Today is the first day back to school after an extended vacation in the midst of winter. Getting into the swing of things at school can take a bit even after just a two-day weekend, so two weeks out of school requires taking a look back before moving forward with the curriculum. Class starts with a few essential questions: What were we doing? And why were we doing it?
One way to answer these questions is looking at the list of ELA standards to be covered in this trimester and focus on ‘Analyzes the elements of literature to demonstrate comprehension.’ The students remember that they recently completed a literature unit on how setting impacts a story’s plot and offer a few examples of the key role that ‘where’ and ‘when’ played in those stories. They also note that we have moved on to a new area of study: character change, which is what we will concentrate on in our new unit of study. In most stories the main character changes in some way (for better or worse) from the beginning of the story to the end. To get all of the students involved in conversation about this, they have 5 minutes or so to talk with a partner and share examples of character change in stories read during class or on their own. Take a look at the reflection link for the reason why they have so much to say. Volunteers have an opportunity to share their thoughts with the class.
Gilgamesh the King by Ludmila Zeman is a beautifully written and illustrated book that I want the whole class to enjoy, so I chose to read it aloud to the students while projecting the pages onto the white board. It tells the story of a half-god/half-human Mesopotamian ruler who undergoes an amazing transformation. The story fits in well with our ELA focus on character change and also aligns with what the students are currently studying in history class. This is the perfect opportunity to generalize their learning between content areas.
Reasons for reading aloud to older students include that it can be motivating as they hear text read fluently and with emotion appropriate to the characters and action. This generates their interest in and involvement with the story. It also gives me the opportunity to model the habits of good readers and clarify any questions or misconceptions that arise. For example, the students are particularly taken by an illustration of two characters arguing that is depicted with arrowhead-like shapes emitting from their mouths and aimed at one another. A close examination of this picture reveals that those shapes and the writing on the wall behind the characters is cuneiform, the first form of written language in that region of the world.
One more reason for reading aloud to the students is that this is the first of three stories in a series, so I want to lay a foundation for further exploration of the topics we discuss today. The students become thoroughly absorbed in the reading and offer many comments, connections and predictions as we make our through the story. I cannot imagine that their enthusiasm would be this high if I just handed a plain text of the story.
To demonstrate understanding of today’s reading, the students answer a set of comprehension questions. They also have access to a copy of the story for reference. I give them time at the end to class to get started and the rest of the assignment is finished for homework. As they work, I check in with students that I suspect may struggle with the assignment. As with most texts, few students have problems with questions whose answers are ‘right there’ in the reading, it is making inferences that pose the biggest challenge, such as explaining why Enkidu saved Gilgamesh.