OUTLINING YOUR FIRST UNIT

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORERecently I received an Email message from a reader who wanted to know what to include in an “ideal” first unit.

In my new book, Literacy and the Common Core, I offer a sample 5th-grade unit that can be adapted easily for most middle grades.[1] While not a complete unit plan, it will give you a sense of direction:

WEEK 1: (RIT 5.1, RIT 5.4)

  • Teach the Comprehension Process. See The Literacy Cookbook[2] and the TLC “Comprehension 101” page for details.[3]
  • Teach 4 key critical reading skills (paraphrasing, inference, vocabulary in context, inferring main idea). Students practice paraphrasing and inferring from various texts. See The Literacy Cookbook[4] and the TLC “Comprehension 101” page for details.[5]

WEEK 2: (RIT 5.2; W 5.2)

WEEK 3: (RIT 5.2, 5.7, 5.8; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2)

  • What are the central ideas in this text? How are these supported? (I Do, We Do, You Do)
  • Repeat with multiple texts (from print and digital media).
  • Introduce Socratic Seminar (See The Literacy Cookbook[7] and the TLC “Socratic Seminars” page for materials and a recipe) and students practice discussing the texts.

WEEKS 4 and 5: (RIT 5.5, 5.6; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2)

Using multiple texts focused on the same topic/event/person/idea:

  • Identify the genre and structure [mini-lessons on genre and structure]
  • Compare and contrast the structures/genres of the different texts.
  • Compare and contrast different points of view.
  • For each text: What are the central ideas, and how are they supported?

WEEK 6: (RIT 5.5, 5.6, 5.9; SL 5.1, 5.2, 5.3; L 5.1, 5.3, 5.4, 5.5, 5.6; W 5.2 and 5.9b)

Use multiple texts to build an argument: Given a question, refer to the different texts to respond to the question in writing (for practice/homework) and in Socratic Seminars.

In addition, here are two other factors you should consider when planning this first unit:

[1] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 104-5.

[2] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 7-13.

[3] The TLC “Comprehension 101” page can be found at http://www.literacycookbook.com/page.php?id=5.

[4] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 13-43.

[5] The TLC “Comprehension 101” page can be found at http://www.literacycookbook.com/page.php?id=5.

[6] Sarah Tantillo, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2014), 131-144.

[7] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 125-136.

[8] Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002).

[9] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 28-36.

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Reading, Writing, TLC Website Resources, Paraphrasing, Inference, Argument, Evidence, Reading Informational Text, Unit-planning, Resources, Nonfiction, The Literacy Cookbook BOOK, Main Idea, Roots, Grammar, Socratic Seminars, Lesson-planning, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Vocabulary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

MORE AWESOME MEDIA RESOURCES: To Kill a Mockingbird

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, you will want to see Frank W. Baker’s “film study guide” online. In response to my recent TLC post, he sent this link for me to share with y’all:

 

www.frankwbaker.com/tkam

Here is his contact info if you would like to thank him personally:

Frank W. Baker
media literacy clearinghouse
www.frankwbaker.com/mlc
Author: Media Literacy In The K12 Classroom (ISTE)
Follow him on twitter: @fbaker

Posted in ELA Common Core Standards, Media Literacy, Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

COMMON CORE AND MEDIA LITERACY: Some Excellent Resources

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREIf you’re looking for ideas and resources for how to teach Common Core media literacy standards, check out Frank W. Baker’s excellent series of MiddleWeb posts on close reading and media literacy, including:

Part 1: Close Reading and What It Means for Media Literacy

Part 2: Close Reading: Visual Literacy through Photography

Part 3: Close Reading of Advertising Promotes Critical Thinking

Part 4: How to Close-Read Films and Videos

Note: Part 4 refers to To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, and Titanic.

PS: If you don’t already subscribe to MiddleWeb, which focuses on teaching and learning in grades 4-8, I highly recommend it!

 

Posted in Analyzing the Common Core Standards, Close Reading, ELA Common Core Standards, Media Literacy, MiddleWeb, Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Teaching TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD? Here are some tools…

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREI’ve met a bunch of folks recently who are planning to teach Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this year, and several have been kind enough to share their resources.

***

1) First, there is a whole book devoted to the subject, by my friends Susan Chenelle and Audrey Fisch!

Here is a blurb from their flyer:

“IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD NEXT YEAR, now is a great time to order the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and start thinking about how it can enhance your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while helping you meet the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units.

“IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts to use in any unit and then setting your students up for successful engagement with them. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and how to use multimedia with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on TKAM as well as our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun on the New York Times Learning Network, for models.”

***

2) Second, check out Socratic Seminar Questions on To Kill a Mockingbird from Jamie Sterlacci at Great Oaks Charter HS in Newark. For more information on how to run Socratic Seminars effectively, check out the TLC “Socratic Seminars” page.

In a future blog post, I will say more about teaching novels in general. For now, if you haven’t seen the dozens and dozens of resources on the TLC “Analyzing Literature” page and the “Literary Response Paper Guide” page, I highly recommend you check them out!

Finally, if you have any TKAM materials to share, please chime in or Email me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

Posted in Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Nonfiction, Novels, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Resources, Socratic Seminars, TLC Website Resources, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

WHAT TO CONSIDER WHEN SELECTING TEXTS FOR K-12

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE
[This post is adapted from my recently-released book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and it appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on July 20, 2014.]

In Reading without Limits, Maddie Witter advocates for reading instruction that includes a mixture of shared, guided, and choice/independent reading,[1] and I support this approach. Identifying books for the latter two categories is fairly straightforward (albeit dependent on your budget): you need leveled, high-interest books. But how should we select the books that every student must read? While we want students to fall in love with reading through text choices that excite and interest them, we also need to cover some ground in each grade—skills and content—and ensure that students are adding to their background knowledge base. When selecting texts that everyone in the class will read—especially in high school—it’s important to expose students to certain classics so that they don’t arrive at college wondering who Shakespeare is. E.D. Hirsch has written extensively about the importance of building cultural literacy and its role in strengthening literacy, period.[2] In this same vein, The Literacy Cookbook explains how prior knowledge drives the comprehension process.[3] It’s a process of accumulation: Reading relies on and builds knowledge, which then improves comprehension, and more reading builds more knowledge and more comprehension.

Another factor that should influence selections is text complexity. The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading speak to this issue very directly with Standard #10 (in the category of “Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity”): “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”[4] The standards at each grade level specify the grade level or band of text complexity at which students should be reading. For example, in grade 5, Reading Informational Text Standard #10 is “By the end of the year, read and comprehend informational texts, including history/social studies, science, and technical texts, at the high end of the grades 4–5 text complexity band independently and proficiently.”[5]

The importance of pushing for text complexity cannot be overstated. Research (particularly by Jeanne Chall[6] and Donald Hayes[7]) has shown that the recent dumbing down of textbooks is correlated with a drop in SAT scores. Reflecting on Chall’s findings, Marilyn Jager Adams observes, “If students had neither practiced nor been instructed with reading materials as hard as the SAT passages, then one could hardly expect them to read the latter with competence and confidence.”[8] Adams argues for vigilant use of rigorous reading materials, noting that “the challenge … lies in organizing our reading regimens in every subject and every class such that each text bootstraps the language and knowledge that will be needed for the next.”[9] In other words, you shouldn’t start with the most rigorous texts, but you should organize instruction in ways that ensure your students tackle those rigorous texts in every grade. She recommends directly teaching key words and concepts, gradually building students’ knowledge base, and then increasing the depth and complexity of the texts.

Along with textual rigor, we must also consider cultural and gender-oriented relevance. In The Trouble with Boys, Peg Tyre notes that one reason boys struggle in school is that their elementary school teachers often select texts that boys consider “too girlie,” and when faced with such books “they decide they don’t like to read.”[10] Indeed, as much as I love the Common Core Standards themselves, I am not wild about all of the suggestions in Appendix B for grade-level appropriate texts.[11] For instance, the grade 4-5 list made me wonder, Does everyone really have to read Black Beauty? Really? Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman raise this same point in Pathways to the Common Core, noting the book’s “formal, archaic language” and adding that in the Common Core’s recommended reading list, “contemporary children’s literature clearly takes a backseat to classics.”[12]

So, OK, even though some girls might love it, Black Beauty might not be for everybody. But how should you decide which texts to require in your curriculum and which to save for optional or independent reading? Along with the issue of gender, here is another important angle to consider: What are the demographics in your school? This question raises at least two other questions: 1) How will you entice students with culturally-relevant selections? And 2) How will you widen students’ perspectives through the lenses of diverse texts? It’s not enough to draw students in; we also have to show them the wider world. Discussions around these two questions often sound like conversations about nutrition: How can we achieve a healthy balance?

In addition to contemplating cultural and gender relevance, we must also consider the curriculum’s themes, potential author studies, and a range of genres. Let’s examine these ideas more closely….

What themes/topics will you address this year—both in your subject and in other content areas? For example, if you’re an English teacher, have you talked with the history and science teachers about interdisciplinary opportunities and appropriate texts to build background knowledge? English teachers should not be the only ones using books in their curriculum. When we began designing the ninth-grade curriculum at North Star Academy, we decided that in addition to an array of books in English and history, students would also read The Hot Zone[13] (an engrossing narrative about the Ebola virus) in their biology class.

Which authors have written enough grade-level appropriate books to warrant consideration for potential author studies? One school I worked with made the following choices:

GRADE AUTHOR TITLES
4 Louis Sachar Holes

Small Steps

The Boy Who Lost His Face

There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom

5 Jerry Spinelli Maniac McGee

Stargirl

6 Mildred D. Taylor Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry

Let the Circle Be Unbroken

7 Walter Dean Myers 145th Street (stories)

Slam

Monster

8 William Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet

Selected sonnets

Which genres do you want/need to address? Look to the Common Core Standards for guidance. The K-12 Reading Informational Text Standards require that we pay persistent attention to nonfiction (and, again, across the curriculum, not just in ELA classes). The K-12 Reading Literature Standards consistently mention “stories, poems, and drama,” but they approach them differently in different grades. Here is a quick overview culled from the Standards:[14]

Grade Genres Mentioned in the RL Standards
K Stories; poems; story books with illustrations.
1 Stories; poems; books.
2 Stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures; poems; songs; two or more versions of the same story (e.g., Cinderella stories) by different authors or from different cultures.
3 Stories, including fables, folktales, and myths from diverse cultures; drama; poems; stories written by the same author about the same or similar characters (e.g., in books from a series). Note: Drama begins in third grade.
4 Drama; poems; stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.
5 Drama; poems; possibly a graphic novel, multimedia presentation of fiction, folktale, myth, poem; stories in the same genre (e.g., mysteries and adventure stories).
6 Drama; texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories).
7 Stories; drama; poems; a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period.
8 Stories; drama; poems; suspense; humor; modern fiction; myths, traditional stories, religious works such as the Bible.
9-10 Drama; poems; stories/novels that include flashbacks, mystery, tension, surprise; world literature.
11-12 Eighteenth-, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature; stories; poetry; drama (including at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist); comedy; tragedy; texts that include satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement; multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry).

Whatever texts you select, it’s important to remember that your choices will significantly shape student learning. “We’ve always used that book,” “We have 500 copies of it,” and “It doesn’t really fit, but the kids like it” are not good-enough reasons to keep a text. So, as much as possible, let’s make thoughtful, purposeful decisions.

[1] Maddie Witter, Reading without Limits (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013).

