Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lesson Plan: Teaching Summary Writing

WARNING: This blog entry is going to be incredibly long!

I've taught 1010 almost the entire 3 years I've been here at UVU (with only one semester off). And the way I've taught about summary writing (for the Summary/Strong Response paper) has evolved dramatically from semester to semester. My first semester I think I only mentioned summaries briefly on the day I discussed quoting mechanics. (I think I falsely assumed it was a "simple" concept.) Then, I began to realize that my students desperately needed more intense instruction than this. After a whole lot of trial and error (and positive and negative feedback from students), I think I've finally got my lesson plan into the state where I feel good about it. As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of "open source teaching," so I've decided to share it with all of you.

NOTE: In preparation for this lesson, I relied heavily on a chapter entitled "The Art of Summarizing" from the book They Say/I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein. I don't use this textbook in my class, but I think it's a great resource nonetheless. I also used some of the teaching ideas on a website called TV411.

ALSO NOTE: I'm using the "Concept-Hook" teaching model that I blogged about earlier this year.

Lesson Preparation

Objective: Students will be able to write effective summaries.

Materials Needed:
-- Several sets of the "Summary versus Details" card game (see details below)
-- Handout: Key Points from Writing Summaries Lecture
-- Handout: Sample Summaries
-- For your reference: Making the Grade

Lesson Directions

Warm-up/Anticipatory Set:

Ask the class: What is a summary? (Basically a shortened, condensed version of the original text.)

This assignment is called the "SUMMARY/Strong Response," so obviously that means that one of the tasks that you need to accomplish in this paper is to provide a summary of the film that you are responding to. The overall summary is typically the very first thing that you put into a response paper such as this one. That’s because it provides an overview of the text that you are going to be discussing. Your summary helps provide a context for the rest of the paper. So, in this paper, the summary is basically your introduction to the paper.

Now, besides this paper, why do you need to know how to write a summary? How are you going to use summaries in the rest of your college career or maybe even in your personal life? Build on student responses to bring out the following:

--You’ll need it in college: it helps with note-taking (because it helps you to process what you've read) and you often integrate it into other papers you’re writing.

--To have conversations with other people, especially if they haven’t read or seen the original text that you’re talking about.

--Demonstrates that you understand a text. That's because summary writing is about READING COMPREHENSION. (Isn’t that sneaky? You thought this class was just about writing, but we snuck in some reading comprehension on you, dangit.)

So, even though summarizing may seem like a simple thing, that’s actually not true. Writing an effective summary actually involves several different tasks. So we’re going to go over what those tasks are today.

NOTE: I provide my students with an overview of my lecture. You can see the handout Key Points from Writing Summaries Lecture to follow along.

Concept #1:

Write on the board "Elements of a Good Summary" and "Skills Involved" on opposite sides of the board:

Under "Elements," write:

1. Good summaries only include the main ideas of the original text; they leave out the details.

Let’s pretend that you walked up to me and asked me how to get from UVU’s campus to the Orem Public Library. What would you do if I answered this way:

Well, first you start out at the UVU campus. Utah Valley University was founded in 1941 as a vocational school. Today it is a full-fledged publicly funded state university offering 58 bachelor degrees, 60 associate degrees and a handful of advanced certificate and master degrees. Then you need to turn left on University Parkway.

You’ll know that you’re headed in the right direction because as you travel down University Parkway, you’ll see the Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on your right. Krispy Kreme is part of a national chain of doughnut shops, featuring 15 varieties of doughnuts. This particular shop was opened in the year 2000. It is 4,400 square feet in area and is built around a doughnut-making machine that is capable of making more than 200 doughnuts an hour. For the first several months after it opened, there was at least a half hour wait to get doughnuts.

Next you will want to turn left on State Street at the corner of University Mall. The University Mall was first opened in 1973. It was named because of its location on University Parkway, which is one of the main thoroughfares connecting roads between Orem and Provo. With 1,191,574 square feet or retail space, it is currently the largest shopping mall in the state of Utah.

