What's the Main Idea?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

     I'll be honest.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the main idea was the first sentence of the paragraph.  And, most of the time, that actually seems to work out.  Sometimes, however, it doesn't.  When that is the case, what am I to do?!?!?

     Most of the classrooms in our building are currently working on non-fiction texts in reading, and a big part of that is determining the main idea of what they have read.  The Calkins units spend a few mini lessons on determining main idea and details, but it is becoming obvious that more modeling and gradual release is going to be necessary.  Children all over the building are struggling with this concept.  They are eager to point out the facts that are interesting to them, but they have a very difficult time coming up with what was most important.

     I found a lovely anchor chart on Pinterest.  What I love about it is that is shows the connection between main idea and details AND summarizing.  They both fall under the umbrella strategy of Determining Importance, and they are both skills that our students struggle with.  It is very hard for them to read non-fiction, especially with all the vocabulary, text structures, and features that they need to navigate through.  They also sometimes need the reminder that non-fiction readers read with a different purpose than fictional readers do.   All these things can make finding the main idea a struggle.  

     What can we do as teachers?  I can't stress enough the gradual release model.  
I Do!
We Do! 
You Do!
     The more we walk our students through the process, and help them see that the main idea needs to be supported with specific supporting details from the text, the more likely they are to start to do it independently.  That might begin by helping them determine the TOPIC of a piece of text, then the MAIN IDEA, and then the SUPPORTING DETAILS.   While it sounds simple to us, finding the single topic of a text is hard for many kids.
       Another thing to consider is making an anchor chart that the students both help you create, and can refer back to when reading independently.  There are many things that you can include on an anchor chart, but some things that you might want to make it kid friendly might be a graphic of some sort, and simple steps to find the main idea and supporting details.  Here are some more ideas from Pinterest.

     I was in 4BEBL yesterday and today, and saw a few of their mini lessons on main idea that gave me some insight on some strategies that might work well.  Miss Betz had the kids bring their computers to the meeting area, and they all had a non-fiction article on their screen.  She had them focus on one single paragraph of the article, which happened to be about the meaning of the word "volcano."  She had them turn and talk to a partner about the main idea.  When they turned back and she had them share the main ideas they discussed, it seemed that most thought the main idea was how volcanoes are formed.  Perhaps they meant how the word was created, but the way they stated it seemed to imply that they were talking about the actual geologic formation of volcanoes.  She didn't just tell them the "real" main idea.  She then gave them the choice between 2 main ideas:
1.  Where volcanoes came from 
2.  How "volcano" got its name
     Once again, she had them turn and talk, but this time they had to find the supporting details for either one of these claims.  Turns out, no one could find anything to support the first main idea possibility.  :)  While it was elsewhere in the article, it was not in the paragraph that was in front of them.  

     The thing that became glaringly obvious while I was sitting on the carpet as part of her lesson, working with my partners, was how much guidance they needed to use the text to support their answers.  They really need for us to give them think time, to make them go back and find the support, and to talk things out with a partner.  While main idea falls into Standard 2, it also requires Standard 1.  Using the Boxes and Bullets strategy that Calkins suggests on her dry erase board, Miss Betz was able to guide them to the main idea.  Perhaps next time, they will be able to find their way independently.  If not, she will guide them until they can.

     Using the text features to help determine (or defend) their main idea is a great way for our students to really use what the author gives us to learn.  Students often read headings, captions, fact boxes, labels, titles, etc. without much thought, or skip them all together.  If we teach them to use these features to either predict the main idea before reading, or perhaps support their claims after read, they will use the features more effectively.  Often times they will also pick up key domain specific words that are used in the features.  All the supporting details need to be found in the actual text, though, so make sure they don't just look at the non-fiction features alone.  :)

     What do Tim and Moby have to say about main idea?  Brain Pop shows a nice video where they use the topic to determine the main idea.  

     Here is a short, interactive Main Idea tutorial that you could use in a mini lesson, with a strategy group, or perhaps posted to your eChalk page as review.

Bottom Line:Why do our kids need to find the main idea?

     Perhaps finding the main idea in a random article doesn't seem that important in the grand scheme of things.  However, determining what is important is.  With the Common Core Standards, we are expecting our children to really think deeply and find their own meaning in texts (and across multiple texts).  They can't do that without knowing what the text actually said in the first place.  How can you make your own meaning, formulate new questions, or create new understandings if you can't even come up with a single sentence about what the whole text was about?  It is the place to start with informational text before all other ideas can be found.  Well, that is my humble opinion anyway.   :)


Teaching Theme

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Literature Anchor Standard 2:
Determine the central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; 
summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

     Standard 2 is a critical standard, in my opinion.  Not all common core standards are created equally. I feel that standards 1, 2 and 3 provide the foundation necessary for our students to be independent learners.  They learn the skills necessary for later standards in the first three (text support, main idea/theme, character).  Standards 4-6 focus on Craft and Structure, and Standards 7-9 on Integration of Knowledge and Ideas.  If students know standards 1-3 and use them to support standards 4-9, we really start to see deeper thinking.

     The literature half of standard 2 talks about central ideas and themes in a story.  I like to call them the Big Ideas, because then you start to cross the literature/ informational border.  Just like we did in character trait development, I think the first place to start theme is by helping our students create the vocabulary they need.  They won't have the terms for big ideas/ themes just waiting for us to ask.  They need to be modeled at first.  We need to help them build single word themes as a starting point.

     One way to introduce themes is through read aloud.  If you have read your book as usual, but start and end the lesson with a theme board visible, it starts to focus the kids on the new terms.  Start your theme board off with just one or two themes, and then each day, as you read, slowly build the list as the stories you read reveal them.  I often like to add themes in pairs, like love/hate, life/death, etc., because many books actually have both visible in the text.  The theme board below is one we used with our study of fables.  Fables are short, yet filled with big ideas and themes to explore.

