Slice of Life: I’m missing the big idea

Teaching summary feels like hitting my head against a wall. I have made the argument for it. But today I’m wondering, why. Does directly teaching and expecting kids to summarize, prove or improve comprehension?

Consider what nonfiction reading looks like in my world.  I question, mark pages, underline words.’I’ve been inspired to find out more about a subject, talked to someone as a result of reading. I have blogged about texts I’ve read. I’ve taken action as a result of reading. But what I’ve dissected, analyzed, discussed, and written about after reading was not a summary. I siphoned off what was meaningful to me at the time of reading.

One of the delights of a well-written text is that it meets you where you are.  I had a student who was a football fanatic. He read a text that was “mostly about” the risk young people take when they play competitive sports, but what he saw as important was about football. And while that wasn’t the “main idea” of the text, it was what mattered to him at that point in his life. I contend he was doing exactly what readers do: pulling information that mattered and connected to him. Did he get the whole message? No. But he did get what intrigued him. He noticed, questioned, and read more. That is in fact what readers really do. But his summary did not score well on the rubric.

Rereading a text after a year or two, I’ve seen entirely different things. Did I not comprehend the text in my first read? Am I, a few years later a better reader? I’m a different reader bringing different experiences and needs to the text.  And, I am no different than my football loving student.

I struggle with the idea of summarizing. Students struggle doing it.

If students don’t see “the main idea,” they aren’t ready to see it and by not acknowledging what students do see as valuable I’m not valuing where they are as readers and thinkers. We see texts differently based on who we are and what we are ready to access.

By measuring students’ reading abilities with the summary alone, we take the reader’s interests and needs out of the text. And that bothers me. Because after all, that is the most important part.

English teachers, push back on my thinking. I’d love to see summary in a positive, authentic light. Perhaps I’m missing the big idea.

Thank you, Two Writing Teachers, for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Read more slices here.