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Teaching Students to Find Evidence in Literarure

We're reading A Separate Peace in my Pre-IB class right now, and I'm drilling down on teaching them to write analytical statements -- rather than summary. I'm also spending more time teaching them how to find good evidence.  

My experience is that students can find a quote to back up a point, but they often stop short with just one, usually the easiest one to find. There's a couple of problems with this: I want them to use multiple examples to fully develop their ideas, and when they use the first quote they find, they can often miss one that's even better.

After we read the first four chapters of the novel, we did some work on learning the difference between factual and analytical statements. I had the kids brainstorm assertions about the first part of the book, then I put them in groups to find evidence to support the assertions (full disclosure: because it was the first part of the book, I gave them assertions I made ahead of time for the group activity. I wanted to make sure they were  on the right track!)

Each group was given a handout that looks like this. They wrote their assertions on the top and then had to look for evidence to support it. First, we spent some time discussing what makes a quote an effective one to use as proof. I told them that if they want to do this well, they'll have to be willing to re-read and skim to look for ones that truly back up what they are trying to prove.

They took notes as they read and had to decide which of the quotes they found to include on the three sticky notes that would go on the handout. Before I gave them the stickies, we had a discussion about whether or not their evidence was good. If it wasn't, I gave them some hints about where to look in the text.  

Once they had their quotes on the stickies, they had to arrange them in the order they would use them to back up the assertion. Finally, they wrote their commentary on the side on the handout.

But we still weren't done. I took all of the handouts that focused on one character and arranged them on chart paper, and did the same for the other character. We did a gallery walk, and finished with the students making assertions based on all of the evidence on the poster.

This process took longer that I initially thought it would -- two full classes from start to finish. However, it was time very well spent. The students got a much better understanding of the process they should go through when they are searching for proof. I told them that they obviously couldn't spend two classes backing up every point, but that they should remember the process when they are looking for evidence. I believe that the activity will also help them to recognize effective quotes when they take notes as they read.

You can get more ideas for teaching analysis in my latest product: Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis. And, if you'd like more support with this and any of your teaching strategies, you can join my Facebook group: Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.

Teaching The Process of Literary Analysis

If you polled your students would they tell you that they really understand how to do a literary analysis? Or are they just blindly following a formula without really understanding the process? 

If we want students to truly understand what they are doing, we need to show them the process of analysis and then make it a daily habit, not just something for final assignments. I've developed a number of lessons and activities to reinforce these skills, and I want to share them with you:

We've all read those papers that are nothing but plot summary when what we really wanted was analysis. These essays were a waste of time for the student to write and for us to read. To avoid this, we need to devote some time to showing kids the difference. Here's what I do:

After my kids have read a short story or a section of a longer text, I tell them to write as many statements as they can about what they have just read. Then, I do a mini-lesson on factual statements versus analytical ones. At this point, the students will put a checkmark beside their analytical statements and an X beside the ones that state a fact. This is a really important step in the process, because if they can't discern the difference, then analysis will not be easy for them. It's an idea I reference often in class discussions that follow: Is that a factual or analytical statement? If it's factual, I'll instruct them to reframe if I'm looking for analysis. Or, if I want them to support their statements with evidence, I'll tell them to give me some facts to back up their analysis. We make evidence versus analysis part of our daily conversation so they become familiar and comfortable with the difference. 

While we want our kids to move beyond summary to analysis, they still need to be able to identify key facts in the text, facts they will use as evidence to support their analysis. Therefore, we also need to build in time for them to learn how to identify key information and important moments in plot. When I begin any full class novel, we start with a lesson that does just that.

I get the kids to make statements about key facts and events in the first section they read: why do they think they are important? What is the author using them for? The kids brainstorm as many as they can. They do a turn-and-talk and then we discuss their ideas as a class. We write the facts and events on the board and decide, together, which ones are the most important.  I transfer them to either a piece of chart paper or a digital file that we can add to and reference later.  These key facts and events, then, begin to make up the evidence they will use later for analysis.

Once they know the difference between these two kinds of statements, we do some lessons on how to write assertions about text, how to choose the best evidence back these up, and how to write commentary about the evidence. 

