Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Launching a Powerful Historical Fiction Unit

Fences like this exist all over the world. We hope you never have to encounter one.”           
~John Boyne The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”
Unit Overview
This week in Readers’ Workshop, my students and I began our study of Historical Fiction. This year, our focus will be on WWII and the Holocaust. Students will be participating in book clubs where they read the same title with a small group of classmates and discuss their thinking about the book and the historical time period they are learning about. We will also have whole-group discussions through read alouds and mini-lessons where we will chart what we are learning and questions we have.

A major goal of this unit is for students to sharpen their understanding of historical fiction and learn that in order to truly understand the time period we are reading about, we must walk in the characters’ world as we read and process the setting (time, place, societal and historical context, mood, etc) in which the characters live. To do so, we have to keep the time period in mind and consider the issues that affect the characters’ actions. For example, stories written about the Holocaust will show Jewish people being ostracized and persecuted. Students will see incidences of unequal treatment and unequal opportunities based on race, religion, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. Students will see that in this time period, Nazis had power while the Jews and others who were persecuted did not, but they will also see examples of people who persevered above their circumstances and of those who courageously put their own lives in danger to reach out to provide help to others.


Making connections between books and analyzing the overall themes embedded in historical fiction will be another focus that will force students into higher levels of thinking. Students will see that themes of injustice, equality, perseverance, courage, struggle, empathy, and making a difference unite the different stories that make up this unit of study. We will also focus on the connections between the timeline of events in history compared to what is going on in the character’s life and how the historical events are affecting the character’s choices and decisions. In addition, reading multiple books will allow us to explore multiple perspectives, so that students can see how this horrific time in history can be viewed from many different lenses. This will increase the level of their understanding, not only of the time period, but of the complexity of the historical fiction texts that will be tackled.

Finally, as we study this important historical era, we want our students to recognize how all aspects of the social world have changed over time. We want students to realize that we can learn many things from studying our past in an effort to keep dark moments, like the Holocaust, from ever happening again. While elementary students are usually able to empathize with individual survivor accounts, they often have difficulty placing these personal stories in a larger historical context. One of our goals, through this unit, will be to help students to not only empathize, but to attempt to understand the complexities of history and human nature. We will continue our discussions about bullies, victims, and innocent bystanders by connecting those roles to this time period.

Some of the books children will be exposed to during this study include:

The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Rose Blanche by Roberto Innocenti and Christophe Gallaz Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Daniel’s Story by Carol Matas, Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne, Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy, The Big Lie: A True Story by  Isabella Leitner, and Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter.

Launching This Unit
Lesson 1
I kick off this unit by reading Roberto Innocenti's Rose Blanche. This story is told through the eyes of a young German girl, Rose Blanche, who is a witness to the immense changes occurring in Nazi Germany. Her curiosity leads her outside her town where she discovers a concentration camp. Rose Blanche secretly brings food to  the children behind the barbed-wire fence. The author implies that Rose Blanche is killed by crossfire as the Russian soldiers advance into Germany. The ending of this book is symbolic as spring arrives in this deserted camp.

Click to download a free copy of this as well as a few photographs to analyze.
I provide no background prior to reading this story. It provides me with a sense of what students think they know and misconceptions they may have. It will not be until the next lesson that we will do a little research. 

While reading, I model my thinking, focusing primarily on the setting and its influence on the main character. I also tell students to play very close attention to the illustrations, which happen to be done by the author himself. There is great symbolism in the colors and images he uses. I also give students a copy of the text with room on the right-hand side to jot their thoughts. 

Students are asked to consider the following while I read:


  • First, we need to notice the setting and ask, “What kind of place is this?  What does it feel like?” 
  • Then, we need to look for signs that trouble is brewing and ask, “How is the setting changing?” 
  • Third, we need to notice what problems the characters are facing, what their character traits are, and what pressures are on them.


Lesson 2
On day two, students and I begin by brainstorming everything we think we know about the the WW2 time period. I try very hard not to use the word holocaust yet. 

Once we activate a little bit of background knowledge, we discuss the importance of building background knowledge about the time period we are reading about using both primary and secondary sources.

 I show them this famous photo and together we analyze it.


First, I ask them to begin by jotting down everything they notice and observe, every detail that stands out to them. After we share a few ideas, I ask them to write down what they think is happening in the photograph. Immediately, students will be reflecting back to yesterday's read-aloud. Finally, I ask them to write their own caption for the picture. 



