Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cross-disciplinary collaboration in English Leadership Quarterly

We began our work together around the informational text standard of the Common Core. We wanted to encourage language arts teachers to think about ways to use informational text to enhance their teaching, particularly so that they wouldn’t feel that using informational text meant moving away from literature. Our goal was (and is) to help language arts teachers see that informational text can connect with and enhance the literary content.

Somewhere along the way, we realized that content area teachers in all the disciplines needed help in thinking about how informational text could connect with and enhance their content as well. And they also needed help in thinking about the literacy skills necessary to negotiate these texts. 

So we started adapting the materials we’d developed for using informational text to teach literature in order to make them better serve the content areas teachers. And we started to think about how language arts teachers and other content area teachers could use this moment as an opportunity to come together and collaborate.

This kind of cross-disciplinary work is time consuming; and all collaboration poses significant challenges. But we want our students to succeed and we want our teaching to meet the demands of the Common Core and of the 21st century, so we need to rise to these new challenges.


This week our reflections on professional development that can help teachers meet these challenges has been published in English Leadership Quarterly. We hope that our efforts might provide a model or stepping-stone for other educators embarking on this challenging but rewarding journey. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reflections on NJPAECET2

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to share our work with a group of educators at the New Jersey/Pennsylvania Elevating & Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching Conference (ECET2) at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. We were thrilled to be able to present our ideas about “Collaborating Across Disciplines: Using InformationalText to Enhance Curriculum.”

Our session included a great range of educators: administrators and teachers and specialists in science, Spanish, language arts, and social studies. This committed group of educators was interested in helping students meet the challenges of PARCC and the new Common Core State Standards in a way that makes intellectual and pedagogical sense. Everyone in the room saw collaboration as the key, and everyone was optimistic and dedicated to stepping outside his/her comfort zone in order to use new kinds of texts in order to stimulate reading, writing, and conversations across the disciplines.

Some of us in the room were intimidated by all that we as teachers need to do in the months ahead. And we all agreed that collaboration is hard and scary, and that significant personal and institutional barriers exist that makes collaboration difficult.

But the conversation was inspiring. Teachers spoke of their willingness to try new things. Administrators spoke of their desire to learn from teachers who were taking the lead. Everyone agreed that collaborative, cross-disciplinary learning could be more effective, more fun, and more meaningful for students.

After our presentation, we attended some other great sessions, including discussion of literacy leadership, using technology to engage students, and cultivating a reflective teaching practice. It was great to be in such good company.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Join us on our world tour!

OK, not quite, but we are very excited about the events we have coming up over the next several months, and we'd love to see you along the way!

Join us at ...

Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun National Council of Teachers of English Convention, Washington, DC — Session D.04, Friday, 11/21, 2:30-3:45 PM

Using Informational Text: Cross-Disciplinary Literacy to Motivate Secondary LearningConference on English Leadership Convention, Washington DC — Session E, Monday, 11/24, 4:00-5:00 PM

Cross-Disciplinary Innovation and Collaboration Using Informational Text — ASCD Annual Conference, Houston, TX – 3/22/15, 3:00-4:30 PM

Bring us in for an hour or two, and we can walk you and your English teachers through the philosophy of Using Informational Text to Teach Literature, including how to fully utilize the strategies of our approach.

Bring us in for a day-long workshop, and we can work with your English and content area teachers to find informational texts that connect fully with your existing curriculum and to create engaging, comprehensive, cross-disciplinary units that help students meet the informational texts standards, while asking them to read, write, think, and speak critically about the texts and issues.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Check out ‘Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms’

We were recently given the opportunity to review Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy for the Teachers College Record. In their volume, Jeff Zwiers, Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard offer educators principles and strategies for helping students they refer to as “academic English learners,” a term that encompasses a wide ranging of students with struggles in the academic classroom. The focus is on helping these students develop essential literacy skills in the era of the Common Core.

Diverse Classrooms is not a quick-fix text developed to take advantage of the Common Core publishing boom. Zwiers, O’Hara, and Pritchard offer strategies that grapple with the big ideas of the CCSS, particularly helping students learn how to engage with and articulate complex ideas. The authors present both research-based analysis supporting their approach as well as annotated lessons that educators can use as models in implementing their strategies. Click here for our full review on this resource well worth checking out.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What PARCC revisions mean for informational text

In case you missed it, PARCC announced some changes to the English Language Arts/Literacy End-of-Year test. For grades 6-11, the changes include one fewer passage and fewer questions overall. The changes, according to PARCC, will reduce “the amount of time spent on testing and lowe[r] testing costs.”

For those of us interested in informational text and the ways in which it will be incorporated into the curriculum, the key points are as follows: the end-of-year assessment for grades 6-11 will go from 1 long and 2 short informational passages to 1 long and now only 1 short informational passage.  The test will still contain a paired passage set consisting of two literary and/or informational texts.

