Makes a powerful case for the teaching of rhetoric as an essential thread in the fabric of every child’s education…will resonate for every English teacher.
—Carol Jago, from the Foreword to Teaching Arguments
One of the most essential skills we can teach students is how to comprehend, analyze, and respond to arguments, taking into account the audience, occasion, and purpose. These skills open the door for all students—not just Advanced Placement—to rigorous academic texts, and will help them succeed in college and career.
In Teaching Arguments, Jennifer Fletcher gives you a firm grounding in rhetorical concepts, practical writing prompts, and engaging activities—such as the rhetorical précis, descriptive outlining, and the doubting and believing game—that will speed your students’ understanding of rhetorical skills and strategies.
Using an approach based on situational awareness and responsiveness instead of rules and formulas, Teaching Arguments helps you move your students beyond superficial responses to texts as they become better critical thinkers and communicators. The book is available now, and you can access the full-text preview online.
Take a nature walk with author Laurie Rubin in our latest blog post to see how the thinking kids do in the natural world can transfer to their reading and writing skills. Laurie found that the strategies kids use outdoors – making inferences, questioning, making connections, synthesizing information, monitoring for meaning, identifying important ideas – carried over into their reading. Preview Laurie’s book To Look Closely online now, especially chapters 1 and 6.
January 19, 2014
Six Mile Creek, Ithaca, NY
Cloudy, Dusk begins
I step out at 4:30 p.m. on a cold January afternoon and head for the creek. A gentle, light snow was falling all day and I feel its crunch under my feet as I move toward the street to avoid the icy footprints on the sidewalk.
I inhale the comforting smoke of a nearby wood fire and then I hear the crows overhead, flying south to land in a grove of distant trees that I can see from my kitchen window. For the past week or so they have been gathering at dusk to assemble an enormous Chinese paper cut, a black silhouette against the darkening sky.
I soon approach the cement wall along the boat launch site where, one evening long ago, I saw a sparkly rhinestone necklace transform into slug trails glittering in the light of the street lamps, the very trails I write about in To Look Closely. This time it is the five mallards in the creek that catch my eye—four males and one female. Three have their tushes in the air as they forage in the creek bed. The other two swim close by and when one of those opens its bill to emit a loud quack, he evokes images of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard proudly crossing the street in McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. I turn my head for a moment and when I look back, magically, the five turn into nine as four more mallards swim quietly around a small island covered with brown bent-over grasses. I wonder where they sleep at night.
I remember to “look up” as I encouraged my students to do during a minute of silence in the natural world. The tinges of pink and purple in the clouds take me back to the paint-by-number oils I did in middle school, a time when no one taught me to “look up” or “to look closely” and so I mindlessly filled in those colors, never questioning their veracity.
I have the creek to myself today. I walk briskly on the wood-bark-covered path now hidden by the fallen snow and silently thank my neighbor Dan Krall, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Cornell University, for transforming this once-neglected, overgrown creek bank. It has been years now since we discovered Dan one Sunday morning mowing the lawn alongside the path. We thought it unusual that a city employee would be working on Sunday so we approached Dan and discovered that he was responsible for all the new plantings—trees and perennials—and the park benches that had been showing up bit by bit to create this well-tended, park-like neighborhood jewel. He shrugged off our effusive gratitude by saying, “Some people work out at the gym; this is my gym.”
I continue along the path and stop to pull down some seedpods, wondering if they are from a box elder tree. I note that the remaining snow on the tree branches is only on the northern side and that the hairy ropes of the poison ivy vines look innocuous in the winter. And then as I lean into a willow tree hollow looking for animal signs, I am surprised to be thinking about the chewing gum and bright pennies that Boo Radley leaves for Jem and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.
And that’s when it hits me. This is the very connection between literacy and the natural world that I nurtured after years of taking my second-grade students to the stream site in the woods behind our school. Here I am taking a walk and, without planning it, I find myself using the same reading comprehension strategies that I introduced to my students via their experiences in nature.
