Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Day 2 at NCTE: Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction

Maybe our favorite session at NCTE this year (okay, besides our own excellent session) was “Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction: A Literature Lover’s Approach” with Deborah Appleman, Carol Jago, and Rachel Malchow-Lloyd.

If you missed the session or are curious, here are the slides.

Some stand-out moments:

  • You need to find the sweet spot of proximal development – texts that are challenging but not too challenging.
  • Use visuals to provide entry to informational texts. We so agree on this one.
  • Find the narrative thread in non-fiction.
  • Use jigsaw technique to offer different perspectives (critical lenses) on an informational text or to cover different sections.
  • Decontextualized close reading is necessary (Common Core) but not sufficient for complex text.
  • Think of intertextuality and text bouquets as you bring multiple texts into conversation. (Don’t you just love the image of text bouquets!)
  • Look for moments to contemporarize – to bring in texts that allow for a contemporary perspective
Finally, Appleman drove home the importance of non-fiction: “Knowledge is the lens through which we view ourselves and our world.”

But how do we offer students this knowledge when so much of what we read is fiction? Carol Jago noted that only 10% of classroom libraries is composed of non-fiction. And that includes a lot of material on dinosaurs and baby animals. This needs to change.

To that end, Jago offered a wonderful survey of some great non-fiction titles. Here are some we jotted down as quickly as we could:
  • Moonbird by Phillip Hoose (author of Claudette Colvin) on climate change
  • Tommy: The Gun that Changed America by Karen Blumenthal about the automatic weapon developed too late for WWI
  • Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow
  • Invisible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
  • Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad – by the amazingly versatile M. T. Anderson
  • Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of the 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Hector Tobar
These titles can serve as independent reading, but we also need to find ways to include bits and pieces, whenever we can, in connection with our anchor literary texts to add color (our metaphor) to our text bouquets. Tobar’s volume would likely be a valuable addition to a discussion of Lord of the Flies paired with the story of the Chilean miners. The possibilities of interesting connections with these high quality, timely, and engaging informational texts are vast.

And, as Carol Jago pointed out, just as it’s okay to jigsaw and excerpt when we work with these informational texts, it’s also okay to do so sometimes with our literary anchor texts.

We want to build our students’ reading stamina, but building wonderful bouquets out of the intertextual connections of a variety of fictional and informational complex texts will create the robust learning and deep-thinking students we most want.

Thanks for this great session! We can’t wait to get ourselves and our students reading!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Day 1 at NCTE Minneapolis (where it’s very cold)

Getting ready for our packed session on "Teaching To
Kill a Mockingbird
 in (Not-So) Post-Racial Times"
We arrived bright and early in the morning from New Jersey. One of our first highlights was Brian Sweeney’s discussion of how his high school journalism student was able to turn a quirk in the New York City sexual education policy (teachers could talk about condoms but not actually show them) into a breaking story about policy change that was picked up by national media. Sweeney’s talk was part of a panel about writing forms beyond the essay and student agency. It was an inspiring way to begin our NCTE.

Next, we presented our work on informational text and Mockingbird. The panel, Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in (Not So) Post-Racial Times was the brainchild of Susan Groenke (thanks to her for that!). We were thrilled to talk to an informed and lively audience about ways to think about Calpurnia and Lula vis-à-vis an audio interview of Dorothy Bolden, who worked as a domestic for 41 years and founded the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968, and excerpts from “Growing Up White,” featuring the reflections of white women who grew up in the 1930s South, like Scout, on the nannies and sharecroppers of their childhoods. If you missed our presentation, our slides are available on our website, as is the unit we focused on, “What Does Scout Really Know About Calpurnia?”

Robert Prickett followed us, with wonderful examples of graphic novels featuring African-American characters and history. We can’t wait to read Jennifer's Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl and the many others. Our favorite takeaway from his talk: use just a few panels from these various text to fill in context, make connections, and enrich your classroom discussion of Mockingbird.

Next, Stacy Reece and Susan Groenke talked about their research on pre-service teachers and the teaching of Mockingbird. Their qualitative research on how these students had been taught to read and think about Harper Lee’s novel – Atticus as hero, for example – was so compelling, especially given how universally the students talked about the erasure of race in their experience of the novel in high school.

Their next task was to help these pre-service teachers design lesson plans that would foreground an anti-racist pedagogy. What was so striking about this work was how challenging it was for these young teachers to imagine this work. All new teachers worry about how to handle conflict in the classroom; inviting a politically challenging discussion of race into your classroom is no small feat for a new teacher. But if we don’t help these teachers to think about this work now, when will we? We need our new teachers to take on these challenges; we can ill afford another generation of students who read Mockingbird as an unqualified tale of white heroism.

Thanks also to a great audience for their feedback. There’s no question that Mockingbird remains a problematic text today. Yet we know it remains one of those universally taught texts, so our challenge is to teach it well in combination with other texts that allow our students to have the difficult and informed conversations about race that we need to have in our classrooms.

Finally, we closed our day at a session entitled, “Responding to College Readiness,” featuring Audrey’s colleague, Caroline Wilkinson, along with Susannah Kilbourne and Hollye Wright. This highly interactive session allowed for great discussion of the vexed and vexing topic of college readiness. We did not, as one disappointed audience member noted, leave with the “answers” as to what constitutes college readiness and how to achieve it. But we did take away a sense of the importance of continuing conversations about the academic and non-academic skills necessary for success in college, the academic and non-academic obstacles (particularly poverty), and the difficulty of ensuring real access and opportunity for so many first generation students.

