I’d love to have Indiana Jones in my English class. Seriously. Does anyone else truly understand the value of hidden treasure? In the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the fedora-hatted hero must select the sacred Holy Grail in a room full of golden chalices. The knight who’s been guarding the Grail for over seven hundred years cautions, “the true Grail will bring you eternal life, but choose wisely, the false Grail will take life from you.” Jones, being the action hero/archaeologist that he is, realizes the golden goblets are a ruse. The Holy Grail must be the cup of a carpenter. The knight smiles and says, “You have chosen wisely.”
Why would I want a treasure hunter in my English class? Because when my students analyze literature our mantra is, “we are miners, not harvesters. We search for textual gold!”
Common Core ELA Shift #2 covers Reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from texts, both literary and informational. The architects of the Common Core ask students to answer text-dependent questions that involve direct evidence from a text. This is why I tell my students they need to be “miners,” not “harvesters” when finding evidence. A “harvester” collects an entire field of crops, without taking care to separate the wheat from the chaff. A “miner,” like Indiana Jones, searches for the “gems,” only bringing the most precious stones to the surface. I advise my students when we search for a theme in literature, we need to select the “gems” for our evidence.
How do I teach this? Through scaffolding four formative assessments: text-dependent questions, annotation, Socratic Seminars, and Close Readings.
Text-Dependent Questions (TDQs)
First, a clarification. Let’s discuss what a text-dependent question is and what it’s not. At the beginning of my career, when I was teaching The Great Gatsby I asked my students to discuss in a literary analysis essay if the American Dream is still relevant today. It wasn’t until I graded my students’ essays did I realize they could answer the prompt without referencing the text. The TDQs, on the other hand, force the students to mine evidence directly from the text.
My 12th graders are in the midst of reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. I start off each class asking them three questions about the chapter they read for homework the night before. Here is my entry task on chapter 1:
- Question 1: “What group does Siddhartha want to join?”
- Question 2: “What does Hesse mean when he writes ‘Siddhartha began to have the feelings of discontent?’”
- Question 3: “How do we see the theme of didactic vs. experiential learner played out in chapter one?”
Notice how each question guides the students directly to the text. Question one asks the students to answer a basic comprehension question to check their understanding. Then, I ask them to use context clues to determine what “discontent” means within the context of the story. Finally, I check to see how well they grasp the concept of a “theme” by asking them to collect evidence that demonstrates their comprehension of the dominant theme in the novel.
In addition to using TDQs, I have my students annotate using a strategy I call DSCOTEA (Details, Setting, Character, Occasion, Theme, Evidence, and Analysis). I do a three-tiered approach to annotation. First, I model for my students how to take notes using DSCOTEA. Then, I assign annotation groups mixing students based on ability levels. During group annotation, the students assign themselves roles such as Detail Doctor, Setting Scientist, Character Collector, etc. I make sure the low-end students choose a simpler role like Character Collector, while I encourage the stronger readers to select a more sophisticated role like Thematic Technician. Each role is responsible for collecting direct evidence from the book to create a quote bank they can use later. At the end of the novel, I have the students annotate on their own. I need to gradually release my scaffolding for them to be college ready. When they enter a college literature class next fall, they must be able to annotate independently.
My school has the luxury of having a block schedule once a week. This gives us time to deeply dive into a text through a Socratic Seminar. The day before the seminar, I give my students a Socratic Seminar Prep Sheet where they have to summarize the chapters being discussed, mine for three meaningful quotes that demonstrate the theme in the novel, and create their own TDQs to ask their peers – a Snapshot Question that checks the basic understanding of the plot, a Spotlight Question that requires the students to provide evidence to analyze a specific scene in the novel, and a Panoramic Question that requires evidence to demonstrate a pattern throughout the entire story.
Here are some student examples:
- Snapshot Question: “What payment did Vasudeva ask from Siddhartha?”
- Spotlight Question: “Why did Siddhartha decide to leave Govinda?”
- Panoramic Question: “How does Siddhartha shift from an experiential learner in chapter 4 to a didactic learner in chapter 5?”
To help them with their analysis further, and to let them mine with the expertise of a literary scholar, we then move to Close Reading. Using their evidence from their TDQs, their DSCOTEA, and their Socratic Seminar Prep Sheets, I ask them to find “nuggets” from their quote collection to dissect under their literary microscope. I have them work in groups and “sift for the gold” in their quote collection. Then, I have them defend the selection of their evidence and analyze why that evidence signifies a key moment in the story. Finally, they compose paragraphs summarizing the events leading up to the quote, and then analyze how the quote represents a significant moment in Siddhartha’s path to enlightenment.
After finishing the novel, I ask my students to check in their books. The idea is all the “mining” we have done in class should give them enough “nuggets” to use as evidence in their summative literary analysis essay.
One boy in particular was annoyed at this prospect. “If you are taking my book away, how am I going to search for quotes?” Before I could answer, a girl in his annotation group answered for me. “Remember that scene Mr. Sun-K showed us with Indiana Jones? If you’ve done the entry tasks, DSCOTEA, Socratic Seminar Prep Sheets, and wrote all your Close Readings, you should be fine.” Then added, “I know I’m good to go. I did the prep work.”
I smiled at the girl, and said, “You have chosen wisely.”