I am using my senses to smell the wood fire, see the sunset, feel the snow under my feet, and hear the crows, preparing me to visualize when I read. I am making connections with past experiences and with books I have read. Questions emerge about the tree seeds and the ducks. I infer that the snow on the southern side of the branches melted away from the heat of the sun.
When I walk in the natural world, my mind is quiet. I notice what I am thinking just as I asked my students to do when they were reading. “Reading is thinking,” I taught them. But first we practiced the language of metacognition outdoors. We connected a salamander with the discovery of three of the same species under one rock earlier in the year. We used a pile of scat to infer which animal may have been under a particular tree. We constantly asked the question, what happened here?
As I head home just half an hour later, the sky is mostly overcast but a first-quarter half moon shines down on me. The crows are still flying overhead.
Debbie Miller, Cris Tovani, and Stephanie Harvey invite you to spend three days learning about comprehension theory and practice this summer in Denver.
Their Comprehension Times Three (CX3) institute, July 24-26, covers a range of topics including expanding comprehension across the curriculum, differentiating instruction, learning targets, assessment, and implementing small-group inquiry circles across the curriculum.
The early registration rate of $575 is available through May 1. Space is limited and early registration is recommended. Graduate credit is available for an additional cost. For a detailed agenda and registration info, visit the event site:
Instead of modeling and modeling and modeling, now I’m thinking that we don’t want to go overboard—we model a little bit, send kids off to try it, and then through conferring and what we ask them to make and do, we can have a clear picture of exactly where they are.
When it comes to teaching reading, what has changed in the 10 years since the first edition of Reading with Meaning was published? In this video interview, Debbie Miller reflects on how her thinking has changed in key areas such as gradual release of responsibility, how to use learning targets to empower students, and assessments that match up with day-to-day goals:
The full preview of the second edition of Reading with Meaning is available on the Stenhouse website!
Cris Tovani and her instructional coach Sam Bennett sat down recently to talk about Cris’s new book So What Do They Really Know? Assessment That Informs Teaching and Learning. Watch Part I of their conversation where they discuss what the relevant research on formative assessment looks like in the classroom and the importance of students leaving a track of their thinking every day.
“My hope is that teachers will recognize that many of the tools they already use, when given a slight tweak, can serve as powerful assessments that will inform instruction and improve achievement.”
How are students progressing?
What do they need next?
How do I plan my instruction to get students to the next level?
These are the core questions that Cris Tovani asks when assessing students. Her new book So What Do They Really Know? shows teachers how to expand their definition of assessment and make it a powerful part of everyday instruction.
Drawing on her roots as an elementary teacher, Cris explains how she adapted the workshop model to the realities of secondary school—multiple classrooms full of skeptical, struggling adolescent readers and writers. Throughout the book, she shares real student responses to surveys and conversations, a play-by-play description of her English class block, and sample lessons that vividly demonstrate successful practices.
Readers will discover how to:
use formative assessments to differentiate instruction;
maximize student work time and immediately assess student learning within the workshop model;
get trustworthy data from annotations—the most important assessment tool for reading;
give students timely and useful feedback;
assign grades that accurately reflect what students learn and what teachers value.
When reading nonfiction texts, many children are hindered in their understanding when they come across an unfamiliar word. To solve this problem and to equip students with the necessary strategies to decode unknown words, Tony Stead shows students how to look for clues in the text and how to use a book’s glossary for clues. In his book, Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction K-5, Tony outlines many other practical approaches to help children become confident readers of nonfiction.
In Lisa’s classroom we realized that before providing demonstrations, we needed to initiate talk about what strategies the children themselves used when faced with challenging vocabulary. We achieved this by reading part of a text on whales. When we came to a challenging word, we stopped and talked about ways we could determine its meaning. The children came up with many suggestions, so we charted their responses.
Strategies to Use When You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word
■ Look in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.
■ Context clues
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Look in the glossary.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.
