Literacy Moves: Annotating and writing with Explorer magazine

by Jim Bentley, fifth-grade teacher, National Geographic Fellow and Explorer

In my last post, I shared how I coach students to navigate the paper version of Explorer magazine using Kylene Beers’ Reading Nonfiction: Notice & Note Stances, Signposts, and Strategies

The big idea was this: Avoid teaching students how to engage a specific text; rather, teach them a system to interrogate text by noticing what Beers terms “signposts.” 

To deepen that interaction and to make thinking visible, we can teach students to meaningfully annotate a text to make their thinking visible. 

Strategy Share: Model for students how to annotate text. When I first embraced close reading and annotation, I had a professional blind spot: I assumed students knew how to annotate. But when I passed out highlighters and saw handouts transform into neon orange, yellow, or green crazy quilts, I knew otherwise.

First, we ditched the highlighters. The temptation to color can be too much for too many students. 

Next, because students get to keep their paper version of Explorer, I model how to annotate using a document camera and a pen or pencil. We use “?” to indicate something confusing. A “★” indicates an important idea. Key words are underlined. A number is used to identify a sequence of events. 

When modeling annotation, our workflow goes like this: 

  • Either I or a student read aloud a few paragraphs or a section of text (if it’s relatively short) for the gist.
  • Students individually skim each paragraph to look for signposts, sequences, big ideas, or 3-5 words per paragraph that seem important. They do not mark their text yet.
  • Students “turn and talk” or “think-pair-share” with a partner before sharing their thoughts with the whole class.
  • The class agrees on which words to underline to avoid underlining entire sentences or paragraphs. 
  • We read one or two sections of the text like this, then students continue reading, following the process on their own.

After doing this a few times, students begin to internalize that not every word in a paragraph is critically important to summarize the main ideas in a text. To keep the signposts and questions ever present, I made them into bookmarks that I copy on cardstock and laminate for my students to use. You can download it here

My students and I annotate to refine our understanding of ideas in a text. It’s personal and not intended for public display. But lately we’ve started to merge science with poetry to publicly showcase what we’ve learned using sciku.

Strategy share: Teach students to write sciku. A while back while roaming Twitter—a social media tool I use to connect with educators and explorers around the globe—I found the Sciku Project

Sciku is a portmanteau word combining “science” with “haiku.” The rules are simple: Communicate a scientific idea in 17 syllables with three lines of poetry where the first line contains five syllables, the second line seven syllables, and the final line five syllables. 

What I love about sciku is it encourages students to boil down concepts they’ve read to reveal the most essential ideas. They’re summarizing what they’ve learned without feeling the pressure to include every detail. 

I created a resource using Google Slides to help students and teachers get started with sciku. You can access it by clicking here

When we read the article “The Problem of Plastics” in the September 2019 issue of the magazine [Adventurer edition for grades 5-6, Lexile 520L-950L], it supported our research for a National Geographic Planetary Stewards Grant we’ve been working on this year. We reached out to National Geographic Explorer and author of the article, Justine Ammendolia, and were fortunate enough to arrange a Google Hangout with her so that we could discuss her article and our own research. Afterward, students wrote sciku to share some of the points that stood out to them. Here are a few examples: 

You plastic are not supposed to be on the ground but in the trash can.
—Alvereti
Aww! What a cute plant.Oh, no! It’s tangled! Wait … what? Oh, it is plastic!
—Sol
Plastic I see youstuck in that little bird poowhere Justine found you.
—Angelina
Plastic hurts fish bad.Plastic can hurt humans, too,if we eat those fish. 
—Daniel

Engagement Tip: Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

Reading doesn’t just have to be all text. It can also spark action!

For an article like “Warm Up, Cool Down,” which explores how energy from the sun affects endotherms and ectotherms, the poster that accompanied the issue suggested making thermochromic dough with simple ingredients readily available at a grocery store or online. The poster also posed a question: How does the shape of an ectotherm body affect how quickly or slowly it cools or warms?

Students read the recipe, measured the ingredients, made the dough, and crafted snakes, sea turtles, and lizards. We placed them under a heat lamp to observe the rate at which different body shapes warmed. 

Snakes with their long, slender bodies warmed the fastest, as you can see in this timelapse video. Thicker sea turtles and lizards warmed more slowly.

Making thermochromic clay involved speaking and listening, measuring and collaborating. Building different ectotherms tapped into students’ creativity. While the models weren’t to scale nor perfectly accurate renderings of specific species, that wasn’t the main goal. 

Reading the paper version of Explorer magazine is something my students and I both look forward to. It builds upon the National Geographic Learning Framework and invites students to explore wildlife, our human story, and our changing planet. By teaching my students to navigate online and paper texts, they can develop a deeper understanding of how the world works. And when students understand just how amazing our planet is and the challenges we collectively face, I get the opportunity to help transform a literacy experience into something even better: empowering students to become the next generation of explorers and planetary stewards.

Spring subscriptions of Explorer magazine are available until November 15. Full-year digital subscriptions are available until January 15. More information is available at ExplorerMag.org. Subscriptions for the 2020-2021 school year will be available in February 2020. 

This article is part three of a series. Read the first two posts:

All photos by Jim Bentley.

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