Literacy Lessons: Content and Structure

Before presenting his students with a textbook on Weather and Water (see Managing Texts), my cooperating teacher oriented his seventh-grade students to the subject matter by having them take seven minutes and write down two to three sentences on what they knew about weather. After the seven minutes was up, the teacher went around the room asking students to share their understandings and reflections. In addition to highlighting his class’ previous knowledge on the subject of weather, this exercise allows students to see the purpose of the unit, and it also provides a reference point for all other knowledge-building exercises to come.

On the following day, students were instructed to describe the weather outside as a part of their daily warm up. When the students finished writing, the teacher told them that the work they had been doing for the past few minutes was called “making observations,” and that they, without even realizing it, had been acting like scientists. Now this large, seemingly unimportant word, “observations,” was a major part of their daily learning, and their practiced scientific behavior. This introduction a new word coupled with a new way of viewing the world and themselves was a beautiful example of creating captivation between students and subject matter.

All the reading that is done in class is done aloud. This serves many purposes, not the least of which is creating an environment of dialogicality that allows students to freely ask questions about the material as they occur. Students volunteer to take turns reading one or two paragraphs of the assigned reading aloud, and after each reader there is a brief pause for the purpose of asking questions or making comments. These questions and comments will often trail slightly off topic, but in large part they will still orbit around the topics outlined in the reading. By encouraging students to constantly make observations, reflections, and questions about the reading, the teacher allows his class to make personal connections with the material and create a spirit of inquiry powered by what matters most to them.

I think that what I admired most about how my cooperating teacher structured the content and structure of his lesson is that he made sure to include time for his students to reflect. Before and after every reading, students are given time to reflect on what they know and what they learned. These reflections take the form of simple Think Write prompts, or of more complex worksheets. Even more remarkable, before and after every exercise—be it worksheet, discussion, or writing and reflecting—the class would come together and reflect as a whole on what they felt about the exercise, if it was useful, and how well they performed it as a class. Reflection formed the backbone of this classroom’s content and structure, and it made a perfect point for branching off into approaching literacy.

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Dialogical Writing/Reading

Dialogical Writing, or “Chaining,” is a technique that uses a series of statements clarified by prompts in order to generate text that flows, has clear voice, and is direct in focus. To perform this exercise, first divide a sheet of paper into two columns: “Statement” and “Prompt.” In the Statement column, make a clear, factual statement. Across from this statement, under Prompt, create a prompt that will elaborate, restate, extend or enhance this initial statement. (NOTE: The task of creating prompts appears quite often in these resources, and for good reason, as good questions always lie at the heart of good writing.) Now create a second statement to address this first prompt. Continue making this chain until you, acting now as both author and audience, feel that the point has been made. I have provided an example below. I have connected statements and prompts with red arrows to show the flow of “dialogue.”

Now I take all the statements, tweak them a bit, combine them, and get this:

Bees are important pollinators. They pollinate almost one-third of the world’s crops, which means that one out of every three bites a person takes is directly due to pollination by bees. Although it is a common misconception that commodities like meat do not require pollination, meat comes from cows, and cows eat alfalfa, and alfalfa requires bees in order to propagate and survive. While wind and other animals can aid in pollination, bees are the most necessary pollinators because they are the only animal that gets all of their required nutrients exclusively from flowers. Bees get their proteins from a mixture of flower pollen they make called “bee bread,” so while other animals need meat or vegetables to get protein, bees need only flowers to live. Bees are so necessary that without them, there would be a massive decline in crops and flowering plants. Coffee, chocolate, and almost all fruits would disappear from grocery stores. Unfortunately, overuse of pesticides and a lack of variety of flower pollen on farms may lead to the extinction of many species of bees, which could result in the realization of this bleak reality.

This piece of writing could have come off as stiff and unaccessible, but now it reads more openly and with a tighter, more direct flow. Also, the writing is formulated much easier using this method because it originates as simple, direct dialogue instead of halted, elevated prose. This same exercise can be performed backwards, with a piece of writing being dialogically dissected in order to access the author’s meaning and supporting arguments. For example, take these two paragraphs from the book, Spatial Hearing: The Psychophysics of Human Sound Localization by Jens Blauert (1997):

Now, spatial hearing and psychophysics are two things I admittedly know nothing about, but by using dialogical reading on this piece I can better understand what the author is trying to say: