Research Reading Strategies & Modernism with "The Turtle"

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SWBAT reflect on reading habits and evaluate author choices and allegory in an excerpt from Steinbeck through class discussion focusing on personification.

Big Idea

Get reflective with data-driven discussion on reading strategies for research & an investigation of allegory with a fierce Modernist turtle!


30 minutes

Last class period, students took a Research Attitudes and Attributes survey to report and evaluate their research skills, so today we will begin by going over those survey results.  First, I will show students the results of their Research Attitudes & Attributes survey, pointing out interesting statistics and gathering further insight to explain results from students.

  • Slide 3: 
    • Why do you think this discrepancy between what you feel you should do and what you actually do exists? (I have no idea how students will answer, but I'd be willing to bet it has something to do with being lazy?)
    • I will again try to cajole students into writing while they research, using examples from my own past to help show students that ALL people do better while engaging like this.  I always share how in college I had whole notebooks of summarized Shakespeare plays, Nietzsche, and Eco essays that really helped me understand the material better.  Most students lean on Sparknotes, but CREATING the Sparknotes yourself is so much more valuable for learning!  
  • Slide 4:
    • How effective is rereading?  What do you do to make it more effective?  Are there times that it works better than other times? Are there times where this does NOT work?  (Students will have a variety of answers, but I would assume that they don't see rereading as the most effective behavior, despite it's popularity.  I will be primarily interested in learning if they are doing anything WHILE rereading that is helping them and what happens after all the rereading that helps them ensure the new knowledge sticks.)
    • Underlining and highlighting are both pretty popular as well.  How do you decide what to highlight or underline?  How does this action specifically help your comprehension or retention?  (Students will probably say they highlight vocabulary words or main ideas, though they also struggle with what exactly main ideas are in high-level text.  Ideally, students will report that highlighting and underlining make it easier to go back to the text to study what's important--a fact that I want to exploit when talking about rereading with no writing to "shortlist" the important features!)
    • Finally, I will basically emphasize how proud I am of their wider array of study reading behaviors, while noting that anything taking writing is less common.   
  • Slide 5:
    • I'm so proud of you that MOST students have some kind of strategy while reading!  Are there any on this list that you think you should be doing more of or that surprise you how many people are or are not doing them?
  • Slide 6:
    • It looks like there are a lot of similarities here.  Most people report changing reading approaches for different classes.  What does that look like?  What changes?  (Students will probably say something about the depth of reading for non-ELA classes or that their teachers have different requirements.  Students could also mention that different classes may interest them more, less, or in different ways, so their reading approach changes.)
    • What does "selectively" mean here?  When you hear the word "selective" paired with an action, does it usually have a positive or negative connotation?  Is selective reading a positive or negative practice?  (Students will probably easily answer that selective means only some, and if their childhood is anything like mine, they'll also probably link "selective" ANYTHING ["selective listening," anyone?] with a negative connotation.  I want to really emphasize that reading selectively is a legitimate reading practice, not a bad one.  Different purposes for reading determines the depth of reading, so students SHOULD be selectively reading!  Skimming an article to see if it's of use to their research, scanning a textbook's table of contents for the appropriate section, or close-reading a Supreme Court ruling to apply it to an existing issue should ALL be part of a successful student's repertoire of strategies.)
  • Slide 7:
    • Primarily I want to point out that I'm thrilled about how confident my readers are becoming.  I will also suggest that students should be pushing themselves to read more complex texts on the border of their understanding level so that they can improve and grow!  If you're using an article for research and have no clue what it's saying, then obviously steer clear of it, but if you're getting most of it or reading something for pleasure, I will advocate stretching your text complexity levels!  The Common Core wants students to become grade proficient and college ready, and the only way we'll do that is taking that new-found confidence and pushing our boundaries!
  • Slide 8:
    • Again, I will give kudos to so many students constantly evaluating author credibility, but I also want to note that 100% of students should be in the "Strongly Agree" column.  I want students to be critical readers, so a constant eye on author's perspective, biases, etc., is required.  Not to sound too X-Files-ish, but my motto for research is also "Trust No One."
    • Similarly, I want to emphasize and empower students into disagreeing with the author as an authority figure.  Even "experts" can be wrong, and readers, when they have also done research and have issues with authors based on logic and reason, are absolutely entitled to their opinion.  Just because someone is printed (or even your teacher, I say!), it doesn't end the discourse!
Then to emphasize our discussion, I will have students participate in a small group activity called the "Translation Challenge," which was crafted in response to the lack of writing while they read difficult texts.  I want to emphasize to students that if they are taking the time to go through the kind of in-depth analysis of text that we've been steadily improving at through the year, they should also do themselves a favor by recording that effort (thus saving themselves the time of having to pull the material apart again at a later date to prepare for tests or make use of it as a connection to other materials).  Obviously, just telling them the benefits of tracking metacognitive thought while reading (and forcing them to do it for assignments for me!) has not been entirely effective to changing their practice as they read on their own.  Students will need to be fluent in critical reading skills for our upcoming research unit, so demonstrating the need for writing as a way to better comprehend and retain information is a must right here.  The Common Core stresses that students need to be constantly evaluating and reading deeply so that they can later connect and synthesize new information for arguments and other writing pieces, and I believe annotating texts and creating workable summaries and notes are a huge part of moving toward mastery of those skills.
Here's how the activity will work:
  1. Break students into groups of 2-3.  I have my students in "pods" of 3 that makes grouping easy!
  2. Groups will view the "Translation Challenge" Image (since we're on Chromebooks, I made it an image to avoid students being able to simply copy/paste the text into Google), then begin using the International Morse Code Key to "translate" the image.  Students may NOT using any writing utensils during this activity to mimic the process of struggling to decode complex text but not writing anything down while decoding!
  3. Tell students that the first group to correctly win the challenge wins a prize (of your choosing). The answer key is included in the Resources section.  When I was choosing what text to use for this assignment, I just summarized part of a news article I found on Twitter that contained dry information with unusual context and larger vocabulary words to mirror the kinds of text they may find researching.
  4. When students are at a frustration level (or you need to move on for time!), allow students to begin writing things down so that they get a better understanding of how helpful it is to decoding and recalling information that is outside of their typical comfort level.
  5. Before wrapping up entirely, ask students to verbally reflect on the experience and how it relates to writing while they read.


Building Knowledge

25 minutes
Next, students will complete a 5-minute quickwrite reflecting on the questions below, which are associated with the Actively Learn platform they read and answered questions on "To Build a Fire" for homework last night.
  • Did you like Actively Learn more than the Metacognitive Reading Logs? Explain.
  • Do you think it improved your comprehension of the story? Explain.
  • If you could change one thing about the Actively Learn experience, what would it be?  Why?  Explain.


After our quickwrite, students will briefly share their views (2-3 minutes max) on what I could do to improve the platform and make it more relevant to them.  I do this to encourage students to share in their learning, even if they didn't feel inspired enough to write it in the quickwrite, they might all think it's a great idea!  Then, we will review "To Build a Fire," focusing on the questions in the "To Build a Fire Discussion" document in the Resources section.  

Finally, we will segue from Naturalism to Modernism by reading the Characteristics of Modernism information and comparing/contrasting it to Naturalism.  While we read the link, I will write main notes on the board, which are also included in the Resources section.


30 minutes
Next, students will have a chance to explore Modernism in action with one of my favorite excerpts from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, specifically the short Chapter 3 (beginning on page ten and concluding on page twelve), where a turtle struggles to cross a road.  We will begin this assignment together within the Actively Learn platform (and conclude it if there is time) in order to ensure that students are critically engaging in identifying the characteristics of Modernism, evaluating symbols and archetypes, and considering how the sequence of events and characterization of the turtle (especially using personification) further's Steinbeck's theme.  I also want to see how helpful different kinds of resources linked into the story in Actively Learn are to students, so we'll be reading aloud and discussing so I can get a better handle on this.
To begin, I will call on a volunteer to start reading.  We use "popcorn" reading, so when they've read at least a sentence and no more than a page (probably not applicable in Actively Learn, but it's ALWAYS what I say anyway!), they call on another student.  All students must know where we are at while reading.  Along the way, we will pause to consider questions embedded (which is great for ensuring ALL students are participating and following along!), and I will simultaneously draw (poorly) the scene as it unfolds.  My drawing is contained in the resources section.  Discussion points and likely student responses are contained below.  These are also mostly the questions that are embedded in the Actively Learn text, which are transcribed in a document in the resources section.
  •  Do you think it's weird that this entire first paragraph is not about the turtle (who the excerpt is named for)?  What IS it about?  (Students will have varying opinions on the weirdness of the choice, but they must also objectively summarize the paragraph as a description of the setting.  They should also connect that of ALL the vegetation Steinbeck could describe, he chooses these plants to describe and comment on.  Draw attention to the pictures attached in the Actively Learn module to emphasize that he describes grass heads with oat beards, foxtails, and clover burrs.)
  • What structure do all these plants have in common?  What common need do they all have to ensure they spread and continue to populate the area?  (Students will likely have to use the pictures to better understand the text here, because not many of my students are outdoorsy enough to recognize these types of plants.  Upon viewing, they will better understand that these all have exposed seeds.  Using the text, students will also explain that they all need some outside force like wind, animals, people, etc., to carry their seeds.)
  • What happens to these plants if nothing ever comes along to carry their seeds away?  (Again, this is more a question for my city-folk kids to make sure they understand that without something active to move these seeds, they just sit passive and unable to carry out their duty and continue life.  Trees with "helicopters" are a great analogy to make to these plants, since my students probably more frequently come into contact with those than these other plants.  They will better be able to understand what happens to these seeds without something blowing them out from under the tree or carrying them away.)
  • Why do you think Steinbeck would start off this section about a turtle with no text about a turtle?  (Students will be able to probably vaguely state that he is building up for some larger message or at least giving the reader a clear perspective on the setting.)
  • I have a weird (but true) fear of turtles.  Despite my turtle-fear, I am madly in love with this particular turtle.  What descriptions make him SO LIKABLE, even if you don't love turtles?  Why?  (Students will make fun of me for being afraid of turtles--though it's really only fresh-water turtles that creep me out...tortoises and land turtles are generally adorable!--and then they will point to the way he "boost[s] and drag[s] his shell along," his relentlessness, the way things just slide off of him, his little ajar mouth, his turtle-eyebrows, and his "fierce, humorous eyes."  They will also relate that these characteristics are more human-sounding than turtle-sounding and that he personifies traits we really like in people.  Making the connection to personification is key here, so keep them talking until they get there!)
