Writing to Focus Reading and to Imagine Researching
Our team of KCAC teacher-researchers had been working together for well over a year when we tried out this lesson, which was designed to help us think about how to introduce others, unfamiliar with our program, to KCAC. As we had done so many times during our KCAC workshops, we played the role of students, trying out activities that we could adapt to our own classrooms or with other teacher audiences for in-service.
The particular instructional sequence below was inspired, like many of our activities, by a posting to our project list-serv. Cooper Middle School social studies/science teacher Bonnie Webb alerted us that the local paper had run a story we should all read: “Senior couple to sell last farm in Dekalb” (Atlanta Journal Constitution, 1/21/02, D1-2). Bonnie recommended the story because it related directly to at least two of our inquiry themes—“Cultivating Homelands” and “Shifting Landscapes, Converging Peoples.”
Through “Cultivating Homelands” we had been studying the heritage of rural life in American culture, especially in northwest
Georgia(our own “homeland”) in the early twentieth century. Through “Shifting Landscapes, Converging Peoples,” we had been looking at the suburbs today—at how suburban sprawl and the constant comings-and-goings of suburban residents are changing American communities.
The article Bonnie had found described a long-time family farm in Dekalb County, a metropolitan Atlanta area that has become highly urbanized. The current owners of the farm, ninety-year-old S.B. Vaughters and his wife Rebecca, had just signed a deal to sell it. And one element in the story had struck Bonnie’s attention: the sale would be to the state of
Georgia, for “green space,” rather than to a subdivision developer.
I brought copies of the newspaper’s coverage to our next KCAC workshop, because the AJC’s treatment of the sale included several of the diverse kinds of “texts” our project team had been using to study community life: a photograph, a map, records of oral interviews, social statistics, and descriptions of a particular place. I wanted to see if we could imagine ourselves as pre-KCAC learners and practice using the article as a springboard for introducing program concepts, research approaches, and writing strategies. I also wanted to see if, after we tried out ways of using the article as a teaching tool, we could also write effective reflections on our own thinking processes, a step which our national advisory board member Randy Bass had been urging us to follow as a way of analyzing our KCAC-based teaching and learning.
Note: While copies of the article originally used for this exercise can be secured through the AJC’s online “stacks” service, newspapers in every community regularly run similar pieces on area spaces that were rural but are becoming suburban/urban.
1. I asked everybody to scan the “apparatus” of the article—to begin “reading” it without reading any of the main copy of the feature—by looking instead at the photo (of Mr. Vaughters leaning against a bale of hay near an old tree), the headline (“Senior couple to sell last farm in Dekalb”), the headnote for the picture (“56 Years of Memories”), the maps (showing the location of the farm in relation to the city of Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs), the “pull-quote” (“If Mr. Vaughters had not been willing to do this, it would have become a subdivision, no question about it,” from the president of a “green space” community group), the continuation headline (“Dekalb County’s last farm selling for $2.8 million”), and the caption/cutline for the photo (“Why is this man smiling? S. B. Vaughters, 90, has just agreed to sell his 141 acres for $2.8 million. His farm is slated to become green space that may connect Arabia Mountain Park with Panola Mountain State Park.”)
Using the handout, workshop participants wrote about their responses to the newspaper story’s support apparatus. The questions participants could consider when responding included prompts that I hoped would encourage a “close reading” of the photograph’s and maps’ details. I also hoped that the initial response writing would capture ways in which the elements printed around a newspaper article (e.g., headlines, pull-quotes) can guide our interpretation before we begin reading—e.g., can introduce themes and establish a point of view.
2. In whole-group discussion, we shared some of our responses to the start-up reading prompts. We discussed ways in which some of our responses were shaped by our belonging to the KCAC team (e.g., our familiarity with issues like zoning and the role of community groups in preserving local heritage). We brainstormed ways that, if we were using this article with students just being introduced to KCAC concepts, we could frame discussion questions to get them interested and to promote careful reading for detail in “texts” (e.g., photos, maps) they might not study often in other classes.
3. Everybody skimmed the article, using the second prompt’s questions on the response-writing guide to help us generate individual “jot notes” for discussion.
4. We discussed our reading notes. First we identified elements in the article that could have been written only after doing some type of research, and we also speculated on how the reporter would have done that research (e.g., interviewing the Vaughters couple to learn about the history of the farm, interviewing some grandchildren to get a different perspective on that history, interviewing area “green space” supporters and state officials, visiting the farm in person to gather details for the article’s vivid descriptions, reading a book about the Vaughters’ farm that is referenced in the article). Then we discussed ways that students (or we ourselves) could extend the article’s range (or deepen it) in a variety of ways, based on additional research and writing.
Some of the ideas we had for research included:
● Interviewing current neighbors of the farm;
● Doing a follow-up interview with Mr. Vaughters about what it was like to work on the farm when he was a young man;
● Studying maps showing the nearby green spaces referenced in the article to see how possible the “connecting” of the parks might be;
● Taking pictures of areas around the farm;
● Visiting the Vaughters’ homestead to write descriptions and take photos;
● Looking in our own neighborhoods and in other Atlanta counties for similar farmsteads still operating as farms or preserved/recognized in some form;
● Interviewing Dekalb county officials about their plans for preserving the farm and also creating a park there.
