Be The Molotov Cocktail: Before Strategies
“Open your books to page 116 and start reading.”
Gross, right? But you've done it. Me too. This is one of the most odious phrases teachers utter. It has a spot in the pantheon of ineffective and over-utilized statements, sitting proudly alongside because I said so and when you get to [whatever grade/ class comes next] you'll have to work much harder.
We can do better, and really, we need to. It’s possible there was a day when the mere sight of a novel, story anthology, or basal read produced spasmic joy in young people, but if such a day existed, it’s gone now. We’d do well, we teachers of words and their use, to not conflate our feelings with those of whom we teach. I’ll go to Green Apple and just place my hands on the rows of books. I’ll lay my forehead against DeLillo’s tomes and just rest for a while. Mmmmm. At home, I’ll sit with a cup of coffee and just stare at my bookshelves (now half empty), so much do I adore the sight of books and all they represent. The kids are not me though, and they’re not you either.
That’s the obvious distinction, right? That kids are not as inherently, as a priori excited about all this as some of us is. Much is made of this. The flip-side of the equation, however, is less strip-mined territory. Kids probably have a greater capacity to become interested in things like mandated story anthologies and basal readers, given appropriate teacher actions. We forget this part. I pick up Mason-Dixon, and man, I feel like I’m gonna just read this bitch, just watch me get after it, but a slim four paragraph shit-stroll in High Point A just doesn’t do it for me. It does it for them, though, if I play my cards right. If I bring it to them in the right way.
There’s different ways to do this, but doing it is critical. This is how we mediate the interplay of low quality mandated curriculum and low-skill, burgeoning readers.
I can get students thinking and working about a reading in such ways that they build in a level of interest that carries us into and through the text in meaningful ways. This is huge. This is Ali standing over Liston.
■ The ubiquitous quick-write: You know what I’m talking about.
■ Realia: Bring in stuff, stuff to hold, stuff to look at. Food is good. Persephone eats pomegranate seeds, so we do, too. Julia Alvarez and her sisters watched Miss America pageants so we look at a slide-show of the changing ethnic character of Miss America. Yenna gives her lover ginger root as symbol of their emotional commitment, so we play around with ginger and figure out how that gnarly thing could influence feelings of romantic love.
■ Never Have I Ever: You played it in college with adult beverages. Take out the adult beverages, substitute major themes for embarrassing life events, and we’re in business.
■ Ten Words: Here, play along.
These words are critical for understanding our text. Notice, they are not vocabulary words. Write a quick story that incorporates these words. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now, read our text.
There’s no place we can’t go with this. Who got closest? Who was most ridiculous? The most creative? More importantly, we just committed resources – time and creative energy – to the text. That’s going to pay off later, because we’re forming connections to the text, we’re interested in ultimate outcomes, and so on.
There’s time when we have to do more specific work, something more than just getting kids fired up about black ink on white text. Sometimes, you gotta build some understanding, access prior knowledge, or teach the structure of the text.
■ TNL: This is my re-messaged version of the KWL chart. Think I know/ Need to know/ Learn.
■ Graffiti Stems: Thematically relevant sentence starters written on big paper/ white boards. Kids rotate, complete the sentences, and then we share out and review.
■ Big Paper: Non-linguistic graffiti stems. Content connected images on big paper around the room. Kids are only allowed to write questions. Nice quick-fire diagnostic to see where the level of knowledge is – as illustrated by question level – which can be used to determine how much you need to teach the context before getting into the text. As added bonus, repeat the activity as summative assessment, and now require kids to only write facts.
■ Non-Fiction Text Features: Dig it. Before reading non-fiction text, we complete an organizer that asks students to both quantify and analyze various key features: photos, diagrams, text boxes, and headings. Understanding text becomes a lot easier when you begin to understand how the text is laid out.
These things take time -- time to plan, time to gather realia, time out of lessons and periods that we sometimes feel is slipping away, time when either folks who don't get it or our own internal clocks yell at us to get on with it already. This time is more than paid back in increased student interest and understanding, more than paid back when kids start getting far more out of text than before.