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Join the Theme Team: Making DBQ Work in Middle School

April 30, 2014 / by Lucas Smith

lucassmithFor me, DBQ has been the best way for me to blend my reading and writing instruction.  In the past, I was never really very good with my writing instruction, but after learning and using DBQ I felt like the students began writing about what they read in a very natural way.  It made the “instruction” part of the lessons very easy and seamless and my students didn’t even realize they were in “writing class.”  In fact, having a separate reading/writing class disappeared all together and it became a fully integrated “Literacy” class.

I appreciate the structure of DBQ: short texts that speak to a larger essential question which are followed by comprehension questions that connect the texts to that essential question. When I couple this structure with Think-Write-Pair-Share, the writing component felt so organic for them and their ability to express their "academic thoughts" became simple.

What would my classroom structure look like with DBQ?

One great challenge for being a Literacy teacher at the middle school level is organizing your time so that you can do all of the things.  The great thing about DBQ is that it allows for a seamless integration of your reading and writing blocks. Let’s assume that you have been given a 2-hour block for your literacy instruction. Here’s how it might look:

60 Minutes:  DBQ lesson

  • Reading the text as Read Aloud or Shared Reading
  • Writing down answers to the comprehension questions
  • Small and/or Whole Group discussions where the learnings and misconceptions are discovered and worked out

60 Minutes:  Strategy Groupings

  • Guided Reading
  • NWEA Strategy Groups
  • Compass Learning: Odyssey
  • Independent Practice

The timing of the lessons can be easily altered to fit your school's schedule.  For example, you can condense the 60-minute DBQ lesson to 30 minutes trading a longer unit for abbreviated class time. But if it contributes to your students' engagement and enjoyment of DBQ, it's a good trade off.

How to Solve the “Content Challenge” Quandary

When teaching DBQ at the middle school level it is common for the content to be something that our students never studied or even heard of. This was initially a huge drawback for the middle school teachers on the DBQ team and we weren’t sure how to move forward.  We always recognized the importance of introducing them to the content and especially the importance of giving them multiple texts that they can read, compare, think and write about.  We knew we had to do something.

So we came up with themes.  We thought about our school year and decided that we could create three broad “big picture” themes that could be used and re-used no matter what students were in front of us.  So instead of reading a totally random and disconnected text about “Alexander the Great” the students would be reading about the theme of  “POWER [as used by Alexander the Great].”

 I found that the theme acts as a great hook as students are jumping to find out how and why this person is connected to the big theme.

We thought that common themes such as power, leadership or war would connect with students and ease them into the content in a safe way--they would already have ideas in their heads and things to talk about.  This eliminates the need for us to “front load” our reading about Alexander the Great because he's no longer the point of our unit but rather a vehicle to explore the larger theme of power. I found that the theme acts as a great hook as students are jumping to find out how and why this person is connected to the big theme.  The background essay provided in the DBQ materials provides sufficient background for them to understand the readings in the packet.

Shifting our focus to themes also impacted our planning. Now our point is that the students are studying the theme (power), NOT the content (ATG).  Another added benefit was that these broad themes of power, leadership and war were naturally present in nearly all of the DBQ texts.

Themes such as "Power" provide a structure to teach Alexander the Great and Tom Sawyer Themes such as "Power" provide a structure to teach Alexander the Great and Tom Sawyer

Theme-based planning makes it very easy to pair these complex informational texts with a literature counterpart which dramatically assisted our integration with the Common Core.  The theme of power allowed us to compare ATG with the likes of Tom Sawyer.  Also a complex text (thanks, appendix B), the Tom Sawyer piece was a perfect way for us to continue studying concepts related to Power with very nearly the same essential questions and same standards, just with the literary approach.

My students, half of whom have tested below grade level, spent an entire month reading texts that were “too hard for them” and wrote logical, cogent arguments on “why people want power.”  They are much more confident thinkers and writers because they are comfortable looking at random texts and drawing those big-picture themes from them.  They are no longer making irrelevant connections to their personal lives. Instead, they are discussing how each author has used the themes differently to make their claims.

It’s very exciting!

Topics: Professional Learning, Social Studies, History, Writing

Lucas Smith

Written by Lucas Smith

Lucas has taught and mentored middle school Language Arts and Social Studies at Morton School of Excellence for the past six years. He is also a member of the DBQ Professional Learning Community.

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