Saturday, November 27, 2010

Teaching Main Ideas

In a way, it was the prospect of teaching students how to find main ideas that first led me to researching journal articles. It was 2000, I was teaching reading for the first time, and I realized that I didn't know enough about what happens when reader meets text. All I could remember were my own experiences with reading the SRA cards as a student and learning how to make good guesses about main ideas. And that wasn't enough to help the sixth and seventh graders I was facing each day.

In the years since, I've learned a great deal about readers and main ideas. But even though I have read the journal articles, worked with hundreds of students, and even written chapters about finding main ideas, each year is still a challenge. Because, in the end, finding main ideas is not about what I know in my head, but about what I can help my readers to experience and learn.

Here are some of the big ideas that I keep in mind as I plan for my classroom:

Start with topics
The topic of a paragraph is the word or phrase to which all of the other ideas refer. Even though I thought that sixth and seventh graders could find the topics of a text with ease, I learned that this was not always the case. Sometimes, readers will circle the most concrete or tangible idea, not necessarily the one that is the topic. If the topic is more abstract--like watersheds, or succession, or forms of government--students will often fail to identify it.

Find paragraphs with the same topic, but different main ideas
When students confuse topic with main idea, this is the best way to show them that there is a real difference. You can do this with two opinion paragraphs that state vastly different opinions, or simply two paragraphs that communicate information about the same topic in different ways. Like the discrepant event in science (an activity that forces students to reconsider their prior knowledge), looking at these two paragraphs can help students to rethink the rules they've formed for what a main idea can be.

The first sentence is not always the topic sentence
My work with the SRA reading packets, back in my student days, taught me one important rule--the first sentence is usually the topic sentence. Right? Well, in real text, this is not always the case. Newer digital texts often have main ideas partially stated in headings (like this list you're reading right now), stated at the end, or even left unstated. Make sure that your examples reflect the real-life world of text, even bad text.

Finding main ideas is hard!
Young readers often read at the "local" level in a text, relating each sentence to the one before it and after it. Older readers often adopt a more global reading habit. Main idea is often a tough concept for third, fourth, fifth, and even sixth graders. As text becomes more complex, so do the main ideas, and a reader's task is even more difficult. Combine this with the fact that there is a great deal of poorly written, incoherent text floating around, and it's easy to see why readers have problems.

While I was gathering together items for my own unit on main ideas, about to begin next week, I put together this collection of texts, worksheets, and Powerpoints.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Text Structure: Compare and Contrast

As part of a project for a children's literature class, I'm working on compiling a list of high quality picture books that show different text structures.  But I've run into a problem with one particular structure--compare and contrast.

Many of the compare and contrast books that I've tracked down have been ones comparing similar animals. What's the Difference Between an Alligator and a Crocodile? is a good example of this kind of book.The author tells about alligators and crocodiles, how they are similar, and how they are different. What's the Difference Between a Frog and a Toad?, by the same publisher, approaches the topic in the same way. (A problem with the frog and toad book, however, is that toads really are frogs, in a technical sense, and the author throws this idea into the middle of the text in a somewhat confusing way.)

Which--okay, it is useful to see how these animals are similar and different. But aside from these, there are not many other books that exclusively use the text structure of compare and contrast. Why not?

I think it's because compare and contrast is a difficult structure to maintain over a whole text. In the real world of text, a reader is much more likely to see compare and contrast used in small amounts throughout a longer text. In a book about habitat loss, for example, a writer might use a bit of compare and contrast to show how a forest has changed over time. In a book about an invention, an author might compare and contrast previous attempts to solve a problem. In both of these situations, the compare and contrast text would help to explain the bigger point or structure of the text.

One nice example of this is in the book Sea Soup: Phytoplankton by Mary Cerullo.The overall structure of the text is a question and answer format. However, within the answers, the author uses the text structure that fits the information. An answer to the question "Are they plants or are they animals?" leads to a section in which phytoplankton is compared with plants and animals. The comparison is somewhat implicit, signaled by the sentence, "Some phytoplankton behave like plants, some like animals, and some like both." This is the case with a great deal of real-life compare and contrast text--although we teach students to look for compare and contrast cue words, many authors use a more implicit style.

