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.