Monthly Archives: October 2013

Book Clubs and Non-fiction Text

I am guilty, as a female, of reading mostly fiction.  So when someone asks what I am reading, I invariably default to the novel in which I am engrossed despite the fact that at any given time, I am probably perusing at least 2-3 nonfiction texts as well,  the internet daily, and a few journals or periodicals. On a daily basis, I probably share more about my nonfiction reading with friends and colleagues than I do my novels.  We know as teachers that we need to engage our students in both fiction and non-fiction text.  We also know that many of the boys in our classrooms may gravitate towards nonfiction more readily than fiction.  A friend of mine was wondering about literature circles with nonfiction text and how those discussions might look.  And, as a teacher, how might one respond to reader’s notebook entries about nonfiction text.

As always, I began to think about how real readers (usually me) interact with nonfiction.  We need to treat our students like real readers and give them the same authentic experiences.  When we read nonfiction we are generally looking for information.  So when students discuss that information they might:

  • discuss the cool and interesting things they discovered
  • talk about how their new learning fits in with what they thought before
  • reread any confusing parts and try to make sense of new information or things they don’t understand (often we reread nonfiction many times as we grapple with new concepts)
  • talk about how the diagrams or pictures support their new learning
  • evaluate whether they think the author is reliable (and this is very important when doing research, reading websites, looking at primary sources)
  • think about other texts or places to gather information that they may now wish to know since their interest has been sparked

If part of your literature circles or readers’ workshop is to have students write letter to you about their reading, the above points could also be part of their letters.  As a teacher, it is important to write back as a reader.  When other readers tell me about their nonfiction reading, I usually relate it to things I already know about the topic, questions I might have about the information, and why the person is interested in the topic.  So if a student was reading about hurricanes and had written to me, I might respond back with some comments about the facts s/he had told me, some questions I may have about hurricanes, and maybe a confusion that I might have.  I could ask the student to tell how his/her interest in hurricanes had come about and what, if anything, they were planning to do with this new information.  I might relay some information I had about hurricanes and wonder if it were correct according to the student’s source.  We could even chat about whether depictions of hurricanes in film and literature were truthful according to the facts.

Don’t shy away from talking about nonfiction text with your students just because your comfort level is fiction.  Next time you are reading some nonfiction, think about yourself as a reader and how you are interacting with the text.  That is always the best way to guide how you can help students to learn to be a proficient reader as well.

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Re-thinking Authentic Tasks

There is a current belief that student tasks should be “authentic”.  When I first heard that word (more years ago than I am going to share) I thought that it meant that the task should be real-life.  So, if I was asking students to write a letter, then it should be a letter to someone they knew; or, if I was asking them to learn about area, they should wallpaper their bedroom.  I still believe that those kinds of tasks are engaging, but I am rethinking my notion of authentic.

Perhaps “authentic” means that we ask students to do the work that real people do:  read like real readers, write like real authors, do science like a scientist, do math like a mathematician, do geography like a geographer, create like an artist and so on.  I was working with some teachers the other day and we were thinking about literature circles.  There was a lot of discussion about role cards for students to help them focus their discussions.  I have never, personally, found role cards to be particularly engaging for students (the literary luminary, the summarizer, the connector, the visualizer, the director, etc.) and I asked one of the teachers if she was part of a book club.  “Oh, yes!” she responded, “I love to read.”  I probed further and we began to discuss what she liked to talk about in her book club:  the characters, if she liked the characters, how they related to her life, the theme of the book, whether the plot was believable, the author’s writing style.  So why, I wonder, would kids be any different?  We should teach them how to read and discuss like real readers.

When we use an inquiry-based stance in our teaching, we help kids to learn to think, to create, to do real work–to be authentic.  Real mathematicians have to solve problems with the math they know.  In a problem-solving classroom, kids approach a problem to solve with the confidence that the math they know will be sufficient.  Like real mathematicians, they deepen their understanding and create new knowledge as they realize that other mathematical connections can be made.  Real writers write–a lot.  They muck about, start and stop, play with words, revise, start again, finish pieces and refinish them.  Real writers are obsessed with choosing the very best words for their audience and purpose.  Students in a Writers’ Workshop can experience the same type of authentic writing that real writers do when they spend their time really writing, not finishing writing tasks.  Real scientists pose questions, test hypotheses, search out information and perform experiments.  They share their findings in a community of scientists.

But kids are kids.  They need their teachers’ guidance and expertise to learn to do the authentic work of real people.  They also need lots of time to practice, mess up, practice, review, and try again.  When the teacher directs all the learning, the tasks get done, but they are not authentic.  When we give students voice and choice within a supportive environment, we help them to develop the stamina, skills and confidence to do the work of real thinkers, creators and doers.

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Open-ended Tasks: Worksheets???

We have begun to have some discussions about multiple entry points.  Given that our classes are not homogeneous, if we really want all students to be engaged and challenged, then it would make sense that students can enter the work at the point where they are comfortable.  Creating multiple entry points requires the teacher to see the big idea which is permeating the lesson and to understand that all work students do, builds on something else they know.  It requires the teacher to know how students evolve in their understanding towards that big idea.

For example, students may come to math with little or no knowledge about solving for the area of a circle.  They may not know pi, radius and diameter.  However, they do know what area is and they do know what circles are.  Students may not come to geography knowing the factors that influence migration, but they have probably all moved, they know about making decisions, they have worked with maps and graphs.

When we are thinking about multiple entry points, it is worth thinking about how we present work to students.  As a teacher, I have spent countless hours scouring teacher workbooks looking for the perfect worksheet or textbook page.  I almost never found one.  Does that mean we should never give out worksheets????

Worksheets are nice because…

…you can prepare them in advance

…they are easy to mark

…kids are generally quiet while working on them

…they can provide good practice of topics learned if I am at the   practice stage

However, there are numerous drawbacks to worksheets as well…

    1. They are  very hard to differentiate.  As a kid either you know it or you don’t.  Most worksheets are not open-ended and do not provide for a  variety of responses.  That is fine for some things but not for others.  If you know all the answers then you are done very quickly without having been challenged.  If you  don’t know the answers then you are simply stuck and probably can’t       resort to what you do know to help you.   Open-ended tasks are much more likely to engage a variety of  levels of learners.
    1. A bundle of pre-photocopied worksheets assumes that you as the teacher already know what the kids will need to practice before they have even begun to learn the topic.  If we are heading       towards formative assessment driving instruction, it is hard to determine in advance how much and what kinds of practice students need.  And the bundle of worksheets suggests  that all of your students will need the same kind of practice.
    1. Often  worksheets provide practice on skills in isolation but not in context.  For example, a worksheet that requires students to put end punctuation rarely transfers to students using end punctuation correctly in their written work.  Students can practice using a formula but will they understand when to use the formula or what to do if they forget the formula?
    1. Many  worksheets can be completed without the student actually having to think  very hard.  Lots of worksheets  require one word answers and, sometimes,  a lot of colouring.  When choosing a worksheet you want to  ensure that deep thinking is required.

When you are determining whether or not to give the worksheet, you may wish to ask:

–          Will I know more about what my students know and don’t know after they complete this worksheet?

–          Is there a more authentic way to get at the same information?

–          Will it be challenging for those students who already “get it”?

–          Will it support the learning of those students who are struggling or will it be “task completed” for them?

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