Some of the ideas for writing coming out of this research included:
● A performance based on oral histories (e.g., of people who grew up on farms)
● A map of area farms still “in place” in suburban areas
● A scrapbook of pictures of such farms, with short descriptions and anecdotes;
● A feature story on another farm
● A before/after picture and story of a “lost” farm (e.g., now a mall or subdivision)
● A graph of land values/land sales over time in a particular area with rural heritage
● Response writing based on a group visit to the Vaughters’ farm or a similar site
● A dramatic piece based on possible “stories behind the story” of the newspaper article (e.g., Did everyone in the Vaughters family agree on accepting the state’s offer? What kinds of arguments would subdivision developers have made to the Vaughters? What experiences in their past might have led the Vaughters to want the farm to stay intact?)
● A design proposal for the park to be created on the farm land, with a written rationale.
We discussed ways we could use the article to explore KCAC principles:
(e.g., How might reading a newspaper article like this one contribute to a sense of community among readers? How might the writing ideas we came up with contribute to community-building?)
That we can do meaningful, community-based research in multiple disciplines both inside and outside the classroom, and/or that authentic research can involve more than traditional library research
(What are some ways that we read and responded to the article itself from a researcher perspective? How might young kids continue to research topics associated with the article without leaving their school? What different ways of doing research would this lesson have introduced kids to, and how?)
(What are some of the ways that studying an article like this one would lead students to think about connections between local and state government? Between citizens’ groups and individuals? Between particular places and general community trends going on around those spaces? Between families and governments? Between neighborhoods and institutions?)
That authentic citizenship often involves asking ourselves about our values and trying to act upon those values—which may also involve creating new “community texts.”
(What are some of the personal and community values evident in someone’s choosing to sell their land to the state for “green space” rather than to a developer, who offered more money? What kinds of collaborations were needed to turn the land into a community space? In what ways would a preserved farm itself be a “community text”?)
Note: See our project website for additional information about our guiding principles.
I was excited when I saw Bonnie’s listserv posting, because just based on her description of the article, I could tell it would be interesting to our KCAC group of teachers. I was glad to see her taking ownership of our shared learning by recommending the story to us. Also, the language she used to describe the article showed that she reads the newspaper differently than she did before this project began. She reads the newspaper (and probably other “texts” around her, including things like signs for new subdivisions) through the lens of our project’s content and learning strategies. Bonnie’s listserv posting made me think about how we might invite other teachers to get excited about “reading” their communities too.
Another important aspect of this lesson for me was the chance it gave me to integrate reading, writing, research and reflection in one activity. Everybody attending the workshop the day I first taught the lesson wrote reflectively before reading, during reading, and after reading the article itself. We also used writing to project/imagine MORE research and writing—sort of like an athlete projecting/imagining his at-bat or his golf swing. We could draw on our past experiences as KCAC researchers and writers to envision ourselves doing new research and creating new texts from our community-based inquiry. Watching that process in action reminded me how the lines between writing and thinking can be productively blurred to promote learning, and how setting our research in a meaningful context related to our daily lives can be very powerful.
Response-Writing to Focus Reading and Imagine Researching
pre-reading around a newspaper article: BEFORE you read any of the body copy of the article, carefully examine two or more of the elements on the list below and jot down some thoughts about details there that cue you into the article’s content, theme(s), point of view, and/or tone.
Headline and/or continuation headline
Headnote/title above the photograph
Cutline/caption for the photograph
“pull-quote” underneath the maps
reflecting during your reading: As you skim the article the first time, try to read like a writer. Ask yourself what different types of research the reporter has done in order to write the article, and how s/he might have carried out that research. Remember that authentic research often involves activities far from the library stacks! Make another jot list, as you read, with your “teacher” or “I am a researcher” glasses on. What additional research could you (or your students) do to extend and/or deepen this story? What creative and interesting kinds of writing/reporting/presenting could you do to share the results of that research, and how?
Research the Reporter Did and Some Steps Probably Required to Do That Research
More/Different Research I (with my students?) Could Do and How I (We?) Could Share What I Learned Creatively with Other Audiences
reflecting after reading and discussion: How could you adapt or extend something from the article itself and/or from this instructional activity to introduce one or more of the KCAC components below? What would you hope to accomplish, and how could you draw on your KCAC-based learning to do so?
Suggestions on how you might adapt this lesson for a different classroom setting
► Like Bonnie Webb, we should all be alert for articles which address our changing communities and incorporate them into our teaching, either as writing prompts or as the basis for teaching community changes or history.
► Similarly, I have used on-line text as writing prompts, having high school and university students respond to comments published in “The Vent,” from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution website. Although these comments have no author, they reveal a great deal about current issues on both a local and national level, and they do invite reaction, both from what is said and from what is assumed as prior background knowledge.
-- Patsy Hamby
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