Teaching Determining Importance As More Than Just a Skill on a Checklist

I have written before of my own fear of teaching reading comprehension strategies as  items on a checklist to merely be taught in order to say that we are teaching them.  Too often I found myself falling into the trap of asking, “How am I supposed to teach __________ (insert whatever reading comprehension strategy you would like)?” And then I would search on the internet or in books for ways to teach these strategies.  It took me a long time to realize that before I could ask, “How?” I had to start by asking, “Why?”

And so as my students and I arrived at our final reading unit of the year, I found myself wondering about why and how I was going to teach determining importance to my students.  On one hand, the why was pretty easy. I was going to teach it because I had to.  It is one of the three strategies (along with questioning and synthesizing) that is assigned to fifth grade in my school district.

Within the strategy of determining importance, I am supposed to touch on the genres of informational texts and historical fiction.  These are also assigned to this strategy and to my grade level. Luckily, I already took care of determining importance in informational texts as we used used informational texts in order to gather information for our topics in our informational writing unit in writing workshop. We worked these lessons into our writing workshop as I modeled to the students how to use this NOTE TAKING ORGANIZER. I felt pretty good about the work we had done together, so I was left with determining importance in historical fiction.

On top of all of that, I am also supposed to teach about the Civil Rights Movement. This actually falls under our social studies curriculum for 5th grade, but several years ago, we discovered that it makes a whole lot of sense to teach about this historical moment in literacy since there are so many incredible resources to use.

So that’s a lot. That’s a lot to cram into just a few weeks. A few weeks at the end of the school year. And it is easy to sit in all of that and to feel stuck and scrape some things together. To focus on the how and not on the why.

But our kids deserve better.

The other thing that is easy to do is to just teach the content. The Civil Rights Movement deserves much more time for focused study than we have in fifth grade. I could spend, probably we all could spend, an entire year or more teaching our children about the Civil Rights Movement. But, we know we don’t have time. So instead of attempting to teach my students about all of the important moments of the Civil Rights Movement (which, no matter how much time we were given, just could not ever be done) I decided that instead, I was going to try to teach my children how to go about more fully understanding a complex moment in history through the texts that we have available to us.

I would use both informational texts and historical fiction (and other types of sources) in order to teach students how to determine what is important when learning about the Civil Rights Movement and any other moment in history that you want to attempt to understand.

So what I started with in my own mind was the question, “How do I decide what it is important when I read about a moment in history?” And what I settled on is that really I am looking for two kinds of important information. Sometimes when I read to understand about a moment in history, I am looking for the facts. Other times, I am looking for emotions.  If this is true for me, then I wanted to help bring this idea to my students as well. So that is where we started.  I created a set of charts that began our work:

FullSizeRender (21)IMG_1009

And this is where we began. We talked a lot about different types of sources and how some better allow us to read with our heads (in order to gain factual understanding) and some better allow us to read with our hearts (in order to gain emotional understanding). We talked about how not many people tear up or feel emotional when reading an encyclopedia or a history text book, but how often people cry while we reading memoirs and autobiographies.  We also talked about how an encyclopedia or a text book might be a better place to look than a memoir if you are trying to get a quick explanation of an large time period and the important events that occurred within that time period.

As a reader, we said, it helps to know what you are looking for in order to determine what is important. As I read an informational text, I might choose to highlight the facts while I read a memoir, I might choose to highlight the parts of the text that help me to understand what it must have felt like to be in this time period.  We also talked about how when you read historical fiction, the writer has done the work of getting the facts and using them to imagine what it might have been like to live during a historical event or time period and how this can help build our own emotional understanding of history.

Since the kids had just finished learning about the Civil War in social studies, we started there and filled in a time line. Our first bit of learning would be in trying to understand what had taken place between the end of the Civil War and the start of the Civil Rights Movement. And so I pulled together a wide variety of sources on the Jim Crow Era.  We looked together at one source, an informational text.  When we started reading together, I asked the kids to bring two different colors of something to write with to the meeting area. And then I modeled for them underlining the pieces of the text that helped me to gain a FACTUAL understanding of the Jim Crow Era in one color and the pieces of the text that helped me to gain an EMOTIONAL understanding of the Jim Crow Era in another color.  I told them that since it was an informational text, I was predicting I would find more facts.  So we read together and then we gathered our understanding on the following chart:


This can also be seen HERE as a GoogleDoc.

We then looked back and saw that yes, indeed, we needed to grow our emotional understanding. So together we looked through the rest of the sources that the students had available to them to read or watch or look at.  We talked about which sources they could look to if they wanted more facts and which ones they could look to if they wanted more emotional understanding. And then I sent them off to read and watch and look at the variety of sources that they had. We spent three days doing this work. As they worked, I conferred with students to talk about what they learning and the processes they were using in order to determine what was most important.  On the last day, the kids got in to groups to discuss what they had learned.

They had done impressive work.

We then watched one final news program to help us grow our emotional understanding even more. We watched a Frontline episode about Jane Elliot’s amazing blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment that she did with several classes of her third graders in a small town in Iowa starting in 1968 after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  If you have not heard of Jane Elliot and her work, do yourself a favor and watch her HERE.

Once we had done this work, we then moved on to learning about the Brown v. Board of Education court decision. Again, we began with an informational text. We used the following chart to talk about how we could use headings in informational texts in order to help us craft questions, both factual and emotional, to help us pick out important information as we read.


Again, we wrote these questions in two different colored pens and then underlines information in the text that helped us answer each question in one of those two colors. Again, we noticed that we had gathered much more information that helped us understand the court decision factually than emotionally. So now we needed to seek out additional sources to layer on top of our first source. We knew we needed to better understand the emotions of the decisions, so we decided we needed to look more to people’s stories from that time.

So the next day we began with this chart:


On day one, I presented the kids with a Google Slideshow that had a variety of sources that shared the true stories of people affected by the supreme court’s decision in 1954. HERE IS THE SLIDESHOW WE USED. 

We watched the first two clips together and as the students gained new understandings of how people felt after the decision, they added them to our class Padlet. Then the kids worked on the rest of the sources on their own or with partners in order to grow their understanding.

After we looked at true stories, we then shifted our focus to historical fiction. We used selections from the historical fiction chapter book A Friendship For Today in order to look at how writers can use true historical information and yet create fictional characters to help us see a perspective that we might not have been able to see otherwise or to better help us get to know what it MIGHT have been like to live through such a complex moment in history.

Again, we stopped to talk about how we were layering our sources of information in order to better understand history. After looking at all of these sources, the kids were asked to do a quick piece of writing summarizing the most important understandings that they would want to share with others in order to help them understand the Brown v. Board of Education decision.

And that is where we are now.

And now the kids will have to take this idea of determining importance with both our heads and hearts and they will have to apply it on their own. For the last three weeks of the school year, my students will be working to construct their own Civil Rights Museum. We began this work on Friday by looking at THESE IMAGES, in addition to several bins of picture books in our classroom, in order to begin brainstorming possible topics for the museum exhibits that each student will be creating.

This will be the primary way that my students will be learning about the Civil Rights Movement beyond what I have taught them so far. We will work to make sure that between my two classes, we are covering not only the content in our curriculum but the concepts that I believe are essential in having a basic understanding of the Civil Rights Movement.

As the students select their exhibit topics, they will use the skills we have learned so far in order to layer multiple sources on their topic in order to gain a more full and complete understanding of the aspect of the Civil Rights Movement that their exhibit will focus on. Then, using the skills they’ve learned as informational text writers, they will write up a text to hang as a part of their museum exhibit that shares the most important information with their exhibit viewers. They will also construct a visual piece of their exhibit. It can be a digital exhibit or a physical exhibit that will also help to convey the most important information to the rest of the class.

They will have to use a variety of sources and a variety of types of sources in order to gain a variety of kinds of understanding on their topics. They will keep track of what they are learning on a note taking organizer that is similar to the one we used when learning about the Jim Crow Era. In this way, they will be able to convey not just the facts, but the emotions connected to their topic as well.

We will spend time looking at museum exhibits and talking about the ways many of them go beyond sharing facts to also share emotions with the viewers of their exhibits.

There is a lot of work to be done. We do not have time for countdowns in my room because we have an entire Civil Rights Museum to build. This work feels meaningful and it feels purposeful. My students are doing so much more than just learning another reading comprehension strategy. They are learning, instead, how being better readers can help us to better understand our world and our history. And that is what I want them to take away from our time spent together.



3 thoughts on “Teaching Determining Importance As More Than Just a Skill on a Checklist

  1. Your posts are always so powerful! Just love this . . .

    “And so as my students and I arrived at our final reading unit of the year, I found myself wondering about why and how I was going to teach determining importance to my students.”

    Asking WHY and HOW helps you really understand this work and not just check it off the strategy checklist. So very true! Thanks for sharing your journey!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s