Monday, November 1, 2010

HEY! What's the Main Idea?

This really seems to be the big deal this year. I haven't been to a single function with other English teachers that hasn't eventually brought this complaint forward. Overwhelmingly, students are struggling with separating the main idea from other topics included in the essay, story, etc.

I am not sure why this happens. I've only recently begun trying to formulate a plan of attack for the problem.

The first place I looked is Jim Burke's The English Teacher's Companion. Jim's work has been indispensible before, so I figured I couldn't go wrong. I didn't. There were the usual strategies available for use, but most of the meaning-making strategies felt like class activities. What I was looking for was a strategy I could give them to fall back on when I wasn't there to help them push through a dense text.

I looked next at Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading. In the book, Kelly divides reading into a process like writing, complete with multiple drafts. This spark led me back to Jim's work on Tools for Thought. In that collection of strategies, the Pyramid Notes sparked a memory of another pyramid device. So, I was off again, in search of the muse.

The muse, in this case, was actually a man: Doug Buehl, author of Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Doug's strategies are universal, across-the-curricula, and easily adaptable. The fourth chapter of the recent third edition is all about fact pyramids. I reread the chapter, noting that the key to this pyramid was the fact that the bottom contained general knowledge facts while the top contained the overarching idea. The middle section contains short-term, organizing concepts. For example, a fact pyramid on the Crusades would have large concepts like the causes, effects, and impact of the Crusades, while the middle section would list the Crusades: First, Second, Third, and Fourth. The bottom slice would include related terms and names like "Pope Urban II" and "Cruciata." Thinking about Jim, Kelly, and Doug, I began to work on a synthesis of the fact pyramid, the text frame, and the drafts of reading.

And that is as far as I have gotten. Another colleague and I are going to work on it tomorrow (yeah...Election Day; let's hear it for the work day). I hope to post more later in the week.

In the meantime, what do you think? Do you have any strategies for teaching the main idea? If the problem is as widespread as it seems, please share away.

(P.S.) Click the title to see the post on the NCTE Connected Community.


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Ms. L-P said...

This is also a common problem that I have seen, along with other colleagues at my school. I'm curious to see what you develop from these ideas!

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