Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vocabulary instruction needs to be authentic

Vocabulary instruction is both super challenging and super important and is receiving more and more attention as a result of the Common Core (see for example, the recent “Under Common Core, Students Learn Words by Learning about the World” in Education Week). Because complex informational texts often include masses of unfamiliar domain-specific vocabulary, working with this kind of text in the language arts classroom highlights both the challenges and the importance of careful, regular, and engaging vocabulary instruction.

How can we introduce complex informational text into our classrooms without overwhelming our students with extensive unfamiliar and intimidating vocabulary?

For example, when Audrey was working with Loving v. Virginia in a class studying the Supreme Court decision in relation to the issue of interracial love and marriage in To Kill a Mockingbird (specifically, Dolphus Raymond), the students faced any number of vocabulary hurdles: statute, appellant, indictment, constitutional, due process, and statutory scheme, to name just a few.

If we don’t solve the vocabulary hurdle before getting into this text, reading the Loving case will be impossible; students will turn off and the connections with Mockingbird will remain inaccessible.

But a list of words and access to a dictionary is not the answer! Nor is the practice of copying and recopying new words. It’s using the words, over and over, in the kind of “massive practice” that James Moffett extols or what the National Reading Panel calls “systematic repetition.”

In a recent article in Educational Leadership, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey address the importance of “rigorous, engaging vocabulary instruction … [which] is especially important for culturally diverse students, who frequently find it challenging to master the academic language needed for school success.” Fisher and Frey emphasize the importance of “authentic use of content vocabulary.”

What is “authentic use”?

It’s when students (and teachers, but mostly students) use the new words over and over again in their own ways. The practice takes time and involves many mistakes and many misuses of the new words along the way. Teachers are there to nudge and correct and reshape students’ language use through a mix of vocabulary-in-context instruction and direct instruction. We need to offer lively and engaging collaborative work in vocabulary skits; context-clue questions that treat students like word detectives; and authentic, open-ended vocabulary questions that require students to own the new words.

Through “authentic use,” we produce learners who have gained new words in their lexicon as well as confidence about their own decoding and word acquisition skills.

This time and effort over vocabulary will pay dividends in our classrooms when we turn to our informational text(s) and in our students’ lives as they meet the challenges of new vocabulary in and outside of the language arts classroom.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Supporting success for all students with complex informational texts

Audrey had the opportunity to work with a former student and current high school language arts teacher Ms. D. this past week. Ms. D. has been working with Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, so it was great to collaborate on Loving V. Virginia, one of the units in the volume, in her classroom.

Ms. D.’s focus, as she explained, had been reading comprehension. She used media clips suggested in our volume and focused her attention on sidebar questions to guide her students’ responses to the key ideas and textual features within the informational texts. For Ms. D., the fact that her class included a majority of students with IEPs, made the task of working with complex texts all that more daunting, but she had been enjoying teaching Mockingbird through the many lenses our informational text units provided.

Audrey began her visit with a video showing a live performance of Nanci Griffith’s song,“The Loving Kind,” from YouTube. After an initial viewing, the students were able to glean that Richard and Mildred Loving were an interracial couple who had made history and changed our nation. But they had little sense of the broader issues. They could understand that the two had been jailed for marrying, but they offered some confused responses about how people generally might have been happy about their wedding or about the fact that their relationship might have been prohibited because of slavery.

So we watched the video a second time, and Audrey asked the students to think about key words and phrases. They shouted these out as we watched, and Audrey jotted them on the board. They noticed, for example, that the song referenced how Richard and Mildred had changed the “heart” of our nation and we talked about the significance of that word “heart” as opposed to, for example, the “laws” of the nation (which provided a nice tease for Loving). The focus on the word “heart” also helped them think about how and why the “heart” of the nation might have needed to be changed in relationship to this love story and more broadly how “hearts” can remain unchanged even when laws change.

Next, Audrey moved into vocabulary. Because Ms. D. hadn’t done much work on vocabulary before, we worked slowly, first in groups and then collectively only on the vocabulary exercises involving context clues and usage (we skipped over the dictionary work). This took time, but the students were able to gain understanding of crucial key ideas and words within the court case as well as build confidence and skill at working with context clues to derive word meanings.

This vocabulary work is so important to our work with informational text. Building skill at deciphering context clues and at gleaning information from short, knotty passages is crucial to student success. Our vocabulary questions can be considered mini practice texts; building reading fluency in small groups and then collectively with these small examples allows the student to take on the longer, challenging informational text.

During the 90-minute class, we also spent a good bit of time talking about the introduction to, the title information for, and the opening sections of the Loving decision. The students struggled to understand many of the basics: why Justice Warren was writing the decision; what did it mean for the decision to be unanimous? We also talked about how the Lovings could be guilty of violating the Virginia statutes but still win their case in the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds (and how a win in the Supreme Court is different from a win in, for example, traffic court).

A highlight of the class was when we worked through a block quote in the Loving decision in which Justice Warren quotes the trial judge’s opinion on the case: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The students were totally confused about this quote, in part because of its format as a block quote and the way in which Justice Warren introduces the quote into his opinion. Justice Warren writes, “He states in an opinion that….” For the students, the “he” in this quotation was Warren himself. When Audrey asked them why Justice Warren would quote himself or why he would call himself “he,” they were flummoxed. The fact that Justice Warren does not name the lower court judge here no doubt added to the confusion.

But once some careful probing allowed the students to discover that Justice Warren was quoting the lower court judge (and the judge who had suspended Mildred and Richard’s one-year sentence on the condition that they leave Virginia and “not return together for 25 years”), the students were able to demonstrate their brilliance. The idea that this lower court judge would invoke the Bible, but without actually quoting any scripture, was typical, the students asserted. People use God to make all sorts of arguments, they said; that doesn’t make the arguments necessarily true, but it does fool some of the people. Indeed.

So these students may have been confused about when slavery ended, how the Supreme Court functions, and how to unpack the complicated use of a block quote within a legal argument, but they could, with some gentle assistance, make some fairly astute comments about the disconnect between what’s legal and what’s real in practice and about how religion is often invoked to bolster specious arguments.

The Loving opinion is one of the more challenging units in our Mockingbird text, precisely because it involves difficult legal language, complex vocabulary, and a general understanding of our country’s legal system. Students may come to the text without being fully equipped, but we can still make them feel smart about their ability to have valuable insights, even with their incomplete background knowledge. And when they feel smart, they are more likely to persevere and keep working at complex texts, which will produce in them both more background knowledge and greater investment and insight into our anchor text, Mockingbird, where Dolphus Raymond, alas, could not and did not marry his love and the mother of his children.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A new resource for teaching Mockingbird

In the year since our first book, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, was published, we have enjoyed the privilege of sharing our work with teachers around the country and have been gratified to play a role in how they are teaching this ever-relevant and beloved novel.

Like so many others, we eagerly await the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and wonder how it will impact our perceptions of Scout, Atticus, and life in Maycomb, Alabama, and how it will resonate in the present day as Mockingbird still does so powerfully. In the meantime, we welcome a valuable new resource released in April by the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Mockingbird.

Similar to our volume, Teaching Mockingbird is organized into units centered upon essential questions that guide teachers and students as they study the novel in conjunction with related readings and multimedia resources that help students build the background knowledge needed to access the rich themes throughout Mockingbird. Facing History’s guide also contains a wonderful range of video clips and graphic organizers to engage visual and auditory learners (as our volume does as well).

Having spent a great deal of time searching for engaging, meaningful informational texts in creating our own book on Mockingbird, we applaud the choices in Facing History. Three resources in Teaching Mockingbird are particularly fascinating: the discussions of eugenics, the redneck stereotype, and restorative justice.

Teaching Mockingbird aims to be a comprehensive guide to teaching the novel, with extensive thematic and close reading questions for each chapter of the novel, based on Facing History’s pedagogical approach, foregrounding “adolescent and moral development.” The volume offers a very helpful guide to discussing sensitive topics in the classroom and substantive guidance for teachers on how, when, and why to use the resources included. Teaching Mockingbird begins with a rich pre-reading section on identity, difference, personal voice, and belonging and ends with a rewarding post-reading unit that examines the novel’s legacy and the power of literature to shape the morals and ethics of individuals and society.

Like our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, this new volume offers teachers resources to refresh and enrich their existing Mockingbird curriculum by incorporating engaging, complex, relevant informational texts into their teaching of the novel. Both guides emphasize giving students experience with a wide range of meaningful and relevant nonfiction, developing their skills in making evidence-based inferences and arguments, and enhancing their vocabulary and use of academic language.

Of course, we do have some differences in approach. These can be seen most explicitly in how the two volumes present excerpts from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Teaching Mockingbird offers a very short excerpt from the beginning of the address with no resources for addressing challenging words like “candor” or “impel.” On the other hand, our book offers teachers a variety of pre-reading vocabulary activities to front-load both key vocabulary and concepts to pave the way for a successful experience of reading, discussing, and writing about a longer excerpt of the address, while guided reading questions alongside the excerpt follow-up on that pre-reading vocabulary practice, asking students to examine how the words are used in the text.

In addition to reinforcing students’ vocabulary acquisition, the guided reading questions that appear directly alongside each informational text in our book draw students’ attention to key textual features and concepts within the text. Each reading is followed by writing and discussion questions that put the informational text into meaningful dialogue with the novel; some units also feature a creative class activity that can be used as a capstone project for the study of the informational text itself or the novel overall.

Our differences reflect our sense that informational text poses specific and substantial challenges to students, particularly in relation to vocabulary and textual features and format. We also want to emphasize the importance of students engaging in rich and evidence-based dialogue as they put these informational texts into conversation with Mockingbird.

Clearly, Teaching Mockingbird, like our UsingInformational Text to Teach Literature, offers teachers and students the opportunity to meet the standards of the Common Core with a range of high quality, complex texts that will invigorate our understanding of this rewarding and relevant novel for years to come. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

ASCD dispatch #3: Close, careful attention makes things more interesting


Today, bright and early at 8am on the last day of the conference, we attended a fantastic session on a subject near and dear to our hearts, informational text.

In “Teach Students to Read, Talk, and Write about Informational Texts,” Diane Lapp and Maria Grant offered so many wonderful suggestions and ideas.

Here are some of our favorites:

1. We need to guide students with text-dependent questions that force the students back into the text for answers. These questions should always go beyond basic facts and should never be based on recall of information. They should highlight what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. Students can then stretch to think about inferences about the text and whether they find the text and the text’s argument credible. And, so crucial to our thinking, they can work to shape intertextual connections between the informational text and, for example, a literary text or some other aspect of their content curriculum. The informational text does not need to be a step away from the curriculum; it can be a step into it!

2. If we pay close and careful attention to something, it becomes more interesting. Multiple readings of one text, for different purposes and with different questions in mind, make a text yield more for a reader. Learning to perform that kind of scrutiny with a text should be the ultimate goal of education; students who master that skill will find their reading exponentially more pleasurable.

3. All of our strategies for grappling with informational text, whether the close, multiple-readings strategy explored so brilliantly by Lapp and Grant, or our approach -- focusing on front-loading vocabulary and concepts, supporting with reading comprehension questions, and solidifying with engaging, complex discussion and writing questions that work to connect the informational text with literature or other content area material -- are designed to allow students to build their confidence, competence, resilience, and stamina with complex texts. Support your students with scaffolding and modeling and guide them. Then, gradually release them into group work and some independence. They may need to return to the scaffold and the support; the process is not necessarily direct. But eventually, they will acquire the skills and become strong, independent readers of a wide variety of texts.

4. Choose as your informational text an appropriate companion to what you’re teaching. Don’t make the informational text standard a step away from your curriculum. Make it a step into that curriculum: the on-ramp to more engagement, more purpose, and more motivation for your students. Choose carefully and your informational text will make your entire lesson or unit more productive.

ASCD dispatch #2: Inspiring collaboration, transformational coaching

One of the most amazing things about attending conferences is getting to see the inspiring work of committed, creative, energetic teachers and education professionals being done across the country.

We attended two sessions at ASCD 2015 that exemplified this phenomenon.

In “Collaboration that Works: Science, Literacy, and 21st Century Skills,” Kate Cronk and Hallie Edgerly, two 8th grade teachers in science and language arts, from Adel DeSoto Minburn Community School District in Adel, IA, presented their story of spectacular collaboration across the disciplines.

They spoke about their three-year process (totally self-initiated and self-motivated) of developing a four-week cross-disciplinary unit on inventions. Their students conducted market research, including first-hand surveys, developed budgets, kept logs of their invention timelines, and reflected on their collaborative skills. They used QR codes to link to student-created infomercials about their products. The unit culminated in a visit to a local college and a “Shark Tank” style competition. There is no question that Cronk and Edgerly’s students were developing and using 21st-century skills. Equally impressive, from the many student testimonials they shared, was the pride these teachers took in how their collaborative, cross-disciplinary project fostered their students’ social skills, brought out the strengths of individual students with specific weaknesses, and even reduced bullying.

Cronk and Edgerkly were frank about their own learning process, about how they needed to improve their own interactions with other teachers, how they could involve other teachers even when those teachers were unable to give up classroom time, and how they both grew as teachers from the project.

What’s perhaps most impressive in their work is how it required little administrative or material support (albeit their administrators did not throw up road blocks). Their story was simply the age-old take of two individuals with initiative putting in the work and making a tremendous difference in the lives of the children in their school.

