In part 1 of this blog post on literature, I emphasized the importance of engaging students in analyzing high-quality texts, in developing both written and oral language skills, and in building an in-depth understanding of the beauty and complexity of literature. If you would like to see the extended argument, please read the previous part.

As I mentioned years ago, cognitive work is not busyness. We need to move away from engaging, shallow activities that might keep students busy but not thinking, hands-on but minds-off:

me - cognitive work

Because…

Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and ONLY from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning by influencing what the student DOES to learn. (Herbert Simon)

 

…we need to be INTENTIONAL in selecting the content we teach and the strategies that yield the greatest learning for students. The web is full of wonderfully-crafted worksheets and activities but they are not necessarily the best in terms of the depth and complexity of thinking the students are required to do. I found that *elimination* is the best approach – we are tempted to use in the classroom the newest or the most interesting (innovative) strategy but that is counter-productive. It is harder to eliminate the “noise” and focus on specific, often simpler but powerful instructional routines that are far more effective in the long run.

Some of them I elaborated on in the previous post, and some are below.

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When we begin the study of poetry I set aside a session for answering the “WHY”. It is always worth engaging students in pausing and wondering, particularly when something abstract and rather difficult to understand such as poetry is to be uncovered. Why do we need beauty in our lives? Why poetry and art? Why drama and sculpture? After all, these are not needed for survival – why would people create them for thousands of years?

So I start in silence, on a completely blank flipchart paper. I ask the students to just be quiet and watch/read. I slowly draw an iceberg and write words (see below), showing that we live in two worlds. Then I invite students to answer the “why”.

2 worlds

Another way I introduce poetry is by using this quote:

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I ask the students to think about the quote and generate some ideas, questions or simple words they relate to it and their answers always amaze me as they mention “joys and sorrows”, “fears”, “dreams”,  poetry as a “space of intuition and freedom” and on and on it goes. We then think back of some poems they read in the previous years and discuss what they enjoyed about them, what they felt when reading them, how they see poetry in general etc.

Finally, we discuss some aspects we will be looking at while analyzing the poems. It helps frame their thinking and focus on essential elements in the future (I print copies for each student and put them at the end of the notebook in a transparent folder).

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Now, on to the strategies I mentioned.

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ZOOM-IN, ZOOM-OUT

This strategy is most useful when engaging with poetry as the text itself is rather short and can be analyzed on both levels in a single session: stanzas (zoom-in) and the entire poem (zoom-out).

HOW

  • Display the poem on the flipchart. Read it out loud to the students. Give them a few minutes to take-in the poem and read it (internally) by themselves.
  • Start analyzing one line and stanza at a time (zooming-in). On the right side, tell students that is the “tip of the iceberg” – IDENTIFICATION of literary techniques such as repetition, hyperbole, etc. On the left side is the “iceberg below the water” – the deep, complex MEANING of each word, phrase or literary technique used. It is the *thinking* part of the process, where students are invited to deconstruct the symbols, to make connections, and to insert cultural references.
  • After each stanza is analyzed, tell students to “zoom-out”, to take a mental step back: “Let’s look at each stanza – how do the thought and feeling move throughout the poem? What would each stanza be if we were to encompass it in a keyword? Loneliness? Joy? Self-doubt? Where is the subject in each stanza? What is the place or object spoken of in each? What changes do you notice?”

The zoom-out step helps in noticing the structure of the poem (whether it is cyclical or linear; if it has a thematic element that develops from the opening to the closing line etc.).

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You can see other examples from my grade 4 students (ignore the misspellings on the flipchart – I write fast as the students share their thinking so it is unavoidable when my brain is processing writing and listening at the same time!)

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TIPS

  • Use two colors for the two tasks (blue- identification, red- analysis). Visual markers are always helpful (and I am guilty of not being consistent!)
  • Play a song as a background when you first read the poem – it is incredibly powerful and draws students “in”. Sometimes it is great to have a high-quality drawing, photograph or painting to start your poem analysis, or even an object related to it (e.g. a birdcage for Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). Never underestimate the importance of connecting the senses, especially in the case of such abstract and yet delicate things as poems are!
  • Use prompts/questions in case the students seem stuck or you want them to go deeper – Why do you think the writer chose this word (e.g. “golden” daffodils) instead of, say, this one (“yellow”)? What is the difference between them? I wonder why he mentions “stars” – who does he actually refer to? etc.

NOTE: If you think these poetry sessions are tedious, as someone wondered a week ago on Twitter, you are wrong. The children are very engaged and often complain that our class is over! They keep adding ideas to the chart and want to continue the conversation – because that’s what it ultimately is: a conversation on beauty made tangible through words. Parents also e-mail me, telling me how deeply children think about these poems even at home.

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ICEBERG THINKING

This can be done as a group, pair or as an independent activity. The students engage in two tasks: description (low-level) and analysis (higher-level thinking). Both are interconnected in the sense that the description supports the meaning-making step while the analysis is made evident through the description.

Screenshot (1200).pngHOW: Allow students to use the novel when describing (each should have it on their desk). Depending on how you want the students to work (independently, in pairs or as a group) give them copies of the “iceberg”.

TIMING: It should be about 20-30 minutes.

