Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Summarizing Lesson

What’s Important?

A few weeks ago, while my student teacher was teaching full time, I had the chance to teach a reading lesson in every classroom in the school. My goal was simple: I wanted to test out lessons for having students read a text and write a summary in one or two class periods.

In my classroom, I like to take a long range approach to summarizing, working on little bits here and there.

But there are times when you need a shortcut to a good summary. Maybe it’s getting close to state testing. Maybe someone you work with has commented that your students really need to work on summarizing. You need to help your students write a good summary, and fast.

My goal was to create a lesson plan that would be transferable to different classrooms, lead students to success, and highlight key points about summarizing.

I got to try it out eight times in two weeks, which was amazing. I had the chance to work with a clean slate each time—fresh students, fresh classroom. Here’s where I started, and here’s where I ended up.

Schema Discussion and Schema Map:
With the two sixth grade classes, I chose a text on a completely new topic for them. (Actually, I wrote the text—“Find Out about Fairy Shrimp”) Before students read, we discussed schema and made a sample web to show how our ideas are related in a schema. Then, students read the text, creating their own webs as they went along.

When they finished, I said, “What if there were someone who had no schema for fairy shrimp? When we write a summary, we need to think about our schema and the schema of the person who will read the summary. What information is most important?” After this, students worked with their partners to use their own webs to write their summaries.

Their summaries were not bad. But I decided that this is not a transferable lesson. I worry that, when they read about topics that are familiar, students will add details from their schema to their summaries. Plus, students might be too tempted to add the seductive details from the text at the expense of the important ideas.

So this was not the lesson. Next I moved on to fifth grade.

Summarizing with a Purpose
Something that really bothers me about summarizing is that, often, there is no reason other than “because I told you so.” I decided to go with cute with the fifth grade, telling students that they were research assistants at a nature center. They had to read an article and report on its contents to the naturalist.

The text for this was “How Do We See in the Dark?” After students read, they sorted strips of paper with ideas from the text into piles for “Important” or “Less Important”. This worked pretty well. However, translating the ideas from the “Important” pile and into a final summary proved to be difficult for students. Some of them did not realize that they needed to organize the ideas according to the order of the text. Yikes!

When I got to fourth grade, I figured out how to do it. First, I realized that it really needed two days. A lesson to get to a good summary simply can’t happen any more quickly.
At the heart of this lesson is the idea of what is most important. To write a good summary, a reader needs to know what is most important in a text. But importance is a sliding scale. Readers often bring contextual importance to what they read. Details may be most interesting and important if they resonate with prior experiences. But for a summary, a reader needs to look to textual importance.
I realized that this lesson needed to be very explicit with helping students to find out what is important.

Modeling: First, we looked at a two-paragraph text together. We read the text aloud and decided on the topic. Then, students came to the board to move sentence strips with ideas from the text into the headings “More Important” or “Less Important”. I gave them three questions to ask of an idea:
Is it related to the topic?
Does it relate to a heading?
Does it give new information about the topic?

Writing the class summary: After we had sorted the sentence strips, I showed students how to reorganize the ideas to match the structure of the text. Then, we looked at how we could paraphrase the ideas by combining sentences to create a three-sentence summary. This was tough going for a lot of the students.

Guided practice: Next, the students read a longer text with a partner. They sorted the ideas on their own. With fourth graders, we did need to get back together to go over the sorting to make sure that they had chosen the correct ideas. I modeled going back to the questions again and again to make sure that an idea was important. (Thanks to Colleen for showing me how structured this needed to be!)

Writing the independent summary: Once students had the important ideas, they were on their own to reorganize them, paraphrase them, and write the summary. And they weren’t bad. Finally!

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