[2] E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987); see also The Knowledge Deficit: Closing the Shocking Education Gap for American Children (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

[3] Sarah Tantillo, The Literacy Cookbook: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 7-13.

[4] The Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards. This particular standard appears on page 10.

[5] The Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards. This particular standard appears on page 14.

[6] Jeanne S. Chall, Sue S. Conard, and Susan H. Harris, An Analysis of Textbooks in Relation to Declining SAT Scores (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1977).

[7] Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, and Michael F. Wolfe, “Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores,” American Educational Research Journal 33, no. 2 (1996): 489-508.

[8] Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 4-5.

[9] Marilyn Jager Adams, “Advancing Our Students’ Language and Literacy: The Challenge of Complex Texts,” American Educator 34, no.4 (Winter 2010-2011): 10.

[10] Peg Tyre, The Trouble with Boys (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2008), 151. See also pp. 149-153.

[11] The Appendices can be downloaded here: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards

[12] Lucy Calkins, Mary Ehrenworth, and Christopher Lehman, Pathways to the Common Core (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2012), 38.

[13] Richard Preston, The Hot Zone (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

[14] The ELA Common Core Standards can be found at: http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/download-the-standards.

Posted in Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Reading, Reading Informational Text, Reading Literature, Research, Resources, Text Selection, Unit-planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE is NOW AVAILABLE!!!

WOOHOO!!!!  It’s HERE!  Click HERE to order your copy now!LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE

Posted in Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Resources | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Common Core Standards for Language: FREE GRAMMAR DIAGNOSTIC TOOL!

LITERACY AND THE COMMON COREMany of my clients these days are writing/revising curriculum, and it occurred to me that they could use a Grammar Diagnostic Tool. It would be nice if all of our students arrived performing at grade-level when it comes to grammar, but that is simply not happening yet. The Common Core Standards for Language are rigorous (How is your 3rd-grader with producing simple, compound, and complex sentences? Can s/he pick an abstract noun out of a lineup?), and as a result, many students suffer from Grammar Gaps. But where are they, exactly, on the trajectory for the Language Standards?

I asked around but could not find an appropriate Common Core Grammar Diagnostic Tool. So I made my own.

This Tool targets grades 3-5, where the most fundamental skills are addressed. It includes a separate spreadsheet for each grade, listing the Language Standards that specifically deal with grammar (there are some for spelling), offering either sample assessment questions or suggestions about how to create those questions, and including resources for teaching or assessing these standards. Most of the resources are Web-based, but I’ve also referred to pages from Jeff Anderson’s MECHANICALLY INCLINED, my favorite book of all time for integrating grammar with writing instruction.

This Tool will enable you to create customized Grammar Pre-tests for your students. I recommend assessing students on standards two grades below where they should be, as well as the grade they are supposed to be on, so you can easily identify their needs.

Teachers: I suspect you will need to devote time to filling in Grammar Gaps in your first two units (or so), then you can spend the remaining four units addressing the grammar standards for your grade level.

Here’s a snippet of the 3rd-grade spreadsheet:

STANDARD CCS # SAMPLE QUESTIONS RESOURCES
Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs,

adjectives, and adverbs in general and their

functions in particular sentences.

L.3.1a OPTIONS: 1) Matching with definitions. 2) Given a sentence with a HIGHLIGHTED word, tell what part of speech it is. 3) Label (diagram) sentences. http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/definitions.htm
Form and use regular and irregular plural nouns. L.3.1b

 

Sample questions: 1) There are 25 childs/children in this class. 2) How many mans/men live in this town? http://web2.uvcs.uvic.ca/elc/studyzone/330/grammar/irrplu.htm
Use abstract nouns (e.g., childhood). L.3.1c

 

See the “Abstract Nouns Quiz” here: http://www.english-the-easy-way.com/Nouns/Abstract_noun_Quiz.htm http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/parts-of-speech/nouns/Abstract-Nouns.html
Form and use regular and irregular verbs. L.3.1d

 

Sample questions: 1) We begun/began to work on the test. 2) I have wrote/written a story. 3) They had went/gone to the library several times before. MECHANICALLY INCLINED by Jeff Anderson, page 174, for “25 Irregular Verbs to Know.”

Click on this Grammar Diagnostic Tool, Grades 3-5 to download the entire Tool, which is also available on the TLC “Grammar” page.

For additional useful tools like this one, please check out The Literacy Cookbook Website, The Literacy Cookbook, and my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action, which will be out in early August (available for pre-order now!). I hope this is of use to y’all. If you have any comments or suggestions for improvement, please Email me at sarahtantillo@literacycookbook.com

Cheers,
ST

Posted in Assessment(s), Curriculum, ELA Common Core Standards, Grammar, Resources, TLC Website Resources, Trajectory Analysis, Unit-planning | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

SUPER-HELPFUL VOCABULARY-BUILDING WEBSITE: http://www.VerbalWorkout.com

The Literacy Cookbook COVERVerbal Workout (www.verbalworkout.com) is a tremendous resource, particularly for high school teachers (and parents) who want to help students strengthen their vocabulary.

It includes key vocabulary words (esp. SAT words) from many, many commonly-read texts and provides lists (sortable in various ways, such as by chapter or frequency) and quizzes.  Moreover, it’s a great source to see lists of commonly-read texts, esp. if you are writing/revising curriculum:

–  Books Most Commonly Assigned in the 2011-12 HS Year According to a Renaissance Learning Survey

–  Books Most Commonly Read by High School Students (via Accelerated Reader)

–  Books Most Cited by AP Literature Open Response Questions Since 2000

–  College Board’s 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers

I recommend viewing the two brief (2-4 min.) video tutorials so you can see how to gain maximum benefit from this resource.  Then you’ll be on your way!

PS–I added this link to the following TLC pages: Building Robust Vocabulary, ACT Prep, AP Prep, and SAT/SSAT Prep.

Many thanks to Jamie Sterlacci at Great Oaks Charter High School in Newark for this lead!

Posted in Curriculum, Resources, Test Prep, Text Selection, TLC Website Resources, Vocabulary, Vocabulary in Context | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DOCUMENT-BASED QUESTIONS FOR ONE AND ALL

LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE[This post is adapted from my forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), which is scheduled for release in August, 2014 and available for pre-0rder now!  This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on May 13, 2014.]

Topic-Driven Assignments vs. Question-Driven Assignments

One day when I sat down with a high school English teacher who was revising her curriculum, she presented this problem: “Last year, the research paper took forever. And the results were terrible. I can’t go through that again. We need to do something different.”

Of course, cutting the research paper was not an option. So we tried to figure out what hadn’t worked.

“What was the assignment?” I asked.

“They had to write about a controversial topic,” she said. “And a bunch of them wrote about abortion, of course. Some of them wrote about drugs.” She shrugged. “Even though I collected their notes and outlines, their papers just made no sense.”

I nodded. I had been in her shoes and knew exactly how she felt. Awful.

We identified two primary causes of this problem: 1) The choice of topics—in fact, the assignment itself—was too broad, and 2) Students didn’t know how to build a coherent argument in part because they didn’t know how to pull out relevant evidence and explain it.

In a moment I’ll explain how we addressed these two issues. This scenario is, unfortunately, far too common. Because teachers know that giving students choices can strengthen their investment and interest in assignments, they often make the mistake of offering too many options or options that are too broad. “Write about whatever you want” (more or less the equivalent of “Write about a controversial topic”) almost never results in a well-argued, well-supported research paper. With a topic as the focus, in fact, students fail to realize that they need to build an argument. Topic-driven assignments tend to produce reports, which are little more than elaborated lists or descriptions. Moreover, the drive to accumulate information often leads students (whether purposefully or not) to plagiarize. And when every student is writing about a different topic, it’s impossible for the teacher to stay on top of how well they are all handling the material.

By contrast, question-driven assignments push students to build arguments in response. The difference is stark. Compare two papers: one called “Euthanasia,” the other “Why Is Euthanasia Controversial?” The former could say almost anything; the latter already has a clear focus.

The teacher I was working with decided to design a question-driven assignment, and in order to ensure that her students developed the reading and writing skills they needed, she also decided to limit the texts they would use so that she could do lots of modeling and closely monitor their progress. In short, she planned to use the DBQ approach….

How and Why to Take the Document-Based Question (DBQ) Approach

Though originally the purview of history and social studies teachers (they were first used on AP History exams and New York State Regents social studies exams), DBQs have begun to appear more widely across the curriculum. In fact, more and more teachers have started to realize that DBQs can prepare students in any grade or subject to be more effective at reading texts and writing about them.

The DBQ approach is simple: you give students an open-ended question and a half-dozen or so relevant texts, then require them to build an argument using the documents as evidence. It’s easier than a research paper because students don’t have to look for the documents. More importantly, it gives you a way to guide and monitor students’ progress since everyone is working with the same texts. You can and should model each step, from how to closely analyze different types of texts (essays, political cartoons, graphs, charts: anything!) to how to identify relevant evidence, how to organize ideas and information, and how to synthesize evidence and explanations logically to build compelling arguments.

By using an array of texts, you can also work on increasing text complexity.  As Bambrick-Santoyo, Settles, and Worrell note, you can “embrace the CCSS’s ‘ladder of text complexity’” by beginning with a simple passage on a topic to introduce key words, then move into a more complex passage that requires the same content knowledge but also adds new language.[1] This concept of starting with essential vocabulary and increasing complexity from text to text is important to apply throughout your instruction, of course, but it is particularly easy to see how it can work with the DBQ approach, where students read multiple texts that address the same question.

You can also differentiate DBQ projects in various ways. For example, you could group students based on their reading levels and supply them with relevant texts of different complexity (recognizing that while they might start in different places, they all need to move forward) so that they all have something to read independently, in addition to the shared texts that are on grade-level. Several middle school teachers I worked with did just that. They identified different-leveled texts about African-American historical figures (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson), taught students a common set of vocabulary (“compromise, stereotype, protest, boycott, prejudice,” and so on), modeled reading and writing strategies with an anchor text about Harriet Tubman, and created reading guides that included both generic questions (such as, “How did your historical figure’s childhood experiences contribute to his/her work later in life?”) and questions targeted to their assigned books. The reading and vocabulary-building work led to the ultimate writing assignment, which was an essay addressing these questions: “What were your historical figure’s greatest contributions to the Civil Rights Movement? In what ways did your historical figure show grit and determination?” Students also worked in groups to create timelines and posters, and participated in debates. PS: I’m not going to lie: creating this project was a ton of work for the teachers, but once it was done, they could use it again because it worked wonderfully.

If you want to add a research component to a DBQ, you can also teach some mini-lessons on research steps (such as evaluating Websites for bias, and so on) and require students to find some number of additional documents to support the ones already given.

Here’s the bottom line: taking the DBQ approach—in any grade or subject—can ensure that students learn how to read and write effectively about important questions in your class.

[1] Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Aja Settles, and Juliana Worrell, Great Habits, Great Readers: A Practical Guide for K-4 Reading in the Light of Common Core (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 15.

Posted in Argument, DBQ Approach, ELA Common Core Standards, Evidence, Explanation, Literacy and the Common Core BOOK, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

THESIS BRAINSTORMING AND ORGANIZING

The Literacy Cookbook COVER[This post is adapted from my book, The Literacy Cookbook (Jossey-Bass, 2012). My forthcoming book, Literacy and the Common Core: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass), is scheduled for release in August, 2014. This post appeared in slightly different form as a MiddleWeb Guest Article on March 23, 2014.]

It amazes me that anyone can write an entire essay without a thesis. But I’ve seen it done. I think this is why so many students hate to write.  They pour hours and hours into pages and pages, only to be told that what they’ve written is unacceptable.  After all that effort: unacceptable? Sadly, yes.  An essay without a thesis might have half a dozen great ideas in it, but without an organizing principle, it doesn’t hold together.

Our job is to spare students (and frankly ourselves) this agony by coaching them on how to write an effective thesis.  The solution is to give students practice and not let them go any further until they’ve generated a viable thesis. Once they’ve got it, then they can move on to the rest of the piece.  Otherwise, you’ll need to spend more time conferencing with them. Eventually, with enough practice, they’ll get the hang of it.

Although of course there are numerous ways to arrive at a thesis, it helps to have a systematic approach to start with.

Here’s one for an essay based on a text:

BRAINSTORMING FOR YOUR THESIS
  1. What TOPICS/ISSUES does this text deal with?  List as many as you can think of. (Ex: How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss[1] is about SELFISHNESS, GENEROSITY, LOVE, PERSONAL GROWTH, etc.)
  2. What QUESTIONS does the author raise about these topics/issues?  Pick 1-2 topics to focus on.  (Ex.: Why are people selfish?  What are the consequences of selfishness?  How can people overcome selfishness?)
  3. What MESSAGE(S) does the author convey about your selected topic/issue?  Sometimes it helps toFIND CONNECTIONS among a few of your favorite topics and EXPLAIN THEM in relation to the book.(Ex.: People can overcome selfishness with love from the people around them.)

Once students have pinned down a message/argument they want to focus on, they can craft a thesis.  If writing about a work of literature, they should include the title, author, and specific aspect(s) of the book that convey this message.

Here are some sample theses based on novels:

  • In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston,[2] Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry[3] highlights the conflicts that Lutie has with Boots, Johnson, and Jim to show the difficulty that women, both married and single, have in constructing a life for themselves.
  • In The Street, Ann Petry’s characterization of Mr. and Mrs. Chandler underscores the subtle yet pervasive racism that plagues the whole African-American community.

Once the thesis is in place, students can map out the rest of the essay. Here is a completed model of the “Unpacking Your Thesis Organizer” found on the TLC “Writing 101” page (available as a FREE download):

THESIS/Argument Statement: In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie, the main character, searches for equality and independence, and she learns some important lessons along the way.

 What are the different parts of the argument that your essay must prove?

Janie searches for equality. Janie searches for independence. Janie learns some important lessons.
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

  1. Why does Janie have to search for equality?
  2. How does Janie search for equality?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?

 

What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

  1. Why does Janie have to search for independence?
  2. How does Janie search for independence?
  3. How successful is she?  Why?  What does she learn?
What questions must you answer to prove this part of your argument?

 

1. What lessons does Janie learn?

 

 

 

 

 

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Janie searches for equality through her relationships with men.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Because her relationship with Joe frustrates her so much, Janie relishes her freedom after he dies.

Write a topic sentence that answers at least one of the questions in the above box.

 

Janie’s struggles teach her some essential life lessons.

This organizer can be adapted to suit other genres, as well. The key is to model HOW TO ASK COMPELLING QUESTIONS because questions drive the writing process from three angles:

  1. Good questions enable writers to build strong arguments.
  2. Good questions help writers to look for and find useful evidence.
  3. Writers must ask good questions in order to analyze and support their arguments.

Initially, you’ll have to provide the questions.  Then you can remove the training wheels and let students generate their own.  No matter what you’re doing, you should begin by providing a model of what you’re looking for.

[1] Seuss, Dr. (1957).  How the grinch stole Christmas!  New York, NY: Random House.

[2] Hurston, Z.N. (1998).  Their eyes were watching God.  New York, NY: Perennial Classics. (Originally published 1937.)

[3] Petry, A. (1991).  The street. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. (Originally published 1946.)

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