All in all, a great day at NCTE, as usual.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Start your school year with success and informational text

We know many of you are already planning exciting new lessons and units, while some of you are already back in the classroom. Either way, our resources can help you start your new school year with success.

IF YOU ARE TEACHING TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and wrestling with how to make sense of it alongside Go Set a Watchman, the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, can help. Our classroom-ready units on the relationship between Calpurnia and Scout and whether Atticus is a hero will help your students think critically about the characters and the complex world of Maycomb that Harper Lee presents in both novels.

IF YOU ARE TEACHING A RAISIN IN THE SUN, the second volume in our series will be available in October and can be pre-ordered now. After the events in Ferguson and Baltimore, this summer’s Supreme Court decision, and recent studies on the persistence of housing discrimination, Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play is more relevant than ever. Our forthcoming book includes ready-to-use units on housing discrimination past and present, the violence surrounding housing desegregation, the politics of African-American women’s hair, and more. In the meantime, check out our post on the New York Times Learning Network or this New York Times article on housing discrimination in Ferguson.

IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT HOW TO REVAMP YOUR CURRICULUM, check out our website and our blog for strategies for finding great informational texts and for 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 together with written informational texts in the classroom. Check out our sample units based on Mockingbird, as well as our “Text to Text” feature on Lord of the Flies on the New York Times Learning Network, for models.

IF YOU ARE LOOKING FOR WAYS TO COLLABORATE WITH YOUR CONTENT-AREA COLLEAGUES to develop your students’ disciplinary literacy skills, read our blog posts on collaboration and share our strategies for using high-interest informational texts with a teacher with whom you’d like to work. Our materials can provide the basis for rewarding collaboration among members of your PLC and/or grade-level teams.

IF YOU’D LIKE HANDS-ON TRAINING IN OUR APPROACH TO USING INFORMATIONAL TEXT, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer a range of hour-long and day-long workshops for both English and content area teachers. If you are in northern New Jersey, join us at Barnes & Noble in Clifton on October 14, from 4pm-6pm. If you are in Illinois, we hope to see you at IATE in October. Otherwise, you can also find us at NCTE and CEL in Minneapolis in November.

We hope our resources will be helpful to you in getting ready for the new school year. As always, we welcome your feedback!

This text takes all the intricacies of the Common Core State Standards and packages them neatly into a format that actually works in a real classroom. With a strong focus on vocabulary building, challenging non-fiction pieces, and digital media to which our secondary students can connect, these units turn A Raisin in the Sun into a cultural, political, analytical learning experience--without taking away the literature. —Meaghan W. Freeman, middle- and high-school English teacher, Willsboro Central School, New York

A reader's understanding of a text is only as comprehensive as the previous experience he or she brings to it. What, then, happens, when the landscape of a reader's life doesn't provide sufficient context? If you feel the impulse to shrug your shoulders and sigh, squelch it. Fisch and Chenelle have created a series of relevant formative activities and assessments to prime the pump for student inquiry. No more flying blind or feeling trapped within the four corners of a text -- students can engage in literature study through a research-informed, "real-world" lens. —Oona Abrams, ELA Teacher, Chatham High School, New Jersey

Propelled by rich, probing questions, this book invites teachers and students to explore a classic text with fresh eyes. The authors’ approach fosters a disposition for deeper reading and will inspire a sense of wonder in your students. —Carol Jago, long time English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English

Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird is the resource I’ve been waiting for! Teachers don’t have nearly enough time to research informational texts to go along with every unit they teach; therefore this book is going to be perfect for the teacher who wants to take her lessons to the next level. I can’t wait to use these lessons in my classroom. —Amanda DeAngelo, high school English teacher, Secaucus High School

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making sense of 'Watchman' and 'Mockingbird'

Yes, of course, we were first in line for Go Set a Watchman, and we read the new Harper Lee novel eagerly and with great pleasure. We’ve also been following, mostly with delight, the coverage of the text, including Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic, Isabel Wilkerson and Joseph Crespino in The New York Times, and Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.

Instead of weighing in on the novel generally, which is territory well-covered already by so many others, we thought we’d suggest a few ways in which teachers might integrate Watchman into their teaching of Mockingbird.

One of the biggest storylines about Watchman has been the discussion of Atticus as a racist. The mainstream media has covered this development in full sensational mode as if Atticus’s views about race are wholly surprising.

Careful readers of Mockingbird, however, have a sense of how complex the racial politics of Lee’s Maycomb world already are and that the Atticus of that novel is no simple hero. After all, Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson involuntarily, telling his brother “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me” (117). He is no civil rights activist: before, during, or after the trial. When Tom is shot in the prison yard for supposedly trying to escape, and shot seventeen times(!), Atticus responds with care for Tom’s family and for the African-American community, but he doesn’t initiate any legal appeal or investigation.