     You can see that some of the themes are nouns, but some are almost lessons learned.  Theme is sometimes seen as single words, and sometimes seen as almost the lesson or moral learned.  I think a good starting place is to give the kids the vocabulary of the single word themes, because they can always be turned into a lesson/moral learned.  My 2nd graders were able, by the end of the year, to come up with the big ideas/ themes but still struggled with creating generalized lessons from them.  Your students will determine what they are ready for.  

     The anchor chart above hangs in 5DEAV.  Mrs. DeCaire and Mrs. Avila had the students create cards with the themes they found in their independent reading books to create the chart.  When they came back to the meeting place after the lesson, they discussed the themes as a class and grouped them near each other on the chart.  The categorization process can really help move the students along in their thinking and start to see patterns and relationships in their books.  

     There is a good video from the Teaching Channel that also shows a possible progression of theme instruction.  It is a middle school class, but it gives some good opportunities for students to discuss theme, write themes, and even act them out.  They used excerpts from their past read alouds, and then used fairy tales as well.  I think teaching the theme using real texts to model them is a great way for the learning to happen.  The scaffolding they do can be modified for younger grades just by changing the texts and the delivery of the material.  Their use of cooperative learning and discussion would be great for our students in D100.

     I found one teacher's (Angela Bunyi's) way of teaching the theme as "THE MEssage", where she has the students turn that single key word into a message that you can apply to your own life.  Many of my students struggled with this part of theme, because they tried to make the lesson very specific to the book.   If they can learn to be less book specific and more generalizable, our students will really start to be able to see themes across books and compare them.

     One other great piece from Angela Bunyi's post was her chart about how to connect their work with character traits to the theme.  Like I said earlier, the common core standards work TOGETHER.  When our students notice character traits and use them to determine central themes, we are moving closer to independent close reading.

Here is her article from Scholastic:

     Here is a list of possible themes to consider when making your theme board.  I struggled a bit last year determining what was a true theme, and what wasn't.  Honestly, my board above has things that I don't think I would actually classify as a theme.  However, my children created the board with me, and it validated their thinking.  It is a work in progress.  Hopefully this document will help you on your theme journey.
List of Possible Themes in Literary Works.doc - comp colts

Books that Matter

Sunday, January 5, 2014

     The literacy coaches and I have had many conversations recently about close reading, and what it is, how to do it, our concerns about it, and the value of it.  I have also had very lengthy phone conversations over the break with Anne Kruder, the literacy coach from Piper and my co-presenter for the now postponed Institute Day session on close reading with 2nd and 3rd graders.  She has really helped me to pinpoint exactly what my hopes are for teaching students to close read.  With the help of Anne, and my guy Christopher Lehman, I have come to an epiphany.


I want students to find books that matter to them.  

     Sounds simple, right?  With the reading workshop push, kids are reading independently for 40-60 minutes a day.  They are building their stamina and becoming independent readers. Our F&P data shows that the kids are making progress and moving up levels.  They are doing it!

     My question is, after all those F&P tests, I have gotten quite concerned with the number of children who are progressing through the levels, but only have limited comprehension of what they read.  If their fluency is above 98%, many of our students only need limited comprehension to pass to the next book. I suppose that is fine, say, if they are reading a book about snakes that the teacher assigned to them with the task of finding facts about how snakes hunt.  They will be able to do that with limited comprehension, because they will hopefully use the book to find it.  But, will the kid with limited comprehension read Charlotte's Web on their own and cry when Charlotte dies?  Or when her spiderlings stay back with Wilbur?  That's the part that always gets me...  

I want kids to cry when they read Charlotte's Web.  
Is that so wrong?  

     In all seriousness, if kids feel something while reading a book, they are reading closely.  They are noticing the details.  They are seeing the significance of events.  They know a character's motivation.  They make a connection to the character's life, and it drives their comprehension of the story.  That does not happen independently unless the book matters to the students.  I want them to find books that will change their life in some way.  Just a small handful of life changing books will do for now...

     Here is my challenge:
     What are the books that changed your life?  When we talk about finding books that matter to students, what books mattered to you?  In your life, which books somehow shaped your thinking, for the worse or for the better?  In the spirit of 2014, here are fourteen books that changed my life, in no particular order.

1.  A Separate Peace, by John Knowles
2.  The Outsiders, by SE Hinton
3.  Native Son, by Richard Wright
4.  The Value Tales biography series, by Spencer Johnson
5.  Island of the Skog, by Steven Kellogg
6.  The Babysitter Club Books, by Ann M Martin
7.  Christopher Pike mystery novels
8.  Snowflakes Fall, by Patricia MacLachlin and Steven Kellogg
9.  Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
10.  Summer Sisters, by Judy Blume
11.  Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
12. From Here to Eternity, by James Jones
13. Savage Inequalities, by Richard Kozol
14.  I'll Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch

     Some of you are probably thinking, "Really?  That book?"  Or perhaps, "What is that book?"  The truth of the matter is that books pick us.  If we read them at times in our life where, for some reason, we read closely and look for deeper meaning, they will stay with us.  The list above seems like a random mix of children's books and adult novels.  In the list are books that made me cry, rather hard and sometimes in public.  Books that introduced me the themes that I had not experienced in my own life.  Books that I related to wholeheartedly.  Books that made me see perspectives of others.  Books that I devoured and made me the reader (and person) that I am today.

     When we do finally talk about close reading, and what it is, remember what it is not.  It is not test prep.  It is making our students see that books can be thought about, and new ideas can be had from them.  Books can change your life.

     What books have changed yours?