Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Using vocabulary instruction to support all learners

We were very excited yesterday to see our column, “Pairing Contemporary Nonfiction with Canonical Texts,” published in the March issue of English Journal. As we were looking over the table of contents and seeing what great company we are in, Meghan Liebfreund’s essay, “Facilitate Informational Text with Vocabulary Instruction” immediately caught our attention.

Though we have not encountered Liebfreund’s work before, we feel like we have discovered a kindred spirit. Noting the growing emphasis on informational text, she calls vocabulary instruction “crucial” to student success in comprehending it. She cites her recent study that showed “vocabulary knowledge” to be “the strongest predictor of informational text comprehension for readers in grades 3 through 5, and its influence was nearly two times larger than decoding efficiency and prior knowledge” (77).

We also wholeheartedly agree with Liebfreund that “it is vital that we provide instruction that is engaging and effective when supporting students’ vocabulary development .... [and that] enhancing vocabulary instruction often requires the implementation of several instructional strategies.” And, like Liebfreund, we advocate following the model presented by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan in Bringing Words to Life: selecting a reasonable number of “important and frequently used words,” having students interact with the words in meaningful contexts that also front-load concepts that are key to the reading, making instruction explicit, and providing ample and varied practice with the words.

The types of pre-reading vocabulary exercises we include in our model for teaching informational text also follow the criteria Liebfreund calls for, such as the explicit teaching of word forms and drawing students’attention to the multiple meanings of common words. We also believe that “[w]ord learning should be a social process that involves students talking about and sharing what they know and are learning about words” (77).

Finally, Liebfreund’s piece echoes the belief we recently blogged about: that all learners can succeed with complex informational text if given sufficient support. We know that if we make the effort to give that support, especially around the challenge of vocabulary, we create an environment where all students can succeed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Using informational text to engage all learners: Part 2

[Click here to read Part 1.]

In order to reactivate what we had learned the previous day and in hopes of rekindling the students’ engagement, we picked up where we left off with a few final multiple-choice questions. The students read through them quietly and then offered their answers aloud. Whether their answers were correct or not, we prompted them to explain the reasoning and evidence they used in arriving at their answer, and then when needed asked follow-up questions to scaffold them toward the correct answer.

We then broke into two groups to work on two open-ended prompts. We had planned in advance to differentiate the writing work as follows: the two students who have the most difficulty with reading and writing would address a prompt that involved only the article while the other group of three students would tackle one that put the article into dialogue with a short excerpt from Lord of the Flies. In the interest of time, we asked students only to articulate a response to each part of their respective prompt and then identify evidence they would use to support their argument.

The result was an outline of a response produced by each group rather than a fully written response. This adaptation of the lesson allowed us to focus on what we considered our essential instructional goals at the moment: having the students grapple with the ideas in the text(s), articulate coherent responses to the text(s), and select relevant evidence from the text(s) to support their ideas. A complete, written response, in this case, was not necessary for our goals.

The group working with the prompt focused only on the article began by working together to draft a response to the first part of the question: “Why, according to Gorman, are the scientists interested in aggression in fruit flies?” The students drew upon the RSSE strategy (Restate, Support from the text, Support in your own words, Extend) they had previously learned to use in open-ended responses and started by restating the question. They soon realized that this left them with an incomplete response: “According to Gorman, the scientists are interested in aggression in fruit flies because ....” At this point, we went back to what we had learned from the article. After reviewing the conclusions of the study described in the article, the students completed the sentence: “...because it might help them better understand aggression in humans.” The students quickly found a quote that supported their thinking and then went on to the next part of the question.

The other group began their work by reviewing and analyzing the passage from Lord of the Flies in which the boys kill the female wild pig. The students noted the “savage” brutality of the boys’ actions and surmised that the scientists discussed in the article would be interested in studying them. They connected the behavior the scientists observed in their “fight club for flies” with that of the boys in the scene, and then wondered whether the boys had the same kinds of neurons that the scientists had found to be related to aggression in male fruit flies. While the group did not get very far in writing down its responses, the students had a rich, evidence-based discussion as they put the two texts in dialogue with each other.

We decided to move on from the lesson at the conclusion of that class so as not to exhaust student engagement. While we did not have time to fully complete the lesson, its unfinished edges, as well as the parts that students struggled with the most, gave us valuable information on both what to focus on and what to give students more practice with during future lessons.

