Sunday, February 22, 2015

Don't miss 'Our Mockingbird'!

On February 3, 2015, PBS’s “America Reframed” aired Sandra Jaffe’s “Our Mockingbird.” If you missed it, the film is available on the web. Watch it now!

The film is several stories at once.

First and foremost, it is the story of two high schools, one black and one white, in what the students themselves identify as our still somewhat segregated America. They come together from two high schools in Birmingham, AL -- Mountain Brook High School and Fairfield High Preparatory School -- to put on a musical version of Harper Lee’s novel.

The film is very much interested in the students’ apprehensions. They are nervous around each other: unsure what to think and how to act, anxious about how they are perceived. The white students, for example, notice the lack of space and money for drama at the predominately African-American school; they also worry about being perceived as rich and stuck up.

As the group rehearses, however, they clearly bond over what Mockingbird means to them individually and collectively and how it remains relevant today. They realize how, all these years after desegregation, they live in separate worlds and rarely have to interact with people outside their racial comfort zones. With the enthusiasm of the young, they welcome the opportunity the production allows them to do so.

The film doesn’t highlight any of the internal dramas of the troupe (what high school theatrical production is without drama, regardless of the racial mix?); instead, it celebrates the coming together of these talented and thoughtful young adults. We seem them chatting, hugging, and, in one scene, reflecting on the fact that they can be together in public, black and white, arm and arm, without fear of reprisal. It’s irresistible. And who can disagree with the teachers when they suggest that this experience will be life-changing for the kids involved.

In addition, the film focuses on Alabama and its Civil Rights history, fleshing out the places and events so important to the world in which Harper Lee lived when she wrote her story: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the 1963 Children’s Campaign, and Kelly Ingram Park, where police used fire houses and dogs on young protesters. The student actors visit these sites and the film shows them learning and digesting their local history and the context of the text (and of Lee’s writing of the text).

Finally, the film includes a variety of notable voices reflecting on both our Civil Rights history and on the impact of Mockingbird, including Doug Jones, the former U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; various southern writers and journalists including Diane McWhorter, Rick Bragg, and Cynthia Tucker; Morris Dees, co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center; Mary Badham, who played “Scout” in the original film; and former Attorney General Eric Holder. 

So, watch this film. Watch it for inspiration as we see amazing educators transforming the lives of these young people and carrying on the legacy of their Civil Rights predecessors in Birmingham. This film should raise any educator’s spirit in these days when it isn’t easy to be a teacher.

And use this film. Instead of sticking in the film version of Mockingbird as a treat after students have read the book, use this documentary to drive home the point of why Lee’s novel mattered and continues to matter. Your students will be transported by Jaffe’s amazing film and the amazing work of these educators and young people.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Why Mockingbird and Harper Lee's new novel matter

Audrey had the opportunity to speak on Al-Jazeera America’s daily news discussion show Inside Story with Ray Suarez on February 9. The occasion for the segment was the announced release of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, due out in July 2015 from HarperCollins. Audrey was part of a panel, including Lee biographer Charles Shields and Los Angeles Times writer Carolyn Kellog. (We’d love to share the video, but, unfortunately, Al-Jazeera can’t make it publicly available due to its cable agreements.)

The new novel is a big story for a range of reasons, including the fact that Lee has been a literary recluse. To Kill a Mockingbird is a widely beloved text, so many, many readers are thrilled about this publishing event.

During the program, Ray asked Audrey about the fact that Mockingbird continues to be so widely read and taught. It’s a curious phenomenon. Why do some texts become canonical? Why do teachers continue to teach certain texts year after year, and in this case generation after generation? Perhaps it’s because Atticus represents, in some ways, the best of what we want to imagine about America: a just, courageous man willing to stand up despite public opprobrium.

But, let’s be clear. Atticus’s heroism isn’t so simple. Remember, he doesn’t volunteer to defend Tom Robinson; he’s unequivocal about the fact that he doesn’t want the case: “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me and said, `You’re It.’”
Mockingbird may offer us the attraction of a fairly simple story of good and bad. Tom Robinson is good; Bob Ewell is bad. Issues of race are usually a lot more complicated than that and can be a lot harder to navigate.

A skilled teacher can unpack many of the nuances in Mockingbird, but it isn’t easy. Why does Lee make a point of including Walter Cunningham in the group of men who set out to lynch Tom Robinson? How does Cunningham’s presence in this group and his willingness to be talked down from the brink by Scout relate to his social status as a proud man, caught up in the economic tangle of an entailment and the Depression? What are we to make of Lula, the combative African-American woman who confronts Calpurnia and makes clear that the Finch children are not welcome at the African-American church?

