Primary Source Analysis: Letters

21 Apr

I found some letters from the Internment Camp period, written between a librarian named Ms. Breed and children she knew in the camps, that have been saved and archived.  They gave some insight into how the children of the camps thought about their predicament, as well as their general outlook.  It’s a little like a mini internment version of Ann Frank’s Diary.

I was thinking about how to share these with the students, and specifically how to have them make meaning from the letters (without me lecturing about each line).  We could have done a similar activity to what we did with previous primary source documents–a write around, a discussion of the letter with a partner, etc.  But I wanted to try something different.  I wanted each child to try to engage with the letters on their own before they began to work with others.

Enter Notice and Note, the new book by Kylene and Beers that I referenced a few weeks ago.  One of their strategies for close reading involves students reading and annotating the text on their own, and then discussing remaining questions or thoughts as a group.  I modified it slightly as follows:

1) Students read the text independently, annotating with a “!” or “?” things that surprise or confuse them.

2) Students re-read the text, writing down their questions if they still have them, or, if they interpret the meaning on the second reading, writing their new thought.

photo 1

3) Students share their remaining questions with the class.  We put questions on the SMARTboard, and then the kids discussed them in small groups.

photo 2

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4) The class discusses the most salient questions or thoughts as a whole. 

We repeated this structure for four letters.  It was an interesting experiment.  Kids came up with questions from the literal (what does “morale” mean?) to the inferential (if there was no fence up for a period, why didn’t people try to escape?)

I liked the fact that students had to grapple with the text on their own, but also got to discuss their ideas with a group and share out with the class.  On the flip side, I probably need to do some more work modeling what kinds of things you could question.  I had a fair share of students tell me they had no questions, and then when I read a line from the letter and asked them what it meant they said, “Oh, I didn’t understand that part.”  It seems like recognizing when you’re confused is still a concept we need to work on.

2 Responses to “Primary Source Analysis: Letters”

  1. sundaycummins April 25, 2013 at 6:07 pm #

    This experience seemed to be a formative assessment experience as well – noticing and naming what the students were not grasping or were grappling with – specifically how to go about thinking about questions they might ask. Modeling is key. I’m curious about how you followed up with the modeling you were considering and what difference that made.

    • elizabethstavis April 25, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

      It definitely was a formative assessment! It’s a similar issue my colleagues and I have noticed with some students’ fiction reading. We teach them strategies to help when something doesn’t make sense, but if they’re not monitoring for meaning to begin with, they don’t know when to use the strategies. I haven’t followed up whole class yet, but in some small reading groups we have focused on some syntax level challenges. I pick out some phrases I think would be confusing, and talk through how I connect the picture they make in my mind to what’s going on in the text. For example, one letter talked about how some people viewed the Japanese, “as some strange sort of animal,” and I would talk through what I would think when I saw a strange animal and how I would act. Then I put little flags next to a few other phrases that might be tricky so that they knew to stop in that area to pay closer attention. That way, they have some support in what to slow down to read more closely.

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