Questions & Authors: Using short texts with struggling readers

In a recent post author Pat Johnson (One Child at a Time, Catching Readers Before They Fall) talked about guided reading with struggling readers in grades 3-6. She emphasized using short texts with these students whenever possible. In this latest installment of Questions & Authors, Pat talks in more detail about what kinds of short texts she suggests.

I often recommend that teachers in upper elementary grades use short texts for struggling readers during guided reading. It’s so much easier to focus in on the students’ comprehension, or lack of understanding, when the lesson is centered on a poem, short story, or something equally as short. On occasion a teacher will ask, “But where do I find these short texts?”

My list of short texts includes five ideas: poetry, non-fiction articles, short stories or vignettes, excerpts from the book you are reading aloud to the whole class, and picture books.

Poetry. Poems often say a lot in very few words. They are perfect opportunities for students to dig deeper and create the meaning behind the poem. They can be read and reread easily enough and struggling readers often discover more each time they experience the poem. Poetry abounds with metaphors, figurative language, subtle humor, and other inferring opportunities. Take Jean Little’s poem called “Clothes” in her book  Hey, World Here I Am. She uses the first stanza to talk about what’s great about new clothes and then the second stanza to say why old clothes are so terrific also. But it’s the last line that gets kids delving deeper into the poem’s meaning. “You know, it’s a funny thing… Friends are like clothes.”

Non-fiction articles. Many teachers worry that in order to match their upper grade struggling readers with appropriate texts, they have to use “baby books.” There is nothing babyish about non-fiction articles. Check out some of the interesting topics in kids magazines, such as, Muse, Click, National Geographic for Kids, Time for Kids, and so on. I’ve learned so much about giant squid, climbing Mt. Everest, making jam from cactus flowers, what spiders do, and more, along with the kids I work with. Struggling readers, more often than not, love non-fiction. So spend a little time in your school or public library skimming through some of those magazines and look for a few articles that would spark your students’ interests.

Short stories and vignettes. I love Cynthia Rylant’s book Every Living Thing. Each story is about a person and an animal. The stories include real dilemmas, interesting issues, and sometimes, sad endings. But they always leave the kids with lots to talk about as they negotiate the meaning of the text together, connect with the characters, and give their opinions about what happened in the plot or what should have happened. Not all of Sandra Cisneros’ short stories are appropriate for grades 3-6, however, I’ve used several of them from her books House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek. Jean Little’s Hey, World, Here I Am is another great resource these short vignettes.

Excerpts from your read aloud book. I often see teachers reading aloud great chapter books to their upper grade students and I can’t think of anything better for developing community. But sometimes the discussions around these texts are dominated by the “talkers” in the classroom. Why not revisit sections of the book with struggling readers in a small group setting to offer them more opportunities to respond? Look for a part of the book that has potential for discussions beyond the literal level, like the climax of the plot or a major turning point.

Picture Books. We are so lucky to live in a time when wonderful picture books are available for upper grade students. Even though most elementary school book rooms may not have multiple copies of picture books, with a little effort you can round up three or four copies for the students in that one special guided reading group, even if the kids have to partner-up on reading them. Try any of the ones listed here and you’ll see that your struggling readers can get hooked on books, want to reread them to find more support for their opinions, and are actually willing to practice their fluency in texts like these.
Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne
Faithful Elephants, Yukio Tsuchiya
Garden of Abdul Gasazi, Chris Van Allsburg
Emma’s Rug, Allen Say
The Enemy, Davide Cali
The Bracelet, Y. Uchida
Nettie’s Trip South, Ann Turner
Freedom Summer, Deborah Wiles

1 comment November 29th, 2011

Quick Tip Tuesday: Essays on nature

In her book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Kimberly Hill Cambell shows how short texts engage a wide range of middle and high school students. In a chapter on essays she laments that essays are often overlooked in English classrooms, when they shouldn’t be. “…The essay is first-class literature deserving of time and attention in middle school and high school classrooms for both content and craft,” Kimberly writes. “Essays provide an opportunity for students to debate what is fact and what is fiction. 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.” In this week’s Quick Tip, we lifted a section from her essay chapter that focuses on nature writing.

