Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Teachers are key to quality Common Core-aligned instructional materials

In Education Week’s “Curriculum Matters” Dec. 18 blog post, Catherine Gewertz reports on the frustrations many teachers, districts, and states have experienced in searching for Common Core-aligned instructional materials. While we acknowledge this very real frustration, we think there is a way forward.

As Gewertz writes, “Denver public school system has been scouring the market for instructional resources in math and English/language arts, but hasn't found anything it likes enough to justify the multimillion-dollar investment.”

As many educators have found, much of the instructional materials publishers have labeled “Common Core-aligned” fall short of those criteria.

Gewertz explains that Denver, like other districts, then attempted to create its own curriculum only to return “the drawing board” after that enormous undertaking suffered its own pitfalls.

That leaves Denver teachers pretty much betwixt and between, as tests for the common core draw near,” as Gewertz concludes. “They're adapting their current resources as well as they can, and district officials are supporting those efforts. But it's likely that many other districts are in similar straits.”

We know these straits well, and we would like to offer a way forward. We support Denver and other districts in holding publishers to high standards, but we especially applaud their willingness to allow teachers to create their own instructional materials, even as we acknowledge the huge challenges and anxieties inherent in such a high-stakes effort.

We understand that Denver has not found success in creating its own curricula thus far, but we strongly believe that a curriculum that truly supports students in achieving the goals of the Common Core must be current and responsive to students’ changing needs and interests. Therefore, it must be shaped by local teachers; with the right resources and support, they can do this work.

As educators, we know that teachers already have far too much on their plates and that doing this work well takes time teachers rarely have. That’s why we’ve developed a model and resources for using informational text that can help teachers tackle one of the most challenging instructional shifts mandated by the Common Core. Teachers in all content areas have found that our model is highly adaptable and applicable to the literacy challenges and needs of their discipline.

We also offer some units that we have created in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird. In this text, and in our work-in-progress on A Raisin in the Sun, we’ve gathered a wide range of informational texts for teachers and created a variety of activities and assignments for teachers to use to fill in gaps and make connections with the anchor literary text. Please see our sample units for To Kill a Mockingbird as well as our blog posts on how to use these strategies in the classroom.

Our series is intended to produce high-quality, deeply engaging units. But we hope our work serves as an inspiration for teachers; we can and should all be creating and sharing these kinds of units as we adjust to the Common Core.

We have been inspired by the many educators around the country to whom we’ve had the opportunity to speak since we began our work on using informational text. Over and over, we encounter teachers who are already doing this work – and presenting their students with exciting, relevant, challenging lessons that will help them develop the strong critical thinking, reading, and writing skills they will need to succeed in their 21st century futures – as well as teachers who are eager to begin once given a clear model that not only maps out how to do this work in a manageable and effective way but also demonstrates the great potential rewards of doing so.

Note to districts and administrators: the secret to the Common Core is your own teachers. Give them the time and resources to do the work! After all, this is why we all became teachers. Good for Long Beach, CA, for putting the curriculum into the hands of their teachers. And to those administrators in Denver who aren’t yet satisfied with the district-produced curriculum, don’t give up yet. Even if a home-grown curriculum isn’t fully feasible, the efforts you make to empower your teachers to do this work will surely pay enormous dividends as we all muddle through the messy process of transitioning to the Core.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Use informational text to revamp your curriculum over the holiday break

With winter break fast approaching, we're looking forward to spending time with family and friends, enjoying great food, getting enough sleep(!) ... and having time to plan great things for the rest of the school year. If you are thinking of spending some of your well-earned respite revamping your curriculum, our resources can help.

IF YOU WILL BE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, now is a great time to order our first volume, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird. Use our text to start thinking about enhancing your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while meeting the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units. Right now, it's available for 30% off until 12/29 from the Rowman & Littlefield website (use code RLWEB3014 when ordering online or by phone 1-800-462-6420). Or, Amazon has it available via two-day shipping for 9% off the cover price.
IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM more broadly, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts to use in any unit and then setting your students up for successful engagement with them. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and how to use multimedia with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on TKAM as well as our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun on the New York Times Learning Network.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT AREA COLLEAGUES in preparation for the Common Core assessments, check out our recent English Leadership Quarterly article about pairing an excerpt from Lord of the Flies with a science article from the New York Times as well as our blog posts on collaboration. Use our materials to begin to build rewarding collaboration among members of your PLC and/or grade-level teams.