It was not surprising that looking in a dictionary was their number one reply, yet the set of class dictionaries appeared to be gathering dust, indicating it had been some time since our learners had used them. It is also the number one response of most children in classrooms where I’ve worked, because they have been instructed so many times to rely on this strategy. Yet rarely do they employ it when faced with an unknown word. They find going through a dictionary laborious and tedious, and the reading becomes joyless. This is especially true when they encounter a barrage of unknown words in one piece and find themselves with the dictionary as their main source of reading rather than the selected text.
Many children haven’t even been instructed in how to properly use a dictionary and spend their time aimlessly flicking through pages, hoping the unknown word will magically appear. What is even more frustrating to learners is that if they happen to chance on the word, its meaning uses even more complex vocabulary than the word itself, leaving the children totally confused.
The children were aware of a multitude of good strategies that could assist them, but they rarely used them. Clearly they could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. We sorted the strategies into two categories: primary and secondary. For primary strategies, the reader uses methods within the body of the text to solve word meanings. Secondary strategies require the reader to go outside the body of the text, whether it be a glossary, a dictionary, or simply asking another person for assistance. We encouraged children to use primary strategies before secondary strategies. This way they were not always having to go outside the body of the text to find word meanings, which inevitably interrupts the reading and compromises comprehension. An example of the list below can be found in Appendix E.
What to Do if You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word
Primary Strategies ■ Context clues
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.
Secondary Strategies ■ Look in the glossary.
■ Look it up in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.
Once the lists were completed, we modeled how they could be of assistance when students were faced with unknown vocabulary. We knew explicit modeling was needed, which is often the missing link in instruction. Too often we solicit talk from the children and they give us what we want to hear, yet they have not internalized how to use the strategy independently.
We brought the children to the meeting area, and Lisa and I took turns reading Chapter 1 of a text called The Voice for the Animals by Evelyn Brooks. We made sure all the children could see the text as we read it to them. We told the children that as the text was read, they should raise their hands if they heard a word whose meaning they didn’t know.
What Are the SPCAs?
“Throughout the United States, there are many local organizations that work to save the lives of abandoned and mistreated animals. Each organization is known as the Society for the Preventionof Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The people who work at SPCAs rescue and care for these hurt creatures. At the SPCAs the animals are cleaned and fed. If the animals are healthy and well behaved, they are offered to people for adoption.”
When we read the word abandoned, several hands were raised, so we stopped reading and wrote the word on chart paper. We referred them to the first primary strategy—context clues—and asked whether there were any words or ideas around the word that gave them hints about its meaning. The children told us that mistreated and organizations that work to save gave them clues, so we recorded those on the chart next to the word abandoned. We asked them to discuss with the student next to them possible meanings of the word based on the key words around it and recorded their responses.
We then asked which words were most likely the true meaning. The children came up with the words hurt and left through the process of elimination. They agreed that smacked didn’t make sense because lots of people smack their dogs when they are naughty, and an organization that tried to stop this didn’t make sense. As Katie put it, “You’re not saving an animal’s life if you stop the owner from smacking it.” The words yelled at were also quickly eliminated for the same reason. This left hurt and left, which both made sense, so we then looked to other primary strategies: breaking the word apart and looking at the picture. These appeared to offer little support, so we suggested we leave our primary strategies and look to the first secondary strategy: the glossary. This was met with some resistance, as the children informed us that only words in bold such as prevention and adoption would be in the glossary. Therefore, in the children’s eyes this was a waste of time. When I showed them the glossary with the word abandoned, they were stunned. “But how can that be?” Jeremy asked. This was a good question, so we gave the children some time to think until Alex asked to look at the previous pages of the book. I showed the children the page before, which happened to be the introduction.
I had not read it to them, and there was the word abandoned in bold print. This was a valuable learning experience for our children, for they realized that you can’t assume a word won’t be in the glossary just because it isn’t highlighted on a specific page. They had also learned that when trying to locate the meaning of unknown vocabulary, you sometimes need to use more than one strategy. Harry summed it up perfectly when he said, “I feel like a detective looking for clues and some of these are hidden from me. You have to look carefully.”
