February 28, 2015

A Lesson on Theme

Discovering the theme of a story isn't the easiest thing in the world. It takes some inferring, some synthesizing, some determining importance, and a bit of analyzing the author's purpose, too.

"Theme" was the theme of our reading work this week in third grade. What follows is our first lesson with theme.

We started with an anchor chart. Since the idea of theme was going to be relatively new to my students, I tried using a bit of a word-picture-analogy to help describe the concept. I drew the word "story" resting on some grass, with the word "theme" underneath, looking like the dirt (see the chart below). The idea was to show that a story's themes are ideas and messages that lie under the surface of the story. I also thought it would be helpful to give some key questions to ask about a story that can lead us to a theme. Here were the key questions I used:
  • What does the author really want me to know?
  • What is this story truly about?
  • What is at the heart of this story?
  • What ideas or lessons from the story are relevant to life, not just to this specific story?
On the anchor chart, I also set up spaces to record some themes we'd be finding from two separate texts: Shiloh and Owl Moon.

Shiloh was our first read aloud of the year. Since the whole class had a common understanding of the book, it made a good choice to model how to identify and explain a theme from the story.  I had students help to recap the events of the story; then I asked them to scrape those events aside, dig down underneath, and think about what we find. What ideas and messages is the author really trying to show? I modeled three examples, telling students the theme and then asking them to share details from the story that support it.
  • The love between a boy and a dog (an idea)
  • Work hard for what you want (a message)
  • Honesty (an issue)
When I felt like students were starting to wrap their minds around the concept of theme, I then read  Owl Moon aloud to the class. This was a second reading of the book. (We read it last week to look at figurative language.) I really drove home the purpose for this rereading: to identify the themes hiding under the surface of the story.

Our discussion afterward still needed some guidance on my end, but once we identified a viable theme from the story together, using our key questions from the chart to keep us on track, I had students do a turn-and-talk to chat about the details from the story that would support the theme.

I then had students try responding in writing, choosing a theme from Owl Moon, and explaining how it is supported in the story.

On the page students worked on was a box of possible themes from the story. If this wasn't such a new lesson for students, I probably would have eliminated the suggestion box and had them use a theme from the whole-group discussion.

Here are a few examples of student responses.

The printable I used comes from the "Discovering Themes" lesson that is part of my Owl Moon Literature Unit. You can download the entire theme lesson, with the printables, right HERE, for free!


If you are interested in the entire unit for Owl Moon, which includes twelve reading lessons and eight writing lessons, you can take a closer look right HERE.


February 25, 2015

My Teacher Hero: Mr. McGraw

I'm linking up with some of my blogging friends to talk about one of my own teacher heroes.

I've had so many great teachers growing up, but Mr. McGraw has always stood out when I think of teachers who have influenced me.

I was in his fifth grade class, his very first class. Our classroom was separated from the rest of the fifth grade rooms. They were all on the second floor, with lots of windows. We were down in the cellar. It wasn't really a cellar, but in that seventy-year-old building, on the basement floor, down a dark, cement hallway, it sort of felt like it.

But it was great.

Mainly because of our teacher.

Mr. McGraw is my hero-teacher because of how he builds people up. I really don't remember anything academic-related that he taught me. (Sorry, Mr. McGraw.) But I grew more in his class than in any other.

He really got to know me. He laughed at my lame jokes. Like, genuinely laughed. I was pretty shy, and he pushed me to try things and share things and lead things that normally would have been out of the question, but somehow Mr. McGraw knew how to unlock the confidence to go for it.

Once, in the middle of the year, he personally asked me to be part of the model rocket club he was going to start after school. He wasn't just doing a sweeping survey of anyone interested. He wanted me to be in it. I still remember that feeling: the feeling like, this teacher, who I look up to so much and admire, is making me feel like he admires me.

The model rocket club was awesome. I don't think he really knew a whole lot about model rockets. But that was just another thing to love about Mr. McGraw: when he had an idea, he just went for it. He was willing to learn as he went, and he wasn't afraid to make mistakes.