IF YOU’D LIKE HANDS-ON, INTERACTIVE TRAINING IN OUR APPROACH TO USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT, contact us about scheduling a professional development session at your school or district. We offer a range of hour-long and day-long workshops for both English and content area teachers. Or join us at ASCD in Houston in March or at IRA in St. Louis in July.

We hope our resources will be helpful to you in achieving a successful school year. As always, we welcome your feedback! 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 6, 2014

What the Common Core means for teaching literature

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

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

Not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Cross-disciplinary collaboration in English Leadership Quarterly

We began our work together around the informational text standard of the Common Core. We wanted to encourage language arts teachers to think about ways to use informational text to enhance their teaching, particularly so that they wouldn’t feel that using informational text meant moving away from literature. Our goal was (and is) to help language arts teachers see that informational text can connect with and enhance the literary content.

Somewhere along the way, we realized that content area teachers in all the disciplines needed help in thinking about how informational text could connect with and enhance their content as well. And they also needed help in thinking about the literacy skills necessary to negotiate these texts. 

So we started adapting the materials we’d developed for using informational text to teach literature in order to make them better serve content area teachers. And we started to think about how language arts teachers and other content area teachers could use this moment as an opportunity to come together and collaborate.

This kind of cross-disciplinary work is time consuming; and all collaboration poses significant challenges. But we want our students to succeed and we want our teaching to meet the demands of the Common Core and of the 21st century, so we need to rise to these new challenges.

This week our reflections on professional development that can help teachers meet these challenges has been published in English Leadership Quarterly. We hope that our efforts might provide a model or stepping-stone for other educators embarking on this challenging but rewarding journey. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Reflections on NJPAECET2

Last weekend, we had the opportunity to share our work with a group of educators at the New Jersey/Pennsylvania Elevating & Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching Conference (ECET2) at Raritan Valley Community College in New Jersey. We were thrilled to be able to present our ideas about “Collaborating Across Disciplines: Using InformationalText to Enhance Curriculum.”

Our session included a great range of educators: administrators and teachers and specialists in science, Spanish, language arts, and social studies. This committed group of educators was interested in helping students meet the challenges of PARCC and the new Common Core State Standards in a way that makes intellectual and pedagogical sense. Everyone in the room saw collaboration as the key, and everyone was optimistic and dedicated to stepping outside his/her comfort zone in order to use new kinds of texts in order to stimulate reading, writing, and conversations across the disciplines.

Some of us in the room were intimidated by all that we as teachers need to do in the months ahead. And we all agreed that collaboration is hard and scary, and that significant personal and institutional barriers exist that makes collaboration difficult.

But the conversation was inspiring. Teachers spoke of their willingness to try new things. Administrators spoke of their desire to learn from teachers who were taking the lead. Everyone agreed that collaborative, cross-disciplinary learning could be more effective, more fun, and more meaningful for students.

After our presentation, we attended some other great sessions, including discussion of literacy leadership, using technology to engage students, and cultivating a reflective teaching practice. It was great to be in such good company.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Join us on our world tour!

OK, not quite, but we are very excited about the events we have coming up over the next several months, and we'd love to see you along the way!

Join us at ...

Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun National Council of Teachers of English Convention, Washington, DC — Session D.04, Friday, 11/21, 2:30-3:45 PM

Using Informational Text: Cross-Disciplinary Literacy to Motivate Secondary LearningConference on English Leadership Convention, Washington DC — Session E, Monday, 11/24, 4:00-5:00 PM

Cross-Disciplinary Innovation and Collaboration Using Informational Text — ASCD Annual Conference, Houston, TX – 3/22/15, 3:00-4:30 PM

Bring us in for an hour or two, and we can walk you and your English teachers through the philosophy of Using Informational Text to Teach Literature, including how to fully utilize the strategies of our approach.

Bring us in for a day-long workshop, and we can work with your English and content area teachers to find informational texts that connect fully with your existing curriculum and to create engaging, comprehensive, cross-disciplinary units that help students meet the informational texts standards, while asking them to read, write, think, and speak critically about the texts and issues.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Check out ‘Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms’

We were recently given the opportunity to review Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy for the Teachers College Record. In their volume, Jeff Zwiers, Susan O’Hara, and Robert Pritchard offer educators principles and strategies for helping students they refer to as “academic English learners,” a term that encompasses a wide ranging of students with struggles in the academic classroom. The focus is on helping these students develop essential literacy skills in the era of the Common Core.

Diverse Classrooms is not a quick-fix text developed to take advantage of the Common Core publishing boom. Zwiers, O’Hara, and Pritchard offer strategies that grapple with the big ideas of the CCSS, particularly helping students learn how to engage with and articulate complex ideas. The authors present both research-based analysis supporting their approach as well as annotated lessons that educators can use as models in implementing their strategies. Click here for our full review on this resource well worth checking out.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

What PARCC revisions mean for informational text

In case you missed it, PARCC announced some changes to the English Language Arts/Literacy End-of-Year test. For grades 6-11, the changes include one fewer passage and fewer questions overall. The changes, according to PARCC, will reduce “the amount of time spent on testing and lowe[r] testing costs.”

For those of us interested in informational text and the ways in which it will be incorporated into the curriculum, the key points are as follows: the end-of-year assessment for grades 6-11 will go from 1 long and 2 short informational passages to 1 long and now only 1 short informational passage.  The test will still contain a paired passage set consisting of two literary and/or informational texts.

As we do our best to prepare our students in this evolving testing landscape, let’s remember that informational text can be motivating and engaging for students, provided we find interesting texts and prepare our students to deal with the challenges of those texts. Also, informational text can be a great way to create an entrance for students into off-putting or seemingly remote literary texts. Pairing literary and informational texts is a great way for students to think about texts as part of a dialogue and for them to see themselves as part of a larger conversation. Engaging in such dialogue is, at least for now, a central part of the PARCC assessments, and a key literacy skill we want our students to develop whether it remains so or not.

By the way, check out our Teachers College Record review of "Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms" by Jeff Zwiers et al.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Using informational videos to engage students in complex texts

If Frank W. Baker helps us think about how useful theatrical visuals can be in teaching the close reading and careful analysis skills critical to understanding literature (like To Kill a Mockingbird), we need to remember that informational videos can be just as helpful as we take on both literary and informational texts in all of our classrooms (not just in language arts).

For example, we used a brief Associated Press clip about Guantanamo Bay from YouTube to remind our young students about the connections between Al Qaeda, Guantanamo Bay, and 9/11 before teaching an editorial (an informational text) by Stephen Jones (published in The Wall Street Journal) about his experience defending Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. (Note: If your school or district blocks YouTube, there are browser plugins that allow you to download videos to your desktop. This is a good practice to follow in general; since the video file will already be on your desktop, your lesson won't be at the mercy of any video streaming glitches.)

The editorial, about the importance of good defense for politically unpopular clients, helps students see Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson in Mockingbird as part of a continuing debate about whether everyone deserves a good lawyer. But while the article provides accessible background about Timothy McVeigh (whom the students haven’t heard of), it assumes background knowledge about Al Qaeda and the Guantanamo defendants (which is only fuzzily present in our students’ brains).

And as with many texts that can seem remote and unexciting, the Jones piece has no obvious hook for students. Why should they care? How can they find an entry point into the text?

We used a quick, engaging clip from the AP (1 minute) about the conviction of Bin Laden’s driver to create that hook and set the stage. After the clip, we asked a few leading questions about the clip. Did they think the driver was guilty of serious terrorism charges or was he just a driver? Did they think he could get fair treatment through the military tribunal system, or did they wonder, as did his defense attorneys, about the issue of a fair trial? Students can be used to watching media passively, so presenting the initial questions to them can be key in getting the discussion going. And sometimes, it’s important to show a video clip more than once (or repeat the clip after you’ve asked the leading questions). It’s easy to forget how much is going on even in a brief media clip, with visuals, various voices, as well as information that’s unfamiliar to our students.