As we do our best to prepare our students in this evolving testing landscape, let’s remember that informational text can be motivating and engaging for students, provided we find interesting texts and prepare our students to deal with the challenges of those texts. Also, informational text can be a great way to create an entrance for students into off-putting or seemingly remote literary texts. Pairing literary and informational texts is a great way for students to think about texts as part of a dialogue and for them to see themselves as part of a larger conversation. Engaging in such dialogue is, at least for now, a central part of the PARCC assessments, and a key literacy skill we want our students to develop whether it remains so or not.

By the way, check out our Teachers College Record review of "Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms" by Jeff Zwiers et al.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Using informational videos to engage students in complex texts

If Frank W. Baker helps us think about how useful theatrical visuals can be in teaching the close reading and careful analysis skills critical to understanding literature (like To Kill a Mockingbird), we need to remember that informational videos can be just as helpful as we take on both literary and informational texts in all of our classrooms (not just in language arts).

For example, we used a brief Associated Press clip about Guantanamo Bay from YouTube to remind our young students about the connections between Al Qaeda, Guantanamo Bay, and 9/11 before teaching an editorial (an informational text) by Stephen Jones (published in The Wall Street Journal) about his experience defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. (Note: If your school or district blocks YouTube, there are browser plugins that allow you to download videos to your desktop. This is a good practice to follow in general; since the video file will already be on your desktop, your lesson won't be at the mercy of any video streaming glitches.)

The editorial, about the importance of good defense for politically unpopular clients, helps students see Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird as part of a continuing debate about whether everyone deserves a good lawyer. But while the article provides accessible background about Timothy McVeigh (whom the students haven’t heard of), it assumes background knowledge about Al Qaeda and the Guantanamo defendants (which is only fuzzily present in our students’ brains).

And as with many texts that can seem remote and unexciting, the Jones piece has no obvious hook for students. Why should they care? How can they find an entry point into the text?

We used a quick, engaging clip from the AP (1 minute) about the conviction of Bin Laden’s driver to create that hook and set the stage. After the clip, we asked a few leading questions about the clip. Did they think the driver was guilty of serious terrorism charges or was he just a driver? Did they think he could get fair treatment through the military tribunal system, or did they wonder, as did his defense attorneys, about the issue of a fair trial? Students can be used to watching media passively, so presenting the initial questions to them can be key in getting the discussion going. And sometimes, it’s important to show a video clip more than once (or repeat the clip after you’ve asked the leading questions). It’s easy to forget how much is going on even in a brief media clip, with visuals, various voices, as well as information that’s unfamiliar to our students.

In our lesson, after the brief discussion of the AP clip (about 3 minutes), the students were quick to condemn the driver as guilty and dismissive of the concerns about a fair trial and even legal defense for people like Bin Laden’s driver. The clip and the discussion set the students up to take a stand and they did.

Unlike Baker, our goal with the media clip wasn’t to cultivate close reading and critical analysis. It was to prime the students with some basic information and get them to feel invested in the topic, which was achieved when they took a personal stand.

Once the students had taken their stand, they were set up for success with Jones’s editorial, which argues precisely the opposite point. The informational text, at this point, wasn’t remote and abstract to them. The media clip had allowed them to form an opinion about the issue, and they were ready to read more. And of course, more reading allowed them to refine and reformulate their earlier ideas and to see connections with Mockingbird.

So, use media clips to prime your students with background information and motivation -- especially with challenging informational texts!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Using the language of film to engage students in visual and literary texts

We are always looking for ways to get our students more engaged with the texts we are reading. And we all know teachers who rely on the film version to motivate students (and sometimes reward students for plodding through the book). But turning out the lights and sticking in the movie (and offering the film as dessert) can be a recipe for trouble.

Frank W. Baker offers some great alternatives in a new post, “How to Close Read the Language of Film” on MiddleWeb. Apropos of To Kill a Mockingbird, he suggests offering students two publicity stills from the film and asking students to think about camera angles, clothing, and positioning, all in order to gain insight into the characters, particularly their power and their class position.

In effect, the film stills become stand-alone texts, challenging, rich with meaning and ripe for analysis, but also more inviting and less intimidating for students. Close reading these visual texts empowers students, prepares them for the media challenges we know are ahead of us with the Common Core, and is a richly rewarding exercise in critical thinking.

Imagine beginning your unit on Mockingbird with a discussion of either of the stills Baker suggests, so that even before they start reading, your students have a sense of Atticus’s relationship to the Maycomb community!

We strongly believe in the power and potential of media in the classroom and find Baker’s suggestions and tips really helpful.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for our thoughts on using informational videos to hook your students into complex literary and informational texts!