Category Archives: comprehension

‘Why Bother?’

Some days I walk away from my classroom thinking, “Why do I bother?”

This was one of those days.

Since the middle of last week, I have been trying to teach my students how stories develop. I found a Story Plot Graph online, reproduced it for each student and explained each part of the graph: Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Denouement.

I help the students fill in each part of the graph with information from Hatchet, the novel we are reading in class. I showed them how stories have to begin somewhere, and that Hatchet begins with a 13-year-old boy named Brian, whose parents are divorced (something most of my students can relate to), and who is carrying within himself a great and terrible Secret. These are the bare-bones elements of the Introduction.

Then I moved on to the Rising Action, where the main character encounters a problem—or more than one—that he has to solve. In Brian’s case, he has more than one problem. As he flies to Canada to in a small bush-plane to visit his dad for the summer, Brian watches in horror as the pilot has a heart attack. Big problem—because Brian can’t fly a plane. As convulsions wrack the dying pilot’s body, the pilot’s foot jams the rudder pedal, which makes the plane veer off course—another problem. And then there’s the not-so-small matter of the plane running out of fuel.

My students remembered these problems from our reading of the story, and together we wrote them in the Rising Action box of the Story Plot Graph.

Then comes the Climax, the high part of the story, at least as far as we’ve read. There was only one thing we could think of that would qualify as high excitement—the plane crash—so we put that in the Climax box.

Then we selected a couple of things to put in the Falling Action box: Brian claws himself loose from the seatbelt, and Brian ends up on a beach with his legs in the water.

We left the Denouement box empty, because what I know (and the students don’t) is that the resolution of the story comes when Brian is finally rescued after nearly two months in the wilderness.

OK, so here’s the thing: I went over this material twice before I finally decided that the students were ready to be quizzed on it. Friday, I gave them the option of working alone or working with a partner. (I have some students who absolutely will not work with anyone else.)

Just before the quiz, we filled in all the boxes together again—for the third time. Then I collected their Story Plot Graphs, gave them fresh copies, and said, “You’re on your own. Good luck.”

Luck wasn’t with them, because the results were abysmal.

Over the weekend, I got the bright idea of giving the students a bank of phrases that they would need for completing the Story Plot Graph. I said emphatically that the phrases were all mixed up and that they would have to sort them out and put them in the right boxes:

Brian can’t fly plane
Brian escapes crashed plane.
Brian knows The Secret.
Brian lives in New York.
Brian: flying to Canada to visit dad
Brian: on a beach with legs in water
Brian’s parents: divorced.
Main character: Brian
Pilot has heart attack
Plane crashes into a lake
Plane flies off course
Plane runs out of fuel

Just before I gave the quiz—again—I read all the phrases, we put each one of them in the proper box, and then I asked the students to complete a fresh copy of the Story Plot Graph.

Again the results were abysmal.

We’ll be working on formulating clarifying questions tomorrow, because I just can’t stand to face the Story Plot Graph for a fifth consecutive day.

However, we’ll have to return to it, because my students haven’t mastered the art of describing the plot and its components.

I hope I get some bright ideas how to make this lesson more accessible to my students before I have to teach it again.

Otherwise, I just may weep.

Under the Cottonwood Trees: Part 2

Teachers at our school have been mandated to use the Read Naturally program to help struggling readers, and the software has been installed on most classroom computers. The only trouble is, no training has been offered.

In desperation today, I went to the principal and asked that every teacher be trained how to use Read Naturally.

“I can do that,” the principal replied, “or I can come to your classroom this afternoon to show you how.”

True to her word, the principal came to my reading intervention class and showed me how to use the program with two of my reluctant readers.

After 30 minutes of observation and hands-on learning, I had a pretty good grasp of how to manage the software and how to help students gain the most benefit from it.

L-Boy decided to read a selection about trees. (I wonder if our going out to read under the cottonwoods yesterday influenced his decision.)

The principal set an arbitrary goal for L-Boy to read 85 words per minute. He far exceeded that goal, reading 112 words per minute. Plus, he answered every comprehension question correctly.

When the principal asked L-Boy if he wanted to choose another story to read, he declined.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I promised to take him outdoors to read. There are only about 10 minutes until the bell rings, so I guess I’d better keep my promise.”

L-Boy and I, along with two others from the class, walked to the picnic tables under the cottonwood trees.

“I never knew that about tree leaves,” L-Boy said, “that they have to fall off so the tree doesn’t lose water during the winter.”

“I didn’t know it either,” I said. “I learned something new today. I’m glad you read that story.”

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. L-Boy, who hates to read, having gleaned some new knowledge from a simple story about trees, eagerly shared it with me.

Between the computer and the cottonwood trees, I think I see a glimmer—no, a dazzling ray—of hope for L-Boy’s reading future.

Summer School: Day 6

As we read—quickly—through Number the Stars, we preview each chapter by looking at a list of comprehension questions. One of the questions for Chapter 8 asks students to give (and, presumably, support) their opinion:

Why, when his sister and nieces were visiting, would Uncle Henrik spend the whole night on his boat?

After reading the chapter, the students attempted to answer the question. Their answers were varied, ranging from fanciful (but amusing) to thoughtful. The former included:

So he won’t be in a house with all ladies.

He probably doesn’t want to be irritated.

Because he was scared of them and he could not let his sister push him around.

Because he don’t get along with his sister and his nieces don’t like Henrik.

Among the thoughtful responses were these:

So he can get things ready for taking Ellen to Sweden, and get there for a safety [sic] trip.

The soldiers might steal his boat.

…so he could keep an eye out to see if it is safe to go to Sweden…

Hearing the sea slap against the side of the boat.

I think it’s worth returning to the question tomorrow and asking the students to point to evidence in the text that supports their position. (“Specifics!” I can hear my high school English teacher saying. “Give me specifics!”)

How else are they going to learn to think?