Archives For 7th Grade

Books read in Grade 7; generally young adult literature

If you Google the explorer John Cabot, you could get a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

“In 1484, the explorerJohn Cabot moved back to England with his wife and eleven sons. He developed his own website and became quite famous for his charts and maps depicting a new route to the Far East. At this time he also introduced his half-brother Richard (whom the family always called “Ringo”) to his best friends, John, Paul, and George.”

While some facts in this information that might set off bells and whistles to educators-  or fans of The Beatles- there is recent research to suggest that many students in our middle school, high school, or college would not question the intrusion of technology into the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a great source!

Stamford History Education Group (SHEG) report

A report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study was conducted by the Stamford History Education Group (SHEG)  that “prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning.” The report, titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, details the methods SHEG used in order to test civic reasoning as well as:

“…the [students’] ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The results of SHEG’s study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG noted:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report concluded that students at all grade levels were unable to distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence or to tell good reasons from bad. In short, SHEG pronounced pronounced our nation’s students’ ability to research as “bleak”:

“For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Educators should be concerned about this growth of fake information and how to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research. Even if the Internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will escape being shutdown.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-9-07-52-pmBut that  AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

AllAboutExplorers website for Research Practice:

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the Christopher Columbus page:

“Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Turns out that the misinformation on AllAboutExplorers is INTENTIONAL and all the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose. The Aboutpage on the site states:

“AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.”

The educator authors Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District) created the site in 2006. Their collaboration has proven to be a prescient effort given the SHEG findings this month.

They created AllAboutExplorers, “to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.”

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that “all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional” and that they purposefully mixied facts withinaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities.”

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers include pages for:

  • Lewis & Clark Their dream didn’t become reality right away, however. It wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig’s List for a large tract of land;
  • Sir Francis Drake: here he discovered an uncharted island called Java. The local drink, kofie (which we know as “coffee”) was rich and strong, and Drake soon fell in love with it. The locals also baked a cinnamon cake that was often paired with the drink;
  • Ferdinand Magellan: In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands.

The authors have provided cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even an “update” on the site that satirically mentions a lawsuit settlement on a claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website. The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorersTheir website confirms SHEG report’s that states there “are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not.” There are also lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

The SHEG report should set off alarms for all educators who ask students to “look something up” in any discipline. The AllAboutExplorers website provides educators, particularly social studies educators, an opportunity to helping students to learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to explore the web appropriately and accurately can be improved by introducing students to the AllAboutExplorers website.

You probably have encountered the plot mountain diagram:

Exposition. Rising action. Climax. Falling action. Resolution.

plotmountain1

 

 

The plot mountain diagram is taught with short stories in English Language Arts at different grade levels, but I suspect that like most graphic organizers, the plot mountain diagram is over-taught, especially in middle and high school classrooms.

The practice of teaching the plot mountain as a general way to understand that there are patterns to short stories is good in theory, but not so good in practice. Repeated practice of the same plot diagram is worse.

Look at the plot mountain diagram above (courtesy of the Read, Write, Think website).

The falling action of a story is rarely as proportional as the rising action. The climax is not always in the “middle” of the story. This is because, authors do not write their stories according to a plot mountain diagram:
-Authors are unpredictable;
-Plots are unpredictable;
-Most of the short stories taught in middle or high school are selected because they are unpredictable.

Take, for example, Saki’s classic short story The Interlopers. Two men, sworn enemies, are pinned under a tree that crashes in a snowy forest. Trapped together, they come to the conclusion that their longstanding feud is no longer important. Just as they agree to settle their differences, one man sees in the distance how their fate will play out with the single frightening word: “wolves.”

Now, that word (“wolves”) makes up the plot’s “falling action.” There is no real resolution, instead there is imagined horror. Saki designed a story that blew the top off the standard plot mountain diagram.

That same kind of explosion could be said for Guy de Mauppasant’s The Necklace. The character Mathilde spends her youth paying back jewels she was foolish to borrow. The story concludes with the shocking statement:

 “Oh, my poor Mathilde. But mine [jewels]were false. At most they were worth five hundred francs!”

