Sunday, April 26, 2009

Book Review: Do I Really Have to Teach Reading?

I've been a fan of Cris Tovani for some time. I enjoy her style of writing and her inclusion of student work in her texts. I find her easy to read, but not too simplistic in her ideas and observations.

What I like most about Do I Really Have to Teach Writing: Content Comprehension in Grades 6-12 is Tovani's in-depth explanation of each concept and/ or strategy she presents. She does not simply give a list of strategies or ideas with a quick how-to, but describes her process of implementing each strategy in classroom, with real students. She also includes narration of in-class discussions. The reason why I appreciate this style of presentation is that I often read professional development books where I cannot visualize how students would respond to the materials or strategies the author is explaining. This leads to a bit of a disconnect for me because I cannot see or hear how actual students would respond and interact with the strategy being presented. Allowing for the time and energy that inevitably goes into using a new strategy is not a small undertaking. I'd rather read a more rich description of a few strategies used in a actual classrooms than see list of fifty strategies and directions on how to use them.

I tend to be a reflective sort of reader and I take pleasure in thinking about the seemingly small details that make up a text of this sort. When I read Tovani, everything about the text shouts that she repsects students in both their work and their thinking. I notice this because she starts most chapters in this text with a student quotation, rather than one from a famous thinker. I can imagine how powerful and valued Tovani's students must feel having a teacher like Tovani who includes their thoughts and work in such an esteemed way in her life work. Student work is included, with spelling mistakes and an unmistakable teen voice. The inclusion of this student work though, allows those of us who create materials and read this type of writing every day to see Tovani's thoughtful, available, and important strategies.

I've used many of the strategies described in this book and I have been thinking about some of the suggestions Tovani has for structuring thematic units. To me, this is the mark of a powerful teacher text. I love finding resources that stick with me after I've finished them or put them down. I know that Tovani's ideas and suggestions will continue to swirl in my head and influence my planning for some time.

Concept Sort

One of the most purposeful uses of the conecpt sort for me and for my students has been to use this strategy to bridge fromone text to another. Since I learned of this strategy and used it once, I've been using variations of it to help students keep in mind themes, issues, vocabulary, and characters from a previous text as they venture into another text.

I think that this strategy works well for my classes because I've consciously structured my courses so that texts, ideas, concepts, vocabulary, characters, and themes will build as we move through the entire course. I do have more work to complete in terms of mapping out all of the courses I teach in this way, but I think that I've seen some rewarding results in courses where this has happened.

The concept sort is a great tool that could really be used throughout a course to help students create connections between units and bridge from one area of study to another. Plus, students seem to have fun in using this activity, and although it seems rather simplistic, it can be turned into a vehicle for intellectual discussions. This is probably true because there is a lot of room for individual choice in this strategy. If students choose to place a concept in one column rather than another, there needs to be some sort of rationale as to why they've chosen this way.

I've also used a variation of this strategy to help students create predictions about a text, which we revisit throughout our reading. It is interesting the variety and quality of predictions I've received using this strategy versus just opening up room for predictions. The predictions I've gathered from this sort of activity are almost painfully accurate, and I'm often left wondering whether or not the students have already read the text. The positive side of this, of course, is that in making predictions, students often have an investment in whether or not they turn out to be true. When they are true, the reward for students is not so much in being "right", but in being perceptive readers and thinkers.

Monday, April 20, 2009

KWL Chart

Like the Venn Diagram, the KWL chart is a strategy that I try not to overuse. I've had instructors who latch on to one or two strategies and use them in every unit and this practice bores me. I'd rather use a strategy such as this one sparingly because it can be very fun and cool and useful but not if it's overdone.

