Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Using informational text to support English-language learners

At a recent gathering of New Jersey educators, a teacher I had just met asked me if our approach to using informational text would work for English Language learners.

“Yes!” I responded, and then rattled off how front-loading vocabulary, focusing on text features, and building relevance, etc. were all essential strategies for ELLs.

And then I wanted to blog about what I had said because it’s a topic we haven’t emphasized in relation to our approach to using informational text.

In a post for ASCD Express, Lydia Breiseth highlights three key strategies for building ELLs’ comprehension skills: building background knowledge, teaching vocabulary explicitly, and checking comprehension frequently.

We would argue that these strategies are key in supporting comprehension and engagement for all students, not just English language learners.

And, these strategies encapsulate both why we think using informational text in the classroom is so important and how we can support student success with such texts.

Informational texts can be powerful tools in building the background knowledge that will help students access literary texts or other informational texts. In addition, they can help increase student motivation by highlighting the relevance of curricular content to their daily lives.

In our model for using informational text (detailed in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text), we begin with a range of vocabulary activities that front-load both key vocabulary and concepts that students will encounter in the informational text. This primes students for success with even very challenging texts.

We advocate focusing on 8-10 key words so as not to overload students or to make vocabulary instruction too onerous and time-consuming.

We also urge teachers to prepare the text by cutting out anything that is not relevant to their instructional goals. Teachers of ELLs or any students who struggle with reading comprehension may shy away from exposing them to challenging, diverse texts, even while knowing that their students will face such texts in their future lives. Using short, engaging excerpts with sufficient support and preparation can help build students’ skills and confidence with complex texts.

To follow-up on the pre-reading vocabulary support, we encourage teachers to provide guided reading and discussion questions alongside the excerpt that direct students’ attention to key text features and concepts. Again, this kind of support is important not just for English language learners but for all students.

We follow the reading of the excerpt with writing and discussion prompts that invite students to think critically about the text and to make connections with other curricular content.

For classroom-ready examples of these kinds of informational text units, check out our volumes on using informational text to teach To Kill a Mockingbird and A Raisin in the Sun. For detailed instructions on how to build your own informational text units, on your own or in collaboration with colleagues in other content-areas, see Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating With Informational Text.

Like Breiseth, we acknowledge the time and effort required to create this kind of support for our students, but we know from classroom experience that it is well worth the effort!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Another Raisin connection: Sonia Nieto on How 'Zip Codes Still Matter'

Are you teaching A Raisin in the Sun this year? We keep coming across amazing connections to Hansberry’s play.

Here’s a quick and fun idea. Have students read Sonia Nieto’s recent column, “Zip Codes Still Matter,” published on the blog of Harvard Education Publishing. In this moving and eminently readable post, she describes her experience moving at age 13 from working-class East Flatbush to a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. Nieto describes the transition as “both positive and traumatic.” The piece, usefully, combines her discussion of her personal experience and 2012 research by Jonathan Rothwell about discrepancies in housing costs and the disparities of opportunity across zip codes.

Then, have your students write a blog post or journal entry by Travis Younger, describing his first days at his new school in Clybourne Park. What will he notice? What will he find positive? What will be traumatic? Will Travis, like Nieto, judge the move “lucky” overall?

Cap off this creative exercise with a brief analytic one that will make your assessment easier and serve as a slightly disguised piece of analytic, evidence-based writing. Have your students discuss how they crafted their Travis entry. How do the sentiments they voiced on behalf of Travis reflect their understanding of Raisin and the world Travis inhabits before the move to Clybourne Park? How did they choose to depict Travis’s assessment of the positive and the traumatic, based on what we know of where Travis comes from in Chicago and where he is going to in Clybourne Park? And, finally, how did they use Nieto’s entry to inform their Travis entry? Having students use the play and the Nieto blog posting in crafting this reflection piece will allow you to assess efficiently and effectively their creative work while also offering more practice in evidence-based writing.

For more readings that can help students engage with the many important ideas and themes in Raisin in the Sun, and vocabulary, writing, and discussion activities to go along with them, check out our volume, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Timely NYT article can connect students with A Raisin in the Sun and present-day inequality

Are you teaching A Raisin in the Sun this year? Are you looking for a new substantive hook to help your students understand what’s at stake in Hansberry’s play? Do your students need help thinking about why the Younger family was willing to risk so much (humiliation, violence) to move to Clybourne Park? The New York Times has a great article that can help.

Clyde Haberman begins his important piece by asking: “Should your ZIP code determine your future?” It’s a catchy but moot question. Our ZIP code does play a huge role in determining our futures. This is what Hansberry and the Younger family understood and what underscores the continuing importance of Hansberry’s brilliant A Raisin in the Sun. (If you have been using our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun, you will immediately see how this new article fits in with the units on housing discrimination past and present and socioeconomic mobility and inequality featured in the book.)

Haberman’s “Housing Bias and the Roots of Segregation” is a companion to a 15-minute video, part of the Retro Report, a video documentary series examining major news stories of the past. (The video, or a short part of it, can be a great way to hook your students into thinking about this weighty topic before reading the article.) In particular, The Times’ article and video focus on Dorothy Gautreaux and her lawsuit, some fifty years ago, against the Chicago Housing Authority. The lawsuit resulted in the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program, giving a small number of families vouchers to resettle in white, affluent suburbs. The children in these families thrived, despite racism and setbacks. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration created a similar program, Moving to Opportunity. Read the article to see the complex analysis of the results of the Clinton administration’s attempt to address housing segregation and social inequality.

The story of the Younger family and Mama’s attempt to give her grandson Travis a better future by moving him to a white, more prosperous neighborhood is no crusty, irrelevant tale from our distant past. As Haberman reports, from 2000 to 2013, the number of Americans living in “concentrated poverty rose to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, with African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately represented.” These young people, like Travis, may not be entirely trapped by their zip codes, but they are significantly, tragically disadvantaged. Hansberry’s play, sadly, reflects an enduring reality that the Obama administration, as the article details, is now making its own attempt to address. In our own way as educators, by exposing our students to such complex, important texts, we can help them develop the powerful knowledge and critical thinking skills they will need to address these issues themselves.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A new school year, a new Mockingbird

EdWeek currently features an inspiring piece by David B. Cohen about teaching Mockingbird. Cohen talks about the ways in which his views and teaching of Harper Lee’s seminal and influential text have changed, particularly in light of his current reading about institutional racism and economic oppression in the historical period of the novel.

Indeed, as Cohen writes, “even if the book stays the same, the reader changes over time.” So his current reading of Mockingbird is different from what it was some twenty years ago, based on who he now is but also what he now knows about the broader context of the novel.

We might amplify Cohen’s important comments with a reminder that the readers of Mockingbird today are not just us, the teachers, but also our students. What broader context and particular reading do students today bring to the table in order to make sense out of Harper Lee’s text? What do we as teachers hope they will take away? How can we help them see the connections between this very historically specific story of Maycombe and today’s American universe, replete with tensions about race, economic inequality, social justice, etc.?

Cohen writes that a text like Mockingbird is never at risk of feeling “stale and overused” because it contains such “rich material.” But he also emphasizes, so rightly, that by “adding relevant new learning,” we “keep the experience fresh.” Indeed, that is the difficult but exciting task of the skilled English teacher.

When we select innovative and engaging informational or nonfiction texts in order to provide a potent context for both us and for those many students for whom Mockingbird can seem an alien text describing a foreign world, we do our jobs well. There is no one Mockingbird; which version of Harper Lee’s novel will you offer your students this year? What texts will you curate for them in order to shape their first or second encounter with what Oprah Winfrey calls “our national novel”?

