My Favorite Strategy for Building Student Close Reading and Comprehension Skills

One of the essential skills for being successful in AP Literature is close reading. To succeed on the AP Exam, students have to be able to find patterns, notice symbols, and make meaning of an unfamiliar text, completely independently of their ever-so-wise teacher.

Yet, as I think back on the start of the last three school years, this is the very task that students seem most unsure of. They’re anxious because how can they possibly know for sure that the bonsai tree mentioned in that poem is a symbol; how can they possibly guarantee that the author structured the text as a frame narrative for that purpose? Much of what we must do as AP teachers is help them test the waters and build the sort of structure and prerequisite knowledge they need in order to be successful.

How I Teach Close Reading: Reciprocal Teaching

When my principal (and educational role model) first suggested that I try reciprocal teaching with my AP students, I vastly misunderstood just what reciprocal teaching was. I assumed that it was giving students a task and having them teach their peers– sort of like a jigsaw activity, I suppose — but I was at a complete loss at how it might build student comprehension or understanding.

I was so wrong.

Reciprocal teaching was – hands down – the most revolutionary approach I had ever considered adding to my teaching toolbox. The first day I tried it, my students were singing its praises. It helped my students grow leaps and bounds and gave my students the agency they needed in order to be successful.

Step #1: Make Predictions

Basically, reciprocal teaching is a structured approach to analyzing a text. Students start by looking at the text and making predictions: these predictions might be based off the work’s title, the cover, the opening lines of a chapter, or even a prose or poetry analysis essay prompt. Regardless, asking to do this enables them to monitor their own comprehension and understanding as they work through a text.

Step #2: Clarify Areas of Confusion

As they read the text, have students mark any areas of confusion and then, after reading, have them take some time to clarify areas of confusion, whether they are questions about historical context or definitions of unfamiliar words

Step #3: Summarize

This is simple, but incredibly effective. Have students summarize what the text they’ve just read is about.

Step #4: Question

This is my favorite part of reciprocal teaching. Once students have predicted, clarified, and summarized, we begin to delve into the so what of it all. We focus on why the author chose to structure the text the way that he or she did; we consider why the author chose to use that particular metaphor when describing a character and why their choice might be significant.

Put simply, we take some time to analyze all of the key elements suggested in the 2019 AP Curriculum Framework: character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting. Then, we tie it all together and consider how each of these elements impacts the overall meaning of the work as a whole.

How do I teach this?

To ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching.

To more deeply ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching. Each time, the classroom arrangement is structured like a socratic seminar: we all sit in a circle and share our observations, but the level of teacher involvement varies each time.

I do: The first time we use reciprocal teaching as a class, I lead the discussion. I ask students to predict what a short passage (1-2 pages) is about; then, I give them time to read and I have them mark areas of confusion. We then work through those areas of confusion together, using dictionaries and phones to find the answers we need.

Afterwards, I have a student summarize what they’ve just read, but it isn’t until we get to the questions that I really start modeling the process. I give students a graphic organizer with question categories and I let them know that in future discussions they will be the ones designing the questions. I ask them pre-prepared questions based on each category, like “How does the author structure this text?” and then, after they respond, follow up questions, like “How does the use of that frame narrative impact our understanding of Joanie as a character?” and “How does that impact the meaning of the work as a whole?”

The key is to keep asking the students why until they can cogently explain the author’s purpose in an insightful manner. This challenges students and allows them to delve into the text in a deeper manner.

We do: The next time, I give the students a little bit control over the discussion. Everybody is given a graphic organizer so that they can come up with questions about character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting as they read and everybody is expected to come up with insightful questions.

We predict, clarify, and summarize together. When we reach the question portion, students introduce their own questions rather than just responding to mine, yet it’s still important that I am hands-on at this point in the process. As students ask their questions and others respond, I prompt them to think deeper about the text and why the author makes the choices that he or she does. By the end of the discussion, students are often beginning to ask the “so what?” question themselves.

