Friday, April 3, 2015

Teaching Text-Dependent Analysis

    This year I've been putting lots of thought into the new text-dependent analysis tasks that students have to complete for our state tests. My fourth graders will have to write not one but two passage-based essays, in which they will be expected to write introductions and conclusions, weave quotes from the text into their essays, and use "sophisticated" transitions. It's an intimidating task!

Avoiding shortcuts

    I've been thinking carefully about the task because I don't want to use unproductive shortcuts. Too often, hard tasks get reduced to instructional shortcuts. Teachers are worried that a process is too hard for students, break it down into chunks that are as easy as possible, and turn a difficult cognitive process into a formulaic writing response. (Anyone familiar with Four-Square Writing knows what this looks like!) This recipe-making begins with the best of intentions--to make a hard task manageable--but ends with students learning a dead-end "formula" that will not transfer well to new situations.

Meaningful lesson parts

     So then I had to think--what are the most meaningful parts of this experience? Creating a passage-based essay has its own rewards. I also need to think about how some students will not achieve full proficiency with the passage-based essay this year. But it's important to me that each step along the way, everything that I teach, has its own meaning and importance.

1. Low-risk, easy experiences in quoting text details.
Students found sentences with setting details and practiced
writing the quotations correctly.

     I decided that the first thing students would need to be able to do is quote text. If you teach older students, quoting from a text may sound like a simple routine. But it's not! Young readers have to figure out which passages support what they are trying to prove and then copy it correctly. On top of that, they have to put quotation marks around it all!
    Trying to teach this WHILE making a graphic organizer and writing an essay is just too much. Get kids comfortable with writing quotations, and do it often. And if this is as far as a kid gets, it is still a meaning-making endeavor.

2. Creating a thesis statement.
     That's right. A thesis statement.
     Fourth graders can learn what this means, and they can learn how to write this. In fact, lots of great nonfiction picture books have beautifully written thesis statements! (I'm deep into the books of Nicola Davies right now, and her picture books have beautifully written thesis statements.) A thesis statement is just a sentence that explains what the essay will uncover. Sometimes a thesis statement is like an answer to a question in the prompt, but this varies depending on the prompt. 
    Teaching fourth graders to write a thesis statement is challenging, which is why I'm glad that we haven't been working on passage-based essays as our only forms of writing. We just finished our Design-A-Land essays, which include a thesis statement frame. This experience has helped students to transfer their learning about the thesis statement over to passage-based essays.
     I have argued with other fourth grade teachers on this issue. Some think that it's not developmentally appropriate for fourth graders to do this; others think that there is no need to learn the terminology. But I think that writing a thesis statement is the heart of all essay writing. If you are going to skip the thesis, what's the point? 

3. Identifying the areas of analysis.
    This step and creating a thesis statement really overlap. The areas of analysis become the body paragraphs--what students will write about and develop in the essay. How many areas of analysis are there? It depends on the prompt. This flexible thinking is hugely important and essential to the task...and it is what most of the shortcuts and cute acronyms overlook. 
    In the two prompts that we used this week, Prompt 1 lends itself to two areas of analysis--the author's use of headings and chronological order to organize the piece. Prompt 3, on the other hand, only speaks to one area of analysis. Thinking through these areas of analysis help students to consider how many paragraphs they want to use and what text quotes they want to find.

4. Supporting the writing of introductions and conclusions.
     Introductions and conclusions are so hard! I love to use nonfiction picture books as mentor texts for this. This works especially well when students are writing a content-based response, as in Prompt 3 above. When students are writing a structure-based essay, as in Prompt 1, I have choice-based minilessons while students are writing. "Anyone who wants help with a conclusion, please meet me on the carpet," I'll say, and then students come forward and we talk about their issues with conclusions. Sometimes I'll even write up a frame based on our discussion and display it on the Promethean board for the rest of the class. Students like to navigate independently through the flipchart, finding the frames that we've made together and referring back to them.
    Students also like to have access to all of the passage-based essays that they've written before. (It's not that many--we're on our third.) I see them folding back the pages, thoughtfully looking at their previous introductions and conclusions. They certainly can't just copy them--the prompts are completely different--but I like to see how students look back to what they did before. 
    We've had lots of discussions about these paragraphs. "Can an introduction be three sentences?" a student asked.
    "What is the job of an introduction?" I replied. Then we talked together about what an introduction does and how much "space" it should take up. Could it be only one sentence? Two? Or three? Of course it depends! Thinking through this question, and trying to judge the purposes of a writing component, is so much more valuable than just providing a formula.
    Again, other forms of writing have been useful for us. Introductions and conclusions are always necessary, but how do they look different across different kinds of writing?

     We are still on the road to passage-based essays, but students have grown in their use of text quotes and essay components. Fourth graders have an exceptionally hard time of separating content from structure--in fact, I'm beginning to realize that this concept is at the heart of reading instruction for students of this age.
Yes, we are making the classroom look like a cave.
Don't you love this bear that a student made?

    I'm happy, though, because the topics that I have taught are all growing topics--concepts that are important to writing in general, not just writing for this specific task. In fifth grade and beyond students will have to quote text, create areas of analysis, and write introductions and conclusions. We are on our way! 
     And I love fourth grade because we can move between talking about thesis statements and introductions and playing with pond water and decorating our classroom like a cave. Rigorous thinking and playful experiences within five minutes of each other...just the way I like it. 

2016 Update: The wood frog text and prompts, with scaffolded graphic organizers, are included in Close Reading with Chronological Order Texts over at TeachersPayTeachers.

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