During a lesson on comparing two non-fiction texts of the same topic, I learned a valuable lesson about paying attention to the connections we make and how that might sometimes interfere with how we visualize what we are reading.
I used the very high interest and extremely pre-teen friendly SCOPE magazine article on Malala. This lesson happened to come just a few weeks before Malala won the Nobel Peace Prize, so the timing could not have been more perfect for my students to see the amazing impact that Malala has had and IS having in our world today! We read through the SCOPE magazine article, discussed key points, and even watched a video clip of Malala being interviewed. The next day, we read a few excerpts from her memoir “I Am Malala.”
This was one of the excerpts I read to the class:
I wasn’t scared but I had started making sure the gate was locked at night and asking God what happens when you die. I told my best friend Moniba everything. We’d lived on the same street when we were little and been friends since primary school and we shared everything, Justin Bieber songs and Twilight movies, the best face-lightening creams. Her dream was to be a fashion designer although she knew her family would never agree to it, so she told everyone she wanted to be a doctor. It’s hard for girls in our society to be anything other than teachers or doctors if they can work at all. I was different – I never hid my desire when I changed from wanting to be a doctor to wanting to be an inventor or a politician. Moniba always knew if something was wrong. ‘Don’t worry’ I told her. ‘The Taliban have never come for a small girl.’
When our bus was called, we ran down the steps. The other girls all covered their heads before emerging from the door and climbing up into the back. The bus was actually what we call a dyna, a white Toyota TownAce truck with three parallel benches, one along either side and one in the middle. It was cramped with twenty girls and three teachers. I was sitting on the left between Moniba and a girl from the year below called Shazia Ramzan, holding our exam folders to our chests and our school bags under our feet. After that it is all a bit hazy. I remember that inside the dyna it was hot and sticky. The cooler days were late coming and only the faraway mountains of the Hindu Kush had a frosting of snow. The back where we sat had no windows, just thick plastic sheeting at the sides which flapped and was too yellowed and dusty to see through. All we could see was a little stamp of open sky out of the back and glimpses of the sun, at that time of day a yellow orb floating in the dust that streamed over everything.
After that it is all a bit hazy. I remember that the bus turned right off the main road at the army checkpoint as always and rounded the corner past the deserted cricket ground. I don’t remember any more. In my dreams about the shooting my father is also in the bus and he is shot with me, and then there are men everywhere and I am searching for my father. In reality what happened was we suddenly stopped. On our left was the tomb of Sher Mohammad Khan, the finance minister of the first ruler of Swat, all overgrown with grass, and on our right the snack factory. We must have been less than 200 metres from the checkpoint. We couldn’t see in front, but a young bearded man in light-coloured clothes had stepped into the road and waved the van down. ‘Is this the Khushal School bus?’ he asked our driver. Usman Bhai Jan thought this was a stupid question as the name was painted on the side. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I need information about some children,’ said the man. ‘You should go to the office,’ said Usman Bhai Jan. As he was speaking another young man in white approached the back of the van. ‘Look, it’s one of those journalists coming to ask for an interview,’ said Moniba.
Since I’d started speaking at events with my father to campaign for girls’ education and against those like the Taliban who want to hide us away, journalists often came, even foreigners, though not like this in the road. The man was wearing a peaked cap and had a handkerchief over his nose and mouth as if he had flu. He looked like a college student. Then he swung himself onto the tailboard at the back and leaned in right over us. ‘Who is Malala?’ he demanded. No one said anything, but several of the girls looked at me. I was the only girl with my face not covered. That’s when he lifted up a black pistol. I later learned it was a Colt 45. Some of the girls screamed. Moniba tells me I squeezed her hand. My friends say he fired three shots, one after another. The first went through my left eye socket and out under my left shoulder. I slumped forward onto Moniba, blood coming from my left ear, so the other two bullets hit the girls next to me. One bullet went into Shazia’s left hand. The third went through her left shoulder and into the upper right arm of Kainat Riaz. My friends later told me the gunman’s hand was shaking as he fired. By the time we got to the hospital my long hair and Moniba’s lap were full of blood. Who is Malala?
I am Malala and this is my story.
