Finding the author’s purpose

AuthorsPurpose

This post is the final post in a three-part series based on my learning from the book Reading Nonfiction as well as recent PD that I attended that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst.  In the first post, “How do we take them further?” I talked about those 3 questions that should guide our thinking when reading nonfiction:

  • What surprised me?
  • What did the author think I already knew?
  • What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

When we get our students to think about these three questions as they are reading nonfiction, they will notice more, question more, and dig deeper into the text.

In last week’s post, “Defining Nonfiction” I wrote about how we define nonfiction.  I first shared a word cloud based on our own definitions of nonfiction reading:

Nonfiction_definition_wordle

But we then transitioned to a much deeper definition of nonfiction:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To be able to truly dig deeply into a nonfiction text, we must understand the author’s purpose.  In this post I’m going to be sharing with you a couple of the signposts that Beers and Probst recommended as a starting point to really get our students thinking about the author’s purpose.

The first signpost that Beers and Probst shared with us specifically during our PD was the concept of Contrasts and Contradictions.  For those of you who have been using the Notice and Note to teach fiction reading strategies, this one should sound familiar.  In fiction you look for things that the characters do that contrasts or contradicts what you might expect.  In nonfiction we should notice if the author shows us “a difference between what you know and what is happening in the text, or a difference between two or more things in the text.”

Think about it for a second.  If you are reading a news story, and it contradicts something that you have seen in a different story, or something that you believe you already know, that is going to give you pause.  When you stop to think about those differences, you might come to the conclusion that an author is trying to change your opinion – this is a hint of what the author’s purpose might be.  Remember, our students can’t just think of nonfiction as not fake.  Our students have to have that questioning stance so that they can be a bit skeptical of the opinions being shared.

Once we recognize the signpost for contrasts and contradictions, students then need to take it a step further – just noticing the signpost doesn’t get the level of inquiry we want.  Next we need our students to ask themselves a question about that signpost.  I love the chart on page 121 of Reading Nonfiction because it shows anchor questions for different levels of students, or questions that could be asked in the content areas.  The most basic anchor question for this signpost would simply be “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper anchor question might be “What is the difference and why does it matter?”

The other signpost that Beers and Probst said was so important in finding the author’s purpose was Extreme or Absolute Language.  This is defined as language that “leaves no doubt about a situation or an event, allows no compromise, or seems to exaggerate or overstate a case.”  Virtually any statement that includes the words all or none would be an example.  It seems this year that you can’t listen to a political speech or read an article about the presidential race that doesn’t include some form of extreme or absolute language.  The extreme language can range from obvious and probably harmless to the subtle and potentially dangerous.  Take the following 3 statements that many of us may have heard at some point:

  • It’s freezing out there!
  • You have to let me go to that party! Everyone is going to be there!
  • Simply stated, we know that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.

As you can see, the first statement is probably pretty harmless, the second might give the parent of a teenager pause to think about whether or not it is appropriate for their child to attend the party, but that last one is an example that led to the loss of many lives and history has come to show us it was not accurate.  We need our students to understand that when they encounter language that is extreme or absolute, they need to “be alerted either to the strength of the author’s feelings or to the possibility that the writer is exaggerating and may even be deceiving or misleading the reader.”

Just like with any other signpost, simply noticing it is not enough.  We need to continue to remind our students to stop and think about the anchor question.  Just like with the contrasts and contradictions signpost, the most basic anchor question is “What does this make me wonder about?” while a deeper version could be “Why did the author use this language?”  Again, you can see content specific anchor questions on the chart on page 121.

