The last Monday of the school year. By the side of my desk are stacks of Social Studies notebooks to scan one last time before I rubric them for content, completed assignments, and neatness – all the skills they will need in the years to come. As I leaf through our year of learning about American history, I am struck by the way our thinking morphed from the beginning of the year to the end – how it grew richer, more authentic, more student-centric. Like many other teachers, I have struggled with how to make the teaching of history engaging and meaningful, especially when it comes to the use of the text book. In our classroom, we learn history through projects, movies, and primary source documents. But, there is also the text book. We are lucky in that our text is Joy Hakim’s acclaimed The History of Us series, which is lively and well written. So, how to make use of this text in ways that are more interesting and meaningful to my students than just through dry guided questions and answers?
While attending the Boothbay Literacy Conference last summer, I paid close attention to what Kylene Beers and Bob Probst had to share about their research into nonfiction reading. The thinking behind this slide stuck with me:
but how to accomplish this? How to help my students connect with their texts and become more personally invested in their reading. Luckily, Kylene and Bob were on hand to guide my thinking, through what they shared at Boothbay, a webinar I was able to participate in, and Kylene’s Tweets about their soon to be published Notice and Note for nonfiction. This idea became the focus of my work in Social Studies all year:
Instead of assigning questions, or framing discussions based on pre-ordained questions, I moved towards these questions:
Bit, by bit, first by modeling what such thinking looked like and sounded like, and then by talking through the differences we noted in how our thinking changed, and (most importantly) how the ideas in the text came to matter to us when we read through this lens, my students came to see the value in this new way of reading.
By beginning with a “what surprised me?” stance, we prepared ourselves to be much more attentive and engaged than we would have been if we were simply going on a fact finding mission to answer specific questions. Diverging responses to this question opened avenues of rich discussion, and we were able to make much deeper connections between ideas in this way, too.
What did the author think I already knew? really forced my kids to sift through the text to examine what the author presupposed of their background knowledge. Many times, we discovered that the reason we didn’t understand a concept fully was because the author thought we knew something we didn’t. Putting a great big ? next to passages like this allowed students to take ownership of their own comprehension process. For example, in reading about Abraham Lincoln’s life, the author writes that it was remarkable that Lincoln saw a city for the first time when he was 26 years old. My kids were surprised that this was a remarkable thing at all, until we asked: What did the author think I already knew? and realized that Hakim figured that her readers already knew that most people in Lincoln’s time and of his means did not travel far from where they were born, and many may never see a city in their entire lifetime. This led to a great discussion about the Industrial Revolution, and how societies and attitudes were changed forever as a result of advances in technology and communication.
The third question, What changed or confirmed what I already knew? allowed us to sift through misconceptions, verify information, ask questions about why our thinking had shifted, or how we decide to weigh facts and opinions – whether our own or those of the author.
At the end of our year of reading about history, as I parse through the notes my students have been taking, I can hear echos of all the discussions we’ve had as well. I know the work is not yet “done” – both my kiddos and I have much work ahead. For me, it will be in the company of a brand new class of sixth graders next year. And for my kids? Well, I hope that they have begun to learn to read in a way that makes the text matter to them. Kylene Beers says don’t read it again, read it with new eyes – this year we started to learn how.