Timelines: Keeping Track of the Setting

As readers move up through the levels, setting becomes a whole new thing. When readers are in those primary grade levels, setting is fairly straightforward and simple. Its when and where the story takes place. And since the entire story is told in 8-16 pages that are largely illustration, that setting remains quite constant for those readers. The story takes place at night, in the bedroom. Or the story takes place in the back yard sometime during the daytime.

But when the stories become longer and more complex, that simple equation goes right out the window. And those fragile readers often don’t realize that a major change has occurred — and so they don’t adjust their thinking and reading. When we have a 200 page novel, what are the odds that the entire story will take place at night, in the bedroom? I mean, I know that we push the idea of a small moment — but seriously 200 pages without moving from a single night in a child’s bedroom? In a longer book, the setting can and will change. And it is critical that the reader maintain a sense of where the story is and where it might be moving to.

Also, in those more complex texts, the setting becomes an acting character in the story. The setting creates obstacles and challenges for the protagonist. Think about survival stories like “My Side of the Mountain” or “Julie of the Wolves”. What about the setting and the challenges it presents in “Holes”? That story just wouldn’t be the same without the threats presented by the desert and the lizards. Or “The Mixed Up Files” — the museum certainly acts like a character in that tale.

For my group of readers who are working through “Running Out of Time”, keeping track of the setting is challenging but critical to understanding the story. Jessie starts out in an 1800s village, then escapes to the “tourist side” of the village, and then moving out into the parking lot and finally the big wide world. Even out in the world, keeping track of where she is in relation to the village and the dangers presented there is important to understanding the twists and turns in the story. And because the story is told from the point of view of Jessie — nothing outside of the 1800s village is actually named, it is described in detail. Jessie doesn’t know the term “parking lot”, so she doesn’t use it. She describes the rows of cars (another term she doesn’t know and so describes) and the gates other parking lot features. The reader has to visualize from her description, and then synthesize into the concept “parking lot” in order to understand the dangers facing Jessie at that point in the story. Its a tricky bit of comprehension.

So, we began using timelines. Simple strips of paper that mark the changes of setting and slow us down as readers to recognize the descriptions we’re reading. They’re messy. But they’re making great bookmarks for our reading. And they’re helping us keep track of a tricky change of setting.

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Visualizing the Story: Strategies to Help Fill-in the Screen

We talk a lot about “making a movie in your mind” with students. But as I work with some of the more fragile readers, I’m discovering that it isn’t a natural process for them. They are unsure of how to create more than a grainy, shadowy movie with quite a bit of blank screen time. Or they attend to tiny little details and try to fill those details in on the movie screen and end up losing track of the story-line altogether.

Since a great deal of my work right now is focused on the idea of showing readers and writers HOW to do something — rather than repeatedly telling them TO do it…. I started working out ways in which I fill in the screen on my own movie.

Currently, I have four strategies going with my fragile readers. See what you think of them? What else do we do as skilled readers to fill in the screen?

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NOOKs and Other E-readers: Hidden Benefits

You may remember that I have a group of students who are working on mastering the NOOK e-reader. As a school, we purchased 6 color screen NOOKs for use with students. Then came the challenge of figuring out exactly what to do with them. You can read about some of my early struggles with that here.

As we’ve working together, I’ve been discovering some “hidden” benefits of using the e-reader with my more fragile readers.

  • you can adjust the size of the font to suit the reader. No more being intimidated by tiny font or dense text on the page. The students can deal with the text for what it actually is, not for the emotional reaction to the visual impact of the page.
  • you can “feel” momentum (even if you really don’t have much of it). Because of the ability to adjust the font so dramatically, even my most plodding readers can proudly proclaim “I’ve read 20 pages today” or some other rather impressive number. The reality is, if we were comparing to the actual printed book, they didn’t make all that much progress, they don’t have all that much momentum going. But when they “feel” that sense of completing a huge chunk of reading, it creates a sensation of momentum and propels them forward through the next big chunk of reading. Isn’t this how readers are created, really? Momentum is so self-reinforcing. Momentum always seems to create and fuel momentum (or is that the definition of momentum?). I love how the e-reader does this for my readers.
  • the e-reader removes the dread of how much more is still to come. You can’t see the book. You can’t see whether there are 28 pages or 2008 pages. You just read and keep reading. There is no big, fat, unread section taunting you and causing you to doubt yourself as a reader.
  • you can get lost in the reading. This one goes along with the previous one. Because there is no sense of how far you’ve read, or of how far you have yet to read, there is nothing to do except get lost in the reading right where you are. (Okay, that has to the be most confusing sentence ever written). Essentially what I see happening is that the kids lose the sense of how big the book is — they lose the drive to conquer the pages and just push through to be able to say “I’m done”. The book doesn’t bully them with its size or heft or the look of the page or any of the other ways books can bully fragile readers. And so they are free to just get lost in the story. The e-reader is just there. It keeps the book in the present tense — this part, right here. That’s all there is with the e-reader. And so it beckons — dive in and enjoy — get lost in this story, right here. And the kids do.

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A Strategy for Synthesizing

I’m working with a remedial reading group that is having some difficulty adjusting their thinking as they read.  In other words, they fail to synthesize as readers.

Synthesizing, in a nutshell, is accomodating new information and adjusting our thinking as we read.  This is often a problem for upper grade remedial readers.  They’ve worked so hard to develop schema, learn to follow the literal events of a text, and keep track of all the characters that they are resistant to “changing their minds”.

I chose the book Running Out of Time (an older book) by Margaret Peterson Haddix.  (Spoiler Alert) This story starts out seemingly set in the mid 1800s.  I deliberately help the students activate schema for Historical Fiction.  Then at the end of chapter three, we discover that the characters are living in a historical re-enactment and its really the mid 1990s (relatively contemporary time frame).  Suddenly all that schema about historical fiction needs to go out the window.  The reader MUST synthesize the new information and dramatically change his thinking.

As the book progresses, we encounter a few more stunning discoveries about the evil owner of the settlement and his plans for the people living there.  Each time, the reader is forced to make another change away from previously gathered information and into new understandings about how the story is progressing.  These are rather dramatic shifts for the reader (which is why I LOVE this book for teaching this skill).

So here’s my strategy —-