Teachers can help students unpack some of the complexity of Mockingbird’s Atticus. In our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, we offer an excerpt from David Margolick’s “To Attack a Lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird: An Iconoclast Takes Aim at a Hero.” The piece critically evaluates Atticus’s words and actions, analyzing the ways in which his actions are not necessarily so heroic. Moreover, the discussion allows students to think about whether it’s appropriate to judge someone from the past – whether a real-life or fictional character – based on our cultural or social standards today.

With a nuanced and critical understanding of Mockingbird’s Atticus, students will be all the more ready to think about the Atticus we encounter in Watchman who says that the “Negro population is backward” (242) and questions whether “Negroes [belong] in our schools and church and theaters?” (245). Is this Watchman Atticus really incommensurate with the Atticus in Mockingbird who defends Tom Robinson but is fully part and parcel of a community in which African Americans live as wholly second-class citizens in every way?

Brief excerpts from chapter 17 of Watchman, then, together with Margolick’s text, can help students make more sense out of Atticus, and the complex world of the segregated South. As you work this summer to adjust your teaching of Mockingbird post-Watchman, take a look at our Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird for the Margolick piece and others that can help flesh out that complex world.

Let’s help our students be smarter and more critically thoughtful than most of the mainstream media; it’s not that hard and it’s important, good work!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Highlights from ILA15

The highlight for us at ILA15 this past weekend in St. Louis (aside from the opportunity to present material from our current work-in-progress, Connect: A Collaborative Model for Using Informational Texts to Enhance Literacy Across Disciplines, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield some time in Spring 2016) was hearing dedicated and passionate educators talking about innovative ways to collaborate around cross-disciplinary literacy and informational text.

Two presentations in particular inspired us.

First, social studies teacher Lauren K. Francese and English teacher Rebecca Marsick from Westport, CT, shared their “MINDful reading” approach for enhancing literacy and engagement across disciplines.

According to Francese and Marsick, adolescence is a critical time for students to make the transition from “learning to read to reading to learn,” and so teachers of adolescents need to help them develop the cognitive tools necessary to make that shift.

Toward that goal, they created a model for rigorous, interdisciplinary nonfiction units that ask students to consider meaningful essential questions as they put texts related to the unit’s theme into dialogue.

During their presentation, they outlined several impressive units, including one on World War II, which pairs Hiroshima by John Hersey as a whole-class text with a range of related texts like Farewell to Manzanar and The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Helped Win World War II that students can choose from.

By both allowing students to choose from a list of texts that they have pre-screened and then offering multiple options for the unit’s culminating writing assignment, Francese and Marsick effect meaningful differentiation while also providing a rigorous learning experience for all students.

In their model the students discuss the books in a book club format for 15 minutes 2-3 times per week, and they are responsible for preparing themselves for these discussions by completing reading organizers and bringing their own questions to drive the discussion.

We of course were also very interested in their collaborative English-social studies high school unit on the civil rights movement that puts To Kill a Mockingbird into dialogue with Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, centered around the essential question, “What does it mean to be a strong leader?”

They also talked about how they have adapted the degree to which they work together over the years according to their respective teaching assignments. In some years they have been able to collaborate very closely, while in others they simply coordinate their efforts in order to support and reinforce each other’s efforts.

And they shared both the tools they use to support student engagement and critical thinking and to encourage their colleagues to try out such units.

It was a treat to hear about this very valuable collaboration, which they have outlined in their book Stretching Beyond the Textbook: Reading and Succeeding with Complex Texts Across the Content Areas (Scholastic 2014).

The other presentation that we greatly enjoyed was led by a trio of science teachers. Yes, science teachers!

As we are completing our new book that outlines our collaborative model for enhancing literacy across the disciplines, the title of their session, “Integrating STEM Readings with Secondary ELA Curriculum,” attracted our attention, and we were not disappointed.

In their presentation Adam Aldridge, Eriq Hearn, and Alexis Wren, all graduate students from Georgia Regents University in Augusta, outlined their respective efforts to incorporate engaging informational and literary texts into their biology, chemistry, and physics/math classes.

Biology teacher Eriq Hearn discussed how he guided his students to consider Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the way he presents the theory of natural selection as an argument. He also hooked their interest by pairing their study of Darwin with short stories from the collection Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics by Phillip R. Rilley.

Chemistry teacher Alexis Wren described how she engages students by having them consider the moral implications of chemistry in relation to the Holocaust. Using an anticipation guide, she asks them whether they think the chemists employed by the Nazis knew what their work was being used for and how they should have been punished, if at all, after World War II. She pairs their reading of an informational article, “Chemistry in Nazi Germany” by Sarah Everts, with The Periodic Table, a memoir by Primo Levi.

In addition to sharing the wonderful texts that they’ve used in their classes, these passionate young teachers also discussed the creative ways they have hooked their students’ interest (e.g., anticipation guides, written conversations) and encouraged them to demonstrate their understanding (e.g., creating comic books and movie posters).

Toward the end of their session, Hearn urged the English teachers in the audience to work with their science teachers to help them engage all of their students. (If only we all had such eager colleagues – of any discipline – to collaborate with!) And we wholeheartedly agreed with his encouragement to start by reaching out to colleagues that you like.

