Monday, August 10, 2015

Start your school year with success and informational text

We know many of you are already planning exciting new lessons and units, while some of you are already back in the classroom. Either way, our resources can help you start your new school year with success.

IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and wrestling with how to make sense of it alongside Go Set a Watchman, 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 of Maycomb that Harper Lee presents in both novels.

IF YOU ARE TEACHING A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the second volume in our series will be available in October and can be pre-ordered now. After the events in Ferguson and Baltimore, this summer’s Supreme Court decision, and recent studies on the persistence of housing discrimination, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play is more relevant than ever. Our forthcoming book includes 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. In the meantime, check out our post on the New York Times Learning Network or this New York Times article on housing discrimination in Ferguson.

IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT HOW TO REVAMP YOUR CURRICULUM, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts and for 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 together with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on Mockingbird, as well as our “Text to Text” feature on Lord of the Flies on the New York Times Learning Network, for models.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT-AREA COLLEAGUES to develop your students’ disciplinary literacy skills, read our blog posts on collaboration and share our strategies for using high-interest informational texts with a teacher with whom you’d like to work. Our materials can provide the basis for rewarding collaboration among members of your PLC and/or grade-level teams.

IF YOU’D LIKE HANDS-ON TRAINING IN OUR APPROACH TO USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer a range of hour-long and day-long workshops for both English and content area teachers. If you are in northern New Jersey, join us at Barnes & Noble in Clifton on October 14, from 4pm-6pm. If you are in Illinois, we hope to see you at IATE in October. Otherwise, you can also find us at NCTE and CEL in Minneapolis in November.

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

This text takes all the intricacies of the Common Core State Standards and packages them neatly into a format that actually works in a real classroom. With a strong focus on vocabulary building, challenging non-fiction pieces, and digital media to which our secondary students can connect, these units turn A Raisin in the Sun into a cultural, political, analytical learning experience--without taking away the literature. —Meaghan W. Freeman, middle- and high-school English teacher, Willsboro Central School, New York

A reader's understanding of a text is only as comprehensive as the previous experience he or she brings to it. What, then, happens, when the landscape of a reader's life doesn't provide sufficient context? If you feel the impulse to shrug your shoulders and sigh, squelch it. Fisch and Chenelle have created a series of relevant formative activities and assessments to prime the pump for student inquiry. No more flying blind or feeling trapped within the four corners of a text -- students can engage in literature study through a research-informed, "real-world" lens. —Oona Abrams, ELA Teacher, Chatham High School, New Jersey

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

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making sense of 'Watchman' and 'Mockingbird'

Yes, of course, we were first in line for Go Set a Watchman, and we read the new Harper Lee novel eagerly and with great pleasure. We’ve also been following, mostly with delight, the coverage of the text, including Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic, Isabel Wilkerson and Joseph Crespino in The New York Times, and Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.

Instead of weighing in on the novel generally, which is territory well-covered already by so many others, we thought we’d suggest a few ways in which teachers might integrate Watchman into their teaching of Mockingbird.

One of the biggest storylines about Watchman has been the discussion of Atticus as a racist. The mainstream media has covered this development in full sensational mode as if Atticus’s views about race are wholly surprising.

Careful readers of Mockingbird, however, have a sense of how complex the racial politics of Lee’s Maycomb world already are and that the Atticus of that novel is no simple hero. After all, Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson involuntarily, telling his brother “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me” (117). He is no civil rights activist: before, during, or after the trial. When Tom is shot in the prison yard for supposedly trying to escape, and shot seventeen times(!), Atticus responds with care for Tom’s family and for the African-American community, but he doesn’t initiate any legal appeal or investigation.

Teachers can help students unpack some of the complexity of Mockingbird’s Atticus. In our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, we offer an excerpt from David Margolick’s “To Attack a Lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird: An Iconoclast Takes Aim at a Hero.” The piece critically evaluates Atticus’s words and actions, analyzing the ways in which his actions are not necessarily so heroic. Moreover, the discussion allows students to think about whether it’s appropriate to judge someone from the past – whether a real-life or fictional character – based on our cultural or social standards today.

With a nuanced and critical understanding of Mockingbird’s Atticus, students will be all the more ready to think about the Atticus we encounter in Watchman who says that the “Negro population is backward” (242) and questions whether “Negroes [belong] in our schools and church and theaters?” (245). Is this Watchman Atticus really incommensurate with the Atticus in Mockingbird who defends Tom Robinson but is fully part and parcel of a community in which African Americans live as wholly second-class citizens in every way?

