Monday, December 14, 2015

Paragraph Autopsy

I'm not much for formulas for writing. It is NOT true that paragraphs have a certain number of sentences or that essays have a certain number of paragraphs. I know many teachers have helped their students become stronger writers using formulas..."the hamburger essay," the 5 paragraph essay, and so on. I used them too.

But now I find myself wanting to use frameworks...bones to hang thinking upon...I want to give my students the opportunity to use writing to help them THINK. For me, the problem with a 5 paragraph essay is that it assumes the student has already got a thesis and a conclusion. You can't write one of those suckers if you don't have a clear thesis and 3 pieces of evidence. In this case, writing is not a tool for thinking, but rather, an end product of thought.

Last year I read, and fell in love with, Thomas Newkirk's Minds Made for Stories: How We Really Read and Write Informational and Persuasive Texts. Newkirk suggests asking students to begin with a question.

Here's the sample paragraph I had on my white board. You can see I begin with a genuine question...and it's a bit racy to get my students interested. How can they not be, with "slut" and "sleazy" and "greasy glove" all in one paragraph?!

(Click on pic to make larger)

We talked about the work of coroners to identify cause of death. I assured my students that by the time we were done autopsying this paragraph, it would be dead! The autopsy check list included:
  • there a question seeking an answer?
  • import or there a statement explaining why the question matters?
  • is there an example from the text?
  • is there a page number for the quotation from the text?
  • CTQ is there a deliberate, explicit, directly stated, overt Connection to Question?
We worked on the sample paragraph together, and I made boxes and labels on the white board around the parts of the paragraph from our autopsy check list. Then I set my "coroners" loose on this paragraph, to be completely autopsied individually:

Why does Ms. Montgomery read Lennie’s voice as though he is a complete moron? This matters because it helps students decide what kind of man Lennie is. I wonder if she hams it up to help students understand that Lennie has the mind of a child inside the body of a very large and strong man? For example, on page 14 when Lennie gets excited and interrupts George to shout, “An’ live off the fatta the lan’ …. An have rabbits, [sic]” Ms. M makes Lennie sound like an idiot. I think she intends to make Lennie sound like a child. He’s full of innocence and enthusiasm for rabbits, but because he’s so big and an adult, Lennie seems moronic.
So the paragraph isn't perfect. There's a second question in there that throws off some "coroners" and their reports. Some have trouble identifying the example. Because we've just started connection to thesis, that was particularly challenging. BUT students are labeling and noting some of the key parts of a paragraph written to aid thinking.

You can do this in any content area. What is the framwork, the bones, of a well-written paragraph in your content area? As a writer, consciously noticing this framework and how it works makes for stronger writing. This isn't a formula. My paragraph isn't done. It's the bones of a literary analysis. Any kid could hang her/his hat on these bones and flesh out thinking into a thoughtful analytic paragraph.

Evaluation note: quick to check for real understanding of paragraph framework. Kids are high-lighting or drawing boxes and labeling. 

Want help thinking about this specifically in your content area? Shoot me an email. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Writing as a Tool for Thinking #2: Rules of Notice (RON), Gallery Walks, Sticky Notes,

So I've got some "energetic" 9th graders this year. A class of 19 and a class of 18. Sometimes I struggle with getting academic conversation going and being sure that I catch a glimpse of every student doing some thinking. Peter Rabinowitz's RULES OF NOTICE help keep the focus on close reading (a current "hot topic" in reading and literacy), and on students, GASP, thinking! 

Here's a scenario for how this might work.

We've been reading Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Working in pairs or trios, students got poster board and one thing to focus on. Using Rabinowitz's RULES OF NOTICE, I chose a character or the setting and set the posters up so that students were searching for quotations, page numbers, and then their THINKING. I like using Rules of Notice (RON) instead of chapter questions because rules of notice help students to pay attention as they read without the guidance of questions that often encourage skimming instead of actual reading.

This year students actually said they did not like using RON because they have to read and think! Score one for the teacher!