Finally, our ILA convention was topped off by the opportunity to meet with the two women at the helm of CommonLit, Michelle Brown and Sarah Mielbye, who were sharing their important work in the exhibition hall. Brown and Mielbye offer a growing range of accessible, engaging informational texts as a searchable database for teachers to use to create their own cross-disciplinary and informational text connections. They are also negotiating with various content providers (like NPR) and authors to allow access for student and classroom use.

We applaud and share the vision these two women have for how teachers need to be the intellectual and creative core of innovations in education. Technology, like CommonLit, may enable teachers to do this work more quickly (by providing content and helping streamline the search for content and connections), but ultimately teachers, through their energy, their experience, their collaborative impulses, and their knowledge of their students, can and should be the ones creating curricula and making change.

As is always the case, our attendance at a national conference, and the opportunity to meet with teachers and innovators from across the country (like Michele Haiken and her innovative methods for teaching Mockingbird!), has left us invigorated about our work and impressed by the good work being done by educators, young and old, experts and novices alike. (And we're looking forward to enjoying that heady mix of inspiration again at IATE, NCTE, and CEL! Join us!)

It isn’t always easy to be a teacher, but after attending ILA, we know we are in good company. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 4

In our first three posts in response to the New York Times’English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we’ve talked about the pitfalls and potential of the informational text mandate and about the need for teachers to have freedom and time to prepare text pairings that work well for their curricula and students. We have one final and important point to make in relation to Kate Taylor’s excellent article: there is no one methodology for using informational text successfully in the classroom.

Because students need a variety of experiences with a ranges of texts types and because we want to use complex texts as often as we can, we think it’s important to offer excerpts (of various lengths and trimming when necessary) so that students can focus their attention on the key connections between the informational text and the anchor literary text (without unnecessary distractions from your instructional goals that can eat up precious class time).
We also think it’s important to foreground, with engaging and authentic kinds of questions, the key ideas and vocabulary that students will encounter in the informational text. This way, the students can build their language skills, including the use of context clues and dictionary skills, while also anticipating the ideas in the reading. These sorts of activities can be done in groups or as homework, and they can be accomplished quickly. With this background, students are more likely to approach the informational text with some confidence and persevere during the challenging reading moments.

Finally, we think multimedia texts – photos, video clips, songs – can also be terrific context and confidence builders, producing motivation and engagement in the students before they turn to the complex informational text.

We agree with literacy consultant Kim Yaris, however, when she describes her fifth-grade son’s tearful reaction to a nine-day, “painstakingly close reading” of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And we agree with Pimentel that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a “valuable” text, worth studying both for its content and the academic vocabulary it contains.

But if students are going home crying after nine days of reading it, then the lesson is not working and the exercise threatens, as Yaris says, to “Kill the love of reading.”

Close reading of a single text over the course of several days is a defining characteristic of the Common Core-aligned instruction espoused by Pimentel and her CCSS co-author David Coleman, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But too much of anything, from close reading to chocolate, isn’t good.

Teachers need to have and use the freedom to decide when they want to lovingly linger in detailed analysis of a text, to uncover with their students all of the meanings that can be uncovered in it through close, careful attention.

But every reading exercise should not follow this pattern. Remember, the goal is to produce confident, competent readers who can make sense out of the range of texts out there in the world. Some texts and reading occasions may require nine days of careful close analysis; most will not.

Just as the informational text mandate promises to offer teachers’ autonomy in their classrooms as they create meaningful, authentic text pairings to engage their students, let’s remember that teachers need to have the freedom and the confidence to decide how to use informational texts in their classroom. There is no one methodology for every text, for every teacher, and for every student!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court declares 'Raisin in the Sun' still very relevant

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, building on and preserving the Fair Housing Act of 1968, upheld a law that allows plaintiffs to challenge government or private policies and practices that result in discrimination, segregation, or disparate impacts in housing. The ruling focuses on the effect of housing practices, rather than the question of intent.

For those of us who teach A Raisin in the Sun, this new ruling makes clear the continued relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play. The days of overt, explicit housing discrimination, like racially restrictive covenants which kept families of color (like Hansberry’s) from owning property in certain communities, may be over, but housing segregation continues apace.

And, as the Times, citing research from a Harvard study, writes in its editorial on the ruling, housing discrimination and segregation have significant effects on future incomes and opportunities: “young children whose families had been given housing vouchers that allowed them to move to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college – and to attend better colleges – than those who had not received the vouchers.” And these children had “significantly higher income as adults.”

Notwithstanding the complex question of what is a “better neighborhood,” this kind of future for young Travis Younger is what Lena Younger had in mind when she used her husband’s life insurance policy to buy her family a home in the white neighborhood of Clybourne Park.

Hansberry’s text needs to be read in the context of the historical and ongoing issue of housing discrimination and the consequences of housing segregation for the African-American community. Our forthcoming Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (available in October and for pre-order now) offers teachers a number of texts and resources that open up these issues for students, enabling them to see why we still read and care about a text like Raisin and why this recent Supreme Court decision is so important.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 3

In the first two sections of our response to the New York Times front-page article, English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we talked about the pitfalls and potential of the Common Core’s informational text mandate for the study of literature. In this last section, we want to think more about what’s necessary for teachers to be more successful in integrating informational text into their teaching of literature.

To accomplish this enormous task, teachers must be given the freedom and the time to use their expertise about their content and their students to choose text pairings relevant to both.

Kate Taylor writes, for example, of the pairing of excerpts of The Odyssey with sections of the G.I. Bill of Rights. We agree with Common Core co-author Susan Pimentel’s observation in the Times that this seems like an odd choice. ‘There is enough great literary nonfiction out there that there shouldn’t be a forced fitting.’” Indeed.

But who knows what interesting real-world connection that pairing might elicit with a particular set of students? What’s exciting in this example and in this enterprise more broadly is how language arts teachers are taking up the challenge of the CCSS and creating new, exciting units that suit the needs and interests of their students.

In that vein, we understand but also take issue with Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein’s lament that using news and opinion pieces about timely issues “seems[s] based on a set of low expectations about what students will be interested in.” He argues that when teachers don’t always adhere to the Common Core’s standards regarding text complexity that “the definition of informational texts ‘very easily slides into blog posts — it shifts over to topical contemporary discussions of things.’”

Yes, we need to challenge our students with complex, diverse texts. But what’s so bad about having them also read an engaging topical blog post? What’s wrong with giving our students accessible entry points into “topical contemporary discussions of things”? And is Bauerlein so sure that the news and opinion pieces he bemoans reflect simple text and low expectations? On the contrary, asking students to make connections among texts and ideas in a variety of texts types (and at a variety of levels of text complexity) is central to the mission of the CCSS, as we understand it.

Teachers have the expertise and judgment to use informational text to reinvigorate their curriculum, but it does take a lot of work and support, as we discussed in our first posting on this topic. We are trying to help by sharing the model and resources we’ve developed over the last few years. Check out our blog and our website for resources and strategies for finding quality informational texts, using them in the classroom, tackling the vocabulary challenges they often pose, and more.

Our books, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird (available from Rowman) and Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (available for pre-order and out in October) contain classroom-ready units, complete with vocabulary activities, discussion questions, writing prompts, and group projects that put engaging informational texts (political speeches, Supreme Court decisions, opinion pieces and more) into dialogue with key moments of these classic literary texts.

Yes, the prospect of doing this work can be daunting, but the rewards are very much worth it. Our blog post from last summer can help you get started creating your own informational unit that best serves the needs of your students. Seize the opportunity of the CCSS, find your pairing(s), and see how using informational text can invigorate your teaching of literature. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 2

In the first section of our response to the New York Times front-page article, “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” we talked about the concern that the Common Core’s informational text mandate may be pushing out the study of literature.

In this section, we want to emphasize what we know through our own experiences in the classroom and in working with other teachers: incorporating informational text doesn’t have to crowd out or deaden the study of literature! In terms of the latter, when done well, it’s actually the opposite.

Indeed, as Kate Taylor reports, many students are enjoying exciting learning experiences in English classrooms that incorporate informational text into the study of literature.

Eighth graders at Lower Manhattan Community Middle School read articles about the history of Vietnam and the experiences of refugees alongside their reading of Inside Out and Back Again, a novel in verse by Thanhha Lai about a Vietnamese girl who fled the country with her family after the war. The extensive annotations on one informational text the students read, as shown in one of the photos that appears with the online version of the article, suggest close engagement with and critical thinking about the informational text on the part of the students.

The informational texts used with Inside Out and Back Again likely supplied key background information the eighth-grade students needed to engage with the novel in a deep way. Through these texts, the students could gain a greater understanding of the historical context of the novel and also consider how the novel’s depiction of its fictional protagonist’s experience compares with that of actual refugees. The eighth graders, in other words, were given more ways to connect with and understand the literary text, so that they could see more clearly what was at stake within the novel and why, more broadly, it speaks to bigger issues that matter in the world.

Establishing this kind of engagement and relevance is key, especially for struggling readers, as Eli Scherer, a special-education teacher cited in the article, has found. In his experience “struggling readers were often more engaged by nonfiction because it seemed more relevant to them.”

Informational texts can be the key to answering that most basic pedagogical question: why are we reading this? Or the underlying and slightly more hostile: why should I care about this text?

Susan’s own sophomores this year found A Raisin in the Sun more meaningful after reading an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun: a City of Chicago report on violence surrounding housing desegregation. This commission report helped them understand that real people had experienced what the Youngers face in Lorraine Hansberry’s play.

That’s not the only reason we read Hansberry’s play, but it’s an important piece of the why, especially for a group of diverse 15-year-olds in urban Jersey City where Susan teaches.

So, does the inclusion of informational text necessarily mean a loss to the teaching of literature? No!

Stay tuned for Part 3, in which we offer suggestions and resources for incorporating informational text into your language arts classroom in ways that will enhance your instruction of literature and reap rewards worthy of your time and effort.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Response to New York Times' take on informational text: Part 1

When we saw the New York Times front-page article, “English Class in Common Core Era: ‘Tom Sawyer’ and Court Opinions,” this weekend, two thoughts struck us. (Well, three, if you include, “ohmygosh, it’s on the front page of the New York Times!”)

First, we were pleased to see acknowledgment of the great work that teachers all over the country are doing to incorporate informational text into their language arts classrooms in ways that enhance and invigorate their teaching of literature.

Second, we noted how the article reflects the reality that doing this well requires a significant amount of time, thought, and work on the part of the teacher. That daunting prospect is certainly part of the pushback that many teachers have understandably expressed toward the Common Core’s informational text mandate. And if teachers are not receiving the kind of support they need, they push back.

Without adequate support, moreover, the informational text mandate threatens to diminish the study of literature in language arts classrooms, both in terms of quantity and quality. Kimberly Skillen’s somewhat disheartening quote in the article illustrates this dilemma.

“'Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,’ said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: ‘We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.’”

Angela Gunter, dean of liberal arts at Daviess County High School in Kentucky, echoes Skillen’s experience, noting that she assigned a shorter excerpt of Beowulf than she had in the past to make more time for reading nonfiction. As Gunter notes, her decision was motivated by the CC but also by the fact that her students “just were not that interested in `Beowulf.’”

It’s worth noting that there’s nothing sacred about literary texts. No one is necessarily a better person for having read every word of Beowulf; every production of Shakespeare edits and cuts words, lines, scenes.

What is perhaps sacred is developing our students’ reading comprehension skills with diverse complex texts, both informational and literary. It’s essential not just so that they can demonstrate those skills on standardized tests, but so that they can unlock all of the important themes and moral lessons we want them to wrestle with as part of their intellectual, emotional, and social development.

In our next response to this important discussion, we will return to the issue of time and support, however, to think through the ways in which the CCSS should and perhaps isn’t yet fulfilling its potential to reinvigorate the teaching of literature in a way that ensures the study of literature is not diminished but also helps students find ways to be interested in texts like Beowulf.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Using A Raisin in the Sun to help students think about Ferguson, Baltimore

Can Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun help us think about the recent, much-publicized events in Ferguson and Baltimore?

Yes, according to Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, in his report, “The Making of Ferguson: Public Policies at the Root of its Troubles.”

For language arts teachers who are (and of course should be) always seeking new ways to help our students see as relevant and therefore read and care about the literary texts we teach, this report is a great entryway into Raisin. The second volume in our Using Informational Text to Teach Literature series, which focuses on Raisin, is currently in production, but we wanted to call attention to this recent and very timely interview and policy report in the meantime.

Rothstein was recently featured on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, discussing his report (clips of this interview would also make a terrific teaching media text for students to study). In a nutshell, his argument is that ghettos (and he is deliberate in using this language, insisting that we not “sanitize” the ugly words that describe the ugly realities of our past) were “legislated into existence” by “racially purposeful policy that was pursued at all levels of government.”

He discusses several aspects of the larger issue of housing segregation at work in Raisin: redlining, blockbusting, unethical real estate practices, racially restrictive covenants. And he outlines the consequences of these government-created or government-endorsed practices: a pernicious wealth gap between white and black families, a loss of opportunities for employment, the loss of hope, and the ensuing “misbehavior” of young people.

As Rothstein makes clear, this “misbehavior” is nothing new; young people without hope make trouble, police respond with hostility, and a vicious cycle is created. In 1967, there were 100 uprisings over police actions.

Rothstein’s point is that, as we think about the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore, we need to understand the underlying causes. Until we confront our history, we can’t move forward or solve these issues.

Surely, teaching Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is part of confronting that history.

But students need to understand just how difficult it would have been for the Youngers to buy a home in Clybourne Park and what was at stake in their move. A short and readable excerpt from Rothstein’s report (we suggest a piece from “How Ferguson Became Ferguson”) would begin to unpack that broader context for students.

Use this fascinating, timely, and relevant informational text along with a media clip from Rothstein on Fresh Air, and students will be more than meeting the Common Core State Standards for informational and complex text, all the while reading and thinking about why Hansberry’s 1959 play remains relevant and important to all of us in the United States today.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Vocabulary instruction needs to be authentic

Vocabulary instruction is both super challenging and super important and is receiving more and more attention as a result of the Common Core (see for example, the recent “Under Common Core, Students Learn Words by Learning about the World” in Education Week). Because complex informational texts often include masses of unfamiliar domain-specific vocabulary, working with this kind of text in the language arts classroom highlights both the challenges and the importance of careful, regular, and engaging vocabulary instruction.

How can we introduce complex informational text into our classrooms without overwhelming our students with extensive unfamiliar and intimidating vocabulary?

For example, when Audrey was working with Loving v. Virginia in a class studying the Supreme Court decision in relation to the issue of interracial love and marriage in To Kill a Mockingbird (specifically, Dolphus Raymond), the students faced any number of vocabulary hurdles: statute, appellant, indictment, constitutional, due process, and statutory scheme, to name just a few.

If we don’t solve the vocabulary hurdle before getting into this text, reading the Loving case will be impossible; students will turn off and the connections with Mockingbird will remain inaccessible.

But a list of words and access to a dictionary is not the answer! Nor is the practice of copying and recopying new words. It’s using the words, over and over, in the kind of “massive practice” that James Moffett extols or what the National Reading Panel calls “systematic repetition.”

In a recent article in Educational Leadership, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey address the importance of “rigorous, engaging vocabulary instruction … [which] is especially important for culturally diverse students, who frequently find it challenging to master the academic language needed for school success.” Fisher and Frey emphasize the importance of “authentic use of content vocabulary.”

What is “authentic use”?