I want students to understand and appreciate the power of writing about nature. In support of this we read essays on nature and do our own nature observation and writing. We read several examples of nature essays, noting the author’s focus on small-scale or broader-scale observations. We also examine the author’s emphasis on sensory details: how does the author help us, as readers, see, hear, feel, smell, and even taste what he or she is describing? Typically I utilize the learning logs, detailed earlier, in support of this close reading, but this could also be taught as a single lesson or even a literature circle assignment, which would allow for the use of varied nature essays.

Teaching Strategy: Observing Nature
After we have read several nature excerpts, I invite students to use their own skills of observation, to spend some time “poking around.” I borrowed this term from Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water (1995), who writes in her essay “Winter Creek,”

“The kind of poking around I am interested in advocating must be done outdoors. It is a matter of going into the land to pay close attention, to pry at things with the toe of a boot, to turn over rocks at the edge of a stream and lift boards to look for snakes or the nests of silky deer mice, to kneel close to search out the tiny bones mixed with fur in an animal’s scat, to poke a cattail down a gopher hole.” (33)

Moore’s quote is our starting place for a discussion about what we can observe, and where. I was fortunate to teach in a rural town, where many students had access to wooded areas that were made for poking around. But some of my students lived in town, so we discussed the value of observing in our own backyards.

The homework task was to poke around outside for at least twenty minutes. Students could choose to focus on a very small area or consider a broad area. The goal was to be specific, like the nature essays we had read. I asked students to focus on what they saw, heard, felt, smelled, and, only if safe, tasted. I encouraged them to take a notepad or sketch pad with them to capture their descriptions but let them know that their written reflection on their poking around would take place in class. I assigned this homework on a Thursday, and it was due the following Thursday so that students would have plenty of time to complete it. Each class day I checked in with students, inviting those who had done their observations to share their experiences to encourage those who had not yet poked around.

On the day the observations were due, I provided in-class writing time to respond to the following prompts:
1. Reflect on why you selected the observation site you chose to “poke around.”
2. What did you see, hear, feel, smell, and (if applicable) taste?
3. What did you learn from this observation? In your reflection, refer to the nature essays we read and include quotes or ahas that support your observations.

After twenty to thirty minutes of in-class writing, students shared examples from their observations. I was stunned by their attention to detail, as the following examples illustrate:
“The trees’ black, naked, knotty branches have lost all of their elasticity. They loom into the bright, blue sky as if they wanted to prick or at least tickle it.”
“After a green, lavish summer life, the grass blades have now turned yellow, dry and rough.”
“The panorama of the sky stretches above me like the wardrobe of a rich woman, rich midnight velvets and diamonds. Blue unto no blue under itself the sky… is spattered and dabbled freely with multicolored stars, the ‘gigantous’ black silhouettes of pines tower above my head, like one-dimensional ink blots upon some artist’s work of three-dimensional perfection.”

In addition to powerful descriptions in their observations, students’ in-class reflections are evidence that they connected their own experience with the nature essays we had read, particularly Thoreau’s Walden. Claudia wrote in her nature observation about the ways nature adapts, describing a tree with barbed wire sticking out: “This wire must have scratched him for a long time, so he decided to make it a part of himself.” She writes in her reflection, “All the things [in nature] adapt to the circumstances they live in and work together in a coordinated, brilliant balance Thoreau was aware of nature and tried to live as part of it. He balanced his life by simplifying it, going back to the rhythm of nature.” She goes on to quote from Thoreau, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

This two-part assignment sets the stage for our continued exploration of essays. Students “own” essay writing in a new way. They understand that essays can be about what we observe as well as what we learn from our observations.

Add comment February 8th, 2011

Questions & Authors: The Power of Memoir

Everyone has a story to tell. Kimberly Hill Campbell realized that adolescents in middle and high school especially appreciate reading — and writing — memoir. In this installment of our Questions & Authors series, Kimberly shares some great memoirs for reading, followed by prompts that support writing a memoir. Kimberly’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, explores a variety of short texts to engage a wide range of middle and high school students.

