"The summaries my sixth graders write are just awful," Ingrid* explained when we met.
"How much time would you estimate that you've spent teaching them explicit summarization strategies?" I asked.
"Sixth graders should know how to summarize by now."
That would be nice, wouldn't it? Oh, how I empathized with those sixth graders as I recently faced a difficult summarizing task myself. At the Friday coaches' meeting, I was to give a "state of the state" summary of what is happening regarding the national "Race to the Top" in the areas of teacher evaluation and Common Core Standards. I found myself sifting through the notes of three different meetings as I tried to keep the important ideas, delete the smaller details, substitute some words (i.e. 'subjects' instead of listing math, reading, writing) and put it in my own words. The more I immerse myself in summarization, the more I understand what is difficult for students and teachers alike.
Emily Kissner's book Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling: Skills for Better Reading, Writing, and Test Taking deepened my knowledge of all that goes into summarization. One of my favorite quotes of hers came to mind when the sixth-grade teacher was telling me that "Sixth graders should know how to summarize by now." Kissner writes, "Saying that students should have 'learned' these skills in a previous class or grade is like saying that students should have learned how to write in first grade and therefore need no more instruction in the topic. The logic just doesn't work."
When I replied to Ingrid, I wasn't worried about the awfulness of the student summaries or what they had been taught about them in the past. "Let's look at the summaries to plan our work."
I received a Wii Fit for Christmas. Even though we are a no-TV, non-electronic gaming family, this particular gizmo caught my attention. During the rainy, dark season our family hits the YMCA a couple times a week, but we still don't move enough. One of the days at the Y, I was watching my oldest kids playing the Wii in the youth room. They were dancing in sync and cheering for each other while sliding around on an iceberg. "That would be fun for all of us," I thought. I put it down on my holiday wish list.
Christmas Day I danced with my kids, slid on an iceberg in a penguin suit, and even headed soccer balls while dodging dangerous cleats and unexplainable panda heads. As I turned to more serious body work in yoga and strength training, I chose a male trainer whom I named "Lii." Attempting the downward dog pose, for example, Lii offered me a demo — "Before we start, I'll show you how it's done." He gave me all sorts of tips like "make sure your elbows are facing outward" and "keep your eyes on your stomach." Then he asked me, "Are you ready to try it yourself? Let's do it together." During my 30-second pose, Lii monitored my progress based on how I was pressing on the Wii board and said, "You are putting too much weight on your feet." When I adjusted he said, "Great, that's it." At the end I got a quick assessment. This time I only got two out of four stars, but he assured me that I would do better when I put more weight on my hands.
From my research, I've gathered that while Wii sounds like the "wee" of going down a slide, it actually means "we" and the twin ii's symbolize two people standing side-by-side and playing (they also look like the slender remotes). That's what got me thinking about education. What I often find, and this was true in Ingrid's classroom, is that some complex skills like summarization are taught in only two modes: all teacher (I-do) or all students (you-do). In the I-do mode, teachers can easily be disillusioned that the kids get it because the smart ones offer to answer our questions and everyone else nods to make us happy when we ask, "Does that make sense?" In the you-do mode, that illusion falls apart with a chorus of "I don't get it" or work that misses the mark. That's where the students were when Ingrid deemed the progress "awful." In between those two modes is an entire continuum of we-do (or wii-do) that has many of the components of my living room interactive game.
Planning the Gradual Release
Ingrid and I both agreed that the end goal was having her sixth graders independently summarize a variety of texts. To start our work, we read an excerpt from Summarizing, Paraphrasing, and Retelling about the rules of summarization when Kissner reminds us, "We all know just telling children what the rules are doesn't mean that they know how to apply them."
With my Wii trainer Lii in mind, we planned the demonstration stage using rule-based summarization for keep, delete, substitute and choose a topic sentence or rewrite. Sitting at Ingrid's table, I reached for the recent Time for Kids article called "Ruining the Rainforest." The first paragraph was only three sentences so we kept the words: Amazon rainforest, smaller, deforestation, Brazil. We deleted the catchy lead, the statistic about the exact amount of Brazil's deforestation, and other surrounding words. Our summary sentence became: In Brazil, the Amazon rainforest is shrinking because of deforestation which is the loss of trees.
I showed Ingrid how I would model circling the key ideas and crossing out the deleted information. Using a think aloud, I would construct my summary sentence with the key ideas and point out why I didn't change words like Amazon or deforestation. When some young writers are asked to "write something in your own words," they try to change everything. Ingrid liked the idea of physically annotating the text to make the keep and deleting task very concrete. "This is harder than I thought," she mused.
I explained, "After my demonstration, I would release just a little bit to the students. Moving on to the next paragraph, I would read it aloud and then have students suggest what I could keep and delete in shared writing. I'd hand over my pen and let a couple of kids scribe." Ingrid noted there were several facts about square footage, species population, and dates in the second chunk of text.
"My students won't know which of those details to include," Ingrid said.
"You're right, which is why we are still guiding. If we look at all of the details the author chose, from how much land there is to how many plant and animal species live there to how quickly it's disappearing, we can see that the author is trying to tell us that many species will die if they don't have healthy land to live on."
As we worked our way through the article, we talked about which student misconceptions might arise, what they might be able to do with the help of others, and what would be necessary to explicitly teach and have them practice.
Here is the gradual release model we created:
I added, "Remember this is all straightforward nonfiction that is below grade level, to give students practice and confidence before we increase the difficulty."
From our plan, I taught Days 1 and 2. Ingrid taught Day 3 with me present. She taught Days 4 and 5 without me in the room. Day 6 I modeled the differentiated structure, and on Day 7 I got this email:
Based on our work today there are 18 kids that are writing some pretty good summaries, but I had 9 at my small group. That seems like too many. I'm going to extend the work tomorrow and run two different small groups.
What surprises me is that we've really only summarized two different articles. In the past, I would have had my students summarizing at least one article a day, but they are really understanding the process so it's easier to let that go. And they like it. It seems like by offering more guidance, they are having fun with it.
I know you said that summarization looks different for different types of texts, and needs to be taught that way. We'll be starting a unit next month on historical fiction and I wondered if we could do something similar with how to summarize narrative text?
I often fight the urge to say to the teachers I work with, "I'm so proud of you!" But that's the truth. Because of Ingrid's openness and willingness to learn and change, she moved from "Students write awful summaries and should know how to do it" to "Students understand and have fun when we take it slow and I guide them." As Lii would say, "Well done."
* The teacher's name and characteristics are respectfully changed so that we might learn from her experience.