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.

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