Rules of Notice (RON)is easily adaptable to SOCIAL STUDIES...who or what or where do you notice, page number for the source, and then the thinking...why is this person, or item, or decision, or place of import? For looking at maps, documents, and paintings it works too!

In other content areas, like SCIENCE, RON might be adapted to drafting labs...what do you notice in a science lab could mean what do you see, or weigh, or measure? Instead of page numbers, students might note when something happens, especially in a lab when sequence or timing is important. The thinking column would be the space for writing about WHY they think they are seeing what it is they are seeing. The thinking column helps students to find the words to capture how the text book theory is played out in the lab experiment.

This process might also be reversed so that students are filling out the thinking column first. What do students, based on their reading or their knowledge of the world, PREDICT will happen? Then conduct each step of the lab, and in the NOTICE column, write what they observe. How can they reconcile their pre-lab thinking/expectations with their observations?

While the photo of an English example isn't a perfect example, it is a fairly typical 9th grade sample. You'll notice the thinking for the first quotation is a bit shallow...Candy doesn't want his dog shot elicits the thought that Candy grew up with his dog and loved it. But still, it is the students' thinking. By the time this pair gets to their last notice and thought, they've improved: their thinking is more sophisticated as they interpret Candy's delaying the news of Curley's wife's murder as a sign of Candy's devotion to the dream fostered by George and Lennie's "live offa the fat a' the land" talk.

By using RON posters I have the opportunity to see students put their thinking into writing, in pairs. This does a number of things:
  1. fosters academic conversation in pairs or trios
  2. sets up a system of note-taking that helps keep students organized 
  3. makes them turn to the text for quotations or paraphrases
  4. makes their thinking visible by putting it into words
  5. cuts my responding in half...with 2 students/poster I can make my work load reasonable
Take RON posters to the next level by doing a gallery walk with sticky notes.

All a gallery walk involves is hanging posters around your room or spaced down a hallway. (Tolerance for the roar, er, buzz of classroom conversation helps too). Have students start in front of their own poster. Have some small piles of sticky notes stuck to each poster. On your cue, students move around the room, or gallery. Like in an art gallery, they can not touch the "art" or posters. The teacher tells students when to move on to the next poster.
  1. At each poster, each student removes a blank sticky note and writes the poster subject on their sticky. 
  2. After reading over the poster and talking with their partners, students select ONE quotation and thinking to super summarize on their sticky note. Pairs may select different quotations.
  3. Students jot down WHY they picked the quotation & thought. This often needs help from the teacher. I give examples....I picked this one because I hadn't noticed or thought about it when I was reading OR I picked this one because I think the writer is dead wrong OR I picked this one because I think the writer is so right OR I picked this one because I liked how it captured something I was struggling to understand OR...
  4. Students KEEP their stickies with themselves as they move from poster to poster. They are collecting quotations, thinking, and their own reflections/thinking as they move from poster to poster. 
  5. Students finish when they are back in front of their own posters, and each one has a sticky note for each poster.
  6. At their own poster, I ask students to take one more sticky and write their name on it. Then I ask them to do a self-evaluation:  x/100 for the visibility & neatness of their poster and another x/100 for their use of RON. This reflection supports students SEEING their own work...did they make an effort for it to be visible at a distance? Could anyone read it and make some sense of it? For the RON score...are quotations/paraphrase, page numbers, and thinking all lined up? In my photo above, you can see that the students had to use lines to make it clear what page numbers and thinking went with which quotation/paraphrase. Most importantly, is there REAL thinking or is there a lot of paraphrase and generalizations so that the thinking column doesn't add any real value to the reading?
  7. Students each take her/his own set of stickies and put them in their notebooks. Then they read over their collection and write a single sentence explaining which one of their stickies is the most interesting. HA! Now I've got them thinking about their thinking. Tomorrow, after they've let all this percolate in their brains, we'll begin the process of asking questions to settle on some possible essay topics. JUICY!