  • I agree whole-heartedly!  This turtle actually reminds me of Mr. Wohlers (one of our very-favorite science teachers here!), specifically because of those "fierce, humorous eyes."  That's such a great way to say it.  What does that look like in people?  Do you think turtles can really look this way with their eyes? (Depending on the class, it might take a minute or two to get to the idea that fierce, smiling eyes are full of life and mischief--aka, Mr. Wohlers.  I call them "old man eyes" in class, because I think everyone has known at least one old man who is a good-natured trouble-maker, sneaking an extra cookie from the jar when his wife isn't looking, playing a prank on one of the grandkids, staying for an extra cup of coffee at wherever the old men congregate to gossip in the morning, or something of the sort.  After thought and viewing the image of a turtle, they will report that turtle eyes really probably couldn't look like this, which furthers the idea that Steinbeck is purposefully humanizing this turtle for some larger purpose.)
  • The turtle's venture over the wall is again highly personified.  What else do you see here?  (Students will point out that he's holding his head high, blinking poignantly, raising his head to peer, and MOST importantly, using his "hands" to brace and lift himself.)
  • If you complain about your games now, imagine growing up with Tiddly-Winks.  This was a legitimate game (that was also fun, if you can believe).  Check out the link to give you a new insight of how this truck vs. turtle collision looked!
  • Someone objectively summarize for me the incidents while he was crossing the highway.  (Students will be quick to state that a woman driver saw him and swerved to miss him, while the next male driver swerved to run him over.  He was flipped off of the highway, but on his back.  After a struggle, he rights himself and keeps moving, still in good spirits.  Most of the time, students will miss the fact that he planted the seed from earlier, which is important to our understanding of the allegory.  If this is the case, I will ask "What else happened here?" until they tell me a seed was planted.)
  • Where did the turtle pick up this seed?  Under what circumstances?  (Students will go back in the text to see that the seed got wedged in his shell when the ant attacked him.  I will mark this on my illustration.)
  • If the turtle's journey is parallel to the journey of LIFE, what does the ant represent? The woman driver? The male driver? What literary technique is when a story uses symbols in the plot, setting, and characters to create an overall symbolic meaning and ultimately, a life lesson?  (Students can start in any order, but they typically go for the male driver first, since he's the people who are out to hurt you and don't care about your outcome.  They will recognize the woman driver as people that go out of their way or even put themselves in peril to save you or help you, and they will identify the ant as one of any number of problems that people face.  It will be important to get them thinking about the significance of the ant, as it was only the "negative" interaction with the ant that brought about such a positive ending for the seed.  They will also relate this story as an allegory.)
  • The story starts off with a discussion about how seeds travel, then we see that "seed" element show up at two other points in the story (illustrate using picture on board).  What are seeds typically an archetype (pattern that shows up repeatedly in literature) for? Explain why.  (Students should be familiar with seeds being represented as life since they are quite-literally life-bringing.)
  • Ultimately, the seed is successfully planted.  What does this mean for the allegory? (Students must connect two parts here.  The first is that life continues.  The turtle is representative of the human plight, which carries on and furthers humanity.  Since the seed was planted, life continues and we get to keep on going.  It didn't really matter that the turtle wasn't AWARE that he was doing something so monumental.  He was just going about his turtle-business and that's what propels life here.  His determination to "keep on, keepin' on," even in the face of obstacles--and sometimes BECAUSE of those obstacles--is what humans do and need to continue to do.)
  • Would the story have been so positive if the turtle made it across the road, but the seed wasn't planted?  (Students will want desperately to say yes here, but when giving thought to the allegory and structure of the work, they have to say NO.  He introduces those all-important seeds before the turtle, and it's clear that once that seed gets stuck in his shell, he MUST deposit it to be metaphorically successful.)
  • Would the story still have been positive if the turtle died, but the seed was successfully planted?  (Again, students will want to fight this on their own perspective, but remind them to consider the TEXT, TEXT STRUCTURE, and ALLEGORY.  Once they do this, they will see that the turtle isn't the most important.  The seed is.  If he continues life for something larger, but gives his own after such struggle and determination, it would still be positive.  I will equate this to other professions where great sacrifice sometimes happens, like firemen, police, armed forces, etc., but the outcome is looked upon as heroic because of their sacrifice.)
  • Why do you think Steinbeck chose to end the story of the turtle this way instead of telling us what happens to him in his coming journey?  (Students will explain that his journey isn't finished and that Steinbeck is probably commenting on some sort of ongoing struggle, like the Great Depression or Dust Bowl that we saw in our historical context of the time.)