As you travel on State Street, you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you see the SCERA theater. SCERA stands for Sharon’s Cultural, Education Recreational Association. For those of you who don’t know, the city of Orem used to be named Sharon until 1914 when the name was changed to honor Walter C. Orem, a railroad operator in Utah who the citizens hoped they could entice to build a railroad there. The SCERA was a non-profit organization founded during the Great Depression to lift the spirit of the community through the arts. One of the programs they started was to have regular movie nights for families. The popularity of the program led the LDS church to donate land for SCERA to build a movie theater, with the stipulation that they never show movies on Sundays.

A few blocks after the SCERA theater, you’ll come to the Orem Public Library on the right located at Center Street. The Orem Public Library’s Children’s Wing features a beautiful stained-glass window depicting various fairy tale characters and other famous scenes from children’s literature. The stained glass window was commissioned by The Ashton Family Foundation as a tribute to the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, which is sponsored by the library and is considered one of the best festivals of its kind in the nation.

Okay, what would you say? (Get student responses. Normally they complain very loudly about having to sit through that. Then I ask them why they had that response.) What you really wanted was a summary:

From the Utah Valley University campus, turn left on University Parkway.

You’ll know you’re going in the right direction if you see a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on your right.

Next turn left on State Street at the corner of University Mall.

As you travel on State Street, you’ll know you’re headed in the right direction when you see the SCERA theater on the right.

A few blocks after the SCERA theater, you’ll come to the Orem Public Library on the right located at Center Street.

Unfortunately, too often students give me the first kind of "summary" rather than the second kind. Students often go into too much detail in their introductory summaries in their papers. You only need to give your readers just enough information to understand the original text so that they can then jump into the meat of your argument where you’ll go into more depth.

So the task involved here is (write on board under "Skills Involved"):

Being able to distinguish between the main ideas and the supporting details.

Next, have students brainstorm an ad-hoc list of how they might distinguish between main ideas and supporting details. I write their ideas up on the board.

Hook for Concept #1:

I then divide students into small groups for a class activity. NOTE: In my class, the students are responding to 1 of 4 possible film texts for the Summary/Strong Response paper, so for this activity, I have them get into groups according to which film they are responding to in their paper. If your students are writing about texts they chose themselves for this paper (as opposed to a common text), you may want to assign them to read a short article before this lecture so that you all have a common text to build from.

Give each group an envelope containing 10 "Summary versus Details" cards. Each card has a statement from their film text and their task is to sort out the main points from the supporting details. Mention that there’s not an equal amount of main ideas to supporting ideas (just like in actual texts). Also tell the groups that when they have finished sorting the cards, they should discuss what criteria they used to make the distinction between main ideas and supporting ideas. What would they add to what we already wrote on the board? What other ways can you use to distinguish between main ideas and supporting details?

Here's an example of the set of cards for the film An Inconvenient Truth:

1. There was a massive study of every scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal written on global warming for the last 10 years. They took a sample of 928 articles. There was not a single article that disagreed with the scientific consensus that we’re causing global warming and that it’s a serious problem. By contrast, a similar study was conducted of articles in the popular press. Of the 623 articles reviewed, 53% cast doubt on the global warming theory.

2. Mosquitoes are one example of disease-carrying pests that are affected by global warming. Many cities were built on mountains because they were just above the mosquito line. As temperatures have increased, the altitude of the mosquito line has climbed. In the United States, mosquitoes carrying the West Nile virus have spread across the United States in only 6 years, which is a very short space of time.

3. One of the misconceptions that people have about global warming is that there is not a scientific consensus about whether global warming is real or not. This is not true. This misconception has been deliberately created by a small group of people with financial interests in oil and gas companies.

4. Bark beetles are an example of insects that used to be killed off by cold winters. Because there are fewer colder days, more of them survive. Collectively, they have killed more than 14 million acres of spruce trees in Alaska. The pine beetles in the continental United States have had a similar effect.

