Tools to Compare and Contrast: Some Alternatives to the You-Know-What

Quick, what's the first thing you think of when I say, "compare and contrast?"

Okay, let's hear it. Who said, "Venn diagram?"

I'm wondering how you truly feel about Venn diagrams. Maybe you love them. Maybe you use them with great success. For me, I have mixed feelings about them. Cover your ears, John Venn, inventor of those overlapping circles. I have a love/hate relationship with you.

Venn diagrams make me a bit anxious. On one hand, I really do like them as a symbol, because it's such a universal sign for comparing and contrasting. But on the other hand, I find them limiting (and sometimes even--GASP--a hindrance) for recording thinking in an organized and deep way. My biggest beefs are (1), that darn middle area is always too awkward or too small to write in, and (2), the outer areas I find difficult to keep organized.

Now I don't want to come across as totally anti-Venn. But I do want to toss out some alternatives, because in trying to provide students with "vehicles" to tackle this skill of comparing and contrasting, Venn Diagrams will usually take them somewhere, but what follows may take them further, or take them through a different lens, or from a different angle. So here are some ways to compare and contrast two (or more) topics without a Venn Diagram.

1. "Everybody and Nobody"

The "Everybody and Nobody" strategy plays on the idea that some similarities and differences are pretty obvious, and some are not. So I like to ask students to find a similarity and a difference that everybody would think of, and then find a similarity and a difference that nobody would think of. I like this strategy because it has built-in differentiation. Often, my struggling students will succeed in finding great "everybody" similarities and differences, and my higher students enjoy the challenge of finding the unique "nobody" similarities and differences. The following notebook page is one way I've had students organize this strategy in writing.

2. T-Chart

I love T-charts. I love the versatility of T-charts, and how you don't need a "form" for it--students can just draw one. Kristina Smekens has a T-chart strategy that I really like for comparing and contrasting. It actually has 3 columns, the left and the right for the two topics being compared, and the middle column to identify the feature on which each row focuses. Use it to compare informational topics, whole stories, or specific elements like characters or settings. Here's an example I made for the main character in two winter stories:

3. Analogies

It's only been recently that I've really started using analogies with my students as a means of comparing and contrasting. I use this strategy more often with literature than informational text. With an analogy, students take an element or idea from the text and compare/contrast it with something seemingly unrelated, from outside of the text.

For example, I'm reading The City of Ember to my third graders, and the other day I stopped and asked my kids, "How is Doon (one of the main characters) like a fork?" Now I got some seriously crooked heads and confused looks at first. But after thinking and talking, we actually came up with several ways Doon was similar to a fork: he can be a bit sharp with his words, like a fork has some sharp parts; and Doon is good at trying to solve problems, like a fork is a tool that can help you solve the problem of picking up food. After we also discussed ways Doon was not like a fork, I then asked, "If Doon is like a fork, which utensil is Lina (the other main character) the most like?"

Analogies can be a bit tricky because they can often fall apart quickly, and some students really struggle to think in those nonliteral ways, but an analogy can also really push your students to think differently than they are used to doing.

4. "The Differences Within"

Here's a strategy that's probably not brand new to the world, but here's my take on it. It embraces the fact that often two topics will have a similarity on one level, but within that similarity are differences. And so identifying that similarity is important, because it serves as a framework to dig deeper to discover differences. My students were doing this just a few days ago with an historical fiction text where the character visited a cotton field and a cotton factory. We used "The Differences Within" strategy to compare and contrast her observations. For example, in both settings people handled cotton, but within this similarity are differences, like how in the cotton field, the workers picked the cotton with their hands, but in the factory, the workers used machines to turn the cotton into yarn. On the following notebook page, you can get a sense of the strategy's structure, with the similarity being a larger box, and the two smaller boxes inside it meant for the differences.

5. Matrix Chart

When you are trying to compare and contrast several things, a matrix chart is really helpful. It's basically like a spreadsheet, with several rows, one for each topic to compare, and several columns, one for each way you are comparing. My math students used this strategy when we were comparing and contrasting features of three-dimensional shapes. I've found that while students are actually filling out the chart, it's difficult for them to be thinking of similarities and differences amongst their topics. But after they have the completed chart and they can step back and use it as a tool, it can help students notice things they may not have otherwise noticed.

Alright, now don't get me wrong: I've been known to criss-cross some hula hoops on the board and slap some post-its inside of them a time or two (wink, wink, Mr. Venn). But hopefully you've now got another tool or two to pull out with your students for comparing and contrasting.

My 10 Favorite 'Old Guy' Characters

I love a good list. And I love a good children's book. So I thought I'd put together a list of my ten favorite "old guy" characters from children's literature. Why old guys, you ask? Well who doesn't love the old guy? Whether he be cranky or gentle or wise or forgetful... the old guy almost always adds something special to a story.

A couple of notes about my list: You'll see that my list is "picture-book heavy." I have only two old guys from novels. That's mainly because I teach third grade, so I use picture books more often than novels. Also, I don't claim this list to be comprehensive of all children's literature, or claim these characters to be the "best" at anything... I just like them a lot, as well as the books in which they appear.

So without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my ten favorite old guy characters from children's books:

George Baker
from Mr. George Baker, by Amy Hest
Have you met George? Oh my, he's a hundred years old and boy does he know how to dance! George and the young boy who lives next door have something very special in common on which they are both working hard. I love reading this book on the first day of school!