I'm not talking about thesis statements and topic sentences here. I want them to get in the habit of making analytical statements about text any time we discuss the text, whether it's in small group or full class discussion or in the journal entries they write. Once they get a handle on that, they will be less likely to fill their essays with plot summary.

Kids need to see that analyzing text is not something that just happens. They need to know that there is a thinking process involved, one that starts with a close read. The best way to teach them how to do this, of course, is to show them. Copy or project a section of a text on the screen and let them see the process you go through when you do a close read. (You can grab my intro to close reading freebie here). Then, show them the assertions you would make about the text. Write some down and talk to yourself as you decide whether they are good ones or not. It's best not to plan this ahead, so they can see the real work you have to do, even though you're a supposed "expert".

If you had to sit down and write an analytical essay right now, you would know how to attack it -- but even then, even with all of your experience, it's not an easy task. That's why I provide my students with opportunities to work on the steps of literary analysis before they do an essay. 

Teaching literary analysis: lessons and strategies

One of my favourite ways to do this is with learning stations. My Discovering Theme Stations,  Novel Study Stations and Analyzing Poetry Stations take students through the thinking process they need to follow in order to analyze text.  You can also find lots of shorter activities you can use daily in Critical Thinking Activities for Any Text. 

For those of you who follow this blog, you know that I spend a great deal of time getting my kids to think critically. I make sure I scaffold skills and give plenty of formative feedback. That's why I was so disappointed with the essays that my International Baccalaureate students passed in a few weeks ago. They were filled with plot summary, superficial analysis and unsupported generalization. These students know better.

After I returned the essays, I shared my disappointment and they didn't seem surprised. I asked: did you spend time really working through your argument, or did you just try to plug information into "the formula"?  The vast majority confessed to the latter.

I was even more disappointed. What had we been doing in class? Were my efforts wasted? After beating myself up for a bit, I realized something:  Usually, I "forced" the writing process by requiring them to work through steps and hand in drafts. This time, I didn't. We'd done so much practice that I figured I didn't need to anymore--clearly I was wrong. So, I've made up a revision checklist that they will need to hand in with their assignments from now on. It will remind them to do the thinking that they need to do with analytical writing.

You can get all of these ideas laid out and ready to go in my latest product: Teaching the Process for Literary Analysis. And, if you'd like more support with this and any of your teaching strategies, you can join my Facebook group: Strategies for Teaching Secondary English.

Organizing Your Learning Stations

As you know, I love learning stations. I've made a lot of them. The problem is that they can be a little tricky to organize. In my first attempt, I used a binder with a combination of page protectors and the plastic sleeves that you use in photo albums. This worked as a way to keep everything  cleaned up, but the task cards would spill out of the sleeves and I, being a little lazy, would often just shove everything in after I used it -- so everything was "away" but not in a format that made it easy to use the next time.

This spring break I decided that it was time to get my life in order -- both at home and at school. I didn't know how I was going to clean up my stations, but I went to Home Sense and Staples to get ideas. What I came home with worked so well that I just have to share it with you!

I looked at a lot of folders and bins and filing cabinets, and just as I was about to leave Staples, I saw these "divide it up folders".  They come in a pack of twelve and have three sections -- perfect for task cards, title and handouts. It's like they were made for my stations! There are also tabs across the top so you can clearly label what's inside.

Organization for learning stations

But where to store them? I almost bought a big tub with hanging file folders, but I was worried it would be too bulky and hard to store. Luckily, I found this pretty expanding file folder at Home Sense. It's far nicer and more portable than the tub from Staples -- and, surprisingly, it holds a lot of folders.

Organization for learning stations

I'm only halfway there. I ran out of folders yesterday and so I'm headed back to the stores today. It was quite a satisfying process to finally find an effective way to store all of my stations!

If you'd like to check out the learning stations I have for secondary English students, you can see them here.

Strategies for Pre-Reading

My tenth grade pre-IB class has just finished the reader's workshop component of our course, and we're starting our first class novel, A Separate Peace, tomorrow. My kids loved reading their own novels, but because I have to prepare them for IB next year, it's time to move on. A Separate Peace is a great text, but I know from past experience that it won't grab them the way the independent novels did.

