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.

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