The second session we want to highlight was not about a small or simple intervention. In “Instituting a Culture of Collaboration: The Instructional Coaching Model,” a team from Randolph High School in New Jersey, Adriana Coppola, Ruth Forrest, Julie Green, and Lena Wasylyk, described the impressive model they developed after their district created a space for these four dynamic women to institutionalize instructional coaching.

In this high-energy and interactive session, this team shared the lessons from their three years of working as instructional coaches. Their model works off an entirely voluntary approach: teachers come to the coaches for advice, from where to make copies to how to deal with a difficult class to how to develop a DBQ for a math classroom. The team offers one-on-one coaching, co-teaching, specialized professional development sessions, and so much more.

The keys to this approach seem to be the dynamic team leaders but also the confidential, voluntary, non-evaluative model, in which teachers can seek out their peers for specific, timely support that they need from peers they trust. Kudos to the team in Randolph for their great work and to the administrators for giving this team the support they need to be successful.

And kudos to ASCD for showcasing these, among many examples, of best practices in today’s educational universe.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

ASCD dispatch #1: We need to collaborate

We’ve been enjoying our first day at ASCD in Houston, meeting with interesting and engaged educators from across the country.

A few ideas struck us from our first day of conversations:
  • As we get further into implementation of the Common Core, we need to remember the challenge the standards pose to busy teachers. Not everyone has mastered the new standards. And, in particular, we need to help our content area colleagues understand and implement the new Language Arts standards in math/science and social studies.
  • Along the lines of #1, if we, as language arts teachers, take on the entire burden of teaching a science-based informational text unit, we aren’t helping our science colleagues adapt and adjust. Ask your science colleague (start with a teacher you like!) about a unit that the students struggle with (or about one that they find really exciting) and suggest a few informational text connections that you can work on together to meet the History/Social Studies and Science Literacy standards and build (or build on) student motivation and engagement in the content area.
  • Today, we all need to be readers and broad intellectuals. None of us can afford to teach the same old essays and literary texts. And none of us can afford to read narrowly and only in our disciplines. If we are going to teach students to make connections across the disciplines and to be strong readers of a wide variety of complex texts, we need to get out of our silos and be doing the same work ourselves!
  • Along the lines of #3, especially on the secondary level, text-to-text connections are so crucial to education today. Students learning about a concept in physics need to be able to apply that knowledge to a news story about safety issues with roller coasters. Students studying thinking about food safety and the sustainability of our food practices can benefit from thinking about how thinkers have explored these issues in a variety of texts, historical contexts, and genres (such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle).
The biggest takeaway, as is so often the case at these gatherings, is how devoted educators are to their craft and their calling. We have many balls in the air and many demands on our time, but we are in good company as we do this important work!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

PARCC-college alignment could be game-changer

Amid all the drama about the new assessments, there was an interesting tidbit of potentially game-changing information released last week by Education Week. Catherine Gewertz reported that two public colleges in Colorado will be the first to consider PARCC scores in course-placement decisions, joining schools in Washington and West Virginia who pledged to do the same with Smarter Balanced scores.

The Common Core Standards were designed to prepare students for college-level work. The idea is that the standards don’t just ask students to take on more difficult tasks but that the tasks they are being asked to take on are more coherently aligned to the work students will face in college. The shift towards more informational text, for example, represents an understanding that in college and careers, people today need to be able to grapple with a wide range of complex informational text, so the curriculum in high school needs to better reflect that.

The new assessments, then, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, were designed to measure students’ proficiency at those better-aligned skills. And their cut scores (passing/failing scores) were supposed to indicate whether students had achieved proficiency that would equate with college readiness. Previously, states designed their own exams and set their own cut scores, and many, many students who had passed their state high school proficiency exams found themselves dismayed by college placement exams that determined they needed developmental work.

Will articulation between these assessments and colleges and universities really take hold? That probably depends on whether the exams actually do a good job of measuring the skills colleges want to see in their students. The verdict on that is still out, as we await the outcome of this first round of testing and the announcement of the PARCC cut scores.

Still, what most teachers in K-12 want is to be sure that they are preparing students well for their futures. A test that gives teachers feedback on that outcome and allows teachers, schools, and districts to modify their instruction and curriculum to meet that goal will be welcome.

Teachers who teach AP classes work hard to teach to the test and are delighted when their students score well enough to earn college credit. The new assessments have the potential to be a meaningful marker to all stakeholders: teachers and schools will know that they have made good on their promises to their students, and students (and their parents) will know that they leave high school prepared for their lives ahead.

Fingers crossed.