The descent of Inanna – Part 2

If you’d rather listen than read

Part 2 – The indignation of Erishkigal

In part one, I explored the myth ‘The Descent of Inanna’ as I studied it for transformation. However, for this posting I want to focus on Inanna’s sister – Erishkigal, the queen of the underworld. In the Inanna myth, I wondered why Erishkigal was so insulted and aggressive toward her sister, so I looked at her side of the story. Erishkigal’s story contains the same events as Inanna’s Descent but with the larger context – it becomes a different story.

It is interesting to me while researching for this piece, I read descriptions of Inanna’s motive for descent as varied as that she descended to try to steal her sister’s power and domain in a time of weakness (Erishkigal was recently widowed and pregnant) to that she was a caring sister, risking her very life to comfort her sister and give respect to her brother-in-law. The second could be why Inanna told herself she descended to the underworld but context shows that Inanna is neither a caring sister or respectful sister-in-law.

The Epic of Gilgamesh and the backstory of Inanna’s descent

In The Epic of Gilgamesh, another Sumerian myth from ancient Mesopotamia, Inanna becomes romantically interested in the hero, Gilgamesh and pursues him.

Gilgamesh refuses Inanna’s advances because he doesn’t want to be her next ex love interest. She was infamous for her love them and leave them ways (and also for being cruel and vindictive).

Inanna does not take the rejection or criticism well and she goes to her dad to seek punishment for Gilgamesh’s unkind words. She wants her father to send the Bull of Heaven (Erishkigal’s husband) to kill Gilgamesh for insulting her. Inanna’s father does not have sympathy for her, but instead agrees with Gilgamesh’s assessment of Inanna’s actions towards her exes and tells her Gilgamesh said nothing but the truth.

Inanna does NOT like it when she doesn’t get her way. Inanna basically throws a tantrum where she threatens her dad with opening the gates of the underworld and unleashing the dead on earth to cause chaos and destroy everything if he doesn’t do what she wants and punish Gilgamesh … so he sends the Bull of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh. By the way, controlling the gates is Erishkigal’s job – not Inanna’s (no respect at all!)

When the Bull arrives on earth, his foot stomps are so great that the first opens the earth and kills 100 men and the second kills 200. He battles Gilgamesh and G’s friend, Enkidu and Enkidu kills the Bull of Heaven (Erishkigal’s husband). When Inanna arrives Enkidu insults Inanna and throws a piece of the bull’s leg at her. She has him punished for the insult through sickness and death (for the insult to her not for killing her brother-in-law).

So what does Inanna do after she has 301 men and her sister’s husband killed? She decides to go to the funeral and descend into the underworld. This gives us perspective now on why Erishkigal is angry at Inanna.

Erishkigal is in mourning for her husband, she is in the later stages of pregnancy, and her sister who is responsible for her husband’s death shows up at her door dressed in all of her finest, most regal and seductive embellishments – now I understand why:

‘When Erishkigal heard this,
She slapped her thigh and bit her lip.
She took the matter into her heart and dwelt on it.’

Erishkigal is indignant – she does not welcome Inanna as a sister because Inanna is the reason for the funeral and has the audacity to not only show her face but pridefully so with a crown, jewelry, and perfumes – not the appearance of remorse.

The rest of the myth is the same, Erishkigal has her sister stripped of her finery, bowed low, and unleashes her judgement on her. Inanna is reduced to a corpse which Erishkigal hangs on a hook and leaves.

Erishkigal does not dwell on Inanna. She punishes her and leaves her and goes about her life. When she goes into labor, the creatures sent by their grandfather to aid Inanna, comfort her and she rewards them. That’s it for Erishkigal’s involvement with Inanna. She is not angry at the creatures’ motives or that Inanna is released. The judges from the underworld do not want to release Inanna. Erishkigal is not mentioned again in the poem until the last two lines.

‘Holy Erishkigal! Great is your renown.

Holy Erishkigal! I sing your praises!’

The poem ends with Inanna placing her husband and sister-in-law into her sisters’ domain to pay for her actions and Erishkigal being praised.

So 300 unknown men, a brave warrior, Inanna’s brother-in-law, lover, and sister-in-law are all dead (or partly so) because Inanna was insulted by Gilgamesh and what does Erishkigal do? Nothing. She has her baby, pays her debt to the creatures, and handles her domain.

She does not pity herself. She does not seek further revenge on her sister or demand her return. She is in control of herself and does not let her sister’s nonsense effect her beyond when she is forced to directly deal with her. It’s not fair that Inanna goes unpunished and gets her way. It’s not fair that Erishkigal is denied her rightful wrath. But Erishkigal is a queen and above that petty trash. She takes care of her sister’s fallout and rules her domain. She knows life isn’t fair but she also knows her own responsibilities and power and lives her best life no matter what Inanna decides do.

Descent of Inanna tablet

Thanksgiving history

Interesting stuff I learned this morning about thanksgiving:
The ‘original thanksgiving’ between European pilgrims and their Native allies was not ever called thanksgiving or commemorated until much later.
It was a three-day feast of celebration and gratitude that later became associated with the national holiday thanksgiving. This version is sensitive because it often glorifies the moment of harmony before the century of violence that followed. But that’s not how thanksgiving originated and up until this morning, I did not know that.

Thanksgiving, as we know it, was declared by Abraham Lincoln after a 40-year campaign by a woman named Sarah Josepha Hale.
She is very interesting and I want to know even more about her but… it also seems that George Washington declared a day of thanksgiving before Lincoln but his thanksgiving was in February. Washington wanted to celebrate the new nation and dedicate thanks to God for our blessings. A bit of the spirit that has carried on but it wasn’t a nationally recognized holiday.
It wasn’t until the Civil War that the 4th Thursday of November was dedicated as a day to set aside and give thanks by Abraham Lincoln.
It seems that an influential woman named Sarah Josepha Hale, a ‘Martha Stewart’ of her day – editor, writer, mother, and social activist (she wrote Mary had a Little Lamb) – Sarah had been campaigning for a national day of Thanksgiving. It should be noted that she was also a Northerner and abolitionist.
As a writer and activist Sarah successfully got 30 states to celebrate the holiday by 1854. She wrote president Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward to urge them to proclaim the national holiday as a permanent holiday as a way to heal the nation from the wounds of the Civil War in 1863.
It was of mixed success. As a Northern abolitionist that was very vocal and very ‘Yankee’ Hale and the unionist president Lincoln were not the people many southerners wanted to be told to celebrate and give thanks.
For the victorious North, there was much to be thankful for but like Erishkigal and Inanna – for the South – there were hurt feelings and some bitterness towards their northern neighbors. In fact, Texas governor O.M. Roberts refused to recognize the ‘damned Yankee institution’ of thanksgiving from 1879-1882. He also was against the holiday as it mixed religion with government.
Pumpkins and pumpkin pies also became symbols of Yankee thanksgiving which may be why sweet potato and buttermilk are also so popular with the southern states. Me, I’m a Californian, I’d rather have guacamole 🥑

The Descent of Inanna – Part 1

Inanna’s journey into the underworld as it relates to transformative growth

In case you’d rather listen than read.

The Descent of Inanna is a Sumerian poem from over 3,500 years ago that tells the story of Inanna’s journey into her sister’s domain – the underworld. When I first encountered and studied this myth, it was in the context of my dissertation on transformative literacy. The myth was crucial for me in a time when I felt lost and needed to know how to move forward and create a new identity.

Inanna – Queen of Heaven and Earth

As I mentioned, my original research with Inanna was focused towards my work on transformative literacy (for more on this – check out my dissertation link). For this reason, the work I did was deep, but not wide – meaning I went very deep into the focus but did not look into different interpretations or for wider context for the poem. Part 1, this part of the writings on this poem is dedicated to that original, simpler research of the heroine, Inanna. With this research, I will discuss how Inanna is a representation of transformative growth and becoming a “whole person.”

The poem opens with the following lines:

“From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above the goddess opened her ear to the Great Below.
From the Great Above Inanna opened her ear to the Great Below.
My Lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.
Inanna abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld.”

For the complete translation of the epic poem click the link below:

At first glance, it appears the first three lines are a repetition, but when looked at more closely – it is seen that they go from general to specific.

From the Great above (she, the goddess, Inanna) opened her ear to the Great Below.

Individuation (becoming whole) is initiated by an individual seeking to define themselves and find their place in the world. Transformation is constant, but transformative growth begins with breaking down and creating definition. The first three lines, and then the next two lines help us to understand who Inanna is; they define the central character and action she will take in the story. The Great Above is earth – Inanna’s domain and the Great Below is the underworld – her sister’s domain and the place where none return.

The most important lesson I learned from Inanna was to prepare and the second most important lesson is to have people you can trust and be willing to rely on them. Before Inanna makes her descent into the underworld, she calls her trusted assistant and friend, Ninshubur. Inanna tells Ninshubur of her plan to enter the underworld and gives her instructions of what to do if Inanna does not return. (I won’t detail the plans since it will be revealed as Ninshubur follows the plans later in the poem).

It is only after Inanna makes the necessary plans to secure a return, that she gets all dressed up and leaves her earthly temples to visit her recently widowed sister Erishkigal in the underworld. She intends to attend the funeral for her brother-in-law, the Bull of Heaven, and see her sister.

When Inanna arrives at the gates to the underworld, this is how she appears:

As tall as heaven and as wide as the earth.

On her head she wears the shurgarra, the crown of the steppe.
Across her forehead her dark locks of hair are carefully arranged.
Around her neck she wears the small lapis beads.
At her breast she wears the double strand of beads.
Her body is wrapped in the royal robe.
Her eyes are daubed with the ointment “let him come, let him come.”
Around her chest she wears the breast plate called “come, man, come!”
On her wrist she wears the gold ring.
In her hand she carries the lapis measuring rod and line.”

When Erishkigal hears that her sister is there to visit her in her finery, she is not pleased and she instructs the gate keeper to close the seven gates and allow Inanna to enter each gate, one at a time. At each gate, Inanna is to be stripped of one of the items she is wearing (each colored line represents one of the items that was removed) and not until she is completely stripped and humbled will she be allowed entrance.

The dark and light goddesses unite

This part is all a bit severe when looked at in the context of the poem alone. My research explained that Inanna is the light side and Erishkigal is the dark – that what benefits Inanna usually hurts Erishkigal and it is for this reason that Erishkigal is angry. However, the research also had other interpretations – like Inanna represented the conscious, known self that is metaphorically diving into her unconscious where she faces her inner demons to become a more complete and better version of herself. I don’t know what it really means or represents at this point – I just know Erishkigal makes her sister humble before she will see her and when she does see her, she unleashes her judgement and wrath and turns her into a disgusting piece of rotting meat which she then leaves to hang on a hook. HARSH!

At the time, the way I understood this part of the story is that it represented how when you face your inner self – it’s often painful and humbling because there are things we bury because we don’t want to face them or admit that they are a part of ourselves. When you are honest with yourself (really honest) and see yourself for your weaknesses and faults – you can become crushed by the shame, crushed by regret, or simply just crushed and feel like your insides are ripped out until you are nothing but meat – rotting away on a hook. (I was going through a painful time in my life and the image of rotting meat on a hook related heavily to how I felt inside.)

Inanna would have stayed on the hook if it had not been for planning and the loyalty of Ninshubur to follow through with Inanna’s plans.

After three days, when Inanna did not return, Ninshubur openly went into mourning (as instructed), but also began to aid Inanna in her return. Ninshubur goes to Inanna’s father, then grandfather, and finally to her other grandfather seeking assistance for bringing Inanna out of the underworld. The first two refuse to help Inanna and say that she basically got what she deserved (again HARSH), but the third has sympathy for Inanna and sends two creatures to Erishkigal. He instructs the creatures with how to bring Inanna back to life and back to her place on earth.

When the beings find Erishkigal, she is alone and in labor with a child from her recently deceased husband. Erishkigal moans with pain and the beings moan with her in sympathy, she cries in pain, and the beings cry with her. In this way, by being present and showing empathy for Erishkigal, the beings eased her suffering and gave her some solace in a difficult time. For their actions, Erishkigal grants them anything they ask for – which of course, they ask for the rotting corpse of Inanna, as instructed.

Once the little creatures get Inanna’s corpse, they sprinkle the water and food of life on her and she is again Inanna and has the ability to return home. But it isn’t that simple – Inanna can’t just leave – Inanna was judged and sentenced, she can’t just leave without payment – Inanna is allowed to go but she has to send someone to take her place in the underworld.

With my research at the time, I saw this story as transformation – Inanna is stripped (broken down and defined), she faces challenges and reaches a final “rock bottom,” and then she rises after a final struggle and triumph but she is different because she has demons with her – these demons are called gallas.

When I went through my difficult time, I felt stripped of my identity, stripped of the things I held dear, stripped of my possessions, my security, and basically I felt like I had lost my life. Believe me, it was painful and I felt the full weight of my judgements on my self, I felt shame and regret. I was angry and hurt, but when I didn’t feel pain, confusion, loss, and millions of other feeling I associated with Inanna’s experience to becoming a corpse on a hook, deep down, I had faith and I actually felt a bit of relief at being fully stripped and taken to my lowest point – I knew I would be like Inanna and rise again. I knew it had to get better – it really couldn’t get worse, could it?

Inanna rose – with her gallas. She met Ninshubur who cried with joy to see Inanna. The gallas were hungry – like when we have suffered, we often feel the need to unleash the pain. The gallas wanted to take Ninshubur into the underworld in Inanna’s place and Inanna refused.

Inanna next meets her son, then another son, and finally her beautician – all three were in mourning at Inanna’s death and rejoice when they see her. The gallas want to take them in Inanna’s place and Inanna refuses again and again because they are loyal.

Finally, Inanna sees her lover Dumuzi. Dumuzi is not in mourning, on the contrary – he is dressed finely and seated upon his throne. Inanna takes one look at him and her gallas descend on him. She not only returns from the underworld, she is more powerful than before because she uses her gallas (her experience) not to harm just anyone around her, but she guides them to punish the one that is disloyal to her. She is not controlled by her gallas – she controls them and aims them at her lover.

I wanted to be like Inanna – I wanted my pain, my experiences to give me strength, and to do that, I needed to learn control. From Inanna, I learned how to take something painful and through planning, help from others, and some hard work – it is possible to rise and return with more strength and power.

Thank you for reading – please leave me your feedback – I look forward to reading what you think.

Part 2 will look at the poem in the larger cultural context that includes the story – The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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Samhain, Halloween, Dia de los muertos

Honoring the dead, honoring our past, and merging cultures

Today is a holiday – to Catholic’s, it is All souls’ day, which is associated with Halloween and the traditions from the Celtic celebration of the dead, Samhain. Today is also Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican day for remembrance that is it is celebrated as a combination of the Spanish Allhallowtide and the Aztec month-long celebration honoring the king, but especially the queen, Mictecihuatl, of the underworld.

To research, I started with Samhain. I wrote a blog about Samhain and it’s significance. This is the origin of one of my favorite holidays, Halloween. I knew it had Celtic roots but I had limited knowledge of Samhain itself. So, the blog on Samhain is from the origin, the seed, and now the roots of the tree that is Halloween.

I thought I missed Dia de los muertos , that it was November 1st, but fortunately – today is the day, November 2nd, two days after Halloween.

Why two days after Halloween? Because Dia de los muertos is a relatively new holiday with very old origins. The Celtic holiday, Samhain, was a celebration of slowing down and of remembering the dead. It was when the the dead and living could commune and divination is most often attempted. Samhain is one root, Samhain was adopted to base the Allhallowtide season that is a three day celebration – All Hallows’ Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls’ Day – October 31, November 1, and 2nd.

So in 621 AD, when the church created All Saints day, they used Samhain to set the date, November 1st and they borrowed aspects of the Celtic holiday to get buy-in from the former Celts. This tradition crossed the ocean to North American and morphed inti what we know as Halloween.

This tradition also crossed the ocean to the Southern Hemisphere with the Spaniards and landed amongst the Aztecs. The Aztecs had their own traditions. They had 20 days of rituals from late July to mid August that were to honor the queen of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtli.

This is where the Celtic/Christian holiday of All Souls’ Day merged with the Aztec traditions. The newly-created holiday made a three-day long celebration to honor the dead during the Christian holiday that honored the dead it combined the Aztec with the Spanish (which was a combo of Christian and Celtic).

So Dia de los muertos is a Mexican holiday that claims Aztec, Catholic, and Celtic lineage.

The common thread that connects these holidays is death. These holidays all ask us to slow down to take time to remember those that are no longer living and to recognize that one day, we too will face the end of life.

Samhain: How to approach darkness and descent?

Darkness can be unsettling, but it can also become a source of strength and power. We can enter darkness with fear, anger, and ignorance and experience sadness and hate OR we can choose to bring our light to the darkness with reflection, forgiveness, and gratitude and experience joy and love. It is a choice we are constantly making but this season gives us time to remember who we are.

Samhain, All Hollow’s Eve, or Halloween – it goes by many names and has special significance for many cultures. In the culture I grew up, we called it Halloween and it signified mischief, costumes, and CANDY, but there is a deeper connection – an archetypal connection.

(Archetypal is an academic term that describes how some things apply to everyone. Everyone (universally) knows what sadness feels like, everyone has experienced excitement , we all know things from deep inside that we just know, without knowing why we know it – these things that connect us, are archetypal.)

Anyway – back to Samhain and Halloween. Halloween is actually a celebration that is a reaction of the day that follows – all saints day (Dia de los muertos) when the barrier between life and death is lifted and we can reunite with the souls we have lost.

It’s a beautiful thing to reunite with loved ones, but we know that these reunions are not lasting – the dead will once again return to their own plane of existence and we will return to our daily lives. But for that brief moment, for that one day – we are together again.

Death is not the only thing that separates us – we can be separated by distance, obligations, misunderstandings, opportunities, or just circumstance. Regardless the cause for separation, November 1st is a day of reunion – but unlike Thanksgiving when we physically join each other, this is a day of remembering and reflection. We do not get to physically commune with each other.

Just like a Zoom meeting, we are together, we commune with one another … but it isn’t the same. It’s enough, it gets us by until we can meet again, but it is a placeholder.

That seems kind of sad, but it’s joyous – we get a little bit of the people we miss, the people that matter, and also we reunite with our ghosts. There are those absent from our lives we do not miss but like the memories of those we love, they return. We have to deal with our past – the past that we miss, the past we loved, and the past we regret.

Sometimes we long to return to the past so we can relive something beautiful. We want to reunite with the person we love but with reflection, we can be faced with darkness. Samhain urges us to enter the darkness. Right now – until Dec 21st, every day will be shorter and every night longer. We are descending into darkness – this is the reality – the sun is further and our environment is colder. It is becoming winter (for us in this hemisphere).

Darkness and cold bring many emotions, many ideas. Fear, surprise, uncertainty, anonymity, freedom, chaos, liberation, sadness, understanding. Darkness and cold make us rest, they make us stay still, take time, and reflect.

So tonight, embrace the madness, the chaos, and uncertainty. Brazenly walk the streets as ghouls, kitties, and superheroes. Demand some candy and create a little mischief. Because tomorrow and through this season of darkness comes our time for reflection. Tomorrow we begin to slow down, tomorrow we have time to remember the people we no longer have in our lives, and in the following month that leads to Thanksgiving, we will have time to receive gratitude as we remember our past, the experiences and souls that have touched our lives. We can use this time of darkness to reflect, to let go, to be full of gratitude, forgiveness, and most of all … LOVE.


Academic Reading Skills for Transformative Learning Curriculum

Purpose: To teach academic reading skills and vocabulary while incorporating archetypal stories to inspire success through transformative learning.

Time for class: 18 weeks, 2 meeting per week, 3 hours total – lecture and computer practice

Necessary texts:

1. Academic reading text – Ten Steps to Academic Reading series by John Langan

2. Vocabulary text – Supplementary Vocabulary series by Townsend Press

3. Novel – The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo

4. Connecting stories – to be reproduced and distributed in class

Skills and Knowledge to be mastered:

Academic reading skills: Students will learn and master the following academic reading skills: how to use context clues to find meaning of new vocabulary, understand what a main idea is and its purpose in a text, identify supporting details and use them to structure notes, find and use topic sentences to locate main ideas, determine main idea when not directly stated, use context and prior knowledge to make inferences in reading, use patterns of organization and signal words to process text and take notes,  understand the elements of making a good argument, and recognizing common errors made in arguments and how to avoid them.

Knowledge for transformative learning: Students will gain insight into personal narrative and the ability to create change in life by editing and taking control of their own personal narrative. Students will examine their personal goals and look at ways to reach those goals. Students will recognize the need to reach out to others for support and to see the value of helping others. Students will gain a knowledge of successful and unsuccessful transformation-underworld processes and how apply them to life and learning. Students will learn why it is better to properly prepare and think through situations. Students will learn not to let their emotions, especially anger and frustration, stop them from pursuing their goals. Students will learn to use their resources and creative solutions to overcome obstacles.

Week 1: Preparation for course and preassessments

Connecting story: Personal narrative

            Learning goals:

  • Students will understand the goals and expectations for the class.
  • Students will complete the entrance assessments for use in instructional planning purposes and comparison with exit testing.
  • Students will put into words a personal statement of their identity and projection toward future self.
  • Students will gain insight into personal narrative and the ability to create change in life by editing and actively authoring their own personal narrative.

Essential questions:

  • What are the class procedures, expectations, grading policies, and other functional information for the class?
  • What is a personal story and how does it effect how we see ourselves and how we are seen by others?
  • How do we edit our own story to create change?
  • What do the tests report about the students’ academic reading skills, vocabulary level, and comprehension abilities entering the class and how will it guide instruction?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduction, computer account set up, and entrance testing initialized

Day 2: Personal story and entrance testing finalized

Assessments: Formative assessments – writing personal narratives and completing tasks

                                   Summative assessments – entrance testing

Unit 1: Vocabulary in Context

Connecting story: Planets and their names

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to use context clues (synonyms, antonyms, examples, and general sense of the sentence) to determine meaning to unfamiliar vocabulary.
  • Students will understand the value of learning to find meaning through context.
  • Students will recognize how stories give meaning through layers of prior knowledge and give readers a way to personally relate to the material.
  • Students will have a basic introduction to mythology and archetypes.

Essential questions:

  • What are the four types of context clues and how can we use them to figure out new vocabulary?
  • What is the purpose of telling stories and how do they relate to meaning?
  • How does learning how to read context clues make more efficient readers?
  • How does understanding the origination of words help us to be better readers or to be contextual learners?
  • What is an archetype and why are they important?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Vocabulary in Context

Day 2: How the planets got their names, context clues, and archetypes

Day 3: Vocabulary day – Unit 1 practice

Day 4: Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Day 4 – unit test on computer

Unit 2: Main Idea

Connecting story: The Alchemist

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to differentiate between general and specific.
  • Students will understand the difference between main ideas and supporting details.
  • Students will be able to identify and utilize key words (list and addition) to find main idea and supporting details.
  • Students will gain understanding and function of key words and transition words in reading and writing.
  • Students will be able to identify personal goals and what it will take to reach those goals.
  • Students will gain inspiration and ideas on how to achieve their goals through class-led discussion of meaningful quotes from the book.

Essential questions:

  • What is a main idea and why does it matter?
  • What are key words, how do they function, and how to use them to comprehend and process texts?
  • When you hear excerpts from your classmates’ narratives, what does it make you think or feel?
  • How did you react when you heard someone read a piece of your narrative?
  • What can the novel teach us about life, about ourselves, and about each other?
  • How does the theme of the novel relate to the concept of main idea?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – What is a main idea and what is its function?

Day 2: The Alchemist, personal narrative reading, and finding your main idea

Day 3:Vocabulary day – Unit 1 – review and tests

Day 4: Group and individual practice exercises, unit skills test

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Days 3 and 4 – unit tests on computer

Unit 3: Supporting details

Connecting story: Egyptian Amduat

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to differentiate between main idea and supporting details and furthermore, of major and minor supporting details.
  • Students will understand how main idea and supporting details work together to give text structure and can be used to process information for notes.
  • Students will explore note-taking strategies and textual differences.
  • Students will gain understanding of the transformation process and how it applies to the college student.
  • Students will explore concept of giving and receiving support in order to collectively experience validation and growth.

Essential questions:

  • What is a supporting detail and how does it function in a paragraph?
  • How do we differentiate major and minor details and why that matters in academic reading and note taking?
  • What are effective note-taking strategies and how does identification of main idea and supporting details aid in this process?
  • How do we create a system of support and how do we support others?
  • What happens when we can help someone?
  • How does transformation happen?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Supporting details and note-taking strategies

Day 2: The Egyptian Amduat and the power of support

Day 3:Vocabulary day – Unit 2 – review and test

Day 4: Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Day 4 – unit test on computer

Unit 4: Finding the main idea: Topic sentences and Implied ideas

Connecting stories: Persephone and Inanna underworld myths

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to identify when a topic sentence is present and use it to state the main idea of a text.
  • Students will be able to identify the main idea of a text even when the main idea is not directly stated.
  • Students will explore underworld myths and compare them to discuss personal connections and passive vs active both in life and learning.
  • Students will explore underworld myths and compare them to discuss the benefits of living actively and taking control.

Essential questions:

  • What is a topic sentence and how to use it to state the main idea?
  • How to find and write the main idea when it isn’t directly stated?
  • Why should the student rewrite a main idea if it is stated in the topic sentence?
  • How do the stories of Persephone and Inanna differ and why that matters?
  • How do the stories relate to the student, personally and to college students in general?
  • What can the stories teach the student about transformation and the process of investigation and self-discovery?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Finding the main idea

Day 2: Persephone and topic sentence/Inanna and implied idea

Day 3:Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Day 4: Vocabulary day – Unit 3 – review and test

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Days 3 and 4 – unit tests on computer

Unit 5: Relationships with and within text

Psychology connection: Readlationships

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to identify common patterns of organization in texts including time or addition, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and definition with example.
  • Students will identify key words for determining patterns and relationships.
  • Students will understand how patterns work to help the reader gain understanding and process information presented in the text.
  • Students will use knowledge of patterns in a text to guide note-taking strategies.
  • Students will explore the idea of relationship with a text and how to understand that relationship as it applies to reading and note-taking strategies.

Essential questions:

  • What are the common patterns and functions for academic reading texts?
  • How can the knowledge of these relationships within the text help the reader to process, understand, and take notes on the text?
  • How are relationships in a text or with a text like relationships between people?
  • Why does our time matter and what does our choices for how we spend that time reflect our priorities, passions, and path for the future?
  • Why do we read?
  • How does the purpose of reading change the relationship and determine the appropriate level of interaction for the text?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – patterns of organization and signal words

Day 2: Readlationships – how do we relate to texts?

Day 3: Group and individual practice exercises, midterm review, and unit test 

Day 4: Midterm exam

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Day 3 – unit test on computer

                                                                   Day 4 – Midterm exam

Unit 6: Inferencing

Connecting stories: Big bad wolf and three little pigs and The Alchemist

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to use inferences to connect to text and aid comprehension.
  • Students will look at how perspectives are different based on prior knowledge.
  • Students will understand why it is better to prepare for situations, use the proper materials, and how thinking critically can be critical for survival.
  • Students will revisit the big topics from The Alchemist and apply it for class discussion.
  • Students will acknowledge the power of pursuing a personal path and explore the idea of their own personal path.

Essential questions:

  • What is an inference and how do you make a good inference?
  • How does prior knowledge and experience effect an inference?
  • How is proper preparation critical when things become difficult? (Inanna)
  • What are some big themes in The Alchemist and how do they relate personally and to college students in general?
  • How can the universe help you achieve your dreams?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Inferencing

Day 2: Three little pigs and inferencing

Day 3:Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Day 4: Guided discussion of The Alchemist

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 3 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                                                                 Day 4 – participation with novel exercises

                        Summative assessments – Day 3 – unit test on computer

Unit 7: Evaluating and crafting an argument

Connecting story: Pandora creation story

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to identify necessary elements of a strong argument.
  • Students will be able to evaluate an argument based on strength of the support.
  • Students will be able to apply their knowledge of argument to craft a well-supported written argument paper.
  • Students will be able to evaluate a text beyond content and look to all the information available about a text.
  • Students will see the value of hope and perseverance.

Essential questions:

  • What makes a good argument?
  • How to measure if support is adequate and logical?
  • What does the reader need to consider when critically reading a text?
  • What is hope and why does it matter for a college student?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Making a good argument

Day 2: Pandora creation story

Day 3: Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Day 4: Vocabulary day – Unit 4 (final unit) – review and test

Assessments: Formative assessments – Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Days 1 and 3 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

                        Summative assessments – Days 3 and 4 – unit tests on computer

Unit 8: Critical thinking  

Connecting story: Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby and argument papers

            Learning goals:

  • Students will be able to identify six errors in reasoning and six propaganda techniques commonly seen in arguments.
  • Students will learn to read through the faulty reasoning and avoid using them in their own writing.
  • Students will identify and outline main idea and supporting details in peers’ papers.
  • Students will learn to give and receive productive feedback.
  • Students will learn the value of being cautious without being fearful.
  • Students will learn how emotions can stop a person from moving forward in life and how to overcome that with using intelligence and creative problem solving.

Essential questions:

  • What are the common errors in reasoning and propaganda techniques seen in arguments and what is the difference between the two?
  • How do we recognize and avoid faulty reasoning?
  • How do we give feedback that is helpful – not overly critical and not too nice?
  • How do our emotions hinder our progress?
  • How do obstacles become bigger and how can we overcome them?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Introduce new concept – Critical thinking

Day 2: B’rer Rabbit and the tar baby

Day 3:Peer review on argument essays

Day 4: Group and individual practice exercises, unit tests skills

Assessments: Formative assessments – Day 1 – class participation and non-mandatory practice exercises on computer.

Days 2 and 4 – in class practice exercises

                                                                 Day 3 – participation in peer review

                        Summative assessments – Day 3 – Argument essay

       Day 4 – unit test on computer

 Week 18: The Alchemist, personal narrative rewrite, and exit exams

Connecting story: Personal narratives

            Learning goals:

  • Students will feel a connection with their learning community.
  • Students will be able to make a positive statement of self.
  • Students will complete all exit assessments.

Essential questions:

  • What is your personal narrative?
  • How does it compare to the narrative written at the beginning of the course?

Learning experiences:

Day 1: Personal narrative rewrites, and exit testing initiated

Day 2:Personal narrative connection and exit testing finalized

Assessments: Formative assessments – in class participation

                        Summative assessments – final exams

Supplemental materials: Specific lesson plans, texts for the story connections and other related material are included in a separate folder.

Bird singing the blues: Revival of a native tradition

When looking at the collective stories of any group of people it is not only important to look at what the stories say but also how those stories are attained. In his book “Reading the Voice” Zolbrod hypothesizes that oral poetry is meant to be transmitted from spoken voice to listening ear and that when it is encountered in a written form, it needs to be acknowledged that something is lost because the words are meant to be encountered not read. While the words themselves have importance; the rhythm, the tonal inflections, the language, and the experience of one person speaking or singing the poetry and the other hearing it are just as important. There are benefits and constraints to both the written word and the spoken word. Scholars have been working to put onto paper the songs and stories of non-written cultures in order to share and preserve them but what is lost is the context which must be in the least, acknowledged and ideally, experienced.

As I mentioned, there are benefits and constraints to both oral and written transmission of stories.  While documenting a story by putting it on paper or on a recording does give the story a level of authenticity and permanence that can’t be assured with oral transmission; it does not have the same power.  Written words do not change, they are fixed so generations from now, a person can read and know the stories.  The stories may even be recorded electronically so the voice is still heard, the body movements, and experience seen but that is still not oral transmission.  With oral transmission, there is a human contact that over time, becomes a relationship.  It means the student is accountable to an elder or elders.  These relationships also carry traditions, responsibilities, and guidance to the young people that seek them.  The drawback to oral transmission is twofold as I see it.  First, there must be a teacher for the student.  Oral transmission can’t occur unless there is someone willing and able to pass on the traditions.  The other drawback that may be seen as a positive by some is that the oral transmission can be fluid.  Stories, even when sung and passed down through the generations can change.  As seen with bird singing, the songs may lose their words because the singers don’t know the language they are singing or they may lose their sound due to younger singers trying to set themselves apart in pow wow competitions. Neither written or oral transmission is superior, they are just different and have different purposes.  For bird singing the transmission must be oral and experiential.   

For this paper, I will be looking at the transmission of a specific form of poetry, the bird songs of the local Cahuilla people. The Cahuilla people can be generally divided into three groups based on the geographical region in which they lived: Desert Cahuilla, Mountain Cahuilla and Western (San Gorgonio Pass) Cahuilla. All three spoke the Cahuilla language, had similar lifestyles and practiced the same traditions. There are a total of nine Cahuilla Indian nations (Green). This form of oral poetry was almost erased from the culture by the years of forced separation, assimilation, and education of Native children by the American government.  Its phoenix-like resurgence in the local Native communities is a testament to the power of the songs and their need to be heard.  Now that more people have been exposed to the bird songs, issues of transmission and legitimacy are being raised.  The question of what it means to be a bird singer has been raised and the importance of how the songs are learned is a major part of that discussion.  In this paper, I will attempt to offer a glimpse of the Cahuilla people through their songs.  Not the words of their songs, the experience of the songs and their importance to the people.

For eight years, I worked at Noli Indian School on the Soboba Reservation in Southern California.  It was there I witnessed the revival of bird singing.  Today, if you attend a pow wow or similar function in Southern California you will likely see several bird singing groups, each with their own set of songs, sometimes the same words just sung in a subtly different way.  The practice is so prevalent that it is hard to believe that the tradition was almost lost when the last ceremonial singer, Joe Patencio, passed away in 1977. A group of men decided to make an effort to bring the songs back to the people.  With the help of a grant from the California Arts Council, young men within the tribe were partnered up with mentor bird singers to help the practice continue to the next generation (Sing birds, 2009).  It was their passion and dedication for sharing the songs with the young men of the tribe that brought this tradition back to life.  

Working at Noli Indian School, I learned a lot about bird singing and had the fortune to listen to many of the elders like Ernie Morreo, Alvino Siva, Anthony Andreas, and Sat Torres in person before they passed away.  Also, I had the honor to work alongside Kim Marcus, the man responsible for so many young native youth learning their songs and culture.  Mr. Marcus is the school counselor, culture teacher, distinguished elder, and bird singer at the school.  It is due to his efforts that bird singing is such a large part of the culture of the school.  In culture class, boys make gourd rattles and girls sew ribbon shirts and ribbon dresses worn by the singers and dancers. Songs are a part of the everyday life of the school, not something learned as much as experienced naturally.  Those that want to learn can practice and perform at school functions and weekly during lunch breaks.  Elders within the community are often present on campus helping transmit the songs to the next generation.  Many bird singers perform with the students and the school has its own group that performs at local cultural events to educate people about bird singing, this is Mr. Marcus’s group, the Noli Bird singers.  This group includes Mr. Marcus, elders like Willis Torres, students that are establishing themselves as bird singers, and students that are just learning bird singing.      

In my eight years at the school, I saw a handful of students that actually bore the label of bird singer.  Bird singing can be practiced by any of the students but only certain students labeled and respected as actual bird singers.  Since there are no longer any practicing Shamans, the official title of ceremonial bird singer has been lost but there is a difference in stature of a boy that is learning the songs and a boy that is a bird singer.  These boys were also usually in a lineage of bird singers, they came in knowing their culture and the school just nurtured their growth. Some of the boys I watched become bird singers were Bo Bullchild, Joe and Dominic Duro, Julio and Daniel Briones, William Morrell, Dusty and Rocky Rhodes, and Adam Trujillo.  To “be a bird singer” is more than just memorizing the songs and performing.  A young man couldn’t just sing the songs, he had to know what they meant.  This means the young man has to learn his culture, learn his language and adhere, or attempt to adhere to the code of conduct of bird singers.  They had to carry themselves in a manner that befitted the respect they received from the community.  For instance, bird singers are not permitted to use drugs or abuse alcohol.  If a singer is using drugs or drinking excessively, the other students would become upset with them and help them to get back on the path.  Out of respect, singers should stop singing when they know they aren’t living an honorable life. This has led to some tensions within the community as many of the younger singers bend the rules, especially the use of marijuana and alcohol. 

The songs have importance because they hold the history of the tribe and to sing them in the wrong way is to take power from the songs.  It is important how they are taught and practiced.  Both student and mentor need to recognize the sacred nature of the songs and the relationships that grow from their transmission.  The relationship between elder and apprentice bird singer is a special one, not unlike the relationship between Guru and disciple. This is because of the sacred nature of the material.  It isn’t just teaching, it is mentoring.  It is a care relationship not unlike father and son.  “The transmission of Dharma requires language, encounter, and human relationships” (Tsyogal) just like bird singing.  Some people try to learn the songs by listening to the recordings and imitating them but this is the wrong way.  It must be transmitted just like Dharma, by acquiring the language, encountering the songs and their ceremonies and by building relationships with elder singers.

The songs tell the creation story, track tribal migration and history and reinforce native language transmission but they also foster a code of conduct in the community. They are a major part of tribal gatherings and bird singers are respected members of the community, members that are following their cultural calling and keeping the songs alive.  Being a bird singer is no small task.  Bird singers are often asked to perform at gatherings and ceremonies.  In the community, if there is a death, the bird singers will be asked to sing.  On the night of the wake alone, the singers will sing from sundown to sunup, often in a small room with tobacco smoke hanging in the air.  The bird singers are often exhausted both mentally and physically after these events.  Many times, Mr. Marcus would hardly be able to speak after perfoming the songs for a passing tribal member. The importance of teaching the young people culture, especially the bird songs is highly stressed at Noli Indian School as well as on the reservations. “A 1990 census revealed that there were only about 35 people left who could speak the Cahuilla language. The language is nearly extinct, since most speakers are middle-aged or older” (Green).  Soboba tribal hall hosts weekly storytelling nights, language classes, and basket weaving gatherings. Many of the other local reservations have similar events and most have annual gatherings and pow wows where bird songs are sung and danced.  Each day Noli School begins with tobacco offering and prayer, at least once a week bird songs are performed at lunch, often with community members in attendance, and special events occur throughout the year like presentations from community members and the annual gathering. 

The important lesson is not the songs themselves necessarily but the way they are taught and what they have to teach.  Since these songs are taught through practicing together, there is a strong bond that develops between the elder singer and his students.  Most men teach the songs to boys in their direct family; sons, younger siblings, or nephews.  Even with the resurgence of the tradition, the tradidion struggles to survive intact.  Life on the reservation is a struggle for the young men and many from the reservation die young or find their way into the prison system. Sadly, two of the bird singers I saw emerge from the school Dusty Rhodes and Joe Duro died shortly after they graduated high school from gun violence while others ended up in prison, or fell prey to addiction or crime.  This is part of the reason many boys at Noli School do not have that strong male role model to teach them the ways of their people.  Many of the families were led by women because it was the women that were the ones that raised the families and become elders.  This is where men like Kim Marcus and many others stepped in to give these boys instruction on what it means to be a strong, Native man.  They were taught what it meant to have cultural pride and a heritage.

The way these songs are taught are by experience and social interaction.  The men and boys get together and sing.  They sing at social gatherings like funerals, fiestas, and even just backyard get togethers, anywhere can be a place to sing.  At first, a boy will just shake the gourd rattle with the others, next he will hum along but eventually, he will sing. By the time the boy sings, he will have spent enough time with the elder singers to have learned much more than the words to the songs, they will have taught him about his culture and how to be a man.  They will have created bonds that hold the young man to have respect and act in a manner that is culturally acceptable.  This is why the method of transmission is so crucial for keeping the bird songs alive.  In our world today of electronic media, the songs have been recorded, the words and stories will no longer be lost but the tradition, the language, and the social interactions are also in jeopardy of being lost.  Now that the words of the songs, the performance aspect is safe, the sacred needs to be protected.    

The revival of bird songs has brought some mixed feelings about the future of bird singing. “The loss of the Cahuilla language, infusion of money from Casinos (in some of the bands), contemporary western culture and issues of mixed blood have all affected the intention of the singers and the purity of the bird songs” (Sing birds : following the path of Cahuilla power – National Film Network).  The culture of the Cahuilla people was almost destroyed through the over 100 years of forced assimilation of reservation youth.  Now that the culture is being brought back to the reservations, the people need to decide how much they will allow the old rules to bend in order to attract the younger people to participate.  This is not limited to Native cultures but can be seen universally. The issues have to do with who can participate, how they need to be taught, and how they must behave once they are taught.  This is not a matter of who is allowed to participate in social gatherings or simply want to know about the songs, which is open to everyone.  This concerns becoming a ceremonial bird singer; one that has the respect from the community, sings at special functions, and learns the sacred songs.  I will attempt to introduce and look at each of these issues.  I am only trying to look at the arguments, I am not trying to take any position on the subject.  They are part of an ongoing conversation within the bird singing community and in many Native communities.  There is no wrong or right answer, just a conversation. 

First, there is the matter of exclusivity.  The battle to keep the culture alive has not been an easy one through the years.  It makes sense that after struggling so hard to revive the culture, the people are now very protective of that culture and do not want it put under the scrutiny of those that do not understand the context.  Bird singing is a sacred tradition and the songs hold power.  Some members of the community argue that anyone that wants to learn the songs, if they want to do it from their hearts, should be permitted to learn.  They are more concerned that the songs do not die out.  Then there is the other side which wants to limit the songs to members of the tribes that traditionally practiced those songs.  They may talk about blood qualifications and tribal enrollment.  The matter of blood quantum and enrollment is a huge, heated issue in the local tribal communities especially since the economic boon of casinos hit those communities.  Members that have identified themselves with a tribe for generations have been and continue to be disenrolled to increase the payouts for the members that are still enrolled. I admit to feeling slighted as an outsider when I hear that tribal members want to exclude outsiders from learning their traditions.  This is natural but I have to look at it from the perspective of the people that are trying to protect their dying culture. It is not about keeping people out, it is about preserving the specialness of the songs.

By limiting the amount of people that learn the songs to specific individuals, the members are trying to protect the way the songs are transmitted and also keep the power and sacred nature of the songs alive.  While tribal members may also approach the songs in the “wrong way” just like an outsider, it is less likely that they would do so if properly exposed to the culture. When too many people learn a tradition, the tradition begins to weaken.  People begin to learn the songs without the traditions, they do not understand the power of the songs so the songs begin to lose their power.  We as humans value that which is limited, like time or gold.  If everyone could sing the songs, eventually they could lose their meaning, especially when the people singing the songs do not know the language.  It becomes more performance than ceremony and loses its power.

 One way to protect the bird songs from becoming performance pieces is to limit the way these songs are learned. In my mind, this seems to be a bigger issue than the first.  The manner of transmission has everything to do with what is sacred and powerful about the songs. The songs are not something that can be learned from recording or books.  They have to be learned experientially and through human interactions. Many would also argue that to sing the songs, the singers should know the language and understand what they are singing.  While many of the young singers know the songs and their meanings, not as many know the individual words they are using.  When the singers do not know the individual words and their meanings, it is more likely for them to sing the songs incorrectly, the songs just being sounds not actual words.  This is a criticism from some of the elders that do not just want to see the practice of bird singing survive, they want to see the transmission of language and culture to follow that practice. 

The last issue raised is the code of conduct for bird singers.  This is a difficult line to balance when trying to keep a tradition alive.  Similar to the issue of who can learn the songs because it is about protecting the power of the songs.  Reservations are known for their alcohol and drug problems.  Many of the young men that want to learn the ways of bird singing also want to experiment with drugs and alcohol with their peers.  The problem with this is what to do when a singer becomes involved with “small” infractions, like smoking marijuana.  For some members of the community, this is not seen as a “big deal” but others lose respect for the singers when they do these things.  Respect from the community is crucial for the songs and singers to have power in the community.  At all bird singing events on campus, the respect for the songs was maintained and emphasized.  Staff members and often other students would remind each other to remove hats and cease speaking as the songs begin.  The respect for the songs gives them the power and by holding themselves in a place of honor with a code of conduct helps to give those singers their respect within the community.

The future of bird singing is much brighter than it was thirty years ago but it is still a shaky future.  With high rates of death, incarceration, alcoholism, and drug use on the reservations it is easy for young men and women to stray from the cultural traditions.  I saw the young bird singers struggle with trying to stay on the path.  Even some of the older bird singers stray occasionally.  It is a difficult responsibility to hold the position of ceremonial bird singer.  Not only to keep a code of conduct but also to perform at so many functions all over southern California.  It is a daunting task that not many young men today are willing to attempt.  The songs may live on but the traditions and culture that are transmitted with those songs are still on shaky ground.    

It is important for the Cahuilla people to keep their songs alive but it is also important to humanity.  We are at an interesting time in history.  With technology and globalization, cultures are mixing and melding at a rapid pace.  This is at the same time wonderful and alarming.  It is amazing and wonderful the amount of information one can find simply by turning on the computer but what is the cost of this convenience?  Globalization can also be called assimilation into a larger world community and when assimilation occurs, often so does a loss of the original culture.  This is not always a bad thing, some cultures need change but they shouldn’t be forgotten.  By looking at the issues facing the Cahuilla and their attempts to revive their cultural tradition of bird singing, we see our own desire to connect to a larger cultural context and what that means in a society of instant information.  The transmission of stories, language, culture, and the mentoring to the younger generation are issues that face all of humanity not just the Cahuilla.

Works Cited

Green, Mary. “The Cahuilla People.” The Cahuilla People. Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <;.

Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power. No Special Ability Productions, 2009. DVD.

“Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network.” Sing Birds: Following the Path of Cahuilla Power – National Film Network. National Film Network. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <;.

Tsyogal, Yeshe. Lady of the Lotus-born: The Life and Enlightenment of Yeshe-Tsogyal. Boston: Shambhala, 1999. Print.

Zolbrod, Paul G. Reading the Voice: Native American Oral Poetry on the Written Page. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1995.

Academic Reading Skills

Reading academically

Academic reading requires skills beyond what are necessary to read for information or entertainment.  Many students enter community college knowing how to read and write but not knowing how to read and write academically.  These students can be seen “straining at the boundaries of their ability, trying to move into the unfamiliar, to approximate a kind of writing they can’t yet command” (Rose, 188).  Academic reading asks the student to do more than read the words, it requires the reader to comprehend the text, identify and remember key points, and think critically about the text.  As with any practice, the more a reader reads, the better they become but simply reading is not enough.  Students need to be taught skills in academic reading; to enhance their reading comprehension and to improve their writing skills or they will not be able to succeed in college level courses.

Active reading skills

Academic reading instruction can be broken down into seven essential skills: “understanding vocabulary in context, recognizing main ideas, identifying supporting details, understanding transition words, recognizing patterns of organization, making inferences, and evaluating arguments” (Langan, v).


Students in remedial reading do not generally possess a large academic vocabulary and it can be difficult to comprehend texts even at the level of individual words.  Skilled readers encounter unfamiliar words in texts without much problem.  They mentally bypass the word, look it up in the dictionary, or know how to find meaning through the context.  When students do not possess these skills, encountering new words can be frustrating and instead of reading improving their vocabulary, it reinforces their aversion of reading.  Since understanding vocabulary is essential to comprehension, academic vocabulary is explicitly taught as part of the curriculum and learning vocabulary through context is the first skill introduced to students.

Learning words through context is beneficial for a variety of reasons.  It saves the reader time and frustration since they are not stopping to look the words up in a dictionary.  It helps to increase their vocabulary simply by actively reading because once a word is understood in context, it becomes a part of the reader’s working vocabulary.  Finally, it helps give the reader shades of meaning.  Unlike dictionary definitions which show the actual meaning of the word, context shows the subtle implied meanings beyond the definition.

Vocabulary is not typically learned from referencing dictionaries; it is learned through the context in text and speech.  Skilled readers automatically absorb new vocabulary as they read but remedial readers often must be taught this often-unnoticed skill.  New vocabulary can be learned by looking for examples, synonyms, or antonyms within the sentence but, when those are not present, readers can look for clues in context to give meaning to new words.  With example, the author will use the new word then give at least one example of the word, like dwelling might have the following examples in the same sentence: hut, igloo, mansion, and cave.  When an author uses a synonym, they will use a new word and a word that is like that word in the same or adjacent sentence.  This technique is often done to give variations in speech, but it is also a helpful tool for learning new words.  A third way is the use of antonyms, it is just like synonyms but it with an added step.  The sentence or sentences used with an antonym will use the new word and a word that is its opposite and often include a reversal transition word like but, however, unlike, or yet.   The last type of context clue is to use the general sense of the sentence to figure out the unknown word.  Langan writes “sometimes it takes a bit more detective work to puzzle out the meaning of an unfamiliar word.  In such cases, you must draw conclusions based on the information given with the word.  Asking yourself questions about the passage may help you make a fairly accurate guess” (31). This is any context clue that doesn’t fall into the first three of the categories.  Since using context clues is a form of inference, I feel it is natural to extend the practice to larger readings and introduce making inferences next in the curriculum.

Making Inferences

“An inference is a statement about the unknown made on the basis of the known.” S.I Hayakawa

Making inferences is a formal way to say to read between the lines. “When you “read between the lines,” you pick up ideas that are not directly stated in what you are reading.  These implied ideas are often important for a full understanding of what an author means” (Langan, 273).  Skilled readers practice inferencing, or draw conclusions, in conversations and reading naturally but for some struggling readers, this skill must be taught, practiced, and routinely applied.  Making inferences can be done using three steps: first, use information from the text, next, use prior knowledge like background information and experience with the topic, and finally, don’t go with the first inference – investigate other possibilities before deciding on the conclusion.  For the last step, it is good to explain how differences in prior knowledge or reasoning can result in differing conclusions.  This helps students to understand how learning builds on more learning and how different perspectives can create differing results when reading.

Key Words – List, addition, and reversal shift words

The third skill addressed in the reading curriculum is to learn to identify key words and utilize them to gain understanding.  There are three types of key words that can be helpful for students to identify: list words, addition words, and reverse shift words.  List words signify that a list of details is coming and include words and phrases like: a few advantages, several reasons, three outcomes, or various kinds.  List words are important to identify because they often inform the reader of the main idea and what to look for with supporting details.  With the sentence “There are three ways to trim a spruce tree.”  The reader is made aware that the sentences following this one are going to be about three ways to trim a spruce tree.  They can make a title for the notes “ways to trim a spruce” and confidently know they are looking for three supporting details.  By identifying the list word, the reader can identify the main idea of the paragraph and can anticipate what material will be relevant for their notes.  The second type of key word is an addition word.  Addition words signal the addition of a supporting detail and include words and phrases like: another, finally, third, or furthermore.  Addition words are helpful for finding major details but also show students how to make their own writing easier to understand.  The last key words are the reversal shift words like yet, but, or however that signal that the writer is going to modify or reverse the previous idea.  Many times, when a main idea sentence appears in the second or third sentence, it will include a reversal transition word.  Many students struggle with identifying main ideas and supporting details and teaching them about key words before teaching them to find main ideas and supporting details is a way to help them identify these important elements.

Identifying the Main Idea

The most important skill to learn for reading comprehension is finding the main idea.  The main idea of a text is the topic and point; “the general comment or point the author wants to make about the topic.  It’s the overall message readers are expected to take from a reading” (Flemming, 184). To find the main idea, the reader should first look for the general statement, next they should figure out the topic to determine the point, and finally the reader can look for key words like list words to find the main idea and addition words to identify major details.  To look for the general statement, the reader needs to look for the statement that is vague enough to cover the rest of the paragraph.  If the sentence is supported by the rest of the paragraph, then it is the main idea sentence.

Although there is an emphasis in looking for a topic sentence in many of the texts I have encountered, the practice isn’t as beneficial for understanding as identifying the topic and point and rewriting the main idea.  The topic is what the passage is about and can be expressed in few words.  Finding the topic can help a reader to assess what point the author is making about the topic and the main idea.  Another way to find the main idea is to look for key words.  List words signal to the reader that a list of items will follow.  Sentences containing list words should be carefully looked at to see if they may be the main idea sentence.  Also, if the main idea sentence includes a list word, that list word is often a clue to finding the details that support the point – the supporting details.

Rewriting Topic Sentences

It is important for the students to rewrite the notes so that they process them and understand them better.  Looking for a topic sentence is passive reading, determining the main idea is active.  Another reason a student should practice rewriting the main idea instead of relying on finding a topic sentence is that not all paragraphs contain a main idea sentence.  When the main idea isn’t directly stated, the reader must infer the implied main idea.  “Inferring implied main ideas is a two-step process.  First, you need to understand what each sentence contributes to your knowledge of the topic.  Next, you need to ask yourself what all the sentences combine to imply as a group.  The answer to that question is the implied main idea of the paragraph” (Flemming, 326).  If students are already in the practice of thinking of the main idea as a general statement that includes the topic and the point of the paragraph instead of looking for the main idea sentence, the transition to implied main ideas will not be as difficult.

Implied Main Ideas

When paragraphs do not contain a topic sentence, they have implied main ideas, meaning the reader must determine the main idea for themselves.  There are five types of paragraphs that are likely to imply rather than state the main idea.  These are paragraphs that list a bunch of facts but leave the conclusion open for the reader, paragraphs that open with a question and the main idea is the answer to that question based on the support of the paragraph but isn’t stated, paragraphs that offer competing viewpoints and neither viewpoint is made to be more important than the other, paragraphs that offer compare and contrast for two topics, and paragraphs that describe a study or several studies and leave it to the reader to determine the meaning of the research results.  Since there is no topic sentence, the students may question themselves or try to make one of the sentences work for a topic sentence instead of focusing on topic, point, and understanding the main idea.

Supporting Details

Once the main idea is found, the next step is to see how the author supports that idea for comprehension but also to determine if the argument is logical and relevant.  Supporting details are the facts, examples, reasons, steps, results, or other evidence that develop the main idea. With supporting details, relationship is introduced, the main idea is explained with the major details which are clarified even further by the minor details.  Introduction to this relationship between the ideas is a good time to show students how to take notes so they can access the information for class.

The Langan texts teach the students to take notes using outlines, mapping, and summarizing.  With outlining and mapping, the students are taught to pay attention to key words and focus on the relationship of the main idea and supporting details and with summarizing the focus is paraphrasing but both are ways of processing the information.  It is important to teach students a variety of note taking strategy including specific techniques for texts depending on their patterns of organization because not all note taking should be the same and not all students process text in the same way. Determining the relationship between the ideas and the patterns of those relationships helps the students to gain comprehension, remain active with the text, and gives the student the most efficient way to take notes.

Patterns of Organization

Looking at the structure of a text is a beneficial for understanding it and knowing how to take notes. “Recognizing the structure of prose is a great aid for students in comprehending and recalling text material.  Students who can perceive the structure that binds the ideas in text will understand and remember ideas much better than if they are viewed only as separate entities” (Readence, Bean, and Baldwin, 147).  There are many patterns of organization, or ways of presenting the material.  The type of relationship can help the reader identify supporting details and aid them with knowing what note taking strategies would be most effective.  There are six basic patterns of organization students will most likely encounter in their textbooks.  These patterns are definition and example, time order, basic list, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, and classification.

The first pattern of organization, definition and example, is probably the easiest to identify.  With this pattern, a specific word is introduced, defined, and examples are given.  The first sentence usually introduces the word, gives its definition, and is the main idea of the paragraph.  To take notes on this form of paragraph, it is important to write the term with its complete definition and include any of the details that are helpful for clarifying the definition.  The main idea is to write and understand the word in the context of the larger text.

The second pattern of organization is time order.  One of the most important things to remember about time order paragraphs is that order matters.  These paragraphs usually show a series of steps or a sequence that must be followed in a specific order.  To take notes on paragraphs that use this pattern of organization, the reader needs to list and describe the individual steps that make up a clearly identified process.

The third type of pattern is a basic list.  With a basic list, the order doesn’t matter, only the main idea and supporting details.  To take notes on this form of writing, the reader simply needs to state the main idea and any supporting details that clarify the main idea often as a list.

Compare and contrast is the fourth pattern often seen in textbooks.  Paragraphs can be comparison, about how are two topics are the same, contrast, how are they different, or as more often seen, a mixture of compare and contrast.  The best way to take notes for this pattern is to write the things being compared and/or contrasted and list their similarities and/or differences.  A t-chart or box divided into four boxes are often effective graphic organizers for these paragraphs.

The fifth common pattern of organization found in textbooks is cause and effect.  Cause and effect relationships show how events cause other events.  To take notes for this pattern, the student needs to show the specific causes and effects from the paragraph and how they are related.  An efficient way to do that is to use bubble maps with the central cause or effect surrounded by the results or as a chain of causes and effect events.

The final common pattern for organization found in textbooks is classification.  Classification explains how a larger group is broken into smaller subgroups and gives information about those subgroups.  To take notes on this pattern, the reader should include the name of the larger group that is going to be broken down, the names of the subgroups, and a brief description of each subgroup.

These are the six most common patterns students will encounter while reading academically.  Identifying the relationships within a text will help readers have a better understanding and take notes more effectively.  The intertextual relationship helps with comprehension but there is another relationship to consider when reading academically and that is between the reader and the text, what I like to refer to as the readlationship.  Relationships in the text help the reader know how to take notes but recognizing the readlationship with a text helps the student to know how to approach and read a text.


Reading academically means to read for a purpose.  The reader’s purpose determines the amount of time a reader needs to take with a text.  The time spent with a text is a relationship between the text and the reader.  The more time spent with a text, the deeper the relationship will become.  I call these relationships with the text, readlationships and have identified four levels of readlationships to guide the student on how to interact with the text.  Each level can be associated to human relationships to aid students in understanding the rules for relationship and each has a different way to actively read.  These are the four readlationships: assistant, colleague, friend, and love.

The first level readlationship is an assistant relationship.   When a person needs to purchase gas or get groceries; they go in, pay, and leave.  Rarely is there anything more than a transactional conversation, there just isn’t enough time.  The relationship is just that of assistance, like when a student just needs to go in, get their information, and get out. Students don’t need to spend as much time with all texts to get their information.  Active reading takes time, but academic reading recognizes that sometimes, readers need to have skills to digest information quickly.  Students learn how to use key words to process texts and find the information they need for class without using additional time.  With effective scanning techniques, students can process less important texts more quickly.

The second form of readlationship is a colleague.  Here, the reader is spending more time with a text, getting to know it by working with it.  This is where the student will need to use the skills taught in the class and practice active reading skills.  Just like coworkers, the students may or may not enjoy the text, but they will need to become familiar enough to work with the text.

After working with a text, a student may want to befriend it and know more about it.  With a friend readlationship, the reader will spend more time with the text and read other materials to learn more.  This is where to introduce how to look for outside resources and to follow the text for more information.  It would also be a good time to visit the library or talk about research for classes.

The last readlationship is more rare, love.  When a person falls in love with a text, they will actively seek to learn more.  Beyond merely seeking outside resources, the reader will want to know anything they can about the text.  This readlationship takes time and internal desire to know more.  Like love with a person, this readlationship transcends the mind and touches the heart, it is beyond academic reading and cannot be taught.  When a person loves a text enough to study it in this way, they become an expert on the text.

By understanding the various depths of readlationships in reading, the skilled reader will know how to approach a text for class.  Learning how to approach the text is almost as important as knowing how to process it as far as efficiency. The skilled reader knows the level of engagement necessary for each text, knows how to comprehend the text, knows the relationships of the text, and the final skill, how to evaluate the text.

Critical reading

After all the basics are covered for academic reading, the final skills to introduce are how to read critically and evaluate an argument.  To read critically, the reader needs to think beyond the text to the author’s mind as it was written.  To evaluate the text, the reader can determine the author’s purpose for writing, the tone, possible biases, soundness of arguments, and look for any errors in reasoning.  Taking these steps will lead the reader to go from an active reader to a critical reader.

Tone and Purpose

            The tone is the feeling of a text and purpose is the reason it was written.  Skilled readers can identify these elements to see beyond the words on the page and into the mind of the writer.  Whether it is angry, interested, or matter-of-fact, the tone will show the feeling that the author is attempting to convey.  Tone can be tricky since there are so many possible answers, but it is important to get at least a general sense of the mood of the writing.  Determining the tone helps uncover the author’s main purpose for writing and possible biases.

Writers have a purpose for writing, either to inform, persuade, or entertain an audience.  When a writer’s purpose is to inform, the information presented is simply to give the reader knowledge on a person, issue, or idea.  Nothing is being promoted or argued, information is being transmitted.  In persuasive writing, the writer openly expresses their biases but supports their argument with well-chosen facts.  The purpose of persuasive writing is to sway the reader into the opinion of the writer.  The last purpose for writing is entertainment; some writers simply write to entertain readers.  Of these types of writing, it is important to look more closely at persuasive writing to evaluate the argument.

Evaluating an Argument

In college, it isn’t enough to understand and remember an argument.  Academic reading requires that the student think critically about the text and evaluate the author’s argument, both for organization and content.  When evaluating an argument, the first thing a reader wants to do is make a judgement or take a position in the argument but the first thing a reader should do is evaluate the argument.  To evaluate an argument, the critical reader can identify and evaluate the author’s biases and identify and evaluate the elements of the argument.


The author’s opinions about a topic are their biases.  It is important to identify these opinions to see if the author’s biases are well tempered and solidly supported.  In an academic argument, it is acceptable to point out errors in the opposition’s reasoning but not to become so emotionally charged that the opposition isn’t even represented as an acceptable option. For an argument to be sound, the opinions need to be solidly reasoned through strong support.

Elements for argument

When learning the essentials of academic reading, the students learned to identify the main idea and supporting details of a text.  In an argument, these elements need to be looked at critically to evaluate the soundness of the argument.  A good argument will have the author’s position clearly stated as the main idea and the support will be both relevant and adequate.  A well-written argument can be admired even when the reader does not agree with the author’s conclusion of the support.  However, when the support isn’t relevant or enough, the author has made a poor argument.

There are three ways an argument can be inadequate: the support can be lacking, the author can be trying to manipulate the reader, or they can simply have errors in their reasoning.  When the support is off topic or lacking, it causes the argument to be weak.  Irrelevant support takes up space on the page but doesn’t contribute to the argument while hasty generalizations or lack of support can also cause the argument to fall short.

Authors sometimes use propaganda techniques in their arguments to manipulate the reader.  Critical readers need to learn about these practices in order not to be misled into falling for them.  There are many ways authors will manipulate the audience.  Advertisers use these methods in a much more obvious way which makes ads a good way to teach propaganda because it’s easier to spot and incorporates visual aids and everyday life.  An example of a propaganda technique is glittering generality.  This is when the author says something that sounds great but isn’t saying anything of substance.  A popular example for this is the motto for the rainbow-colored candies, Skittles, to “taste the rainbow.”  It sounds good, a bit exciting and whimsical but it doesn’t really mean anything.  It is pretty fluff made to entice the reader without providing any reasoning or fact. Propaganda techniques all ignore the issue and try to use emotional appeals instead of solid reasoning.

There are two types of errors in reasoning, those that ignore the issue, like propaganda, and those that oversimplify the issue.  Propaganda is an intentional form of ignoring the issue but some of these errors are unintentional.  An example of an error in reasoning that ignores the issue is circular reasoning.  With circular reasoning, the author tries to use the point as the support.  For example, a person might argue that they need a raise because they are not paid enough.  An unskilled reader may agree but the skilled reader sees that the author is not giving a reason.  To make an argument, the author can’t just restate their position in different words, they must give support.  Arguments that oversimplify the issue are a bit more difficult to spot because they contain elements of the issue.  A common error that oversimplifies the issue is offering false alternatives, “either/or.”  Issues are rarely binary, but many authors present only two alternatives and try to win the argument by default instead of sound support while ignoring the possibility of other alternatives.  By recognizing the author’s purpose, tone, biases, and critically examining the main idea and supporting details the skilled reader will be prepared to take their own position on the text.  Also, by examining reading so critically will strengthen their writing skills and ability to present an argument.

Teaching students to read academically will improve their ability to succeed in almost every other class.  The skills may need to be practiced and relearned to be mastered but mastery of these skills is crucial to get the most of the out of the academic college experience.  To get the most out of the transformational college experience, there is another side to this curriculum which is the focus of the next chapter.

Works Cited

Flemming, Laraine. Reading for Results. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998. Print.

Langan, John. College Reading Essentials. Townsend Press Book Center, 2018. Print.

Readence, John. Bean, Thomas W., Baldwin, R. Scott. Content Area Literacy: an Integrated Approach. Kendall Hunt, 2017.

Rose, M. (1989), Lives on the boundary: The struggles and achievements of America’s underprepared. New York: Free Press.