Tuesday, April 01, 2014

What's the Main Idea? Bla Bla Bla

I have for years found the question, "What's the main idea?" unhelpful, inauthentic, and downright sinister and damaging.  OK, that might be a little over the top, so let me give you three details to prove my point! Actually, don't look for those details because you won't find them.  What I find is that authors don't write to make just one singular point. (unless they are writing nauseating textbooks sold for millions of dollars to school districts)

For example, is there a main idea in Romeo and Juliet?  There are themes a-plenty, but not a main idea with a singular purpose.  Sure, you could summarize the boo,  "Two confused teenagers (sorry redundant adjectives here) fall in love against family's wishes and end badly".  But, is that all that William Shakespeare was trying to get his readers to understand and appreciate?  Hardly!

So,  if we shouldn't ask about the main idea and supporting details, what should we ask?  Well, first of all it is important to know that articles and texts often make claims and back those claims with evidence and examples, therefore it is important for students to know the difference between a claim an evidence that backs up that claim.  As for how to get students invested in the author's intent,  Vicki Vinton wrote an excellent post about an Expeditionary Learning lesson on Esperanza Rising.  In the comments of that post, she posed the following question:

I’ve been finding that it really makes a difference if we ask kids what they think the writer wanted them to understand, versus what’s the main idea or the important details.

This questions causes the reader to consider that there is an actual human being directing the scope and purpose of the text, who might actually be trying to tell them something important, interesting, or even entertaining.  It also allows for a much richer discussion that will not simply contain that one perfect answer that is residing inside the questioner's head.  What do you think?  What are the questions you ask to get students to engage with a text and more completely understand what the author was trying to accomplish. In case my thinking was unclear, maybe this will help.

The main idea of this blog post was.

A.  Main idea is an illusion fostered by the Platonic school of philosophy
B.  Textbooks are written by robots
C.  Vicki Vinton - one smart lady
D.  Questions are kind of important