Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Genre Studies

Our curriculum places a strong emphasis on literature—our students read widely and deeply from many types of texts. Our reading classes make rich use of the wide spectrum of literary styles, and our other disciplines often include readings and examinations of relevant literature. We emphasize many ways of communicating a message—through story, narrative, poem, or other forms. We examine the structure and form of different works, and we encourage students to write in multiple styles.

March 6: Talking History

How did people learn about their history before there were history books? The fourth graders have been grappling with this question as they embark on a hallmark experience of the Belmont Day School curriculum: the study of ancient Greece. Last week, Mrs. Holman introduced Homer and the ancient tradition of epic storytelling. She has been reading Blackships Before Troy, a version of the Iliad, to build the students’ historical knowledge of the cultures of the Mediterranean and immerse them in the real and apocryphal events of the Trojan War.

The students are completely absorbed by the action-packed epic, which one of them described as “40 days when Achilles was pouting and the Trojans were winning the war.” Some students are excited by the engaging battles and war scenes. Another student commented on the amazing way that the whole story fits together. “There are no random things popping up,” she noted admiringly.

One of Mrs. Holman’s goals in this project is for the students to learn about the memorization strategies and performance methods used by the bards of the age. She compares the process to a game of “telephone,” in which each storyteller learns the main events of the story, then adds his own embellishments and individual flair. The students have learned about the importance of rhyme, the use of music to keep a melody and pattern in the performance, and the “power of three,” which refers to the technique of repeating significant actions three times.

As they listen, the students take notes to track the sequence of events of the story. They debate which events could have been real and which have probably been exaggerated over time. When they have heard all of the stories in the collection, they will become the storytellers themselves. In small groups, the children will choose their favorite episode from the epic, prepare their own retelling, and share their story with the class. Usually, Mrs. Holman says, the groups distribute themselves in such a way that the class ends up telling the entire Iliad from beginning to end. The challenge will be for them to find a way of using only their narrative skills to engage the audience—no acting or props are allowed. For the past few years, Mrs. Holman has used a video camera to record the final performances. This year, however, she and Mrs. Brooks are planning to produce a webcast of the adventures, creating a 21st century version of an ancient language art.

April 10: Feeling the Words

April is National Poetry Month, and our first and second graders are in the midst of reading, hearing, studying, and especially, writing poems. Although the lessons and activities in each class are different, both grades has been engaged in an ongoing conversation about what makes poetry different from regular writing.

Investigating words through poetry creates many opportunities for language study. In first grade, the children have been reading daily “chart poems” all year, attending to rhymes, patterns, images, or silly ideas. Sometimes, interesting words from these poems appear in other selections, expanding the children’s vocabulary. Recently, a student noticed the word “wailed” in a story. “I know that word! It was in our poem. It means to cry loudly!” she exclaimed. This week, the first graders are taking their poetic study to a new level: they have begun a two-week poetry unit in their reading groups, which focuses on writing their own poetry. The children are noticing that in poetry, the “just right” word or combination of words is important. Mrs. Chait explained that the students’ first efforts are based on structural guidelines, such as self-descriptive “I” poems. As they gain confidence with this new writing style, they will move onto more abstract forms. Selections of their work will appear in the Lambs’ Gambol later this spring.

Second graders are also focusing on both structure and word choice in their study of poetry. Mrs. Fell says that a goal is for the children to get a sense of poetry as a different kind of writing, one that emphasizes the expressive power of language. The children are observing that poetry has a rhythm or a beat that you can sometimes actually feel. In a good poem, the “right” words are in the right order; the sounds and the flow of the words are sometimes exciting, or silly, or serious. The teachers have chosen certain structural poems for the children to compose: this week, each child wrote a cinquain (5-line poem) describing a classmate. The exercise reinforced the children’s knowledge of parts of speech, while also giving them a chance to think about self-descriptions and compliments for themselves and others. Mrs. Fell says that the entire class has been gripped by this unit, which has allowed so many children to show their language skills in a new way. “The enthusiasm is infectious!” she said.

The teachers are enjoying this study as much as the children. In both grades, they have brought favorite poems, shared their own examples, and delighted in the results that the children have produced.

May 15: Enchanted Reading

Do you believe in magic? Our third graders (and the characters in the books they are reading) are asking themselves the same question. This week, the teachers and children have immersed themselves in a collection of fantasy stories that have led to conversations about make-believe and the incredible power of imagination. These books comprise one of several genre studies that the class has pursued over the course of the year.

Mrs. Moriarty and Mrs. Listfield offered three choices to the students: James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl, The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt, and Half Magic by Edward Eager. The children ranked the books according to their own preference and were assigned either their first or second choice for the unit. Although the plot and setting of each book are unique, all of them include main characters who come face-to-face with fantastic situations or creatures. These books demonstrate the importance of making the right text selections to meet our learning goals, which balance fluency, comprehension, and literary analysis. The fantasy unit provides countless opportunities for the students to practice oral reading, hone their inferential skills, and reflect on the uses of language to convey an image or a scene.

Visualization is an important skill in comprehension, and it was in full evidence this week. At the beginning of Half Magic, odd events happen whenever someone makes a wish out loud. “I wonder,” Mrs. Moriarty mused, “What possible explanation might there be for this?” Several hands shot up as children eagerly suggested ideas. In James and the Giant Peach, James and his aunts are astonished when a peach suddenly grows to enormous proportions right before their eyes. The children delighted in the humorous portrayal of James’ horrid aunts. Ms. Milligan stopped the reading for a moment and encouraged the children to envision the scene in their imaginations. In Mrs. Listfield’s group, the main character in The Search for Delicious is taken to the top of the forest by a magical creature. Mrs. Listfield paused thoughtfully and asked, “could you see that in your minds?” She re-read the passage, emphasizing the descriptive language and the details in the text.

Conversations abounded as the teachers and students discussed the possibility of a real peach growing to that size, or of conjuring half of what you want by wishing on a coin, or of a creature to be visible only to those who believe in him. Along with the literacy skills they demonstrated, children also found themselves entranced by the wonderful stories—an equally important goal of our reading program.

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