At the beginning of the period, students have a paper with a quote I preselected from the excerpt from Thoreau’s Walden, “from Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” that we have been reading. The quote is the following:
”Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
Students have it written on their paper and have highlighted the most important words. This was done in class the day before. They are pretty good at highlighting important words. Some of the words they highlighted include: “frittered away by detail,” “honest man,” and “simplicity!” They are now ready to think about what this quote means. I want to give them the opportunity to tackle the language on their own, but I also know that they need to think aloud so I give them the option of talking to the classmates they sit with before they start writing. I let them know they will have an opportunity to talk to me in a brief whole class discussion in a bit. I give them about 5 minutes for this.
I then give students the opportunity to talk to me and to the rest of the class about their working interpretations of this quote. I make it clear that they should use this time to focus on the difficult parts of the quote, the parts they are not sure how to interpret. Overwhelmingly, students identify the middle sentence as the most difficult. Specifically, they are unsure about the finger-counting part. This is a good opportunity to explain the mental process I hope they engage in. I point to the words that precede and the words that follow this sentence and identify them as the words that are packed with meaning. I tell students that they need to focus on the language used and make connections in their mind. In a think-aloud, I explain that the word “detail” and the word “simplicity” stand out in my mind and helps me identify the finger-counting as a figurative way of explaining that we should not waste time on meaningless details, like counting fingers, but should rather simplify our lives, as suggested when Thoreau says, “…and lump the rest.” What I am trying to highlight is the mental process of focusing on the specific language used and making connections that help them arrive at an accurate interpretation. In this manner, I have established a particular strategy I will now attempt to turn into a habit, which is to focus attention on specific language, thinking and discussing what particular words communicate, in order to arrive at an interpretation of a text.
I give students about 5 minutes to write their interpretation of the quote.
I then ask students to take a stand. I tell them that they will have little time to make this decision when they take the writing assessment in the near future, so they must make a quick decision today. Do they agree or disagree with Thoreau’s claim that we must live a life of simplicity? I ask them to give me a thumbs-up if they agree, and a thumbs-down if they disagree. Some are not sure so they show me a sideways thumb. Most students agree with Thoreau. I expected this and this is something I will be addressing in later lessons. Students are easily persuaded and are not used to thinking of counterclaims. I suspect that if they hear a strong position against Thoreau’s claim, some will be persuaded to change their mind. I plan of giving them this experience in future lessons. I ask some of them to share their position making sure we hear both sides. This turns into a brief discussion of the quote.
I give students about 5 minutes to write their position on this quote. This is a sample of one of my English Learner's written interpretation and position. She captured the meaning of the quote and did a good job establishing her position.
Students are now ready to select evidence to back up their stated position.
Students know that positions need to be backed up by evidence so they are not surprised when I tell them that this is the next step. What is surprising for them is the fact that they will not be looking in a text for evidence. This is the first time this year where the claims they make in their paper will need to be backed up by evidence from their own experience, observations or previous reading and not from a text I provide for them. Several issues tend to come up in tasks that call for them to access their own knowledge base for evidence and they all point to a general struggle with grasping the idea that claims need to be supported. One issue is with the quality of evidence they select. Overwhelmingly, students want to offer very broad and vague examples. I need to help them indentify examples that are specific. However, the term “specific” is not perfectly clear in their mind so I spend some time explaining the difference between general and specific. I do this by providing a definition for “general” and “specific” and an analogy to a camera lens, as show in this video. To summarize, I tell students they are to look for evidence that fulfills these requirements:
Having explained this, I now ask students to work on selecting evidence to back up their position. Students are expected to come up with at least two pieces of evidence. I let them begin this task in class on their own and they are to finish it at home. I know we will need time to evaluate the quality of the evidence students select and that will happen tomorrow.