Next, we read a bit about WW2 and the Holocaust from a nonfiction secondary source (For this unit, Lucy Calkins offers a great resource in her book, Tackling Complex Texts), but you can find similar sources of background information from textbooks or other resources. My goal is to provide them with enough background to begin to make sense of what's going on at this time in our world's history. I use this opportunity to teach some kind of non-fiction reading skill (I used this to talk about cause and effect). Students used two different color markers or highlighter and identified examples of cause(s) and corresponding effect(s). 

Afterwards, we returned to the photograph and to the story of Rose Blanche and reanalyzed each piece now that we had more background knowledge. 






Keep checking back for my next lesson, where I launch out read aloud novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Literal Comprehension vs. Interpretation

One of the focuses of our Reader's Workshop this week as been taking our thinking to a higher level in order to deeply understand/interpret the complex texts we are reading. We began our week discussing the differences between literal comprehension (what the text says) and interpretation (what the text means). We then discussed how we make those thoughts visible. Writing about reading has become an integral component of our workshop. We realized that when we are thinking about our books on a literal level, we simply write summaries or retellings of what we read. In order to demonstrate an ability to interpret a text, we write commentary, which consists of our own thoughts as well as evidence from the book.


Levels of Thought Stoplight

When you are having "Green" thoughts, you don't have to slow down or stop and think. You can just keep reading. These kinds of thoughts don't require any thinking. These are the obvious things written right in the text.


I created a Thinking Stoplight to help students think beyond a literal level.

"Yellow" thoughts refer to the supporting details we use to support our thinking. You need to slow down when thinking at this level.

"Red" thoughts represent our commentary on the text. We have to stop and interpret the text. It requires our own thinking. Inferences, big ideas, conclusions, and themes are all examples of "Red" thoughts.

Evaluating Model Responses
We practiced, at first, by looking at a few student samples and highlighting thoughts based on the level of thought demonstrated. Students quickly saw the differences in the two responses and how response #2 showed that the student was better able to interpret what he/she read, thus demonstrating deeper understanding.

Evaluating our Own Responses
Once students had a model for the kind of response that demonstrates 5th grade-level thinking, they were encouraged to seek out the kinds of thoughts they had made visible through their own reading responses. This helps them to see the kinds of thinking they are doing and encourage them to think deeper and work on their ability to interpret a text.




Peeling Back the Layers of our Thinking


The students and I are wrapping up our launching unit in reader’s workshop. Last week, we finished our class novel (Wonder by RJ Palacio), discussed some of the BIG Ideas/ Themes by thinking about what the story was REALLY about, and explored symbolism(which is prevalent in this book). At the same time, students have been learning to think deeper about their books. We have talked about the difference between literal comprehension and interpretation and how we can use writing to move from giving a basic summary to commentary (which is demonstrating an ability to interpret a text). 


Last week, we began daily 10 minute write about reading sessions. Students can write about their independent texts or our class read aloud.  In order to get kids more excited about writing about their reading, we have started a class reading blog.  Each day, 5 students have the option to blog as opposed to writing in their notebooks. This also gives them an opportunity to view someone else thinking and provide feedback and engage in digital accountable talk. 

This week, I introduced them to a writing strategy that will help them construct arguments about the books they are reading and support those arguments with examples and evidence from the text. Today, students chose  a theme or symbol (from our class charts) that really stood out to them and applied the PEEL strategy. This strategy encourages deeper, more powerful thinking and shows students the importance of supporting their ideas with text-based evidence and examples. 




Innovative Ways to Respond to Reading

 Blogging About Our Books
    One of the major things we have focused on during the past few weeks, in reader's workshop, has been working to make our thinking "visible."  We have talked about the differences between "Just Reading" and "Reading to Push Our Thinking." During reader's workshop, we focus on developing the ability to push our thinking past literal comprehension to deeper interpretation and extension. Being able to think beyond the text is a major emphasis in the Common Core State Standards and also something that students often have difficulty demonstrating in the early weeks of fifth grade. Many students come in having experience with responding to their reading when prompted, but my goal is that they will begin to think about their books without needing those prompts.

    Students generally LOVE to read, but have trouble seeing the value in writing about their reading. They often demonstrate that they have the ability to think on high levels during class and group discussions. The problem here is, there will never be enough time for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas orally. 5th graders tend to have trouble buying into the whole "Make your thinking visible" concept. I realized that I needed a way to make writing about reading more exciting for them. I realized that blogging was a perfect solution for this. 

    We began by creating lists of things that we can think/ talk about before, during, and after reading. These ideas range from growing theories about our characters to identifying emerging themes and symbols. All of these things help students to demonstrate their ability to comprehend their books at a higher level. These things are also things students can explore through writing in order to make their thoughts visible to their teachers and their peers.

