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! 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Using informational text in the classroom:
How long, how often?

As we talk with teachers about our work with informational text, two questions often come up: 1) How many informational texts should I include in a literary unit (for example, a unit centered around a novel)? 2) How long should I spend with the informational text?

There is no simple, right answer to either question, of course. But we think that both questions speak to the larger issue of what we can expect of our students. And we think, when our lessons are engaging and well-designed, we can and should expect a lot of our students (maybe sometimes more than we do).

Audrey had the opportunity to guest teach some of our material to a 9th grade class at Secaucus High School this month. The students had read through most of chapter 19 of To Kill a Mockingbird. For the opening minutes of the 42-minute period, the teacher finished the chapter, leading the students through Dill exiting the courthouse in tears after the cross-examination of Tom Robinson and the brief, illusory appearance of Dolphus Raymond.

Audrey spoke with the students about Raymond. Asked what they knew of him, they said he was rich, lived with a black woman, and had a wife who had committed suicide. (They were normal students who got things wrong – she was a fiancĂ©e!) Also, he was a drunk who carried around a paper bag with alcohol in it.

It was the perfect segue into our unit on Loving v. Virginia. Audrey started with a showing of Nanci Griffith’s “The Loving Kind,” a live performance of the song on YouTube. Before showing the video, she asked them to think about whether the song was making any kind of argument. After one viewing, students were able to articulate two interesting arguments: that people should love who they want and that this couple changed our country. This took about 5 minutes.

Next, we moved into vocabulary. Because Audrey wasn’t sure about their dictionary skills, she focused on the vocabulary exercises involving context clues and usage. In groups, the students worked through several different kinds of questions (sections A, B, E and F from our text). Then, they shared their answers with the class, including terrific performances of the vocabulary skits. This took about 15 minutes.

For the remaining 10 minutes, we began our reading of Loving v. Virginia. We discussed the kind of text we were dealing with – a court decision – and talked briefly about the role of the Supreme Court in our legal system. As we read, they pulled in ideas from the vocabulary exercises and from the video as they tackled Justice Warren’s dense and complex language.

The opening of the decision lays out the facts of the case: Mildred and Richard travelling to DC in order to marry. Audrey asked them why the couple might have left Virginia and married in DC, and the students had no difficulty inferring that interracial marriage was legal in DC. When Audrey asked them if they could think of any contemporary parallel, in which something was legal in one state but not in another, they quickly recognized the analogue: same-sex marriage.

We did not get through the entire case during our brief time together, but their teacher asked them to finish the piece and the five multiple choice review questions in the unit for homework. Our time together in class had set them up for success: they were more than ready to complete this work independently at home.

In other words, in less than a full, short period, we had enjoyed a thorough foray into Loving v. Virginia. The students built vocabulary skills and confidence, practiced negotiating a complex text, and made connections between a Supreme Court case from the 60s and both the world they live in today and the world of the literary text they are studying.

We can do this. We can produce rooms full of 14-year-olds who can use terms like odious and nativist with ease and who can negotiate the important Supreme Court cases of our nation. These 14-year-olds will read literary texts, like Mockingbird, more carefully for their short step away from that text. 

So how often should we do this? Often! And how long does it take? Not very long!          

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What the Common Core means for teaching literature

A fascinating article in the Watertown Daily Times this week addressed the subject nearest to our hearts right now: the emerging balance between literature and informational text. Reporter Katherine Clark Ross included the voices of a range of English teachers and educational leaders, all pondering what the inclusion of informational text will mean for the literature once central to the language arts classroom. Ross opens with the lead: “Students are reading fewer full-length books with the Common Core curriculum.”

Will students stop reading the classics? Is To Kill a Mockingbird going to be lost to this generation of students?

Not exactly.

The article goes on to discuss how teachers are incorporating informational text and doing so in ways that enhance the teaching of literature. For example, Beaver River High School English teacher Emily Z. Mayer uses Gatsby as the center for “a variety of lessons that focus on the culture of the 1920s.” Sonya G. Esposito, of Sackets Harbor, uses newspaper articles about genocide to contextualize a fictional work about the Holocaust.

We are excited to see these teachers using informational text in ways that meet the new standards while also enriching their teaching of literature. In particular, informational texts can be used to provide relevant, necessary background knowledge so that students can better appreciate the context and issues in a text, as Mayer does with Gatsby and the 20s. Or, informational texts can be used to help student see the larger context of a text, as in Esposito’s work connecting the Holocaust to other genocides. In both cases, students are learning more and learning more broadly, which then allows them to delve more deeply and probably with more engagement into the literary text.

And that, after all, is every English teacher’s goal and no small feat. Gatsby, lest we forget, is not necessarily immediately relevant and interesting to American teenagers today, Leonardo DiCaprio notwithstanding.

So, as Ross concludes, the results of the Common Core are some trepidation but also, excitingly, “more time conducting research” and “more discussion” as students are “seeing things from different perspectives.”

Ross ends her article with the sentiments of Carthage Central High School teacher Jennifer K. Hanno. Literature will retain its place in the curriculum “if teachers make sure they examine the reading closely.”

Indeed, this is the welcome opportunity of the Common Core, and it’s one worth pondering. Teachers are being asked to become scholar-teachers. We will be responsible for finding readable, high-quality texts that offer either relevant cultural context for a literary work or timely, engaging contemporary connections with a literary work. And we will be transforming these informational texts into exciting lessons.

This idea of the CCSS returning intellectual autonomy and responsibility to teachers is echoed in remarks by Brien Karlin, a U.S. history teacher, broadcast in a series on the Common Core on National Public Public Radio’s Morning Edition. In discussing his lesson on gerrymanding, Karlin notes that “the Core standards [have] given him new ideas about how to teach without telling him what to do.” The lesson is something Karlin created himself; “it doesn't come from a textbook or a curriculum guide or the district office.”

Sure, the Common Core and all the associated testing mean lots of work for teachers, but the challenge of creating, innovative, exciting lessons that will engage our students and make them think: that’s why many of us became teachers. This work may be hard, but it’s thrilling. It moves us away from all the negative talk about teachers and returns us to the realm of teachers as resourceful researchers and thinkers. Thinking about ourselves in this way is, we think, incredibly affirming for most of us.

So, on we go, inventing new and exciting ways to get our students to research, think, read, and write about the texts we care about. Congratulations to all those teachers out there who have embraced the opportunity of informational text in the ways Ross describes in her article.

For those intrigued but nervous about how to begin, please consult our resources for some ideas and assistance. We can all do this, and when we do it well, our students will be more deeply engaging the literary texts, like Mockingbird, that we love and learning more as they do so.

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.