Monday, August 8, 2016

Review: Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun

Teachers College Record just published (July 18, 2016) a wonderfully thoughtful review of the 2nd volume in our Using Informational Text series, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun. Lauren Capotosto clearly understands our goals in the volume, and we are grateful to her intellectual generosity. We have indeed tried to perform “the time-consuming legwork to identify appropriately complex and relevant informational texts to pair with Raisin” so that teachers can “deepen students’ understanding of both the play’s larger context and its current relevance.” Thanks, for so thoroughly understanding what we were hoping to accomplish!

In a further sign of how in tune Capotosto is with our overall project, she writes of a hope that future books in our series “might provide guidance for teachers outside the ELA classroom to teach texts through discipline-specific lenses.” Indeed, we have published our third volume, Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text, to do just that. As we know, the Common Core challenges all teachers to incorporate discipline-specific literacy into their classes, and this volume is intended to help non-ELA teachers and their ELA peers collaborate to help students read skillfully and confidently and make connections across disciplines and classrooms. 

If you're looking to revamp your curriculum for this rapidly approaching school year, whether in teaching literary classics like To Kill a Mockingbird or A Raisin in the Sun, enhancing student engagement and disciplinary literacy, or initiating collaboration across disciplines, the Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series can be a valuable resource!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Finding like minds at #ILA16!

Lauren, Rebecca, Susan and Audrey with
two of our fantastic institute participants. 
The best part about conferences are the opportunities to make connections with others doing similar work. ILA has been terrific for us in that regard!

Last year at ILA 2015, we had the opportunity to see a session by Lauren K. Francese and Rebecca Marsick from Westport, CT, authors of Stretching Beyond the Textbook: Reading and Succeeding with Complex Texts in the Content Areas. We were impressed by their model for rigorous, interdisciplinary nonfiction units and immediately saw connections with our own work in our Using Informational Text series (Rowman).

We also had the opportunity to meet with the two women at the helm of CommonLit, Michelle Brown and Sarah Mielbye, who have put together a free, searchable database of cross-disciplinary fiction and nonfiction for teachers to use to create their own units and connections.

Good people with similar ideas: so we proposed a pre-conference institute for ILA 2016, and we were delighted to be accepted and to come together this past Friday to present our ideas, share our visions, and collaborate. It was a terrific session, with wonderful presentations and an informed, engaged, and curious audience. Thank you to all for your participation!

We opened with the following kickoff question: When you’re planning a unit, why is it important to include informational texts?

Many of the answers, shared through the terrific backchanneling tool TodaysMeet, are worth recapping here (so that those of us working hard on this enterprise can see our ideas reflected back by others):
  • We use nonfiction text to promote connections to world.
  • It is about being a global citizen through critical thinking.
  • Connections to real life
  • Disciplinary literacy!
  • Students can make more of a connection to the world around them
  • Students are very engaged by informational text.
  • provide clarifying information
  • real-world applications
  • important for students to learn how to read in specific disciplines.
  • bring an authentic voice to the unit
  • Integrate reading into writing/connect to current events
  • To foster democratic participation by determining bias, counterclaims, corroboration, etc.
  • Teach 'em to be investigative journalist.
  • to help students understand why we are "doing this" in school
  • To Stretch Beyond the Textbook!!!
  • To give purpose to all text
  • Connect (explicitly) to something that matters

Are there challenges to doing this work? Absolutely. You are not alone if you are finding this hard work. Here are some of the issues your peers who participated in the institute struggle with:
  • Finding time to locate high-quality articles aligned with content
  • Finding appropriately leveled texts
  • Making sure factual info is updated.
  • Can be boring for a middle school student if not presented in an engaging way
  • Difficulty level of text, young students first need to be taught how to read nonfiction text-structures, features
  • Balance between high engaging and text complexity
  • Comprehension strats - teachers doing all the work-what about allowing kids to struggle with support?
  • Scaffolding text so all students can engage in a meaningful way.
  • Having teachers see themselves as literacy experts in their discipline.

Susan and Audrey, together with Lauren and Rebecca, and Rob from CommonLit, shared models, strategies, resources, and tips. To share in our ideas, please check out some of our materials here. Or reach out to any of us.

Here are just a few of the key points we all emphasized in our session:

1.     Find opportunities for connections/collaborations with other teachers, even if these are built on interpersonal friendships rather than disciplinary connections
2.     Use big questions and media to engage students and spark curiosity
3.     Think about purpose and perspective with every text
4.     Remind students that everything is a text to be read and analyzed (video, images, artwork, documentaries, nonfiction, and fiction)
5.     Use activities and organizers to build students’ confidence and ability to make meaning from complex texts

In closing, we asked our participants to reflect on what they used to think in comparison to what they now think. Here are our two favorite responses:

"I used to think I was alone in merging subjects. Glad to know there are more folks like me trying to make cohesive learning experiences real."

"Don't overload by using the whole article - use excerpts of informational texts."

We are not alone. Many of our excellent peers are engaged in this work. It can be challenging, but we can employ a range of strategies, including excerpting the texts we use and collaborating with others, so that we don’t overwhelm ourselves or our students.

Informational text connections can give purpose and meaning to our content and help students develop the critical literacy skills they need to be effective learners and engaged and informed citizens.

Meanwhile, thanks again to our great audience and to all the terrific teachers and instructional leaders working hard to make literacy across the disciplines a meaningful part of every classroom for all students!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Gatsby and the privilege of the 0.1 percent

Teaching The Great Gatsby and thinking about how to make Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel relevant to your students today? We are working on Gatsby for our fourth volume in our Using Informational Text series for Rowman and Littlefield, so we are thinking about this issue constantly. So we were amused, horrified, and thrilled to read the article “In New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in Same Boat: Marketing to Rich Customers, Companies Foster a Money-Based Caste System” on the front page of the April 24 edition of The New York Times.

The article references today’s wealth disparities and economic and social stratification and links our current age of privilege to the Gilded Age (which ended in 1900, before the world of Gatsby) and the Titanic (which sank in 1912, also anticipating Gatsby). Nelson D. Schwartz, writing for the Times, cites Emmanuel Saez, a Berkeley economist who has elsewhere remarked on how our current economic climate most resembles the Roaring Twenties, the age of Gatsby, when, as now, the top 0.1 percent of families owned the largest share of wealth. (An excerpt of a recent study co-authored by Saez on inequality and socioeconomic mobility in American society appears in our recent volume on teaching A Raisin in the Sun.)

And in this world where a tiny number of people have vast sums of money, American businesses are evolving to capitalize: “to create extravagance and exclusivity for the select few, even if it stirs up resentment elsewhere.” Two hundred seventy-five guests from among 4,300 passengers enjoy a private pool, restaurant, and oasis from the crowds on Norwegian Cruise Line. The rich can pay for after-hours access to Disney World. Wealthy families can skip the lines at SeaWorld. And more of all this is to come.

As Thomas Sander from Harvard’s Kennedy School puts it, “We are living much more cloistered lives in terms of class … and [doing] a much worse job of living out the egalitarian dream that has been our hallmark.”

The only issue for marketers catering to this new Gatsby elite is how much transparency should be part of this new “money-based caste system.”

The answer seems to be a lot of transparency. No need to hide the privileges of wealth in this age of super affluence.

Those of us temporarily in the same boat as the ultra-wealthy can expect not just to be treated differently but to see that unequal treatment displayed for our benefit. As the Times reports, regular diners on Royal Caribbean will have to walk past the windows of the exclusive Coastal Kitchen reserved for the elite before they can “crowd around the buffet tables of the open-to-everyone Windjammer CafĂ©.”

Companies seem to have determined that notwithstanding a bit of envy, “offering ordinary customers just a whiff of the rarefied air can enhance the bottom line … class segregation can create something to which people can aspire.”

A whiff of rarefied air and a dream of the girl with the voice “full of money …. in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl”: these indeed are the stuff out of which James Gatz is transformed into Jay Gatsby.

Let’s hope we can use this Times article to help our students to think critically about what it means to worship excess, privilege, and exclusivity – both in Gatsby’s world and in ours.