Harry’s notion of being a word detective was one that appealed to the children, so we ensured that when reading texts that had complex vocabulary we always put on our detective hats and used our strategy chart to help solve the mystery. Sometimes Lisa and I would provide texts that contained vocabulary that could be solved only with the use of a dictionary. Other times we used texts with complex vocabulary that could be easily solved by simply breaking the word into parts, such as compound words. Our goal was to get our learners to start using these strategies naturally as they read independently so that their comprehension of informational texts was not lost. To achieve this goal we needed to provide ongoing demonstrations.
Vocabulary Square This is a paper and pencil activity that is the primary tool in my classroom teaching for working with vocabulary across grade levels and content areas. Developed by Jim Burke (2002), the vocabulary square is a graphic organizer that focuses student attention on a selected word, its roots, its synonyms/antonyms, and its role as a part of speech. Most important to my students’ work and understanding was the section of the square that asked them to draw a picture that represented their understanding of the word and its meaning.
Why is that picture such a big deal? Oftentimes, my students were masters at copying definitions and terms from the dictionary. However, in asking them to create a visual representation of their understanding of the meaning of the term, I was asking students to go beyond “putting the definition in your own words.” Instead, I was requiring that they show me the definition through their own eyes.
Some of my students are with me right from the start. They want to convey what they see—and they get right to it. For others, there is a great deal of initial “moaning” about having to draw in an English class. We get past it quickly enough once students begin to see the entrance that these pictures provide. As Thomas, an on-level eighth grader, explained, “for one of the fi rst times, I’m actually saying something about what I know, and I don’t have to worry about if the words are right. The words, for me, come after the picture. So, I can see what I know, and then write about it.”
The vocabulary square is a quick, compact, and tight glimpse into what a student knows about a word—providing me as teacher with a speedy view into what they understand and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t. If I’ve asked them to define “resilience” and am met with a picture of broken glass, I know that there is a problem. More likely than not, the students’ images invite rich classroom discussion about vocabulary—a kind of unprompted dialogue that we never had prior to the use of this tool. Most of my middle and high school English students didn’t regularly discuss the differences between the denotation and the connotation of a word’s meaning. With these images, it happens readily.
Vocabulary Word Wall (or, The Notebook Made Public)
Once my students became accustomed to depicting their understanding of a word’s meaning by drawing it in the vocabulary square, I decided to shake things up a bit. Some students were talented illustrators, but the bulk of my kids usually needed to provide me with some description of what their images were supposed to be. Further, I still had some students who were struggling to convey what they knew graphically or visually. I needed a different tool.
For this task, digital cameras were placed into the hands of students and taken outside of our classroom space. After scrounging what resources I could get my hands on, I ended up with a ratio of about one camera to four or five kids. The challenge was for students to take photos representing the key vocabulary terms studied or, perhaps more importantly, those vocabulary words which students identified as they read. The process (and strength) of the activity was explained by Nada, a fifth grader, offering that “taking pictures lets me understand the defi nition on my own terms. I picture the word, create the picture, and then start to know the word.”
Yes, the camera alone provided motivation. But it wasn’t the camera itself as much as it was the process of composing with images. Here, I wasn’t just teaching about how writers use words (symbols) to convey their ideas. I was also teaching about how illustrators and photographers create texts and make those texts work. Alongside our discussions of vocabulary were new discussions of how words and images could promote or silence particular views. Students found images to be “everyday,” thus making literacy more tangible and valuable to them. For example, Julia, an eighth grader in Ms. Powell’s class, worked to represent “cumulative,” “intermittent,” and “voice”
Students were asked to print several of the images that they collected, using varying sizes of paper to post their work on the rear wall of the classroom. We labeled the posters not with students’ names, but with the words defined. The most surprising element of the assignment for me as a teacher wasn’t the way that students (even reluctant ones like Adam) took up a camera and actively, mindfully pursued the “right” image. It wasn’t the rise in participation and completion of the assignment. It was the “clumps” of students that I found around the back wall three weeks after the first round of the assignment. Students were still talking about the ways the images communicated intended meaning or the ways in which “the picture fit the word.”
