Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Key Ideas? Details?: What’s the Difference?

            Recently, an elementary school principal lamented to me that she was surprised by test results showing students across the grades were not doing well distinguishing between key ideas and details. “Can you help us?” she asked.

            Well, I am no magician but I seem to recall that when I was teaching elementary school, kids found summarizing difficult. Ask them to give an oral summary and you got everything they could remember reading.  It was as if the Declaration of Independence in Reading said that “all facts are created equal.” There was no key idea and there were no details. I think that this is the crux of the problem.

            But . . . there are solutions—or at least sensible steps to take to address the problem.  Here are a few:
1.     Discuss what summary means. It means being brief, concise, and direct. It does not mean telling everything you know. I like to discuss the relationship between “the big idea” and the “terrific specific.” That’s because writing a good summary means finding an important idea to focus on and then giving only the most convincing details to support it. I learned this firsthand when I wrote annotations for the annual Notable Social Studies Trade Books list. We only had about 150 words to write about why we were recommending a book. It was a tough lesson and it forged a lasting relationship between me and the delete key on my computer. I learned to pare down my writing.
2.     Limit the number of words allowed for written summaries. And, while you are at it, limit the time allotted for oral summaries too. In this way, students will have to separate the main idea from the details.
3.     Share writing that has clearly stated generalizations that are illustrated by intriguing details. Not only is this writing more understandable, it is also more interesting.  If you are looking for examples, my all time favorite writer when it comes to clarity, coherence, and descriptive detail is Russell Freedman. Check out any of his books and you will see what it means to write clear, coherent, descriptive nonfiction prose with overarching generalizations. Of course, if you want to be up to date, check out Freedman’s latest book, We Will Not Be Silent, which a Kirkus reviewer wrote “stands out for its focus and concision.” If you can’t wait for this new book, try Immigrant Kids, Kids at Work, or Children of the Great Depression. There is a lot more to choose from. Whichever book you choose, be explicit when showing kids the key idea and the supporting details in these books. Then as you read to them, ask the kids to take over this job themselves and tell you the key ideas and supporting details.
4.     Write summaries or explanations giving key ideas and details. Have students practice by working with partners and then report back to the class on their results. We know very well that reading and writing are connected, so we can expect that if students can find key ideas and details in their reading, they will also begin to use them in their writing. 

            The long and the short of this is that by providing good examples of writing and time read it, discuss it, and write like it, students will learn about the relationship between key ideas and details. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Letting Jefferson Speak for Himself: A Biography Generously Sprinkled with Quotes

            In the recent picture book Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation, author Peggy Thomas makes liberal use of short “Jefferson” quotations to focus on his keen interest in planting. The language of the book is rich and varied and the illustrations match the written text, adding humor here and there.

  ’s the extensive use of quotations, many of which are set off from the main text, that anchor this book’s focus on farming. Here is a technique we can easily help students try out.

            Here’s how I might explain it to students:
1.     First, you need to read extensively about a selected person. Any subject will do: scientist, mathematician, politician, dancer, actor, teacher, chef, athlete, architect, king, queen, and so on.

2.     Decide on a focus for writing about that person. What is the idea you want to emphasize? Ambition? Kindness? Inventiveness? Sense of Humor? Interests?

3.     Gather some quotes that support that focus. Put them in the order that you want to introduce them. Quotes are readily available on the Internet.

4.     Write your “focused” biography. Include your quotes as you write. Quotes can be part of your writing or they can be separated out and written in larger type or even in another color.

5.     Illustrate your work.

Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation is an excellent mentor text for incorporating quotations.  This book gives us a clear lesson about the craft of writing. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A History Book for Elementary School Readers with All the Necessary Pieces: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

            The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is an inspiring, well-written, and well-illustrated biography of the accomplishments of an African-American man who was a slave until his teenage years, but later became a Justice of the Peace, a member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, and ultimately a member of the United States House of Representatives. This is a clearly told story of big, bold accomplishment, and it is accompanied by illustrations that give young readers a sense of historical context. Readers not only “see” what it looked like during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, they get a look at the emotions people felt.  This would be enough for me to recommend this book.

            However there is more. The back matter is excellent. It consists of the following elements that are all worthy of careful attention. Anyone teaching CCSS standard of Craft and Structure will find these items useful and informative:
·      Historical Note: The author explains what happened during the “Reconstruction” period that followed the Civil War.
·      Timeline: Taking a “life-and-times” approach, events in John Roy Lynch’s life appear in black, while state and national events appear in red.  This is an easily understandable format.
·      Author’s Note: Among other things, the author invites us to think about the significance of John Roy’s life: “His is a personal tale so unlikely that it calls on us to linger, to ask questions, to seek to understand the context, and to delve into the details of the overlooked time in which he lived. “ I can’t think of a better invitation to delve into history.
·      Illustrator’s Note: Not only does the illustrator admit that before illustrating this book he “wasn’t very knowledgeable about Reconstruction,” he also describes his necessary research and his artistic choices.
·      Suggestions for Further Reading: A list of recommended books is a fine starting place for learning more about Reconstruction.
·      Map Showing Reconstruction States and Important Places in John Roy Lynch’s Life. A very clear graphic that is useful for discussion of how maps present information.
Books like this one provide content and help readers understanding the process of learning about the past. This is essential for understanding history.