Sunday, January 13, 2008

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.

Prime Interest
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.

Front-Load Content
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.


Anonymous Mathew said...

Excellent points about engaging students in text with just a little bit of work. Of course it's easier for teachers to just skip all that and ask students to open their books. I've used Jim Cramer, CNBC host as an inspiration in my teaching for his use of realia, making connections, not to mention humor, to make content comprehensible. I wrote about this here:

7:09 AM  
Blogger H. said...

Glorious. Makes you want to convert to teaching English so you can read the Onion in class. I'll pass it on.

"Realia" is spelled this way - it has the same stem as "real," as if everything real were a thing.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Penelope said...

Great suggestions, all of them.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Jeri said...

Just finished Okun's article, and all the comments ... frustrated that I couldn't phrase what needed to be part of that conversation. Came over here: you've phrased it. Thank you so much -- I take back my earlier comment. Way back. Stick with it, tmao, stick with.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Dina said...

TMAO-- I'm going to sound like a royal jackass for posting this. But I have to risk it.

I DO all the things you suggest here. Often. A lot. Every day.

I cannot believe, therefore, that these suggestions are all that creative or groundbreaking, because *I* am not all that creative or groundbreaking. And I'm certainly not a better teacher than you.

However, I have had the experience, as perhaps you might have, of implementing a strategy that I assume is within the canon of any teacher worth their salt-- only to find that it is, widely and disturbingly, not.

So I guess I would be interested in having you clarify the audience of this post. Whom are you talking to? Teachers who ought to know this stuff and don't? Teachers like me, who eat, drink and breathe realia and Onion articles and don't know how efficacious we actually are? (I mean, maybe this all seems obvious to me because I have ESL background too...I don't know.)

Or are you preparing your readership for some future, blow-your-mind, guerilla list of effective activities that you have buried under a tile in your classroom, like copies of Animal Farm in Cuba?

Forgive me.

-- Dina

9:46 AM  
Blogger Jane Nicholls said...

I must disagree with Dina's comment and thank you for an interesting and thought provoking post. It doesn't exactly matter what audience you are writing for, there is something here for everyone. If you are using these strategies, then well done and what a great reminder and motivator this post is. If you're not, then here is a starting point to help create a love of reading and words and literature in our classrooms. I teach primary students so I love to work my students up into a frenzy about a book or story they are too read until they beg me to let them have the book, however I do know there are some teachers who do not have a passion for reading and this gets passed on to their students.

So once again, thank you for the post, I was energised reading it, and motivated to introduce my next book in many different ways.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Doc Brown said...

wow, I just stumbled on your blog and as a first year teacher could not be happier. I'm teaching 9th grade world geography and have been looking for some ways to do more reading and writing. After reading your blog I just sat down and planned out 4 lessons. Thanks for the inspiration!

5:13 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...


Don't know what to tell ya on this one. My audience is whomever reads this. Who is that? Don't rightly know. Sutff that's going on with the teaching includes an upcoming workshop, a project that's not ready for the Internet, some co-worker stuff that is never ready for the Internet, and continuing union vs. district fun. I chose this, partly because I haven't written about teaching in a while.

As for the workshop, I can't get them to tell me how many people are coming, much less who they are and what they're about. People who've benefited from this in the past tend to be newer to the profession than otherwise, tend to have less experience than more working with ELLs, tend to feel trapped by curriculum they're told to use, and struggle to mediate their skill set with various scrips.

This probably boils down to a poor evaluation of your own skills, or a drastic over-evaluation of my own.

9:47 PM  
Blogger James and Tom said...

The nice thing is that's all solidly backed by research- the holy shield against anyone questioning what you're doing.

I did some similar stuff back in the day. One of my favorite sites was as they've got some of the most amazing, and strange, photoshop images around. They make great journal prompt options and I'd ferret out key images to lead into our reading for the day.

Another technique that kind of echoes some of your stuff was something I called Psychic Phil. It's was aimed at really lower level 6th grade students. We'd review what we had read and the sheet would have some key words (and some odd ones) from the next chapter. The kids would then attempt to predict the "future" and we'd review them after reading the chapter and see who was closest.


5:53 AM  
Anonymous Benjamin Baxter said...

Good strategies, indeed. As a student teacher, I'm going to be sure to incorporate some of these activities in my own classroom.

It'll take a intuitive jump --- history rather than social science --- but it'll be worth it.

9:44 PM  
Blogger ab said...

Regarding the audience: I'm a second year teacher and I'm still constantly learning, every day. My instruction is improving, my classroom environment is getting more positive, my students are more invested.
I was browsing through the "before strategies" over the weekend, and then last night I was designing a lesson overview for theme. (have to teach it because it's on a district test tommorow.) At first I was just going to do this worksheet with them--since we haven't really done theme yet (don't tell) and I didn't have a lot of time. This post reminded me to sit down and actually plan my lesson. As a result, I ended up kicking off the lesson with the theme song from "Cops" which was a pretty big hit! My kids rocked their exit slips and in general did great.

4:04 PM  

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