Thursday, January 16, 2014

Using Informational Text in the Classroom: Atticus and the 'Case for Unpopular Clients'

In late December, we used some of our material with a 9th grade class at Secaucus High School. The students had read through chapter 24 (when Scout, during Aunt Alexandra’s missionary circle, learns that Tom Robinson has been killed in prison). We decided to work with them using our unit based on Stephen Jones’ 2010 piece from the Wall Street Journal: “The Case for Unpopular Clients,” which appears in our forthcoming book, Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird, available from Rowman & Littlefield Education in March. (This unit isn’t available online, but you can see and download two other Mockingbird-based units at

Jones defended Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, and his editorial is a heartfelt defense of the lawyers working with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. The piece is ripe with connections to Mockingbird, but it’s challenging because it articulates a complex argument, uses advanced vocabulary, and assumes a relatively large amount of background knowledge.

The Secaucus 9th graders, however, showed how much they could do in a fifty-minute period!

We opened the period with a quick video clip from YouTube. The students, after all, had no idea what Guantanamo Bay is, so they had no way of thinking about the issue of defending the accused terrorists there. The one-minute clip about the trial of the driver for Bin Laden (whom they had heard of) gave them some context. In a quick discussion after the clip, the students asserted that really guilty people shouldn’t necessarily get a lawyer because this might allow them to get off. We talked a bit about how you would know whether someone was really guilty without a trial and that shook their confidence, but we didn’t yet raise the issue of the importance of a trial for all defendants.

Next, we moved to some vocabulary exercises. Although we suggest you begin the vocabulary work with context clue activities, we started with vocabulary skits in part because we were visiting the class and wanted to build in some immediate fun and goodwill. The students responded well although they struggled, as can be expected, with parts of speech, confusing, for example, adversarial and adversary. (This unit is not available online, but other sample units showing the range of our vocabulary materials from our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird can be found at

We did a few more vocabulary exercises, using only those that involved context clues since we didn’t want to spend the time focusing on dictionary skills and use. The work was painless and engaging and allowed us to begin to set the stage for some of the issues in Jones’s piece.

After about 20 minutes of prep work, we got to the meat of our work: reading through and discussing Jones. We read together, using the sidebar discussion questions we had placed alongside the excerpt to chunk the text, probe understanding, and draw connections with Mockingbird. The first paragraph of the article references Timothy McVeigh, whom the students hadn’t heard of, but that same paragraph lays out pretty simply how brutal his bombing of the Federal Building was. As Jones sketched out his reasons for defending McVeigh, students were able to deepen their understanding of the American justice system, appreciating Jones’s willingness to defend a guilty and unpopular client, noting the similarities to (and difference from) Atticus and Tom Robinson, and rethinking the importance of a zealous defense for all accused (and refining their earlier opinions about Bin Laden’s driver). A particularly great moment was when the students considered how comparatively well Atticus had been treated by his community given his unpopular defense work. Jones notes death threats and armed guards at his home; when the students continue on and read to the end of Mockingbird and the attack on the children, they will be able to reflect back on their preliminary assertions.

In all, the fifty minutes of class was wonderfully successful in getting them to think about the continued relevance of the issue of a fair defense for all. The students read difficult text, learned some new words, and thought carefully about some tough issues. We didn’t get through everything (and perhaps could have cut the text into a smaller chunk that served the singular purpose of our one class period), but reading Stephen Jones’s informational text allowed the students to flex their reading and critical thinking muscles while also delving deeply into Mockingbird.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tackling Vocabulary in Informational Text -- Part 3: Vocabulary Skits

In our last two posts, we talked about vocabulary activities that can help break down new vocabulary words for students so that when they encounter engaging but challenging informational text they are prepared to succeed.   

Vocabulary Skits
In our last blog on this topic, we turn to our favorite vocabulary activity, vocabulary skits, which incorporate the work of our previous activities (using context clues, dictionary definitions, and word forms), but in a way that is interactive, fun, and creative. 

The activity is short and simple. Give each group of students a prepared slip with the word, the definition of the word, some model sentences using the word, and a scenario in which they will need to use the word. Give them a few minutes (not too many) in which to prepare their skit, and then ask them to perform it for the class.

Below is a sample from our unit (available for free to view and download at that puts an excerpt on rabies from a 1915 farm manual into dialogue with chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird.

sullen – irritated, gloomy, morose, sluggish
  • I do not advise addressing the principal in a sullen tone.
  • The children were sullen and short-tempered after waiting in a long line in the hot sun.
  • Parents often describe their teenage children as sullen and uncommunicative, but, sometimes, young adults want their space and privacy.
Scenario: Because of a recent flood in the school gymnasium, the school dance has been cancelled. The students are understandably upset, and their behavior in class is sullen. Create a skit in which the English teacher tries to engage her sullen students and ask them to talk about their feelings. Many of the students remain sullen.

The only rule for this activity is that each student in the group must use the vocabulary word at least once. Notice that for these, we provide both definitions and several model sentences as well as the skit scenario. We want the work of this activity to center around using the word (and circulating around the groups as they prepare their skits is still crucial to insure optimal student success). The big payoff for this activity is that in rehearsing their skit, the students in the group will be using the vocabulary word numerous times. And as their classmates watch the performances, they will also see the word in use several times. 

