Just the Facts, Ma’am: Setting Students Up to Solve Problems in Nonfiction

Just the Facts Ma'amAs part of the Close Reading Blog-a-Thon that Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts hosted to kick-off their new book, Falling in Love with Close ReadingKate reminded us that not every nonfiction text warrants a close reading. In particular she noted texts whose word choice and details don’t reveal an authorial point of view—or as Kate so wonderfully put it, “aren’t rippling with nuance.” Many of those texts are purely factual—i.e., they don’t use facts to explore a question, issue or event that the writer may have a stance on. And many are content area texts that provide social studies or science information without much of a discernible view point.

I agree completely that not every text deserves close point-of-view scrutiny, but there are other reasons to read those texts closely, as I think they pose many problems for students and offer many problem-solving opportunities. The title of this week’s post, for instance, alludes to something that not every reader might know—in this case, a TV show that was popular before some of you were born. References and allusions like this abound in all sorts of nonfiction, from Nicholas Carr‘s intriguing piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid?“, which begins with a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, to Sy Montgomery‘s grade 4-5 text exemplar Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, which in passing mentions hobbits, trolls, Sponge Bob and Stuart Little. Most of these references are kid-friendly and add to the fun of the book. But like the old TV show Dragnet, I imagine that there are students out there who’ve never heard of Stuart Little. So what’s a fourth or fifth grader to do when reading a section that begins like this:

“Stuart Little, the small mouse with big parents, had nothing on baby marsupials. Marsupials (“mar-SOUP-ee-ulz”) are special kinds of mammals. Even the biggest ones give birth to babies who are incredibly small. A two-hundred-pound, six-foot mother kangaroo, for instance, gives birth to a baby as small as a lima bean. That’s what makes marsupials marsupials.”

QuestfortheTreeKangarooThe easiest way to solve the problem of what Stuart Little means would be for a teacher to tell the students who Stuart Little is. No doubt that might be entertaining and even lead some students to the book. But given that, just like vocabulary words, it’s simply impossible for a teacher to provide explanations for every allusion or reference students might encounter in a text, we might want to think twice about solving the problems that allusions and references pose and instead let students try to solve them on their own, at least some of the time. Some students, for instance, might solve the problem here by skipping right over Stuart Little and focusing instead on what they can understand: that marsupials are mammals whose babies are super small. Others, instead, might create what I call a “place holder”: they figure out that whoever Stuart Little is, the difference in size between him and his parents isn’t nearly as great as the difference between marsupial babies and their moms.

I believe that providing students with opportunities to wrestle with problems like these helps them become confident and resourceful readers. But for that to happen, we, as teachers, need to be more aware of the problem-solving opportunities that specific texts hold. We can do that by recognizing that many of the items that frequently appear in text complexity rubrics, such as allusions, vocabulary and complicated syntax, can be thought of as problems to solve, as can the kind of “holes in the cheese” I discussed in an earlier post—those places where a nonfiction writer hasn’t explicitly spelled out how the facts are connected. We can also better see the problems a text poses if we ask students what they’re confused about, as I wrote about last year and did as well with two groups of fourth graders that looked at this excerpt from Samuel de Champlain: From New France to Cape Cod by Adrianna Morganelli:

Trade & Exploration

Both groups of students had studied explorers earlier in the year, and so I began by asking each group to think about what they had learned. In both cases, the students shrugged more than spoke, which gave their teachers pause. Interestingly enough, though, as they made their way through the first paragraph, which was filled with things that confused them—”thirst for wealth”, “the spice trade” and “commodities”, which they solved by checking out the glossary—they started to remember more.

I think it’s important to note here that the call to activate schema before reading yielded virtually nothing, but the students automatically started pulling information without prompting from their memory banks in order to resolve their confusion. Problem solving, thus, gave them a purpose for strategically drawing on their background knowledge in a way that years of deliberately practicing the strategy of activating schema hadn’t. And with that paragraph mostly solved they moved on to the next.

The first group I read this passage with helped me better see the problems that the second part posed, as students were once again confused. In particular, they were confused by the references to trade routes, both overland and sea ones, as well as by the glut of place names and the different types of people. In fact, who controlled and discovered what where, along with why and how, were all problems that needed solving. And while I ran out of time with the first group, I came more prepared for the second, offering them this map to look at and use as a problem solving tool:

Age of Exploration Map

Using the map helped them figure out the difference between overland and sea routes as well as who controlled which and why. It also allowed them to understand what the first group hadn’t: that the New World was discovered almost by accident, as explorers sought to find the Moluccas, and that furs, fish, gold and silver were the new commodities mentioned in the first paragraph, which again were discovered through what had originally been a search for spices and silk. And here again, they automatically inferred in order to solve those problems.

Arriving at these understandings definitely took longer than it would have if I’d solved the problems for the students by pre-teaching or explaining what had confused them or modeling a think-aloud. But as I debriefed the lesson with the teachers, we all thought that in addition to helping students become stronger independent readers, they were also more likely to remember the content because they’d figured it out for themselves and it now belonged to them. And as some of the teachers who attended the session I did last month in New Hampshire said, putting students in problem-solving mode helped them “see themselves as ‘figuring-it-out’ kind of kids.” And that, I think is well worth the time, both for us and for students.

