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.