Francisco's Abuelo
from A Day's Work, by Eve Bunting
If you need a model of integrity and honesty, Francisco's grandfather is a great choice. Even with so many other factors that could easily cause him to compromise his integrity, he remains true to who he is and to what is right. Man, I love that old guy.

The Old Man
from The Tin Forest, by Helen Ward and Wayne Anderson
This guy is determined! Even living in the middle of a place full of garbage and forgotten things, when most of us might choose to resign ourselves to our circumstances, the old man from The Tin Forest is still a dreamer. But he's more than that--he's a doer.

The Old Sailor
from The Wreck of the Zephyr, by Chris Van Allsburg
Oooh, I can't get enough of Chris Van Allsburg. Am I right, or am I right? The Wreck of the Zephyr may not be one of his most famous books, but it's one of my favorites because of the mysterious old sailor that is such a gooooood story teller.

Lonesome John
from The Scarebird, by Sid Fleischman
Oh my, if you are looking for a character that grows and changes, Lonesome John might be the perfect choice. I love how this old guy transforms through subtle choices and actions. There's just so much "meat on the bone" with this story. Especially great for upper elementary.

Mr. McGreely
from Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!, by Candace Fleming
Now some might say that Mr. McGreely is not old enough to be included on this list, but hey, his age is a bit vague, and he's bald, so that counts for something, right? And he sure is grumpy enough to be an old guy! This is one of my favorite books to use in the spring, largely due to Mr. MrGreely's insulting, yet funny remarks toward the bunnies who try to eat his garden veggies. Especially great for lower elementary.

Grandpa Green
from Grandpa Green, by Lane Smith
You are going to love this character, trust me. What's funny is, we, as the readers, hardly get to interact with him at all. But the way Grandpa Green's great grandson describes him, you can't help but love him. Oh, and the illustrations are unbelievable, too.

Amos McGee
from A Sick Day for Amos McGee, by Philip C. Stead
When you think "gentle old man," who do you picture? Is it Amos? Maybe not, but he would definitely fit the bill. You'd probably walk past him on the sidewalk and say, "Aww, what a cute old feller." Well, at least maybe until you saw the elephant and rhinoceros following him home. 

The Giver
from The Giver, by Lois Lowry
I realize this book is on MANY people's "favorite book" lists, including mine, but for me it's because of the Giver character--wow, how did you come up with this guy, Lois? I'm amazed by him every time I read the story.

from The Cay, by Theodore Taylor
And to wrap up the list, we have Timothy. Though he comes from modest roots, he is such a symbol of both strength and selflessness. I remember reading this story in seventh grade, in awe of Timothy, trying to wrap my mind around what exactly it would take to do what Timothy does for Philip. Powerful stuff.

* * *

So that's it. My ten favorite old guys from children's literature. I hope you grow to love them as much as I have. Now it's your turn. Which old guys did I miss? Who are your favorites that did not show up on my list? I'd love to hear!

Mini-Lessons, Super Bowl Style!

Why do you really watch the Super Bowl? To see the game? If your favorite team is playing, or if you are a twelve-year-old boy, or if you are obsessed with Peyton Manning's every move, well then okay, maybe your main reason for watching the game is for the actual game.

But who out there is thinking: the commercials? The commercials are one of the things the Super Bowl is known for, and deep down, you know you'd rather go refill your plate with barbeque meatballs during the middle of the first quarter than during a commercial break.

As a teacher, Super Bowl commercials remind me of my best mini-lessons. Why? Well let's first look at why we like those commercials so much...

For one thing, commercials are short--they don't require much of an attention span. Second, the Super Bowl commercials are fresh--they aren't the ones we've seen a ba-jillion times already. They are powerful--they usually elicit some sort of reaction, usually laughter, sometimes shock. They are engaging--they really grab your attention quickly, and usually keep it throughout the whole commercial. They give you a 'taste' of what the company is about--they are not filled with too much information. And they are just plain well-made--companies spend millions of dollars for those itty-bitty 30 second spots, so they put top-notch work out there.

Many of the qualities of the very best Super Bowl commercials are exactly what I need to incorporate into more of my mini-lessons. Just think about it...

I want a whole-group mini-lesson to be short (okay, maybe not 30-seconds-short, but 10 minutes sure would be a good goal!). I'm going to start losing them with anything longer.

I want that mini-lesson to be powerful and engaging. How will I hook students in a way that grabs their interest, but stays focused on the heart of my lesson?

I don't want to do too much (oh man, I struggle with this one). Often, during a mini-lesson, opportunities will arise to make connections--or are they tangents? I've learned that sometimes it's necessary to put the ka-bosh on lines of thinking that stray away from the lesson's focus, even if it is a great connection or separate teachable moment. These few minutes in which I have students "locked in" are precious--do I really want to stray? I will often write down on a post-it note 2-3 key points, which I will hold onto during the lesson. Even just feeling that post-it in my hand helps me stay focused and to the point.

And finally, I want the quality of the lesson to be the best I have for those kids. For me, that means I really have to think the lesson through... What do I emphasize? How do I transition? What key statements and questions do I want to use? What do I want to save or revisit?

When you think about mini-lessons that have gone really well for you, and that have translated into some sort of student success, what was it that made a difference? What other tips for a SUPER mini-lesson can you share?

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