Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Can test prep also be meaningful learning?

When we spoke at the Conference on English Leadership, after the NCTE Convention in St. Louis this November, we ran into an important and serious concern: does a focus on test preparation, at least to some degree, diminish our commitment to our students’ real and meaningful learning somehow?

Our presentation, “Supporting Teachers in Rigorous Literacy: A Matter of Access, Equity, and Opportunity,” focused on our cross-disciplinary, collaborative lessons: on male aggression in fruit flies and Lord of the Flies; on chromium contamination and gentrification near the schools where we teach; and on the microfibers in our clothes and in our oceans. Each of these lessons was centered around high-quality, challenging pieces of nonfiction; each asked students to read and think with rigor about important, relevant issues in our shared world.

Our presentation offered strategies to support all teachers in creating and developing these sorts of cross-disciplinary and challenging lessons so that all learners can succeed. We feel strongly that rigorous literacy means that all students, regardless of their learning challenges and reading levels, need to be reading high-quality texts about real issues (like male aggression, chromium contamination, and global pollution).

And yes, as we always do, we talked about using multiple-choice, PARCC-style questions (we are in a PARCC state) to prep students about vocabulary and check their understanding of the reading. We stressed how these activities should be practiced in groups, in a low-stakes environment, where the students can problem-solve answering multiple-choice style questions while developing their understanding of the reading.

It was striking, however, that one person in our audience worried out loud during our question-and-answer period (in a productive and supportive way, to be clear) about whether our work was somehow unduly shaped by concerns about test preparation. We were a bit taken aback initially: our overarching motivation for incorporating challenging informational texts into our instruction is to motivate students by tapping into relevant, engaging issues that resonate with our students’ interests and everyday lives in order to empower them to think critically about their present and future realities. We believe doing so enables us to do our best teaching and for our students to experience meaningful learning, and so we offered this explanation to our interlocutor.

But yes, these kinds of science and social studies texts are the kinds of reading we see appearing on a variety of standardized tests.

During the Q & A for our session, we also reiterated our strong belief that these kinds of high-quality, cross-disciplinary units are opportunities for the best kind of test preparation: work that can be done without taking us away from the important texts and topics we need to teach. Given that standardized tests are an unavoidable part of our students’ academic reality, and that they present a disproportionate challenge to disadvantaged students, we think this belief is very much aligned with the CEL conference theme of access and opportunity. Indeed, we feel strongly that disadvantaged student populations need explicit test preparation in schools because their more advantaged peers are getting this practice, at a high cost, in after-school programs and tutoring.

It was interesting, then, to come across a piece in The Hechinger Report suggesting that “instructional quality declined with the rise of high stakes testing, especially in the weeks before the exam.” Particularly striking was the fact that “the quality gap between a teacher’s regular lessons and her test-prep lessons was largest in a school district where the teaching quality was the highest …. instructional quality sank a lot when these excellent teachers were delivering test-prep lessons.” Research did find some high-quality test prep lessons, but the overall quality of these sorts of lessons varied widely, leading the researchers to conclude that teaching to the test “can be done well, but it’s not easy.” In other words, much test prep is done poorly, even by high quality teachers who normally deliver excellent instruction. Innovative and substantive test prep, however, is possible, but teachers needs to think hard about how to make it work well.

To us, this study underscores both our sense of urgency around meaningful test prep and the concern our audience member expressed about the deleterious impact of test prep on instruction. Whether we like it or not, American students inhabit a universe of high-stakes testing – in K-12 and well beyond. Test prep, in nearly every school, is a reality. But even our best teachers, according to this research, are probably not doing a great job at test prep. Unless we embrace the challenge of delivering high-quality test prep, we are shortchanging all our students.

We think the answer is to build high-quality instruction around some explicit and regular practice for standardized tests. That seems to be a better solution than abandoning our normally strong instruction to spend days or weeks drilling on pre-made test-prep materials or leaving all test prep in the hands of paid after-school providers who serve only those students with resources. This explicit and regular practice for standardized tests means, however, that all teachers need to take some ownership over preparing our students for this unavoidable and deeply inequitable aspect of their educational lives. Especially in districts that serve some disadvantaged students (which probably means every district today), it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to teach students how to tackle standardized tests.

