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!
In their book, they offer student and teacher-friendly ideas and activities for combining informational text with Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm and other classic literary pieces. There’s a lot of good material to work with here!
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!