Last week, as part of our development process for our new curriculum, I taught one of our Esperanza Rising lessons to a group of fourth graders. One of the toughest moments for me came when I tried to teach one of my favorite activities: a ‘Sensitivity Analysis’ question.
Sensitivity Analysis is a close reading tool where you present a sentence from a text you are reading to students and ask them to compare it to a similar version you’ve created that has one or two small changes. The idea is that, to paraphrase one TLAC reader, one of the best ways to analyze the impact of word choice or structure is to compare it to an alternative. Students develop an ear for how nuances of language work by comparing the impact of small changes.
That said, while I love the activity, in teaching it, I struggled badly. The sentence in question was about a dust storm:
“Thousands of acres of tilled soil were becoming food for la tormenta and the sky was turning into a brown swirling fog.”
The alternative was:
“Thousands of acres of tilled soil were blown into the air and the sky was turning into a brown swirling fog.”
The idea was to help students see the impact of the dust storm being personified–that it was alive, eating the earth, even, like a monster perhaps.
Kids jumped in gamely but vaguely. But we were soon fumbling around in that dust storm. The original was more descriptive. It made you feel things more. But they struggled to say why and get to diction choices and I struggled to direct them. I’d planned follow up questions to guide them but in the moment I either forgot them or found they didn’t fit.
Afterwards, Colleen Driggs, who’d been observing, had some game changing advice for me. ‘Focus on perception first,’ she said. ‘Ask them to start by observing the differences they see between the two sentences. Then ask them to analyze.’
This was simple but brilliant. It would have the benefits of causing students to see and describe the changes first and then think about their impacts. It would push them immediately to the word level and cause them to name the change they saw from the beginning so all of their observations about their response as a reader would be grounded in the specific change. This might also help them to extrapolate–in future situations they might see the echo of the personification they saw here. Interestingly this is also in keeping with one of our key observations about close reading–teachers too often try to analyze meaning with students before they establish meaning–that is make sure they understand what they’ve read.
Anyway it was simple and brilliant advice. I can’t wait to try it and I hope teachers out there will appreciate it as much as I did.
If you’re interested in sensitivity analysis here are a few other posts on the topic: