In my ongoing belief that we, as teachers, learn much when we try to do the tasks we assign to students, I asked a group of teachers I worked with to do a task that was part of a 5th grade nonfiction reading and writing unit recommended by the NYC Department of Ed. The unit, designed by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, asked students to read and watch several texts and videos related to zoos and endangered animals in order to ultimately write an opinion essay. But before they took a stance on the topic, the students had to complete a smaller task for each text and video they studied, one of which the teachers and I agreed to try out ourselves.
For this task, students had to read an adapted excerpt from journalist Thomas French’s book Zoo Story, called “The Swazi Eleven.” The excerpt focused on a group of elephants who were flown from game reserves in Swaziland to two zoos in the States because of a slew of problems. And after reading the piece, the student were prompted to “summarize the main ideas and supporting details,” so that the teacher could see if “you can spot the main ideas and show how they are supported with key details.”
The piece is a wonderful choice of text, but when I announced the task to the teachers, anxiety filled the air. Clearly we all felt the pressure to perform what turned out to not be such a simple task. If you click through to the piece, you’ll see that it’s quite complicated; it explores multiple points of view about multiple problems and solutions that have multiple causes and effects, and some of these aren’t explicitly stated—which meant that we couldn’t simply look for a main idea sentence, which is something we teach students to do.
Additionally, as we tried to write we wrestled with another problem: What was the prompt really looking for? One teacher used a strategy she’d taught her students to use: she identified the who, what, when, where, and why. But in doing so, she feared she’d reduced the complexity of the piece to a single perspective. Another felt that writing a summary of the main ideas was something of an oxymoron, with summaries sticking to the surface of the text and main ideas going deeper. Several of us, on the other hand, sought to capture what we saw as the big picture, which had to do with how human beings had messed things up for animals. But in trying to do that in a timed setting, we left out critical details. I, for one, neglected to mention elephants, while a colleague forgot to note zoos.
As we debriefed the experience—which began with relief that we weren’t getting graded—we acknowledged how challenging this was with a complex text and how inadequate much of the instruction we offer to students is. Too often, for instance, we model finding the main idea with a text that’s simply too simple—e.g., one in which the main idea is explicitly stated in the text. Or we model in ways that are, frankly, confusing, with the supporting details not really connected to the supposed main idea.
All these problems and more were on display in the student work I recently looked at with a 7th grade teacher. She’d decided to supplement her students’ reading of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with several nonfiction articles about unusual traditions around the world. And in addition to considering the thematic connection to “The Lottery,” she wanted to use these nonfiction pieces to give her students practice in finding the main idea.
To do this, she broke the class into small groups and gave each group an article to look at, including one about a small town in Spain that celebrates the town’s patron Saint Day by throwing a live goat from the church’s bell tower. Then she asked each group to read their text, discuss it, then create a chart that noted the main idea and supporting details.
Several groups cited the topic (which was usually the name of the tradition) as the main idea, writing down, for instance, “The Day of the Dead” at the top of their charts. That made us suspect that some students weren’t sure about the difference between a topic and an idea. And while, as you can see below, the group that read the goat throwing article was able to do more than that, we weren’t sure there if they understood the difference between a fact and an idea (which we had to wrestle with ourselves) or if they realized that a main idea could be implicit, rather than explicit, which meant that they might have to do more than chose a sentence to quote.
What seemed interesting, though, was that the supporting details this group cited did all seem to point to an idea: that this tradition was quite controversial. Recognizing this allowed the teacher and I to formulate a way of talking about ideas versus facts. As I suggested in an earlier post, ideas often explore a fact or event through one or more of the following lenses: compare and contrast, problem and solution, cause and effect, and/or claim and support. And as I wrote about theme, we might do better if, rather than asking students what the text is about, we asked, “What about what it’s about?”
We also thought that whether that group was aware of it or not, they had, in fact, noticed a pattern: a handful of details about what people thought about the tradition. And if they considered what the writer might be trying to show them through that pattern, they might be able to construct a main idea, rather than identify or find it. But that would require a change in the kind of thinking we ask students to do.
Whether they’re in the shape of a flower, a table, a fishbone or a hamburger, most of the graphic organizers we have kids fill out ask them to think deductively—that is, to come up with a large generalized idea first then think about what supports that. Starting with the details, however, and then thinking about what ideas they might point to involves inductive thinking. And while deductive thinking often works in texts where a general idea is spelled out, many students simply have no idea how to ‘spot’ a main idea when it’s not right there for the spotting, and they need to see how use details to build those bigger ideas.
Finally, I noticed another pattern in the goat throwing piece that seemed to have implications for thinking about main ideas: recurring references to how no one really knew the origin or purpose of the custom. The same, I think, is true of the way we tend to teach the main idea. We do it the way it’s traditionally been done, with the same old strategies and worksheets, without necessarily questioning why or assessing the strategies’ effectiveness. And in this new world we find ourselves in, with its emphasis on complex texts, perhaps it’s time to think more complexly about the main idea.