In our lesson, after the brief discussion of the AP clip (about 3 minutes), the students were quick to condemn the driver as guilty and dismissive of the concerns about a fair trial and even legal defense for people like Bin Laden’s driver. The clip and the discussion set the students up to take a stand and they did.

Unlike Baker, our goal with the media clip wasn’t to cultivate close reading and critical analysis. It was to prime the students with some basic information and get them to feel invested in the topic, which was achieved when they took a personal stand.

Once the students had taken their stand, they were set up for success with Jones’s editorial, which argues precisely the opposite point. The informational text, at this point, wasn’t remote and abstract to them. The media clip had allowed them to form an opinion about the issue, and they were ready to read more. And of course, more reading allowed them to refine and reformulate their earlier ideas and to see connections with Mockingbird.

So, use media clips to prime your students with background information and motivation -- especially with challenging informational texts!

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Using the language of film to engage students in visual and literary texts

We are always looking for ways to get our students more engaged with the texts we are reading. And we all know teachers who rely on the film version to motivate students (and sometimes reward students for plodding through the book). But turning out the lights and sticking in the movie (and offering the film as dessert) can be a recipe for trouble.

Frank W. Baker offers some great alternatives in a new post, “How to Close Read the Language of Film” on MiddleWeb. Apropos of To Kill a Mockingbird, he suggests offering students two publicity stills from the film and asking students to think about camera angles, clothing, and positioning, all in order to gain insight into the characters, particularly their power and their class position.

In effect, the film stills become stand-alone texts, challenging, rich with meaning and ripe for analysis, but also more inviting and less intimidating for students. Close reading these visual texts empowers students, prepares them for the media challenges we know are ahead of us with the Common Core, and is a richly rewarding exercise in critical thinking.

Imagine beginning your unit on Mockingbird with a discussion of either of the stills Baker suggests, so that even before they start reading, your students have a sense of Atticus’s relationship to the Maycomb community!

We strongly believe in the power and potential of media in the classroom and find Baker’s suggestions and tips really helpful.

Meanwhile, stay tuned for our thoughts on using informational videos to hook your students into complex literary and informational texts!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Get ready for the new school year with Using Informational Text to Teach Literature!

As the summer days tick by, does your pulse accelerate (with both excitement and slight panic) whenever you start counting the weeks/days till the new school year starts? If so, let our resources help ease you into August and start September with success.

​IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD NEXT YEAR, now is a great time to order the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, and start thinking about how it can enhance your study of Harper Lee’s classic novel while helping you meet the Common Core standard for informational text. Click here for more details about this book full of classroom-ready units.

IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT REVAMPING YOUR CURRICULUM, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts to use in any unit and then setting your students up for successful engagement with them. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and how to use multimedia with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on TKAM as well as our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun on the New York Times Learning Network, for models.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT AREA COLLEAGUES in preparation for the Common Core assessments, read our recent blog posts on collaboration and share our strategies for using high-interest informational texts with your cross-disciplinary colleagues. 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, INTERACTIVE TRAINING IN OUR APPROACH TO USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT, contact us about scheduling a professional development session at your school or district. We offer a range of hour-long and day-long workshops for both English and content area teachers. If you are in New Jersey, there’s still time to sign up for our 7/29 cross-disciplinary session at NJASCD. Or join us at NCTE and CEL in Washington DC 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!

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

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

This book (and its website) helps teachers to delve deeply into strategic teaching activities aimed at meeting the Common Core State Standards. Chenelle and Fisch use a wide array of readings with differing levels of complexity to provide “pathways” into engaging explorations of one of the most sacred texts of high school literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. Replete with ideas for evidence-based writing, connections to multimedia web resources, and possible rubrics for evaluating student work, this invaluable guide will not only challenge students to read, write, and think more critically, but will also help teachers “reconceptualize” their teaching to meet the rigorous objectives of the CCSS. —Allan A. De Fina, dean of the Deborah Cannon Partridge College of Education and professor of literacy education, New Jersey City University, past president of the New Jersey Reading Association

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

It’s summertime, and time to find great informational texts!