5 minutes
In the last few minutes of class, I will ask students if they have any specific questions about their list of possible research paper topics or draft theses they wrote for this class period. Then, I will make what I like to call a "hard sell" for two great resources for them to explore and use to improve upon their existing lists of 5 research paper thesis options.  In order for my students to try or love anything, I usually have to be ridiculously excited about it (which I usually really am!), so this small part of the lesson is just to amp up the interest in the resources they need to use and make explicit how valuable they really are.  I'm pretty sure I always look like a dork in this process, but if students are more excited about something because I called the link the "RAD Thesis Generator," then so be it!
The first resource is probably less attractive to students than the second option, but the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has amazing Tips on Writing a Thesis Statement with samples and analysis to show students in a very concrete way what IS and IS NOT a strong thesis statement.  Students that have a higher level of understanding of composition and drive to improve their work tend to prefer this resource, as it provides insight to making all thesis statements better, not just this one.  The second resource that is well-loved by students who aren't typically in love with the idea of writing thesis statements or have a weaker range of sentence structures and varied syntax is the Thesis Statement Generator.  This tool allows students who come to it with an idea of their topic and argument to view a model of thesis statement creation and to enter their own ideas to generate examples of thesis statements for their essays.  I like this resource for struggling students, as it employs common thesis statement formats and is very explicit about how the statement was crafted.  The array of examples it generates also forces students to make author choices which best suit their views and styles.  With continued use of a platform like this, struggling students could easily learn to build complex, varied thesis statements and sentences for argumentative essays.

Next Steps

For homework, students need to revise their five thesis statement options (which originally emerged from their Interest Inventories).  These must be done so that we can create a Google Form for class voting next time.