|10th graders look for the clues the author left to lead the reader from one paragraph to the next.|
- I think this paragraph is the conclusion because it comes back to the same idea as the very beginning, and applies it to everyone.
- This is a story illustrating the general idea in this paragraph, so it must come after it.
- These three paragraph are all about words. They must go together.
- This paragraph has the word failure in every sentence, and this one has failure in just the first sentence, so that must be the transition word.
- This paragraph’s first sentence says, “What had caused this to happen?” We have to find the this that it’s talking about.
I used to hope for observations like this when I asked students to especially note transitions as they did a close reading and annotated a passage, but the conversations were never this good. They were more like this: “This author uses good transitions.”
This week, I actually heard these conversations. Among my students!
What’s the difference? They had to do something. And not just highlight and discuss. They had to engage. Inquire. Solve a problem. Physically manipulate things. Feedback from others helped. They could hypothesize, try it out, look at it, modify it, and try it again. And then there was a real-life check at the end. A right answer to the puzzle. Had they figured it out? How a real-life, published author led his readers from one paragraph to the next. (Hint: It isn't always the same. There are many ways, and they all work.)
What did they have to do? Work with their table group of 4 to physically arrange the last 11 paragraphs of the assigned reading in order. I had made a copy of those paragraphs for each group, cut the paragraphs apart, scrambled them, and piled them in the middle of the table.
It wasn’t a totally blind exercise. They had read and annotated the “Introduction” to An Ordinary Man, the memoir of the protagonist of the movie Hotel Rwanda, Paul Rusesabagina, who hid 1,268 people inside his hotel when the 1994 genocide broke out in his country.
There were 3 purposes for reading: (1) What the author says: background information for the genocide and to render less confusing some clips from the movie we would watch the next day, (2) How the author says it: notice especially organization (thesis, introduction, topic sentences, transitions, and conclusion), and (3) So what: How does this connect to the questions “What is human dignity and why does it matter?” and “Genocide—why does it keep happening even after the world says, ‘Never again’?” that we will be addressing in our reading of the Holocaust memoir Night?
I had modeled my thinking by reading the first section aloud and voicing my reflections on those 3 purposes as I read. Then they read and annotated the last 2 sections, noting 3 “so what” observations in their journals.
The next day in class, we compiled a list of facts and background information as a whole class. Then I let them discuss anything they’d noted in the second section. And then, instead of asking them to discuss their observations about organization, I told them to put away their readings, and I gave each group a pile of 11 paragraphs, cut apart and scrambled. Every single student was engaged in trying to figure out which paragraph went where.
Before I finally allowed them to get out the original and check, I told them they might have a few paragraphs out of order, but the really important thing was the conversations they’d had and the thinking they’d done about what connects one paragraph to the next.
I wonder what are more ways I can get students actively engaged in developing real understanding of the content and skills I teach?