Source #3 Analyzing Main Ideas and Supporting Details

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Students will be able to analyze a nonfiction article for main ideas, organization, and effectiveness of supporting details.

Big Idea

We examine a third author's main ideas to discover what happened to Emmett Till.

Daily Grammar

15 minutes

This week we are encountering hyphens to join two words, verb endings, using commas in dates, and more!


Source #3 Reading for Comprehension and Vocabulary

20 minutes

Today I was coming back from a conference, so I wasn't in school for this lesson.  I wanted something that was meaningful, about Emmett Till, that could be done in one day with an Honors group, and this lesson was what I came up with. 

I gave students a third article about Emmett Till.  This one is from Henry and Melissa Billings' book, The Outer Edge: Still Unsolved. It took me way longer than it should have to link that for you, so please check it out so all that hard work means something.  This article is written at a much lower lexile level than the articles from and history. com, so when I do this activity with my co-taught class, I'll start with this article.  For the purposes of this lesson, I'll describe what I did with my co-taught classes.

Day 1

The first day that I did this lesson, students were finishing up writing their paragraphs about ballads.  Once students finished their final draft, I gave them the article to read independently.  Some of them groaned because it was TWO PAGES LONG and WASN'T I GOING TO READ IT TO THEM?  No, because we (we as in my co-teacher and I) wanted them to have that struggle, that productive struggle, of reading a more complex text aloud.

Every student started out by reading the passage independently.  As they read, I could hear, "What?"  "Why would they do that?"  "That's just mean."  "That's racist!"  Sometimes the words were spoken aloud, sometimes they were muttered.  Sometimes they just looked at me in confusion, but the confusion was because of the content, not the words. 

Once they'd read it independently, I paired the students up with each other and had them read it out loud to each other.  This worked brilliantly, especially for two students.  One student, C, has an IEP, reads at a second grade level, and loves basketball.  The other student, Z, reads above grade level and they are BFFs forever.  They like to team up to figure out ways to socialize in class, and they were the first ones done with their paragraphs.  Once it was time for C to read, he didn't want to.  He knows he doesn't read well.  He knows that he's going to mess up and he doesn't want to look stupid.  However, he trusts Z.  Z isn't going to laugh at C, at least in a mean way.  If they laugh, they'll laugh together.  C wouldn't have done this with anyone else, but he was willing to read aloud to Z. 

Once they'd read, I asked them write down words that confused them, word they didn't understand.  A few students mentioned a name, but followed that up with, "But I know that's a name, so it's not that big of a deal."  I think what they meant was that the name wouldn't be in a dictionary.  They knew they didn't know how to pronounce the word, but they knew it was a name, not a word.  I thought that was pretty impressive.  They didn't come up with a ton of words, but there were a few, as seen in the picture.  I collected the words, and on Day 2, we'll start with those words.

Reading for Craft: Vocabulary Inquiry

15 minutes

Here's the list of words that students selected.  Upon first glance, the words don't seem so difficult. It's pretty easy to define them, but is it easy to understand the connotations of those words?  I don't think so.  I think there's a lot of confusion over what some of those words mean, including racism, justice, humiliate, and doubts.

In order to truly understand these words, with their full connotations, we're going to use both context and dictionaries.  I pulled out the quotes for each of the words.  I used the sentence prior to and immediately after the sentence with the quote in order to provide enough context. I asked students to first predict what the word meant before looking the word up in the dictionary and explain why they thought that.  Once they'd made the predictions, they worked with their group to look the word up and shrink the definition.  Shrinking the definition means taking all those hard dictionary words, throwing out the words they don't know, and rephrasing it until they have something short (two to seven words) that's easy enough for a fourth grader to understand.   If it's easy enough for a fourth grader to understand, it's easy enough for them to understand, and they get to save face in front of their peers.

The picture to the left is a snapshot of the first word, humiliate.  Most of the students predicted that it meant embarrassed or very embarrassed.  However, the connotations of humiliate go deeper than just being embarrassed.  If you are humiliated, you feel shame.  Why did the officials feel shame? They were shamed by how badly beaten Emmett Till was. 