If a student was to create a plot mountain for either of these stories, instead of following the prescribed template above, a student might draw something that looks like this:

screenshot-2016-09-25-14-15-53

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rather than reteaching the same plot mountain model over and over, a teacher should ask students to use their own ideas to diagram a story’s plot. There should not be too much support in the directions.

Take, for example, the instructional suggestion (see screenshot below) to use with Richard Peck’s hilarious short story “Priscilla and the Wimps.”

In this story, Peck sets the tone in describing bullying in a public school setting with his opening lines:

“Listen, there was a time when you couldn’t even go to the rest room in this school without a pass. And I’m not talking about those little pink tickets made out by some teacher. I’m talking about a pass that could cost anywhere up to a buck, sold by Monk Klutter.”

One small student-Melvin-is bullied by a group of students led by Klutter. But Melvin has a protector, Priscilla Roseberry, who is described thusly:

“I’m not talking fat. I’m talking big. Even beautiful, in a bionic way.”

screenshot-2016-10-02-11-51-13

In Peck’s story, the brutish Priscilla efficiently dispatches the school bully, Monk Klutter, into a school locker. The story concludes, “Well, this is where fate, an even bigger force than Priscilla, steps in. It snows all that night, a blizzard. The whole town ices up. And school closes for a week.”

What I most remember about teaching this story with 8th graders is how Peck’s resolution was somewhat unsettling to some readers. More than one student had commented on what could have happened to Klutter if he was stuffed in a school locker during a blizzard.

“Without food and water for a week,” one student pointed out to me, “he’d be dead. Priscilla could be a murderer!”

The directions above do not support such thinking, even if it is slightly misguided. In the directions, although there is some movement away from a “fill-in-the-blank” worksheet by asking students to draw a diagram “like this one” to summarize events, a model is still there for them to follow. The climax (again) is followed by a disproportionately sized resolution.

While directions suggest creating something similar (“like”), many students will simply recreate this diagram, plug in three events, and place Monk’s undoing at the climax.

So what is the purpose for students to use a pre-printed plot mountain diagram?

All they need are the story elements that help them explain a story’s pattern. Teachers could give the terms (perhaps on labels: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution) in order to for students to create the unique diagrams that are proportional to the stories they are reading.

When students are free to demonstrate their understanding of these terms, they can move beyond a prescribed application or a fill-in-the-blank drawing on a worksheet. They can do more of the higher taxonomy activities, such as comparing and contrasting the patterns of different stories. What did Saki do differently than Peck? How does de Mauppasant’s ending compare with either?These more sophisticated educational exercises would not be effective if the same plot mountain template is used over and over (and over!)

Students should be able to identify the elements that make up the unique pattern of each story as well as appreciate an author’s craft in configuring those same elements differently in a story.

In this sense, the plot mountains of stories are a lot like geography…no two mountains are alike.

I recently underwent a hip replacement surgery for my left hip. This has meant that during the past several weeks of recuperation, I have had to relearn how to use my left leg and unlearn any movements that required me to bend more than 90 degrees in order to reach down and pick up something on the ground.

This period of recuperation has made me think about relearning and unlearning. Both should be used by teachers, especially middle and high school teachers, to teach writing in ELA, or any other content area, during the school year.

Relearning: What do the students already know

Students who had been out of the classroom for several weeks due to summer break will begin the year doing a lot of relearning.

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was a pioneer in the study of memory and learning which led to his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect. In 1883, he determined that

“Relearning is supposedly the most efficient way of remembering information.”

I can attest. While I had to relearn to use my left leg to step up the stairs or to put on a pair of pants, my relearning was not very difficult. I was already proficient at these tasks before the hip surgery. According to Ebbinghaus, relearning is faster when the information is already stored, and the brain needs only to revive these memories and refresh them for use.

The level of relearning for each student will differ depending on the level of proficiency a student was originally able to attain on a task. That means the amount of time/attempts that a student took to meet a specified level of proficiency can be compared proportionally to the time/attempts he or she later needs to attain the same level.

Once school begins, teachers should take advantage of relearning by finding out first what students already know. While this may seem a statement of the obvious, a student does not come to class as a “blank slate.” They may already be familiar with information; what they may need is an opportunity to relearn.