Thinking (Please be Patient)

More Ways to Skin the Information Writing Cat

I certainly believe that, as teachers, we need to prepare students for the kinds of academic writing they’ll be asked to do as they move up the grades and into college by teaching them to write powerful essays that demonstrate deep understandings of content. But I don’t think they need a steady diet of thesis-driven essays. And so last week I looked at using Dummies books to engage students in information writing.

This week I offer three other ways of writing engaging nonfiction pieces that explain and inform. All three are grounded in one or more mentor texts that students can study for structure and craft. And all three invite students to write with passion, voice, insight and even humor in a mode of writing that sometimes runs the risk of becoming mechanical and dry.

Compare & Contrast: Using a Children’s Picture Book to Explore Different Perspectives

As opinion writing made its way to lower schools, many teachers discovered the wonderful picture book Hey, Little Ant by Phillip and Hannah Hoose. In rhyming couplets, the book recounts the debate between a boy, who is poised to squish an ant, and the ant, who pleads for his life by mounting a persuasive argument that provides all sorts of facts about ants. And it ends with the following invitation for readers to decide:

Many teachers use this question as a prompt to write opinion pieces about the merits of killing or letting the ant live, using the arguments in the book to support their position. In fact, the book is so popular, it spawned its own website, which one year sponsored a Hey, Little Ant essay contest for kindergarten through third-grade students. But I like to use the book instead as a mentor text for writing information pieces that set two characters with opposing viewpoints together, say, a gray wolf who’s been reintroduced in the west and a rancher who wants to hunt him, or Columbus and a Taino Indian discussing who was here first. A Hey, LIttle Ant-inspired book would let students explore both the facts and misconceptions about each side’s position—while letting kids play around with rhyme without sacrificing meaning.

Narrative Procedures Re-Invented: Unleashing the Power of the Second-Person Point of View

While narrative procedures do not appear, as such, on the Common Core Standards, they are a kind of writing that informs or explains a process or procedure, which makes them a good vehicle for meeting the information writing standard. Unfortunately, though, for some students that means explaining how to make something like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich year after year after year. And so at some point I and a few intrigued teachers began rethinking procedural writing in middle school by introducing how-to essays and stories written in the second person, such as Lorrie Moore‘s “A Kid’s Guide to Divorce” and two pieces by high school students.

The first is Chris Kanarick’s hilarious “How to Survive Shopping with Mom,” which appears in the wonderful anthology Starting with ‘I’: Personal Essays by Teenagersand includes many priceless moments, such as the following:

As you and Mom begin your leisurely stroll through the first floor of the mall, Mom will suddenly veer off to the left, arms out-stretched, eyes wide, and nose in the air looking like something out of The Night of the Living Dead. Mothers can smell a sale from a mile away. There is no scientific explanation for this, it just happens. Follow her. You have no choice. Remember who’s got the money.

And then there’s Dorsey Seignious’s incredibly moving “When You,” which appears in another great anthology for older students, You Are Here, This is Now and acts as an instruction manual for grieving:

When watching someone die, you must be very quiet. Always look down at the ground and examine your feet. Be uncomfortable and very somber. Allow your eyes to fill with tears. You will bite your lip until it bleeds, but you won’t notice until you wipe your tears with your sleeve and feel the sting of the sleeve on your lips. You will see the bloodstain on your sleeve, and then you will believe.

There is something strangely liberating about writing in the second person. I’m not exactly sure why this happens. I think it gives the writer more distance from his subject than the first person point of view does, while allowing for more intimacy than the close or omniscient third person. Whatever the reason, students are often eager to try it on after reading pieces like these, and when they do they write with more voice and detail than they have before—even when exploring more academic topics.

Real-Life Responses to Literature: Appreciations & Forewards

Finally, in Thinking Through Genre, Heather Lattimer uses Tobias Wolff’s introduction to Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral as a masterful example of real-life reading response for her “Response to Literature” chapter. I was happy to discover it there, but it was only when I started reading forewards to re-issued classic children’s books, such as Anna Quindlen’s “Appreciation” to the 2007 edition of Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Timethat I began to consider the possibilities of studying forewards as a genre.

Writers of forewards and appreciations explore the meaning a book held for them, while also summarizing and talking about elements such as characters and themes. They also usually include a memoir-ish vignette about reading the book for the first time and they frequently touch on the reasons why we read, as Michael Chabon does here in his foreward to the 50th Anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. “Milo’s journey, Chabon writes,

. . . was mine as a reader, and my journey was his, and ours was the journey of all readers venturing into wonderful books, into a world made entirely, like Juster’s, of language, by language, about language. While you were there, everything seems fraught and new and notable, and when you returned . . . the ‘real world’ seemed deeper, richer at once explained and, paradoxically, more mysterious than ever.

To try on forewards, I like to invite older students to think about a book they loved as a child—whether it’s The Cat in the Hat, Captain Underpants, or Tuck Everlasting—and re-read it to try to better understand the magic it once held for them (and perhaps holds even still). These books are clearly not on the complexity band for these students’ grade level, but I’d like to make a case for this being an example of the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which helps students practice the kind of critical thinking they need to do at their grade level with an accessible text that ultimately helps them write about more complex texts.

All three ideas also help students deeply engage with writing—and for that reason alone, they’re great.