading? No. I refuse to believe that. It just means that teachers need to collaborate with each other to make sure their expectations are consistent across the curriculum, and that they know how to break down the concept of analysis in a way that is accessible to students.

Okay, so what is analysis?

Google’s Definition of Analysis

When unsure about what something is, many of our students rely on the handy dandy Google machine to give them more information about it. The problem is if Google doesn’t give them a useful answer, they tend to give up right away. Shucks.

This is a problem because Google’s definition of analysis is like flat fountain soda: watered down and boring: “Analysis: A detailed examination of the elements or structure of something, typically as a basis for discussion or interpretation.” Okay. Well, yes, that does seem to be a definition of analysis, but is it useful to our students? Does it tell them how to analyze something? Not really.

Dictionary.com's definition of analysis
Dictionary.com’s definition of Analysis

I found Dictionary.com’s definition of analysis to be much more useful, with three relevant definitions to academic analysis: “1. The separating of any material or abstract entity into its constituent elements; 2. This process as a method of studying the nature of something or of determining its essential features and their relations; 3. A presentation, usually in writing, of the results of this process.”

I really like Dictionary.com’s definitions because they all relate to the steps of analysis. In order to analyze a text, you must first separate it into its constituent elements: theme, character development, tone, etc. Then, you have to consider how a particular element relates to something bigger within the work. For example, how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written? It goes beyond the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes. Students must also consider how the characters’ behaviors change from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Finally, the students must be able to present their analysis to others. Usually, this is done through an analytical essay, but it can also be done orally in a discussion, or through a presentation.

While exploring the concept of analysis, I stumbled across this wonderful resource from Austin Peay State University that explains the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and literary analysis. Upon reading the words “plot interpretation,” I was first confused, then excited. I had never heard of plot interpretation before. Check out the differences between the three types of writing below, or read the entire article here.

  • Plot Summary: A condensed description of the basic plot points of a text. Plot summary does not address the deeper meaning, nor does it contain opinions. It simply explains what happened in the text.
  • Plot Interpretation: This is when a student describes details they’ve had to infer from the text, yet they still haven’t reached the deeper meaning. This is like picking up on someone’s body language or subtle sarcasm without understand why they’re acting that way. For example, students may infer that Lady Macbeth is experiencing extreme guilt because she is sleepwalking and having nightmares of blood-soaked hands that cannot be cleaned, yet they don’t take it further by connecting her guilt to the overall theme or the work or to the unchanging human condition.
  • Literary Analysis: Literary analysis requires you to first break down a text into its constituent parts, and then look at how each part contributes to the deeper meaning of the whole. You must first be able to comprehend the text (which is required to write an analysis), make connections within the text (which is required to interpret the plot), and then finally consider how one piece of the text contributes to a deeper or hidden meaning. Often, this deeper or hidden meaning relates to the human condition in some way.

Now that we know the difference between plot summary, plot interpretation, and plot analysis, let’s revisit the questions I posed about The Great Gatsby for the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?” A student who is at the plot interpretation level would simply discuss the obvious socioeconomic statuses of East Egg, West Egg, and The Valley of Ashes, and the corresponding characters’ attitudes about money. In order to reach the literary analysis level however, students must also consider how the characters’ behavior changes from one setting to the other. They must consider why Fitzgerald decided to place the car accident in the Valley of Ashes, why Tom’s infidelity occurs in New York, and the significance behind Daisy’s infidelity in West Egg. What does this suggest about the differences between the two affairs? What does it suggest about the pains and desires of the characters themselves? Now, how does this all relate back to the prompt, “how does Fitzgerald use the setting of The Great Gatsby to make a statement about the political or social issues of the time in which it was written?”

Literary analysis is as much about asking the right questions as it is about making connections between the elements. Ideally, the questions will require you to make connections between the elements. The Great Gatsby questions might lead a student to discover the relationship between setting and characters, and that relationship will then tie into a theme that is applicable to the political or social issues of the time in which it was written.