There is ongoing relearning in English Language Arts classes at most grades because the literacy anchor standards for writing are almost the same for all grades. The difference in the relearning is directly related to the increase in sophistication required for reading (ex: character, plot, setting) and for writing (ex: noun, question mark, phrase).

Students have already been introduced to the rules for writing, those standard rules of English, at the earliest grade levels. They may need only “to revive these memories and refresh them for use.” That ability for a teacher to differentiate between students who need to relearn versus those who need to be retaught from the beginning can guide the framework for effective instruction for the school year.

Unlearning: Letting go 

Unlearning is harder. During this recuperation from hip surgery, I would repeatedly have to stop myself from reaching down to the ground to pickup whatever I dropped (and I dropped many items!) I had to “unlearn” the reflex action of bending.

“Unlearning is about moving away from something—letting go—rather than acquiring.”

In the same way, students may need to unlearn or “let go” before they can learn new information or try their own strategies in order to develop new skills.

Unlearning or letting go plays an important process  in learning how to write for grades 6-12. By the time students have reached the middle and high school levels, they will have been taught a number of writing formulas, mnemonic training wheels, designed to help them learn how to respond to a writing prompt. Some examples include:

RACE: Restate the question. Answer the question. Cite evidence. Expand/Explain.
TREE: Topic sentence. Note Reasons. Examine reasons. Note Ending
DIDLS: Diction. Images. Details. Language. Sentence Structure.

While many of these mnemonic devices are generally helpful to students, they are designed to be training steps or preliminary checklists. These formulas are meant to stir, not replace, the kind of good thinking that leads to good writing. As noted writer an editor William Zissner said in On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction,

“Writing is thinking on paper.”  Screenshot 2016-08-14 12.47.32

That is the goal teachers want their students to meet…to put their thinking on paper.

To turn their thinking into writing, students should be encouraged to “unlearn” and move away from the checklists and formulas.

Good writing does not follow a prescribed outline where student fill in the blanks, often without generating the important thinking they need to do for comprehension. Even more dangerous is the impression the outlines give to students that writing is neat and easily organized. Good writing is neither neat or easily organized, instead:

Writing is messy.
Writing takes time.

Unlearning the fill-in-the-blank outline can give students new opportunities to develop their own strategies in order to deepen their own understanding. And while students are unlearning the writing formulas they were taught in elementary school, they could also unlearn some of the myths or general misinformation that still circulate in high schools about the writing process:

  • myth: essays have 5 paragraphs;
  • myth: a paragraph has at least three sentences;
  • myth: “I” should never be used in a response.

The end result of misinformation and formula writing has generated years of sameness in student responses. While these same kinds of responses may be easier for teachers to compare and to grade,  the sameness in responses will never truly reflect an individual student’s writing ability.

Encouraging writers: Relearning & Unlearning

For students to become better writers, they may need to relearn some of the general rules for writing and unlearn many of the prescribed ways that writing has been taught to them in the earlier grades. Students will need to be encouraged to drop those outlines that were put in place to guide them -like training wheels- towards the goal of being good writers.

Two areas of focus for the ELA classroom this new school year can be relearning the standard rules for writing, and unlearning the formulas, the checklists, or misinformation that stop student thinking.

Students will need those teachers who are willing to support them as they experiment in the more sophisticated, but very messy, art of writing.

Relearning to remember and unlearning to let go; important goals for the school year in the grades 6-12 classrooms… and for post-hip surgery recuperation!

Baseball is America’s sport, but I do not have a baseball “favorite team”.
My favorite team is whoever is playing the New York Yankees.
I hope that team wins…and wins big.

I hate the New York Yankees.

That said, I do have an appreciation for the cultural contributions of individual Yankee team members.
For example, I liked Babe Ruth…but the Yankees got rid of him.
I liked the architecture of the “House that Ruth built”…but the Yankees got rid of that, too.

I liked Lou Gehrig…and I especially liked how gracious he was when he retired from baseball after he was diagnosed with ALS amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.Before the diagnosis, Lou Gehrig was known as the “iron horse” of baseball, and according to the official Lou Gehrig website,   

….Gehrig’s consecutive game streak of 2,130 games (a record that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995) did not come easily. He played well every day despite a broken thumb, a broken toe and back spasms.

