Using Two-Pagers to Fuel Analytical Writing

I’ll admit: I’m a sucker for beautiful notebook work. I will tell students that the quality of the thinking is really what matters — and I mean it. But I also swoon when I see gorgeous notebook pages.

from Penny Kittle on Twitter

I associate gorgeous “two-page spreads” with Penny Kittle and the thinking she has been sharing with teachers in conferences and workshops for years. In their latest joint professional development book, Kittle and Kelly Gallagher share more examples of two-page spreads and share how they use this method to capture student thinking about their reading.

I have longed for my students to create this kind of work, but, to be honest, I decided a while ago that I’m just not that cool. The open-ended “record your thinking as you read” felt frighteningly free to uptight me. And, while I believed it was a valuable exercise, it also seemed like it would take a long time to create. Couldn’t thinking-while-reading be demonstrated in a more efficient way (like marginal annotations)?

But this year, I’m trying to outgrow my best instruction. I’m trying, every day, to ask myself, “What else can I do to help students grow as readers and writers.” I thought these two-page spreads (I call them “two pagers”) were worth a shot.

Two-Pagers as a Place to Practice Reading Strategies

Practicing reading strategies we’ve learned together in class can feel either like monotonous drudgery (“Okay. Let’s practice the steps. Step one …”) or feel like a blink-and-you-miss-it blip on the radar (“Okay! Turn and talk using our latest reading strategy!”)

Two-pagers provide a space for students to sit with a reading strategy and practice it in a way that values their individuality and creativity.

I began by showing my 7th grade students examples of two-pagers I found on the internet. (I literally Googled “two-page spreads”, and much of what came up is from various Penny sources. You can see the examples Kittle + Gallagher share here.) We talked about what we noticed (big surprise), the kinds of information included, and the fact that each one is so very different. There isn’t a right way to do it.

While the Kittle-Gallagher examples are much more wide open, I told my students that each of our two-pagers will have a focus or a lens through which we look at the text. For example, in our current unit on character analysis, we’ll be focusing on characterization and practicing character analysis skills.

I gave students these instructions + rubric:

In this unit, I taught the following reading strategies for character analysis:

  • Track a trait
  • Mark a motivation
  • Pay attention to character contrast
  • Consider character developments

Do these sound familiar? They all come from my absolute favorite reading resource, Marilyn Pryle’s Reading With Presence. So, throughout the unit, students created two-pagers using these strategies alone and in various combinations.

Shall we look at a few?

Ben C.
Amy P.
Bowen M.
Emerson W.
Emma K.
Gwen G.

Wait. What does this have to do with writing?

As you can see, there is a ton of informal writing in a two-page spread. But, beyond notebook writing, two-pagers can also serve as exceptionally valuable pre-writing.

While my students try many different kinds of planning and pre-writing throughout the year, most still see it as an unnecessary step to check off just to make me happy. But all of this thinking-on-paper is one more way to provide writers with the raw material they need to write something more formal.

Each of these reading strategies we have practiced in our two-pagers can be used to write a reading response, a tiny bit of analytical writing through a specific lens. (again, a la Marilyn Pryle). And each reading response is just a building block of a larger piece of analytical writing. Gluing reading responses together with meaningful transitions is a first step in crafting an essay of literary analysis.

We did this in small groups first.

Students were tasked with writing one spectacular reading response analyzing one character in one short story we studied in our unit using only their two-pagers.

With this foundation, we will continue to build by stringing reading responses to create longer pieces of analytical writing.

How I’m Growing

Any time I stand in front of my students and say, “We’re going to try something. I don’t know if it will work,” I grow as a teacher. This particular risk is helping me in a few ways:

  • Tying Reading + Writing Together — One of my absolutely constant goals is to more deeply tie our reading to our writing and vice versa. Two-pagers work perfectly as a way of recording thinking and preparing for deeper writing.
  • Deepening and Systematizing What I Already Do Okay — Teaching reading strategies and teaching pre-writing strategies are things I do an okay job of already. But two-pagers have given me a way to make it more intentional, more thoughtful, and more systematic. Concretizing and routinizing things we already do makes everyone better.
  • Giving Students New Ways to Show Their Thinking — I’m probably not the only teacher who defaults to the way I learn best when teaching. But I think best in words. Obviously. I’m an English teacher. Two-pagers have helped me tap into students’ strengths and thinking in a new way — a way I probably wouldn’t have accessed otherwise. Take Camryn for example. This is the beginning of the first two-pager she created this year:

When she brought it to me, I couldn’t read any of it. It’s hieroglyphics. But I asked her to explain it to me, and she had the most nuanced thinking in the class. This is how she thinks. It isn’t in linear sentences that move across the page. She thinks in symbols. And arrows. And charts. I wouldn’t have known this OR had a way to value this before.

Lots of teachers use two-pagers. How do you use them to fuel student writing? Please join the conversation in the comments or on Twitter @RebekahODell1.

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