In literature, everything is connected, like a series of roadways. Students just have to discover the roadways. The question is the on-ramp; the connection is the road. Sometimes, a connection will be like a large, twelve-lane highway, easily accessible to everybody. More often, students will have to take the smaller streets or the tiny back roads to discover the connections. They may explore a possible connection before realizing it dead-ends far from where they hoped to be, but it may lead to something even better if they remain open-minded and willing to explore the unfamiliar.

How to Teach Analysis: A Step-by-Step Guide

Teaching analysis this year has been like building a sand castle with dry sand. I’ve had to break old habits while developing new ones: not an easy task when teaching high school seniors who think they know everything already. But it has forced me to rethink and redesign my practice, and I’m grateful for that.

  • Comprehension: As we already know, before students can analyze a text they first have to comprehend it. This simple truth is evident in the CCSS elementary standards. Tracing the RL 1. Anchor Standard back to grades one through three reveals a great deal of questioning, recalling, retelling, and summarizing. These skills lay the foundation for our next step: plot interpretation.
  • Plot Interpretation: Looking again at RL. 1, students in grades four and five are expected to start making inferences about plot, but first they must be able to identify the cause and effect relationships within the text. Initially, they have to be able to recognize basic patterns, using key details from the text as evidence of these patterns. As they progress through the grades, they need to recognize more complex patterns within the text, as well as across multiple texts and across disciplines.
  • Literary Analysis: Once students have a solid understanding of the plot and its inferences, they must then break the text down into its constituent elements. This includes theme, character, setting, plot, conflict, imagery, diction, symbolism, etc. Most prompts identify the element for students to analyze, but others are less restrictive. After choosing an element (or elements), the student must then refer back to the text in search of tangible, text-based clues that indicate the abstract, intangible concepts. When looking for clues, it may be necessary to forge connections that don’t already exist. Analytical essays are persuasive, after all.
  • Articulation: Finally, students must be able to articulate their analysis in a way that is both clear and concise. What’s the point of all the great analysis they’re doing if they don’t have the language to express their complex thoughts? I believe that organization is essential. Students need to know what concept to introduce first, where and how to use textual evidence to support their claims, and how to support their textual to their claim by writing support or analysis sentences.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 2.38.17 PMWhen first introducing students to analytical writing, it is helpful to give them a formula to follow. Think of it as writing training wheels because without it, their writing is going to fall back into in the comfortable familiarity of plot summary. I like to use the eleven-sentence paragraph outline format in which every sentence serves a specific purpose. Not only does it scaffold the organization process, but it also provides a great opportunity to segue into sentence structure which the kids will eat up because they are learning it out of necessity, not because it’s on a to-do list. Vocabulary acquisition will also come much more naturally to the students at this point, and this is when I like to review lists of abstract nouns and transitions. Finally, when it is time to transform the outline into a rough draft, show the students how to embed textual evidence.

By the end of the unit, your students will have meticulously written something they’re proud of both because they’ve delved deeper into a text than ever before, and because they were able to articulate their complex thoughts in a way that makes sense to others. Basically, they’ll feel like a bunch of smarties, and they’ll have evidence of their intelligence! Isn’t that a great feeling?

So, next year when I get the chance to teach literary analysis all over again, with a (somewhat) clean slate, I’m going to start by identifying where my students fall on the plot summary, plot interpretation, literary analysis spectrum so that I can scaffold their learning appropriately without having to backpedal. I’m going to start with the ALA Protocol on the word “analysis,” explain the differences between plot interpretation and literary analysis, and force my students to forge connections where they don’t already exist with conceptual analogies. I’m going to focus on the skill of analysis rather than the product, because if the skills are strong, the products will be too.

But first, I’m going to finish watching New Girl on Netflix, because holy crap, I wrote way more on analysis than I originally thought I would. Thanks for sticking with it through the end!

(Somewhat) Random Thoughts about Writing

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Once, in eighth grade, my teacher had us write a short story. I don’t remember the details of the assignment, but I remember the story I wrote. It was about a bear and a trout, and as soon as I put my pencil to paper the floodgates opened and I had to get the entire story out of my head and onto the paper RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Unfortunately, I had language arts for second period (or maybe it was fourth period. I can’t remember), so I had to secretly scribble my story onto paper when my other teachers weren’t looking. It was very frustrating. I was finally able to finish my story on the hour-long bus ride home that afternoon. Between the bumps and my haste, it was nearly impossible to read the climax and the resolution.

I’ve always been a confident writer. I read a lot as a kid (like, a LOT), so writing has always come naturally to me. I could never tell you why a sentence was well written or how to fix one that wasn’t, but I consistently composed strong sentences and focused paragraphs.

Here are some secrets for you…

…I didn’t know the difference between a compound sentence and complex sentence until I had to teach it to my seventh graders three years ago.

…I didn’t know what an Oxford comma was until one of my friends posted an Oxford Comma meme to Facebook when I was in college.

…I didn’t know what an adverb was until I looked at a grammar worksheet two years ago and thought, “Oh! Well why didn’t anyone explain it like that before?”

…I didn’t know what a subjunctive conjunction was until I picked up It was the bestof sentences, it was the worst of sentences by June Casagrande and quickly read a chapter while walking to my car in the parking lot three weeks ago (don’t judge me. I survived).

Why was I able to write well without “knowing” the rules?

Because I read…a LOT…as a kid!

And by reading, I learned the rules. I just didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate those rules.

I believe that reading and writing is like learning a language. Think about it: language is completely arbitrary. You call something a chair because every English speaker agrees that the thing with four legs and a flat surface for your bum is called a chair. It’s completely arbitrary. The word sound “chair” won’t mean anything until it is learned.

Momentary aside: Perhaps the only words that are not arbitrary are onomatopoeias, but that’s only because we are imitating the sound they make and calling it a word.

When learning how to speak a language, whether it is your first language or your second, you learn best by constant exposure to that new language. Babies are constantly exposed to language from the moment their little ears develop in their mother’s womb. Second language learners greatly benefit by being immersed in the new language, and it is frequently said that the best way to learn a new language is to live in a foreign country for a year.

Writing works in the same way. Once you have the foundation, the basic skill of decoding the arbitrary symbols on the page, you can immerse yourself in written language by reading.

Why was I such a confident writer in middle school, high school, and college when I didn’t even know the difference between a compound and a complex sentence? Because I had already been exposed to strong writing through reading, much like the person who learns a new language by living in a foreign country for a year. Does that mean that I didn’t really need to learn the difference between compound and complex sentences in order to be a good writer? Well, yes and no. While I was a good writer before, I believe that learning those specific rules helped me to become an even better writer today.

Yet another thing to consider, however, is that most kids today don’t enjoy reading!

Typing that hurt my soul a little bit.

What does that mean? Well, most students haven’t been exposed to as much strong writing as their literate peers, which means that they require much more explicit instruction in both writing and reading. Sentence structure doesn’t come naturally to them because they haven’t learned what strong sentences are supposed to look like. Their diction is weak because they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate their complex thoughts and ideas. Their papers are poorly organized because they haven’t had as much experience with how organization impacts the reader’s comprehension.

So, what should you take away from this crazy English teacher ramble?

Read. Read a lot. Read what you enjoy reading.

Read books, read magazines, read newspapers, read the articles on Facebook, read short stories, read instruction manuals, read letters, read signs, read poetry, read drama, read textbooks, read EVERYTHING. Read to your little brothers and sisters.

The best way to improve your writing is to read a lot of strong writing.

And when you have children of your own in ten years or so, read to them every night.

And I know I always tell you not to start a sentence with and, but I’m the teacher and I can do what I want. ;)

Not sure where to start? Just ask a crazy English teacher!