Between teaching our students about the importance of a questioning stance when reading nonfiction, a true and accurate definition of nonfiction, and at least a couple of the signposts, our students will have the tools they need to be able to read deeply, think deeply, and understand an author’s purpose.  It is so important for our students to develop these skills not only so that they will be successful in school, but also so that they can be productive members of a democratic society.  If we don’t teach our students to have a questioning stance, they will believe whatever they see on the news, no matter whether it is ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, or any of the other multitude of news outlets that are out there.  I love this following quote from page 32 in Reading Nonfiction:

“Far more important than the ability to capture a teacher’s information and thoughts is the ability to acquire information on ones’ own, to test ideas against one another, and to decide for one’s self what notions have merit and which should be rejected or abandoned.”

We need thinkers who can listen to political speeches and read political writings and decide who will best serve their needs.  We need students who can look at the writings of a so-called nonprofit and decipher if a donation will be used in a meaningful way.  Instead of accepting what they are told, our students “need to develop intellectual standards that open them up to new possibilities and challenging ideas and give them the courage and resilience to change their minds when they see persuasive reasons to do so.”

Share with us your thoughts on the importance of nonfiction reading.  Why do you feel understanding nonfiction is important for our students?  What have you noticed about student’s thinking as you push out a questioning stance and the nonfiction strategies?  Let us know about them in the comments below!

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Defining nonfiction

Think back to when you were in school.  We all learned the difference between fiction and nonfiction, but take a moment to think about how you would define that term for your students.  I specifically remember one of my teachers reminding us that NF stood for nonfiction and not fake.  Last week I asked you to share your own definition of nonfiction in 5 words or less.  Here’s a word cloud I created based on the definitions you all shared:

Nonfiction_definition_wordle

You’ll notice as you look at this that the terms that appeared most in our definitions were informational, factual, facts, and real.

As we all know, when reading a nonfiction text, we cannot always accept everything at 100% factual.  Think of just about any controversial topic.  You can find nonfiction pieces written in support of and against global warming, evolution, or the risks of tobacco use.  Does that mean that both sides of the story are true?  Or are they both lying to us?  Most of the time, it’s much more nuanced than that.

For a variety of reasons, authors may omit information, tell us little white lies, or manipulate their research and data.  The reality is that nonfiction can be so challenging because it forces us to interact with the text in ways that fiction never expect us to do.  As Beers and Probst say, we must understand when reading nonfiction that “the author is not offering the truth, but one vision of the truth.”  Sometimes a nonfiction author will go so far as to explicitly tell us the inference they want us to make.  The author wants us to accept their version as the truth without questioning, but we must think about the purpose the author has for writing.

This brings us to the question, how do we really define nonfiction?  I love the definition that Beers and Probst put forth, and is much deeper than the definition I was given of “not fake”:

Nonfiction is that body of work in which the author purports to tell us about the real world, a real experience, a real person, an idea, or a belief.

To me, the key word here is purports.  Every author has a purpose in their writing, and depending on that purpose they may lead us to conclusions that we wouldn’t generally make if we were in possession of all the facts.  This definition reminds us of the importance of reading with a questioning stance.

By seeking the author’s purpose while we are reading, we will be better able to look at nonfiction and understand why an author made the choices they did.  If you want to see a great example of an article that can be used to look at author’s purpose, take a look at “Vampires Prey on Panama” found on page 261 of Reading Nonfiction.  As you read the article, pay close attention to the words that are used to describe the farmer compared to the words that are used to describe the scientist.  Who’s the antagonist?  Who’s the hero?  Why does the author choose to write in this way?  If our students learn to have that questioning stance as they read nonfiction, they will be better at identifying the author’s purpose.

The nonfiction signposts will also help our students to get the author’s purpose.  During our PD with Beers and Probst last week, they identified 2 signposts in particular that help us better understand the author’s purpose.  I’ll share with you a little about each of those signposts next week.

In the past week it’s been great seeing so many of the teachers in our building working to integrate the 3 main questions that were the basis of my post last week.  So I’m curious, how do you define nonfiction for your students?  I’d also love to hear more about how you have been implementing the questions into subject areas other than reading, or what you’ve noticed about the thinking that your students are doing as a result of these questions.  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How do we take them further?