Like many English teachers, one of the top reasons I look forward to summer is having TIME TO READ! But while I’ve been blazing through my pile of summer fiction, I’m also basking in the joy of having enough free time to catch up with The Atlantic, New York Times Magazine, Wired, The Week, and other great sources of informational texts. Yes! Summer reading is a perfect opportunity to start looking for those high-interest articles that will hook your students into the longer works (both fiction and nonfiction) that you’ll be reading next year.

In addition to catching up with all of my favorite periodicals, I’m scanning my list of tried-and-true informational text sources for anything recent and relevant to the works I’ll be teaching next year and bookmarking anything that looks promising in Evernote (thanks to Sarah Mulhern Gross’s Twitter tip, LeBron James’ Sports Illustrated essay is already tagged for follow-up, though I haven’t figured out how I might use it yet). For Gatsby, I’m looking for new articles on the American Dream (lots has been written about that in recent months). For Othello, I’m looking for new pieces on jealousy and insecurity in relationships.

But, since I do not plan to miss out on summer by spending it all in front of my laptop, I’m letting Google do some of the work for me. After thinking through my curriculum and coming up with a list of topics related to each unit, I created Google alerts for each of them, which is super easy. Right now I have them set to email me the results of Google’s search once a week; as it gets closer to September, I might set some of them to send results daily if I haven’t found what I’m looking for yet. After spending the day in the sun (or lost in the pages of a new YA novel), I look through what Google has found and tag what looks interesting in Evernote. I might read it right then, or wait till I find a few pieces to choose from. I like using Evernote for this purpose because it’s easy to tag things with multiple tags that you can then easily search by later. But you can also use the bookmarking tool in your browser, pin them to a board on Pinterest so others can see them, or just download them to a folder on your desktop. Once I’ve chosen the pieces I want to add to my curriculum, I’ll start writing vocabulary, discussion, and writing questions for them (click here for models) at my leisure, which inevitably gets me excited about the new school year.

So, by all means seize and savor the well-earned relaxation summer affords you, but spending a little of it doing some of the things we often don’t have time for during the school year can set you up for a spectacular start come September.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What do you think? Your feedback, please

As we happily watch our first volume, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, make its way out into the world, we are hard at work on our second book, focusing on A Raisin in the Sun.

Before we get too far into writing new units, we want to ask for feedback from those of you who have bought our book or downloaded sample units. What did you find most valuable? What would you like more of, or less of? Does the format of the units make it easy to use the materials in your classes? What do you like about the format, or what would you like changed? Have you downloaded and used any of the rubrics and graphic organizers from our website? Were they useful? Please post your feedback in the comments below, or email us.

If you have not yet looked at our materials, you might want to take some time now, with the frenzy of the last few weeks of school behind you, and think about using them next year. Click here to download our sample materials, or click here to purchase Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird in paperback or ebook format from Rowman & Littlefield Education.

The lasting prominence of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play was particularly apparent during this past week in which the theater world celebrated the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival and remembered Ruby Dee, the original Ruth Younger. While we know that popular conversation will move on to other topics, perhaps no longer referring to the play again by name as frequently as it has recently, the headlines buzz on a regular basis with the topics embedded in the play. The rich texts we have selected to include in our forthcoming volume include excerpts on housing discrimination, both past and present, the cultural politics of hair for African-American women, the reality of abortion access pre-Roe v. Wade, and the persistence of inequality. We can’t wait to dive in and start working with these fascinating texts, but we’d love to hear from you if you have any feedback on our previous materials.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Professional development, 140 characters at a time

Like many teachers, around this time of year, I start eagerly adding books – both professional and very-much-not-so – to my pile of summer reading. At the same I find myself coming across ideas, practices, and resources I can’t wait to try out next year.

This year, many of the ideas and resources that have the crazy-teacher part of my brain skipping past summer and already launching into September have come from Twitter, via great connected teachers whom I follow, like Sarah Mulhern Gross (@thereadingzone) and Catlin Tucker (@Catlin_Tucker), to name a couple.

Twitter isn’t just a giddy form of social media; it’s an enormously valuable venue for teacher-driven, self-directed, just-in-time professional development. By participating in any of the numerous weekly or monthly Twitter chats, like #engchat, #engsschat, and #sschat, you can meet the mentor or like-minded colleague (or several) you always wished you had down the hall at your school! 

