In Praise of Short Texts

imgresAs career teachers, we know there is one certainty that all teachers face: when it comes to thinking, reading, and writing, we must all teach process.  If we want students to read, view, listen, think or produce, we can’t make assumptions about their processes (as in, they actually know what to do what we’re expecting them to do).

Every time we’ve assumed our high school students knew how to handle a difficult text, we were wrong, and our class discussions or essays fell flat.  We discovered that even our juniors and seniors either kept moving their eyes over the words and called it reading or read a page or two and gave up.  At the beginning of the term, most of our students have no process in persevering to understand a difficult text, which means we must be strategic in easing the way to rigorous thinking until they get stronger and more confident.  How do we do that?  Read on!

First, until we absolutely know our students as readers, we stay away from long, rigorous texts.  Teacher / author Cris Tovani writes, “If we are constantly giving students text that is too hard for them to read, they may get through it, but probably not without cheating.  Many of my students who are struggling readers feel defeated before they even begin.”  That’s definitely not what we’re after.

Poetry, short stories, and essays–short pieces that we can use to model close reading in one class session–mark our starting point.  With this approach, students begin to lean into short texts, paying attention to their processes in making and noting meaning to inform their discussions, but not without a lot of modeling from us.

We applaud Regie Routman’s Optimal Learning Model approach as an effective progression in tackling complex thinking.  Not sure what that means?  Here’s a recent close reading / discussion lesson that Joan successfully led for eighth-graders and then for English language learners:

  • Joan read William Stafford’s poem, “Traveling Through the Dark,” aloud
  • Students volunteered to each read aloud one stanza so we could hear it again (we embrace whole-to parts-to whole teaching, as opposed the maddening parts-to parts-to whole teaching that No Child Left Behind encouraged.  This lesson is a good example of whole-to parts-to whole).
  • Highlighters in hand–students love highlighters, even at high-tech Canby School District where Joan teaches–students marked everything that has to do with color, or lack of color (3rd reading)
  • With a different color, highlight everything that is man-made (4th reading)
  • Have students section off the poem into chunks of action or meaning–most students will see Stafford’s poem as a five-act play because of the five stanzas; some will argue that it’s a three or four act play.  That’s fine.  It’s the reasoning and thinking that we’re after (think engagement, people!–this move also invites multiple layers of reading).
  • Joan models her thinking for the first chunk she marked–the first stanza, which sets the temporal and spatial setting for the drama that’s about the unfold: it’s night on a narrow, dangerous coastal road; the narrator is alone, and it’s quiet as he stops to do the right thing for fellow travelers.
  • Most students will have the stamina and interest to do their remaining chunks of text; some may want partners to help; some may only be able to do one section.  That is fine–your students have different levels of thinking and grit; the important part is that they’re all moving beyond what they had 15 minutes ago.
  • Ask students to share their noticing behind each section of text–we like the turn and talk method, and then we might ask 2-3 students to share their thinking with the class.  Use your teacher spidey sense to discern this move–or experiment and notice the results to help you gain your teacher spidey sense.
  • Ask each student to pick a compelling quote from the poem and to create a question imgres-1(this move is huge for the coming work that students will do with novels, but use this time now to model “compelling quotes” and “quality questions”–trust us, you don’t want to assume they know how to do this work.  They don’t.  Not yet).
  • Collect their questions and quotes, but have a series of back up questions ready.  If you’re class session is over, the quotes will help pull them back into the poem for tomorrow.  If you still have 20 minutes left, the questions can launch partner, small group, or Socratic seminar discussion, as you wish.  Joan prefers Socratic seminar; Pattie prefers small group discussion.  It’s up to you, as long as the students are genuinely discussing the academic content.

Here are some of our favorite student-written questions:

  1. How would the tone change if the speaker had been traveling with someone else? If the setting was during the day?
  2. How does the fact that it was not just a deer but a pregnant deer change the situation?
  3. Stafford uses a lot of punctuation for a short poem.  What impact does all this punctuation have on the poem?  How does it read without the punctuation?  What’s lost?
  4. If you could interview Stafford, what would you ask?  How do you think he would answer?
  5. What, aside from driving at night, do you think Stafford means by “Traveling Through the Dark?”
  6. Create a different title for this poem.  What would you title it?  Why?
  7.  Listen to Stafford read “Traveling Through the Dark.”  What do you hear in his voice that helps you understand his hesitation, his swerving?
  8. What matters more in this poem: the narrator’s actions or the narrator’s thinking behind the final action?

Please don’t think that students automatically know how to write questions like this–we get plenty of questions about whether the deer is female, what model of car hit the deer (yikes!), why the narrator hit the deer and then came back to examine it (double yikes!), or if the narrator should have called Animal Planet to save the fawn.  Wrestling with the disequilibrium of doing the right thing will be a theme for our academic work together, but we want to steer students away from those nit-picky comprehension questions that they’ve come to expect from English teachers.

imagesOnce we’ve workshopped a short text like this, we usually have students write about their processes, what they noted in their own thinking or in the quality of the group discussion, or we have them write a Quick Passage Analysis to explore further.  Our writing choice depends on where we are in our teaching progression.  Joan likes an essay per week with her students, but she has small classes of 17-20 students.  Pattie’s classes were more typical with 35 students, so weekly low-stakes writing was a better match for her.

The point is that students will learn from each other and from the workshop procedure, and as they learn, they’ll grow strong enough for Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Cather, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Bradbury.  And all that low-stakes writing will ease the way for formal academic writing (more on that move in future posts).

Not sure which poems, short stories, and essays to employ as students learn to read closely?  We recommend Kimberly Hill Campbell’s Less is More: Teaching Literature with Short Texts–Grades 6-16.  See page 69 for a thematic list of short stories to use in place of novels until you know your students can and will read longer, rigorous texts.

Have a great week!

Joan and Pattie


About Teaching it Forward

We are high school language arts teachers in Oregon.
This entry was posted in character development, classroom lessons that change the world, classroom projects that change children, Education, Literacy, Social Action. Bookmark the permalink.

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