We went through the same process with the other five words. I'll outline some of the key points that I wanted students to get from the words justice and humble.

  • justice:  Justice means fairness with the law.  Mamie Till wanted her son's murder to be treated fairly.  I asked the students what the difference was between justice and revenge.  I thought that this would be a difficult concept, but I was surprised.  They had a better grasp on the difference between justice and revenge than some adults do.  Revenge means that you want payback.  You take the law into your own hands.  Justice means that you go through the courts and the courts make decisions fairly.
  • humble: If you humble yourself, you don't think you're better than others.  In the context of Mamie Till telling her son to humble himself in front of white people, however, it's deeper.  She's telling him to be less than himself, possibly less than human, so that he'll be safe.  She knows that if the white people are threatened by him, he might not come home safely, so she tells him to make himself less than what he is.  She doesn't just want him to be not proud.  She wants him to be less than white people so they aren't threatened.

Reading for Main Ideas and Details

20 minutes

Reading for main ideas was done over a period of two days.  The first day, we reread the passage after finishing our vocabulary inquiry.  I asked students to underline details that helped them understand what the author was telling them, what the author wanted them to understand.  After annotating, I asked the to share their annotations in their table groups. I positioned myself next to a table with four reluctant and distractable students and provided additional prompting when necessary.  I reminded them that they needed to listen to each other. 

Next, I asked students to write a quickwrite that answers that same question--What is the author telling me? What does the author want me to udneratnd?  Those are the questions that are going to help guide us to understanding the author's main ideas, or thesis. You might think that since they'd underlined and talked about these questions, it'd be easy. 

For some of them, it wasn't. 

Many of my students could tell you what the author is telling them. But when it comes to writing, they hit a wall.  So I reminded students that if they got stuck, they had a resource.  All they had to do was look at their annotations.  The details that they had underlined would help them answer those questions. 

For closure, I asked each group to write down what they thought the main idea was.  In one sentence, what was the main idea?  What was the author's big idea that the entire passage is about?  I got exactly what I was expecting--quite a few statements that were too broad, a few that were too narrow, and a couple that were the main idea. When we picked up again the next day, we started with those ideas. 

Main Idea: Too Broad, Too Narrow, Just Right

20 minutes

I'd asked students to write one sentence that they thought was the main idea and compiled a list.  I also put them on a Word document so that we could cut them apart to use as manipulative. 

 The main idea, too broad, too narrow terms come from the 6 Way Paragraph that I've been using for homework for students that are reading at or above grade level.  Many of my students have struggled with identifying the main idea, so this activity gave all students very badly needed practice on this concept.

The statements that are too narrow are statements that are found in only one or two places in the text.  The statements that are too broad are too big.  The statement that is the main idea is supported by content in all paragraphs.  The introduction may just introduce it, and the conclusion may summarize, but the body paragraphs support and explain that idea.

To begin, I asked students to write down one word or phrase (three words tops) that summarize the basic ideas of that paragraph. 

  • Paragraph 1: racism
  • Paragraph 2: dangerous racism
  • Paragraph 3: safety in South

We started with looking for the details that are too narrow.  I've seen that identifying narrow details is a bit easier than too broad, so we're starting there. The statements that are too narrow are

  • "Mamie didn't want Emmett to go to the south."  That detail is found in just one paragraph, toward the beginning of the passage.  It's not supported anywhere else.
  • "The laws were unfair to Emmett Till because white people got away from murder." The author provides plenty of supporting details for this.  They discuss laws prevented non-whites and non-men from serving on juries.  However, it's not the point of the whole passage.  It's an important part to understanding how justice wasn't served, but it's not the main idea.  It's still too narrow. 

The statements that are too broad are

  • "The author's main idea is to tell us how much African Americans suffered." This passage isn't about all African Americans and their suffering.  That type of essay would include details about slavery, Jim Crow laws, miscegenation, and more.  This passage doesn't.
  • "The main idea that the author has is that no one can get away with murder."  This statement is actually a claim, and it's a claim that could very easily be disproved.  However, if the main idea includes the words "no one," there had better be plenty of examples of different people getting away with murder.  That's not the case for this passage, so it's an inaccurate broad idea. 