Brief excerpts from chapter 17 of Watchman, then, together with Margolick’s text, can help students make more sense out of Atticus, and the complex world of the segregated South. As you work this summer to adjust your teaching of Mockingbird post-Watchman, take a look at our Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird for the Margolick piece and others that can help flesh out that complex world.

Let’s help our students be smarter and more critically thoughtful than most of the mainstream media; it’s not that hard and it’s important, good work!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Highlights from ILA15

The highlight for us at ILA15 this past weekend in St. Louis (aside from the opportunity to present material from our current work-in-progress, Connect: A Collaborative Model for Using Informational Texts to Enhance Literacy Across Disciplines, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield some time in Spring 2016) was hearing dedicated and passionate educators talking about innovative ways to collaborate around cross-disciplinary literacy and informational text.

Two presentations in particular inspired us.

First, social studies teacher Lauren K. Francese and English teacher Rebecca Marsick from Westport, CT, shared their “MINDful reading” approach for enhancing literacy and engagement across disciplines.

According to Francese and Marsick, adolescence is a critical time for students to make the transition from “learning to read to reading to learn,” and so teachers of adolescents need to help them develop the cognitive tools necessary to make that shift.

Toward that goal, they created a model for rigorous, interdisciplinary nonfiction units that ask students to consider meaningful essential questions as they put texts related to the unit’s theme into dialogue.

During their presentation, they outlined several impressive units, including one on World War II, which pairs Hiroshima by John Hersey as a whole-class text with a range of related texts like Farewell to Manzanar and The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Helped Win World War II that students can choose from.

By both allowing students to choose from a list of texts that they have pre-screened and then offering multiple options for the unit’s culminating writing assignment, Francese and Marsick effect meaningful differentiation while also providing a rigorous learning experience for all students.

In their model the students discuss the books in a book club format for 15 minutes 2-3 times per week, and they are responsible for preparing themselves for these discussions by completing reading organizers and bringing their own questions to drive the discussion.

We of course were also very interested in their collaborative English-social studies high school unit on the civil rights movement that puts To Kill a Mockingbird into dialogue with Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, centered around the essential question, “What does it mean to be a strong leader?”

They also talked about how they have adapted the degree to which they work together over the years according to their respective teaching assignments. In some years they have been able to collaborate very closely, while in others they simply coordinate their efforts in order to support and reinforce each other’s efforts.

And they shared both the tools they use to support student engagement and critical thinking and to encourage their colleagues to try out such units.

It was a treat to hear about this very valuable collaboration, which they have outlined in their book Stretching Beyond the Textbook: Reading and Succeeding with Complex Texts Across the Content Areas (Scholastic 2014).

The other presentation that we greatly enjoyed was led by a trio of science teachers. Yes, science teachers!

As we are completing our new book that outlines our collaborative model for enhancing literacy across the disciplines, the title of their session, “Integrating STEM Readings with Secondary ELA Curriculum,” attracted our attention, and we were not disappointed.

In their presentation Adam Aldridge, Eriq Hearn, and Alexis Wren, all graduate students from Georgia Regents University in Augusta, outlined their respective efforts to incorporate engaging informational and literary texts into their biology, chemistry, and physics/math classes.

Biology teacher Eriq Hearn discussed how he guided his students to consider Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the way he presents the theory of natural selection as an argument. He also hooked their interest by pairing their study of Darwin with short stories from the collection Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics by Phillip R. Rilley.

Chemistry teacher Alexis Wren described how she engages students by having them consider the moral implications of chemistry in relation to the Holocaust. Using an anticipation guide, she asks them whether they think the chemists employed by the Nazis knew what their work was being used for and how they should have been punished, if at all, after World War II. She pairs their reading of an informational article, “Chemistry in Nazi Germany” by Sarah Everts, with The Periodic Table, a memoir by Primo Levi.

In addition to sharing the wonderful texts that they’ve used in their classes, these passionate young teachers also discussed the creative ways they have hooked their students’ interest (e.g., anticipation guides, written conversations) and encouraged them to demonstrate their understanding (e.g., creating comic books and movie posters).

Toward the end of their session, Hearn urged the English teachers in the audience to work with their science teachers to help them engage all of their students. (If only we all had such eager colleagues – of any discipline – to collaborate with!) And we wholeheartedly agreed with his encouragement to start by reaching out to colleagues that you like.

Finally, our ILA convention was topped off by the opportunity to meet with the two women at the helm of CommonLit, Michelle Brown and Sarah Mielbye, who were sharing their important work in the exhibition hall. Brown and Mielbye offer a growing range of accessible, engaging informational texts as a searchable database for teachers to use to create their own cross-disciplinary and informational text connections. They are also negotiating with various content providers (like NPR) and authors to allow access for student and classroom use.

We applaud and share the vision these two women have for how teachers need to be the intellectual and creative core of innovations in education. Technology, like CommonLit, may enable teachers to do this work more quickly (by providing content and helping streamline the search for content and connections), but ultimately teachers, through their energy, their experience, their collaborative impulses, and their knowledge of their students, can and should be the ones creating curricula and making change.

As is always the case, our attendance at a national conference, and the opportunity to meet with teachers and innovators from across the country (like Michele Haiken and her innovative methods for teaching Mockingbird!), has left us invigorated about our work and impressed by the good work being done by educators, young and old, experts and novices alike. (And we're looking forward to enjoying that heady mix of inspiration again at IATE, NCTE, and CEL! Join us!)

It isn’t always easy to be a teacher, but after attending ILA, we know we are in good company. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 4

In our first three posts in response to the New York Times’English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we’ve talked about the pitfalls and potential of the informational text mandate and about the need for teachers to have freedom and time to prepare text pairings that work well for their curricula and students. We have one final and important point to make in relation to Kate Taylor’s excellent article: there is no one methodology for using informational text successfully in the classroom.

Because students need a variety of experiences with a ranges of texts types and because we want to use complex texts as often as we can, we think it’s important to offer excerpts (of various lengths and trimming when necessary) so that students can focus their attention on the key connections between the informational text and the anchor literary text (without unnecessary distractions from your instructional goals that can eat up precious class time).
We also think it’s important to foreground, with engaging and authentic kinds of questions, the key ideas and vocabulary that students will encounter in the informational text. This way, the students can build their language skills, including the use of context clues and dictionary skills, while also anticipating the ideas in the reading. These sorts of activities can be done in groups or as homework, and they can be accomplished quickly. With this background, students are more likely to approach the informational text with some confidence and persevere during the challenging reading moments.

Finally, we think multimedia texts – photos, video clips, songs – can also be terrific context and confidence builders, producing motivation and engagement in the students before they turn to the complex informational text.

We agree with literacy consultant Kim Yaris, however, when she describes her fifth-grade son’s tearful reaction to a nine-day, “painstakingly close reading” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And we agree with Pimentel that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a “valuable” text, worth studying both for its content and the academic vocabulary it contains.

But if students are going home crying after nine days of reading it, then the lesson is not working and the exercise threatens, as Yaris says, to “Kill the love of reading.”

Close reading of a single text over the course of several days is a defining characteristic of the Common Core-aligned instruction espoused by Pimentel and her CCSS co-author David Coleman, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too much of anything, from close reading to chocolate, isn’t good.

Teachers need to have and use the freedom to decide when they want to lovingly linger in detailed analysis of a text, to uncover with their students all of the meanings that can be uncovered in it through close, careful attention.

But every reading exercise should not follow this pattern. Remember, the goal is to produce confident, competent readers who can make sense out of the range of texts out there in the world. Some texts and reading occasions may require nine days of careful close analysis; most will not.

Just as the informational text mandate promises to offer teachers’ autonomy in their classrooms as they create meaningful, authentic text pairings to engage their students, let’s remember that teachers need to have the freedom and the confidence to decide how to use informational texts in their classroom. There is no one methodology for every text, for every teacher, and for every student!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court declares 'Raisin in the Sun' still very relevant

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, building on and preserving the Fair Housing Act of 1968, upheld a law that allows plaintiffs to challenge government or private policies and practices that result in discrimination, segregation, or disparate impacts in housing. The ruling focuses on the effect of housing practices, rather than the question of intent.

For those of us who teach A Raisin in the Sun, this new ruling makes clear the continued relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play. The days of overt, explicit housing discrimination, like racially restrictive covenants which kept families of color (like Hansberry’s) from owning property in certain communities, may be over, but housing segregation continues apace.

And, as the Times, citing research from a Harvard study, writes in its editorial on the ruling, housing discrimination and segregation have significant effects on future incomes and opportunities: “young children whose families had been given housing vouchers that allowed them to move to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college – and to attend better colleges – than those who had not received the vouchers.” And these children had “significantly higher income as adults.”

Notwithstanding the complex question of what is a “better neighborhood,” this kind of future for young Travis Younger is what Lena Younger had in mind when she used her husband’s life insurance policy to buy her family a home in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.

Hansberry’s text needs to be read in the context of the historical and ongoing issue of housing discrimination and the consequences of housing segregation for the African-American community. Our forthcoming Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (available in October and for pre-order now) offers teachers a number of texts and resources that open up these issues for students, enabling them to see why we still read and care about a text like Raisin and why this recent Supreme Court decision is so important.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 3

In the first two sections of our response to the New York Times front-page article, English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we talked about the pitfalls and potential of the Common Core’s informational text mandate for the study of literature. In this last section, we want to think more about what’s necessary for teachers to be more successful in integrating informational text into their teaching of literature.