What does this mean for classroom instruction? Well, I definitely will be checking out my library's copy of What's the Difference...? when I am working on the compare and contrast text structure. But I will also help students to find examples of this structure in longer texts, and to look for less obvious examples of compare and contrast.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Writing a Summary of Nonfiction: Powerpoint

Helping kids to summarize nonfiction is hard. Not only do kids have to read and understand the text, but they also have to figure out what's important, how to put ideas in their own words, and how to organize the summary. No wonder kids have so much trouble!

This Powerpoint can give you a place to start. (Some people watch late-night television when they're up in the middle of the night with a cold; I write Powerpoints!) It's short enough to do in just one class period, and can be either an introduction or a review. This slideshow presents four rules for summarizing, explains them, and models how to put them into practice with a short text.

And there are lots of pictures of butterflies, too.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Powerpoints for Teaching

As you can probably tell, I like making Powerpoints. Why? Well, it all comes down to brain science. My working memory has only about 7 slots. When you factor in taking attendance, dealing with announcements, writing passes to the nurse's office, listening to the pencil sharpener, and mediating student squabbles, my 7 slots are often at their full capacity--even before I've started the lesson!

Having essential ideas on the Powerpoint, then, helps me to regain my focus and remember what it is I wanted to teach. ("Mrs. Kissner, my pencil won't sharpen.") I can find the texts that I want to highlight and the main points that I want to share in relative peace and quiet. ("Mrs. Kissner, look! The caterpillar came out of its chrysalis!") I can also use interesting pictures to help engage students. ("Mrs. Kissner, I'm a parent pick-up today, but I forgot to hand in the note.")

Here are the principles I keep in mind when making Powerpoints.

Take pictures--lots of them! I take my digital camera with me when I go to new places. I try to take pictures of interesting or unusual things. Sometimes, I have a use in mind for these pictures. Often, I don't. When I wanted to make a slideshow about decomposers this year, I had plenty of fungus pictures at the ready--even though I had never taught about them before. (You can also use Flickr to find pictures, but I find it easier to use my own.)

White on blue I usually stick to very simple formatting, with no fancy backgrounds. I've found that white text on a blue background shows up the best, even with light coming in from the windows. I taught in an open space school for many years, and had no windows, so I am committed to keeping my blinds at least partly open all the time. I love my view! Using photos that are light in color also helps to keep everything visible.

Duplicate slide I love the "Duplicate Slide" function found under the Edit menu. This works well for highlighting bits of text and showing answers to questions. You can see how this works in this paraphrasing presentation.

Add assessment prompts  Showing a Powerpoint shouldn't be a lecture. I usually have students sit next to a partner, with a journal or a piece of paper out to write answers to questions. Once again, this helps me to think about what I want students to do ahead of time. ("Mrs. Kissner, there's a stinkbug on my desk. Again.") In this Fact and Opinion presentation, students have to answer questions and work with the content throughout.

Slides are free  I like to have simple pages. Slides are free--why not make lots? Changing the slides frequently keeps students engaged. (I once went to a conference workshop in which the presenters had 15 different ideas written in tiny font on one slide. Why, why, why?) Also, using big text helps students to see from the back of the room.

Speaking of the back of the room...Walk back and make sure that the students at the back can see. If students are having trouble, have them bring their chairs to the front. I also have students who like to sit on the floor with a clipboard.

Use the remote  Find the remote control for your computer, and use it. I couldn't stand to be chained to the front of the room with the computer! When I'm up and around, I can look at what students are writing, interact with groups, and add differentiation for students.

Simple, simple, simple  I keep the presentations very simple. I don't use many animation effects, mostly because they kind of give me a headache to look at.  I want the content to take center stage, not the way that I'm delivering the content.