So what's the main idea?These are the two statements that are left when you throw out the too narrow and too broad ideas.  Remember that these statements were not written by honors students.  They were written by typical seventh graders.

  • "The main idea is that Emmett Till's murder was very wrong."
  • "Emmett Till was brutally murdered by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam.  They are responsible for Emmett Till's death."

Essentially, they say the same thing.  "Till's murder was very wrong" is saying the same thing as "brutally murdered."  In the second statement, the second sentence ("They are responsible for Emmett Till's death") is also repetitive.  Therefore, let's consider this statement:

  • Emmett Till was brutally murdered by Roy Brant and J. W. Milam.

Is that the main idea? If we look at each paragraph, does the entire passage support or explain that Till's murder was brutal?  Yup.  The first five paragraphs provide the context prior to the murder.  Paragraphs six through eleven t explain the murder and trial.  Paragraphs twelve through fourteen explain the aftermath and the importance.  

Could that statement be improved?  A big reason why his death was so important was the lack of justice that he received.  Adding that into the main idea would make it perfect.

  • Emmett Till was brutally murdered by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, but did not get justice. 

That's the main idea.  By examining each paragraph, you can weed out statements that are too narrow and too broad.  You can get to the big idea of the passage and make sure that all important parts of the passage are included in the main idea.


Analyzing the Supporting Details

30 minutes

In the previous lesson section, we discovered the main idea. 

In this lesson, we're looking at the supporting details the author uses. We're using the second page of this handout.

The first part asks for the main idea, so we just need to record the main idea that we already discussed.  Sometimes I weep at how long that simple task takes for my third hour.  To help motivate students, I sometimes say that the first group or the first three groups to finish will all get a punch on their punch cards. They love these punch cards, so it's a great motivator.

Then we move on to the supporting details.  The author has a ton of supporting details in the passage.  It's two whole pages long!  Lots of details!  However, we can't just pick the ones that are most interesting to us.  We can't just pick the most shocking details.  We have to find the details that best support the main idea.  Which details not only support and explain, but BEST support and explain that Emmett Till was murdered by the two men? This requires students to analyze the details to choose the ones that best support.

We'd already written a topic sentence, so we outlined the the details that would logically fit for the three pieces of concrete evidence. Students came up with the following:

  • CE #1: the causes of the murder (Emmett's whistling)
  • CE #2: details about the actual murder
  • CE #3: the trial and lack of justice. 

Student wrote one sentence for each of those pieces of concrete evidence. I was very successful with setting a timer for three minutes for each piece to encourage students to stay on task and complete each one.  I walked around and asked students to read the concrete evidence aloud  I'd ask them the following questions:

  • Is that what you wanted to say?
  • Is that how you wanted to say it? 

They're not quite at the point where they're rereading their own writing, but once they read it aloud, they hear what's wonky.  I'm really quite proud. 

Once we'd written our concrete evidence, we moved on to commentary.  I asked students to write their commentary on a sheet of notebook paper.  We divided the notebook paper into thirds, one for each piece of commentary for each piece of concrete evidence.  I told them to reread their concrete evidence and then tell more about it in the commentary.  Their concrete evidence was only one sentence, but their commentary had to be at least two sentences. 

I used the timer again, for four minutes this time, to help keep students on track.

Once students finished the commentary we went on to the concluding sentence.

Concluding Sentences

15 minutes

Concluding sentences are hard.  You have to repeat your main ideas, but in different words.  If that's the only thing you do, it's not all that effective.  For a truly effective concluding sentence, you have to explain why your main ideas are important.  Skilled writers can do that in one sentence, but a typical seventh grader will need two.  Unless, of course, you tell them that and they accept the challenge.  Seventh graders love challenges. 

Lesson Resources

Today's lesson picture is a picture of the book that the article I used in this lesson came from.  It can be bought here.