Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Power of Reading Aloud & Comprehension Conversations in Grade 4

Two fourth graders reading during small group comprehension conversation. 

I.  Big Questions 

It's early morning in a fourth grade classroom in Newark, NJ and the children and their teacher are at work studying Greek mythology. Beyond the classroom windows the weather hints at the possibility of spring.  But March has already been fickle and most anything could occur. Against the quiet of the classroom you can hear cars and trucks rumble by--the highway that splits this city runs just a few feet from the school. And in this mix of sounds it is the voice of one boy that we must pay attention to.

He turns and says to his teacher and classmates, "I've been thinking about the myths we are reading. How they are thousands of years old.  Do you think a thousand years from now people will think Christian and Muslim religions are myths, too?"

When the teacher tells about the child's question, I am contemplative--considering how children compose profound ideas in the company of their peers and alongside excellent teachers.

No gimmicks needed.
No scripts required.
No reform necessary.

What is needed are just a few well chosen texts, the agency to act, the mindfulness to notice singularities, and the intimacy of learning that gets made and remade alongside an exchange of ideas.

II. How Read Aloud Matters

As I listen to Mr. Watson, I'm reminded that in the right hands, read aloud can be a powerful method of knowledge building and need not be limited to the primary grades.  For the last several weeks, Watson has been reading Greek myths to his students and they have been talking, charting, and drawing what they understand, want to understand, and at times fail to understand. There's an intensity here as the children lean in physically, offer their comments, questions, and connections to one another.  You can feel the power that accompanies the made idea.  I tell you here that to see such learning is to know joy.

Children in this class have heard and read multiple versions of myths about: Prometheus, Epimetheus, Pandora, Persephone/Proserpina, Hades/Pluto, Demeter/Ceres, Echo, Narcissus, Hera, King Midas, Daedalus, Icarus, Pegasus, Bellerphon, Chimaera, Jason, Eros/Cupid, Perseus, Medusa, Hyperion, Zeus/Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Artemis, Cronus, Hercules, Aegeus, Heracles, the Minotaur, Theseus, Ariadne, Odysseus, Cyclops. I'm going to build on this foundation.  And it is a sturdy one.  As Luis will say about himself when I meet with him and three of his peers, You could say I'm an expert on Greek myths. 

III. Studying Hawthorne's Retelling of Greek Mythology: Small Group Comprehension Conversations

A example of a story map.
The work that Watson has been doing for the last few weeks provided the foundation for small group comprehension conversations about myths that I conducted with his students. In order to model what these conversations can encompass, I asked him to select students who I then worked with in order to demonstrate the process to other teachers.  On Thursday, I introduced Luis, Antoine, Dionni and Kamila to Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story, The Pomegranate Seeds, which is a retelling of Persephone but based on Roman deity.  In order to scaffold the students while reading, I provided questions for the four students to think about and discuss at various points in the text (blue print), word explanations (red print), and some background notes (blue print).

Below are the first two pages of the story that show how I altered the text.  Because the students had heard their teacher read two other versions of Persephone, they are well versed in the story and could easily retell it. They also are familiar with both the Greek and Roman gods/goddesses and are able to understand quickly the alignment between Persephone and Proserpina, etc.  A main focus during the read alouds is the construction of story maps. These help children to not only grasp a literal understanding the myths, but also to name possible themes and symbols.
Page 1

Page 2
After the retelling, the students and I began reading the first page to ourselves.  I used the first four guide questions as discussion points making sure that students were able to comprehend what they were reading. These questions were used to generate conversation among the group and because comprehension was excellent, I invited the students to work collaboratively to read through the next few pages, stopping to make a prediction where indicated and to draw, label, and discuss their visualization of the last paragraph on page 2 and to then read on from there. They would work for the next hour.

IV. Nocturnal Tendencies

Dionni' s Sketch and Word Selection. Dionni mentioned that she placed
the ? on the face to indicate that the king is unknown to Proserpina.
She explained later to me that she got the idea while speaking with Luis.
While these students worked in a different part of the room,  I demonstrated another comprehension conversation with a different group of students who were reading a text about Odysseus's encounter with Cyclops.  I had infused that text with a few questions too. Understanding was anchored with students reading, annotating, and discussing the first two chapters of the text.  One of these discussions led us to view online a few of Romare Bearden's collages from The Black Odyssey.

These students then worked together to read and respond to the next few chapters and I returned to the first group who by that time had read on through page 4 of the text.

Instead of working through the text question by question, I asked the students if there was a section of the text or a question that was unclear.  Luis indicated that he didn't understand this question:
What did King Pluto's reaction to twilight and his characterization of sunlight tell you about him?
I don't understand that at all, Luis said. None of it.
Okay. Reread the question and think about what part is most confusing you. 
We reread to ourselves and then Dionni read the question aloud.
I don't get his reaction to twilight or what he says about sunlight, explained Luis.
What if we reread? Might that help? The children nod and I continue by asking, Luis can you show us the section in the text where Hawthorne mentions Pluto's feelings about twilight and sunshine?
Luis quickly finds the appropriate section and we all turn to it.  This is a continuation of the scene where Pluto has stolen Proserpina and they are in his chariot speeding towards the Underworld.  They have left the familiar landmarks of her world behind.