I asked them to close their eyes as I read it a second time, but this time I instructed them that I would be asking them about the details they saw The conversation that followed really opened my eyes to what my students might really be visualizing while they read:
Me: “What did you notice about this passage?”
Students: Well, there was probably a lot of blood.
Me: “Yes, I would imagine so. What else?”
Students: I bet she was cold, there was snow.
Me: (barely remembering the part about the mountain) “Let’s go back and reread to clarify….” (we do so) “The cooler days were late coming and only the faraway mountains of the Hindu Kush had a frosting of snow.” Do you still think she was cold?
Students: (We are from South Texas) Maybe, I mean snow is ice cold.
Me: “But let’s look at the words carefully… only a frosting of snow. That means not a lot. Yes, you made a connection that snow is cold, but that doesn’t mean that far away from it is also cold. It refers here to faraway mountains called the Hindi Kush. What it is saying is that there was only a little snow on the top of the mountains.”
Students: Oh! Well, that makes more sense now why she said it was hot on the bus.
Me: “Yes, let’s talk about the bus. What did you notice about the bus? Other than it was hot?”
Students: It was yellow and dusty, just like the buses that we have!
Me: “Are you sure it was yellow?”
Students: Yea, it says it right here… the sides which flapped and was too yellowed and dusty to see through.
Me: “Let’s go back and look at the words again… (we reread) The bus was actually what we call a dyna, a white Toyota TownAce truck with three parallel benches, one along either side and one in the middle. It was cramped with twenty girls and three teachers. I was sitting on the left between Moniba and a girl from the year below called Shazia Ramzan, holding our exam folders to our chests and our school bags under our feet. After that it is all a bit hazy. I remember that inside the dyna it was hot and sticky. The cooler days were late coming and only the faraway mountains of the Hindu Kush had a frosting of snow. The back where we sat had no windows, just thick plastic sheeting at the sides which flapped and was too yellowed and dusty to see through. All we could see was a little stamp of open sky out of the back and glimpses of the sun, at that time of day a yellow orb floating in the dust that streamed over everything. So what color was the bus, actually?”
Students: White? Who ever rode a white school bus? Yea, that’s weird.
Me: “What else did you notice?”
Students: There were no windows. (another student) Then how could the shooter get on to see if there were no windows? What does the bus actually look like?
So at this point, they started to notice for themselves that they had not read carefully. They started to point out for themselves that what they saw in their head was different from the words that Malala had herself used to describe the incident. At this point, I turned to the color photos in the book and showed them the actual photo of the bus:
I don’t think I have ever heard my students that quiet. Then as the images sank in, comments starting rolling in: “Whoa, that’s TOTALLY not what I pictured. How many girls were there? I thought there would be rows? I thought the shooter walked down a center aisle like on the buses we have here. That’s crazy how small it is. I don’t see anything yellow, are you sure that’s a bus…..” And on and on. I let them absorb the differences and then gathered them back to attention. We read through a few more excerpts and on every occasion, their visualizations were completely off from what the actual words described. Every time.
So the next day, we compared the SCOPE article to the descriptive features of a memoir. We of course discussed the differences – mainly the features of a memoir (it was written by Malala herself and focused on one important event that changed her life), but the major learning lesson came when my students realized how powerful a comprehension tool visualizing is and how not reading carefully or going back to clarify can fog your overall comprehension of a difficult text. That they came to this realization on their own was HUGE. I even had them journal about it the next day during our Writer’s Notebook Warm-Up time, and nearly all of them wrote about how they will try to read more carefully and make sure that the thoughts that they get from the connections they make don’t get in the way of seeing the mental images that the author provides.
What was also really fun… at the end of the week, they wrote their own memoirs. Each one of them was titled “I Am _______________ and this is my story.” I of course started with a model titled “I Am Mrs. Buttler and this is my story.” I told my very quick story about how I knew I was called to teach. Then, they were instructed to write their own memoir. I gave no length requirements, and only told them that their word choices must paint pictures in our heads as they are reading them. Overall, they were pretty amazing! I would highly suggest using this lesson. If your students are anything like mine, they will LOVE IT!! Happy Reading!