Revisiting and Exploring Tone in Nonfiction and Fiction

Last week, we engaged in some targeted mini-lessons and learning activities to grow our understanding of tone.  We had practiced analyzing tone earlier this fall, but since this is sometimes a challenging concept for 8th graders and because I knew they would have a constructed response about tone on their 2nd quarter benchmark, I designed a few strategic and new learning experiences around tone for my students.

Day 1

We first began by reviewing some notes on the differences between tone and mood.   In addition, we reviewed the differences between denotation and connotation and looked at examples of both.  Next, I assigned students picked a partner or trio group to do our table talk activity.  We began this activity by reading and watching this excerpt of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Students were asked to work with their partner or trio to:

  1.  Identify the tone of the speech.
  2.  Identify specific word choices and/or phrases that created that tone.  Students also shared how the connotative or denotative meanings (or both) of their selected words impacted the tone of the speech.
  3. Groups shared out to the entire class their findings and reflections.

Day 2

The following day, students were asked to find a passage in their independent reading books OR to choose an alternate text I provided (a selection of poems or informational article).  Students then analyzed the tone, following the same procedure from the previous day.  I provided a thinking/drafting script for those who wanted to jot down their thoughts in writing first.  Students were asked to snap the passage they were analyzing and then post it in their Seesaw account.  Students could type a text book with their analysis, record an audio note of their analysis, or type a text note with their analysis.  They also labeled the word choices with highlights and/or arrows of the word choices they felt created the tone.  I provided a model I completed for them based on my reading of Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes.  In addition, I provided a list of positive and negative tone words for students who were struggling to find the right word.

While this task may seem easy to us as adults, it really is challenging for many 8th graders.

Day 3

We did one more analysis activity of tone, but this time, students read an excerpt of an informational text I pulled from NewsELA.  I provided students a drafting template to help them compose a paragraph in which they analyzed the tone of the informational text excerpt.  This task was similar to the one on their benchmark.  Like the previous activity, I provided an optional list of negative and positive tone words for those who needed/wanted it.  For one of my classes, I gave the students of reading the excerpt alone; my 4th period class voted to partner read aloud the excerpt and discuss it before tackling the writing task.

Additional Learning Fun with Gimkit

Depending on the pace of completion, at some points over four days students had an opportunity to play a Gimkit game on tone.  As I shared in my previous blog post, I was able to see strengths and weaknesses in understanding of this concept as my kit included many “application” types of questions.

Overall, I felt these learning activities challenged my students and pushed their critical thinking/analysis skills in a variety of ways.  What are your favorite strategies for teaching tone to middle or high school students?

Next Steps for Thinking About Theme, Central Topics, and Social Issues: Pop-Up Book Club Meetings

In my last post, I shared how we used a Lucy Calkins learning structure to think about more deeply about theme, central ideas/topics, and social issues.  Yesterday, I did two variations on some “pop-up” book club meetings to help students think through these elements.

Variation #1, Periods 1 and 4

On Monday evening,  I compiled all student responses for theme, central topic, and social issue from all four classes; I did this by going through every single graphic organizer completed by students.  I crafted a chart for each book with the compiled responses and left space for students to reflect.  This task took some time on my part, but I really wanted to tap into their collective thinking and crowdsource their knowledge.

At the beginning of class on Tuesday, I organized into read alike or birds of a feather book clubs; students received the color-coded compiled responses.  We did three four “lightning” rounds of discussion:

  • Round 1:  students shared their original and revised responses on the theme/central topic/social issue graphic organizer.
  • Round 2:  students shared and discussed one of the signposts they noticed in their annotations.
  • Round 3:  students shared their reactions to the collaborative responses for their books.
  • Round 4:  students shared current questions or wonderings about their books.

After the meeting, I provided students 25 minutes of time to read in class.  During our reading time, students used large and “baby” sticky notes to annotate and track the the development of these elements in their reading:

  • We continued to annotate Notice and Note signposts using our #shortcut codes.  Students looked for at least three signposts.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a current theme they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new theme from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a central idea/ topic they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new central idea/topic from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.
  • Students picked three different colored larger square sticky notes and picked one to track a current social issue they had been thinking about in their previous work OR they could choose a new social issue from the list on their collaborative thinking book handout I had compiled for them.

I provided the different colors and sizes of sticky notes for all six book club groups. At the end of the reading time, students filled in the blank area of their collaborative thinking handout for their book by sharing their responses to the day’s reading and book club discussion and their current thinking on theme, central ideas/topics, and social issues.  Students could also share how their thinking had changed based on the book club meeting and the day’s reading.  If students needed more time, they could finish at home or at the beginning of class today (Wednesday) before submitting their work.  They could also revise their white theme/central idea/topic/social issue white graphic organizer and “repair” any sections they felt needed revision by writing their new thinking on sticky notes and placing it over the original work just as we did Monday.

Variation #2, Periods 5 and 6

We essentially did the same activities, but the order was reversed.  With these classes, I organized students into their book club groups as they arrived, but we started by taking time to silently read the collaborative thinking list for their books; student placed check marks next to themes, central ideas/topics, and social issues they wanted to focus on in the reading the first 25 minutes of class.  They then wrote their responses to the day’s reading and we then shifted into book club mode using the same discussion structure  as 1st and 4th.  It was a bit tricky fitting it all in, but we made it work.  I did give these students the option of finishing their annotations and sticky note work at home if they needed more time; they could also add to their reading reflections and revise their original graphic organizer at home and return today if needed.

My Reflections

I’ve been reading their responses and revisions, and many students definitely are showing more growth in their thinking.  We’re juggling quite a bit right now with state testing strategic prep and poetry study, but overall, I am thrilled with engaged the students are with their books.   I am fascinated that the majority of my students seem way more “into” their nonfiction book club choices than their self-selected fiction independent reads from 1st and 2nd semester.

I am thinking about how we can squeeze in a few more “pop up” or casual book club meetings since our schedule doesn’t really permit full blown book club meetings, and I’ll share some new approaches I hope to take in a future post soon.

Looking for Seeds of Theme, Central Ideas, and Social Issues in Our Nonfiction Books: Scaffolding, Structure, and Strategy

This past Friday and Monday (April 12 and 15), I wanted my students to have an opportunity to think a little more deeply about their nonfiction books.  Using a focal point from one of our Lucy Calkins units of study, I crafted a graphic organizer to help students identify each of the following elements in their reading so far:

  • Theme (this is an important element, but I am continuing to stress it because so many of my students have struggled with this concept all year)
  • Central Topic/Idea
  • Social Issues

We reviewed what concepts of theme, central idea/topic, and social issues at the beginning of class on Friday; in addition, I used a resource from our Calkins resource guide as an “anchor chart” for reference on the back of a graphic organizer I provided students.   Even though all students are not reading literary nonfiction, I felt the concepts would translate to the regular nonfiction books students were reading.

I did not provide a list of possible themes or social issues to my students on the first day because I wanted to see what they could identify for themselves.  While I do believe in scaffolding, I also think it is important to give students opportunities to wrestle with ideas.  Using a graphic organizer I’ve used in the past, I modified it to fit the three element structure to help students identify their thinking and evidence from the text to support it.

I modeled my thinking for students using one of my favorite books, Full Body Burden:  Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flats.  I began by showing the book trailer video and then the beginnings of my work as I modeled a think aloud for each class.

After reading over my students’ work over the weekend, it was very clear that many were struggling to correctly identify a theme or social issue.   Instead, many of them were identifying central ideas and topics as themes and/or social issues.   Yesterday I provided them a working list of themes (not necessarily unique to our books, but a broad list) as well as a working list of common social issues.

After doing another review of the terms and the new lists, I asked students to place check marks next to themes and social issues they felt might be present in their books.  Students then had the opportunity to revise and/or add to any of the three sections that felt needed improvement or a complete rewrite.  Many students had an “aha!” moment in their thinking, but I was still worried last night when I read over their revisions and saw quite a few are still struggling even with the additional scaffolding.   I will continue a variety of strategies to triage this challenge in small groups and 1:1 over the next few weeks, but I am hopeful students will grow in these areas with continued support from me and their book groups as well as better understanding of their book as they get further into it,.

This work has definitely challenged my students and nudged their critical thinking.  In my next post, I’ll share how we are using this work in the student book clubs to grow everyone’s thinking and help students’ understanding of the concepts of theme, central topics/ideas, and social issues.  Until then, what strategies do you use to help students who are having difficulty grasping theme and/or understanding of social issues in a text?

Nonfiction Book Tasting + Google Forms

We are rapidly coming down the home stretch with only six weeks left in the school year!  We returned from our spring break last week with a two-day book tasting of six nonfiction books, selections we made as a grade level based on the Lucy Calkins nonfiction and literary nonfiction units of study:

  • March Forward, Girl: From Young Warrior to Little Rock Nine
  • I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives
  • Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
  • Chasing Lincoln’s Killer
  • Doable: The Girls’ Guide to Accomplishing Just About Anything
  • Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts

My setup was relatively simple and straightforward:  I placed copies of book at each table group and treated the book tasting like a station rotation with 10 minute sampling segments and a couple of minutes for students to jot notes on the graphic organizer below.