We reread and then I read the section aloud asking them to think about how they might retell the passage.
"Ah this twilight is truly refreshing," said King Pluto, after being so tormented with the ugly and impertinent glare of the sun.  How much more agreeable is lamplight or torchlight, more particularly when reflected from diamonds! It will be a magnificent sight when we get to my palace."
The talk initially is tentative as the students determine what they know. Kamila states that Pluto does not like light. Antoine clarifies saying its not all light and that Pluto likes the refreshing feel of twilight.  The kids are trying on ideas largely using Hawthorne's words. The group works together to establish that twilight happens between dusk and night and between dawn and sunrise. We use my phone to help us define impertinent and the students settle on the synonym, rude which they write above the word. This initial work helps them to begin to interpret, but this quickly dissolves into more confusion.

I then ask them to paraphrase sentence by sentence what is happening and they are able to offer this translation:
Even though it is midday, they are cast in a gloominess as the chariot flies across the land. Pluto is relieved to be out of the sunshine and thinks how the lighting in his palace, especially given all the diamonds, is more agreeable than the light from the sun. He's pleased to be getting close to his home.
Throughout this retelling, Luis is quiet as he listens to Kamila, Dionni and Antoine work the paraphrase.

Luis, does that help you to make sense of the passage and question? I ask.
He nods and then says, Pluto is nocturnal in thought and deed.
Nocturnal? Wow that's an interesting way to see him. I'd write that down, I tell the children, making note of Luis's words on my copy of the text.

Later, the teachers who have been observing and I express interest in how Luis characterized Pluto using a simple, yet profound statement.  The intense work of small group comprehension conversations rests on the weeks and weeks of hearing, discussing, and charting Greek myths via the read aloud that Watson has been conducting each day with his class.

Yet, what also connects read aloud and small group conversations in this classroom goes well beyond content.  It's about the space of permission that gets generated by the daily actions of the teacher and the children. They all know that big ideas are permitted and often happen while groping towards meaning.  This requires being wrong, being less precise, and being mindful to really hear that odd comment that when attended to opens the class to reconsider, rethink, rename something really big.

I think here of Gilles Deleuze who expressed this best when he wrote about the play of singularities. He noted, "beneath the general operation of laws, however, there always remains the play of singularities" (1994, p. 25). 

At the end of the day as I leave the school I'm thinking that it is so often this play of singularities that we must most tune our ears to hear. 

Works Read Aloud (So far...)
  1. Burleigh, Robert. (2002). PandoraIllustrated by Raul Colon. San Diego, CA: Silver Whistle/Harcourt.
  2. Byrd, Robert. (2005). The Hero and the Minotaur: The Fantastic Adventures of Theseus.  New York:  Dutton Children's Books. 
  3. Clayton, Sally Pomme.(2009). PersephoneIllustrated by Virginia Lee. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. 
  4. Craft, Charlotte M. (1999). King Midas and the Golden Touch. Illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft. New York: HarperCollins. 
  5. Craft, Charlotte M.  (1996). Cupid and Psyche. Illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft. New York: HarperCollins. 
  6. Fisher,  Leonard Everett. (1990). Jason and the Golden Fleece.  New York: Holiday House.
  7. Kimmel, Eric A. (Retold). (2008). The McElderry Book of Greek Myths. Illustrated by Pep Monetserrat. New York: Margaret L. McElderry Books. 
  8. Mayer, Marianna. (1998). Pegasus. Illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft. New York: HarperCollins. ((960L)
  9. Osborne, Mary Pope. (1989). "The Four Tasks: The Story of Cupid and Psyche" (pp. 57-66). In Favorite  Greek Myths. New York: Scholastic.
  10. Russell, William F. (2010). Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, Specially Arranged for Children Five and Up by an Educational Expert. Crown Publishing  Group. Kindle Edition. 
Some of the Texts in Use for Small Group Comprehension Conversations
  1. Evslin, Bernard. (1984). Prometheus from Heroes, Gods and Monsters of the Greek Myths. New York: Laurel Leaf. 
  2. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. (1853/2014). Tanglewood Tales: Greek Mythology for Kids. Illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett. Cedar Lake, MI: ReadaClassic.  
  3. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. (1852/2011). A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls: Greek Mythology for Kids. Illustrated by Walter Crane.  Cedar Lake, MI: ReadaClassic. 
  4. Holub, Joan & Suzanne Williams. (2012). Zeus and the Thunderbolt of Doom. Illustrated by Craig Phillips. New York: Aladdin.
  5. Holub, Joan & Suzanne Williams. (2012). Poseidon and the Sea of Fury. Illustrated by Craig Phillips. New York: Aladdin.
  6. Holub, Joan & Suzanne Williams. (2013). Hyperion and the Great Balls of Fire. Illustrated by Craig Phillips. New York: Aladdin.
  7. Holub, Joan & Suzanne Williams. (2013). Hades and the Helm of Darkness. Illustrated by Craig Phillips. New York: Aladdin.
  8. Holub, Joan. (2014). The One-Eyed People Eater: The Story of Cyclops. Illustrated by Dani Jones. Simon Spotlight. 
  9. Little, Emily. (1988). The Trojan Horse: How the Greeks Won the War. New York: Random House Books for Young Readers. 
  10. O’Malley, Kevin. (2005).  Mount Olympus Basketball. New York: Walker Childrens. 
  11. Smith, Charles R (2008). The Mighty 12: Superheroes of Greek Myth. Illustrated by P. Craig Russell. New York: Little, Brown. 
  12. Williams, Marcia. (2011). Greek Myths. Somerville, MA: Candlewick.

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