It’s when students (and teachers, but mostly students) use the new words over and over again in their own ways. The practice takes time and involves many mistakes and many misuses of the new words along the way. Teachers are there to nudge and correct and reshape students’ language use through a mix of vocabulary-in-context instruction and direct instruction. We need to offer lively and engaging collaborative work in vocabulary skits; context-clue questions that treat students like word detectives; and authentic, open-ended vocabulary questions that require students to own the new words.

Through “authentic use,” we produce learners who have gained new words in their lexicon as well as confidence about their own decoding and word acquisition skills.

This time and effort over vocabulary will pay dividends in our classrooms when we turn to our informational text(s) and in our students’ lives as they meet the challenges of new vocabulary in and outside of the language arts classroom.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Supporting success for all students with complex informational texts

Audrey had the opportunity to work with a former student and current high school language arts teacher Ms. D. this past week. Ms. D. has been working with Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, so it was great to collaborate on Loving V. Virginia, one of the units in the volume, in her classroom.

Ms. D.’s focus, as she explained, had been reading comprehension. She used media clips suggested in our volume and focused her attention on sidebar questions to guide her students’ responses to the key ideas and textual features within the informational texts. For Ms. D., the fact that her class included a majority of students with IEPs, made the task of working with complex texts all that more daunting, but she had been enjoying teaching Mockingbird through the many lenses our informational text units provided.

Audrey began her visit with a video showing a live performance of Nanci Griffith’s song,“The Loving Kind,” from YouTube. After an initial viewing, the students were able to glean that Richard and Mildred Loving were an interracial couple who had made history and changed our nation. But they had little sense of the broader issues. They could understand that the two had been jailed for marrying, but they offered some confused responses about how people generally might have been happy about their wedding or about the fact that their relationship might have been prohibited because of slavery.

So we watched the video a second time, and Audrey asked the students to think about key words and phrases. They shouted these out as we watched, and Audrey jotted them on the board. They noticed, for example, that the song referenced how Richard and Mildred had changed the “heart” of our nation and we talked about the significance of that word “heart” as opposed to, for example, the “laws” of the nation (which provided a nice tease for Loving). The focus on the word “heart” also helped them think about how and why the “heart” of the nation might have needed to be changed in relationship to this love story and more broadly how “hearts” can remain unchanged even when laws change.

Next, Audrey moved into vocabulary. Because Ms. D. hadn’t done much work on vocabulary before, we worked slowly, first in groups and then collectively only on the vocabulary exercises involving context clues and usage (we skipped over the dictionary work). This took time, but the students were able to gain understanding of crucial key ideas and words within the court case as well as build confidence and skill at working with context clues to derive word meanings.

This vocabulary work is so important to our work with informational text. Building skill at deciphering context clues and at gleaning information from short, knotty passages is crucial to student success. Our vocabulary questions can be considered mini practice texts; building reading fluency in small groups and then collectively with these small examples allows the student to take on the longer, challenging informational text.

During the 90-minute class, we also spent a good bit of time talking about the introduction to, the title information for, and the opening sections of the Loving decision. The students struggled to understand many of the basics: why Justice Warren was writing the decision; what did it mean for the decision to be unanimous? We also talked about how the Lovings could be guilty of violating the Virginia statutes but still win their case in the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds (and how a win in the Supreme Court is different from a win in, for example, traffic court).

A highlight of the class was when we worked through a block quote in the Loving decision in which Justice Warren quotes the trial judge’s opinion on the case: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The students were totally confused about this quote, in part because of its format as a block quote and the way in which Justice Warren introduces the quote into his opinion. Justice Warren writes, “He states in an opinion that….” For the students, the “he” in this quotation was Warren himself. When Audrey asked them why Justice Warren would quote himself or why he would call himself “he,” they were flummoxed. The fact that Justice Warren does not name the lower court judge here no doubt added to the confusion.

But once some careful probing allowed the students to discover that Justice Warren was quoting the lower court judge (and the judge who had suspended Mildred and Richard’s one-year sentence on the condition that they leave Virginia and “not return together for 25 years”), the students were able to demonstrate their brilliance. The idea that this lower court judge would invoke the Bible, but without actually quoting any scripture, was typical, the students asserted. People use God to make all sorts of arguments, they said; that doesn’t make the arguments necessarily true, but it does fool some of the people. Indeed.

So these students may have been confused about when slavery ended, how the Supreme Court functions, and how to unpack the complicated use of a block quote within a legal argument, but they could, with some gentle assistance, make some fairly astute comments about the disconnect between what’s legal and what’s real in practice and about how religion is often invoked to bolster specious arguments.

The Loving opinion is one of the more challenging units in our Mockingbird text, precisely because it involves difficult legal language, complex vocabulary, and a general understanding of our country’s legal system. Students may come to the text without being fully equipped, but we can still make them feel smart about their ability to have valuable insights, even with their incomplete background knowledge. And when they feel smart, they are more likely to persevere and keep working at complex texts, which will produce in them both more background knowledge and greater investment and insight into our anchor text, Mockingbird, where Dolphus Raymond, alas, could not and did not marry his love and the mother of his children.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

A new resource for teaching Mockingbird

In the year since our first book, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, was published, we have enjoyed the privilege of sharing our work with teachers around the country and have been gratified to play a role in how they are teaching this ever-relevant and beloved novel.