Most importantly, from our perspective, doing this test prep work does not mean turning away from rigorous literacy and high-quality learning. Just as it’s part of our job to make this explicit practice a regular part of our instruction, so too is it part of our job to do so in the most meaningful way possible.

That’s why each of our informational text units includes opportunities for students to both learn about and take ownership of the issues that shape their realities and to practice answering the kinds of questions they’ll see on standardized tests. Check out our website for sample units and resources for developing your own lessons and units that can help you maximize your instructional time no matter how soon the next standardized test is.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Talking About Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump at NCTE

We had a great time yesterday talking with teachers at NCTE in St. Louis about “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” When we began work on our fourth volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, we were far from the Age of Trump. But now that we are firmly enmeshed in the world of President 45, our project with Gatsby seems more relevant, more pertinent, and more pressing.

As we heard from NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick during the presidential address Friday morning, “we are English teachers – we walk towards the fire.” Or, as Jacqueline Woodson said in her keynote, “We are living in a time when resistance matters – writing to resist, teaching to resist, learning to resist.”

Still, as important as those words are, we know that teachers on the front lines can find the fire hot and the work of resistance scary and difficult. We heard from teachers in New Jersey at NJEA last week about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms and their concerns about facing a political backlash if they try to engage in current political issues.

Our audience of educators at NCTE shared these concerns:
  • Sometimes opinions are so polarized that students do not know how to express their opinions without being angry or offensive.
  • It can be tough to discuss such topics with homogeneous student groups.
  • In a more liberal area, on the other hand, conservative students are "othered" and silenced.
  • I think the students want to discuss it. Our teachers are in varying stages of 'comfort' in guiding these conversations.
  • I think students are desperate to have challenging conversations. They sometimes don't know how to separate their emotions from the facts.
This last comment is so powerful to us. Of course students want to have these challenging conversations. It’s their world; they are grappling with the different legacies (of racism, of inequality, etc.) that they are inheriting and their potential to make changes to the world. As adolescents and young adults, they are coming into a growing sense of their responsibility; they are finding their voices and thinking about their emerging power. School needs to be a safe place for our young people to have these challenging conversations!

Our approach is to ground these challenging or, as one of our audience members put it, courageous conversations in text, so that students can engage with language, rhetoric, and ideas rather than just opinions and emotions. What does this text say? How does writer use language to convey his/her/their ideas? What assumptions ground the text?

Gatsby is the perfect text for this work because it focuses on income inequality, nativism and white nationalism, anti-Semitism, cheating, and bullying – all key concerns in the Age of Trump. Using informational texts, like excerpts from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy and Kenneth L. Roberts’s Why Europe Leaves Home, we can unpack the issues of racism, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel and provide opportunities for students to have informed, critical conversations about the ways in which these difficult issues played out in the 20s.

And when we do this work with Gatsby, we are hardly being radical, politically-divisive teachers. We are simply being and asking our students to be careful readers whose interpretations of this central text of the American canon are informed by the source material that Fitzgerald himself invokes and that his readers would surely have known. (Or, if we examine David Vandivier’s “What Is The Great Gatsby Curve?” about wealth inequality, we are studying the ongoing resonances of Fitzgerald’s text and its importance as a cultural touchstone in our society.)

To us, this seems a productive, calculated way to step into today’s fire and to help our students grapple with the sometimes toxic and often powerful rhetoric which surrounds us.

As Jacqueline Woodson reminded us during her address, “Telling stories helps us remember where we came from in order to help us think about where we are going.” Isn’t that our purpose in reading our great American texts, like Gatsby? Reading these texts carefully, and using some powerful supplements to help us with that work, matters now more than ever.

If you attended our workshop at NCTE and/or are eager to see more of these materials, our volume on Gatsby is currently due out from Rowman and Littlefield in January 2018. But we are happy to share materials earlier; don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Talking informational text, social justice, and difficult conversations at NJEA


We had the opportunity to present our work to a lively and engaged group of educators on Friday at the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. In keeping with the social justice theme of the convention, we spoke about “Collaborating with Informational Texts Across the Disciplines to Engage Students.”

Our participants felt strongly about the potential for nonfiction to engage students on issues of social justice. They cited the importance of students opening their minds to a wide range of information, especially from texts they wouldn’t normally read. They stressed the importance of using informational text to dive deeply into issues, to open their minds, understand facts and bias, and be informed.

We couldn’t agree more! We shared with participants our work on fruit fly aggression and Lord of the Flies (featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text), and we were thrilled to hear comments from our session participants about how this lesson can allow students to challenge the status quo of human behavior and think about the relationship between biology, gender, and social norms.

Indeed, it was clear that the teachers in the room shared our passion for using nonfiction to underscore the relevance of our content area curriculum (whether science or literature) to our students and to the world today.

It was striking and disturbing, however, to hear from the teachers in the room about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms. Clearly, our country is at a difficult moment, and teachers, like everyone else, are struggling with ways to facilitate difficult conversations in a climate where civil discourse and debate are no longer the norm.

We offered our discussion of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy as an entryway into discussion about nativism and white nationalism in The Great Gatsby. Stoddard is twice referenced (as Goddard) in Fitzgerald’s novel, which centers on issues of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and inequality. (This unit appears in our 4th volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in January!)

Gatsby isn’t a radical, left-wing text. It’s taught in nearly every high school in the country. And using a bit of supplemental text, like an excerpt from Stoddard, can help students unpack and discuss Fitzgerald’s references to white nationalism. Students can think about how white nationalism has worked in the past, how writers like Stoddard have used language to promote and defend a racist ideology, and how novelists like Fitzgerald interpreted and commented on the ideologues of their day. This work can equip students to think critically about the resurgence of such ideas today, whether or not those connections are made explicit in our classes.

Sadly, many teachers may find it difficult to promote open and thoughtful discussion in their classrooms, and they may worry about a political backlash if they try to engage students on current political issues.

A creative teacher, however, can use nonfiction and canonical texts, like Gatsby, to promote critical thinking and discussion without necessarily talking directly about Trump or the white nationalism in our current climate. We will be talking more about these issues at NCTE in St. Louis at the end of this week, and surely all of us will be thinking more about how we can make our classrooms places for important, engaged discussion without jeopardizing ourselves or our students.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Revamp, recharge your curriculum with Using Informational Text to Teach Literature

Now that it’s July, we hope that your end-of-school-year stress has eased and you are settling into a rejuvenating summer. We know that summer is a precious time that many teachers use to revamp and recharge their curricula and pedagogical toolkit. We think that spending time with our Using Informational Textresources over the summer will be well-rewarded come September. You can also read on our blog about our rewarding experiences with our approach to informational text in the classroom with a wide range of students.

If you are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and wrestling with how to help your students make sense of it amid today’s conversations about race, economic inequality, and social justice, the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, can help. Our classroom-ready units on the relationship between Calpurnia and Scout and whether Atticus is a hero will help your students think critically about the characters and the complex world Harper Lee depicts.

If you are teaching A Raisin in the Sun, the second volume in our series will help you underscore the enduring relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play. In it, you will find ready-to-use units on housing discrimination past and present, the violence surrounding housing desegregation, the politics of African-American women’s hair, and more.

If you are looking for ways to collaborate with your content-area colleagues around literacy, check out Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. This volume offers practical strategies for initiating cross-disciplinary collaboration and developing students’ disciplinary literacy skills, as well as a sample unit based on a science article and an excerpt from Lord of the Flies.

If you are thinking about how to revamp your curriculum, our website and our blog feature resources and strategies for finding great informational texts that relate to any literary work you may be teaching and using them successfully in your classroom. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and using multimedia together with written informational texts. Check out our sample units based on Mockingbird for models.