Try this. Or this. Or this.

Oh, and my teacher submitted that story about the bear and the trout to the literature magazine.

It wasn’t chosen. Darn.

Red Pen: A response to the Monday Poetry Prompt

EnerGel pens are like crack at my school. So much so, that the English Department spent $600 on pens alone.  Good job, EnerGel.
EnerGel pens are like crack at my school. So much so, that the English Department spent $600 on pens alone. Well done, EnerGel.

Holy crap. I haven’t written a poem in years. I used to write poetry all the time back when I was still young and unfazed by what others thought about my eclectic combinations of words and emotions. Now that I’ve been tainted by age and experience, I care far too much about what people think.

BUT, since my goal is to improve my creative writing skills, I figured I should participate in the Monday Poetry Prompt I stumbled across while perusing the most recent posts tagged with “writing”…particularly since I need practice in order to write a creepy sing-songy rhyming thing for Josiah Remington’s character to whisper maliciously in the next chapters of The Six Provinces of Debris.

Anyway, since I’m supposed to be grading right now instead of writing (naughty teacher), I figured I would write something related to success and failure, as dictated by my iconic (though neglected) red pen.

Here were the rules:

  • You have 20 minutes or less
  • The title should be an item (instrument, utensil, etc.)
  • A call to someone/thing
  • The phrase “what will you say”
  • A type of bird
  • At least 25 lines
  • And the words: plum, nearsighted, string, open, gate, slip.

Red Pen

What will you say

if I don’t make the grade?

If I just fly away

like a raven?

Or a dove?

What will you say

if I slip?

if I fall?

Nearsighted – candor,

tethered to dreams?

I know what I’d say

if you couldn’t appease –

if you were tied

by string

to a withering dream.

I know what I’d say

if you dyed your face

like a plum

from wondering right

while stepping wrong.

I’d say “open a casket”

or “unlock a gate,”

the only importance

is what you make

of your fate.

Ramblings from Florida

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I’m in beautiful Florida this week for spring break, and it is obviously very different from New Mexico. First of all, there is water everywhere! And what is up with all of the green stuff growing from the ground? Where is all of the dirt?

Oh. Right. On the beach.

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On the flight out here, I was finally able to finish reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. It was an excellent read about a dystopian society in what used to be Chicago. I was quite tickled during our first flight because we had a layover in Chicago and I was reading a story that takes place in Chicago, and because I’m a huge nerd who finds joy in small coincidences.

I travel a lot, and this isn’t my first trip to Florida, but I can’t help but think about my students. I know! It’s spring break! I’m not supposed to think about work while on vacation, right?

But here’s the thing: many of my students have never left New Mexico. Some of my students have never even left their hometown! When reading Divergent, I was able to connect my prior experiences visiting Chicago to the setting of the book, which might be why Roth decided to set the story in dystopian Chicago instead of a dystopian made-up city. It helped me to comprehend and connect to the story, and isn’t that what we want our students to do when they read, too? Connect to the story?

Now, back to Florida. Kinda. Imagine you grew up in a small town where the only naturally occurring body of water is the mostly dried up Rio Grande River. You need sprinklers to keep your grass alive, so most homes have yards full of beautiful rock gardens and a few drought-resistant plants. When reading a story that takes place in Florida, you’ll read about yachts, waterways, drawbridges, and hibiscus flowers. I can tell you right now, most of my students will not know what a yacht is.

Something language arts teachers love to do is give students books that they can relate too. We live in New Mexico, so we just read The Last Snake Runner by Kimberley Griffiths Little which takes place at Acoma Pueblo during the time of Oñate. Now that we’ve finished the book, the students are going on a field trip to Acoma with the social studies department. It’ll be a great learning experience for them.

As expert readers, we know that the beauty and joy of reading comes from experiencing new places and experiencing new things without ever leaving home, but that’s because we have either the prior knowledge necessary to connect to the story, or we have the skills necessary to seek out those connections. Heck, for avid readers, prior knowledge was often acquired from something we read before!

So, my point: how can we hook students into the cycle of reading for learning and building to more reading for learning and building at a young age? It reminds me of something I read by Kelly Gallagher in his book Deeper Reading (and I don’t have the book with me, so forgive me for any errors). He says that as readers, we have many reading branches that continually grow into new branches over time. For example, as a student, I grew a branch for books about magic after reading the Harry Potter series, which led to other YA series such as Hunger Games, which led to dystopian books such as Divergent. After reading and enjoying Kite Runner, I developed a branch for books that take place in Afghanistan, which lead to me reading more books about Afghanistan, but it also led me to reading books about different cultures, such as Ceremony. This led to more Native American literature, but it also led me to historical fiction as well. Each branch leads to more branches of your “reading tree.”

Having my students read a story that takes place near their hometown is a great way to hook them into reading, but now I have to help them develop new branches on their reading tree.

Exposing them to different genres is helpful, but we must also nurture the need for prior knowledge. Reading a book about Florida? Take a trip to Florida with the whole class using Google Earth. Give the students the information they need in order to feel connected to the reading. Then expose them books that might start new branches on their reading tree.

They may not be able to physically visit Florida, but they can read about it. And that’s almost the same thing.

*Disclaimer: I typed this entire post on my phone. It was hard. Please forgive any typos and mistakes.

Digital Conversations: Pros and Cons (Well, mostly pros)

As an English Language Arts teacher one of the tools I rely on is my students’ ability to discuss writing and literature in an appropriate manner. I teach seventh grade. My students are professionals at inappropriate behavior.

When I try to facilitate class discussions, they usually do one of two things:

1) They clam up and suddenly become fascinated with whatever is under their grubby fingernails, or…

2) They all shout out ideas at once, competing with each other instead of bouncing ideas off of each other.

The first scenario is not as common as the second, which is a good thing. With the second, at least my students are excited and thinking about the topic. The thing is, I often feel like the basket in a game of basketball – but instead of the players working together, every player is trying to grab the ball (my attention and approval) and make a basket by sharing their ideas without any help from their teammates. In basketball this is catastrophic. It has similar results in the classroom.

My solution was to use My Big Campus’ discussion feature as a way to force the students to talk to each other instead of to me. Unfortunately, this did not work out as I had hoped. When planning the lesson I blissfully envisioned a discussion similar to those I have on Facebook with fellow teachers, or those that take place in a college environment. It wasn’t until after implementing the lesson that I realized how naïve my expectations were.

The students had no problems posting their ideas to the discussion. The hitch came when they started commenting on each other’s posts. Instead of questioning each other or adding to each other’s ideas, the students became very complimentary of one another. They also became grammar Nazis.

At first, I found it sweet when a student would post, “good idea” or “you did a good job.” I was ecstatic when I read, “make sure you capitalize your I’s” and “you used the wrong there – it is their not there.” However I soon realized that they weren’t thinking deeply about what the other students were saying. Instead, they were using the compliments as a cop-out to thinking critically about their responses.

Two hundred notifications later, I realized that I am still the basketball hoop, my students are still competing, but now they all have their own basketballs to shoot. Duck for cover!

This led me to the realization that I can’t expect my students to lead productive discussions in class or on the computer without first teaching them the appropriate skills. Whether typing or speaking, the students need to know how to bounce ideas off of each other without dominating and how to ask clarifying questions such as “can you elaborate on that” or “can you give me an example?” The skills are the same no matter what medium we use.

Time to hit the books (so to speak).

Expert Advice

I have a book called Academic Conversations by Jeff Zwiers and Marie Crawford (2011) which identifies five core conversation skills that students must have to be successful conversationalists in an academic setting:

1) Elaborate and clarify

2) Support ideas with examples

3) Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas

4) Paraphrase

5) Synthesize conversation points

It hadn’t occurred to me just how much academic conversations rely on the higher order thinking skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy until I read that chapter.

I continued to read, but was disturbed when the Zwiers and Crawford argued that technology was not a good tool for developing academic conversational skills. They argue that because of the lack of face-to-face communication with digital discussions, “exploration of a topic, the building of ideas, and emotional connections are often missing.” They also argue that “popular modes of communication…are mostly ‘one-way’ [and] do not adjust their messages or negotiate meanings with their viewers” (2011).

I stopped reading Academic Conversations. I disagree with their claims that the lack of face-to-face communication does more harm than good and that digital modes of communication have static meanings. Instead of fighting technology integration, the authors should be asking how students can use technology to explore topics and build ideas.

The toxic statements ate away at my brain for a few days until today, when I stumbled upon an article called “The Must Have Guide to Helping Technophobic Teachers” by Dr. Abir Qasem and Tanya Gupta. They argue that “using technology in education is about redesigning pedagogy by taking advantage of available technology, and not just substituting faculty time with technology.”

Qasem and Gupta go on to argue that technology actually facilitates productive conversations instead of hindering it. The reasoning behind this is two-fold:

1) Studies have found that face to face conversations lead people to instinctively mimic the opinions of others instead of fighting for their own

2) People tend to think more creatively and are more productive when working in solitude (read more about this in “The Rise of the New Groupthink”)

*Read these statements with caution*

Do not assume that all group work is bad. Group work is extremely effective when each member has time to individually develop his or her own ideas before coming together as a group.

UNM taught me that group work is a valuable strategy for encouraging all students to participate. Group work can also be a great tool for teaching students to think outside the box and value different perspectives.

But here is the thing: according to the “The Rise of the New Groupthink” by Susan Cain, brainstorming sessions stifle creativity instead of stimulating it. Woah.

Apparently, “when we take a stance [that is] different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.” (Cain, 2012)

This makes sense, considering what most of our students want most is to be accepted by their peers (want proof? Click here).

But how does all of this information apply to both spoken and typed class discussions? I am getting there, but first I will condense the information into a list of facts for your sanity and for mine:

  • Students lack academic conversational skills and need explicit instruction in these skills.
  • There are five core conversation skills that students must have to be successful conversationalists in an academic setting: 1) Elaborate and clarify 2) Support ideas with examples 3) Build on and/or challenge a partner’s ideas 4) Paraphrase 5) Synthesize conversation points.
  • Studies have found that face to face conversations lead people to instinctively mimic the opinions of others instead of fighting for their own.
  • People tend to think more creatively and are more productive when working in solitude (read more about this in “The Rise of the New Groupthink”).
  • Group work is extremely effective when each member has time to individually develop their own ideas or part of a project before coming together as a group.
  • When people take a stance that is different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection.
  • Adolescents are constantly seeking social recognition and acceptance from their peers.

So here is the whammy: Digital discussions enable students to think independently while also being socially rewarded by their peers.

But first, in order for them to be effective, I have to teach my students how to pick each other’s brains effectively…and because they use similar conversational skills as speaking when typing, I will once again pick up Academic Conversations (and ignore the technology bashing sections). Perhaps in doing so, my students will start to discuss as a team, bouncing ideas off of each other before shooting for the basketball hoop. Swoosh!

Wish me luck!

Works Cited

Cain, Susan. “The Rise of the New Groupthink.” The Sunday Review. The New York Times, 13 Jan. 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-new-groupthink.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all&gt;.

Gopnik, Alison. “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind? – WSJ.com.” The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, 28 Jan. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2012. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203806504577181351486558984.html?fb_ref=wsj_share_FB&gt;.

Quasem, Abir, and Tanya Gupta. “The Must-Have Guide To Helping Technophobic Teachers | Edudemic.” Edudemic. Edudemic, 3 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Feb. 2012..

Zwiers, Jeff, and Marie Crawford. Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk That Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2011. Print.