“Good afternoon, so this is the final week of the quarter,” I announce to my seventh grade reading class. They have spent the morning with the state mandated PARCC test, and we are in an alternate classroom while the eighth graders take their test. It’s an unusually warm March day, so in addition to testing fatigue, energy is quite low. I’m hoping I can move the mind and body in today’s lesson. I continue,”Remember how we started the quarter by choosing a book study project — genres, subjects, authors? What did you study, Jackie?”
“Subject study.And you, Jose?” I ask.
“Fantasy. Genre study.”
“Nice. How about you, Matt?” I ask.
“Lois Lowry. Author study.”
“Thanks. And you blogged about these each week during the quarter. I’ve enjoyed reading what you’ve been noticing about the characters and issues in your books. Well, remember back at the beginning of the quarter how we put in our assignment notebooks that on March 9th a comparison essay would be due?” I ask noticing some heads nodding and some brows furrowing. “Yes? No? Well, today we are going to get started on that comparison blog. You will need a piece of paper and a partner. You have twenty seconds to invite a partner to join you and stand beside your person; we’re going to do some yoga poses. Go! One, two, three…”
About this quarter’s independent reading project
At the beginning of every quarter, we spend some time rejuvenating our independent reading. We reflect on what we’ve read and what we want to read. This quarter, I asked students to read within a specific genre (e.g., fantasy, verse, classics), author (e.g., Simone Elkeles, Sarah Crossan, Lois Lowry), or topic (e.g., depression, basketball, relationships). We spent the first week of the quarter in the library making book lists and seeing what was available in the school library, local library, and classroom library. I bought a few books to fill some of the gaps.
We set aside some time every day for reading, and I asked students to blog about their books once a week (e.g., make and support a claim about the topic, characters, genre, style of writing, etc., and include text evidence with a personal note). The first ten to fifteen minutes of class was set aside for choice/book study reading, and I was able to confer and monitor their progress throughout the quarter. During this time, we had shared texts going: For eighth grade, it was Night. Having this independent study allowed students a break from the darkness of Elie Wiesel’s experiences to dive into their fantasy or romance books. For seventh grade, it was The Outsiders. We discussed issues of class, grief, friendship, and family, which students compared to their independent reading.
Now that we are at the end of the quarter, it was time for that comparison essay. I asked students to select two books within their study to compare in an essay-blog. In a writing-thinking workshop, we worked through the process of writing a point-by-point comparison essay. Below is an overview of the process and sample essays.
The graphic thinking-writing organizer
This graphic organizer is really basic. I talk through my own book comparison while students just draw this on their notebook paper and jot down some ideas that come to mind as I talk through some possible options for the comparison points as indicated in the assessment instructions.
The talking-through-while-yoga-posing experience
Before doing any writing, I find it helpful to talk out the thinking and reasoning. Students partner up and take a yoga pose, which may seem silly, but it gets them connecting to their minds and bodies. I project this image on the screen/board to help guide them through a collegial conversation about their books.
The transition-helper-visual-model-for-extra-support template
I offer this visual to students in need of a little extra support; I do not require students to use this template nor even encourage it. Rather, I make clear that paragraphing, topic sentences, and transition phrases help them move through their thinking while signaling to the reader those moves so they can follow the logic and flow of ideas.
The drafting-revising comparisons
We use Kidblog and Google Docs to compose, so students can choose whichever platform they prefer to draft their comparison essay. I walk around and offer compliments and feedback as they write. I interrupt every ten or fifteen minutes for students to read aloud what they have to a partner. This helps students check for basic wording, confusing logic, and sentence flow but also hear how other students are working out the comparisons, which may inspire deeper thinking or a shift in thinking for other reader-writers.
The “final” essays were posted on March 9th. (I use quotes because if I notice the need for revision, I confer with students about revisions.) One student who did a fantasy study selected Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard and Keeper of the Lost Cities: Neverseen by Shannon Messenger. She compared the characters’ dispositions, trust in their relationships, and themes. As she reflects on the comparison process, she notes:
Looking back to when I first read these books, I never thought I’d be able to find so many connections between the two. Their plots are so original and unalike. I’m glad I was able to find similarities between the two so I could understand each of them more. That concludes my comparison of main characters, trust-relationships, and lessons in the books Red Queen and Keeper of the Lost Cities: Neverseen. Walking away from these amazing books, I now realize that deep trust should only be put into those who you understand. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone at all, but that there are specific times to look for signs of future betrayal and times to let your mind guide you more than your heart.
Another student who did an author study selected Apple and Rain and The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan. She noticed that in both books, there is a missing parent, an English setting, and a love interest; however, one book is prose while the other is in verse.
The value of comparing
I haven’t thought about Marzano in a while, but I recall in reading Classroom Instruction that Works years ago, something that stuck with me: comparing is one of the best strategies for processing information and integrating knowledge. Typically teachers give students the categories or criteria for comparison. In some cases, this is necessary. However, when students are able to decide, to direct their own thinking-comparing, they are free to notice what they notice and process the significance of such as they write. By inviting students to choose their points of comparison, what happened was “divergence in students’ thinking” (16). What they noticed and found relevant was a combination of the texts and their reading experiences (Rosenblatt’s transactional theory) that was unique to each reader. Essentially, student-directed comparisons result in more heterogeneous discoveries and conclusions by students, which is not something the PARCC test could ever assess or appreciate.