Having some good instruction ready helps me to face the week more calmly! What other tips do you have for Powerpoints?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Questioning with Nonfiction

Today, at the start of my whole group lesson, I held up the read aloud we've been working through over the past few weeks--The Magic Thief by Sarah Prineas. "Why do you want me to read this today?" I asked students. "Share your ideas with your partner."

Well, the general consensus was that they wanted to know what happened. And this is what makes stories so compelling for readers--in the effort to find out what happens, they want to read on.

When readers hit longer format nonfiction, however, they sometimes feel bored or disengaged. I'm not talking about the nonfiction with lots of big pictures and cool features. I'm talking about the longer articles and sustained text that transitional readers have to learn how to read. Many students aren't quite sure of how to negotiate the switch from reading to find out what happens to reading to learn something new.

"This is where our questions help us," I told students. Then, I shared a chapter from a book called The Pledge of Allegiance. It's one that I picked up at a used book sale, one of those nonfiction books that stays in pristine condition because no one ever reads it. "Even if you think that you're not interested in the topic, you can ask yourself questions about what you think you might learn. Then, you're reading to try to find answers to your questions."

I modeled with a chapter, showing how we can leapfrog from question to question, keeping ourselves interested even as the text got longer and more complex. Tomorrow, as students work on reading an article with a partner, we'll look at their questions and see if this strategy helped them to stay connected with the text. Going from reading to find out what happens to reading to learn new ideas can be a stretch...but it is a vital step for fourth grade readers.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Thinking Ahead

When my youngest son was three, the phrase "think ahead" really baffled him. What does it mean to think ahead?

I wrote a little book about this to share with him, and sent it along to a kindergarten teacher friend. I had forgotten about it until Aidan started kindergarten himself this year. I dredged it up from the computer archives, added some illustrations, and turned it into a projectable book. Instant gratification!

You can download the compressed file, including the Powerpoint and the printable version, here.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Teaching Theme

*updated 6/18

Theme presents a new challenge for transitional readers. It's not enough to just read the words and figure out who did what to whom in the story. Now they need to synthesize everything from the story to come up with a deeper meaning. For students who are just beginning to think abstractly, this is a tough task.

Students can have several problems with finding theme. At first, many students try to talk about theme by using characters and events from the plot. After all, teachers say, "Use specific details!" These students are confusing theme with summarizing. Students also tend to confuse "theme" with "moral". Many stories, especially fables, have morals. But a moral is not quite the same as a theme. When authors write a story with a clear moral, there is an underlying assumption of right and wrong, and the author clearly wants the reader to do something. Theme is more open to interpretation, and doesn't have as much of an action component.

Here are some things that I do to help students learn about themes:

Universal Themes Chart: Give students a list of common themes. Then, they can try to match stories to the themes. I've had students return to this chart again and again as they read new books throughout the year.

Classroom themes chart: Use a long roll of paper and write themes across the top. Then, students can write titles that they've read (or titles from a class reading list) under the appropriate themes. The same title may appear under different themes, launching a good discussion. I love to hear students talking to each other about books that they have read and the themes they show. Students can write the titles of appropriate movies, also.

Great books for teaching theme: It's so sad that picture books go out of print so quickly! I love Mole and the Baby Bird, which you might be able to find at your local library. Pumpkins, which is still in print, is a lovely little story with an easy to recognize theme.  Older students have enjoyed Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting and The Memory Coat by Elvira Woodruff.

Theme in different genres: Help students to see that biographies, poems, and stories can all express themes. It's eye-opening for students to see how two texts from different genres and with different topics can express the same themes.

Questions about theme: These can bring about interesting conversations.
-Can a story have more than one theme? Why or why not?
-Can a story have a theme that the author didn't intend?
-Are there stories that don't have themes? What are they like?

Theme Powerpoint: I'm trying to make my Powerpoints shorter. :) Here is one that I made to be a very simple introduction to theme.

Theme Unit
In this resource from TeachersPayTeachers, you can find three stories, lesson plans, and activities to help your readers in grades 3-6 work with theme.