Reading NonfictionOn Monday I was able to attend a PD session that was led by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst, and one of the things they said early in our day struck a chord with me:

“Some teachers don’t realize that if they just stay out of the way, the kids who do well will keep doing well.  How do we take them further?”

This is such a challenge in our district.  Most of our classes are filled with compliant students who generally do what we ask them to do, they show gains in the normal way, and then they move on to the next grade.  But is that what we want for our students?  Show gains in the normal way?  Don’t we want them to gain spectacularly in the time we have them?  For most of these students, they will hit a wall sometime.  It might be a high school AP class, it might not be until college, and there may be some who can get by until they are out in the “real world” in their job/career.  But eventually their act of going through the motions won’t be enough because they won’t be able to truly think deeply and problem solve.

I think we can all agree that nonfiction reading skills are important.  But research shows us that strong nonfiction reading skills are one of the highest indicators of success.  Unless you’re a literary critic, a novelist, or a teacher (I know, we’re teachers), you probably only read fiction as an escape, but you read nonfiction every day.  That means our kids need the tools to be able to dig deep in the text, think through the text, and figure it out.

And here’s one of the amazing things – if you teach the kids the tools, and you give them the time to read a text, think deeply about it, and talk with each other, they will start asking themselves the same questions (or possibly even better questions) than the ones you would be asking.  During the PD, Probst said “Our goal should be to get our students to be able to have deep conversations about their reading without needing our help.”  Don’t you love the idea of students walking out of the building at the end of the day so tired because of all the deep thinking they have been doing, and you walk out with a smile on your face?  Our students should be doing the hard work, not us.

Too often as teachers we spend our time filling in the blanks for our students, and that is hard work!  We give them the background knowledge, we ask the questions, and then what do we get back?  Low level answers without much deep thinking.  When you ask the question, that leads our students to believe that there is one answer, and if they’re lucky they can find it in the back of the book – that’s how school works, and we all know our students can play school.  But if students were to ask those same questions, on their own, the conversations will be so much deeper.

Sound good?  I think so, but where do we start?  Beers and Probst suggested that the initial starting point would be with their 3 main questions:

  1. What surprised me?
  2. What did the author think I already knew?
  3. What changed, challenged, or confirmed what I knew?

As your students are reading, have them code what they read (this means you need something that they can write on, some post its, or a digital format that they can annotate).  Beers recommended using an exclamation point for question 1, a question mark for question 2, and the letter c for question 3.  Then, after they have read, have them talk in small groups about their thinking.

Next week I plan to go a little deeper with some more of the information that Beers and Probst shared on Monday, but as you get your year rolling, start with the 3 questions.  These 3 simple questions will make the reading more personal and relevant.  It will push thinking and learning to a much deeper level! (If you want to see a great video of where these questions can push students, scan the QR code on page 88 of your copy of Reading Nonfiction – it’s a 3 minute video clip of 6th graders in a 1:1 classroom).

If you haven’t yet read the book Reading Nonfiction by Beers and Probst, I can’t recommend it highly enough.  There is so much there to take your reading instruction to a greater level, and this instruction can take place in ALL classrooms.  We all use nonfiction reading skills in our lives, no matter what subject we teach, to help ourselves increase our knowledge and understanding.  Let’s help our students develop the skills to be more successful nonfiction readers.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.  Have you used the 3 questions in your nonfiction instruction?  What changed for your students?  What things were great?  What struggles did you have?  As a community of teachers, we are also a community of learners, and we can learn most from one another!

Teaching Conflict Management

Last year when we surveyed teachers on the topics they would like to look into as part of the Professional Development for the 2016-2017 school year, some of you chose to “write-in” a topic that you would like to learn more about.  One of the write-ins was:

“Problem solving social situations, especially with friends, recess, lunchtime, specials, etc.”

Learn Like a PirateWhile there are ways that we could probably take that idea and turn it into a PD Topic, I thought that I would give some tools that you might be able to use in the classroom the first time that you see a situation of conflict develop – my goal here is to provide you with a right now strategy.  I can’t claim this idea – the majority of this post is based on ideas from the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Salarz (@PaulSalarz).  Mr. Solarz is a fifth grade teacher in the Chicago area and runs a student-led classroom.  There are so many tips in the book to help guide students to collaborate, be empowered, and take leadership in their own learning.  I highly recommend it!!!  The following ideas come from the Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Conflict section on page 56.

In a classroom where you are integrating student voice and student choice and allowing opportunities for students to collaborate there will invariably be some type of disagreement.  We’ve all seen it happen – Tommy and Jeff partner up.  Everyone (including them) knows this is a bad idea.  One strategy would be to break them up before they even have a chance to start working.  However, in a collaborative community, everyone needs to learn how to work with everyone.  Not only will it help your classroom run more smoothly, it’s an important lifelong skill!

We all know what happens next…  If you allow them to work, before long there’s a disagreement.  Our reaction can make or break this situation.  Instead of saying that this is what you knew would happen, and separate them, what if you gave them the tools to find a solution on their own?  What an awesome opportunity to turn this situation into a teachable moment – not just for Tommy and Jeff, but for the whole class.  Here’s what you could do:

  1. Get the entire class’s attention – “Give me five!”, hands up, or whatever strategy you use in your classroom.
  2. With a sincere smile on your face, look at Tommy and Jeff and thank them for having a little bit of trouble because it gives you the opportunity to teach everyone how simple it can be to get through conflicts.
  3. Ask the boys to describe what happened, then teach the whole class the following strategies (you might even consider making an anchor chart for this skill to post in the room – or even better, have the students make the anchor chart!):

Lets settle thisRock-Paper-Scissors: Do you know how many arguments my friends and I have avoided with a simple game of rock-paper-scissors?  When your students can’t decide who gets what job, or what color the background should be on a poster, a single round of rock-paper-scissors can be just the perfect way to find a solution!

Compromise: Take a portion of each person’s idea and combine them together.  (“I want to watch the video clip first.” “But I think we need to plan our poster design.” “Why don’t we plan our poster design right after we watch the video!?”).  Hopefully they can find a solution that makes them both happy!

Choose Kind: Sometimes the best solution to conflict is just to do what the other person wants because it’s also a good idea!  As the quote from Dr. Wayne Dwyer goes: “When given a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”  Winning an argument while also hurting a classmate does not help the class win.  This summer I began using the phrase Choose Kind with my children (7 and 4 years old). It’s amazing to see how often they have been choosing kind to solve their disagreements.

The earlier you can teach these strategies to your class, the sooner they can begin to implement them.  Once students understand the process, these steps can be used even when you aren’t there – the lunch room, hallways, recess, etc.  If you don’t run into a conflict after a few days, then you might want to role play a scenario.  The sooner these strategies are introduced, the better!

As with any other strategy, we have to be ready to reinforce the use.  You can’t just introduce it once and then assume they all know it and will be successful.  Every time you notice a conflict, make sure students know you are aware (proximity, a concerned smile, etc.), but don’t just jump in and solve the problem.  Give them a little time to see if they will come to a resolution on their own.  For this strategy to truly be effective, the students have to come to use it on their own.

After you witness students come to a resolution, let them know how proud you are of how they handled it, and see if they would be willing to share their experience with the class.  If they are, have them act it out so the whole class can learn from the situation.  If students don’t want to share, that’s ok too!  They may be shy or embarrassed by what happened.

If students can’t get past the conflict on their own, then you might have to gently remind them of the conflict-management strategies to help them move on (this is where that anchor chart could be really handy!).  It’s also ok if another student steps in to help with finding a solution.  What a sign of good collaboration!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  Could these strategies work in your room?  What else have you done that’s been successful?  Conflict can be such a distraction and sticking point that we can all use some good new ideas!