    At the end of every mini-lesson, before students transition into the work-time portion of reader's workshop, I began requiring a 10 minute Write About Reading time. Each day, 5 students would blog, in place of writing in their notebooks. I only have 6 computers in my classroom. They could use this time to create their own blog post or respond to a classmate. This really helped them buy into writing during reading. Not only have they increased their writing about reading time, but their reader's notebooks never leave their side while they are reading, both at school and at home. They use their notebooks so much more now, especially for quick jots. This helps them to be prepared to for their blog day, knowing that their classmates will be reading their posts. The students have loved the idea of blogging their thoughts so much that they are doing it beyond the confines of reader's workshop. They blog about their reading at home and during free times at school. 

    Why Kidblog?

    There are many blogging platforms available for free use. I found Kidblog works the best for classroom 

    teachers for these main reasons:

    · Simple set up
    · Simple security settings
    · Enough options for multi-media blogging without being overwhelming
    · No need for individual email accounts for students
    · Completely free

    Launching a POWERFUL Reader's Workshop in 5th Grade

    What's the difference between a reader's workshop and a POWERFUL reader's workshop?

    By the time students reach 5th grade, in any school that has made the workshop model the "norm," a "been there, done that" kind of attitude often develops. By now, the hope is that these soon-to-be middle schoolers have become avid, experienced readers. So what's the job of a 4th or 5th grade teacher? What I realized in my 2nd year of teaching 5th grade, was that it was up to me to guide my students into becoming coaches of their own reading, ready to take charge and blast their reading lives into orbit. Metaphors aside, I feel it my responsibility to help them become powerful readers and thinkers.

    Selecting a Worthy Text

    My first priority when developing my beginning of the year reading curriculum was to select a read-aloud text rich with complex ideas and themes- A novel that was worthy of the powerful thinking I was planning to teach them how to do. A colleague of mine steered me toward a relatively new book that has become a true gem in my classroom: R.J. Palacio's Wonder. If you haven;t read this powerful story yet, you are missing out.

      After being home-schooled for four years, Auggie,
    who suffers from a severely deformed face, enters 
    the fifth grade at Beecher Prep School and does 
    his best to be just an ordinary kid with an 
    extraordinary face.The first few days of school are
     more than difficult. Try as he might to ignore them, 
    Auggie must endure the looks and whispers—even
     the cruel game, “The Plague,” where everyone is 
    afraid to touch him. Julian especially causes 
    Auggie’s days to be miserable, making references 
    about Auggie’s face and veiled threats to harm him.
     The flip side is that Auggie has the steadfast support 
    of his first friend, Summer, and his best friend, 
    Jack, and his teachers and the principal like 
    him. But for every positive, there is a negative: 
    Jack betrays him, a gang of kids try to hurt 
    him, and some particularly insensitive parents 
    even try to have him removed from the school. 
    Yet, Auggie shows amazing understanding and 
    compassion. As the school year progresses, 
    Auggie learns that, though there will always be 
    people who want to taunt him and make his life 
    miserable, he can have true friends despite his 
    looks. The wonder of Auggie’s extraordinarily 
    unique presence is that the people around him 
    learn what it is to be kind and to be courageous. 
      ~ Random House Publishing

    Launching Lessons

    I began my workshop this year by asking students to reflect upon the kind of readers they are and the kind of reader they want to become. This reflection will help set the stage for the goals they will write for their reading lives. 

    Also, as part of this reflection process, students will identify the reasons why they read and their TOP TEN book list. This will probably take at least two days.

    Once students have had an opportunity to reflect upon their reading lives, I introduce them to the concept of having agency and working to become powerful readers. They get really excited about this, because they are realizing that they are in the diver's seat this year... They have more control than ever before.




    Next, we begin to explore what POWERFUL readers do, beginning with some of the things we pay close attention to while reading. Throughout the first few weeks, we will explore all of these things deeply, but I like to throw it all at them right away. For students experienced with a workshop model, these should be strategies already in their arsenal. We focus on getting to know our main characters. Wonder is a perfect book to do this with. Wonder tells the story of fifth grader August from several different points of view. Students will complete a character map for each of the main characters (August, Via, Jack Will, Summer, Julian, Miranda, etc...)

    Students will realize quickly, that Wonder is a challenging text. We take the time to make a list of things that make it challenging: Multiple perspectives, references to song lyrics, Star Wars, old television shows, etc... We discuss the importance of working harder when  the book gets harder.


    Can be used with any book!