Differentiating, summaries and identifying learning abilities and language needs

My G9 ELA are ready to start their next unit based around a Memoir by E.Wiesel, Night. As I did not want to start the novel before the winter break, I decided to create a non-fiction summary activity to introduce the dark theme of Holocaust and Genocide, coincidentally linking it to their Social Studies unit on Syria.

With the help of our secondary librarian I planned this activity to some detail, selecting 3 texts related to Genocide and/or Syria, creating a Summary Rubric assessing Communication Skills as well as providing a lesson on how to write a good summary step by step which included a sample text and example summaries. Incidentally, librarians are valuable resources for teachers and I strongly recommend you use them, planning with another educator is also beneficial as a different viewpoint comes out; my experience being that I often find a second person points out details that I may overlook!

To introduce the topic we had selected an article on Samoa that discussed some of the challenges the Island faces in the twenty-first century. After initial discussions on what a “good” summary should include, students were explained that 4 crucial steps should be taken to write a summary: Read – Annotate – Take notes – Write summary & Check work. Students were provided with a Summary Checklist. In small groups they then read and annotated the text. Before sharing I asked students to complete a worksheet on Colour/Symbol/Image with the intention of them firstly having thought deeper about the text and secondly provide some details to share in their discussions. In small groups students then shared their key points and by the end of the lesson they were able to compare them with the ones I had prepared. This assured them they were on the right track (or not). Pretty standard lesson using Think/Pair/Share and gave students thinking time before discussions. The task got really interesting at this point; for homework I had prepared a discussion task on Schoology (Moodle type platform). I had uploaded 2 summaries, one being weak and another that was very strong and students were asked to read these, use the summary checklist to analyze them and write a comment using: Claim/Support/Question. Students are familiar with this routine and mostly provided meaningful evaluations of the summary. What I like most about this routine is the question part because it pushes them to think further. The homework gave me insight into who was understanding what we were doing. Most students wrote meaningful claims that were supported although there were a few students who were totally off track.

It was in the following class that the element of differentiation came into play. The librarian had selected a number of articles of different lengths and language complexity of which we selected three. The first being the shortest and simplest and the third being the longest and most complex from a language perspective. All three articles were either about Syria, Genocide and/or the Holocaust. Together with the Social Studies teacher and a Learning Support colleague we selected which student would summarize each article. I did not explain to the students in detail why they were all given different articles but needed to do so after the assignment as some questioned it as they are not used to this type of approach. At RAS unfortunately most teachers differentiate little and seem to think it is the responsibility of the support teachers, EAL or LS. This in itself is a point I strongly disagree with simply because in a classroom with students each individual learns at their own pace, is able to achieve to the best of his/her abilities and are not all at the same stage in the learning process; no one ever is. Support teachers can adapt tasks for specific learning needs but it is the subject teachers who should also play an important role in differentiating for all their students and not just provide one task for all.

After assessing the summaries, what surprised me most were two trends I observed. The first being that on the lower end students were not using their own words but copying from the text to different degrees, something that was discussed besides being in the rubric which they had read and checked for understanding earlier. The second trend was that on the higher end, even with a more challenging article the students mostly wrote outstanding summaries only forgetting minor details. The main one being to start the summary by mentioning what is being summarized, in this case an article of some type.

So what are the next steps? Clearly about half the G9s need practice and the others can move on to more challenging written assignments. How I go about this will require some thought and discussion with the students, the librarian and hopefully other staff apart from fusing it with the current unit. One of the things I really liked about this task is that it identifies which route you need to take with each student. To create a true learning culture, you can plan your units but must be prepared to adapt them over and over to the needs of the individual students. To me this is what makes teaching diverse, fun, challenging and creative!



Author: Niels Zwart

Living in Vientiane, Lao PDR. Also lived in The Netherlands, UK, Spain, China and Morocco. EAL in Secondary, English Literature, Social Studies, IBDP Spanish ab initio. Family man, music, reading, cooking and eating, tennis and table tennis, and traveling.

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