For a skilled teacher, this is a fascinating text full of complexity about race and many, many issues.

The bigger point, however, is that teaching literature is always hard. Whether we are teaching Mockingbird or any other text, it’s not easy to get students to make connections and care about the text. If we forget to ask ourselves why we are teaching these texts and why they matter, how can we expect our students to be able to do the same?

For us, the informational text mandate of the Common Core is the welcome reminder we need. When we think about what kinds of informational text connections we want to make with Mockingbird – for example, to the issue of lawyers willing to defend the detainees at Guantanamo – we make clear, for ourselves and our students, why this text still matters.

Meanwhile, we are super curious and excited about what Go Set a Watchman has to offer. How can we not be?

Sunday, February 8, 2015

We heartily agree: “The Common Core Has Not Killed Literature”

Bravo to Meaghan Freeman for her wonderful new piece in The Atlantic: “The Common Core Has Not Killed Literature.”

Freeman, a 15-year veteran of the middle-school English classroom, takes up the ongoing debate about informational text in the Common Core and offers her view – that the Common Core standards ask for an appropriate “balance” between informational and literary texts. This balance is so crucial because, as she reminds us, most of the students in her class will not end up as English majors or English scholars. Whatever they will end up studying and doing in their future education and careers, however, they will need to be able to tackle not just literature but a wide variety of texts.

So Freeman identifies her task: to expose her students to “challenging and diverse texts.” And she celebrates what she sees as the autonomy inherent in how the standards allow her, as a teacher, the freedom to find creative connections between fiction and nonfiction. She mentions, for example, using scientific articles about genetic engineering in conjunction with “Harrison Bergeron.” Teachers all over the country are, like Freeman, finding these interesting kinds of textual connections. And when they do this work in the classroom, the juxtaposition of fiction and non-fiction doesn’t take away from the teaching of literature; it allows Freeman and the teachers like her to give students what Freeman rightly identifies as a “rigorous learning experience.”


Perhaps the scientifically-inclined student, who might never before have been particularly interested in literature, will discover and come to appreciate in Freeman’s classroom how writers of fiction have tackled issues of science and scientific ethics. Perhaps that young student will be transformed into a long-term reader of science fiction. But even if he or she does not emerge from Freeman’s classroom as a fiction-reader, teaching “Bergeron” together with articles about genetic engineering will allow all students to think and make connections about ideas that transcend the walls of the English classroom.

And that’s our most important goal as teachers.

While Freeman rejoices in how the standards give her freedom to do her job of creating learning in her classroom, she does admit it’s a challenge. Adding non-fiction into her curriculum, and doing so in ways that allow her to enhance that literary curriculum, is not easy. Nor is it easy to teach these new kinds of texts. Freeman wants “appropriate and valuable strategies to help [her] kids comprehend and analyze nonfiction texts.”

Let’s also note that if language arts teachers need this kind of help, so too do the teachers in the other content areas, who are now also responsible for using a diverse range of texts in their classrooms. The science teacher, for example, is surely struggling as well with how to use scientific articles about genetic engineering in his classroom in conjunction with the science textbook and the classroom experiments he is used to employing.

Perhaps this is the greatest opportunity offered by the Common Core: teachers across the disciplines can reach across the hallway to share ideas for how to teach literacy and content through cross-disciplinary lessons.

What’s clear, however, is that teachers like Meaghan Freeman, with a little time, are making the best out of the Common Core and transforming their classrooms into places of “rigorous and diverse learning for every student.” Bravo, again.

One final note: We are excited to share that Audrey will appear on Monday night at 11:30pm on Al-Jazeera America’s daily news discussion TV show, Inside Story, with Ray Suarez. The occasion for the program segment is the announced release of Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, due out in July 2015 from Harper Collins. Audrey was part of a panel, including Lee biographer Charles Shields, and was asked to address how and why Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is taught in the United States today.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Making the most of the PARCC & Smarter Balanced writing tasks

Like educators across the country preparing for the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Common Core-aligned assessments, we have been paying close attention to the sample questions that have been released and noting how they differ from those our students have encountered in previous state-mandated standardized tests.

As educators in New Jersey, we have devoted most of our attention to the PARCC assessments. One of the most striking differences between PARCC and New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment, in our opinion, is the vagueness of the performance task writing prompts. For example:
  • Write an essay analyzing the arguments of X. Base the analysis on the specifics and arguments and principles put forth in the three sources. Consider at least two of the sources.

  • You have studied three sources on X. Write an essay in which you explore X. Consider how the different authors present/represent X.