5. In the last couple of years, we have seen a lot of big hurricanes. Hurricanes Jeanne, Frances, and Ivan were among them. In the same year we had that same string of hurricanes, we also set an all-time record for tornadoes in the United States (1,717). Japan, again, didn’t get as much attention in our news media, but they set an all-time record for typhoons. The previous record was 7, here are all 10 of the ones they had in 2004. Science textbooks have had to be rewritten because they say that it’s impossible to have a hurricane in the South Atlantic, but this was the same year the first one ever hit Brazil.

6. Global warming has potentially devastating consequences to natural ecosystems because the summer lasts longer and there are less days in which there is frost. Because there is no frost to kill them off, many invasive insects and rodents survive longer than they used to.

7. Recently in Mumbai, India, they received 27 inches of rain in 24 hours, which was an all-time record. Water levels reached 7 feet. The death toll reached 1,000 people.

8. Philip Cooney, an aide for President Bush, deliberately edited a memo from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding Climate Change reports. Although he had no scientific expertise, he made substantial edits to the memo that cast doubt on the facts regarding global warming. When this was discovered, Cooney resigned and went to work for Exxon Mobil.

9. In a study conducted in the Netherlands beginning in 1980 to the present time, it was determined that the average peak arrival date for migratory birds was April 25 in 1980. Their chicks hatched on June 3, which directly corresponded to the time that caterpillars emerged. Today, these caterpillars emerge 2 weeks earlier because of warmer weather. The chicks still hatch on June 3 and more of them are going hungry than is normal, which could significantly reduce the bird population.

10. Warmer temperatures result in storms that are more intense. As a result of the increased temperature in the atmosphere caused by global warming, the number of major storms has increased dramatically.

When finished, give the students the correct answers: the main ideas are numbers 3, 6, and 10. (In one of my classes, students actually did a huge cheer when they found out they were right!)

Have the students talk about how they were able to figure out the difference between a main idea and a supporting detail. Add any additional insights they gained to the list written on the board.

At this point, I also usually mention that when I was preparing this "game" for them, I noticed that main ideas tended to be opinions (e.g. they were debateable) and supporting details tended to be facts.

Concept #2:

Write on the board (under "Elements of a Good Summary"):

2. Good summaries are neutral and unbiased.

From They Say/I Say: "To write a good summary, you must be able to suspend your own beliefs for a time and put yourself in the shoes of someone else. This means playing what the writing theorist Peter Elbow calls the ‘believing game,’ in which you try to inhabit the worldview of those whose conversations you are joining—and whom you are perhaps even disagreeing with—and try to see their argument from their perspective. This ability to temporarily suspend one’s own convictions is a hallmark of good actors, who must convincingly ‘become’ characters who in real life they may actually detest. As a writer, when you play the believing game really well, readers should not be able to tell whether you agree or disagree with the ideas you are summarizing." (29)

Ask the class: Why should a good summary be unbiased and neutral? Build on student responses to bring out the following points from They Say/I Say>:

--"If you cannot or will not suspend your own beliefs in this way, you are likely to produce summaries that are so obviously biased that they undermine your credibility with readers."

--"Readers need to be able to assess the merits of the original text on its own, independent of you." Shows respect.

--"When a writer fails to play the believing game, he or she often falls prey to what we call 'the closet cliche syndrome,' in which what gets summarized is not the view the author in question has actually expressed, but a familiar cliche that the writer mistakes for the author’s view." This is the STRAW MAN FALLACY. (By now my students have learned about logical fallacies, so we review this concept briefly.) "Whenever you enter into a conversation with others in your writing then, it is extremely important that you go back to what others have said, that you study it very closely, and that you not collapse it to something you have already heard or know. Writers who fail to do this end up essentially conversing with themselves—with imaginary others who are really only the products of their own biases and preconceptions."

So there are two tasks involved here (write on board under "Skills Involved"):

Basic reading comprehension and the ability to remain fair-minded.

This is what I mean when I say that summary writing involves good reading comprehension. It means really trying to understand the point of the view of the person making the argument.

Hook for Concept #2:

For this hook, I share a personal story in which I was drastically misquoted/misrepresented in a Daily Herald newspaper article. It's my own story, so I'm not really going to recite it here for everyone else to use. I would just encourage you to go find your own example. There's plenty of examples of the Straw Man Fallacy out there which are humorous and engaging. (See what qualifies as a good "hook" by looking at my earlier blog entry about this topic.)

Concept #3:

Write on the board, under "Elements":

3. Good summaries only include information that is relevant to what you (the writer) want to discuss.

From They Say/I Say: "Even as writing an effective summary requires you to temporarily adopt the worldviews of others, it does not mean ignoring your own views altogether. Paradoxically, at the same time that summarizing another text requires you to represent fairly what it says, it also requires that your own response exert a quiet influence. A good summary, in other words, has a focus or spin that allows the summary to fit with your own overall agenda while still being true to the text you are summarizing." (31-32)

So, the skill involved here is (write on board under "Skills"):

Being able to see the relationship between the main ideas and the focus of your own argument.

Hook for Concept #3

Working with their same groups, students go back to the cards they were given. Besides what was written on the cards, now they need to brainstorm a list of other points (main ideas) that were brought up in the film besides the one on the card. Students have a contest to see who can come up with the most additional "main points." (If you're using a common text, you could also possibly list these points on the board.) One thing that I like about this activity is that sometimes students get caught up discussing the main ideas together that they actually forget about the "contest." I like that they begin engaging with the ideas in the text.

After a certain amount of time, discuss with the class how each of the filmmakers talks about a lot of various subtopics in their argument. I then ask them: do you think you're going to have the time to discuss every single main idea that they brought up in a 4-5 page paper? Of course not! You need to decide what you really want to focus on in your paper. Therefore, you should only include the main ideas that you want to use in your paper. The summary should lead them into what you have to say.

"Writing a good summary means not just representing an author’s view accurately, but doing so in a way that fits your own composition’s larger agenda."

Concept #4

Write on the board, under "Elements":

4. Good summaries are in your words rather than the author’s words.

You need to say it in your own voice. This skill is more important when you’re doing something like a research paper because it helps you to avoid plagiarism, but it’s worth noting here. It also helps you avoid the temptation to quote too much.

So, the skill involved here is (write on board under "Skills"):

Reverse the sentence structure, use synonyms, indicate any direct quotes with quotation marks.


illness = medical problem
exchange views = talk to others
medical topic = medical subject
available to = open to
despite = in spite of
news items = news reports

(In the future, I think I might design an activity to help them brainstorm synonyms for a few terms. It might also work as some sort of competition.)

Some last things to mention:

Parts of a summary
--Introduction – Introduces the text to be summarized (title + author), gives any pertinent background information,

--Gives the topic and the main thesis of the piece. (Different from your thesis.)

--Main points.

--May possibly include one illustration.

A summary is usually about 1/10th the size of the original.

Summaries use the sandwich principle too.


Look at a sample of a poor summary in the handout. (FYI, this is a summary of an article called Making the Grade that you may consider having your students read.) Mine come to it cold.

Have students discuss why this is a poor summary. Build upon the student's observations to bring out the following points:

--Doesn't give the essay context by giving the essay title and the publication that it appeared in.

--Uses the author's original wording a little bit too much.

--Doesn't put quotation marks around the parts that were directly quoted.

--Doesn't use neutral attributive tags.

--Hard to distinguish where the summary is and where the author is interjecting their own opinions.

--Doesn't really capture the essence of the essay. Picks out kind of random stuff to focus on.

--Isn't a really coherent piece of writing anyway.

Then read the improved summary on the next page, talking about why it is better in a discussion with the students.

I then discuss how I grade their summaries in the Summary/Strong Response paper.


Shana Hamilton said...

Thank you for this great lesson plan! I appreciate the details -- it will help me use it in my own class.

Alyssa Rock said...

Glad I could help, Shana. And that's awesome that you subscribe to the blog using an RSS feedreader. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for this lesson. I really like the hands-on activites that further illustrate how to summarize. I will definitely use this lesson in my tutoring sessions and classroom. Again, thank you!