Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Thinking {and Writing} Deeply About Literature

As much as it kills me to admit this, let's face it: sometimes reading isn't the most popular subject in school. Unfortunately, I've encountered plenty of reluctant readers in my short teaching career. I've spent hours trying to analyze why they hate to read so much. I've come to realize that, in most situations, the more you struggle with reading (especially at a secondary level), the more you dislike the task. I can understand this; I don't like to do things I'm not good at, either! I've also come to realize that reluctant readers have a hard time connecting to the text. They can't see any way that the text relates to them or their life, so they're bored and "tune out" while reading. During this post, I'm going to suggest some ideas for getting kids to relate and connect to the text while thinking deeply about it, and we're going to use sticky notes (or Post-Its -- whatever you call them!) to help us accomplish this.

I have a lot to say on this subject and am not sure how/where to break up my thoughts, so this is going to be one long post! I apologize in advance for the length! Grab yourself a cup of coffee and snuggle up with your laptop.... Here we go! :)


First, emphasize to students that's important to get to know the characters in books just like we get to know our friends. Emphasize that we can't just hang out with a new kid once or twice and know enough about him to be close friends who go on journeys together. Friendship is a process that may take months or years in real life; friendship is a process that may take the entire book when reading! The goal is for students to live inside the book while they're reading it, and the first thing they have to do to get there is get to know the characters.

But book-friendships are different than real-life friendships -- we all know that. Readers can't actually talk to characters in a book; instead, we have to get to know the characters by their actions, thoughts, and conversations. Brainstorm how students can get to know characters. Here are a few things I like to include with my students:
  • Public actions
  • Private actions (because we all know that a person's private actions speak more loudly about that person's character than their public actions do!)
  • Personality traits
  • Activities in which that character is involved
  • Physical appearance
  • Setting (where the character chooses to be)
  • Friends, family, acquaintances, and enemies
  • Thoughts
  • Feelings (if the book is written in 3rd person, students could look at facial expressions and attitudes to predict a character's feelings)
Next, wait until your students are reading the same book as a class and have read a little ways into the book. Then ask them to brainstorm (as a group) things they have noticed about the main character. I'm going to use Elizabeth George Speare's novel, The Sign of the Beaver to create some examples, so, in this case, we'd be brainstorming things we noticed about Attean. As you add things to the list, pause every once in a while to try to add examples or help students find patterns in the things they noticed. Try to create conversations about the main character (Attean).

It's great if your students can be gathered at a carpet or similar meeting place for this brainstorm because then it feels more like a social setting than an academic one: it's just you and 24 friends, gathered around to talk about a book. :) This makes the lesson seem more personal and less intimidating, and I think you're more likely to get all students to contribute to the convo. When you're all gathered around a carpet to discuss, it doesn't feel like there's as much pressure; it feels more like a casual conversation than an academic quiz. And if we an make these book conversations feel natural to students, they might be more apt to continue them outside the 4 walls of our classroom.

However, I totally understand that most secondary classrooms are not equipped with space for a meeting spot, much less an elementary "carpet"! I think it's OK if students are gathered in small groups (3-5 students) for this activity, too.

I was lucky enough to have a large classroom last year to where I could arrange my desks in clusters of 3. Since the desks were the traditional "secondary student desks" like this,

photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc
I have to admit that getting the layout juuuust right with acceptable walkways was a challenge. But I ended up arranging the desks in groups of 3, where all 3 were somehow facing the front board. So, for instance, the groups of desks might look something like this:

Students had room to slide into the side of their desk like those type of desks required, but they could still be with two partners for the entire class period. (I think I'll make a blog post entirely about my desk layout later! Stay tuned!) I think that even this type of set-up would be more beneficial to classroom conversations than the traditional rows of desks.


After you've introduced this aspect of getting to know the characters in books to your students (and done an example with them over a book they've all read or are currently reading), students are ready to make text connections on their own.

I really like using sticky notes during reading. I think that all kids get a bit of a kick out of using sticky notes, period, so that alone is something different that spices up their educational experience. The sticky notes are all removable so there's no permanent damage done to the book. And students can write on them to indicate what they're thinking as they place that sticky note in the text.

I've seen some posters on the wall in younger grades that look similar to this:

Feel free to clip on this picture to enlarge it and save a copy for yourself!

I like that some elementary teachers are already using sticky notes during reading with their students. This poster shows 3 very simple ways that even the youngest student can use sticky notes in a book. Obviously, if you're catering to secondary students, you'll require some more in-depth thinking, but that poster is just something to give you ideas!

Give all of your students a small stack of sticky notes. You can start with 5 or 10 if you're limited on supplies. Model how, when, and where to place sticky notes in the text. Since we're talking about making connections and getting to know characters in books, perhaps you could start by modeling a hunt for evidence of change in a character. Explain to your students that if characters don't go on some kind of journey throughout the book (physical, emotional, or social), we don't really have much of a story at all. Much like in real life, characters in books change gradually as the story progresses. Remind them that, in a real-life friendship, we are more likely to feel close to a person if we have undergone a similar journey separately or maybe even experienced their journey with them. While we're reading, we want to experience the main character's journey as he/she does in the book. So we could look for evidence of change in a character to indicate that that person is going on a journey.

For instance, in The Sign of the Beaver, you could ask students to place a sticky note in the spot where they think Attean first changed his relationship with Matt. Not only is this sticky note an indicator a change in the two boys' friendship, but it's an indicator of a personality change in Attean (since he resisted Matt so heavily at the beginning of the book).

I think that if you do this activity as a class, using the exact same book, you'll find that most students probably place their sticky note in one of 2-3 different spots. This makes a great conversation-starter! Students can talk in small groups about why they chose the spot they did, and then they can bring their small-group discussions into a whole-group discussion to get you and the rest of their classmates involved. This brings some logic and reasoning into reading by forcing the students to give valid explanations for why they chose the parts they did.

Now you can ask students to read a chapter of their whole-group book individually. During this time, students should be using sticky notes to place thoughts, feelings, questions, predictions, and inferences right IN the book. You could also ask students to mark the book every time something significant happens. It's interesting to watch where different students place sticky notes in the book. What one student finds as "significant," another student may not. This may be because Student 1 has different life experiences than Student 2, so they're connecting to the text in different ways. Again, it would be a great learning tool for everyone if students could share their sticky note thoughts at the end of each chapter.

You will probably have some students complain about "always having to jot down notes" as they read. You can remind them that math teachers expect to see students' work on the page so that they can see the students' thought process in the event that the answer is incorrect. English teachers still want to see that thought process, but it's impossible to dive into a student's brain to figure out her train of thought. Therefore, it's necessary for students to provide teachers with a way to see their work, and they can do this by writing the thought process down on paper/sticky notes throughout the novel.

A sticky note reading experience definitely slows reading down and forces students to be more aware of what is happening in the book (both directly and indirectly). It also forces students to really analyze the text in front of them and their thought reactions to significant events.

If you find that you have students writing down any and everything at first, you can remind them that sticky notes are too expensive to waste on junky thoughts, so you want to aim for writing down quality ideas and deep thoughts about the book only. As time goes on, the sticky notes will be less of a novelty and more of a reading tool.

Ideally, students will post notes about the characters throughout the entire book, so when we finish reading the novel, the pages will be filled with sticky notes. This creates a sort-of timeline for the students' thoughts. It would be easy (and neat) to go through the book later to see how a students' thoughts progressed, how her thoughts changed, and/or how the characters changed.

Being able to look at the entire set of notes after the reading is finished is also a great time to look for patterns before writing. Finding patterns in the notes will lead to a thesis statement in an essay! For instance, in The Sign of the Beaver, if a student found herself writing "Attean teaches Matt how to..." a lot, it might be a good idea for that student's thesis to be "Attean is a good teacher." The student could then look through her sticky notes to find text-based evidence of her thesis, and provide those supporting statements in the essay itself. I like how students would have instant citations for any proof they included in their essay -- no more digging back through the book to try to find certain events! I also love that students get a visual for how to arrive at a thesis because they're looking for the patterns in the notes they wrote themselves.

Basically, students would go through this process:

Form idea(s) --> form character theory --> form a thesis statement

because you're jotting down ideas as you read, forming a theory on the character(s) based on the patterns you see in your notes, and using the pattern to form the thesis statement. What an easy way for students to learn to write a thesis! Speaking from what little experience I have in the teaching world so far, I know how hard it can be for students to form a thesis, so I love that this activity scaffolds them a little more, but it's something they can do on their own.

You could always model this for your students in a read-aloud only book or in a book you're reading as a whole group. You could model when to place sticky notes and how to think deeply about significant areas of the text. That would be a great activity to do at the beginning of the year before you let them take off on their own with the sticky notes.

You may even want to create posters that give students some sticky note writing prompts: "I wonder...." or "I predict..." would be great sentence starters for deep thinking! Later, students could post the answer to their question or state whether or not their prediction came true. Again, it's all about creating a visual timeline so that students can see the character changing once they flip back through the sticky notes.

Finally, when all the sticky notes have been placed in a chapter, you can ask students to get out a piece of paper and "think through the tips of their pencils." Call out some sentence starting prompts and asked students to finish the sentence with as much detail and as many examples as possible. Some examples of prompts for The Sign of the Beaver are:
  • Attean was a good teacher when he taught Matt how to...
  • This was an important lesson because...
  • Another time when Attean was a good teacher to Matt was when he...
  • I am beginning to realize that Attean....
  • And this makes me wonder...
Afterwards, call on students to share their writing with the class. I think some students will be surprised at what they're able to write!

You could put the sentence starters on charts in the room so that students could do this on their own as an assignment or just during sticky-note-response time. The point is just to get kids to think and write deeply about text. You could even place sentence starters in the middle of groups or pairs and ask students to write everything they can about that prompt, and then use their writing as a springboard for discussion in the group/pair. 

You could also use these sticky notes as exit tickets. Simply ask students to turn in the sticky note with their best thinking (after they place their name and the page number on which they would place that sticky note) at the end of class. Using these as exit tickets could keep kids accountable for their reading and associated thoughts throughout the hour. I think this would be especially useful if your students were reading for any significant amount of time. Many books and programs these days ask students to read for extended amounts of time (some that I've heard suggest as much as a 90-minute block at a time!), but how can you tell if a kid is really reading or if he's just staring at the page and absent-mindedly flipping pages? I have seen many students (particularly when I taught 9th grade English) who try to fake their way through reading; they go through the motions but never really comprehend anything or do any deep thinking. So I like that sticky notes are a way to keep having long blocks of DEAR time but still keep kids accountable at the end of the day/hour without making them do a silly worksheet just to prove your point.


Phew! If you're still reading, thanks for sticking around! I know this was an insanely long post.  I'd love to know your thoughts on it all; please leave me a comment!

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