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.