But that feeling. I won't forget that feeling. Like I was important to the success of the whole dang club. Like I was important to him. Like I was important to this world. And I bet he has given that feeling to thousands of people by now.

Read about more teacher heroes below! And don't forget, the "Teachers Are Heroes!" sale at Teachers Pay Teachers starts Wednesday. Stop by my store if you're interested.

February 21, 2015

Using Text Features to Understand Text Structures

My teaching has come a long way when it comes to text features.

It used to go something like... "Oh, don't forget to look at the text features before you turn the page." And then it moved more to... "Let's see if we can identify what text features are on this page." And lately it's shifted more into... "How do these text features work with the text and enhance your understanding of the topic?"  (Oooh, that one sounded pretty good, right?)

But I realized recently another way I use text features myself: to help get a sense of the text structure.

Administrators, why don't you go ahead and scroll down a couple of paragraphs. Nothing to see here...

It was a pretty normal Monday, and I was tidying up my desk a bit. And what did I see peeking out from underneath a stack of book-order catalogs? Yep, the educational article I was supposed to have read before the staff meeting that began in... uh, three minutes.

Oh crap.

What did I do? Probably what many experienced readers would do. I quickly tried to grasp the overall structure of the article, to get a sense of the topics and how they were organized. How? I naturally gravitated to the text features. I started with the title and the subheadings, and then moved to the chart on the second page, and then the photo with a caption, and I even snuck in a bold word or two. (And a confession here: I also read the last paragraph, which wouldn't you know it, summarized the bulk of the article.) I gained a "big picture" concept of the article, and I was able to go to the meeting feeling, well, a little less unprepared.

Later, I thought about how to work with my students to use text features with this new purpose in mind--to uncover the text structure (leaving out the stress of an upcoming meeting, of course). The structure is how the text is built, how it's organized. Wouldn't it be nice to have a sense of the structure before reading? If you are a bank robber, isn't it helpful to "case the joint" beforehand?

Here's how I tried it all out with one of my guided reading groups:

Create a T-Chart
I began by building a t-chart with students. On one side, we generated a list of common text features we see in informational texts. On the other side, we listed common types of text structures we were learning about. (For this lesson to be effective, students should be at least familiar with common types of text features and text structures, so you don't get bogged down at the beginning here.)

Set a Purpose
I showed students the informational text they would be getting momentarily, but before handing it out, I very dramatically drew an arrow from the text features side of our chart over to the text structures side, as I said something like: "Let's try to use the text features we find in the article to help us understand the structure of the text, before we even start reading the article."

Get into the Text
I gave each student a copy of the text, which was mainly about how baseball bats are made. Students then began scanning the pages for text features and looking at them strategically. And this here was key: to make sure students realized they were using the text features NOT to learn information about a topic, but to gather clues about the text structure.

One of the main text features in this particular article was a series of photographs that showed someone making a baseball bat. Each photo had an explanation of one step in the process. Students referred to their chart and concluded that a sequencing structure was likely for this section of the article. We checked if the sub-headings would also support a sequencing structure. Students thought the last subheading on the page, "The Finishing Touch," definitely aligned with their thinking.

On the second page, students noticed a text feature showing the grain pattern of two types of wood. They inferred a compare & contrast structure made sense for this section of text.

Read the Text
After taking this detailed walk through the text features, getting a sense of the sequencing structure in the first half of the article, and the compare & contrast structure in the second half, students went back and read the text fully. They could now layer the content of what they were reading onto the framework that we set-up.

I wrapped up our lesson with the bank robber analogy.

No I didn't.

I actually compared what we did to when you go to the zoo or an amusement park, or even the mall, and you check-in with the large map kiosk, the one with the "You Are Here" arrow. Just like the text features did for us, it can help you get a sense of the layout, so you can better understand the content.

Click image to download for free!

I created the half-size response sheet you see above to fit with this lesson, so you could have students record their thinking about using text features to help them understand text structures. It's free, so click on the image if you'd like to download it.

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