Like so many others, we eagerly await the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and wonder how it will impact our perceptions of Scout, Atticus, and life in Maycomb, Alabama, and how it will resonate in the present day as Mockingbird still does so powerfully. In the meantime, we welcome a valuable new resource released in April by the nonprofit organization Facing History and Ourselves, Teaching Mockingbird.

Similar to our volume, Teaching Mockingbird is organized into units centered upon essential questions that guide teachers and students as they study the novel in conjunction with related readings and multimedia resources that help students build the background knowledge needed to access the rich themes throughout Mockingbird. Facing History’s guide also contains a wonderful range of video clips and graphic organizers to engage visual and auditory learners (as our volume does as well).

Having spent a great deal of time searching for engaging, meaningful informational texts in creating our own book on Mockingbird, we applaud the choices in Facing History. Three resources in Teaching Mockingbird are particularly fascinating: the discussions of eugenics, the redneck stereotype, and restorative justice.

Teaching Mockingbird aims to be a comprehensive guide to teaching the novel, with extensive thematic and close reading questions for each chapter of the novel, based on Facing History’s pedagogical approach, foregrounding “adolescent and moral development.” The volume offers a very helpful guide to discussing sensitive topics in the classroom and substantive guidance for teachers on how, when, and why to use the resources included. Teaching Mockingbird begins with a rich pre-reading section on identity, difference, personal voice, and belonging and ends with a rewarding post-reading unit that examines the novel’s legacy and the power of literature to shape the morals and ethics of individuals and society.

Like our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, this new volume offers teachers resources to refresh and enrich their existing Mockingbird curriculum by incorporating engaging, complex, relevant informational texts into their teaching of the novel. Both guides emphasize giving students experience with a wide range of meaningful and relevant nonfiction, developing their skills in making evidence-based inferences and arguments, and enhancing their vocabulary and use of academic language.

Of course, we do have some differences in approach. These can be seen most explicitly in how the two volumes present excerpts from Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. Teaching Mockingbird offers a very short excerpt from the beginning of the address with no resources for addressing challenging words like “candor” or “impel.” On the other hand, our book offers teachers a variety of pre-reading vocabulary activities to front-load both key vocabulary and concepts to pave the way for a successful experience of reading, discussing, and writing about a longer excerpt of the address, while guided reading questions alongside the excerpt follow-up on that pre-reading vocabulary practice, asking students to examine how the words are used in the text.

In addition to reinforcing students’ vocabulary acquisition, the guided reading questions that appear directly alongside each informational text in our book draw students’ attention to key textual features and concepts within the text. Each reading is followed by writing and discussion questions that put the informational text into meaningful dialogue with the novel; some units also feature a creative class activity that can be used as a capstone project for the study of the informational text itself or the novel overall.

Our differences reflect our sense that informational text poses specific and substantial challenges to students, particularly in relation to vocabulary and textual features and format. We also want to emphasize the importance of students engaging in rich and evidence-based dialogue as they put these informational texts into conversation with Mockingbird.

Clearly, Teaching Mockingbird, like our UsingInformational Text to Teach Literature, offers teachers and students the opportunity to meet the standards of the Common Core with a range of high quality, complex texts that will invigorate our understanding of this rewarding and relevant novel for years to come. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

ASCD dispatch #3: Close, careful attention makes things more interesting

Today, bright and early at 8am on the last day of the conference, we attended a fantastic session on a subject near and dear to our hearts, informational text.

In “Teach Students to Read, Talk, and Write about Informational Texts,” Diane Lapp and Maria Grant offered so many wonderful suggestions and ideas.

Here are some of our favorites:

1. We need to guide students with text-dependent questions that force the students back into the text for answers. These questions should always go beyond basic facts and should never be based on recall of information. They should highlight what the text says, how the text works, and what the text means. Students can then stretch to think about inferences about the text and whether they find the text and the text’s argument credible. And, so crucial to our thinking, they can work to shape intertextual connections between the informational text and, for example, a literary text or some other aspect of their content curriculum. The informational text does not need to be a step away from the curriculum; it can be a step into it!

2. If we pay close and careful attention to something, it becomes more interesting. Multiple readings of one text, for different purposes and with different questions in mind, make a text yield more for a reader. Learning to perform that kind of scrutiny with a text should be the ultimate goal of education; students who master that skill will find their reading exponentially more pleasurable.

3. All of our strategies for grappling with informational text, whether the close, multiple-readings strategy explored so brilliantly by Lapp and Grant, or our approach -- focusing on front-loading vocabulary and concepts, supporting with reading comprehension questions, and solidifying with engaging, complex discussion and writing questions that work to connect the informational text with literature or other content area material -- are designed to allow students to build their confidence, competence, resilience, and stamina with complex texts. Support your students with scaffolding and modeling and guide them. Then, gradually release them into group work and some independence. They may need to return to the scaffold and the support; the process is not necessarily direct. But eventually, they will acquire the skills and become strong, independent readers of a wide variety of texts.

4. Choose as your informational text an appropriate companion to what you’re teaching. Don’t make the informational text standard a step away from your curriculum. Make it a step into that curriculum: the on-ramp to more engagement, more purpose, and more motivation for your students. Choose carefully and your informational text will make your entire lesson or unit more productive.