The Power of Memoir

This fall I was asked by one of the graduate students in my language arts methods class to explain the difference between personal narrative and memoir.  And I immediately thought of the personal narratives so many of my high school students had written.  Stories of experiences that were often rich in detail but missing what I so appreciate about memoir: the why of the personal story.  Personal narrative is the starting point for memoir, but it is in the selection of what to include and what it all means, that we move from narrative to memoir.  As William Zinsser, author of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir notes, “A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, and the other of craft.  Memoir is how we make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us….Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events” (1998, p. 6)

I have loved memoir as a personal reading choice since I was in high school. And I am not alone in my appreciation of memoir.  I am on the waiting list at my local library for Mary Karr’s newest memoir, Lit, and I note Karr’s previous memoirs, The Liar’s Club, and Cherry, also have waiting lists.  But it took me longer than it should have to recognize the teaching value of memoir in middle school and high school classrooms.  What I know now is that students appreciate the wisdom and humor that can be found in a memoir.  As one high school student noted after reading a selection of memoir excerpts,  “I have been interested in how people can express their life in a book.  Everyone has had problems and gifts, and everyone has their own story to tell.” Having a story to tell is particularly true for adolescents who are in the very process of discovering themselves. As Nancie Atwell writes in her chapter, “Call Home the Child: Memoir” in In the Middle,  “Memoir celebrates people and places no one has ever heard of.  And memoir allows us to discover and tell our own truths as writers” (1998).

I appreciate how reading memoir supports writing memoir.  So the discussion that follows will first focus on recommendations for memoir reading followed by prompts that support writing memoir.  It’s my hope these ideas will support those of you who are already working with memoir in your middle school and high school classrooms. And I am counting on you to respond to this blog with your recommendations for reading and writing memoir.  For those of you who have not yet worked with memoir, I hope you’ll be willing to explore this genre with your students and share your discoveries.

In choosing memoirs for whole class or literature circle reading, I look for a mix that address a variety of topics.  I also look at the writing craft of the memoirs we read: What lessons can students learn from this author’s writing.  Typically I select excerpts from longer works, although please see the reference to a collection of short memoirs, edited by Amy Erlich in the section on “Lessons from Childhood.”   Listed below are memoir excerpts that have worked well with middle school and high school students.  Each one illustrates the power of focusing on “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid….because they contain a universal truth that …readers will recognize from their own life” (Zinsser, 2006)

Memoirs to Read

As noted above, I try to provide a mix of memoir and particularly appreciate memoirs that focus on lessons learned from childhood, memoirs that highlight the importance of reading and/or writing, and memoirs that make me laugh.

Lessons Learned from Childhood

Excerpt from Part I of Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood (1987).  Dillard describes throwing snowballs at cars and the chase that ensues when one driver pulls over and chases Dillard and her snow-ball-throwing friends.  I admire Dillard’s appreciation of the chase and her craft, particularly her use of  descriptive details.

When I Was Your Age, Volume Two: Original Stories about Growing Up, ed. by Amy Erlich.(1999) is a rich collection of short memoirs of adolescence by authors who write YA fiction. I admire the accessibility of these memoirs and the fine writing craft, in particular, compelling leads (“ In the Blink of an Eye” by Norma Fox Mazer and “ Pegasus for a Summer” by Michael Rosen) and setting details to illustrate the power of place (“The Long Closet” by Jane Yolen).

The Importance of Reading and Writing

Excerpt from Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodgriguez: An Autobiography (1982. pp. 62-72).  Rodriguez details his love of reading and its impact on his life in a distinct style of varied sentence lengths, questions, parenthetical remarks, and repetition.

Excerpt “20” from Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (2000, pp. 55-58 (Please be aware there is profanity in the opening paragraph). In this excerpt, King shares the revisions and advice he received from the local newspaper editor in response to his sports story, “[w]rite with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.  Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out.  Once you know what the story is and it get right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it” (2000, p. 57).

Memoirs that Make Me Laugh

Opening section of the chapter “Bawlbaby” in Chris Crutcher’s, King of the Mild Frontier: An Ill-Advised Autobiography (2003, p. 19-26)  In this excerpt, Crutcher shares his struggle with showing anger through crying and life with an older brother.  I also appreciate his candid passion for cookies.  It’s funny, poignant and Illustrates the power of dialogue in support of memoir.

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Moreland, Indiana by Haven Kimmel (2002)  is a delightful memoir focusing on a series of vignettes that celebrate the wisdom and humor of childhood.  In particular, I recommend “Daniel” (p. 40-45) and “Diner” (p. 167-172).

