Found Examples Beat Textbook Ones

One way to reduce some of students’ indifference toward English class content (should you be so fortunate as to have students whose interest rises as high as indifference), is regularly sharing current, real-world examples of the topic you’re discussing in class.

Screen capture from Q&A used to stimulate class discussionNon-textbook material works better than textbook materials on the same subject, even if it is not local or big news:

  • Non-textbook material looks real because it is real.
  • Non-textbook material shows students that there are uses for the stuff you teach.
  • Non-textbook material helps students read the way readers will read their work, right down to the “huh?”

One morning I noticed this lede paragraph in a story in the Glens Falls, NY, Post-Star that gave me a great illustration for my compare-and-contrast lessons.

Tony Chiaravalle buys and sells stuff for a living. The 46-year-old father of one from Lake George runs Main Street Exchange in Queensbury. Though his shop may not be as well-known as the one on History Channel’s popular “Pawn Stars” show, he said there are a lot of similarities and differences.

I would give students that lede and ask them to respond in writing as I posed three questions, giving students time to write each answer before I present the next question. Such informal writing forces students to look carefully at the paragraph, and it makes sure the entire class has thought about the material.

  1. Write 1-2 students explaining why you think it is or is not a good introduction to a compare-and-contrast article.
  2. In one sentence, tell what you think is unique about Main Street Exchange.
  3. In one or two sentences, explain why you would or would not use that third sentence for a working thesis for a comparison essay.

By the time they get to the third question, most students have begun to see that saying two items have similarities and differences tells nothing: That statement can be made about any two items.

Once students have written their thoughts, I’d ask them to share orally what they observed. The typical class figures out without any help from me that working thesis for a comparison should specify the significant difference between the two items. Differences are distinctive.

Since the news story is a Q&A — essentially raw data — I might have students work in teams to produce a good working thesis and writing skeleton™ based on their analysis of the content of the piece. Eventually students will need to sort through their own raw data. Having had a chance to paw through someone else’s with the help of their peers gives students supported practice.

You will need to exert very little effort to find such non-textbook materials to use in class if you have annual objectives and periodically refresh your memory about what topics remain to be covered.

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