Just the other day I jumped into a Twitter chat (#njed, Tuesdays, 8:30pm ET) and came away with a reinvigorating combination of validation, energy, and concrete teaching ideas, thanks to fellow teachers from near and far.

If Twitter is too much for you, then find and follow a few teachers who blog, like Vicki Davis. Or, join one of the immensely valuable, if a bit slower-paced, online communities for educators, like NCTE’s Connected Community or the EnglishCompanion Ning.

One particular area of interest for Audrey and me is great text pairings that link literary texts with informational texts in meaningful and engaging ways. Through the abovementioned #njed chat, we learned of @NatalieFranzi’s pairing of the Ray Bradbury short story “All Summer in a Day” with sources from Newsela on bullying and of Walter Dean Myers’ short story “The Treasure of Lemon Brown” with articles about homelessness.

Franzi also mentioned linking what her students had learned about African history and the impact of religion in their social studies classes with a discussion of the kidnapping of more than 200 girls in Nigeria. Sarah Gross (@thereadingzone) shared that her classes had also tapped into this timely and compelling topic, making connections with relevant literary works, including Things Fall Apart and Purple Hibiscus. Gross’s students used the horrifying events in Nigeria to move from their reading in their literature circles to the larger phenomenon of so-called “hashtag activism.” While such timely convergences are very difficult to plan for, there are always contemporary connections that can enhance the study of the literary works we teach. Knowing where to go for quality resources is the key to planning rich, multi-faceted lessons and units and to jumping on moments when your curriculum and current events can come together.

Please share any text pairings you’ve used or fortuitous convergences in the comments below. We’ll be posting any we come across throughout the summer as well. And be sure to follow us here or @usinginfotext.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Steal this lesson: Kelly Welsh's 'Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society'

So, many of us are in the last throes of the school year. If you are emerging, or if you are making your list of summer reading, put Kelly Welsh’s “Using Nonfiction Texts to Teach Resistance in a Democratic Society” (just out in the May issue of English Journal) at the top of the list. Her discussion of why she wanted to teach Melba Beals’s Warriors Don’t Cry is inspiring. The lesson itself is truly stealworthy: the highest praise my pre-service teachers can offer.

She writes about wanting her classroom to be a place where students learn that “change happens in a democratic society because of people who are willing to challenge the injustices and fight for change” (42). She writes of the ways in which schools “attempt to shape and control the behavior of students with the desire to develop people who willingly accept the status quo” (43). But she recognizes and wants to nurture all the ways in which “students represent a culture of opposition” (43).

From this place of fundamental respect for her students, Welsh describes the challenges of teaching a “mostly white, suburban” (42) class who knew little about the Civil Rights Movement. She builds motivation by starting with an activity in which students are asked to read Johnny Jenkins’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford being tormented by pro-segregationist whites on her way to her first day at Central High School in Arkansas in 1957. She moves from this close reading to a discussion of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pyramid of Hate and the video Mighty Times, producedby Teaching Tolerance, about the 1963 march by children in Birmingham, AL. Finally, Welsh offers her students Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” By the end, her students are more than ready to take on Warriors Don’t Cry.

What we liked most about Welsh’s piece is her balanced ambitions. She recognizes that her students are not destined to be English teachers, English majors, or, for some, even college graduates.  Nonetheless, she insists that her classroom be a place where students “realize that they have a voice – that their views matter – simply because they are members of a democratic society where all views matter” (46). And of course, her well crafted lesson, means that, yes, she “can sneak in a little appreciation for some literature and get them to enjoy a book” (46). Even more, her respect for her students as people and her careful planning mean that her students will leave her classroom with the skills necessary to use their voices.

To all those teachers who bemoan the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text, we give you Kelly Welsh. Her lesson is a model for all of us and demonstrates how much can be accomplished by the careful use of a variety of informational texts (photo, ADL piece, letter, memoir). Welsh was building up to Beals, but her lesson could easily have been the prelude to a great unit on Mockingbird. Bravo!