To accomplish this enormous task, teachers must be given the freedom and the time to use their expertise about their content and their students to choose text pairings relevant to both.

Kate Taylor writes, for example, of the pairing of excerpts of The Odyssey with sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights. We agree with Common Core co-author Susan Pimentel’s observation in the Times that this seems like an odd choice. ‘There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.’” Indeed.

But who knows what interesting real-world connection that pairing might elicit with a particular set of students? What’s exciting in this example and in this enterprise more broadly is how language arts teachers are taking up the challenge of the CCSS and creating new, exciting units that suit the needs and interests of their students.

In that vein, we understand but also take issue with Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein’s lament that using news and opinion pieces about timely issues “seems[s] based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in.” He argues that when teachers don’t always adhere to the Common Core’s standards regarding text complexity that “the definition of informational texts ‘very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.’”

Yes, we need to challenge our students with complex, diverse texts. But what’s so bad about having them also read an engaging topical blog post? What’s wrong with giving our students accessible entry points into “topical contemporary discussions of things”? And is Bauerlein so sure that the news and opinion pieces he bemoans reflect simple text and low expectations? On the contrary, asking students to make connections among texts and ideas in a variety of texts types (and at a variety of levels of text complexity) is central to the mission of the CCSS, as we understand it.

Teachers have the expertise and judgment to use informational text to reinvigorate their curriculum, but it does take a lot of work and support, as we discussed in our first posting on this topic. We are trying to help by sharing the model and resources we’ve developed over the last few years. Check out our blog and our website for resources and strategies for finding quality informational texts, using them in the classroom, tackling the vocabulary challenges they often pose, and more.

Our books, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (available from Rowman) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (available for pre-order and out in October) contain classroom-ready units, complete with vocabulary activities, discussion questions, writing prompts, and group projects that put engaging informational texts (political speeches, Supreme Court decisions, opinion pieces and more) into dialogue with key moments of these classic literary texts.

Yes, the prospect of doing this work can be daunting, but the rewards are very much worth it. Our blog post from last summer can help you get started creating your own informational unit that best serves the needs of your students. Seize the opportunity of the CCSS, find your pairing(s), and see how using informational text can invigorate your teaching of literature. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 2

In the first section of our response to the New York Times front-page article, “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we talked about the concern that the Common Core’s informational text mandate may be pushing out the study of literature.

In this section, we want to emphasize what we know through our own experiences in the classroom and in working with other teachers: incorporating informational text doesn’t have to crowd out or deaden the study of literature! In terms of the latter, when done well, it’s actually the opposite.

Indeed, as Kate Taylor reports, many students are enjoying exciting learning experiences in English classrooms that incorporate informational text into the study of literature.

Eighth graders at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School read articles about the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees alongside their reading of Inside Out and Back Again, a novel in verse by Thanhha Lai about a Vietnamese girl who fled the country with her family after the war. The extensive annotations on one informational text the students read, as shown in one of the photos that appears with the online version of the article, suggest close engagement with and critical thinking about the informational text on the part of the students.

The informational texts used with Inside Out and Back Again likely supplied key background information the eighth-grade students needed to engage with the novel in a deep way. Through these texts, the students could gain a greater understanding of the historical context of the novel and also consider how the novel’s depiction of its fictional protagonist’s experience compares with that of actual refugees. The eighth graders, in other words, were given more ways to connect with and understand the literary text, so that they could see more clearly what was at stake within the novel and why, more broadly, it speaks to bigger issues that matter in the world.

Establishing this kind of engagement and relevance is key, especially for struggling readers, as Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher cited in the article, has found. In his experience “struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.”

Informational texts can be the key to answering that most basic pedagogical question: why are we reading this? Or the underlying and slightly more hostile: why should I care about this text?

Susan’s own sophomores this year found A Raisin in the Sun more meaningful after reading an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun: a City of Chicago report on violence surrounding housing desegregation. This commission report helped them understand that real people had experienced what the Youngers face in Lorraine Hansberry’s play.

That’s not the only reason we read Hansberry’s play, but it’s an important piece of the why, especially for a group of diverse 15-year-olds in urban Jersey City where Susan teaches.

So, does the inclusion of informational text necessarily mean a loss to the teaching of literature? No!

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which we offer suggestions and resources for incorporating informational text into your language arts classroom in ways that will enhance your instruction of literature and reap rewards worthy of your time and effort.