Vocabulary work is inherently difficult. Students need “massive practice” (Moffett) to make new words their own, but that practice doesn’t need to be tedious. And with this sort of set-up, students will be ready to take on the challenges of any informational text!

Stay tuned for our next post on how we recently shared some of these activities and an informational text with a 9th grade class.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Tackling Vocabulary in Informational Text -- Part 2: Word Forms and Dictionary Skills

In our last blog, we talked about the particular challenge dense vocabulary poses to students engaging with informational text. We talked about ways to prime the vocabulary pump so that students are not immediately turned off by the informational text. 

We began with some sample vocabulary questions that focus on using context clues, in part because these questions highlight what students know rather than what they don’t. With that warm up in place, we can move on to more challenging words and vocabulary practice.

Word Forms and Dictionary Skills
The CCSS emphasize awareness of word forms as well as dictionary skills. On the latter, remember that no one is born knowing how to the use the dictionary! And with the wealth of online resources only a smartphone away, we live in a world rich with word resources. But simply sending students to the dictionary to find the definition of a word is a recipe for disaster. How will they know which definition to choose? How will they make sense out of the definition without context?

We suggest students practice their dictionary skills by using sources to determine the uncommon meaning of common words. Below is a sample from our unit (available for free to view and download at that puts an excerpt on rabies from a 1915 farm manual into dialogue with chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird:

During the time of Mockingbird, a maid might be referred to as a domestic. And you can find a lot of discussion in the domestic news about what is going on in our country. But when Craig references rabies in “domestic animals and man,” he is using domestic in a different way. What is a domestic animal? Can you see any relationship between the different meanings of the word domestic?

This level of dictionary work will better prepare students to use word sources generally (and to find the particular sources they like best).  

Then, students can move on to more challenging questions that require source work. Below, the question asks the students to look up the word “emaciated,” but the answer requires the students to go beyond just knowing the definition.

The cat was emaciated. The veterinarian could be expected to suggest more food or less? Why?
One of the most frustrating parts of vocabulary acquisition and instruction is the interval between knowing what a word means and knowing how to use it correctly. For this reason, and to reinforce context clues and word meanings in a low-stakes way, we suggest some practice with parts of speech and word endings. Be patient with your students. This is difficult.

At certain points in history, a thin physique has been considered disgusting, unhealthy, and a bad omen; during these periods, an _____ person was looked down upon.
a) emaciate
b) emaciated
c) emaciation
d) emaciates
The activities above will prepare students to read the informational text with a far greater level of comfort, but they will also help students move towards owning these new words and become more comfortable generally with the process of working with and understanding unfamiliar words. That, in the end, is our larger goal.

If you're starting to feel overwhelmed by -- and wondering when you'll find the time for -- all of these activities, fear not. We are by no means suggesting that you undertake all of these strategies all of the time. Pick the activities most relevant to your students' needs and your current instructional goals. 

But stay tuned for our next blog, in which we’ll discuss our favorite vocabulary activity – vocabulary skits – which are interactive, fun, and creative!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tackling Vocabulary in Informational Text -- Part 1: Context Clues

Reading informational text offers a number of challenges to students. One of these challenges is dense, unfamiliar vocabulary. An otherwise engaging short reading that might be accessible to students in terms of style, syntax, and subject might have more than a dozen unfamiliar vocabulary words. And that can result in an instant turn-off

If on top of the vocabulary challenge, the text also assumes background knowledge that the students don’t have, we are looking at a Herculean teaching challenge.

All is not lost, however! We have some suggestions: 

  • Pick important words that are crucial to understanding the reading.
  • Use a mix of vocabulary activities.
  • Allow students to be creative in their vocabulary work.
  • Sneak ideas and information from the reading into your vocabulary work so that your students will be primed for the informational text.
Below, and in our next few posts, we will highlight some of our thinking about how to go about priming the vocabulary pump. The exercises are all taken from our unit (available for free to view and download at that puts an excerpt on rabies from a 1915 farm manual into dialogue with chapter 10 of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Context Clues
Vocabulary activities that focus on using context clues are a great way to begin because they highlight what the students already know and can figure out rather making them feel bad about their vocabulary knowledge deficit. Some multiple-choice exercises (2) are fine, but mix in questions that ask for a higher level of engagement and response (1). And following the sample questions released by PARCC, ask your students to think carefully not just about the right answer but about what in the context helps us to determine the meaning of the word in question (3). That way we reward thinking and not guessing.

1) The passage indicates that to prevent the spread of rabies, all dogs should be muzzled. Since we have learned that the disease spreads when one animal bites another, we can infer that muzzling an animal prevents those bites. Using that understanding, what do you think a muzzle might be?

2) She has a pleasant and sunny disposition; it is a rare day when you see her with a frown on her face. Disposition here means
a) nature
b) ability
c) frown
d) unwilling

3) Which word from the sentence in question 2 best helps the reader to understand the meaning of disposition?
a) rare
b) day
c) she
d) pleasant

In our next blog, we’ll discuss using vocabulary activities that move beyond context clues and focus on awareness of word forms and on dictionary skills.