7th Grade ELA : Unit #1 - Laying the Foundations: Teaching Routines, Procedures, and Expectations through Authentic Activities : Lesson #5

Critical Thinking: "The King of Beasts"

Objective: Students will be able to develop critical thinking skills by reading an informative text, answering targeted critical thinking questions, citing evidence, and discussing answers with a small group.
Standards: RI.7.1 RI.7.4 RI.7.5
Subject(s): English / Language Arts
60 minutes
1 Introducing the Six Way Model - 10 minutes

I used this lesson to introduce my students to Walter Pauk's Six Way Paragraph.  The English department at my school has agreed to use the six way model throughout the school year and for some of my students, their weekly reading homework will involve passages from this text.

I gave each student a copy of the Six Way handout that was created my my student teacher, Rachel.  I briefly read through the six different types of questions, making sure to clarify the following:

  1. Main Idea: The main idea of a text can be found in most, if not all, the paragraphs.  It will not be found in one or half of the paragraphs.
  2. Subject Matter: This is the topic of the passage and can be found within the main idea.  These two questions are intricately connected and can be used to 'check your work'.
  3. Detail Sentence: These types of questions can be found directly in the text.  You can literally point to them and underline them.  In terms of QAR (Question-Answer Relationships) they are the Right There and Think and Search questions.
  4. Conclusions: These questions require you to make inferences. They are the Author and I questions in the QAR framework.  They require you to read between the lines and draw a conclusion.  It's important to make sure that the conclusions you draw are logical and are supported by the text. Please see my video on this type of question!
  5. Clarifying Devices: The clarifying devices are the devices that help you clarify the author's words.  They include transition words as well as looking at how the text is structured.  Some common text structures include compare/contrast, logical order, chronological order, main idea/supporting detail, and problem/solution. These  types of questions often ask you to consider why an author includes a specific sentence or paragraph.
  6. Vocabulary: I tell students that there's no way that teachers can teach all of the words in the English language.  Even if students had one class a day, starting in sixth grade, going all the way to twelfth grade, teachers couldn't teach you all the words in the dictionary.  It's impossible.  You can, however, develop skills to figure out what unfamiliar words mean through context. There are two steps to this skill, which I will discuss in my video.

 For more information about QAR, click here. It's a PDF by Staff Development for Educators (SDE) about the four types of QAR questions. The QAR framework is used at my school as a school-wide strategy, so most of my students are aware of the strategy when they come to me.

2 Independent Reading - 10 minutes

The passage I gave students is from Walter Pauk's Six Way Paragraphs: Introductory.  "King of Beasts" is the first reading passage in the book and is at a sixth grade reading level, but still provides excellent opportunities for discussion.

I gave students about ten minutes to read the passage and then answer the questions.  Don't be afraid to let students struggle.  Since this is one of the first reading lessons in the year, this is one of your first opportunities to see how students handle independent reading.  There are only six multiple choice questions, but all are designed to develop critical thinking skills, so they're harder than simply comprehension questions.

As students were reading and answering the questions, I reminded them to underline where they found the answer as I roamed around the room. The underlining of answers is one of the first ways I use to meet the standard of citing several pieces of evidence to support what the text says.

My co-teacher, Cheri, a special education teacher, has given me two tips to help see if students are struggling with reading.  One signal that students are struggling with reading is if they are moving their lips while they read silently.  Cheri explains that students who move their lips are stuck on decoding rather than comprehension.  Another signal to watch for is whether students use a piece of paper to help focus on individual lines.  This strategy actually slows down the students' reading speed.

3 Group Dialogue - 20 minutes

This lesson isn't just about answering questions.  It's also designed to help students develop their discourse skills.  I relied heavily on the book Academic Conversations by Jeff Zweirs and Marie Crawford to prepare for this lesson.

According to Zweirs and Crawford, there are five critical skills students need in order to have a collegial dialogue. Students need to be able to elaborate and clarify ideas, paraphrase what others say, support their ideas with examples, build on and challenge ideas, and synthesize the conversation.

If I threw all five of those things at students, they'd freak and mutiny.  Therefore, I chose to focus on just two areas--paraphrasing and elaborating/clarifying.

The ability to paraphrase shows that you are listening to others and understanding what they are saying.  The ability to elaborate and clarify is necessary for speakers to give enough information (not to much, not too little) to make sure they are being understood. These two handouts on paraphrasing and elaborating and clarifying are a resource for students and include sentence starters. Certainly we don't want students to rely on sentence starters, but for beginning discoursers (ones who discourse, naturally), sentence starters can be a nice safety net. 

My student already sit in pods and most groups have three or four students.  If students are absent, I'll have students join another group so I have no more than four students in one group.

Each group should nominate a leader to keep the discussion on track.   The leader is responsible for asking each member of the group what answer they got for each question. Another student is the recorder and uses this handout to record the answers of everyone in the group.  If all of the students agree on an answer as well as the citation, they move on to the next question. If even one student disagrees, they have a dialogue to determine whose answer is correct, referring back to the text, and citing the paragraph and sentence where they found the answer.

This is the part that takes the most time, the part that I have limited control over, and is the best and most awkward part. For this to be a successful lesson, I had to constantly move from group to group and ask them how they had paraphrased, elaborated, clarified, or pointed to evidence in the text.

Once each group is finished (or almost finished) with their dialogue, I moved to whole class discussion.  Each group leader should record the group's answers on the board.  If one group has a different answer, the dialogue above is repeated. 

This specific passage, "King of Beasts," provides a challenge in identifying the main idea.  I've used this passage during teacher meetings as well as class and the discussion can get heated. Fun for everyone, except the kid who wants to sit back and let others do the thinking.

Conclusions: Reality and Misconceptions

The other two English teachers at my school taught also used this passage to introduce the 6 Way Paragraph.  When we compared notes on this lesson, we realized that students were having difficulty with the conclusion question. They were approaching the question with the mindset that a conclusion was the final sentence in a paragraph, and of course, they were right.  The book, however, is using the meaning of drawing conclusions, of making inferences.  Once we cleared up that misconception, things went much smoother.  We certainly have to remember to revisit this the next time we do a 6 Way Paragraph.

4 Responding in Writing - 7 minutes

Students ended the class by writing a response to the day's lesson. I asked them to reflect on both critical thinking and the conversation, or discourse, they had had with their groups.

5 Lesson Resources - 0 minutes

I happen to love memes.  My bulletin border is a bunch of memes.  Today's lesson image is brought to you by the spirit of icanhascheezburger. 

6 Update 2015: Group Discussion - 0 minutes