Quick Tip Tuesday: A look at essays

January 20th, 2009

In her book, Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, Kimberly Hill Campbell argues that shorter texts – essays, poems, memoires – often provide a way into reading and literature for reluctant or struggling readers. She shares her discovery of the power of short texts to support her students’ skills as readers, writers, and students of literature. In this week’s tip, Kimberly talks about how she uses essays about politics and current issues in her classroom to help students become critical readers.

Essays About Issues and Politics
Essays designed to inform and persuade are part of our culture, and I want students to spend time reading and analyzing examples of these essays. My long-term goal is for students to make the reading of these essays a routine part of their reading lives. My short-term goal is for students to see how language can be used to convey a specific message.

Teaching Strategy: Reading to Hear the Message
To emphasize how we “hear the message” of an essay, I use a speech for our first whole-class reading. There are a number of speeches available. In selecting a speech to use I try to find one that allows students to hear and see the speaker on video. I begin our exploration by asking students to watch and listen for key themes in the speech’s message. They are to note these themes in their literature logs. I then play the speech for them once. Students share their initial thoughts regarding theme identification with a peer.

We then watch and listen to the speech a second time, this time with a written copy of the speech. I invite students to add to their theme identification notes. Again they do a pair-share with their original partner.

I then ask each pair to select a quote that illustrates a key theme. I hand butcher paper and felt pens to select pairs and ask them to write their quote as a starting point for our class discussion.

The butcher paper quotes are posted in the front of the room. I reference these in asking questions about the speech and its message. We then use the quotes to examine the literary craft techniques used in the speech. In Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech students noted the way he repeats, “I have a dream.” More important, they noted the way he used his voice to emphasize his words. Seeing and hearing this speech impacted my students more than I would have imagined. I could see they were invested in this message of dreams, so I stopped our discussion and invited students to list their dreams. The students then asked if they could share their dreams. When the bell rang at the end of the class, none of the students moved until everyone had shared his or her dream.

Teaching Strategy: A Close Look at Essays Written to Persuade
I build on this exploration of hearing the message by asking students to read essays that address student issues. I find these essays in magazines and newspapers, particularly in student newspapers. The essays we have explored address such topics as the school dress code, requiring school uniforms, raising the age for driving from sixteen to eighteen, standardized testing, the fairness of the SAT, college admission procedures, grade inflation, and cafeteria food.

I keep a file folder on hand, and the Web is also a rich resource. In addition, I invite students to bring in essays on topics that matter to them. I use a survey to glean student interest in essay topics. On the survey I list five to seven topics for which I have essays. I ask students to rank these topics based on their interest in reading more about them and then use this survey data to select a class essay topic and create essay literary circles.

For the class essay topic I select the most preferred topic and provide students with an essay on it. Ideally, it will be a topic on which I have two essays with differing points of view. I begin our class session by asking students to write on the essay topic themselves. In support of this writing I provide a prompt that encourages students to take a stand. For example, if the topic is school uniforms, I ask students to write in response to one of the following prompts:

School uniforms are good for high school students
School uniforms are not what high school students need

I then do a quick poll of the class as to which side of the issue they supported. In the case of school uniforms, most of the students write about why they do not support uniforms. I then ask students to spend five to seven minutes writing on the opposite side of this issue. The groans are audible. Typically when I check in with students, I find they have struggled to write on the topic from “the other side.”
This is why we need to read essays that wrestle with topics that impact us. We need to consider the issue from a variety of viewpoints. The goal is not to change our minds, but to push our thinking.
Before I hand out the essays to be read, I ask students to generate a list of questions that will support their reading. We build on the reading strategies discussed in the first chapter of this book. Students have developed the following questions:

What is the topic of the essay?
What is the author’s stance or opinion on the issue?
What evidence does the author provide in support of his or her position?
If I were interviewing this author, what question(s) would I ask the author?
Now that I have read two essays with different viewpoints on this topic, how has my opinion changed?

Students write responses to these questions as they read the two essays. I then put students together in groups of four. I select these groups based on students’ essay preference survey. The foursome will explore the class essay we have read in preparation for the literature circle reading the following day.
I ask the students as a foursome to share their responses to the questions on each essay and be prepared to defend to the class which of the two essays they read made the stronger case and why. As students share, I circulate and eavesdrop. My hope is that students will differ in their opinion as to which essay is more compelling.

I call on groups to present their preferred essay and their rationale for such. As our debate and discussion continues, I note on the board the reasons cited by each group. We then examine this list to see what elements we found compelling. Class lists usually include some of the following:
Grabber lead
Personal connections
Appeals to our emotions
Uses specific examples
Attacks the other side
Powerful conclusion
Passionate about the topic
The following day in class students regroup with their foursome from the previous day. Their task is to analyze a new essay or essays using the previous day’s questions as well as the list of essay elements we generated in class. The questions and list are provided to each group along with essays on the topics in which they showed interest on their survey. I ask students to select a volunteer reader to read the essays aloud first, and then I indicate there will need to be quiet time for a second, silent reading. The initial reading is loud, but I find students lean forward and focus their attention on their group. The second, silent reading allows students to see the essay again. I have to be honest: this second reading also provides me with a few minutes of quiet time. It is amazing how loud a classroom can be when students are involved in group work.

Providing students with questions and elements to focus their attention, allowing them to work in groups, and focusing their efforts on essays that address a topic in which they are interested all support differentiation. Using a literature circle to read different essays on the same topic also supports reading ability. I tell students I am providing them with more than one essay, as we did in class the day before, to explore more than one point of view.

Each literature circle is then asked to present their essay(s) to the class. I ask them to use the questions and elements in support of their presentation as well as to select passages from the essay that illustrate the questions and elements. Listeners are required to note a “key learning about essays” they heard from each group. I have learned the hard way that if I don’t build in a required listening component, some of my students are less than attentive during group presentations.

I also ask each student to complete a self-evaluation of his or her literature circle group and presentation. Use the self-evaluations and the student listening sheets to assign a grade for this activity.

Entry Filed under: Literacy,Quick Tip Tuesday

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