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Nonfiction in the language arts classroom need not be 'narrow'

We’ve been mulling over Kate Kinsella’s provocative piece in Language Magazine, “Cutting to the Common Core: The Benefits of Narrow Reading Units.” Kinsella makes several key points.

First, she argues that informational texts find little place in the language arts curriculum and that, despite the Common Core, the danger is that teachers “cobble together units of study” in which informational texts serve as a “cursory … addendum” or are “added as something of an afterthought” to the central literary-based thematic unit. If most students are given little in the way of informational text, some students are given too much. English support classes, for example, are sometimes built around what Kinsella calls the “attention-deficit unit,” where students are given “regular ventures” into brief informational text selections: “the genesis of the American potato chip on Monday, the ruins of Pompeii on Tuesday.”  So, too little informational text or too much (or, at least, too disjointed a selection).

Many of us would agree that Kinsella has rightly sketched the depressing contours of the language arts curriculum in many a district. And Kinsella is right to sound the alarm, since the Common Core’s call for increased informational text is based on what we all know to be necessary for college- and career-ready students: regular and sustained practice with complex, content-rich informational text.

Kinsella offers an intriguing solution: narrow nonfiction units. She suggests two varieties: “daily newspaper accounts of an ongoing story” or “brief but increasingly complex and varied informational texts that concentrate on a subject or issue.” She argues convincingly that these units “mirror the complexity of college-level course assignments” and that the “recycling of key concepts and related high-utility words and phrases” mean that narrow reading units have particular “conceptual and lexical advantages” for English learners and struggling readers.

The key point on which we would diverge from Kinsella, however, is in the role of literature in the language arts classroom and in these units. Kinsella references a news article on urban gangs as a “welcome respite from weeks of meticulous literary analysis” and writes of trying to engage students who “don’t grasp the irony in Shakespeare or the eloquence of Emily Dickenson [sic].”  These comments make clear that Kinsella sees literary study as arcane and, frankly, painful.

Alas, it clearly often is.

But it shouldn’t be. And the informational text mandate is our chance to change all that.

We agree with Kinsella that informational texts must become a more central, regular feature in our language arts classrooms (and in the classrooms of our content area peers). Literary texts, however, should not be discarded with the bathwater! A study of urban gangs, for example, can be enriched by Shakespeare’s seemingly timeless insights in Romeo and Juliet as well as S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and perhaps Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.” Arich, engaging unit should have a range of literary and non-literary texts, so that students can recycle key concepts and words, think about issues that matter, and read, write, and discuss from a grounded intellectual position.

We don’t want students wasting weeks on meaningful, esoteric discussion of literary minutiae. We want them reading and writing about issues and ideas that matter – and that means engaging with great literary writers who delve into these – alongside a range of informational texts. Building these units will take time and effort but can produce magnificently rich rewards.

We can do it!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Collaborating to capitalize on the opportunities of informational text

In an April 27 Baltimore Sun article on the contention surrounding the Common Core, Catonsville high school teacher Kate Hamill notes her concerns about the informational text mandate. She worries “about the reduction of time for literature” and the fact that “middle- and high-school students don't any longer read enough challenging nonfiction in their other classes." Most English teachers are like Hamill; we can’t and don’t want to be responsible for all the informational text (forcing a reduction in time spent reading literature). The CCSS explicitly say that we aren’t. But the devil, here, is in the details of the implementation. Cross-disciplinary collaboration in the implementation of the Common Core is key.

When we collaborate, informational texts that are selected and used well can be rewarding supplements that open up existing units in a variety of disciplines in enormously valuable ways.

In the last month or so, we’ve been fortunate to meet and talk with dozens of dedicated English, social studies,and science teachers in New Jersey about seizing the opportunities ofinformational text. Working together, we can support our students’ success in meeting the literacy challenges specific to each of our disciplines and those we hold in common, while breaking down the institutional divides that often inhibit our students’ thinking and understanding of our subjects and of their relationships to each other and the world they live in.

