Scaffolding Abstract Thinking: Building Thematic Statements from the Ground Up

My school district began implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study last year in grades 1-8. Even though teachers were required to teach only one of the three units with fidelity, I struggled. Unpacking the sessions and bends took me hours on the weekends, and I found that because my students were experiencing writers workshop for the first year, they struggled as well. They weren’t conditioned to writing for five solid minutes much less twenty or thirty at a time. They literally had no idea how to sit still and think and write for that long.

This year has been much better. The students have an understanding of writers workshop, and thanks to doyens like Kate Roberts, Maggie Roberts, and Angela Stockman, to name only two of the most influential mentors I follow faithfully online, I have more tools in my shed.

So right now my colleagues and I are teaching the 8th-grade argument unit, which is writing and publishing a literary essay.  I have not been looking forward to this unit because I knew how much work is involved in teaching one of these units for the first time, but with the help of my colleagues, mainly JoAnn Welsko (the most perfect teammate, champion, and ally anyone could have), I am beginning to find the magic.

My students have been genuinely struggling with finding the theme in the dystopian stories they chose, as I knew they would. Even though I followed all of Calkins’ instructions: using an anchor text as an example, guiding students through writing long about conflict, characters, and literary devices, and discussing ideas with partners, they still weren’t getting it. They weren’t doing the deep thinking needed to connect their stories to a bigger idea or create a postulation about the author’s message. So yesterday after school, I sat down at my desk and thought about the steps that anyone would have to follow to determine to create a thematic statement.

  1. Ask yourself: What is the topic/main idea of the story?
  2. Ask yourself: What does the author believe about this topic?
  3. Then find three pieces of textual evidence to support your #2. If you can find three good examples of textual evidence, your idea is probably solid. If you can’t find three pieces of good textual evidence, return to #1 and see if another topic works better.

The anchor text we read, per the Units of Study, is All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury. In the 8th grade literary essay unit, Calkins suggests this mentor text and provides sample thematic statements and a mentor literary essay that teachers can use. I went with Calkins’ suggestions so I did not have to create my own while teaching the unit for the first time.

Here is what I put on the white eraser board for students as they worked through this process:

Creating a Thematic Statement.jpg

If you look at the photo, the topic of the story is jealousy, so I had the students use the following formula for step 1: I think the topic of the story is _____. Some students spent the period brainstorming and discussing ideas to complete this sentence starter. About 1/3 of the students were able to start the step

2. For this step, they had to interpret what the author believes about the topic they chose for step one. The third step requires them to prove their theory with three pieces of textual evidence. I had a handful of students (about five out of 130) begin step three today so we will begin there on Monday.

Scaffolding this process led to many aha moments today. My perseverance, encouragement, and coaching are paying off. Students were choosing abstract concepts for topics and then drawing conclusions about their development throughout their stories.

Once we complete this process, the next step is to determine how the authors illuminate their beliefs in each of the three scenes students choose. Does the author use figurative language in the scene? Imagery? Irony? Dialogue? Short and long sentences? By identifying the moves the author makes in each scene, students will then have three specific literary devices to analyze in their literary essays.

If you are interested in using any of the dystopian stories I included in my text set for students, here is a list of those that are most popular:

  • “The Pedestrian” by Ray Bradbury
  • “2 B R 0 2 B” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow
  • “Ponies” by Kij Johnson
  • “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut
  • “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  • “We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel

I included a few other stories in the text set, but they were not popular with my students. I list them here in case you think your students might like them.

  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (My students did not choose this story, but I included because it is the only dystopian story I have ever read that had a happy ending.)
  • “The Lake” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Frost and Fire” by Ray Bradbury
  • “Examination Day” by Harry Slesar
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When I Was Young . . .

In my previous post I wrote about Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s visit to my middle school earlier this month. In this post, I’m sharing another lesson I taught last week that was inspired by her.

During the writer’s workshop Bartoletti conducted with some of our students, she read the children’s book When I Was Young in the Mountains written by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Diane Goode. On Friday I read the story to my students as an introduction to our poetry unit. The book is technically not a poem, but the style is poetic because of the imagery and the repetition of the phrase “When I was young.”

First, of course, I read the book on my own. I knew that I wanted my students to pay attention to author’s craft, particularly how she creates imagery, but I was not sure how I wanted to reach that aim. Someone once wrote (I wish I could remember where I read this.) that the 40 minute period is the death of creativity. I agree. I find that 40 minutes is just not enough time to teach anything in depth, but in the end, I achieved my goal (I think).

  1. First, I read the story aloud to the students. They all grabbed carpet squares and sat around me while I read to the elementary school style. I asked them just to listen and visualize the story as I read. The story is chocked full of imagery, even on the first page: “Grandfather came home in the evening covered with the black dust of a coal mine. Only his lips were clean, and he used them to kiss the top of my head.”
  2. Then I read the story to the students a second time. This time I asked them to record, in their writer’s notebooks, three words from each page that helped them create a mental image.
  3. After the second reading, the students worked with their seat partners to discuss their lists. I asked them to draw an x and a y axis on a page in their writer’s notebooks to create four quadrants. Each of the quadrants was labeled with a part of speech: adverbs, nouns, action verbs, and adjectives.
  4. The students then shared their lists with each other. Together they chose two or three words from each page that they thought were the most powerful. They then identified the part of speech of the word and placed it in the correct quadrant.
  5. After they had worked on this step for about ten minutes, we discussed our discoveries as a group. Of course, ten minutes is not enough time to analyze their entire lists, but they had compiled enough information to notice a pattern.
  6. All but a few groups realized after organizing Rylant’s words that the nouns and the action verbs were the words that were most effective in creating imagery, not the adjectives and adverbs, as they had suspected before doing this exercise. For nascent writers, this is a powerful realization, and it reinforces the idea that word choice is paramount in engaging your reader.
  7. I ended the lesson by asking the students to complete the following sentence: When I was young _____. As often happens, they surprised me with their answers. Some of the best ones included:
    • When I was young in America.
    • When I was young, I was free.
    • When I was young, I explored.
    • When I was young, I wore a uniform.

I love that their statements created a bit of mystery about their personal stories. On Monday, we will continue this exercise and see where it leads. I am excited to read their first poems of the year!

For those of you who were wondering: The feature image is a picture of my brother and me in our backyard in front of our swing set. I don’t remember how old I was, so take your best guess. 😊

Here is my version of “When I was young . . . ” that I will share with my students on Monday.

When I Was Young

When I was young

I longed to be older.

When I was young

The sky

envied my imagination,

its vastness

its colors,

and its unpredictability

When I was young

My mother could fix anything,

and my father was the best looking man I knew.

When I was young

My grandmother

baked lemon meringue pie on Saturdays,

and I thought it would be so forever.

When I was young

I knew grass

and pond

and swamp

and snow drifts

as tall as the trees.

When I was young

I had everything

but wanted everything else.

When I was young

I dreamt of you

but never believed you existed.

When I was young

I had a dog that I loved.

When I was young

I ran because it was fun.

When I was young

I soared high

and fell hard.

When I was young

I didn’t fail–

I explored.

You Catch More Bees with Honey . . .

This week has been extremely busy for many reasons, and because so much is happening, I have many topics I would like to write about. I will, however, focus on one and save the others for later. Sometimes ideas become more earthy and and fuller bodied when they brew in the mind a a bit anyway.

So this post is about breaking old habits.

1. Wrangling with Writing

Before I met the writer’s notebook, teaching writing was somewhat of a struggle between my students and me. They didn’t want to do it, but I felt like I needed to make them do it for a variety of reasons, one of them being that good writing skills are an asset in every aspect of life. Even though I worked hard and my efforts were genuine, I don’t think I I met my goal–I don’t think I sold my students on the idea that learning to write was for their benefit. They treated it like a cat treats a dose of medicine–they saw little benefit from the torture of the task. The curriculum and my style made writing were too laborious for them–I took the fun out of writing.

The writer’s notebook changed everything for me.

I started using the writer’s notebook last year in preparation for implementing Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study (Grade 8) this school year. The spirit of this idea, which I first heard of from a colleague, Sarah Lucci, who was more familiar than I with Ralph Fletcher, has changed the way I view writing and, in turn, the way I teach writing. As a result, writing became fun again, for me and my students.

How did this happen? I can give you the short answer, but if you want to know more, you need to read Ralph Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlcoking the Writer Within You. Essentially, the writer’s notebook is a safe place for students to SAFELY experiment with writing techniques and ideas without fear of censure, evaluation, or assessment. If they want feedback, they may ask for it and the teacher may provide it. It takes a while for the students to get used to the concept, but once they do, their volume increases and then so does the quality of their writing.

In my opinion, though, the best outcome from using the writer’s notebook is that students no longer utter the dreaded phrase: But I don’t know what to write about! The writers notebook becomes their bank of ideas.

i-dont-know-what-to-write-about

2. The Grammar Gauntlet

Jeff Anderson’s book Everyday Editing changed the way I view grammar lessons. I started small last year by having students notice and imitate good writing, mostly from young adult novels, novels, as Anderson recommends, that I thought the students should read. This year I began implementing some of the more extensive lessons in the second half of the book.

The short noticings and the focused lessons ask students to analyze and then writer’s craft and style as opposed to identifying grammatical components. Anderson does not completely forgo the standard language and throw grammar completely out the window. Instead, his lessons focus on inviting students to examine good writing and analyze why it works. The final step is for them to imitate the author’s style and make it their own.

I can’t tell you how happy I was when I finally received permission from the curriculum director to stop teaching students how to identify grammatical elements such as parts of speech, complements, clauses, and phrases. This kind of work was never fun. It seemed necessary for a while, but it was never enjoyable for anyone.

3. The Long Lecture

One of the most important ingredients of the writer’s workshop model is the mini-lesson. I have not come near to perfecting this art yet, but I understand it’s value. Teaching writing and grammar lessons in five to ten minute snippets is so freeing for teachers and definitely more digestible for students. No one wants to focus grammar rules for an entire class period, and frankly, talking in front of the class all day makes me tired and bored. I have found a new, more sustainable groove. And the most important part is that I am getting to know my students as individuals. Even though we are only half way through the first marking period, I feel as though I know more about this group of students in a shorter amount of time.

Today I tried something completely different for the mini-lesson. I showed a TED Ed video instead about zooming in on a moment. The title of the video is Slowing down time (in writing and film). It’s perfect because it’s less than six minutes long, it makes an effective connection between film and writing, and provides students with a distinct focus. I can honestly say that out of the 136 students I saw today, all of them wrote consistently without interruption for at least ten minutes. Now that might not seem like a long stretch, but for students who have never experienced the writer’s workshop model, it’s a true accomplishment.

4. Catching More Bees with Honey: The Unintended Results

The unintended consequences of the many shifts that have occurred this year in my building, my classroom, and me, my relationship with my students is changing.

  • I am more encouraging and appreciative of students’ efforts as young writers.
  • I am providing students with more focus, more authentic feedback.
  • I am more forgiving of students’ mistakes.
  • I am pushing past my own frustrations.
  • Most importantly, I am building personal connections with them, and these connections are making the classroom a place where learning is fun.