Other statistics on the website highlight his remarkable career:

  • Gehrig’s 184 RBIs in 1931 remains the highest single season total in American League history.
  • He batted .361 in 34 World Series games with 10 homers, eight doubles and 35 RBIs.
  • He also holds the record for career grand slams at 23.
  • He hit 73 three-run homers and 166 two-run shots, giving him the highest average of RBI per homer of any player with more than 300 home runs. 

When Gehrig’s illness forced him to retire, the sportswriter Paul Gallico suggested to the New York Yankees management that there should be a  “Recognition Day” to honor Gehrig.

On July 4, 1939, 62,000 fans watched in Yankee Stadium as Gehrig delivered a short speech during which he described himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

When Gehrig spoke that day, there were multiple microphones, but only a small section of the speech was recorded.

The text and audio from the speech are on the American Rhetoric website.

During the speech, Gehrig listed the relationships he had with others repeatedly as “a blessing”.

First, he thanked the fans:

“I have been to ballparks for seventeen years and I have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.”

He thanked his fellow teammates:

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure I’m lucky.”

He thanked the NY Yankee’s management team, and he thanked the members of the rival team, the NY Giants:

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.”

He thanked the grounds keepers:

“When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in the white coats remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

He thanked his parents:

“When you have a father and mother who work all their lives so that you can have an education and build your body, it’s a blessing.” 

And, he thanked his wife:

“When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed, that’s the finest I know.”

In the brief text of only 286 words, Gehrig demonstrated both incredible grace and excellent speech-craft.

On June 2, 1941, Lou Gehrig succumbed to ALS.

The speech he left is a great literary text to share with students in middle or high school. The readibility of this speech is about a grade 7, and there are several rhetorical devices worth noting. For example, Gehrig’s rhetorical strategies in the speech included the anaphora, which is the repetition of a first word or phrase in successive phrases (“when”) and epistrophe,  a stylistic device in which a word or a phrase is repeated at the end of successive clauses (“it’s a blessing…”).

Giving students speeches to analyze is one way for teachers in all subject areas to increase background knowledge about history and American culture. Teaching this farewell address meets the Common Core Literacy Standards English Language Arts and for History, Social Studies, Science and the Technical Subject Areas, that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.

On July 4th, we celebrate all things American. What could be more American than baseball…even if it is a farewell to baseball address? Lou Gehrig’s speech is one of the great American inspirational speeches…even if he was a NY Yankee.

Oh, and one more thing I can say that I like about the Yankees?

I like my husband.. he grew up as a Yankee fan.

Forgive the boasting, but the survey results for our a silent sustained reading program for 7th and 8th grade students in our school district are in..,and the teachers are feeling very proud.

573 students answered a 12 question survey about their experience this year for SSR, but let’s start with the most important response:

71.4% responded that SSR “made me a better reader this year.”Screenshot 2015-06-18 21.32.12

A better reader! That admission from students ages 11-14 is an achievement that can leave the faculty smiling proudly over the summer. And speaking about summer, the same students answered positively that they believe that they would read over the summer: 69% responded that they plan to read  (28% definitely; 41% sometimes).

Our SSR program was embraced by several teachers and up and running well by November. The classroom libraries were stocked with a combination of traditional and high interest materials. That meant 20 minutes a day of the block schedule (92 minutes) was dedicated to reading independently. By January even more classrooms were on board, and by April, all classrooms were practicing reading for pleasure, teachers included.

Those teachers who hesitated at first were slowly converted, and more than one commented, “I think I am a better reader as well!”

These same 573 students took many standardized tests this year generating scores that determine each student’s reading ability against a standard. But those test scores do not measure a student’s self-assessment of their reading.

Our June 2015 survey does.

Our June survey asked 12 questions about reading, and every response showed growth in attitudes that we recorded from our September 2014  survey. That beginning of the year survey was used as a benchmark to measure student attitudes towards reading.

Compare the responses from September to June when asked student if they thought reading was “fun”:

7th & 8th grade students Usually Sometimes Rarely
September  22% 48% 25%
June 32% 54% 14%

In one school year, 10% of the student population changed their attitudes towards reading…all in a positive direction.

The survey also recorded what students look for in selecting their own reading materials:

length of the book 26.9%
cover of the book 46.2%
the book is part of a series I like 61.8%
a friend recommended the book 48.2%
a teacher recommended the book 31.1%
a parent or another adult recommended the book 22.2%
a movie is connected to this book 24.4%

The survey also asked how many books students were reading a month:

at least 1 32.1%
1-2 books 14.8%
3-4 books 17.1%
4 or more books 12%

Do the math. 184 students (32%) read at least one book a month. That means students who read one book a month for eight months (8) of the school year collectively read 1472 books…and that just the total of books read by 1/3 of the class.

Combine our findings with those of the Scholastic Publishing company in their survey 2014  “Kids and Family Reading Report”

Scholastic is one of the publishers that has a presence in schools through book fair sales, and they released three key findings about reading in school:

#1: One third of children ages 6–17 (33%) say their class has a designated time during the school day to read a book of choice independently, but only 17% do this every or almost every school day.

#2: Half of children ages 6–17 who read independently as a class or school (52%) say it’s one of their favorite parts of the day or wish it would happen more often.

#3: Sixty-one percent of children ages 6–17 who live in the lowest-income households say they read books for fun mostly in school, or the same amount in school and at home, while only 32% of children ages 6–17 who live the highest-income homes say the same.

The most interesting statistics for our teachers  in our survey was that students believe their parents are connected to their independent reading. Along with the information that 22% of students look for suggestions from parents in selecting reading materials, they also indicated how critical the role of parents and family is (over 50%) when they share what they read by checking all that applied:

I share what I read with:

Friends 56.9%
Family (parents, relatives) 53.1%
Teacher 33%
Other 13.4%
 Next year’s plan? Focus on this parent connection, flood the classrooms with more books, and read, read, read.
Beyond the survey, there is one more piece of evidence. These final images display the lists of the favorite books the students read this year from Mr. Robert’s class. He was one of the early embracers of SSR, and his results speak for themselves:

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That letter “O” morphing on your search engine for Mother’s Day?
That spinning Globe for Earth Day?
Those jigging leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day?
These are all the Google Doodles from 2015 to celebrate holidays.

There are also Google doodle tributes to individuals. Emmy Noether (physicist), Laura Ingalls Wilder (author), and Anna Atkins (botonist), have been featured in doodles this year (2015) as individuals whose work was celebrated as having made an impact in our lives today. Each of the doodles represents the individual artistically using elements that best represent their work.

Some of the Google doodles are interactive. The Google doodle for Martha Graham is a 15 second celebration of dance. The Google doodle for Robert Moog provides a miniature electronic analog Moog Synthesizer (keyboard) that the viewer can play. The tribute to journalist Nellie Bly features a Youtube video scored with an original song (Music: “Nellie” by Karen O).

There are also international tributes not seen here in the United States with Google doodles for surrealist artist Leonora Carrington (Latin America/Australia); the oldest primary grade student at 84 years old, Kimani Maruge (Kenya); and womens’ rights activist, Henrietta Edwards (Canada).

The first Google Doodle celebrating a vacation at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google doodle celebrated a vacation by Google founders Larry and Sergey at the Burning Man Festival

The first Google Doodle (right) was a comical message that the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were out of the office attending the Burning Man Festival. The Google Doodle Archive houses the entire collection (1998-present). A scroll through the graphics shows how Google’s primary colored logo is changed in a way that is often surprising or magical. Clicking on the Google doodle takes the reader to a page with information about the event or person, and information about the graphic design and artist for the page.

There are hundreds of doodles, and information on the archive states:

Creating doodles is now the responsibility of a team of talented illlustrators (we call them doodlers) and engineers. For them, creating doodles has become a group effort to enliven the Google homepage and bring smiles to the faces of Google users around the world.

Now, consider that a key shift of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction. The explanation on the CCSS website is:

Students must be immersed in information about the world around them if they are to develop the strong general knowledge and vocabulary they need to become successful readers and be prepared for college, career, and life. Informational texts play an important part in building students’ content knowledge. Further, it is vital for students to have extensive opportunities to build knowledge through texts so they can learn independently.

Students at all grade levels can independently develop an interpretation of the Google doodle graphic. After studying the logo created by Google illustrators (doodlers), teachers can determine if the link that takes students information on the holiday, the anniversary, or the biography is appropriate for age or grade level reading. Each link contains general information that aligns to the CCSS shift to “build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.” There is information on these links that might lead students to investigate the person or topic on the doodle even further.

