Critical thinking with a character analysis

Part of my job is to get students to think critically. This involves students diving deeper into texts we read instead of just answering basic recall and surface questions. I want students asking questions of the text.

This sounds easy. However, in a test-taking culture, where students are trained to locate the correct answer, asking them to justify their responses is harder than it looks. I have found that students are wary of being wrong. They struggle to express they “why” of their answers. They are scared of being incorrect. They think there is only one correct answer.

My job is to get them to view literature and writing as a way of proving themselves. I relate justifying answers to being a detective on Law & Order – you have to find evidence in a case in order to prove a person’s guilt or innocence. My students really relate to this comparison (clearly, Law & Order marathons are not just for adults!).

I start by taking a concept they are familiar with (character traits) and have them justify character traits by locating a quote in the text as support. Once students are able to locate evidence, I walk them through the process of analyzing the trait. This is the critical thinking aspect and it usually requires lots of modeling and re-teaching. I find that students often give surface information as their analysis.

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After reviewing student work, such as the example above, I had to re-teach how to analyze a character’s actions. With this particular example, I would put it under my document camera and walk students through the process. I might say, “Max is yelling for help because Kevin can’t breathe – what does this tell you about who Max is as a person?”

After a few teacher-led examples, I hand brainstorm sheets back to students and have them re-work their analysis. Students who still struggle work with me in small groups.

My hope is that the more I allow students to justify and explain themselves, the better equip they will be for life. Also, most of the math on state assessments these days asks students to explain their answer, so essentially I am preparing them for “the test.” They don’t need to know that though 😉

What are some strategies you use to help your students think critically?

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Is there a such thing as a resistant reader?

Recently, I read an article entitled, “The Importance of Real Reading for Resistant Readers.” While the author made some salient points, (self-selected texts, reading for at least 10 minutes a day, putting a book down when you’re not that into it), it made me question my own practice and students.

As any teacher, I come across students who claim to “hate” reading. During silent reading time, these students often spend forever selecting a text only to take it back to their desk and do anything but read it. At the end of silent reading, the book is left on the desk, floor or hastily thrown back on the bookshelf. If the student does take the book with them, it ends up lost or strewn about in a locker. I used to view this behavior as disrespectful. I would get angry upon seeing my books carelessly littered on the hallway floors. I would lecture students about the importance of books. I would cry inside when my otherwise new books were returned looking like they’d been ran over by a semi-truck.

The kids didn’t understand my concern. Why was I so fretful? They were just books!

Yes, they were just books. Books that my students wished they could read. Books that they acted like they read when the sad truth was, they lacked the skills necessary to read them. They weren’t resistant readers. They were readers who were in the primary stages of learning how to read. And they were in middle school. I was not angry at them. I was angry at the system for failing them.

The “resistant” reader is resistant because they lack the skills they need to read! Of course they “hate” reading. It’s difficult! Somewhere along the line, people failed them. Or did they?

I have a difficult time blaming anyone when I have a student who struggles to read. Sure, I could blame his/her former teachers, but I know that they probably did all they could with little or no support and were forced to pass students, regardless of if they could read or not. I could blame his/her parent(s), because a love for reading starts at home with bedtime stories and trips to the local library. I could blame the school system for pressuring teachers to pass students onto the next grade for money or numbers or data or a great deal of other ridiculous formalities.

The truth is, no one is to blame and everyone is to blame, but one is wasting time pointing fingers. The real question is, How do we (teachers, parents, schools) help current resistant readers become just “readers?” How can we make it so there are fewer resistant readers in our middle and high school classrooms?

Perhaps one solution is intervention. Currently, I teach literacy in tracked middle grade sections. Thus, I have an entire class of students who are reading well below grade level. Many of these students fumble over words; some word-call and read beautifully, but are unable to answer basic recall questions about what they read. I teach grade-level novels to these students. We read aloud a good amount of the time and they enjoy the story, as all of them are age-appropriate. However, when asked to read a chapter alone, less than half of the students do so. They fail pop quizzes. They stare at blankly me when I try to teach things like characterization using the main character of the novel. I preach that they need to read! They promise they will. They look like they’re reading. They are trying. Am I the problem?

For years, I mentally beat myself up over my resistant reader.  But eventually, I realized that I was not a horrible teacher. And my students were not resistant readers; they were emergent readers in middle school.  I was failing them by expecting them to complete tasks at their frustration levels. These readers needed basic reading instruction for learning how to read and I was expecting them to read novels and write character analyses.

At some schools, students who are labeled as resistant readers are not required to take grade-level reading and writing classes. Instead, they learn to read using Wilson and Fountas and Pinnell. While I have no data or experience working with these students (Although, I do have a friend who does!), I would wager that their reading levels improve and so does their experience with reading.

For students who do not receive interventions, what happens? While many probably remain “resistant” readers, how does that impact their future? What more can I do? Is there a such thing as a “resistant” reader, or are these students just a product of a broken system? These are the questions that keep me up at night.