If you’d like hands-on training in our approach to using informational text, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer half-day and full-day workshops for both English and/or content-area teachers. If you are in New Jersey, we look forward to seeing you at NJEA in November. Otherwise, we hope to see you at NCTE and CEL in St. Louis.

We have just submitted the completed manuscript for our fourth volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, which we hope will be available by this fall from Rowman & Littlefield. In the meantime, check out our recent blog posts on articles that highlight both the difficulties and relevance of Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

In anticipation of this new volume, we have also reorganized the resources on our website. You will now find teacher resources and student resources on separate pages. The Teacher Resources page features rubrics, graphic organizers, sample answers, and sample units that you can download and adapt as you wish. The Student Resources page contains all of the graphic organizers that appear in our books so that you can link directly to them from your own class website.

We hope our resources will help you create rewarding learning experiences for you and your students. If you use any of our materials, please send us your feedback. We would also greatly appreciate it if you would post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Thank you again for your interest and support!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Highlights from NerdCampNJ: Part 2

Apologies for the delay in posting part 2! The end of the school year is so busy!

We also greatly enjoyed Kate Baker’s session on using technology to promote and assess student engagement with texts. Her quick, hands-on tutorials and models for using GoFormative, EDpuzzle, and ActivelyLearn have inspired us to try them out and share them with others!

All three of the tools enable teachers to embed the kinds of discussion prompts alongside a text that we advocate in our model for supporting student success with informational texts. All three also allow students to annotate texts as they read, view, or listen. And because we always advocate the use of multimedia texts, we of course liked how EDpuzzle allows teachers to embed questions and comments in videos at various stopping points that they determine. However, it was ActivelyLearn that particularly caught our attention.

ActivelyLearn allows teachers to embed questions and comments throughout single or multiple texts included in an assignment. Comments might be used to draw student attention to a particular text feature and/or direct students to turn and talk with a partner about some aspect of the text. Questions that teachers embed in the reading must be answered before a student can continue with the reading.

Students can also annotate and post questions or comments about the text as they read, even indicating parts of the text that they are struggling with. Teachers can immediately view the responses students have submitted, give feedback on them, and have students revise them if so desired. The paid version of the platform even includes a GoogleDocs add-on that allows students to import content from both readings and their own responses in ActivelyLearn directly into a GoogleDoc!

ActivelyLearn also struck us as a great platform for cross-disciplinary collaborative assignments or projects. The model that Kate shared with us, a unit created to support students in writing a research paper on the attainability of the American Dream throughout history, included a variety of informational and literary texts (see screenshot). 

Using Kate’s model as an example, an English teacher and a history teacher could have students read and annotate specific texts during their respective classes within the collaboratively created assignment. Students could then draw from all of their work in the ActivelyLearn assignment to create some kind of cross-disciplinary project.

One thing that Kate also noted during the session was the fact that smaller tech companies like ActivelyLearn (as opposed to, say, Google!) are very responsive to teacher interest and feedback. We experienced this ourselves when we asked, through Kate, about the collaboration functionality in ActivelyLearn. Natalie from ActivelyLearn responded the same day and confirmed that teachers on the paid team and school plans can collaborate by sharing and tweaking each other’s assignments and also by co-authoring lessons together. (With the free plan, teachers would have to share an account in order to create a lesson together.) We will be looking for an opportunity to try this out. If you are able to do so, please let us know how it goes!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Highlights from NerdCampNJ: Part 1


One of the highlights of NerdCampNJ for us on May 20 was of course our panel discussion, “Literacy Across the Content Areas,” with Kell Andrews, Laurie Wallmark, and Kristy Acevedo. It was a treat to hear everyone’s different perspectives on how informational text can enhance student engagement with fiction and vice versa.

We started off by sharing some collaborations around informational texts that we’ve done with science and English teachers in Susan’s school. (The materials we shared during the session can be found here.)

YA sci-fi author and high school English teacher Kristy Acevedo then jumped in to talk about how she has her students use research to create the details and substance of the characters and worlds in their own fiction writing, using her books and her own writing and research process as models. We loved this innovative merging of research with creative writing and the way in which this enterprise engages all sorts of skills in students!