You Do: Finally, students arrive at the independent portion of the reciprocal teaching process. I still have students discuss their questions as a class (I always love whole class discussions), but I don’t ask quite as many follow-up questions and I start grading students on the questions they prepare and their responses.

I usually assign students a section, a character, a symbol, or a chapter from whatever book we’re currently reading in class and have them work through this process. This allows us to focus on close-reading while still working with the novel as a whole and keeps students even more engaged.

Final Thoughts

I use this process whole class, but this could easily be used for literature circles or small groups. You could have students work through the text in small groups and film the process using a tech. tool like flipgrid, or have them record their responses in an answer log. However you choose to use this, this is a highly effective tool for engaging students in discussions and deeper reading.

Related Resources:

Looking for more resources on Reciprocal Teaching? Consider checking out the resources below.

Building Your Students’ Relationship with Poetry

Poetry should be powerful. As William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” — yet often, as we introduce our upcoming poetry unit to our students, their groans seem to imply anything but enthusiasm. Somehow the link between poetry and passion has been severed and replaced with a sort of anxious bewilderment. Is this a symbol or just a hill? Is the theme this or that?

This bewilderment, I would argue, is a direct result of a lack of personal connection to poetry. Poetry is the “language of the soul.” It taps into the very essence of human experience and – at least as of yet – all of our students are human and thus should be able to find at least one poem they can relate to. How do we guide them to such a poem? I’m glad you asked: through a student-led thematic exploration of poetry.

Introducing the Assignment:

At the start of the unit, I work on introducing relatable poems to my students. John Updike’s “A Dog’s Death” or Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” are often favorites of my students. I seat them in groups and have them complete a “poetic carousel” activity, where each student reads a different poem, analyzes it, passes it on to the next student, and then debates its interpretation. It’s a lot of fun and it peels back a lot of the stress my students feel surrounding poetry; they often independently begin to make connections to their own lives. 

Then I introduce students to some of my favorite spoken word poems on Youtube and we talk a bit about the power of poetry. We talk about what makes a poem powerful and worth reading. Before introducing the assignment, I may mention my own favorite poem (“On His Blindness” by John Donne, which has some personal relevance due to my own battle with chronic illness) and how poems encapsulate pieces of the human experience and moments of human comfort that might not be conveyed otherwise. 

Finally, then, I challenge them to think of themes that are significant in their own lives: for some, it might be nature; for others, it might be the loss of a family member; and for others, it might be coming out. Regardless, I ask them to find something personally significant. 

The Assignment Itself:

Students are then tasked with finding ten poems that relate to their topic, writing a poetic précis for each poem, and then presenting how each poem deals with their topic in various ways. 

My students loved this. It allowed me to connect with my students in a deeper way, but also allowed them to connect to poetry. It’s easy for us as teachers with standards to cover to neglect the emotional connection students feel to a literary work, but the emotional connection is often the most powerful part. It’s what allows our students to become readers of poetry. 

Do your lessons have “talkability”?

How you can inject joy into your daily lesson plans

True story: I’m a bit of a nerd.

I like to spend my mornings looking up random facts that strike my fancy and researching things that have very little relevance to my actual everyday life because it’s fun and it’s interesting.

Recently, my current research hobby has been marketing. From random blogs and podcasts to Seth Godin’s book, This is Marketing, I feel as if I’ve learned a lot, and a lot of what I’ve learned is actually surprisingly relevant to teaching.

As 21st century teachers, much of what we do involves “selling” education to our students: why do you want to learn this? How does this apply to your life? Why do you need to know this fact I’m trying to teach you?

It is when our marketing fails that our students become disinterested.

Seth Godin, in his TED Talk on spreading ideas, noted that it is no longer acceptable just to market “average things to average people.” Our products must be remarkable, meaning that people must have talkability; people must be driven to remark on our products.

When I think about my best “products” (i.e. lesson plans), there’s an element of talkability inherent in them. Students feel driven to tell their friends, their parents, and other teachers about what they did and what they learned. Maybe talkability takes the form of a whole-class debate over whether technology is forever damaging society; maybe it takes to form of a horror story unit where we discuss the nature of fear. Regardless, talkability is one of the modern teacher’s greatest tools.

So then, this begs the question: How can I build talkability in my own classroom?

Here are a few strategies and ideas that may help…

1. Identify relevant and engaging connections between your students’ world and your lesson plans

We are blessed to live in an age of connections and information. Even though it can be overwhelming and distracting, information is always at our fingertips in the form of television shows, news articles, podcasts, etc. With a little bit of your own research power, you have the ability to find connections between your content and the world your students are engaged in.

Are you doing a short story unit including horror stories? Make connections between American Horror Story, Castle Rock, and other great horror stories/movies/shows/books of our day and age.

Are you doing a unit on dystopian worlds? Make connections between the dystopias they are already familiar with (Black Mirror, The Good Place, Hunger Games, etc.) and the ones they are about to study.

If you’re doing a unit on Shakespearean language, engage students through having them adapt pop songs into Shakespearean pop sonnets.

Making those meaningful connections is the first step to talkability.

2. Similarly to my previous point, look for ways to break the mold with your teaching.

Do something different than students might expect.

Many times this “something different” takes on the form of student choice,, debates, movement, games, or challenge.

It may seem simple, but, instead of giving students worksheets, give them task cards. Let them move from station to station while answering questions.

Instead of just having students learn how to write a persuasive paper, give them something to debate and have them debate with one another.

Rather than having all students work lock-step on the same nonfiction text (which can also be spiced up to break the mold), have students choose their own books on their own interests and seek to conference with each of them.

Rather than just writing a research paper, have them plan and research for a TED Talk on the topic of their choice that they have to present to an audience of their peers. Have students create something that they’re proud of and they will be so excited to share that discovery with others. This is what makes learning stick.

3. Finally, recognize that every student is different and that “remarkability” varies from student to student.

My last caveat is that – in order to be talkable – we must keep in mind our “consumers” (students) wants and needs. They vary from year to year, so we as teachers must be intentional about identifying what connections or challenges will be more pertinent than others.

We’ve all had those lesson plans that worked wonderfully with one group of kids and flopped with another. We must intentionally learn about our students and what brings them joy in order to serve them.

There are many ways that we can do this. We can have regular chats with our students about what makes them tick, give them interest surveys, ask students about what they want to learn, and give them choices.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed!

LattesandLit

Prepping AP Literature Students for the Dreaded Q1 and Q2 Essays (Reading and Comprehension Strategies for AP Literature Students)

Last year after AP scores were released, Trevor Packer made a shocking observation: the AP Literature and Composition scores nationwide in 2018 were the lowest they’ve ever been.

Trevor Packer’s analysis of the 2018 AP Literature and Composition Scores

What had led to this cataclysmic decline? Mr. Packer offered a variety of theories: It was the result of too much nonfiction in the earlier grades, too little student reading, too much of a focus on novels rather than short excerpts of text, etc.

Finally, Trevor Packer noted that close reading (the primary skill tested on the AP Exam) had declined and – while I disagreed with his assertions that we should teach less novels (blasphemy to a lit-loving English teacher) – I realized the way that I was teaching novels had to change. I needed to equip my students with better reading strategies in order to build their reading comprehension and their understanding of the nuance of specific passages of text.

Thus began my quest to revolutionize the way I dealt with close reading, comprehension, and reading strategies in my AP Literature and Composition classroom.

Strategies for using grammar as tool for AP Literature students

Approach #1: Leverage Syntax as a Comprehension Tool (specifically in regards to poetry)

The first strategy I tried was using grammar as a tool to enhance reading comprehension. I remembered when I encountered Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in college. For some reason, the king’s syntax just did not mesh with my brain and I knew I had to take an active approach to my reading comprehension, so I circled the subject of each sentence and underlined all “describing words” referring to the subject an it helped.

With my AP students, we did the same thing. We read some complex Shakespearean poems and boxed in the subject and predicate, which helped, but didn’t go far enough. My students struggled to identify where Shakespeare’s ideas began and ended, so I had them go through and place a box around the entirety of the sentence. As simple as it was, this really helped and my students began to ask for more, similar strategies to comprehend complex texts.

Overview of reciprocal teaching as a reading strategy and comprehension-booster for AP Literature and Composition students.

Approach #2: Model strong comprehension strategies using a model and then give students the opportunity to lead.

I had never heard of the “Reciprocal Teaching” comprehension strategy until recently, but it has already made such a big influence on my teaching this year and has already really helped my students.

First, you introduce students to the method by modeling the process: I began by handing my students an excerpt of To the Lighthouse with a fake AP Prose Analysis prompt and then had them predict what the passage would be about. This primed them to consider what was significant in the passage and what they should be looking for. They realized they were looking for information about a complex relationship and some hypothesized that the relationship might be related to the lighthouse itself.

After this, students read the text and prepare to paraphrase the text. I have the students do this section out loud and use it as a lead in for them to make observations about the text, then guiding them through the analysis process, asking them to consider structure, selection of detail, figurative language, and tone. As students made observations, like “she uses a simile to compare Mrs. Ramsay to nature,” I asked them deepening questions, like how the connotations of the word choice impacted meaning and why Woolf would choose to include such a comparison.

Then, once we’ve debriefed on the passage, comes the exciting part. I ask students to “teach” their peers a passage like I did, through asking guided questions to help their peers comprehend the text. Students study their assigned passage in groups, research and anticipate possible areas of confusion, and formulate questions that will guide their peers to meaningful answers. It’s metacognitive magic and it does wonders for their comprehension!

Approach #3: Still in progress…

Beyond these strategies, I’m continuing to research and come up with ideas on how to meet my students where they are. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, leave them in the comments below. I would love to hear what you do?

Interested in seeing some of these strategies in action? Check out the following paid resources on my TPT store.

Poetry Reciprocal Teaching Resources

Empower Them: Concrete Ways to Encourage Risk Taking and Agency in Your Classroom

One thing that’s been on my heart this last year is the topic of fear. 

Not the obvious, quiver-in-your-boots, run-for-cover type of fear, but a much more insidious kind. The kind that creeps up when nobody’s watching, that manifests as a quiet doubt or belief that you’ll never be good enough and that stepping out of your comfort zone is for other people and never you. It’s the fear that lurks in the periphery of your mind, yet controls everything you do.

And, in my own experience as both a teacher and student, I’ve noticed fear not only holds a prominent place in my life, but in the lives of my students as well. 

The Manifestation of Fear

When I was in high school, I was extremely quiet. I was a “good” kid, but you’d never see me stay late to ask a teacher for help or volunteer for a leadership role. I didn’t want to inconvenience anyone. I didn’t want to give myself the chance to let anyone else down. I was quiet and meek and almost afraid of my own voice and, because of that, I let my dreams go by.

It wasn’t until college that I felt comfortable. Not until a series of events led to me applying to be an orientation leader and Freshmen Seminar TA and Writing Center Tutor that I found my voice. I student taught. I became a teacher. In the walls of my own classroom, I was safe.

Yet I still see so much of my own fear in my students.

I came to this realization after a series of observations. One such came about in an informal post-socratic seminar discussion with an incredibly brilliant student of mine.

I asked her what she thought of “A Rose for Emily” and if the socratic method was working for her. She replied that she liked it, but that she had already realized the North vs. South symbolism inherent in the text on her first read, something I had paused the seminar to talk about at the end of class.

“That’s great! I’m glad you got it!” I exclaimed, “Why didn’t you bring that up in class? A lot of other students could have benefitted from that insight.”

“Well,” She shrugged, “I just figured that I’d rather be quiet than wrong.”

I thought about this statement for a while. My brilliant student had a profound lack of trust in her own insight. She didn’t trust her own voice.

