How do I teach this text? A three-part model

Content, craft, and conventions are my 3 Cs for teaching a text.

Content: what it says

Content is what the text says. The story. The facts, The argument. If we’re reading an excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye, the content is about Holden wrestling with his existential crisis. If we’re examining a chart, it’s the title, the headings, the axes, and the data. If we’re studying an editorial, it’s the writer’s argument.

Teaching students to grasp and wrestle with the content in a text is a way of leading them into a text-based speaking event or no opt-out reading assessment. We need students to understand the story, the facts, and the argument of a text in order for them to do deep thinking about it.

Content questions/prompts:

  • How did the character change over the course of the text?
  • Underline examples of anecdotal evidence used by the writer
  • What do you notice about the way the data changes over time?

Craft: how it’s made

Craft is the set of decisions made by the creator of a text.  Studying craft promotes higher-order thinking because it requires analyzing implications of aspects of the text. It is the design of the chart and how that serves the creator’s purpose. It is the use of extended metaphor in a poem. It is the daring use of diction in Leonard Pitts’s best editorials. In order for students to understand the decisions that writers make, and therefore get better at their own decisions, students should learn the craft of the text.

Craft questions/prompts:

  • How did the design of the chart help/hinder your understanding of the data?
  • Circle three examples of the writer’s voice
  • Emulate the poet’s use of extended metaphor in your own original poem

Conventions: why it’s right (or wrong)

And then there are the conventions of a text. How a newspaper article or thank-you note (thanks, Casey) is formatted. Where to put the commas. How to label a pie chart. These are a set of rules that good writers deliberately follow or intentionally break.

Conventions questions/prompts:

  • What are the three ways that the essayist uses a colon?
  • Identify the run-on sentence used by the author. Why did she choose to do that?
  • How does the format of a news article differ from the format of an essay you’d write for English? Why do you think these differences exist?

Of course, all three of these bleed together.

In order for students to understand the nuance of a writer’s argument, they should best understand how the writer has crafted that argument. And to understand the rules that the writer is expertly breaking to make that argument so convincing, they have to understand those rules in the first place–and that’s conventions.

The best texts that we choose will be rich in opportunities for teaching content, craft, and conventions. And the deepest speaking and writing that we inspire from students will probably mention all three at some point, too.

Why I want to point out the content, craft, and conventions model

I notice that becoming aware of this distinction of content, craft, and conventions helps me to sometimes use the same text to teach lessons across multiple classes.

Returning to the example of the editorial, I might be able to take a first amendment editorial and teach it to my Humanities 10 class to discuss the Constitution. Then, I may be able to compare that same argument to the students’ thoughts about Shirely Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and finally use the writer’s craft for a revision lesson later in the unit.

When we have so much work to do and so little time to do it, it is helpful to have frameworks around which we can organize our thinking, our planning, and our gathering of curricular resources. Content, craft, and conventions is one of those.

How do you plan text-based lessons? What texts can you use with any class?

A sample text set to get kids reading a lot

Earlier this year I wrote about text sets, an approach for unit-planning. Its purpose is to facilitate balance for students through reading for complexity, range, and volume. It also facilitates balance for teachers by lending itself to a mixture of whole-class, small-group, and individual work.

At the bottom of the post is an image of a sample text set. Annotations are below.

The components of a text set on adolescence

Interesting topics or questions: I’m sure some sophomore-aged students could quip infinitely on my decision to use the label “interesting,” but I believe I can craft questions and select topics that are relevant to my students’ lives and therefore interesting to many of them. In this case, the unit questions were: When do we become adults? How do we stay true to ourselves? What does voice reveal? 

A required text (excerpts, in this case): In the center is “excerpts from The Catcher in the Rye.” This was the central, curriculum-based text for the unit. Although it was the inspiration for the unit and the other texts, the novel was not the unit. The shift with the text-set is to use the text as a tool to explore interesting topics and questions.  We used these excerpts from the novel for read alouds and close reading lessons on craft.

Other short, thematically-related texts: In this case, these texts were related to the story of The Catcher in the Rye or to the topics of adolescence and self truth. This leniency in regards to the relationship between these texts and the required text at the center of the unit allows for a diverse range of reading experiences for students. Also, this allows for students to write in various genres besides literary analysis, too. For this unit, students re-wrote fairy tales in the style of Holden Caufield after we read “Catch Her in the Oatmeal.” Students debated the question of “when do we become adults?” using evidence from the two articles listed below during the speaking event.

Thematically-related independent reading books: Fortunately, there are many great young adult novels that relate to the topics of adolescence and self-truth. You can even find articles that suggest YA replacements for common curricular texts like Catcher. I used these resources along with my own reading experience to gather a list of independent reading choices for this unit.

A sample text set on adolescence, based on Catcher in the Rye as a required text.


Do you use a similar approach? Have you created a text set? Share it with me via email: contact[at]gerarddawson[dot]org or link to a Google Doc in the comments.

How to move students forward with the “reverse lesson” approach to 1-1 conferences


A conference is a lesson in reverse. If you don’t quite get me yet, catch the conversation I recall from last school year at the end of this post.

In a typical lesson, we begin with a hook. This typically relates to the topic or content to the kids. It might relate to the objective for the class.  It might be some way to get kids moving, thinking, speaking, writing, or reading. It’s a way to pull the kids into the action of learning.  Teach Like a Pirate is  a book with many great hooks. Hacking Engagement (and the follow-up) collectively contain 100 ideas for hooking students into a lesson. There are many approaches if you’re willing to look into them. 

Then, we instruct. We might do a reading lesson on a specific skill. We might have a read aloud. Or, there might be some sort of speaking event for the kids. This is the part that we typically think of when we hear teaching.

Lastly, we assess learning. Of course, this happens throughout class. However, classes often end with a formal assessment. This might be an exit ticket. It might be a specific question to discuss. It might be some piece of an essay that kids turn in for review.

Notice that this structure works well for a large group. Part of the reason it works is that we have to get everyone on the same page for learning to begin. We need the majority of students to be doing what we’re asking them to do, to buy-in to our lesson, in order for it to work. So, it makes sense to begin with the hook.

Then, we instruct after we have this buy-in.

And the assessment at the end is important because it informs everything that happens next. The results of this assessment often go in a grade book. The data is used to plan tomorrow’s lesson, or even how the teacher will change the lesson for the afternoon’s class. We want to know what students know and can do before they leave for the day.

When I confer with kids, I switch this format. Hook, instruct, assess becomes assess, instruct, and hook.

I can best illustrate it with an example. There’s a conference I have on video from last year that I refer to in workshops for teachers. Ryan and I sat down to confer about his independent reading book in the spring of last year.  Here’s how it went:

Assessment — How is Ryan doing and how can I help him? Am I focusing on the book, the reading, or the reader here?

(I’m D, Ryan is R.)

D: How’s it going?

R: Not bad.

D: Ok, good good. What part of the book are you up to?

R: I’m kind of at the beginning parts.

[This comment gave me a hint that he hasn’t done much reading so far. It was the uncertainty of “beginning parts” that tipped me off in retrospect.]

Instruction — What can we say or do right now so Ryan moves forward?

D: Ok, I understand. A little bit busy lately?

R: Yea.

D: Alright, so where’s your book?

R: I don’t have it with me. It’s by my bed.

D: Ok, well that’s great that you’ve been bringing it home. And you know what, I can totally relate. I’m someone who gets really wrapped up in his own thoughts. And that makes me super forgetful. So, when I have to remember something, I literally put it right in front of my front door. Or, I put my cell phone on top of it. Which one of those could you could try?

R: I think I could try…with the phone.

D: Ok, great. Put a reminder in your phone right now to leave your book next to your phone for next class.

R: Ok.

Hook — How can I send Ryan back to his seat ready to keep working?

D: Let’s go take a look at the bookshelf. There are a couple of books, like comedy books and pictures books, that are great to read just for a day if you forgot your book.

I choose to share this conference because it’s one that looks like a dud. The student forgot his book. How did I help him out with it? Well, if I consider the book, the reading, and the reader, then in this case I’m focusing just on the reader. I want to help Ryan as a reader develop his habit of bringing his book to school every day.

To recap:

I assess the reader’s current status and figure out the purpose of the conference.

instruct the reader based on his need. Can I help him decode the page he’s on? Choose his next book? Relate this scene to our shared readings?

Lastly, I hook the reader back into the reading. Will I check in at the end of class and see how far he’s progressed? Ask him to jot down examples of the writer’s voice showing through? Review the answer to a specific question I posed.

The typical lesson structure works because it gives us a general framework that we can use to improvise. Flipping that structure allows me to use conferences to move readers forward.

How do you approaches conferences? Do you have any favorite questions? Share in the comments.

Three Shifts for Better, Engaged Readers

“Who needs a bookmark? I’ve got some here. Raise your hand.”

This was a new kind of complaint.

As a teacher, I was used to hearing them–complaints from busy students, or an exchange overheard in the copy room. People bond over shared struggles.

But this was different. This audible groan did not come from every kid, just a few. Others said nothing. Instead, they ignored me. Eyes glued to the page, they had to finish the chapter.

I had just asked my students to put their independent reading books away, so we could get on with the rest of class.

I spent a long time–a few years–thinking this was good. Students want more time to read. It’s working. And of course, I want students to be so engaged in a book that they can’t bear to shut it.

But I don’t want students or me to dread the rest of class. I want all the speaking, writing, reading, and thinking that happens in class to make kids better, engaged readers.

First, better readers, because we live in an increasingly print-rich society. There has never been more information available.

But also engaged readers, because in order to put forth the effort to parse through this information, to learn about the world and the perspectives of those who dwell in it, students need some motivation.

There are three shifts that I’ve observed in my classroom, worked out in my writing and speaking, and want to continue to refine.  These shifts are aimed towards the direction of creating a balanced literacy classroom, where everything–both independent reading and the typical curriculum–make kids better, engaged readers. Here are the three shifts in outline form:

  1. Less convergence, more craft
  2. Less fake-reading, more relevance
  3. Less grading, more reader-building



The three shifts that I think can help us to build students into better, engaged readers.


Convergence –> Craft

Here, convergence means one-right-answer situations. Comprehension questions that kill the reading experience. Rigid literary analysis with little room for real discussion and interpretation. Bad reading homework.

Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to craft. This means getting kids to notice, discuss and emulate the language of successful writers. This can happen with fiction and nonfiction. It’s the path to better reading and writing.

Fake reading –> Relevance

By listing fake reading as something to decrease, I’m putting it within what Stephen Covey would call my Circle of Influence. Yes, the student is the one who chooses to read SparkNotes or watch the movie, but I have created some environment where that is the best option. So, I can create an environment where fake reading is inconvenient and impractical. Hopefully, it doesn’t even cross students’ minds. Hey, I guy can dream.

Fake reading happens most often with whole class novels, in my experience.

The shift is to increase the relevance that students see in our required texts. So far, I notice three ways to do this:

  1. Make required readings part of rich text sets that students use to think, write, and speak about interesting questions
  2. Create speaking events and other no opt-out assessments. These compel students to dive back into our readings
  3. Use the Whole Novels approach

Grading –> Reader-building

Finally, the third shift will be no surprise if you’ve read this blog before. I’d like to de-emphasize grading.  Like you, I teach in a real school with real students, but I still argue that we need to de-emphasize grading in order to focus kids on the task at hand. When we emphasize the grade, students take the easiest path possible to earn the grade. The task becomes a means to a grade, not an end in itself.

Instead, we can work on building a culture of readers.  We can do this in a system that requires grades. By working to build more time in class for conferences, we get to know students as individual readers and writers. By giving students opportunities to write to each other in situations like literacy letters, we can get them to develop a genuine curiosity in the discussion of interesting texts.

Notice that I call these ideas shifts, not switches. They are not extreme changes made in a day. They are directions in which we can move. Ultimately, I’d rather work to move my instruction, and therefore my students’ progress, in a slow steady general direction, than a sporadic, random leap.

What shifts are you working on in your instruction? What do you think about the three I’ve mentioned? Share in the comments.

Critic vs. audience: which teacher is best?

Kids ask three questions when they do work in our class:

What did I do?

What should I do?


How did I do?

Two of those questions lead to dependence. They lead to grade-chasing. The other question creates self-directed learners. Do these questions sound vague? If so, here’s another look:


The pyramid of student response. Like the food pyramid, a source of much controversy.

What did I do?

This is the question that students don’t ask enough. They might start asking it, though, if we teach self-assessment. When we answer this question, we give feedback. Giving feedback involves this process:

  1. We look at our instructional goals.
  2. Then, we look at the work that the students have done. Does the work meet the goals? To what extent? Were all parts completed? Were some parts missing?
  3. We report this information back to students.

It’s so simple. It feels trivial. But in this case, our gut reaction might be wrong. Feedback is important.

Feedback looks something like this:

“You used three of the five required quotes in your essay. You did not include a works cited page.”

“You spoke without a single ‘um’ during your presentation. You also used relevant images to support your ideas.”

“After you published your review of Ender’s Game, four students checked out the book!”

Notice that the students get a report on their actions and nothing more. The goal is to be a mirror, reflecting back the way that students meet goals.

Just think, feedback is the common, useful response that real writers get. If we publish writing, we see feedback based on its effectiveness. This comes from likes, shares, replies, purchases, or another action by readers. If we speak in a presentation, conversation, discussion, or meeting, we get feedback too. Listeners laugh, nod, fall asleep, ask questions, take notes, or reach out afterwards. This is feedback.

And usually, the audience doesn’t tell us how to improve. That’s up to us. We might overhear or read an opinion about our work, but we don’t have people saying: “Thank you for your cover letter. It probably gets a C-. Make your closing a bit more persuasive.” No. Instead, we don’t get the job. So, we look at that feedback and try to figure out what we did wrong.

Or… in some cases, we ask a trusted mentor this question:

What should I do?

This is advice. Advice is OK, but it should come sparingly. Lead with feedback, then a little advice. The problem is that many teachers (me) often lead with advice. In fact, it might be the only thing students here.  This creates learned helplessness. It promotes a place where the students are trying to figure out what the teacher wants so they can score more points.  That’s not learning. That’s a game.

Again, some advice = good, just advice = bad.

Advice looks like this:

“Try to pause more often in your next speech. Imagine that the audience wants you to speak very slowly. Even if you feel uncomfortable, you’ll be speaking at the right speed.”

“Check out the Purdue OWL site for more information on how to create in-text citations.”

“Next time, you might want to include hyperlinks to the author’s other books.”

These are instructions to help students meet goals.  Of course, teachers are experts, so we guide students toward goals. But, feedback comes first so students know where advice is leading. Then, teachers can practice reducing advice, so students learn to make their own corrections.

Now, I teach in a real school, which requires these pesky things called grades. Our shared love of grades is why students ask one question more than any other:

How did I do?

When we answer this question, we give judgement.  Judgement is like feedback because it describes a performance. But judgement is less specific and less useful. It is the work of a critic.

Judgement looks like this:


“Good work”


“Needs improvement”

No matter how much we tweak rubrics, this stuff is subjective.  It’s important to accept that. Teachers can fall in love with a grading system. It might be well-organized, I’ll give you that. It doesn’t promote learning, though.