While the students’ performance was the result of their own thinking and effort, it was also clearly built upon the support we had given them, both in terms of the scaffolding we had provided and the unnecessary obstacles we had taken away. This collection of instructional supports enabled the students to connect with this rich lesson and the ideas and skills it offered, and both the students and the teachers walked away proud of and rewarded by their efforts. However, it must be noted that the social-emotional support the teacher had previously cultivated in the class was also a key aspect of the success of this lesson. The students would not have been so willing to try something new – especially with a stranger in the room – if they had not been already accustomed to taking risks and engaging in challenging work.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Using informational text to engage all learners: Part 1

Using diverse informational texts is challenging. Real-world informational texts – e.g, newspaper articles, court decisions, and scientific abstracts – often are very long, have difficult vocabulary, and include material not relevant to instructional goals. Moreover, teachers working in classes with a large number of or composed solely of students with special needs may worry that their students cannot negotiate the challenges of this kind of material.


Susan’s recent experience working with an English class in her school validated this belief. The small class of just five classified students was studying Lord of the Flies, and the teacher agreed to co-teach our lesson that uses a New York Times article on a scientific study of male aggression in fruit flies to prompt student thinking about the violence in Lord of the Flies. We published a version of this lesson for The New York Times Learning Network, and the full-length version is featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines.

While classified students may sometimes be given low-level work and material that does not challenge them, fortunately, that is not always the case. This second-year teacher consistently has his students grappling with rigorous texts, and he welcomed the opportunity to incorporate a new instructional model into his practice.

The teacher began the class with a do-now prompt asking students what kinds of issues or situations annoy them and how they respond. One student’s response offered a perfect segue into the main focus of the lesson. He admitted that he sometimes struggles to control his emotions: “that’s just how my mind is; my body runs really hot.”

Susan and the teacher then moved into the lesson by showing the short, fun video created by the New York Times that accompanies the article on the fruit fly study. We first played the video straight through, then played it again, stopping several times to discuss and check for understanding. Though our students are always absorbing media, we know they sometimes do so passively, so multiple viewings of a media clip, perhaps with prompts for what to look for as needed, are key in using media clips to hook student interest successfully.

The teacher had prepared the students for reading the article the previous day by working on the vocabulary exercises for the text (in our Connecting volume). The value of this work was evident when we began reading the article; students were confident in their comprehension of the words they had studied the day before – e.g., hypothesis, neuroscientist, suppresses – and seemed to be quite willing to tackle other challenging words in the article that they had not learned previously.

During the 46-minute lesson, we read and discussed the excerpted version of the Times fruit fly article aloud as a class, using the sidebar questions designed to prompt student thinking about the text. Excerpting and using sidebars are key elements to our approach. We use excerpts and cut anything from the readings that might distract students from our instructional goals. And we create sidebar questions that prompt active reading: scaffolding for students the process of thinking and asking questions about what they are reading along the way.

As we worked through the text, an interesting trend emerged. When we asked students high-level questions about a particular phrase or sentence of the text (e.g., “The article indicates that Anderson and his colleagues identified ‘a tiny group of neurons ... that can control aggression.’ What is the idea here? Why would scientists be interested in studying aggression? Why would they care that a small group of neurons control aggression?”), they were engaged and willing to think out loud.

However, when we approached a fairly long paragraph in the article, the teacher clearly became concerned about keeping students engaged and turned away from the sidebar questions to ask students easier comprehension questions (e.g, “What is substance P?”) as we read the paragraph aloud. But when asked this kind of low-level comprehension question, the students tended to look at the text for a few seconds, make a guess, and then clam up in frustrated silence.

This of course was the opposite of what the teacher intended, but such a result makes sense. Basic recall or identification questions are often harder than they seem, especially for students who struggle with reading comprehension. If the answer is not explicitly stated in the text exactly the way it is framed in the question (“Substance P is ...”), a struggling student is likely to stare at the long block of text that contains the answer somewhere and then guess. If the student isn’t supported by the original question or follow-up questions to think about how the language in the relevant phrase or sentence works, the student’s guess is likely to miss the mark, no matter how long they stare at the text. What seems like an easy comprehension question to a teacher can often be perceived as a more challenging question to a student.

And the higher-level question, which promotes deeper engagement with big issues, can in fact be easier, even when a student has some basic reading comprehension problems. Just because a student might struggle with reading words on a page, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t think. The key is to craft questions that simultaneously supply what is needed to support students’ thinking about ideas and language and remove any unnecessary barriers that might impede that thinking. Getting students who have difficulty with reading and writing to talk and supporting them in thinking out loud are essential to helping them improve their reading and writing skills.

Though we much prefer thought-provoking, open-ended discussion and writing opportunities, we also use multiple-choice questions as part of our working through a reading for two main reasons. First, they are an inescapable part of our students’ reality, so we feel obligated to give them low-stakes opportunities to tackle such questions, especially in the often very challenging two-part formats posed by the Common Core-aligned and other high-stakes assessments. Second, they are a relatively quick way to check for understanding.

So, after our successful reading of The New York Times article excerpt, we grappled with a few multiple-choice questions, talking through them aloud as a class, during the last few minutes of the period. This gave us an important opportunity to not only check for understanding in anticipation of moving on to written responses to the article the following day but also to reinforce effective test-taking strategies and build confidence with the kinds of questions our students often struggle with on standardized tests.

The students were game for tackling these questions after reading the article and discussing the sidebar questions, especially after we explained that we would do them together. We asked what strategies they used when attempting multiple-choice questions. They said they would eliminate obviously wrong answers first; they also said they would plug the answers into the question to see if they fit. We used process of elimination to answer the first part of the main idea question. The students quickly identified the main idea of the excerpt: “Studying aggression in male fruit flies may help us understand aggression in humans.” We then asked the students what they would expect to see in a piece of evidence that supported our answer. They said that a strong piece of evidence would talk about studying aggression in male fruit flies and aggression in humans. We then used these criteria to select the three best pieces of evidence from the quotes given in the answer choices. After successfully completing this task, we reiterated to the students that whenever they see a two-part question, they should use the second part to help them check their answer to the first part.

We were so pleased by the students’ level of engagement and demonstration of high-level thinking throughout the class, we were very eager to build on our success the next day.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Atlantic highlights value of historical fiction in building context, critical thinking

We just finished reading the great new piece, “Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present,” in The Atlantic. Anna Diamond discusses how teachers are turning to historical fiction to build historical context around some of the issues of race, gender, and discrimination raised by the recent election and the current presidential administration. Diamond talks about the ways in which historical fiction also allows teachers to “[h]umaniz[e] history” so that students can “connect the historical dots” and build empathy.

One key point in the article worth emphasizing is the fact that historical fiction is still fiction. Fiction may be more appealing than a history textbook and perhaps more entertaining and engaging, but using historical fiction to help students think about the past poses challenges as well.

So, how can we use historical fiction to promote critical thinking and “counter the often static and monolithic view of the past”? Diamond cites the work of Sara Schwebel, author of Child-Sized Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, as one answer. Schwebel stresses an interdisciplinary approach, in which students think about different accounts and points of view in order to interrogate historical fiction as an “historical argument” rather than simple facts or historical truth.

We think the interdisciplinary and multi-text approach is key to helping students think critically and see those different points of view in any kind of text. And we want to underscore how students today, more than ever, need to develop this intellectual skill of thinking critically about the information they are receiving or consuming. Whether we are teaching historical fiction, history, literature, or even science, students need to move beyond relatively simple questions of validity and reliability of sources; they need to assess the accuracy of information in terms of shades of grey, not just black and white.

Like Diamond and Schwebel, we think the key to getting students to interrogate challenging issues is to present them with what we call text clusters -- combinations of texts, including multimedia texts -- that represent different perspectives in relation to a complex issue. For example, we built a unit around the issue of African-American domestic labor in connection with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. We use visuals of Aunt Jemima, excerpts from an interview with white women raised by black nannies, and a powerful audio clip of an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American domestic labor organizer, in order to get students to think critically about how Scout’s perspective about Calpurnia is shaped and limited by her place in the world of Macomb.

Does Scout’s blinkered view of Calpurnia make her narrative in Mockingbird less accurate? Yes, and in literary studies we have a term for that lack of accuracy on the part of the narrator: Scout is an unreliable narrator. The fact that Mockingbird is constructed around the storytelling of an unreliable narrator, however, doesn’t make it less valuable as a text: it makes it more valuable. It underscores how important it is for readers to think critically about the story, about what Scout is and is not telling us, about the gaps and distortions in her views, particularly in relation to Calpurnia. Adding other perspectives through relevant literary and nonfiction texts, including those that offer different avenues into Calpurnia’s world, opens up the conversation for students.