Children’s author Kell Andrews picked up that thread to talk about how she embeds the practice of research into the plots of her books like Mira Forecasts the Future. Mira is the daughter of a famous fortune teller, but she lacks the gift of telling the future by gazing into the crystal ball, so she figures out how to make predictions in her own way by learning the basics of meteorology. Andrews’ point, which dovetailed well with Acevedo’s, is that science (like meteorology) can be embedded in any kind of text, including fiction.

Laurie Wallmark, college computer science instructor and author of two illustrated biographies for children, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, built on all the earlier presentations in offering herself as a model. A teacher of STEM (computer science), she is also a researcher and a writer, who draws on all sorts of research and literacy skills in her work.

Clearly, the Common Core’s focus on informational text can be embraced in any number of ways. Writers know that their own work relies on their ability to research widely and incorporate information meaningfully.

One other point of emphasis that we thought was striking. Acevedo and others agreed that having students read primary informational texts (Acevedo used some of the scientific reports she consulted to write Consider) can get students to think critically about how the information they are reading is being shaped by an author. Just because Mira learns about meteorology in Mira Forecasts the Future doesn’t mean the information presented is accurate or authoritative. This latter point seems a particularly opportune one for us to think about as we grapple with fake news and try to instill in our students a healthy skepticism about the veracity of information. Just because it appears in print doesn’t mean it’s true!

Stay tuned for Part 2, which focuses on a workshop where we learned about some great tech tools that can foster active reading and cross-disciplinary collaboration

Thanks to Oona Abrams and the rest of the organizers for putting together this energizing event!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Difficulties of The Great Gatsby

We have been working for more than a year on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, the fourth in our Using Informational Text series with Rowman and Littlefield. So we were thrilled by Stephanie Powell Watts’s wonderful and provocative “I Love the Great Gatsby, Even if It Doesn’t Love Me Back: On Difficult Characters and the Unbearable Whiteness of Classic Literature.” Watts is also the author of the just-published novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, which we are very much looking forward to reading as it remixes Gatsby around the lives of a contemporary African-American family in North Carolina.

Published on Lithub.com, Watts' brilliant essay explores being drawn to and “in love” with Fitzgerald’s novel but also being repulsed by the “demeaning” racism, sexism, and cruelty in the text. She explores, for example, the underdiscussed white nativism in the text and many of the horrific moments of repulsive racism. For Watts, as a self-described “lower working-class, rural North Carolina … southern black ki[d],” Gatsby is a text that “was not written” for her and may or may not love her back.

Still, Watts relishes the ways in which Gatsby allows us, through Nick, to have a “front row seat to this moneyed world and the cruel indifference those privileged few have for the striving and struggling masses.” And Watts is satisfied with this albeit ugly view, and with the fact that Nick is neither “a revolutionary [n]or a prophet”: his response is to flee the Eggs.

This combination in Gatsby of wondrous hopefulness, ugliness, and messy retreat works for Watts, and so she can love this book even if she also “fear[s] that the door of the book will suddenly close in my face by excluding and demeaning people of color, women, the poor.” Other readers may be less sanguine and loving toward what Fitzgerald offers. We look forward to seeing how Watts addresses this fear in her novel.

Regardless, we can’t agree more with Watts’s assessment that The Great Gatsby is a book for the twenties but also especially for our own time: “characterized by economic and racial fear, a time of great wealth for a few and greater uncertainty for many.” Our hope is that students in the U.S. who encounter the world of Gatsby have the opportunity to discuss its beauty and its ugliness, to love and hate it, and to use it to think about the difficult issues we faced in our past and continue to face now.

As noted above, we are putting the finishing touches on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, but if you’d like a sneak peek into the kinds of issues and texts it will include, check out our blog and website. We’ve blogged about a couple recent New York Times articles that provide very timely connections to Gatsby, and the materials from our recent workshop, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump,” are posted on our website. We hope these resources will help you use informational texts to engage in and support the sometimes difficult but necessary discussions about the novel and the realities of our present-day lives.