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!          


  1. My junior classes just finished The Crucible. I start the unit by having the students read Stephen Vincent Benet's essay "We Aren't Superstitious" (1947) in which Benet blames the town for believing a group of obviously hysterical girls. As we read the play, I have students look for episodes that echo Benet and were probably directly influenced by the essay.

    I found a webquest a few years ago for The Crucible. Numerous teachers have linked it to their Crucible assignments, although a few of the links are now dead (they are easy to replace). I only use the portions that pertain to McCarthyism and the Second Red Scare. I have students work in groups to read one article, annotate, and answer a few pertinent questions. They then share their findings.

    When the groups discuss the hearing, I pull up Paul Robeson's and Walt Disney's hearing transcripts. Robeson takes the committee to task and refuses to answer their questions. Disney names names; the Disney transcript is powerful because the students are surprised that a name so beloved from their childhoods could knowing testify against others.

    I have also added an article that came out in November 2012. Billy Wilkerson's son apologized for his father's actions as owner of The Hollywood Reporter in which he targeted movie studios and created the infamous Hollywood 10 list for personal reasons. Since there is no evidence that Miller knew about this additional cause for McCarthyism, it adds a different element to our analysis.

    As a result, the students use informational texts (but not all are primary sources) to examine Miller's decisions as an author in writing The Crucible and choosing the Salem witch trials as his analogy for the McCarthy hearings.

    The group work for the McCarthy articles takes two days.

  2. That sounds like a rich study of the play, Kristin! I may be teaching The Crucible for the first time in several years this spring, so I am grateful for your suggestion to use the transcripts from Robeson's and Disney's hearings. I had never thought to do so, and that is a fascinating type of informational text to expose students to!