“Thinking Small” in Support of Writing Memoir

William Zinsser talk about the challenge of finding an entry point to memoir, deciding “What to put in? What to take leave out? Where to start? Where to stop? How to shape the story?”  He suggest that as writers of memoir, we are well served to “think small.”  Two memoir writing strategies that have worked well with adolescent writers and heed Zinseer’s “reduced” writing approach are described below:

Candy and Me

Hilary Liftin’s wonderful memoir, Candy and Me: A Love Story (2003) details the author’s passion for candy and other sweet treat, including canned frosting.  Excerpts from this text have inspired many middle school and high school students to craft their own candy memoirs.  The key elements of this writing workshop include reading selections from Liftin’s memoir:  I recommend the chapter on “Snickers.”  (pp. 62-64). As Liftin notes, Snickers is the perfect blend of chocolate, peanuts, nougat, and caramel.  And she goes on to describe that in a pinch, it’s the candy bar that “eats like a meal” so it sustained her on a two-week-long high school graduation camping trip that surprisingly didn’t include meals.   I follow this reading by providing students with a sampling of candy.  I know this idea of giving students candy has its challenges and may even be prohibited in some schools.   But I have watched in amazement as students (grades 6-12)  respect and embrace the idea that the candy is in support of their writing.  Some teachers have found it helpful to ask students to wait to eat the candy until the end of the quiet writing period.

Just last week, in a senior English class, students sampled candy as they wrote their candy memoirs. One student, who described herself as a reluctant writer and who had not been been willing to share any of her writing with the class, willingly volunteered to read her candy memoir about Smarties.  When she was finished reading, her peers applauded.

Six-Word Memoirs

I have read that Hemingway was once challenged to write a story in only six words. He wrote: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” SMITH magazine ( celebrated Hemingway’s efforts by encouraging readers to write their own six-word memoirs.  The result is a magazine, website, and series of books celebrating six-word memoirs, including the original published collection: Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs from Writers Famous and Obscure, edited by Rachel Feirshleiser and Larry Smith (2006).   In this collection journalist Chuck Klosterman writes, “Nobody cared, then they did. Why?”  and Amy Sedaris offers a very different approach, “Mushrooms. Clowns. Wands. Five. Wig. Thatched.”

After sharing Hemingway’s model and excerpts from the original collection described above and the SMITH website ( words), juniors and seniors in a Creative Writing class wrote their own six-word memoirs:

            “Treading through the waters of the past” by Bradie

            “Silver lining sliding over murky puddle” by Chelsea

            “I’m fat but I am tender” by Shanji

            “Life is creating your own Stories” by Taylor

            “Internal Assessment due Tomorrow: bad words” by Vivian

            “I’m worried, thinking, twisted, and …shrinking.” by Chelsea

And as evidence that students will build on their six-word memoirs in crafting longer memoirs, Sam wrote “I need more than six words.”

A group of middle school students turned their six-word memoirs into a compelling video.  Check out Mollie Dickson’s blog to see their outstanding work.

Why Memoir?

Memoir is an opportunity for us, as readers, to experience the well-told moments of the author’s life.  It’s an opportunity for us as writers, to craft our own stories, carefully selecting each detail in an effort to discover our own truth.  As memoir author  Mary Karr notes in describing good memoirs, “they elevate experience into art and use individual lives to locate universal truths.”

4 comments August 18th, 2010

Poetry Friday: Inspired by Song of Myself

Kimberly Hill Campbell’s recent book Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts Grades 6-12, shows how short texts engage a wide range of middle and high school students. She shares her discovery of the power of short texts to support her students’ skills as readers, writers, and students of literature.

In the section on poetry, Kimberly shares her classroom strategies for helping students discover that poetry is something to be read and enjoyed in and out of school.

This week’s poem comes from one of her students, Trish, who used Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself as inspiration for her own poetry:

Song of Myself
(Inspired by Walt Whitman)

I run and become one with my soul
I run and kisk at my ease
Observing your every move.

My moves, every structure
Of my skills, form’d from
this turf, this atmosphere…

I, now, 16 years of age begin,
Hoping to play until I can
No more.

