Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Write a summary about what you just read..."

As a student I dreaded, no I HATED seeing that requirement on a worksheet.

How in the world do you actually do that.  I'm pretty sure no one ever actually TAUGHT me how to write a summary.  It was like as soon as I got in middle school the teachers just assumed I knew how.

I didn't.

I didn't know how in high school.

Even college.

I just wrote stuff down and hoped it was different enough that the teacher wouldn't think I plagiarized.

As a teacher I hate it even more.  It's a question that I've always felt like I should include at the end of an assignment.  But I'm no better than the teachers I had when it comes to asking for summaries from the kids.

I just assume that they know how.

And then ignore it (or blame writing teachers or elementary teachers) when the summaries they turned in were terrible.

I have never taken  the time in class to TEACH my students HOW to write a summary.

Until now.

The new KS State Social Studies standards are in, and we are off and running with new requirements asking the kids to stop spitting out random facts and start looking at history like historians do.  Stop memorizing dates, and start DOING.  Part of that "doing" includes much more reading and analyzing of primary source documents.

Here's the thing.  Many historic primary sources are government documents.  Important government documents, like the Declaration of Independence.  Our Founding Fathers (and anyone else in the government world) did not take into account the reading level of middle school students when they set out to change history.  (The nerve...)

Government documents are hard to read.

Trying to get my students to write a summary of the preamble to the Declaration of Independence would have been an EPIC ASSIGNMENT FAIL.  They would look at it, spend so much time trying to figure out what "unalienable" means that they would just slap something on the paper and pray that I would just take a "completion" or "participation" grade on the assignment.

This time I'm preparing them.  I'm going to TEACH them HOW to do this.

**I should mention that we did ALL of this TOGETHER as a class, kids have to be trained on how to do this process first before attempting it on their own.**

Step 1:  Vocab.  I had the kids complete a vocab matching sheet as their bell work.  Words that needed to be explained to 7th graders.  Such as; endowed, dissolve, station, self evident, instituted and so on.  They were to keep this vocab sheet out and use it during our entire activity.

Step 2:  Read the original text.  I gave the kids a worksheet that had the original text RIGHT THERE for them to see.  We read through it as a class using the choral reading strategy (everyone reads aloud together, including the teacher.  LOVE this strategy!)

Step 3:  The Top 10 Key Words.  The next step is choosing the key words of the document.  What has to be there.  There are some rules for the top 10.

  1. Students MUST know what the word means in the context of the document. 
  2. More than one word can be grouped together if splitting it up would alter the meaning of the word.  (United States needs to be kept together.  I allowed my kids to group "unalienable rights" if they wanted as well.).  
**Be careful here.  Middle School students will think they are outsmarting you and just go through and pick all the big words, or just choose the words you used for vocab at the beginning of the class.  Just because a word is big or on the vocab sheet doesn't always make it a "key word"**

For step 3, I did have the kids divided into groups of 4 and they worked in their groups to come up with a top 10 list and we compiled the lists together and made a class top 10.

Step 4:  Write your summary:  This is the point where the magic happens!  The goal is to now take your top 10 words and use them in your summary.  (It is very important to DO THIS STEP TOGETHER the first few times you do this activity.)  We started slow.  We took the first statement.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  All of my classes had chosen "People" and "Equal" and "unalienable rights" as three of their top 10 words.  Most of my classes ended up with something like this "It is obvious that people are equal and have unalienable rights."  We continued this process throughout the remainder of the text.

 The results?  Awesomeness!

The kids were able to follow the process.  They all participated.  And probably best of all... when we finished they all had a better understanding of the Declaration of Independence!

A few things I realized as we went through this activity.

  • I intended to do this ALL aloud together as a class, but found that there were too many kids who weren't paying attention.  So we did parts aloud as a whole class and parts where they would work to rephrase a statement as a group. Then would share results with the class and pick the best one.  The combo of whole class and small group worked wonderfully!
  • We had some of our top 10 words left over at the end, and that was ok.  I felt we had a good solid summary at the end of each block.  
  • Sometimes the kids realize after they get going that the important words they picked needed to be changed out.  For example, none of my classes chose "government" as a key word, but all of them realized while writing the summary that it needed to be there, so we added it to the list. 
  • Summaries should be shorter and more simple than the original text.  I found some of my advanced students wanting to use more complex words than what were originally there.  The point is not to try and sound smarter than the original author.  The point is to SUM it up. 

I am not the creator of this activity.  I learned how to do it through an awesome group called Century of Progress where we got to learn from some of the BEST Social Studies teachers out there.  Tim Bailey is one of them.  He is awesome.  This activity is awesome.  You can read more about it, find examples of worksheets, and probably a better explanation of it) here.

After completing this activity, I am super excited to do it again!


  1. You actually resolved my summary problem in my new assignment on english articles proper usage in writing and I want to read more on this page for better information.Thanks.

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