For this reason, and several others, I make sure we do an engaging pre-reading exercise before we begin. Pre-reading is a strategy that taps into students' prior knowledge and interests so they can make connections when they are reading. It's also a way to prime them so they can look for clues to character and thematic development as they work through the novel.

To do this exercise, I gave each student five different sticky notes (one for each topic) and told them they would write down the first thing that came to their mind when I projected the topic on the board. They could write down an example, a question, a comment, etc. (Some wrote down definitions, which wasn't what I was after. The next time I do this, I'll tell them not to do so; instead, they should be writing some kind of reaction or response to the idea.)

As they were writing, I was putting up chart paper throughout the room, with the same topics at the top of each page. When the kids were finished, they placed their stickies on the appropriate piece of chart paper.

Next, I put the students in groups and gave them a sheet of instructions. They had to group all of the stickies into categories, and then try to come up with an umbrella statement that summed up the ideas contained on the stickies. This wasn't always easy, because the kids were not given a great deal of direction about what to write (on purpose). I wanted them to be able to take a group of diverse ideas and work to find the connections between them.

As I circulated among the groups I was pleased to see the strategies they employed. All five of them had outlier stickies placed off to the side on the wall, and they had ones with similar ideas stacked together. Once they organized those, some turned to the outliers to see if they could make them fit. A few groups tried to ignore these stickies, so I had conversations with  them to see whether that was a good idea: could they find a way to make them fit or should they actually be discarded? We talked about the fact that just ignoring an idea, because you don't want to think about it, isn't the best strategy.

Finally, each group had to write down an idea that they would like to explore in relation to the topic, as well as a question that they have. When all were finished, they went on a gallery walk to check out the other posters.

This pre-reading exercise got my students to think about ideas that they will encounter while reading the novel, but the connections will not stop there. I'm keeping the posters and after they've read a section, we will revisit them and add evidence from the text that relates to each topic. At that point, we will begin to put together ideas that will help students discover the themes of the novel. My hope is that they will see that the author's message is not something that jumps off the page for them. I want them to know that figuring it out is a process that takes a great deal of critical thinking.

Grade Student Responses Quickly

I think I could wager a guess that grading journals and notebooks is not your favourite teaching task. They can take a long time to wade through and can become an onerous and dreaded job.  

But it doesn't have to be that way.

First of all, I love what journal/notebook writing offers our students: responses, free-writes and writing prompts let them spread their wings and experiment with new things. They are an outlet for their thoughts and a place to build new skills.  So how do we give our students this opportunity without chaining ourselves to our desks? Read on to find out the solution I've arrived at, as well as a freebie. You can grab it here so you can try it yourself.

This is the key. It's what will allow your kids the freedom to write and you the ability to give fast feedback. I make my kiddos well aware that I will not read every word they write, but that I still expect them to do their best with each entry. 

How do I get high schoolers to do this?  I don't tell them ahead of time which entries I will grade, so they need to make sure they work hard on each one. The notebooks come in every two weeks, which usually means they have done at least ten responses. I will choose to read two or three of them, based on what I want to assess at the time.

How do I choose what I will read?

Last week we were focused squarely on word choice. I gave my students a variety of things to respond to like photo prompts, and questions about their independent novels. They also did a number of quick-writes on controversial topics. Each of these was preceded by a lesson on word choice.  We also talked a lot about ways that authors can develop their ideas. Therefore, I knew I wanted to read entries that showcased what the students had learned about language and idea development. The quick-writes would not be the best choice for the latter, as they just didn't have time to fully flesh out their points. Therefore, I chose three entries that they spent more time on and that would showcase their use of language.

Spending some time creating a rubric that helps you get through the process is time very well spent.  Part of my rubric always includes a completion grade. Even though I'm not reading everything, I want to give them credit for doing the work. I make a list of the entries that were to be in the journal, and as soon as I open one, I count to see that they are all there. If they are, the student gets full marks for completion.

Next, I'll turn to the entries that I've chosen to read. However, I don't write any comments on the page. Instead, I use a yellow highlighter to point out several words or phrases that illustrate effective use of language -- perfectly chosen diction, a metaphor, a sensory image, etc. Then, I use a pink one to highlight some words and phrases that could be stronger. Because we also worked on idea development, I underlined one or two ideas that could be pushed and wrote "MD" (for more detail needed) in the margin.

As I said, I don't write anything--no explanation as to why a phrase was highlighted and not even a note on the checklist. If you check it out, you'll see that it's blank. That's because the most important step comes after I give them back. The form lets students know which entries were read, and so they need to find the highlighted words/phrases and to try to figure out what I was doing. They write their guess on the feedback form, and then they have a conversation with the students around them to see if they are all on the same page. Finally, they need to suggest a better word or phrase to replace the ones highlighted in pink. 

Every time I've done this, they quickly figured it out and had good discussions about better word choice. The point of this little exercise is that I want them to be doing the thinking. If I spend all my time writing explanations that they may not read, it's a bit of a waste. This way, they need to figure out my color code and come up with better wording. In other words, they are doing the thinking.

I could ask them to pass in another assignment where they rewrite the phrases highlighted in pink, but it can be enough just to have them recognize that it wasn't the best word choice. Plus, I will have other assignments that require them to use what they've learned about language.

One thing I've learned in my almost thirty year journey as a teacher is that I can't read and grade everything. However, I have learned some tricks that keep the students learning and me sane. This is one of them.

Do you have any tricks for faster grading? If you do, please let us know in the comments!

Reading Workshop and Teaching Skills & Standards

I get a lot of questions and concerns from teachers who are reluctant to try reading workshop because they have standards that have to be met. I totally get this fear. Workshop requires that we let go of a lot of control. When we do the full class novel we can clearly see the path we need to take to teach literary analysis to our kids. Reading workshop takes us down a road less travelled without that clear map.

I've written about ways to meet reading and writing standards before, but today I want to dig a little deeper into how I teach skills to kids who are all reading a different book. Let's look closely at one of the common core standards for reading literature in grade nine and ten:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone.

In the old days of teaching a full class novel, I would deal with this in a variety of ways, but my favourite method was to assign quotes from the text and ask them to analyze the author's word choice. If we were doing To Kill a Mockingbird, there wasn't a quote that couldn't be analyzed with a quick Google search, so I didn't always know if the kids were doing the work on their own. Now, I require that my students find the quotes to analyze in their own texts, in class, without any electronic help.

Let me show you how.

First of all, I teach my students to be active readers, and sticky notes are the perfect tool for this. I give them a blank template and ask them to put stickies on each square. Then I put each one through the copier to put instructions on their sticky notes.

Each sticky guides students to look for the writer's craft in their novels. This sheet focuses on author's use of language, which is what we've been learning about this week.

Next, we spend a number of days talking about the power of words, looking at various ways that authors use language for effect, using short mentor texts to illustrate different techniques. We also do some short writing exercises to get students working on their own craft (the best way to get them to understand how authors shape meaning is to learn to do it themselves). 

After each mini-lesson, students spend time reading their novels. As they read they will look for author craft. Today, for example, I'm doing a lesson on vivid verbs. Students will find at least one passage where the author has made a deliberate verb choice to create an effect. After they read, they will share this passage with a partner. Then, I will instruct them to re-read some of their journal entries, underline weak verbs, and replace them with stronger ones.

Tomorrow, we're taking a closer look at figurative language and imagery. Next week, we delve into character. Each time, I will repeat the process above. The pattern is the same with each literary element I address:

1. Give the lesson
2. Use mentor texts for illustration
3. Have students look for examples in their novels
4. Get them to practice the skill in their own writing

I use this sticky technique during the first weeks of my workshop, focusing each week on a different topic. Then, as we get further into the semester, I start doing conferences with the kids so I can assess their skill attainment. In order to ensure that they come to their conferences prepared, I give them bookmarks that guide their preparation. The bookmarks work like the sticky notes, but give the kids more room to write notes.