TIPS

  • Have students use the academic language sheet – make sure they do that by insisting on using 2-3 words they must use, and then highlight/underline in their written response.
  • I start using this strategy as a group so that the students familiarize themselves with the format, then move to pair work and then independent writing in the following weeks.
  • Do not make the groups larger than 3 students. Groups of three are the best in the sense that the attention is focused on thinking and exchanging of ideas, and not on managing the group itself (that distracts from the task). Also, in threes, students are more likely to hold each other accountable for contributing.
  • In the end, display the “icebergs” in the classroom so that the students have the opportunity to read about others’ ideas. Have a Gallery Walk and then you can set aside 5 minutes for wrapping up the discussion.

*Here is one sample of thinking from my 5th-grade students.

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QUOTATION CHALLENGE

This activity can be done as a group of 4 or independently (the latter preferably after students have already worked in groups for a while). As a group, you can have 2 options to organize it. Have an important quote from the chapter typed in the middle of the sheet.

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HOW

Option 1: EXPERT GROUPS

  • As students are seated in groups of 4, give each student a color (say, red, green, blue and yellow). Each „color” should then join other students from other tables with the same color (e.g. the „yellow” students go to the yellow table).
  • Each color group focuses on a single task (say, mind mapping). They discuss, share ideas, and lastly decide what to write on the map. They are now „experts” in that task.
  • After all groups have finished, each „color” returns to the „home-base” and shares what they worked on. Thus, everyone learns from everyone about every single task. The rest of the students listen and write what the „expert” said.
  • Finally, you can have the students share some of their answers with the whole class (5 minutes).

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Option 2: MIXED GROUP

  • Basically, a group discusses all the tasks at the same table.
  • Again, in the end, some students might want to share their answers with the class (5 minutes).

TIMING: Depending on the grouping you want to use, the timing is as follows:

  • EXPERT GROUPS: 15 minutes sharing with experts, 15 minutes return and discuss with the home-base.
  • MIXED GROUP: 10 minutes per task – so 4 tasks X 10 min= 40 minutes

When working in pairs or individually, I would not extend this activity for more than 30 minutes. However, you know your students and age group better, as well as the difficulty of the tasks you want to give them so it is up to you.

TIPS

  • If you prefer your students to work in groups of 3 you can use another format (see below).

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  • Since this activity can take a lot of time (my students, at least, love conversations about novels and poems and sometimes it is too difficult to stop them!), make sure you time each step. Draw a clock on the whiteboard and shade in how much time is left for each stage of the process (I do that every 5 minutes). By seeing it, the students are more focused and can manage to do everything within the time limits.

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QUOTATION WALK

This is a variation of the challenge above but it is rather a starter activity for a future, more complex session. It is free, non-threatening and yet it results in great thinking that will be the basis for written responses in the next session. I always encourage students to speak using academic vocabulary because by embedding such terms in speech then they are more likely to be used naturally in writing.

HOW

  • Display significant quotes from a novel around the room.
  • Individually, students go to each quote and write key words or ideas and questions connected to them. NO talking allowed.
  • Finally, display all the quotes on a single flipchart paper. Gather everyone on the carpet and ask them to share the ideas/words they have on their own sheets.

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TIPS

  • If there is a movie version based on the book, use screenshots of essential scenes. I cannot emphasize how powerful images are in stimulating emotion and divergent thinking.
  • Time your activity so that you can also come together as a class. Having more ideas collected from different students is a great basis for a future lesson (e.g. the students can focus on ONE quote and deconstruct it in writing).

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MATRIX CONNECTIONS

This activity is best done individually as students have the freedom to select symbols or themes in a novel they are more comfortable exploring, or that they might find more powerful.

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HOW: Make a chart of several symbols (or themes, concepts, etc.) you uncovered in a chapter or a series of chapters. The students should select 2 (or 3) and follow this process:

  1. Elaborate on that respective symbol individually.
  2. Explain how the two symbols connect.

TIMING: I usually give students about 20-25 minutes for this activity.

TIPS

  • The students must use academic language – this should be explicitly explained and expected every single time
  • The students can use the book to bring arguments (it should be on their desk). It is difficult to remember specific words or phrases that could enhance one’s writing without another look at the text itself.

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SIDE THINK-PAIR- SHARE

Reading is a thinking process and while we do that internally, it is also beneficial to *share* our thinking in a social setting. Turning reading into a conversation can only strengthen our cognitive power and enrich our own understanding. This activity is simple in its structure but it is a great routine that goes beyond comprehension questions in a test as it allows more freedom.

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HOW

  • Use a side strip (I borrowed the idea of side strips from Twitter) – it helps students organize their thinking and it saves so much paper!
  • The students answer the questions independently, then orally share ideas with another student, and lastly with the group.

TIPS

  • I also share the student ideas with the class – for the same question I write down on the flipchart some of the students’ answers. That is because while each group benefits from hearing 4 ideas (at each table) the students, as a class, can actually see more than four through this wrap-up part.

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Obviously, each of you can tweak these activities according to your needs as a class teacher, whether we refer to the tasks themselves, timing, grouping or purpose (practice, evaluation, starting activity, etc.).

Here are the PDFs that I created and you can download (from both posts):

Novel Elements – large 

Novel Elements – small

Academic Language Sheet

Socratic Seminar -Inner Circle 

Socratic Seminar – Outer Circle

Socratic Seminar – Analysis – Students

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