On Day 2, we ended class with students completing a Google form filling in their top three book choices and a short explanation for their first choice book.  The Google form made it easy to compile the results in an Google Sheets/Excel spreadsheet to see how many books I needed for each class as I gave every student his/her first choice.   In addition, I ran a Mail Merge with a Word document I created and the Excel version of the Google Sheets to print the student responses for their literacy portfolios.

Because all Language Arts teachers in my building have a set of 10 Chromebooks with an in-classroom charging cabinet, I was able to have a set of 5 Chromebooks at each table area thanks to Mandy Briscoe (8th Language Arts) and Jamie Laster (7th Language Arts) loaning me their sets on Day 2 of the book tasting.  Thanks to an infusion of Title I money, we were able to purchase enough books earlier this year for all of my students to have a copy to take home and carry around at school so that they can annotate their own books.

Below is a breakdown of the votes from all four classes:

Students were extremely interested in the book selections, and several expressed they hope to read their top choices between now and the end of the school year.

Students will get at least two days a week to read, reflect, and discuss their books in class; on days where they may finish their poetry or EOC review work early, they may read their books on those days as well.  I have been impressed by the positive response to the books, and students are begging for any additional reading time whenever possible!  Over the years, I’m finding that a simple version of book tasting with strategic choices for genre study or book clubs is quite powerful.  In my next post, I’ll share how we began our first reading day with a review of Notice and Note signposts strategies for simple annotation that will be incorporated into written reflections as well as book club discussions.

Supporting Young Readers: Developing Reading Club Conversation Skills

In my last blog post, I outlined the prep work we did leading up to our “birds of feather” topics reading club meetings to help students dig more deeply into their readings and to come prepared for the reading club discussion.

Prior to our club meetings, students brainstormed meeting etiquette and expectations:

We also incorporated these qualities into a self-assessment tool students completed the day after the reading clubs met.

I learned last spring with my juniors and seniors that some structure to meetings is helpful for students, especially those with little to no reading or book club experience.  I planned for four rounds of discussion even though I expected we would probably only have time for three; I like to overplan just in case!

You can flip through the slideshow below to see how I helped “step” students through bursts of conversation that lasted about 10-12 minutes each.  I would review the discussion frame for each round and then keep time with my phone while walking around and making notes on ideas I heard in conversation while noting with a check each time I heard or saw a student participating (or not) in the club meeting.  I use a a blank roster spreadsheet from my gradebook in Infinite Campus and then use the columns to make notes and checks or minuses to help me remember what I’m seeing or hearing.  Last but not least, I recorded videos as I walked around so I could go back and watch/listen when evaluating students participation, listening, and interaction in the reading club meetings.

One other recommendation I have, especially for middle school or inexperienced reading club learners, is to appoint a “conversation round” leader.  This simply means you appoint someone from each club or group to lead each round of conversation; doing this prevents awkward pauses or lapses in getting a new round of discussion started.

One other new tool I used with the reading club was the conversation emoji talk stems from Ashley Bible.  These were super helpful for students in finding wording to enter the conversation or to interact in a meaningful way if they were struggling to find words.

I was incredibly impressed by how well my students did in their meetings!  Most groups had terrific energy and engagement in their meeting, and even those that may have struggled in the first round came on strong in the second and third rounds of conversation.   The reading club work and conversations in their club meeting are definitely two of the highlights of this academic year—the caliber of work and the soft skills as well as reading/listening/speaking skills inherent in the club conversations are huge steps forward for my students as learners and individuals.

When we finished three rounds of discussions, we then worked on our post-club reflections to capture our thinking while it was fresh.  The following two days, we did some self assessment and reflection using this tool I created based on student agreements on etiquette and expectations.   In addition, we used these awesome standards-based self-assessment forms for four standards that were embedded in our reading club conversation work.  The reflections and thinking students shared through these tools was quite revealing, and my fellow teachers and admin were quite impressed with the depth of student reflection as well.

Though I wish our instructional calendar would have permitted time for an additional club meeting, I am incredibly pleased with the quality of work my students completed and the quality of their reading club conversations.   I am excited to see how we can grow these skills when we shift to nonfiction book clubs later this spring!