What about assessment? I take their notebooks in every few weeks. I do not read every entry. Instead, I look to see that all entries are complete and part of their grade is just for completion. Then I randomly choose two entries (ahead of time) that I will read. They don't know which ones I will choose, so the hope is they will do all well. I will also assess their skills during conferences. Finally, we end the semester with a full class novel. By then more of them have decided that reading is ok and most have learned that they can analyze text on their own. 

It was scary the first semester when I started using this approach, and I was fearful of the same things I've heard from you: how will I make sure my kids are learning when we aren't all reading the same text? Now, after several years of doing it this way, I can confidently answer the question. Reading workshop does allow you to teach to standards and, in fact, results in more kids learning the skills we want them to master. 

If you'd like to try this sticky note activity, you can check it out here.

Teaching Point of View and Perspective

Would you like your students to have a better understanding of  point of view and perspective? Immerse them in activities that go beyond the definitions, ones that have them looking through the eyes of another. Read on to see how we're doing that in Room 213.

Like Atticus Finch, I believe that one of the most important things we can teach our students is to try to be more understanding and tolerant. It's because of this that I start every tenth grade class with the inquiry questions: where does intolerance come from? How can we become more tolerant?

We use these questions as a guide for most of what we do in the class, especially our reading. I always start the semester with six weeks of reading and writing workshop and then we turn our attention to full class texts: To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace and Inherit the Wind. Each of these offers students some clues for their inquiry.

This year, I decided to step it up a notch with our reading workshop. I'm requiring students to choose a book with a character who is different than them in some way. Proponents of the reading workshop model may say this takes away choice, one of the pillars of workshop, but I disagree - there are so many great books available that provide students with ample opportunity to crawl inside the skin of another person so they can learn from them.

So, in the hopes of giving my students a good head start with their inquiry, I made a plan:

First off, I need to make sure my kids understand the concepts of point of view and perspective; more importantly, I want them to understand how they work together. It can be a little dry just to drone on about first person, second person, etc. plus I want them to understand the concepts beyond just parroting back the definition.

We spent a couple of days discussing how we form our opinions and that they are based on a lot of things like our background, experiences, values and beliefs. I begin with an exercise that I wrote about here. It's one of my favourite exercises to get kids to understand others.

Next I gave each student a pink and teal post-it. I told them to write, on the pink post-it, the first word that would pop into their heads if they met someone who had bright blue hair. Then, I asked them to pretend they were their parents and do the same with the teal post-it. They put the notes on the wall and a pattern was clear: the pink post-its had more positive tone overall, while the teal ones had a more negative or surprised tone.  We discussed why that might be, and the kids had lots of theories. One insightful young lady pointed out that they interact and are friends with students who dye their hair crazy colours and know that they are just like everyone else, while their parents may not have that experience and so they don't get the chance to learn that. At that point we talked about how our experiences can affect our perspective of things, and if we want to understand others' actions and reactions (and possibly change them), we need to also understand their perspective.

After a few days of delving into perspective, we talked about how it is tied into point of view. I gave them some notes and some examples to illustrate that even a third person narrator is affected by perspective. 

Today, we are going to do a group writing exercise to further illustrate the importance of perspective. Groups were given a photo prompt -- some had the same photo, but a different description that directed them to look at the photo from a certain perspective. I gave the kids time to brainstorm ideas using the sheet pictured on the right; then, each team got a big post-it note to write the thoughts of the character they'd been assigned. Finally we posted the notes throughout the class, and the kids did a gallery walk to guess what each group was trying to capture.

Now, in order to make sure they really understand this -- and to dig into our inquiry questions -- I want them to practice what they have learned. I instructed them to choose a novel with a character who is different from them in some way -- whether it's age, gender, race, interests, socio-economic status, etc. We will be working on other things as they read,  but we'll be taking a close look at the perspective of the characters they have chosen, as well as how narrative point of view is used in each text.  They are going to have several short writing and research assignments in conduction with this unit, and I hope that by the time we are done, they will have learned something about not only author craft, but also another perspective.  

If you'd like to use this lesson, it's all organized and ready to go. You can check it out at my TpT store here.


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