That said, I've been using the KWL with my sophomores for quite some time. I like to use it as a pre-reading activity before we read Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice. I like this strategy because I have the same students (for the most part) when they're freshmen and I know that we complete a huge Shakespeare unit and webquest. I do not want to repeat this experience for them, so I like to honor that they may already have some knowledge (K) about Shakespeare from the previous year. This knowledge often reminds them that they've forgotten some information about Shakespeare, so this leads them to identifying what they'd like to know (W) about him. Once they're online and they have freedom to search around as they like, they often discover information about the Bard that they'd never known before because I'd always given them the sites or led them to information. Once they are on their own, they often discover some not-so-savory information, which peaks their interest in reading more from this saucy, controversial author (L).

The way this activity is carried out and presented also creates a powerful visual in the room. Others who're reading Shakespeare with me in other classes are drawn to the visual and comment on it often. I like that the end product is easy to understand and demonstrates and growth and gathering of knowledge in a way that a poster or Popsicle stick replica of the Globe Theater might not.

Venn Diagram

Before taking this course with Darlene, I had heard of the Venn Diagram and even used it here and there, but not super effectively. I had seen Venn Diagrams used in textbooks and interpreted them for coursework, but I had never really thought of an effective way to use them in my English classes. Then, when I was thinking about how to teach the term tragicomedy to my sophomores, the proverbial "light" came on.

I had taught William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for several years, and had focused on the term tragicomedy because I felt that this play needed to by recognized for the aspects that make it a tragedy and a comedy and not exclusively one or the other. I liked the idea of using the Venn Diagram because we could use it to show how our understanding of the term tragicomedy built over the course of the play. It is not until the end of the play that one can see all of the tragic and comic elements of the play; however, events and characters can be tracked during the play to build an understanding of how and where this play incorporates elements of both comedy and tragedy.

I will continue to look for areas where I can incorporate the Venn diagram into my lesson and unit planning. I think that this is one strategy that has to be used purposefully. Maybe this is a personal reaction of mine and not one that others share. I found it to be an excellent comprehension strategy in this one case, but I'd not want to use it with every unit.


In the past, I've set professional goals around group work. I've done this because it can be so frustrating to have group work that does not work well. I've tried all sorts of configurations and jigsaws and evidence sheets, but none has worked so well as the Think-Pair-Share. I like this model because it allows for individual work, paired work, and then whole group work or report-out. The structure starts small and branched out as students move to the next level and better understand what they're doing. This way, the teacher can clarify any confusions students may have before they move to their pairs and before the pairs are expected to report out to the larger group.

For example, I really wanted my juniors and seniors to understand the various types of comedy that William Shakespeare uses in his comedy. I knew that I had some students who'd read more Shakespearean comedy with me than others, but as we moved into Twelfth Night (a mega comedy), I wanted all of us to be on more equal footing and to have some baseline vocabulary from which to talk about comedy. Because there are so many types of comedy and comedic devices in the play, I did not want every student to be responsible for gathering information about all of the types. Also, I knew that I needed to differentiate for my students because they are heterogeneous and need a variety of sources in their inquiry.

I used this same structure with juniors and seniors as a pre-reading activity for Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Here, I wanted students to think about the underlying themes contained within the play before they had a chance to meet the characters and judge them for their actions, beliefs, and decisions. In this activity, student pairs received a question and had a chance to decide what they believed in reference to that question. I had students report out for one another rather than for themselves so that they'd really have to listen to what their partner said. I also wanted to curtail some of our more eloquent and wordy class members, as they have a way of monopolizing class time! This activity worked so well that we had a heated discussion and students referred to their own beliefs as the play progressed.

Think Pair Share is a wonderful tool for differentiation. It allows the teacher to seamlessly break students into groups and assign readings with similar content but at a variety of reading levels. In this method, no one student will be isolated with a topic that is "less than" what others are working on; it allows the teacher to reach every student on his or her level.

