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.

5 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry (Part 2 of 3)

Last week I posted Part 1, which included two examples of poetry lessons that students love. This week, I am sharing two additional ideas that I hope you try in your classroom before the end of the year. Go for it! State testing is over, so now it’s time to play!

3. Love Letter Poems

I was honestly astonished at how much my students enjoyed this lesson. When a colleague of mine, JoAnn Welsko, first presented it to me. I thought, “OK. I’ll try this, but I think it’s kind of corny.” I can’t tell you how glad I am that I trusted JoAnn’s instincts. This type of poem is my all-time favorite out of all the different lessons and methods I’ve experimented with over the past 20 years. Believe me when I tell you that you, too, will be astounded–even the students who are reluctant writers had fun.

The first step is watching Sarah Kay’s performance of her poem, “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire.” I’m going to explain to you what she does, but trust me, you have to watch the video to understand the ingenuity of this idea.

Sarah Kay
Sarah Kay: “The Toothbrush to the Bicycle Tire”

So Sarah chooses two completely unrelated inanimate objects. One, the toothbrush, becomes the narrator, and the tire, is the one to whom the narrator speaks. Her poem is clever, witty, and fun. What the students liked most about it is that the poem sounds like it could be from one human lover to another–it carries authenticity.

When I modeled Sarah’s poem, I chose two related objects because they were easier for me to conceptualize. I brainstormed a list of 14 pairs and ended up choosing the fourth idea on the list. The narrator: a raw egg. The object of the egg’s affection: the refrigerator.

 

 

Love Letter

My colleague, JoAnn Welsko, also wrote a love letter poem. I think hers is a better model because she chose to unrelated objects like Sarah did.

%22Love Letter%22

Even though my students loved this idea, some of them still had a difficult time getting started. Here is what we did together:

  1. For three minutes we brainstormed in our writer’s notebooks. We listed all the inanimate objects we could think of.
  2. We looked at our lists and chose the two objects we thought might work well together. Some students had difficulty choosing, so they asked their peers or me to help them with their choices. In this case, don’t be afraid to tell students what you think. They want assurance from you that they are on the right track. Some of them need your approval to feel comfortable about moving forward.
  3. We created T-charts in our writer’s notebooks, using the two inanimate objects as headings for each column.
  4. We made a list of adjectives to describe each item.
  5. We circled or highlighted the words that lovers would use and crossed out the ones that were not applicable. Here is an example:

Love Letter Poem T-Chart

With this little bit of prep, they were ready to go. I gave them 15-20 minutes to write a first draft, and then they each chose a classmate with whom they wanted to share. My students are currently in the middle of crafting their pieces, so I will share a student example next week. In a few days, I will also post Part 3 (the final installment) of “4 Ways to Get Kids Excited about Poetry.”

Happy writing!

Quote of the day:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

–Francis Bacon