Should a student have an idea for a Google doodle, “The doodle team is always excited to hear ideas from users – they can email proposals@google.com with ideas for the next Google doodle.” There are hundreds of suggestions daily, but the information of the website assures students that, “…rest assured that we’re reading them :)”

Another opportunity for students to submit ideas for a Google doodle (Doodle 4 Google) will be available in September 2015. The details for the 8th annual US competition will be announced then, and examples of student entry winners in 2014 are available for viewing on the website as well.

A quick click on the Google doodle can be an engaging mini-lesson for students in building background knowledge….especially when the information is offered in a logo that is dancing, leaping, morphing, twisting, falling, jumping, running, exploding, singing, growing….

 

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\'s box at Ford\'s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\’s box at Ford\’s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

News stories are generally written in what is commonly known as the inverted pyramid style, in which the opening paragraph features the “5 Ws” of journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The reason for this style is so that the reader gets the most important information up front. Given the amount of time readers have today to read the amount of news generated in a 24 hour news cycle, the inverted pyramid makes sense.

In contrast, 150 years ago a dispatch by the Associated Press took a storytelling approach  when President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth was relayed by AP correspondent Lawrence Gobright. Under the headline”Great National Calamity!” he chose to deliver gently the monumental news of Lincoln’s death in paragraph 9:

The surgeons exhausted every effort of medical skill, but all hope was gone.

The Common Core State Standards in Literacy promotes primary source documents, such as this news release, in English Language Arts and Social Studies. Documents like this provide students an opportunity to consider the voice or point-of-view of a writer within a historical context.

In this 19th Century AP news release, an editor’s note attached described in vivid detail Gobright’s efforts to gain first-hand information in compiling the story of Lincoln’s assassination. In the tumult that followed the assassination, Gobright became more than a witness as he:

scrambled to report from the White House, the streets of the stricken capital, and even from the blood-stained box at Ford’s Theatre, where, in his memoir he reports he was handed the assassin’s gun and turned it over to authorities.

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress' Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press' first Washington correspondent. A native of Hanover, Pa., Gobright covered both inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination during a career spanning more than a third of a century in Washington. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress’ Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press’ first Washington correspondent.. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

Gobright’s opening line for the news story identified the setting as Ford’s Theatre; he then added information of considerable interest to the Union Army, that:

It was announced in the papers that Gen. Grant would also be present, but that gentleman took the late train of cars for New Jersey.

After setting up who was or was not in attendance,  Gobright detailed the sequence of events in paragraph 3:

During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’

Describing the assailant’s escape on horseback, Gobright concluded the reaction of the crowd in the audience in paragraph 4 in an understatement, “The excitement was of the wildest possible description…”

His AP’s edited version online states that the report does not contain details on the second assassination report on Secretary of State William Seward. There is his reference to the other members of Lincoln’s cabinet who, after hearing about the attack on Lincoln, travelled to the deathbed:

They then proceeded to the house where the President was lying, exhibiting, of course, intense anxiety and solicitude.

As part of a 150 year memorial tribute, the AP offers two websites with Gobright’s report, the first with an edited version of the report and the second, an interactive site with graphics. The readabilty score on Gobright’s release is a grade 10.3, but with some frontloading of vocabulary (solicitude, syncope) this story can be read by students in middle school. There are passages that place the student in the moment such as:

  • There was a rush towards the President’s box, when cries were heard — ‘Stand back and give him air!’ ‘Has anyone stimulants?’
  • On an examination of the private box, blood was discovered on the back of the cushioned rocking chair on which the President had been sitting; also on the partition and on the floor.

The NYTimes reporting of the assassination, having the advantage of several hours start, did not bury the lede, or begin with details of secondary importance, offering the critical information through a series of headlines beginning with the kicker “An Awful Event”:

An Awful Event
The Deed Done at Ford’s Theatre Last Night.
THE ACT OF A DESPERATE REBEL
The President Still Alive at Last Accounts.
No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery.
Attempted Assassination of Secretary Seward.
DETAILS OF THE DREADFUL TRAGEDY.