This wasn’t a “one-shot” activity. Instead, it was a task that we repeated as students encountered new reading assignments or we explored new words that they found in independent reading. That said, the more regularly we were acquiring images, the more regularly it became necessary for students to “check out” the cameras as opposed to taking class time for image collection—and we made several “tweaks” along those lines. What stayed constant was the root of the assignment—visually represent the words that you’re looking to define.
Beginning with honors-level ninth-grade classes, I also used an extension or reinvention of the activity, challenging students to record literacy events as they experienced them outside of the classroom. In Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy, Myers explains that speech events are an essential part of situated knowledge, offering students opportunities not only to study language in action but also to examine differences between presentational and conversational modes of communication (1996, p. 143). Extensive discussion in class explores how students use images to capture oral texts and “bring meaning into being” (Kress 2003, p. 70). Building on their visual and verbal literacy skills, my students paired their images with fairly sophisticated written reflections, explaining the event, what meaning it represented, and how it enriched, complicated, or challenged their understanding of literacy. Here, literacy wasn’t just limited to the ways in which students engaged with print texts, but instead reached out to include exchanges outside of and beyond the classroom.
Image Flashcards/Visual Word Collection
This is the individualized recasting of the word wall assignment. Here, students use notecards or 4×6 pieces of paper to print out images that they’ve acquired to represent the definition of a particular word. It’s more difficult to manage in that there is never enough technology for each student to have access to a camera at all times—which does result in the occasional student entering the classroom and lamenting that he or she “missed a key shot” the night before. To keep it equitable, I maintain a sign-up sheet, and keep a close eye on which students are dominating that list. Further, with the price-point of cameras bulleting downwards, we’re finding that this is the one classroom tool that is in greater supply. Many kids have access at home, and simply bring their saved images on disk, CD, saved to the network, and so on. The key remains the same. Students are using the camera to “read their world” while reading the texts we explore as a part of our class.
The image serves as a bridge into doing more than just recalling the definition(s) of the word; it provides students with an opportunity to defi ne, connect, and integrate the word into what is already known. We’ve done many different things with the reverse (or blank) side of the card. There is the traditional approach—write the definition (in your own words) along with the part of speech and an example sentence. There is the connect-to-text approach where I ask students to identify and record the use of this word in the texts that we read. Often, I ask students to ask questions that they have about the word, it’s use, it’s connotation, and so on. This challenges students to confront potentially “problematic” words head-on. Simply put, the value that is added here is that students are using visual images along with a reading/writing space that is portable. These cards are one part study tool, one part reading artifact, and one part “mini-step” into the literacy community within our classroom.
“As the teacher, what you do (or don’t do) before your students read a major literary work will determine their level of motivation and interest,” writes Kelly Gallagher in his book Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly shares some of the framing strategies he uses before teaching George Orwell’s 1984. Poems and Internet searches, along with other strategies help students get the most out of a challenging text, even before they begin to read.
Before beginning major works, I often assign Web searches. Prior to a class’s reading George Orwell’s 1984, for example, I give my students this assignment: Next week we will begin reading George Orwell’s classic, 1984. One of the central characters in the novel is named Big Brother. When I search Google for the phrase “Big Brother,” over one million examples are found. Obviously, the phrase “Big Brother” has become a permanent part of our culture, and it might help us when we begin reading the novel if we understand what this phrase means and how it’s used. By next Friday, please complete the following “Search for Big Brother” assignment: Search the Internet for references to “Big Brother.” You might use Google.com or Yahoo.com to assist your search. Find references to Big Brother in at least three different genres. You may choose from the following, or find other categories:
• Books (other than 1984)
• Art or theater
• Television or film
• An organization or business
• Humor (jokes, cartoons)
• Letters to the editor
• Political cartoons
Try to find examples from different genres that seem to be addressing the idea of “Big Brother” in the same manner, theme, or idea. Try to find examples that your classmates will not find. Print these examples and include a paragraph of your own, explaining what you think the phrase “Big Brother” means. Explain how you think this meaning cuts across the different genres you have selected. Bring the examples and your explanation to class Friday. Be prepared to discuss and share in groups.
On the due date, students get together in groups and share their Big Brother examples and their ideas on what the phrase might mean. After each small group has had time to share, a person from each group is randomly chosen to share a “big idea” with the entire class, and I write their ideas on the overhead for the whole class to see. I also take the students’ Big Brother examples and turn them into a collage on the bulletin board.
This activity is an effective warm-up to the reading of 1984 because the discussion that ensues from the Web search is student-generated and always rich. It allows many of the book’s themes—oppression, totalitarianism, invasion of privacy—to surface and be discussed prior to the students’ reading the novel. This strategy could be adapted to fit any book that might be unfamiliar to readers. For example, students beginning Wiesel’s Night might search “genocide”; students preparing for Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter might search “witch trials.”
Anticipation guides, developed by J. E. Readence, T. W. Bean, and R. S. Baldwin (1985), can be used to frame the major ideas and themes that students will find in the book they are about to begin. These guides help them understand that as long as books have been written, literature has expressed universal truths about the human condition. In reading Romeo and Juliet, for example, students will discover that many of the issues in this four-hundred-year-old play are still relevant to them today. Before having them open to Act I of Romeo and Juliet, I often ask students to consider the issues they are about to encounter in their reading.
I express these issues in provocative statements and ask students to what degree they agree or disagree with them. Figure 3.1 presents an anticipation guide for Romeo and Juliet, the left-hand side of which students complete before reading the play.
After recording their opinions on the various statements, students use the items on the anticipation guide as starting points for discussion (and often writing and debate). These discussions get them thinking about the big ideas they will soon discover in the play. Upon completing the reading, the students revisit the anticipation guide and complete the right hand side. Sometimes reading the work solidifies beliefs they already had, but often they find that significant shifts in their thinking have occurred as a result of their reading the work. Students complete the unit by choosing one statement from the anticipation guide that speaks especially to them—a “hot spot,” one might say—and use this statement as the basis of an essay.
While anticipation guides prompt students to think about many of the ideas they will encounter in a text, the theme spotlight assignment focuses students’ attention to one major theme to be studied. Figure 3.2 is an example of a theme spotlight for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, though this strategy can be easily adapted to any major work. By inspiring rich discussion and passionate writing, theme spotlights help prepare students to consider the big ideas in the work they will read. They may also suggest further activities. For example, students who complete the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde theme spotlight might then chart the degrees of evil found in the book.
One way to prepare students for a major literary work is to let them read thematically related poetry beforehand. From these poems, students are asked to make inferences about the major work they are about to read.
For example, in preparing to teach All Quiet on the Western Front, it may become readily apparent that students know very little about World War I. This lack of knowledge can make it difficult for them to get into the novel. To help bridge this knowledge gap before they begin to read, students are given packets of poetry written during or about the war. They are asked to read all the poems more than once and to begin generating a list of things they can infer about World War I simply from reading the poetry. In Figure 3.3, for example, students were able to gain insight about World War I from reading Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In addition to “Dulce et Decorum Est,” other Owen poems that are excellent to help students understand World War I include:
“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”
The World War I poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenberg are also excellent. Among my favorites of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems are:
“The Rear Guard”
“Glory of Women”
“One Passing the New Menin Gate”
Isaac Rosenberg’s poems include:
“Returning,We Hear the Larks”
“Break of Day in the Trenches”
“Dead Man’s Dump”
These poems and others can be found by simply searching “World War I poetry” on Google or any other search engine.