Welcome to another Teaching Tuesday – my hope for this feature is that it will be a spot where teachers (primarily secondary English, but much is easily adaptable for other subjects and grade levels) can tune in once a week for simple, ready-to-use ideas and tools for the classroom. *Also, those of you that aren’t teachers, will know to skip Tuesday and come back on Wednesday!
Today, I’m sharing some of my thoughts on SparkNotes (the modern-day internet version of CliffNotes), and why I actually encourage my students to use them + three ideas for checking reading comprehension quickly, easily, and effectively.
Let’s start with SparkNotes…
Right up there with Wikipedia, I’d say SparkNotes have a generally bad reputation with English teachers. That’s mostly because students read SparkNotes instead of actually reading the assigned book. Yes, I agree that this a problem. BUT, I think totally banning the use of SparkNotes (or calling them “cheating”) is also a problem. Here’s why:
– My ultimate goal for my students is to make them lifelong learners – specifically, readers and writers. I don’t think we instill a love for reading by assigning boring, long, and hard-to-understand books (like many of the “classics” I’m sorry to say) to teenagers. Instead, we frustrate them and force them find “easy ways out” of actual reading by using the internet etc. That said, I DO think there are many books in the canon that students should be exposed to – either because of their literary merit, social impact, or some combination of both (like, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for example). SO… That’s where I think SparkNotes can actually work FOR my classes…
– I teach my students that 1.) I KNOW about SparkNotes. Basically, simply telling them that I also read SparkNotes sometimes when I’m faced with a challenging text and need a basic summary, makes it seem all the less “rebellious” to them. By reading the SparkNotes, they know they aren’t “pulling one over on me.” They also know that – since I read them too – simply copying and pasting study guide answers from SparkNotes won’t cut it. I will know. 2.) They are welcome to use SparkNotes as a TOOL in addition to reading the actual book. I actually think that making resourceful students/readers is a part of my job. If they don’t understand something they are reading, I don’t want them to just skim through the book and wait for the answers in class, or – worse – quit reading all together. So, they CAN use SparkNotes if they need extra help, they just have to read the book too.
SO, there you go – my SparkNotes philosophy. For the most part, this has worked really well with my classes. Do you do something similar? Have a different take?
And, now, because checking for reading comprehension/completion IS really important, here are three “out of the box” ideas to make sure your students are reading and understanding what you assign them:
1. Pick your Pop (Quiz). Prepare a bunch of short answer questions about the reading students completed for homework and number them. (I like to have one per student.) Give students the list of questions ahead of time, but tell them that they are not required to write out their answers. Then, when they come to class, have students pull a number out of a hat to determine which question they answer. Give them 5 minutes to answer the ONE question they are assigned (with no notes) and turn it in for a quiz grade. As a bonus, allow them to use their novels for the last minute (one minute only). The students that are familiar with the reading will easily be able to find the spot and any specifics they are unsure about it in that time – those that didn’t read will be stumbling around. *I’ve also done this by having six questions and asking students to roll a dice to determine which one they will answer. My only complaint about that technique is that it took a little longer to implement in class and six questions are pretty easy to cheat with/ get answers from someone else before class. Regardless, my students really like this method of assessment and it serves my purpose well – to tell who read and who didn’t. (Since this is meant to be a pretty informal assessment, I usually only make the “quiz” worth about 10 points.)
2. Summary Sketch. This is as easy as it sounds. Basically, on the day a reading assignment is “due,” give students a blank sheet of paper and ask them to “sketch” what they just read. Often, students will just draw a comic-strip type illustration of the events from what they’ve read, but often their depictions will indicate some form of closer reading too – physical characteristics, scenery, etc. Also, every once in a while, I’ll get a kid that draws something that hints at a deeper theme or symbol from their reading and does some kind of creative interpretation artwork. I LOVE when that happens. This can be a little difficult to score; but, honestly, the kids that didn’t read and have no idea what’s going on, usually float to the surface pretty fast. Frequently, they will rat themselves out with a blank page or by throwing their pencil across the room. The ones that read – they appreciate a chance to do something other than write in English class.
3. Dialectical Journals & Socratic Seminars. Admittedly, this isn’t quite as much “fun” or creative as the first two options, but I use this A LOT in my advanced/ higher grade level classes and my students say it is their favorite class activity. Students are simply asked to keep a dialectical (two-sided) journal to highlight significant quotations or passages as they read and their thoughts on it. Then, on the assigned day, they bring the journals to class and use them as a guide in a Socratic Seminar (class discussion). I mostly stay out of the discussion and allow students to reach their own conclusions about the book etc. as they chat, but I do keep a tally mark of students that contribute (1 mark for a thoughtful comment, 2 for a related quotation, 0 for nonsense). If I’m feeling especially “cool,” I’ll treat it like a Book Club and invite students to bring in snacks etc. for our discussion.
That’s all I’ve got today! If you have any great ideas for checking reading, I’d LOVE to hear them in the comments. Have a great Tuesday!
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