Here’s how you can take a plain ol’ “summarize this story/book/article” task, raise the thinking, and (yes) make it actually interesting.
We’re going to use my favorite Bloom’s Taxonomy sequence. We use Analyze to set up Evaluate and then let it naturally flow into Synthesis. (And here’s why I like “synthesize” much more than “create”).
First, of course, kids learn what a summary is. That’s the basics. It’s your grade-level expectation. But that means it’s the minimum expectation, not our end goal.
Let’s see how far we take this task!
At Analyze, we ask students to compare several different summaries of the same text. (For best results, write these yourself, but if you’re careful, you could also use students’ own work).
Get them thinking broadly, examining the details of each sample and looking for patterns and outliers. What’s the same about all of the summaries? What’s different? Which of these summaries is the most different?
I might ask, “If you were to give each summary a name, what would the name be?” (Note that this question pushes students towards more abstract thinking. They’re boiling details down into a big idea).
After students have analyzed, we can move them to Evaluate. Now, not all students need to move on. Not everyone will be ready to move on. We’re planning for differentiation within this one task. We want a low floor and a high ceiling.
When we ask students for an Evaluation, we don’t stop with “which one’s best.” To get kids thinking, we need to ask specific questions. We could ask, “Which summary is most unusual?” or “Which summary most entices you to read the full text?” Both of those questions will point students down pretty different paths, right? The criteria is so important when we ask students to form an opinion! Dull and predictable criteria will lead to dull thinking. Unexpected criteria will lead to unexpected thinking.*
Do you use depth and complexity? Add in specific perspectives. “What kind of person would most like Summary A: a detective, an actor, or a scientist?”
Once students have done the work of analysis and evaluation, it’s natural for them to Synthesize. They’ll be will be eager to try their own hand at the task now that they’ve done all of this thinking.
But we’re not just going to ask for a plain ol’ summary. Now that we’ve studied how summaries of the same text can be quite different, and some can appeal to certain people, and some can even mislead, let’s give specific directions:
You might ask students to write a summary that:
- is best for adults (or best for teenagers or grandparents)
- is written in overly flowery language
- is extremely dry and would appeal to a robot
- is technically a summary, but somehow misleads people about the real text
For that last one, I might show Rick Polito’s infamous summary of The Wizard of Oz
“Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”
It’s technically correct!
Let Them Ask For More
Don’t demand that students write three summaries for different audiences. Just ask for one summary.
If the task is interesting enough, students will ask you if they can do more work. I kid you not. When a task naturally flows towards synthesis, some students will want to synthesize even more! They want to keep writing. Not every student or even most students. In fact, it may be some totally unexpected kid who wants to stay in from recess and write a weird summary designed for some weird audience!
But, since this task has such a high ceiling, the possibility is there. You don’t have to write some extra extension lesson. You can just say, “Sure, go ahead and write another summary!”
A Reusable Sequence
So many tasks benefit from this beautiful sequence of Analyze (“look at a bunch of versions and compare them”) to Evaluate (“make a decision using specific criteria”) and Synthesis (“now, you make one that would satisfy some specific criteria”).
If you peruse my category about Synthesis, you’ll find many more examples of this particular technique.
* I know the singular is “criterion”.
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