Interactive Word Wall(s)

For me, one of the difficult aspects of teaching vocabulary has been the issue of how to make it relevant and real to the unit I'm teaching. I am definitely not about giving lists and lists of words to students out of context from the novel or play or unit we're reading or thinking about. I know that this does not work for me in my own learning, so why would I use it with students? I do know that when I read or hear a word in context over and over again, I am able to make a place for it in my brain and recall it. I do have to read it and hear more than a dozen or so times for this to happen.

One of the benefits of using an interactive word wall is that you can point to it while you're teaching, while you're reading, and while students are engaged to USE it in a meaningful way. Gone are the frustrations of repeating the definition of simile over and over by myself. Once you have an interactive word wall up and running, those students who are able to connect visual and audio memory will help you to repeat the definition of simile (or whatever word or term you need). And, I've found that they take great pride in understanding and recalling these words and definitions.

Another plus of using this strategy is that it can lead instruction. After finishing the set of root words and affixes with this year's freshmen, I found that we had grown used to using the interactive word wall and I did not want to put that to an end. So, for the novel To Kill a Mockingbird and the play Romeo and Juliet, I would read ahead to find words in those works that used either a familiar root or affix or used a new root or affix that we had not yet studied. I chose probably two or three per chapter and would alert students to the words and roots that we'd cover in that particular chapter. This way, their knowledge of the roots and affixes would not slip away as we went on to other units.

In using the interactive word wall to teach units and reinforce concepts that I'd always taught, I found that the use of the word wall lent itself to additional activities and to a constant presence of those roots and affixes that I had deemed important enough to display in our room as we read. I think that it can be easy to have so much going on in a class that you simply forget the various threads you've got swirling around or that maybe it's hard to know how to connect all of the threads in a way that makes sense in terms of time and student interest. Using the word wall has kept me honest about what's important for students to understand and it shows students how knowledge can build and transfer from one unit to the next. I will definitely keep this going next year and do the extra work of seeking out the in-context vocabulary to display and use in our room as we read.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


Of all the strategies I learned about this year, the GIST has probably been the most effective in my classes. I've struggled for YEARS to try to get students to summarize nonfiction rather than repeat absolutely everything that they've read. I've not yet had a clear method to help students summarize what they've read, so this easy-to-use and easy-to-understand strategy has been a great tool for my students.

At the beginning of the school year, I have always attempted to teach students to use a highlighter to separate out key phrases, definitions, and important ideas in what they've read. What I've found is that students cannot reliably pick out this information from nonfiction articles. They tend to highlight the ENTIRE text or not highlight enough material.

I plan to use the GIST right off next year. Rather than giving tips and hints about locating and highlighting the important info in a text, I'll use the GIST to give students a concrete strategy that they can use throughout the year in all of their classes. I am excited to see how far students progress when this strategy becomes a tool that they can use in the content areas and not a strategy that they need to think about and explicitly learn every time they use it. We did not have enough practice with it this year so that they could use the strategy without thinking about the process; however, I am confident that we'll be able to use it in multiple situations next year.

I used the GIST to teach a book called Harvest Gypsies by John Steinbeck. I've taught this nonfiction text in the past and have experimented with a variety of techniques to do so. The GIST worked better than any other method I'd used to teach this text. Students built a solid base of learning from which they made connections while reading Of Mice and Men by the same author. I'll definitely use this strategy next year with this text.

I also used the GIST to lead into the reading of The Crucible by Arthur Miller. To read this play with an understanding of the characters and the world of the Puritans, it is essential to understand the historical context in which they lived. The hard part of introducing this subject matter to heterogeneously grouped students is that some of the readings can be very wordy and lengthy, while others may be too simplistic for a more advanced reader. The beauty of the GIST is that it can easily be used as a differentiation strategy for students at various reading levels. I picked out readings for each student and grouped them by subject matter in a way that allowed for the various abilities in my classroom to shine. Students built a base of knowledge about the Puritan religion, Puritan children, and the expectations for women and men during this time. We created a chart of our findings that we referred back to as we read the text. This definitely helped us to understand the motivations of the characters and their decision-making process.
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