Questions & Authors: What does a good fact look like, anyway?

In this edition of Questions & Authors, a bright student struggling with his history papers and tests reminds Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, that sometimes the basic concepts that are obvious to teachers, are not quite as obvious to students. Sarah teaches eighth-grade English and ninth-grade world history at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California.

As I was planning for the upcoming school year, I found myself thinking a lot about a student I’ll call Andrew, a ninth grader I had last year in my world history class. It was obvious he was bright and engaged with the world—he could identify state and federal politicians when they came up in current events discussions, and he loved nothing more than to argue about something intense, such as national health care policy or the arrogance of Roman emperors. On days when he was absent, the discussions were not as fiery, not as fun.

Yet Andrew’s essays on in-class tests and his paragraph responses on reading quizzes did not show his passion for ideas. His history writing was consistently vague and sounded as if he was not doing the textbook reading, even when I knew he was from the notes he took. His thesis statements and topic sentences were spot-on for ninth grade, with sentences such as, “Greek democracy lasted only a brief time because its leaders became power-hungry and greedy.” However, the essays didn’t follow up on their promise, and I kept writing the same comments: “Your ideas are great, but the essay needs more facts.” “More specifics.” “More evidence needed.” In our one-on-one conversations, he was earnest about trying to include more facts in his papers.

Yet it wasn’t until the beginning of fourth quarter—an appropriate in-the-clutch time for Andrew, who loved the school’s JV football team he had joined in the fall—that it became clear what I was not teaching, and thus what he was not learning. After yet another test on which Andrew scored a B-, he made an appointment to see me after school, spurred on by his mother’s urging and by his desire to take honors European history in sophomore year. We looked at some recent essays, and he asked the golden question:

“Ms. Cooper, you say I need more facts. But I have facts. They’re just not the facts you want. What does a good fact look like, anyway?

I had been teaching history for nearly a decade without ever having been asked that question. I was dumbfounded that I had never addressed this, and I wanted to make it right.

I started by saying, “A good fact in a history paper is something you can picture in your head, like in a movie. Here, let’s look at some examples:”

Too general: “The Minoans were good in art.”
“No, I can’t really picture that,” Andrew said.

A little better: “The Minoans did a lot of paintings on the walls of their palace.”
“Okay, but then I don’t know what the paintings looked like,” Andrew said.

Right on: “The Minoans painted frescoes with bright colors and natural scenes.”
“Oh, now I really get it. You have to be able to see it,” Andrew said.

“So maybe I’m taking notes the wrong way,” he thought out loud. “I tend to write down the main ideas of each paragraph or section. Are you saying I should write down more specifics?”

Yes, I said, but warned him to be careful not to write down everything in the book: “What I would do is to think about main ideas in the section and then pick two or three specific facts you could use on any essay or reading quiz to back them up. For instance, if you want to say that the Minoans had an independent mindset, you could refer to their living on the island of Crete and to their acceptance of women in the priesthood.”

I wasn’t sure Andrew was taking away everything we were discussing, so I asked him to check his reading notes with me for the next several days. The change was astonishing—he now included a sprinkling of facts relevant to the main ideas he highlighted instead of a general overview of the entire chapter.

Before the final exam, Andrew came in to discuss what score he would need to achieve to get a B+ in the class, which would qualify him for  honors history in the fall. It turned out he needed a high B+ because his homework grade had been strong. “I can do that!” he said.

On his final exam he earned a solid A, pushing his overall grade into the high B+ range. It was as if a light had turned on for him—and it certainly had for me.

Sometimes we as teachers assume that the most basic concepts—What is a fact? What does analysis look like? Why should we ask questions about the world?—are as obvious to our students as they are to us. My meetings with Andrew reminded me that every student can improve, especially if I don’t assume understanding—and if I take the time to figure out what is really going on in his head, and in mine.

Add comment September 16th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: Read-Around Groups

In Kelly Gallagher’s high school English classroom in Anaheim, California, students not only turn to books and magazines for models of effective writing, they also turn to each other. Kelly uses Read-Around Groups or RAGs where students read and evaluate their classmates’ work. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly shares some of the basic rules for RAGs, described in his book Teaching Adolescent Writers.

Read-Around Groups: Real-World Peer Models
Though students benefit immensely by examining professional writing, there is also another opportunity for students to learn by reading other writers, and that opportunity presents itself in our classrooms daily. I am speaking of the benefit that arises when we have students read each other’s writing. Getting students to willingly share their writing with one another, however, is not always an easy task given the fact that sharing writing involves risk.

How do I get my students over this fear of sharing their drafts? I tell them that every time I send a new chapter I have written to my editor, I cringe. I tell them that when I work with college-educated adults, they often have the same level of anxiousness when it comes to sharing their writing. In short, I tell them, this feeling is normal and the sooner we can work our way past it the sooner we will begin improving as writers.

One way I have students work through the nervousness of sharing their writing with one another is to set up read-around-groups, in which students are given the opportunity to read each other’s papers anonymously. There are various versions of RAGs out there; here are the rules for my classes:
Rules for RAGs
1. Students bring clean drafts to the RAGs. They do not put their names on the paper. Instead, they identify themselves by writing five-digit numbers or code words at the top of their papers.
2. Students are randomly placed in groups of four or five. The papers are collected in one pile for each group. It is better to not have all the best (or worst) writers at the same table.
3. At the start, on the teacher’s signal, the papers are passed from one group to the next. Students do not read papers by members of their own group. Each student receives one paper and reads it for one minute. Not all students will finish all papers, but in one minute they have an opportunity to get a strong feel for the paper.
4. At the teacher’s signal, papers are passed clockwise within the groups. Each student now has a new paper and has one minute to read the paper. This process is continued until everyone in the group has read all four or five papers.
5. Once everyone in the group has read the set, each group is charged with the task of determining which paper is the “best.” They have two minutes to do so. The hope is that this will produce arguments, because it is through these arguments that students think deeply about the merits of good writing.
6. One student in each group is designated as the recorder. This student records the five-digit number or code word of the winning paper.
7. Once the winner is recorded, the papers get passed again and the process repeats itself. This is continued until all students have read all papers. Remember, each group is not to score their own papers.

Once these seven steps are complete, the teacher asks the recorders for the winning entries and charts all the winning numbers (or code words) for the students to see. Generally, two or three papers in the class will receive the most votes. These papers are read aloud (again, no names are identified). As they are being read, students are asked to take bullet notes as to what made the papers the “best.” The lesson is completed by students sharing their bullet notes through a whole-class discussion, thus giving everyone in the class a clear idea of what features made these good essays.

I have found that RAGs are more beneficial to students if they do them before their final drafts are due. What good does it do them to identify features of good writing if they do not have an immediate opportunity to implement some of these discovered features into their own writing? Often I will collect essays on the due date (without names on the papers), but instead of taking them home, I will place students in RAGs. Once they have completed the process and have seen some examples of good writing, I give their papers back to them and allow one additional night for them to revise with the features of good writing fresh in their minds.

Once my students have begun sharing their writing in RAGs, I find they are more willing to begin sharing their writing in other settings as well.

Add comment June 30th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: The Writing Life

Essays provide an opportunity for students to debate what is fact and what is fiction,” writes Kimberly Hill Campbell in her book, Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Shorts Texts, Grades 6-12. “They offer an alternative to those students who don’t embrace ‘stuff that isn’t real.’ Essays can also be used to teach specific reading skills such as locating information, summarizing ideas, and making connections among concepts,” Kimberly writes. In this weeks’ Quick Tip, Kimberly shows how she uses essays about writing in her classroom.

Essays About Writing
Writing is hard work. I think students need to know this. I want them to read about and understand the work of writing by reading essays about writing. In my own struggles to write, I have found comfort and inspiration in the words of people who share their insights about their own process of putting words on paper. It is not some magical process that just happens, at least it’s not for most writers.

I once imagined myself living the life of a writer: light spilled across me perched at an antique desk, a sturdy coffee mug in hand, with book-lined shelves surrounding windows looking out on the enormous backyard of my huge house, paid for by the royalties from my award-winning books. The real picture, as I write this book, is I am sitting in my dining room, which does have very nice windows, and it is cloudy outside. Books are strewn across the table and stacked on the floor. The timer on the dryer just buzzed so I have towels to fold. I always do laundry when I write. Something about the sorting process helps me sort out what I am trying to say. I have just a few hours before my kids get home from school, which will end my writing day. A cup of lukewarm coffee is sitting on a coaster near me. I always choose a coffee blend in support of my writing project. My rule is that I can drink this good coffee only if I am writing. What I need to learn is how to drink the good coffee while it is still warm.

I write on a laptop. Next to the laptop is a legal pad on which I scribble notes to myself about quotes I want to add or places I need to add more details. The room in which I write is quiet; music distracts me. When I get stuck, I find it helpful to read about writing. I particularly appreciate Donald Murray’s advice regarding voice and writing:”Most important of all voice. I do not begin to write until l hear the voice of the writing, and when that voice fades during drafting, rewriting/replanning, or revising, I stop, make myself quiet, and listen until I hear again. The music of the writing, more than anything else, teaches me what I am learning about the subject to make those thoughts and feelings clear. And when the writing doesn’t go well, the most effective tactic is to listen, quietly, carefully to the writing. If I listen closely enough the writing will tell me what to say and how to say it. As Jayne Anne Phillips says, ‘It’s like being led by a whisper.'” (1991,10)

Like many of you, I shared writers’ thoughts on writing with my students during writing workshop: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (1994) is a personal favorite. But I was fortunate to stumble across several collections in which authors wrote essays about writing—the challenges, the joys, the process, the hard work. I found myself informed by their insights and tricks of the trade, inspired by their craft and oddly comforted by the fact that so many of the authors whose words I savored admitted to struggle in putting those words on paper. I realized students needed to see these essays, for their message and for their craft as essays.

Teaching Strategy: The Writing Life
Before they read about the writing life of others, I wanted my students to spend some time reflecting on their own writing life. I shared my own essay, which expanded on the brief description I included above about my writing life, and then invited students to write about their writing life: what discoveries have you made about what supports you as writers? Think about the places you write, the paper you use, your writing instrument of choice.

One of my students wrote that she prefers pencil; she likes the feel of the lead on paper and the way the words she writes look soft. Another student wanted roller ball, black ink pens, the expensive kind. My own daughter prefers gel pens and Hello Kitty notebook paper. Other students shared their frustration in having to handwrite; they prefer writing on computer. Many students spoke of their need for music while writing and the role of different songs in inspiring their writing.

I also encouraged students to think about the content of their writing—what inspires them? I was surprised and delighted to learn that the pictures I tore out of old calendars and posted on the classroom walls were a frequent source of inspiration, particularly the Monet prints. I also asked students to focus on the process of writing: the work of revision, editing, putting words on paper even when the words don’t feel right. I admitted to them that I don’t do much prewriting on paper. All those webs and outlines I see other writers use intrigue me, but they don’t help me.

I need time to let myself think, to percolate as Tom Romano calls it (often my head is percolating as I sort laundry), and then I write on a laptop computer, typing as quickly as I can. My typing teacher, Mrs. Moore, would be very proud of me. After we write about our own processes as writers, I invite students to share. We discover what makes us unique and what commonalities we all share. We then read an essay about writing. As we read, I ask students to note “ahas” about writing—what does this author say about writing? We focus on the same issues we explored in our own writing: place, equipment, inspiration, process. We share
our ahas in a class discussion. We then reread the essay, focusing our attention on the essay’s craft: how does the author convey his or her message?

I follow this whole-class read by asking students to choose from a variety of essays about writing. Using the same two-prong response, students first write in their literature logs about lessons learned from writers about writing and then note observations regarding the author’s craft.

Next students work in groups to create writing lesson posters for the classroom. They make visual the strategies and the words used to convey the strategies. I am always heartened to see students including their own quotes on these posters. And as we post them in the room, my hope is that they will provide inspiration and support my goal to create a community of writers, a place where students see themselves as writers and discover what they can learn from other writers. I want them to understand that the hard work of writing can inform and inspire readers. I want them to find essays about writing that they can turn to when they need to be reminded why we write. I want my students to see writing as work worth doing.

As for what essay I choose to read as a class, it depends. I try to select an essay written by an author we have previously read, or an essay that will make us laugh, or an essay that addresses an issue I know students are struggling with in their own writing. I used this same criteria in creating a selection of essays about writing from which students choose.

Add comment May 26th, 2009

Quick Tip Tuesday: A look at essays

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.

Add comment January 20th, 2009

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