Their six column spread allowed space for the six drop heads, or smaller secondary headlines, above that were stacked to provide an outline of the events. The article that follows begins with then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s message to Major General Dix, April 15, 1865 at 1:30 AM:

This evening about 9:30 PM, at Ford’s Theatre, the President while sitting in his private box, with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris, and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.

Stanton’s 324 word report has a readability grade 7.2, and includes also details about the other assassination attempt on Seward’s life:

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. SEWARD’s apartments, and under the pretence of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflicted two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face.

A second dispatch features Gobright’s reporting and appears below Stanton’s message in the second column. Following these accounts, a third dispatch  by an unnamed reporter is dated Friday, April 14, 11:15 P.M. and like Gobright’s account begins with a storybook-type lead:

A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theatre a half hour ago that the President had been shot. It flew everywhere in five minutes, and set five thousand people in swift and excited motion on the instant.

These first-person accounts of Gobright, Stanton, and others covering Lincoln’s assassination will allow students to contrast what they recognize as the reporting styles of today with an example of the storytelling reporting style 150 years ago. Students can analyze both styles for conveying information, and then comment on impact each style may have on an audience.

More important is the opportunity to ditch the dry facts from a textbook, as these newspaper releases allow students to discover that at the heart of stories about Lincoln’s assassination, the reporters were really storytellers, and their hearts were breaking.

Most overused verb used by students in school: Bored.
Least favorite word teachers want to hear: Bored.

In order to bring teachers and students together to explore what could happen when people are bored, look at the the hypothesis of Dr. Sandi Mann. She has been seeking to prove that boredom leads to creativity. Her research with other psychologists at the University of Central Lancashire was explained in an article on the Psychology Blog. In an experiment, she asked one set of participants to copy numbers out of a telephone book for 15 minutes; the other set of participants were immediately engaged in a standard creative task-inventing as many different uses as they could for a polystyrene cup. (Mann & Cadman, 2013).

The group that had been bored for 15 minutes of copying came up with the most uses.

“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.

In order to put Mann’s hypothesis to a less scientific test, the writers at the Blog New Tech City posted an article demonstrating a variation on Mann’s experiment using “Post-It notes, sponges, plastic forks (and maybe a little bit of wine).”  The results are seen on the video posted on YouTubeVideo: What Happened When We got 130 People Really, Really Bored:

In New Tech City’s re-staging, one group copied the phone book; one group read the phone book; one group went to the bar. These tasks are not dissimilar from “traditional” classroom activities.  Copying can be tedious, such as copying words from a dictionary, especially if students do not see the purpose in the activity. Reading should never be boring, but there are some textbooks that should carry a prescriptive warning: “May cause drowsiness.” What about the bar? Well, consider the lunchroom. The grouping in New Tech City’s experiment is easily transferred to a school setting.

Teachers could first analyze the procedure from Mann’s or New Tech City’s experiments to get some ideas on how to generate creative thinking or problem solving from the “boredom” of sitting in class. Since both experiments were “low-tech”, the process could be replicated easily. Here is the analysis:

  1. Mann posed a problem that had not one but multiple solutions;
  2. In both experiments, there were cheap, ordinary, familiar objects to use (post-its, forks, sponges, styrofoam cups);
  3. Once placed in a group, participants could sit where they chose;
  4. Ideas between people were shared because talking was permitted;
  5. Results (by group) were visual using post-it notes;
  6. Peer feedback was given.

This example of moving from a state of to boredom to a state of creativity could be reconfigured as a class activity by providing students a challenge to offer a solution to a prompt using similarly innocuous items. Their creations could demonstrate their understanding or interpretation in a creative way. Teachers could use the collaboration and cooperation in the classroom to stimulate ideas and support peer to peer feedback as well as formatively assess what students know, or more important, what students are capable of doing.

There could be some interesting combinations:

  • Paper plates and coffee stirrers illustrating …..Shakespeare’s scenes?
  • post-it notes and yarn ……elements in the periodic table?
  • popsicle sticks and napkins …..for highlights in American history?

Or teachers could just let students create and then reflect on their inventions.

Dr. Mann’s experiments show that boredom is a fertile ground for creative expression. Teachers could use this research in lessons that could benefit their students.

Someday, “I’m bored” might even be the best thing a teacher might hear.

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…