If a student writes a “B+” paper, she has no idea how to get better. And, even if I give her feedback: “your analysis partially explained the evolution of Odysseus,” she will ignore the feedback and ask “so how can I get an A?” She is back to requesting advice. Back to dependence.

If, instead, I had responded like an audience: “your analysis of the evidence about Odysseus’s evolution did not quite convince me of your thesis,” then the focus is on the task. The student is compelled to examine her work, reflect, and look for the place to fix.

A creator loves his audience (did you know I love you, dear reader?). Through an objective report, the audience validates the creator’s work and implicitly guides him. But a creator does not love his critics. It’s no mistake that critics get a bad rap in our culture. They are the ones that do not make, but simply judge. I’d like to be less of a critic for my students and more of an audience. I think it’ll help them grow.

Are you more of an audience or a critic? What actions do you do that show this? Let me know in the comments.

How to go from relaxed to relentless

There are areas of my work life where I choose to be OK. Not even good. Just passable. Wardrobe is one of those areas.  And my class handouts–I’m scraping by. If a kid requests an extension, I’m a pushover. This stuff is hard to change. In theory it’s easy, but it’s actually related to our values. Sometimes, it takes an outside force to make us go from average to awesome. Or, as you’ll see with Jori below, from relaxed to relentless.

I’m sharing her story from Hacking Literacy because it inspires me. We all “check the box” somtimes, and no one faults us. Were busy, right? For Jori, a high school teacher from Cali, independent reading with her kids was  just “okay.” Then, she had a change of heart, and her students grew. I think you’ll find her story worth your time.

Continue reading

Better Reading Assessments

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I think assessment matters but grades matter much less.  The following excerpt from Hacking Literacy outlines a problem with literacy assessment (it can kill the love of reading) and a solution (design assessments that build community).

Reading assessment becomes a strictly extrinsic motivator in many classrooms. Teachers reward kids with grades to push them to read or they threaten failure for not reading enough. Conflating assessment with rewards causes student motivation to suffer. It’s human nature to take the shortest route to get the reward. When grades are the goal, assessment backfires, resulting in students reading SparkNotes, watching the movie version, asking friends to summarize a book, or simply lying about reading (see: fake reading). The last thing educators intend is to endorse lying and cheating, but an assessment system centered only on earning grades and extrinsic rewards encourages these behaviors.

Continue reading

Cancel your participation plan. Create speaking events instead.

Here’s an embarrassing story that taught me a lesson:

Setting: my old classroom in northern NJ, sometime in the 2010s, 9:43 AM

As I rounded the back left corner of desks, a student elbowed another.  Feeling the nudge, she covered her notebook. On the page I caught a glimpse of the words “Mr. Dawson” and some tally marks. They traded nervous smiles.

Then it hit me. They were counting something about me. And if they were keeping a log in a notebook, it must be something I did A LOT.

Continue reading

Seeds for Reading Lives: the Digital Scavenger Hunt

Most of what a literacy teacher does comes down to figuring out how to show instead of tell. If I want students to understand fluent reading, I show them better read alouds.  If I want students to understand revision, I show them real peer feedback. So when it comes to developing real reading lives, I have to show students the specific steps that real readers take.

All students will like the right book, but not all know how to find it. In the beginning of the year, I do the following activity to specifically show students how to systematically find books that they will enjoy. This process is adapted from chapter one of Hacking Literacy.

Continue reading

For the new economy, curiosity before literacy

We exist in a world of uncertainty.

The following are true now and getting truer:

The traditional career path of high school > college  > lifelong career > stable retirement with pension is fading or gone in many industries.

My generation is crippled by student loan debt. This affects the decision to buy houses, pursue certain careers, and start families. This may affect students’ decisions to pursue traditional education paths in the future.  

My generation might not do better than my parents’ generation did.  According to a 2014 article from the Pew Research Center:

Continue reading