The root problem wasn’t a lack of trust in her classmates or a lack of classroom. She was good friends with everyone in her class and had been since she was very young. It wasn’t that every student in that class had shared brilliant insights (in fact, one student in her class had even introduced a far-out conspiracy theory somehow involving aliens). It was a fear to take up space, to be visible, to share her own voice.

Year after year, students are easily intimidated for various reasons. Whether that fear originates from the way they were raised, a language barrier, a disability, or past failures, it’s crippling. It prevents them for seeking out the help they need and taking control of their own future.

Below are a few suggestions to help your students step out on the ice.

Ideas and Solutions:

1. Build confidence through practice

Confidence takes time and comes from a sense of accomplishment. Oftentimes, I’ve observed the best way to help my students take risks is by slowly easing them into challenging situations and providing multiple scaffolds for their skills.

For example, I assign my freshmen a presentation at the beginning of each year as a get-to-know-you activity, and students are always terrified. The idea of presenting their thoughts and ideas to their peers is utterly terrifying to them. I assure them by the time they present they’ll be prepared, but it’s still scary.

This all changes though when my students are offered a low-stress, low-stakes way to practice their presentation skills. We play something called the “press conference game” (a wonderful game I borrowed from a former colleague of mine) where weird, humorous pictures are displayed on the screen behind the presenter and the presenter has to improvise answers to questions about a picture he can’t see.

By the end of the game, students are begging for more and much of the edge of presenting has worn off.

2. Provide “think time” and opportunities to prepare

As a teacher, I speak for a living, but I still need time to gather my thoughts and prepare. For many of our students (especially our quieter ones), they need this preparation time, as well.

Even in socratic seminars, processing time is important and providing opportunities and guidance on how to plan for discussions is important. One of my favorite blogs about socratic seminars is The Readiness is All’s post on BRAWL Socratic Seminars. What’s a BRAWL Seminar? It stands for Battle Royale: All Will Learn, and it provides a structure for ALL students to craft detailed and insightful discussion questions and prepare for discussions. Many of our students need that structure to be bold.

3. Encourage a Growth Mindset and give them opportunities to revise and hone their craft

Very few people are born being persuasive, confident, and cohesive speakers. They have to grow and they have to practice. No one learns to read by revisiting the alphabet once a year and the same goes for public speaking. If we expect students to trust their voice, we must give them opportunities to use it.

Last year, I gave my ninth grade honors students a daunting task. I told them I wanted them to prepare their own TED Talks that would be 5-7 minutes long, have minimal text on their slides, be completely memorized, and be presented in front of 100 of their peers from other classes. It was a big ask and my students were nervous, but with that big ask I provided a lot of support.

We spent five weeks researching, planning, and prepping those speeches. Students mapped out their speeches and then presented to a partner; then they presented to a group and filmed themselves; then they received peer critiques, revised, and then presented again in order to receive further feedback. The average TED Talk speaker practices her speech hundreds of times before presenting; high school students need opportunities to practice too.

4. Don’t shy away from the challenge

As great as low-stakes public speaking and practice are, they are not sufficient in fully preparing students to take the risks that lie ahead. In order to gain true confidence, students must be required to do work worth doing and step out of their comfort zone. Achievement builds confidence, which sparks further growth.

Students may fail or initially struggle, but they must learn that this is okay and is part of the learning process in order to become the resilient leaders they are meant to be.

Before my TED Talk project, I had a student come to me, terrified and crying, sure that her speech wouldn’t be good enough. I talked to her, let her know that the fear was okay and that we could adapt the assignment, but that I thought she needed to do the speech because I knew she was capable. Shaking, she stepped up to the podium and gave a truly moving speech.

She later told me she was glad I had forced her to do that speech because it let her know she could do it.

Conclusion

In conclusion, true confidence only comes from doing work that is worth doing with excellence. Achievement leads to a desire to do more, but students often need a push to get there.

Challenges are part of students finding their voice and we must be sure that we are providing these opportunities to our students.