Learning to Fly with Notice and Note Nonfiction Strategies

In my last post, I shared how I introduced Probst and Beers’ Three Big Questions and Nonfiction Signposts strategies to my 8th graders.  After reading about the way Julie Swinehart introduced the nonfiction signposts to her 11th graders, it seemed logical that 8th graders should be able to do something similar with a partner with nonfiction books after “cutting their teeth” on informational text articles.

I pulled many nonfiction books from our library for students to browse for our signpost treasure hunt and to articulate our big question statements.   All instructions and examples were copied onto neon yellow paper and tucked into each book to help students have a cheat sheet for their work.  We gave students the option of working with a partner or independently; most chose to work with a partner.

My fellow 8th Language Arts teacher Mandy Briscoe and I bravely decided to combine our classes for the activity in our media center and convened this past Friday.  After reviewing the instructions, our students set about their work with our target goal of completing three big question statements before the period was over.   Students were to write their responses on sticky notes and let us check them before adding them to the “parking lot” poster for each big question.

We realized that even though we had orally reviewed an example of how to go about the writing task for each question and provided students a written copy of the example, students were still not including any commentary to explain their textual evidence.  We quickly punted before our next group of students arrived and tried to reorganize the example response to emphasize the big question sentence starter (they had notes on this from earlier in the week and had practiced using those), textual evidence, and the commentary to explain the textual evidence.

Overall, we were pleased with the conversations for learning that happened on the first day of learning even though some partner groups struggled to finish the three big questions before the end of class.

For Day 2, our plan was for students to try to find at least three of the five possible nonfiction signposts.  However, this past Monday was a perfect storm of sorts.  First, it was a regular school day with a subsequent day off for Election Day on Tuesday, November 6.  Secondly, it was the first Monday after the time change.  Consequently, even many of our best students were sluggish and struggling to follow the template we had provided to help them articulate their signposts talk.  As they day wore on, we felt frustrated that students didn’t seem to be giving their best effort even with signpost strategies like numbers and data that should have been easy to pick out of a nonfiction text.  By the time we reached the last class period, we decided to split up, and I took my 6th period back to my room to do some strategic and targeted practice with two of the signpost strategies I felt they needed a little more work on—contrasts and contradictions and extreme and absolute language.

I was disappointed the second day didn’t go as well as the first, but given the circumstances, I think the day we chose for our second and final day of the activity was probably not optimal.  In addition, I wish now I had just stayed focus on shorter informational texts and held off on practicing with nonfiction books until January when we begin nonfiction book clubs.  Sometimes, though, when you read about someone else doing an activity with their students, the strategies and activity seem easy in your mind.  Hindsight is always 20/20, right?   For many reasons, though, our students were just not quite ready to make that leap so soon, and I feel badly that I overestimated what was realistically doable for them.  On the other hand, there was nothing to be lost by pushing their thinking and having them engage in something that turned out to be a bit of a challenge for them.  Here are some snapshots of their efforts after we brought their work from the library to our hallway and my classroom:

Have you ever been off the mark in thinking what students could do and then realizing you needed to “punt” and adjust to meet them at their point of need?  If so, how did you make the most of the situation?

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