Judging books by their covers: using imagination to teach elements of fiction

“Never judge a book by its cover” is a cliche of which most our students are aware. This lesson takes that cliche, and turns it on its head to help students use their imaginations, creativity, and collaboration to better practice the understanding and application of story elements.

In the lesson, small groups get a book and are asked to imagine a plot and theme of the book based only on the title and what they can see on the front cover. Groups imagine these elements, draw a plot diagram, and then present their stories with the rest of the class. At the end, groups then get to read the inside/back cover and students are always excited about how their plots are similar or different from the actual book.

This lesson is meant to cover the CCSS standard for 8th grade ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2, which reads: “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text” (English Language Arts Standards » Reading: Literature » Grade 8). Depending on what elements your focus on, you could use this lesson with many grade levels based on this specific standard.

This lesson is ideal for students as a review/extension activity. Personally, I implemented this lesson after noticing through assessment that my students were still struggling with plotting out the conflict of stories that they had read. I wanted a lesson that included creativity instead of simply reading another story and drawing another plot diagram. My goals for this lesson also included having students work together collaboratively and to get them excited to share their ideas with each other. These skills (creativity, collaboration, and communication) are three of the four 21st century skills that are students desperately need.

These elements can be changed however it best suits your students’ learning needs. The elements that I focused on in this lesson are: protagonist/antagonist, dynamic/static characterization, conflict, narrator, theme, and a plot diagram (setting, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution). As stated, you can change these around as suits your students’ needs, focusing on those terms that they need the most reinforcement in.

The lesson hook is to tell students that today they are going to judge books by their covers. I prepared for the lesson by grabbing enough books from my classroom libraries to have the class split up into groups of 2 or 3. I made sure the covers of these books were engaging and interesting looking and only had a title and author on them. That way students would have enough material to spark their imaginations, but not any plot points that would stifle those same imaginative juices.

I let each group pick a book, making sure to emphasize that they must judge the book solely on its cover. Then I emphasize to the students that they are to use their imaginations and collaborate together to complete the imaginative task laid before them.

I project a list of questions that students are to answer. Students typed up their answers on a document and used an online drawing tool OR my white board to create their plot diagram. (You could get this to students however you see fit based on technology available in your class.) I made sure to emphasize (going along with the standard) that their theme, characters, setting, and plot all needed to be connected to that main idea summary that they began with.

Imagine a story creativity questions

  1. Write a 1-3 sentence summary of what happens in the book.
  2. What is the conflict? (and what type is it)
  3. Who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist?
  4. What is the setting? (time, place, AND social context)
  5. Draw a plot diagram for the story
    1. Remember that CLIMAX is where the conflict undergoes some change
  6. Is the protagonist dynamic or static and how?
  7. Is the antagonist dynamic or static and how?
  8. What type of narrator is it? (1st, 3rd limited, 3rd omn.)
  9. Write a theme statement for the book

I then had students present to the class, while making sure that everyone could see the cover of their book. Finally, after presenting, each group read the back cover/inside cover.

Overall, this was a fun and engaging activity. Students were hooked from the beginning and my formative data showed me that students engaged in the elements of fiction at a higher rate than previously in the class. It worked well to engage students in three of the 4 C’s and was highly aligned to a CCSS standard.

I encourage you to try this lesson out with your students, at any grade level.



Active reading and close reading strategies

It’s hard to get kids to read sometimes. Let’s face it, sometimes you have to struggle. However, I think using active reading strategies and close reading strategies really helps. But, once again, it can be a struggle (time-wise for sure) to make high-quality lessons where this is done in a high-quality way.

I gave a webinar last night that detailed my active reading and close reading strategies using technology.

Check it out!

Students and interactive reading

I really believe (as I’m sure you do as well) that the more students read, the more successful they will be. However, one of the things I always struggle with is how to get tangible evidence of my students actually interacting and thinking about text while they are reading it, not just afterwards. We all know we can put a book or an article or a poem in front of a kid, and it can look like they are reading. Heck, maybe we even made sure it was at their reading level and in their area of interest. However, I’m sure you’ve been there when after they’ve read you ask them a question about the text and you get a deer in headlights look back.

In order to comprehend text, students must be thinking and analyzing the text during reading. There are many different active reading strategies-you should find one that’s right for you and your students. However, once you find one, how can you effectively integrate it with technology? My solution for that is DocentEDU.

DocentEDU allows teachers to include open-answer questions, multiple-choice questions, highlights, comments, their own text, videos, interactive vocabulary, and an ever-expanding list of awesome interactive tools into almost anything online. This includes articles from newspapers, short stories you might find, any website with primary source information, and even published Google Docs for those oldie but goodie PDFs you have lying around.  Then, DocentEDU allows students to then read that text you’ve assigned and follow your active reading instructions. Students can annotate the text (once again, pretty much anything on the internet) by leaving highlights, comments on the highlights, emoji responses, longer texts of their own, and even embed their own interactive content which they make/find. What’s even more amazing is that the teacher can see what the students have annotated LIVE as the students do it.

DocentEDU is also very flexible, so you can adapt its usage to any type of curricular area or pedagogical reading concept that you may already know and use!

This is such a great tool that really allows my students to dive deep into whatever they are reading. I recommend you try it today. Below are a couple of videos that show the ins and outs of this web tool.

Side quests: Gamification of extension activities

The other day on a Twitter chat (where else do you get new ideas?!) I saw someone mention side quests. (And now I don’t remember who and I really wish I could remember who so I could credit them! If you know who then tell me so that I can!) Side quests would be a way to gamify the classroom. Students can gain points for completing quests that are connected to the curriculum being taught.

We are just starting a literature unit teaching horror, mystery, and suspense. The side quests are then centered around these concepts.

I am requiring that students complete one side quest during the unit. The gamification part comes in that, for every side quest students complete, they will receive one point. The student with the most points at the end of the unit (ie the one who has done the most side quests) will get a prize.

I have a list of side quests that they can complete. After completing a quest, I’ve made a pretty generic Google form with questions that they must fill out to connect the quest to our unit. They will then fill out the form every time they complete a quest to the same Google Classroom assignment. This will make it easy to keep track of–I can see who wins just based on the assignments turned in to that one assignment.

One class I use Classcraft with. I think that the next time I do side quests, I will integrate them into Classcraft as an assignment as well as XP. That will make the gamification come alive!

The side quests themselves were pretty easy to come up with. I have tons that are varied. They are as simple as reading a book to webquests (that I found already made) to online games that go along with our unit to watching documentaries.

After using this system for the unit, I have decided that I will use this as a complete system for next year. For each unit, I will have side quests that students can complete. These will be the extension activities that I’ve found. In addition, I will have side quests going for the entire school year for extension activities that can be completed independent of the unit that we’re on. I’m not sure how I’ll incentivize these year-round side quests. I’ll perhaps have them on a quarterly-basis. In addition, if I don’t use something like Classcraft for each class, I think I’ll have a leaderboard on a google sheet that is viewable by all the students.

If you’d like to see the docs, you can take a peek here.

Creating Interactive Content from Dusty Old Textbooks

So, I teach at a school with shared curriculum. Overall I really enjoy what I teach. However, the 6th grade hasn’t been 1:1 so sometimes there are great opportunities for improving the lessons via tech.

This last unit was a unit which covered teaching elements of fiction through short stories covering the topic of bullying. The stories themselves were great, but all the unit had was the textbook.

I took this as an opportunity to improve, and used DocentEDU to make the stories interactive and differentiated. I also added a nonfiction article dealing with the very relevant and timely topic of the election.

I made a lesson of this article from the AP about bullying speech in the election into an interactive lesson. It includes vocabulary, embedded questions, and live-updating class discussions. My students really enjoyed this lesson and the conversation was very lively.

Next, I made a lesson of the short story from the unit, “Tuesday of the Other June.” This text now included an audio book for differentiation for students of different reading levels and language abilities. It also included lively full-class discussions as well as embedded and interactive vocabulary. Finally, it also included embedded questions, allowing my students to more easily think on a higher-level and use textual evidence for their answers. I also had students interact with and annotate the text to show their understanding of the essential question of the unit.

None of these activities would have been possible in a textbook. My students enjoyed these lessons, I enjoyed the lessons, and I know that they learned more than they would have otherwise in the traditional manner.