Probable Passages...Probably What's Most Important

Thursday, January 23, 2014
brought to you by Lori

My class recently began reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Correction. My class of struggling readers recently began reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. There are different philosophies when it comes to getting kids engaged in a novel. Some prefer to spend lots of time building background information so that students can build historical context. That's important! Some spend a class period walking through an anticipation guide so that students can think about major themes prior to experiencing the novel. That's also important! But the question I wondered about was...what's most important for my class of struggling readers? This is where our job is tough. We only have so many minutes in a day, and we constantly have to make decisions about what's most important. I feel good about my choice to not discuss historical context and not move students through an anticipation guide. Both are strategies and lessons I've used successfully in the past. But instruction is not one size fits all. So let me tell you what I did. 

At the Curly Classroom, we LOVE Kylene Beers. In fact, we're so excited to attend a professional development session with her on February 11th...but that's a whole other post. Anyway, the purpose of the probable passage is to show students snippets of a text prior to actually reading it. It causes them to think about the various elements of the text before reading and to make reasonable predictions about what might happen. Then...and this is my favorite part...they can re-visit those predictions as they read to monitor and adjust their own thinking and understanding. I'll be very honest with you. Even though I love Kylene, this strategy scared me. I even made Suz come to my office [Yes. I have an office and not a classroom. But I am still a teacher. It's complicated.] so that we could play with the various pieces of this multi-faceted puzzle. Even though I was skeptical, the more I talked through it, the more of a believer I became. 

I pulled my probable passage from the very end of To Kill a Mockingbird. You know's that beautiful moment in chapter 31 where Scout stands on the Radley front porch and sees all of the events of the last year or so through Boo's perspective. [It's lovely. I'll get you a tissue.] I assumed Harper Lee would forgive me, and then I stole 11 key words and phrases from the text that would fall into five categories:

  • UNKNOWN--I told my kids not to leave anything in this category. Before making their prediction, they had to resolve it (through discussion or dictionary use or questioning) and put it in a category.

I like how my "unknown" category printed very mysteriously. It was totally intentional.
They did a great job sorting. That wasn't too bad. There was one that most tables were having a hard time with--"woes and triumphs"--so we had a whole group discussion and agreed about where it should go. Then. Oh dear. Then I asked them to make some observations about what they think this book might be about. Here are some responses. Make sure you look at my picture above before reading this list of "observations."
  • Me: "What do you think this book might be about?
  • Kid: "A man."
  • Me: "Sure...what other ideas do you have? What else might it be about."
  • Another Kid: "A man in the fall."
  • Me: [Oh dear] "Ok well what if we start putting some of these pieces together. I know that characters exist IN a setting. Can you put a character or characters in a setting? And what will they do in that setting? Can you look at your clues and maybe come up with some problems they might face? Take a few minutes and write that in your journal. Be sure to also tell me what the outcome might be.
At first kids were frustrated. I didn't even take pictures of them because they were already irritated with me for giving them such a different assignment. Had I taken pictures, you would have seen frustration. But...some aha moments DID indeed happen! Here are some of the responses I got:
  • I think this book will be about a man and his children struggling through hard times.
  • I think this book will be about a boy and his sister experiencing sadness and victory. [Remember...we had talked about woes and triumphs as a whole group. I might have given them the words sadness and victory.]
  • I think this book will be about a family learning how to get through hard times. [Notice how that kid moved from beyond what the cards said. He put together the notion of a family and he really understood the whole "woes and triumphs" bit. I was impressed.]
These predictions now live in our notebook. Our very next lesson focused on an analysis of the setting and I was able to revisit the predictions and ask students whether they thought Maycomb would be a "woe" or a "triumph." 

Pretty cool stuff, folks. No I didn't give notes on historical context. Because I didn't think it was most important. No I didn't do a discussion-based anticipation guide. Not because I don't think they're valuable, but because I didn't think it was what was most important. I chose to work with a probable passage because I wanted struggling enter the text with their own ideas. I feel good about it, and even though they were frustrated that day, they were thinking, and I was proud of them.


  1. Love Notice and Note. Two of my fellow teachers are attending the Feb 11th workshop. I introduced my department to the book at the end of last school year, and one teacher really latched on to the ideas. She found out that two of our administration level leaders were going, and ended up snagging two spots for our campus. Can I say I'm jealous?!

    1. We are going to be at that training on the 11th!!! Can I say how sad I am that you won't be there? I'm sure your friends will be nice too, but still! Tell them to look for us!