While we were able to spark and hear some great ideas and conversations during the workshops themselves, finding common planning time on a regular basis to sustain collaboration is often difficult. One method we found for facilitating ongoing collaboration was to create and share a GoogleDrive spreadsheet in which teachers enter the topics and titles of texts they plan to teach throughout the school year. Their grade-level colleagues can check the spreadsheet for opportunities for collaboration and then look for engaging informational texts that will mutually benefit their respective instructional goals. Focusing on a common informational text from different vantage points or reading thematically related informational text connected to content-specific topics can offer students deeply rich and rewarding reading and thinking experiences that will support their success in their classwork, on standardized tests, and in the world beyond.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

It's here! It's here!

We are very happy to announce that our first book, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, is now available from Rowman & Littlefield Education! We are grateful to everyone at R&L for helping us share our work with the world and making it look so great!

In this book, you will find the following classroom-ready, student-friendly units, including graphic organizers and rubrics:
Unit 1: What do Americans have to fear?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself”
Unit 2: Who’s poor?
Jens Beckert: “Political Structure and Inheritance Law: The Abolition of Entails
Unit 3: Does a girl have to be a lady?
Lillian Eichler: Book of Etiquette
Unit 4: Does everyone deserve a good lawyer?”
Stephen Jones: “The Case for Unpopular Clients”
Unit 5: What is a lynch mob?
Clarence Norris and Sybil D. Washington: The Last of the Scottsboro Boys: An Autobiography / Haywood Patterson and Earl Conrad: Scottsboro Boy
Unit 6: What’s up with Mr. Dolphus Raymond?
Chief Justice Earl Warren, Loving v. Virginia
Unit 7: Is Atticus a hero?
David Margolick, “To Attack A Lawyer In 'To Kill a Mockingbird': An Iconoclast Takes Aim At A Hero”
Here's what Carol Jago and other educators have said about Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird:

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 This book (and its website) helps teachers to delve deeply into strategic teaching activities aimed at meeting the Common Core State Standards. Chenelle and Fisch use a wide array of readings with differing levels of complexity to provide "pathways" into engaging explorations of one of the most sacred texts of high school literature, To Kill a Mockingbird. Replete with ideas for evidence-based writing, connections to multimedia web resources, and possible rubrics for evaluating student work, this invaluable guide will not only challenge students to read, write, and think more critically, but will also help teachers "reconceptualize" their teaching to meet the rigorous objectives of the CCSS.Allan A. De Fina, dean of the Deborah Cannon Partridge College of Education and professor of literacy education, New Jersey City University, past president of the New Jersey Reading Association  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Another resource for success with informational texts

We were excited to attend the session, “Reinvigorating Traditional Literature with Relevant Nonfiction to Meet the Common Core,” presented by Stacey O’Reilly and Angie Stooksbury at the 2013 NCTE.  And of course we were eager to follow up on their excellent presentation by reading their new book, Common Core Reading Lessons: Pairing Literary and Nonfiction Texts to Promote Deeper Understanding (Routledge 2014). 

We are definitely on the same page as O’Reilly and Stooksbury. They write about how difficult it is for students to “get the most out of a [literary] text … without seeing how the pieces fit together” (4). And they identify informational text, or what they call “supplemental nonfiction readings,” as those pieces that can “enhance understanding and expose students to the bigger picture” (4). The teacher’s role, for O’Reilly and Stooksbury, is to lead the students on a journey “outside of the box, thinking about what was happening during the time the novel was written, but also what’s happening during our time” (5). As they say, “Nothing excites us more than when we see the connectedness of what’s happening outside of school walls with what we are teaching [and] nothing matters without students making the connections themselves” (94-95). Exactly!

We also particularly liked their comments about the opportunities informational texts present for differentiation. O’Reilly and Stooksbury write about assigning more scientific and challenging chapters of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks to high-level readers, while giving struggling readers more accessible chapters on background or ethical dilemmas. Jigsaw presentations can allow for full coverage, and all students are being exposed to both relevant nonfiction and the bigger picture of their unit on weird science (in relation to Frankenstein). The key to success for all, as O’Reilly and Stooksbury stress, is choice, modifications, and scaffolding. 

Their words about lower level students are particularly relevant to all teachers as we face the challenges of informational text: “we need to stop underestimating” (74) our students. If “structured suitably and presented appropriately, all levels of students will reach the desired targets and some students will even go beyond” (74). Informational text is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity!