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!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Get ready for the new school year with Using Informational Text to Teach Literature!

As the summer days tick by, does your pulse accelerate (with both excitement and slight panic) whenever you start counting the weeks/days till the new school year starts? If so, let our resources help ease you into August and start September with success.

​IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD NEXT YEAR, now is a great time to order the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and start thinking about how it can enhance your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while helping you meet the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units.

IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM, 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, for models.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT AREA COLLEAGUES in preparation for the Common Core assessments, read our recent blog posts on collaboration and share our strategies for using high-interest informational texts with your cross-disciplinary colleagues. Our materials can provide the basis for 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. If you are in New Jersey, there’s still time to sign up for our 7/29 cross-disciplinary session at NJASCD. Or join us at NCTE and CEL in Washington DC in November.

We hope our resources will be helpful to you in getting ready for the new school year. As always, we welcome your feedback!

PRAISE FOR USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT TO TEACH TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD:
Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird is the resource I’ve been waiting for! Teachers don’t have nearly enough time to research informational texts to go along with every unit they teach; therefore this book is going to be perfect for the teacher who wants to take her lessons to the next level. I can’t wait to use these lessons in my classroom. —Amanda DeAngelo, high school English teacher, Secaucus High School

Propelled by rich, probing questions, this book invites teachers and students to explore a classic text with fresh eyes. The authors’ approach fosters a disposition for deeper reading and will inspire a sense of wonder in your students. —Carol Jago, long time English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English

This book (and its website) helps teachers to delve deeply into strategic teaching activities aimed at meeting the Common Core State Standards. Chenelle and Fisch use a wide array of readings with differing levels of complexity to provide “pathways” into engaging explorations of one of the most sacred texts of high school literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. Replete with ideas for evidence-based writing, connections to multimedia web resources, and possible rubrics for evaluating student work, this invaluable guide will not only challenge students to read, write, and think more critically, but will also help teachers “reconceptualize” their teaching to meet the rigorous objectives of the CCSS. —Allan A. De Fina, dean of the Deborah Cannon Partridge College of Education and professor of literacy education, New Jersey City University, past president of the New Jersey Reading Association

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It’s summertime, and time to find great informational texts!

Like many English teachers, one of the top reasons I look forward to summer is having TIME TO READ! But while I’ve been blazing through my pile of summer fiction, I’m also basking in the joy of having enough free time to catch up with The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Week, and other great sources of informational texts. Yes! Summer reading is a perfect opportunity to start looking for those high-interest articles that will hook your students into the longer works (both fiction and nonfiction) that you’ll be reading next year.

In addition to catching up with all of my favorite periodicals, I’m scanning my list of tried-and-true informational text sources for anything recent and relevant to the works I’ll be teaching next year and bookmarking anything that looks promising in Evernote (thanks to Sarah Mulhern Gross’s Twitter tip, LeBron James’ Sports Illustrated essay is already tagged for follow-up, though I haven’t figured out how I might use it yet). For Gatsby, I’m looking for new articles on the American Dream (lots has been written about that in recent months). For Othello, I’m looking for new pieces on jealousy and insecurity in relationships.

But, since I do not plan to miss out on summer by spending it all in front of my laptop, I’m letting Google do some of the work for me. After thinking through my curriculum and coming up with a list of topics related to each unit, I created Google alerts for each of them, which is super easy. Right now I have them set to email me the results of Google’s search once a week; as it gets closer to September, I might set some of them to send results daily if I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet. After spending the day in the sun (or lost in the pages of a new YA novel), I look through what Google has found and tag what looks interesting in Evernote. I might read it right then, or wait till I find a few pieces to choose from. I like using Evernote for this purpose because it’s easy to tag things with multiple tags that you can then easily search by later. But you can also use the bookmarking tool in your browser, pin them to a board on Pinterest so others can see them, or just download them to a folder on your desktop. Once I’ve chosen the pieces I want to add to my curriculum, I’ll start writing vocabulary, discussion, and writing questions for them (click here for models) at my leisure, which inevitably gets me excited about the new school year.

So, by all means seize and savor the well-earned relaxation summer affords you, but spending a little of it doing some of the things we often don’t have time for during the school year can set you up for a spectacular start come September.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What do you think? Your feedback, please

As we happily watch our first volume, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, make its way out into the world, we are hard at work on our second book, focusing on A Raisin in the Sun.

Before we get too far into writing new units, we want to ask for feedback from those of you who have bought our book or downloaded sample units. What did you find most valuable? What would you like more of, or less of? Does the format of the units make it easy to use the materials in your classes? What do you like about the format, or what would you like changed? Have you downloaded and used any of the rubrics and graphic organizers from our website? Were they useful? Please post your feedback in the comments below, or email us.

If you have not yet looked at our materials, you might want to take some time now, with the frenzy of the last few weeks of school behind you, and think about using them next year. Click here to download our sample materials, or click here to purchase Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird in paperback or ebook format from Rowman & Littlefield Education.

The lasting prominence of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play was particularly apparent during this past week in which the theater world celebrated the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival and remembered Ruby Dee, the original Ruth Younger. While we know that popular conversation will move on to other topics, perhaps no longer referring to the play again by name as frequently as it has recently, the headlines buzz on a regular basis with the topics embedded in the play. The rich texts we have selected to include in our forthcoming volume include excerpts on housing discrimination, both past and present, the cultural politics of hair for African-American women, the reality of abortion access pre-Roe v. Wade, and the persistence of inequality. We can’t wait to dive in and start working with these fascinating texts, but we’d love to hear from you if you have any feedback on our previous materials.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Professional development, 140 characters at a time

Like many teachers, around this time of year, I start eagerly adding books – both professional and very-much-not-so – to my pile of summer reading. At the same I find myself coming across ideas, practices, and resources I can’t wait to try out next year.

This year, many of the ideas and resources that have the crazy-teacher part of my brain skipping past summer and already launching into September have come from Twitter, via great connected teachers whom I follow, like Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone) and Catlin Tucker (@Catlin_Tucker), to name a couple.

Twitter isn’t just a giddy form of social media; it’s an enormously valuable venue for teacher-driven, self-directed, just-in-time professional development. By participating in any of the numerous weekly or monthly Twitter chats, like #engchat, #engsschat, and #sschat, you can meet the mentor or like-minded colleague (or several) you always wished you had down the hall at your school! 

Just the other day I jumped into a Twitter chat (#njed, Tuesdays, 8:30pm ET) and came away with a reinvigorating combination of validation, energy, and concrete teaching ideas, thanks to fellow teachers from near and far.

If Twitter is too much for you, then find and follow a few teachers who blog, like Vicki Davis. Or, join one of the immensely valuable, if a bit slower-paced, online communities for educators, like NCTE’s Connected Community or the EnglishCompanion Ning.

One particular area of interest for Audrey and me is great text pairings that link literary texts with informational texts in meaningful and engaging ways. Through the abovementioned #njed chat, we learned of @NatalieFranzi’s pairing of the Ray Bradbury short story “All Summer in a Day” with sources from Newsela on bullying and of Walter Dean Myers’ short story “The Treasure of Lemon Brown” with articles about homelessness.

Franzi also mentioned linking what her students had learned about African history and the impact of religion in their social studies classes with a discussion of the kidnapping of more than 200 girls in Nigeria. Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone) shared that her classes had also tapped into this timely and compelling topic, making connections with relevant literary works, including Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus. Gross’s students used the horrifying events in Nigeria to move from their reading in their literature circles to the larger phenomenon of so-called “hashtag activism.” While such timely convergences are very difficult to plan for, there are always contemporary connections that can enhance the study of the literary works we teach. Knowing where to go for quality resources is the key to planning rich, multi-faceted lessons and units and to jumping on moments when your curriculum and current events can come together.

Please share any text pairings you’ve used or fortuitous convergences in the comments below. We’ll be posting any we come across throughout the summer as well. And be sure to follow us here or @usinginfotext.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Steal this lesson: Kelly Welsh's 'Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society'

So, many of us are in the last throes of the school year. If you are emerging, or if you are making your list of summer reading, put Kelly Welsh’s “Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society” (just out in the May issue of English Journal) at the top of the list. Her discussion of why she wanted to teach Melba Beals’s Warriors Don’t Cry is inspiring. The lesson itself is truly stealworthy: the highest praise my pre-service teachers can offer.

She writes about wanting her classroom to be a place where students learn that “change happens in a democratic society because of people who are willing to challenge the injustices and fight for change” (42). She writes of the ways in which schools “attempt to shape and control the behavior of students with the desire to develop people who willingly accept the status quo” (43). But she recognizes and wants to nurture all the ways in which “students represent a culture of opposition” (43).

From this place of fundamental respect for her students, Welsh describes the challenges of teaching a “mostly white, suburban” (42) class who knew little about the Civil Rights Movement. She builds motivation by starting with an activity in which students are asked to read Johnny Jenkins’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford being tormented by pro-segregationist whites on her way to her first day at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. She moves from this close reading to a discussion of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate and the video Mighty Times, producedby Teaching Tolerance, about the 1963 march by children in Birmingham, AL. Finally, Welsh offers her students Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” By the end, her students are more than ready to take on Warriors Don’t Cry.

What we liked most about Welsh’s piece is her balanced ambitions. She recognizes that her students are not destined to be English teachers, English majors, or, for some, even college graduates.  Nonetheless, she insists that her classroom be a place where students “realize that they have a voice – that their views matter – simply because they are members of a democratic society where all views matter” (46). And of course, her well crafted lesson, means that, yes, she “can sneak in a little appreciation for some literature and get them to enjoy a book” (46). Even more, her respect for her students as people and her careful planning mean that her students will leave her classroom with the skills necessary to use their voices.

To all those teachers who bemoan the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text, we give you Kelly Welsh. Her lesson is a model for all of us and demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful use of a variety of informational texts (photo, ADL piece, letter, memoir). Welsh was building up to Beals, but her lesson could easily have been the prelude to a great unit on Mockingbird. Bravo!