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. 

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