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.