  • Write an essay that contrasts the primary arguments in each text about X. Think about how each author supported his/her claim with reasoning and/or evidence.

  • Write an essay comparing the information presented in each text. Use evidence.
While it might be argued that the PARCC performance task prompts give students room to interpret and discuss the texts in different ways, they also give students very little to work with in terms of getting a handle on the texts and finding something meaningful to say about them.

The writing prompts in the Smarter Balanced sample performance tasks at least give students a particular purpose and audience for their writing.
Sample 11th Grade Smarter Balanced Performance Task:

Your Assignment:

After completing your research, you share your findings with your teacher, who suggests that you write an argumentative essay about financial literacy courses for the upcoming school board meeting.
Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph argumentative essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counterarguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details or facts directly from the sources.
In both cases, however, this is where the tried-and-true graphic organizer, the T-chart, becomes a very valuable tool. In the weeks leading up to the assessments, giving your students opportunities to use T-charts with two or three columns to analyze multiple related texts is a great way to support your students’ success, and you can do so with content related to what you’re already teaching. Don’t forget to include a video or audio clip as one of the texts you use, so your students can practice their listening comprehension skills, which they will need to use on the research simulation task. (See our suggestions on how to use video in conjunction with written informational texts.)

Our friend Sarah Tantillo, author of The Literacy Cookbook and Literacy and the Common Core, offers a step-by-step lesson plan, as well as other helpful tips, for giving students this kind of practice. She also suggests how students can then use the PARCC assessment tool’s highlighting functionality to organize their thinking during the test itself.

While we do want to show our students what will be asked of them on the assessments ahead of time, that doesn’t mean we have to limit our instruction to what’s on the tests.

Despite our concerns about the assessments’ writing prompts, we have wholeheartedly welcomed the motivation the assessments have created to look for more opportunities to put great texts into dialogue with each other. So far, both PARCC and Smarter Balanced seem to ask students to put informational texts into dialogue only with other informational texts, and great things can come of doing so, but putting literary and informational texts into dialogue with each other can be immensely rewarding as well.

When we are working on units that use informational text to open up aspects of a literary work, one of our favorite tasks is creating discussion and writing prompts that really push our students' thinking and require them to make meaningful connections between the texts. Check out our model for doing so in the units we’ve developed for To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, and Lord of the Flies; then check out our resources that will help you get started in doing this exciting work with any text you might be teaching.

Your efforts will support your students’ success on the assessments and give them so much more!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Text to Text: Opportunities for rich, cross-disciplinary collaboration and learning

When we began this work, we had some idea of the rewards we would find in pairing great informational texts to with our favorite literary texts, and we hoped that our efforts would help language arts teachers and their students reap such the benefits more easily. However, as we continued creating units around such pairings and sharing our model for doing so, we found that these kinds of activities are perfect opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration that can enhance students’ engagement with and understanding of both literary texts and texts in content areas like science and history. (For this reason, informational texts provide ideal opportunities for preparing students for the CCSS-aligned assessments!)

Our second “Text to Text” feature, just published on the New York Times Learning Network, is an example of the rich, multi-faceted learning that can occur when a literary text, like Lord of the Flies, is put into dialogue with an article that opens up discussion of an important theme in the novel in a way that makes connections with students’ contemporary world and draws and/or builds upon their knowledge from another discipline. The New York Times article featured in this “Text to Text” lesson discusses a study of fruit flies that offers some possible clues about the source of aggression in human males. The lesson also offers extension activities on bullying and aggression among girls.

As we English teachers want to bring all kinds of texts into our classrooms, we can certainly use such a lesson based on the interplay between Lord of the Flies and the fruit fly article on our own, but it also offers us a great opportunity to collaborate with our students’ biology teachers and enhance student literacy in both disciplines. If you’re teaching Lord of the Flies soon, check out the lesson and then walk down the hall to see what your students’ science teachers will be up to in the coming weeks. The stars might be aligned for some fantastic cross-disciplinary collaboration!

If you’re not teaching Lord of the Flies, check out our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun or our volume of informational text units on To Kill a Mockingbird. Or take the plunge yourself, and start looking for great informational texts with our list of suggested resources. Share it with a content-area colleague and do this great work together!

If you are attending ASCD’s Annual Conference, we hope you will join us on Sunday, March 22, from 3-4:30pm, when we will be talking more about the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration! (We’ll also be doing so at ILA2015 in July!)

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Teachers are key to quality Common Core-aligned instructional materials

In Education Week’s “Curriculum Matters” Dec. 18 blog post, Catherine Gewertz reports on the frustrations many teachers, districts, and states have experienced in searching for Common Core-aligned instructional materials. While we acknowledge this very real frustration, we think there is a way forward.

As Gewertz writes, “Denver public school system has been scouring the market for instructional resources in math and English/language arts, but hasn't found anything it likes enough to justify the multimillion-dollar investment.”

As many educators have found, much of the instructional materials publishers have labeled “Common Core-aligned” fall short of those criteria.

Gewertz explains that Denver, like other districts, then attempted to create its own curriculum only to return “the drawing board” after that enormous undertaking suffered its own pitfalls.

That leaves Denver teachers pretty much betwixt and between, as tests for the common core draw near,” as Gewertz concludes. “They're adapting their current resources as well as they can, and district officials are supporting those efforts. But it's likely that many other districts are in similar straits.”

We know these straits well, and we would like to offer a way forward. We support Denver and other districts in holding publishers to high standards, but we especially applaud their willingness to allow teachers to create their own instructional materials, even as we acknowledge the huge challenges and anxieties inherent in such a high-stakes effort.

We understand that Denver has not found success in creating its own curricula thus far, but we strongly believe that a curriculum that truly supports students in achieving the goals of the Common Core must be current and responsive to students’ changing needs and interests. Therefore, it must be shaped by local teachers; with the right resources and support, they can do this work.

As educators, we know that teachers already have far too much on their plates and that doing this work well takes time teachers rarely have. That’s why we’ve developed a model and resources for using informational text that can help teachers tackle one of the most challenging instructional shifts mandated by the Common Core. Teachers in all content areas have found that our model is highly adaptable and applicable to the literacy challenges and needs of their discipline.

We also offer some units that we have created in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird. In this text, and in our work-in-progress on A Raisin in the Sun, we’ve gathered a wide range of informational texts for teachers and created a variety of activities and assignments for teachers to use to fill in gaps and make connections with the anchor literary text. Please see our sample units for To Kill a Mockingbird as well as our blog posts on how to use these strategies in the classroom.

Our series is intended to produce high-quality, deeply engaging units. But we hope our work serves as an inspiration for teachers; we can and should all be creating and sharing these kinds of units as we adjust to the Common Core.

We have been inspired by the many educators around the country to whom we’ve had the opportunity to speak since we began our work on using informational text. Over and over, we encounter teachers who are already doing this work – and presenting their students with exciting, relevant, challenging lessons that will help them develop the strong critical thinking, reading, and writing skills they will need to succeed in their 21st century futures – as well as teachers who are eager to begin once given a clear model that not only maps out how to do this work in a manageable and effective way but also demonstrates the great potential rewards of doing so.

Note to districts and administrators: the secret to the Common Core is your own teachers. Give them the time and resources to do the work! After all, this is why we all became teachers. Good for Long Beach, CA, for putting the curriculum into the hands of their teachers. And to those administrators in Denver who aren’t yet satisfied with the district-produced curriculum, don’t give up yet. Even if a home-grown curriculum isn’t fully feasible, the efforts you make to empower your teachers to do this work will surely pay enormous dividends as we all muddle through the messy process of transitioning to the Core.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Use informational text to revamp your curriculum over the holiday break

With winter break fast approaching, we're looking forward to spending time with family and friends, enjoying great food, getting enough sleep(!) ... and having time to plan great things for the rest of the school year. If you are thinking of spending some of your well-earned respite revamping your curriculum, our resources can help.

IF YOU WILL BE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, now is a great time to order our first volume, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Use our text to start thinking about enhancing your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while meeting the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units. Right now, it's available for 30% off until 12/29 from the Rowman & Littlefield website (use code RLWEB3014 when ordering online or by phone 1-800-462-6420). Or, Amazon has it available via two-day shipping for 9% off the cover price.
IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM more broadly, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts to use in any unit and then setting your students up for successful engagement with them. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and how to use multimedia with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on TKAM as well as our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun on the New York Times Learning Network.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT AREA COLLEAGUES in preparation for the Common Core assessments, check out our recent English Leadership Quarterly article about pairing an excerpt from Lord of the Flies with a science article from the New York Times as well as our blog posts on collaboration. Use our materials to begin to build rewarding collaboration among members of your PLC and/or grade-level teams.

IF YOU’D LIKE HANDS-ON, INTERACTIVE TRAINING IN OUR APPROACH TO USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT, contact us about scheduling a professional development session at your school or district. We offer a range of hour-long and day-long workshops for both English and content area teachers. Or join us at ASCD in Houston in March or at IRA in St. Louis in July.

We hope our resources will be helpful to you in achieving a successful school year. As always, we welcome your feedback!