Saturday, January 31, 2015

Writing Well Begins With Critical Reading: Talking Back to Scripted Programs

Pandora Story Map Based on Kimmell Version of the Myth
I. Greek Mythology Unit Designed by Teachers

For the last few weeks I have been working with a group of fourth grade teachers.  We co-designed a unit of study focusing on Greek Mythology that embedded reading, writing, speaking-listening, and language standards throughout the unit. Students had the opportunity and responsibility to listen to, read and view Greek myths--and to respond to those texts through discussion and writing. 

Through interactive read aloud with an emphasis on critically retelling and vocabulary development, and through guided reading that privileged comprehension conversations students read deeply.  They also engaged in shared, guided, and independent writing. Students were able to demonstrate a keen understanding of what they heard, read, and viewed through their whole class, small group and partner discussions and their writings.  Students heard, read and viewed multiple versions of each myth (print, visual arts, and video). This allowed them to compare versions and to complicate their understanding. This critical reading work represented the foundation that students' writings rested upon.

II. Anchoring What Is Heard/Viewed/Read

In order to anchor what was heard, viewed, and read--students created different types of story maps in response to the read aloud texts, such as the two Pandora story maps pictured here.  To analyze the myths, students first needed to be able to retell the story accurately.  It is impossible to analyze a text well if literal understanding is absent or faulty. Therefore, students with the help of their teachers, created a story map for each text. Teachers began this process by having students retell the myth. A deep retelling included:
Pandora Story Map Based on Burleigh/Colon Version of the Myth

  1. Retell what happened.
  2. Why it happened
  3. The effect on the characters’ mental state
  4. Be able to emphasize connections between earlier and later parts in the story.
  5. Retell with emphasis on character insight, touching on genre-specific elements and attempting to use the vocabulary or figurative language used in the text.

They also created character analysis anchor charts focusing on explicating indirect methods of characterization by naming and then analyzing what a character does, thinks, and says and then asking what might be inferred.  For example, when studying the Pandora myth, the class created an anchor chart. They named Pandora's actions, thoughts and speech and then analyzed what might be inferred. What did Pandora's actions, thoughts, and speech reveal about her character? This work allowed them to later step into the character in response to a writing task (see below).

III. Writing Rests on Reading

After studying two or more versions of the Pandora story (read aloud and guided reading), students responded to the prompt pictured below by writing a narrative that continues the story.
First major writing task in the mythology unit.

Attempting to enter into the myth at the point depicted in the visual art required students to read the painting, to consider the two or more versions of the story they had read, and to think about the inferences they had made in order to craft a believable text. I want to emphasize that no graphic organizers were used or needed during the writing because students deeply understood the myth.  Instead of some formula to guide their writing, students rested their work on what they had read and analyzed. By critically reading, discussing and writing they had already walked in Pandora's shoes. Because students had so closely studied different versions of the myth and had analyzed the characters--their responses were well grounded.

Standard W.4.9a asks students "to draw evidence from literary texts to support analysis, reflection, and research." Specifically, students are asked to "[a]pply grade 4 Reading standards to literature (e.g., “Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text [e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions].”).  To do this well, students needed to use their knowledge of Pandora through the analyses they had done, drawing on specific details from one or more versions of the myth in order to extend the story.  Let's look closely at how one student did this.

IV. Studying One Student's Writing

Below is an example of one student's response (Catherine Esteves) from Jacqueline Peguero's fourth grade classroom in Newark, NJ.   Notice how the details Catherine crafts fits with the tone of the myth and re-establishes a credible setting ("Darkness circled around me..."). Notice how Catherine uses story language ("Then I sank into a deep sleep.") to forward the narrative. Notice her diction ("bat-like creatures hurrying," "ropes loosened") and the blend of narration and dialogue to forward the plot.  In Catherine's guided reading work she read Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, The Paradise of Children, and we can see how she borrows from Hawthorne's retelling of Pandora by having Epimetheus assume some of the blame for releasing evil into the world, as well. She also draws from the painting by Gerhartz by referencing the flowers. Yet she doesn't merely mimic what she has read or viewed for in Catherine's version she couples together the goodness of the world by having Love, Kindness, Grace and Caring (to name but a few) join Hope--thereby resettling the world. As Catherine has learned through reading, she closes her version of the myth with a statement to her reader: Remember, good will always be stronger and have more power than bad. We sense the author behind the work.

Page 1 from Catherine's writing.

Page 2 from Catherine's writing.

Through diction and character action, Catherine crafts a believable and controlled piece of writing that helps us to understand the painting and the written myths more fully. 

V. When Teachers Author

I have had the pleasure of working as an external consultant with Jackie and her colleagues (Waleska Burgos and John Feinstein) for the last few years.  In a conversation with Jackie a week ago she mentioned that her students' parents were commenting on how much their children were enjoying the mythology unit.  Jackie said that what surprised her the most was that parents had nothing to say during the Expeditionary Learning module they had done earlier in the year and that made her wonder how well that work had been received. 

When teachers author academic studies they can better respond to what emerges as well as build from one portion of the year to the next and from year to year. We had decided to write our own unit in order to replace an Expeditionary Learning (EL) module as the teachers and I thought that the EL work was not sturdy enough academically (especially with regard to writing and deep analysis), nor could a unit made by another in an earlier time and place be responsive to emerging academic and social needs and strengths we saw occurring with the children. We also wanted to ensure that students continued to explore mythology. 

Kindergarten children at these schools are listening to folk tales through read alouds and beginning in first grade students begin reading traditional literature in guided reading. These reading efforts are supported through read aloud units in grades 1, 2, and 3. In first grade, children are introduced to cautionary tales (Red Riding Hood versions), fables and tall tales in grade 2, and in grade 3 they study mythology generated by indigenous people. These earlier works set the stage for the work being conducted in grade 4. Alongside this work, teachers in earlier grades are able to help students respond to text through whole class shared writing and through guided practice during guided reading.  For example, in Suzanne Capuano's second grade I taught a small group of struggling reader last week. I taught the group in response to a concern Suzanne raised about the children's reading. She said that she noticed that the children were having difficulty remembering what they were reading during retelling. By identifying a learning challenge, Suzanne set the stage for us to problem solve.

During guided reading, I asked the students to respond to a Red Riding Hood story by charting the actions of the wolf or Red Riding Hood. The children read the text first and then during a rereading of the text, they partnered and completed the chart with guidance (see below). 

One of the teachers (grades 1, 2 an 3 teachers viewed) observing the lesson said that what was most notable was that the children's confidence increased  as did the lateral discussion that happened as the children worked through the text. The children knew they were successful, no gold star was necessary. 

Children in this class learned to think about what a character does and says during earlier read aloud units when their teacher created anchor charts that helped students to think about what a character says and does and what we infer based on those actions and speech. I built on that knowledge. Students also have daily opportunities to interpret what characters say as is evidence below in a second grader's response to a read aloud about Sonia Sotomayor.

Christopher's response to a quote from Jonah Winter's book about Sonia Sotomayor.
Christopher interprets through writing and drawing the quote: "Success comes to those who make the most of the chances they are offered in life."   He wisely tells us: "When you get chances that can change your life take risks. If you can't take (a) chance you might not succeed."

VI. Risk Taking

The weave among read aloud, guided and independent reading, and writing is critical and needs to be designed and organized by teachers who are working with children in the here and now--not by corporations who mass produce units of study and distributed them like cheap pens. We all ought to worry when we see teachers being confined to enacting scripted programs, not simply because the programs may or may not be lacking, but more importantly authoring is a critical and necessary practice for teaching and learning. At the schools where Jackie, Waleska, John and Suzanne work they are provided with the professional respect by their leadership to think, design, and redesign. Excellence does not come by handing teachers already completed units of study and limiting them to merely enacting them. This is a grave error.  We need to follow Christopher's advice and take risks.  'Fool' proofing curriculum is an epic failure. 

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