Some of the best teaching is DRY.
“Dry” teaching? No, not your economics teachers with a hot overhead projector, blurry transparency, and squeaky vis-a-vis markers. Not that kind of dry.
DRY is an acronym in computer programming that stands for “don’t repeat yourself.” It is a reminder for programmers to write their code so that they do not type the same thing multiple times, but instead use variables and other abstractions to have the computer do more work for the programmer. Think of making a photocopy as opposed to re-typing the same document from scratch every time you needed a new copy.
For teachers, the DRY concept can apply to the set of instructional strategies, lessons, or frameworks that work in a variety of contexts, with multiple texts, and for various objectives.
This post will share a DRY framework that has worked for me this year, with a narration of a lesson that actually happened, and another lesson that is hypothetical.
Three Levels of Thinking
One DRY lesson that works for me it is to lead students through a three-level reading of a text:
- Literal (Summarizing key ideas)
- Evaluative (Making observations and inferences)
- Analytical (Making arguments and connections)
These levels of thinking seem to work with most texts, in most genres, with most students, as long as I’ve selected a text at an appropriate complexity level and of an engaging topic for students.
Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey offer three text-dependent questions that fit into these three levels of thinking. The questions are:
- What does the text say? (Summarize it.)
- How does the text work? (Discuss structure, style, word choice)
- What does the text mean? (Analyze the argument, discuss the theme, make deep inferences)
[I often change the last question to “Why does the text matter?” to get students thinking about the “so what?” significance of our reading.]
These questions are simple but versatile, so I recommend giving them a try. Whether students are reading an independently chosen novel as part of your classroom culture of readers or if students are close reading a teacher-chosen excerpt for a timed writing, students can consider these questions and gain deeper understanding of their reading.
Fischer and Frey discuss this framework in an article on formative assessment, explaining the inextricable link between solid instructional frameworks and formative assessment plans:
“A formative assessment system is only as good as the instructional framework on which it rests. No formative assessment system can compensate for poor instruction. Neither does simply having an instructional framework ensure that students will learn; both a framework and a system are required.”
One of my favorite things about Fischer’s & Frey’s questions is that, with careful planning and practice, they are both a formative assessment system and an instructional plan. The possibilities for modeling, collaboration, independent practice and assessment are endless when applying the questions to specific texts and objectives.
Here’s a reading lesson from my academic (college prep) English class of 24 sophomore students.
A sample lesson
The students had come to a long aside in Act I of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Miller explores a character’s background and comments on the moral and political reasons for writing the play in these excerpts. These are dense readings, and often inaccessible for students. But, they are essential for making meaning of the play. So, I applied Fischer and Frey’s three levels of questioning to a lesson on an aside about Reverend Hale and the role of the devil in society.
1. Begin with the three questions displayed on the board.
What does the text say?
How does the text work?
Why does the text matter?
Me: Please copy each of these questions in your notebook. To the right of each question, explain, in 5 words or less, what the question is asking you to do. What mental task is required for you to answer the question?
Ask students to turn and talk to a partner, then generate possibilities as a whole class. Lastly, I reveal my ideas about the purpose of each question to help the class come to a consensus.
2. Me: So, in yesterday’s read aloud, we stopped right at a big, scary-looking set of paragraphs that interrupt the dialogue. This is, as we’ve discussed before, called an aside. Today we’re going to apply those three questions to this excerpt as means of understanding why Arthur Miller would interrupt our reading of the dialogue between characters with this huge chunk of information.
I distribute copies of the excerpt. On our initial read aloud, I ask students to mark any place in the text that catches their attention. No annotations, no underlines, just a check. Students turn and talk to a partner, then share as a whole class.
Me: So, ladies and gentleman, what did you notice?
[As students share, I’m thinking: Are they literal-level responses or are they more inferential and analytical level responses? This determines the pace of the lesson.]
Me: Ok, thank you to everyone who shared their reactions.
3. Me: So, before I can really discuss this passage, or make an argument about why Arthur Miller includes it, I have to understand it at a literal level. Take your colored pencil and follow along with me as I think aloud. I’m going to start by circling words and phrases that appear meaningful as I re-read the text.
I circle three to four phrases, explaining my choices aloud. Choices include: “ascertain witchcraft,” “pondering the invisible world,” and “Lucifer’s many-faced lieutenants.” I paraphrase these statements in the margins, making comments like “he’s trying to find the witches,” “he spends time thinking about spirits and religion,” “he believes that the Devil has helpers.”
Students do the same with a partner, then share their choices with the whole class. Students pick out phrases including “view of cosmology,” “man’s worthlessness until redeemed,” and “God’s beard and the devil’s horns.” Students use their circled phrases to make some literal level annotations.
4. For this level of the lesson, we never get to the “you do it independently” level of gradual release, because I’d like to keep things more structured as students are gaining an understanding of the text.
With that said, this was the check for understanding:
Me: So, you have 5-10 phrases circled. I’d like to check to see how well you can work together to make some meaning out of our annotations. Work with a partner, or at most two people, to write a one paragraph summary of the aside about Reverend Hale. Use at least 5 keywords and phrases in your summary.
5. To close, a few students share their summaries, and we compile a “master summary” together, using the ELMO.
In subsequent class periods, I reduced the teacher modeling and increased the collaborative and independent portions. Students analyzed Miller’s word choice and tone, and his use of plural first person to speak to the audience. Eventually, the class conducted short discussions about Miller’s reasoning for including this excerpt in the play. While not all students were precisely accurate, the depth of thinking, I’d argue, was possible because students gained a strong foundational understanding of the text through answering “What does the text say?” and working up from there.
It’s a framework, not a formula
In other situations, a complete reversal of the lesson above might make more sense. Let’s say, for example, that students read a poem that initially appears simple, like William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheel Barrow,” which I’ll reproduce below because it is in the public domain:
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
For a close reading lesson on this poem, a more appropriate series of events might be to begin with the “you do” portion and gradually work towards the whole-class, teacher-led portion:
- Have students answer “What does the text say?” entirely independently, circling key words and writing a short summary.
- Ask students to collaborate with a partner and answer “How does the text work?” as they revisit the poem, perhaps with a new colored pencil, using brackets, arrows, circles and lines to make visible their thinking about the style and structure of the poem.
- Lastly I might pass out copies of these analyses of the poem, doing the “Why does the text matter?” question for the students, but allowing them to see models of the deeper thinking that a reader can do about a text.
- To bring the work back to a personal response to students, I might ask students to rank the interpretations on the photo copy on a scale based on how much they agree with the literary critics, then have the students justify their choice in writing or discussion.
The next step: Student-generated questions
The best questions in our classes are those asked by students, not the teacher. Jim Burke shares a “Types of Questions” handout in his book What’s the big idea? And the three types of questions he suggests having students ask closely align with Fischer and Frey’s three levels of thinking for text-dependent questions.
Burke’s three questions are:
- Factual questions: these are the questions that we can answer by pointing to a specific line in the text. (“What was Reverend Hale’s past experience with witchcraft?”)
- Inductive questions: these require making inferences, and often rely on multiple pieces of evidence. (“What are Abigail’s motivations for her actions on page 46?”)
- Analytical questions: these asks students to have a deep understand of a text, and connect ideas in the text to other texts or concepts. (“How is The Crucible timeless? How is it dated?”)
Notice that these are three very similar levels of thinking, but now students are doing a bit more of work, as they are required to ask and answer the questions.
The power in these lessons for me is in their elegance, in the scientific sense. They are simple solutions to the complex problem of how do we get kids to read a complex text?