Add comment November 13th, 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

Short texts show students way into literature

Assigning a full-length novel to a group of middle or high school students is probably met with a lot of eye-rolling and groaning. Many students will struggle to complete the book and those who do may read it quickly and superficially. Teachers often find themselves sacrificing valuable classroom time to allow students to read the book, leaving little time for discussion.

Members of the Mosaic Listserv — a discussion group devoted to teachers who want to help their students become thoughtful, independent readers — recently participated in an online discussion about a book that suggests using shorter texts as a way to expose students to a wide range of literature while deepening their comprehension. In Less Is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts, Grades 6-12, Kimberly Hill Campbell encourages teachers to look beyond novels to engage students, and embrace a richer variety of literature, including graphic novels, short stories, and essays.

She argues that not all students are ready — or in many cases willing — to take on a full-length novel and that short stories provide most students a way into literature. “When students are confronted solely and consistently with texts that are complex and lengthy, there is resistance, a tendency to disengage and to look for shortcuts that may help complete a required assignment but that circumscribe or even totally avoid actual reading,” writes Leila Christenbury in the book’s foreword.

Many of the teachers participating in the Mosaic discussion found themselves in that situation: trying to coax middle and high school students into reading lengthy pieces of required literature in a limited timeframe, and engage them in meaningful discussion about the piece. Leslie Popkin, a literacy coach from Bellerose, NY, shared that “as a coach in a K-8 building, writing a curriculum for the upper grades that is workable and meaningful has been a challenge. The reading of Less Is More couldn’t have been more timely.” She added that the strict time constraints faced by middle school teachers makes fitting all the components of balanced literacy into the confines of a middle school ELA program very difficult. “This book is a superb source for high school teachers,” Popkin wrote, “and a good one as well for middle school teachers.” She considers the book a “must-read” for teachers of grades 6 through 8 and thinks that the strategies from the book can be used at almost any level.

Heather Rockensock, a literacy coach from Holmen, WI, shared that she had a hard time helping her reading and writing teachers integrate learning strategies into their teaching. “As soon as I read this book, I knew that I had a solution to my problem,” Heather wrote. Instead of struggling with trying to fit full-length novels — and the time it takes to read them — into the allotted time, Heather and other teachers are now adding shorter texts to their library. Rockensock’s students in the eighth grade are beginning their study of the Holocaust. Reading the usual required texts — The Diary of Anne Frank and The Devil’s Arithmetic — “would take forever,” she said. “I am excited to say that we are adding picture books, short stories, and graphic novels to our collection…I can’t wait to see how this enriches our discussions because now we will have time to actually have discussions!” The eighth-graders will also write a memoir as part of the unit and Rockensock says that she can already see the advantages of exposing students to various forms of literature.

Donna DeTommaso, an ESL teacher from Hatfield, PA, said that she likes to use short texts to provide her students the opportunity to reread the piece multiple times and to dig deeper into the text. Inspired by the book, DeTommaso read the story Charlie by Shirley Jackson to her students. “Sometimes I get so hung up on having them muddle their way through it that I don’t choose to do this. Kimberly inspired me to back up and do more it,” she said. She then asked her students to reread the story on their own and used Campbell’s strategies to teach the class about foreshadowing and inferring.

Amy Windus, a fifth-grade teacher from Scio, NY, is also faced with trying to fit a lot of material into a limited amount of time. She believes that the strategies in Campbell’s book will not only help alleviate the time issue by using shorter texts, but will also allow students to read, re-read, and truly engage with the text in a meaningful way. “In my opinion, this is actually one of the greatest benefits of shorter texts,” she said. “Once they’ve been read and students understand the content, you are then free to re-examine them from any number of lenses, depending on the skill, strategy, or craft that you want students to understand.”

Add comment July 18th, 2008

Podcast: Kimberly Hill Campbell

Kimberly Hill Campbell

Kimberly Hill Campbell

Students can really dig deep if they have a manageable-sized text. The quality of the conversations you have in the classroom increases and the engagement deepens.”

In our latest Author Conversations podcast episode, Kimberly Campbell, author of Less Is More, discusses how short texts foster students’ enthusiasm for literature, and how they can help teach longer texts as well.

Listen to the podcast with Kimberly

Add comment May 22nd, 2008

New From Stenhouse

Most Recent Posts

Stenhouse Author Sites




Classroom Blogs