To be clear: this practice of careful, suspicious reading, supported by multiple texts, makes us careful readers not just of historical fiction but of all text. It is, as Diamond notes, very much in keeping with the Common Core. And very valuable in a world in which thinking critically about disinformation and fake news need to be part of every teacher’s task.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Invoking Mockingbird, Obama reminds us of importance, difficulty of empathy

In his Farewell Address on January 10, 2017, President Obama once again charmed and pleased many English teachers across the United States with his reference to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In case you missed the moment, Obama said, “if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need[s] to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch – who said, `You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

This passage, a favorite for many teachers, comes at the beginning of Chapter 4, when Atticus describes the practice of climbing into another’s skin, or what we might today call radical empathy, to Scout as a “simple trick” (39). The current political moment suggests there is nothing simple about it.

Indeed, Obama acknowledges in his Address the difficulty and rarity of this act of empathy. He presses Americans to “pay attention, and listen … acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t vanish in the ‘60s.” Obama insists that we also need to work to tie the “struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … [including] the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”

The allusion to Mockingbird seems a perfect exemplar for Obama’s point and for our current political moment. Tom Robinson and Calpurnia live in a desperately unequal world. In Maycomb, their lives are simply worth less; they are disempowered and dispossessed.

But so too is Mr. Ewell. Scout as narrator in Mockingbird explains that the “families like the Ewells” (227) inhabit every town like Maycomb. They are people left behind by both good times and bad: “No economic fluctuations changed their station – people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” (227).

Just as Atticus never really steps into Tom Robinson’s skin and imagines the world from his point of view, the plight of the Ewells, who actually live in “what was once a Negro cabin” (227), is never tied together by anyone in Maycomb as part of a broader struggle for justice in the novel. One might say that the two disempowered characters live in their separate bubbles, until their worlds collide. Mr. Ewell is the antagonist, of course, but both characters suffer, disproportionately of course, from their place in the world of Maycomb in which they are not seen by the broader society or by each other.

Obama’s Address asks us to do what is definitively NOT a simple trick: to see each other and all those who are interconnected with us; to listen to each other and have real dialogue, rather than stay in our bubbles or snipe at each other over social media.

For those of us teaching Mockingbird, this is one more moment in which we can use informational text – in this case Obama’s Address – to show students the relevance of the literary texts we teach and to cultivate in our students the skills, disposition, and courage to become engaged, informed citizens. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Using 'Loving' to teach 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

There’s lots of talk about the recent film Loving, directed by Jeff Nichols, and starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the interracial couple who triumphed in the Supreme Court over Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. It’s a sweet film, and one that takes an intimate approach to the subject in a way that is sure to be embraced by teachers. Loving contrasts the quotidian events of rural life and love with the broader politics of racism in the United States in a way that mostly charms, even if it is somewhat frustrating in its deliberate focus away from the Civil Rights Movement.

In an interview with NPR, Nichols discusses how he first became aware of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and their battle with anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia when he was introduced to the HBO documentary on the Lovings in 2012. Nichols says, “[F]or that to be the first time that I heard about Richard and Mildred Loving was kind of unacceptable to me. I think this is something that people more than just law students that have taken constitutional law classes, you know, should have a familiarity with, especially now.”

We couldn’t agree more. So many of our nation’s signature Supreme Court cases are unknown to the people of our nation. And many of the decisions, like Loving v. Virginia, are actually relatively accessible and deeply engaging. They certainly are readable by, as Nichols writes, “more than just law students.”

In fact, we think many Supreme Court cases make terrific, engaging companion texts to some of our most commonly taught literary texts.

For example, we use an excerpt from Loving v. Virginia in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill A Mockingbird. The case serves as the informational text-center of our unit, “What’s Up with Mr. Dolphus Raymond?” Studying Loving v. Virginia gives students the legal context with which to understand the fact that the white Dolphus Raymond could not legally marry the African-American mother of his children. Scout may or may not be aware of this prohibition, which makes it all the more inaccessible to students today. Reading Loving v. Virginia together with Mockingbird reveals the deeper gravity and historical resonance behind Raymond’s drunken masquerade. Nichols’s Loving surely deserves a place in our classrooms as well (even just the 2 1/2 minute trailer for the film does fine work in unpacking for students the taboos against interracial marriage).

Indeed, reading Mockingbird together with Loving v. Virginia is one way, we think, in which the Common Core helps us engage students in “difficult conversations” (Chadwick 91) about race, class, and social injustice. Jocelyn A. Chadwick references these “difficult conversations” in her excellent discussion of teaching Huckleberry Finn in the November 2016 issue of English Journal. Her essay forms one of several companion pieces to Peter Smagorinsky’s provocative essay on whether it is “time to prohibit Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn” (75).

Leaving aside the issue of teaching Huck, one issue that struck us in the debate in EJ was Smagorinsky’s worry about the Common Core’s “emphasis on reading within the four corners of the page while sublimating emotional responses in service of textual analysis” (80). This worry seems to echo earlier concerns that the Common Core would force English teachers to put aside literature in favor of instructional manuals.

The Common Core, however, asks us to broaden, not narrow, our students’ reading. Students are sometimes asked to read “within the four corners of the page,” but the Common Core also introduced the informational text standard and emphasized the important skill of putting different kinds of texts into critical conversation. Anchor Standard 9, for example, asks students to “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (CCSS, 2010). Explicitly, this standard articulates a reading practice in which students use multiple texts to build an “informative context” that expands beyond any singular close examination of a solitary text.

Particularly for texts like Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, that informative context can be just as important as the emotional context. Emotional responses to literature can and should retain a place in our classrooms, but we also have a responsibility to help place those responses within the complex and politically difficult historical context that students often can’t access from the literary text alone. After all, Scout and Jem think Dolphus Raymond is a drunk because they have no context within which to understand his actions and behavior. Informational texts, like Loving v. Virginia and Nichols’s Loving, make sure our students don’t make those same mistakes. These companion texts to Mockingbird are crucial tools for us to use in meeting the Common Core Standards, building literacy across a range of text types, and facilitating difficult but critical classroom conversations.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Mapping inequality in A Raisin in the Sun and our own cities

A few weeks back Slate published an article that anyone who is teaching A Raisin in the Sun will find immensely interesting. Henry Grabar writes about the Mapping Inequality project created by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab. Grabar’s article, “Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods,” is a compelling introduction to this fascinating set of interactive maps.

Mapping Inequality is a database of more than 150 federal “risk maps” from between 1930 and 1940 that show which neighborhoods were considered “best,” “still desirable,” “definitely declining,” and “hazardous.” These designations would come to dictate the level of investment or lack thereof in cities across the country for decades. As Grabar notes, “These maps, which came to shape not just the distribution of mortgages but other types of lending and investment, were the origin of the term ‘redlining.’” Once a neighborhood was redlined, as Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses in “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, the homes there were no longer eligible for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) insured private mortgages. Redlining, in effect, “. . . exclud[ed] black people from most legitimate means of obtaining a mortgage.”

While the color-coded maps put the fact that racial discrimination was an integral part of federal housing policy in sharp relief, the truly fascinating (and infuriating) treasure are the appraisers’ notes about each neighborhood that accompany the maps.

As Grabar highlights, “In 1937, for example, a summary of the Eastern Parkway area of Brooklyn noted its favorable influences—‘near Prospect Park,’ ‘substantial row brick construction,’ ‘close in,’ ‘good transportation facilities’—and one detrimental influence: ‘slow infiltration of negroes from the section to the north,’ meaning the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Eastern Parkway was at that point about 2 percent black. It was colored yellow, for ‘definitely declining.’”

Chicago’s Brownsville, on the other hand, was redlined due to the fear of the effect the construction of the Ida B. Wells public housing project might have on the neighborhood: “This venture has the realtors guessing as to what the ultimate result will be when so many of this race are drawn into this section from the already negro-blighted district. … Already Washington Park at the south, a very fine park, has been almost completely monopolized by the colored race.”

Grabar also observes that “[r]acist though they were, the appraisers seemed to recognize that cutting the area off from financial institutions would ultimately be ruinous. ‘One of the most important necessities is to provide means of financing these colored homes so that they may be rehabilitated,’ the Bronzeville report states. Instead, contract sellers and subprime lenders moved into the void.”

If you’ve used the chapter in our book Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun that focuses on the violence that surrounded the integration of a previously white South Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s, you may find the 1939 appraisal of South Deering particularly interesting. (Other units in our volume focus on housing discrimination past and present and socioeconomic mobility.) The database offers students the opportunity to dig into information about the neighborhoods that the Youngers are moving from and to in A Raisin in the Sun.

Here’s How the Federal Government Made the Maps That Crippled Black Neighborhoods” also gives students the opportunity to consider the history of their own cities and how redlining influences their present-day reality. The article, and the database underlying it, underscore the wealth of informational text we can use to make the literary texts we teach year after year come alive for our students.