Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Making sense of 'Watchman' and 'Mockingbird'

Yes, of course, we were first in line for Go Set a Watchman, and we read the new Harper Lee novel eagerly and with great pleasure. We’ve also been following, mostly with delight, the coverage of the text, including Sophie Gilbert in The Atlantic, Isabel Wilkerson and Joseph Crespino in The New York Times, and Hadley Freeman in The Guardian.

Instead of weighing in on the novel generally, which is territory well-covered already by so many others, we thought we’d suggest a few ways in which teachers might integrate Watchman into their teaching of Mockingbird.

One of the biggest storylines about Watchman has been the discussion of Atticus as a racist. The mainstream media has covered this development in full sensational mode as if Atticus’s views about race are wholly surprising.

Careful readers of Mockingbird, however, have a sense of how complex the racial politics of Lee’s Maycomb world already are and that the Atticus of that novel is no simple hero. After all, Atticus takes on the defense of Tom Robinson involuntarily, telling his brother “I’d hoped to get through life without a case of this kind, but [Judge] John Taylor pointed at me” (117). He is no civil rights activist: before, during, or after the trial. When Tom is shot in the prison yard for supposedly trying to escape, and shot seventeen times(!), Atticus responds with care for Tom’s family and for the African-American community, but he doesn’t initiate any legal appeal or investigation.

Teachers can help students unpack some of the complexity of Mockingbird’s Atticus. In our Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, we offer an excerpt from David Margolick’s “To Attack a Lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird: An Iconoclast Takes Aim at a Hero.” The piece critically evaluates Atticus’s words and actions, analyzing the ways in which his actions are not necessarily so heroic. Moreover, the discussion allows students to think about whether it’s appropriate to judge someone from the past – whether a real-life or fictional character – based on our cultural or social standards today.

With a nuanced and critical understanding of Mockingbird’s Atticus, students will be all the more ready to think about the Atticus we encounter in Watchman who says that the “Negro population is backward” (242) and questions whether “Negroes [belong] in our schools and church and theaters?” (245). Is this Watchman Atticus really incommensurate with the Atticus in Mockingbird who defends Tom Robinson but is fully part and parcel of a community in which African Americans live as wholly second-class citizens in every way?

Brief excerpts from chapter 17 of Watchman, then, together with Margolick’s text, can help students make more sense out of Atticus, and the complex world of the segregated South. As you work this summer to adjust your teaching of Mockingbird post-Watchman, take a look at our Using Informational Text to Teach to Kill a Mockingbird for the Margolick piece and others that can help flesh out that complex world.

Let’s help our students be smarter and more critically thoughtful than most of the mainstream media; it’s not that hard and it’s important, good work!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Highlights from ILA15

The highlight for us at ILA15 this past weekend in St. Louis (aside from the opportunity to present material from our current work-in-progress, Connect: A Collaborative Model for Using Informational Texts to Enhance Literacy Across Disciplines, to be published by Rowman & Littlefield some time in Spring 2016) was hearing dedicated and passionate educators talking about innovative ways to collaborate around cross-disciplinary literacy and informational text.

Two presentations in particular inspired us.

First, social studies teacher Lauren K. Francese and English teacher Rebecca Marsick from Westport, CT, shared their “MINDful reading” approach for enhancing literacy and engagement across disciplines.

According to Francese and Marsick, adolescence is a critical time for students to make the transition from “learning to read to reading to learn,” and so teachers of adolescents need to help them develop the cognitive tools necessary to make that shift.

Toward that goal, they created a model for rigorous, interdisciplinary nonfiction units that ask students to consider meaningful essential questions as they put texts related to the unit’s theme into dialogue.

During their presentation, they outlined several impressive units, including one on World War II, which pairs Hiroshima by John Hersey as a whole-class text with a range of related texts like Farewell to Manzanar and The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Stories of the Women Who Helped Win World War II that students can choose from.

By both allowing students to choose from a list of texts that they have pre-screened and then offering multiple options for the unit’s culminating writing assignment, Francese and Marsick effect meaningful differentiation while also providing a rigorous learning experience for all students.

In their model the students discuss the books in a book club format for 15 minutes 2-3 times per week, and they are responsible for preparing themselves for these discussions by completing reading organizers and bringing their own questions to drive the discussion.

We of course were also very interested in their collaborative English-social studies high school unit on the civil rights movement that puts To Kill a Mockingbird into dialogue with Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, centered around the essential question, “What does it mean to be a strong leader?”

They also talked about how they have adapted the degree to which they work together over the years according to their respective teaching assignments. In some years they have been able to collaborate very closely, while in others they simply coordinate their efforts in order to support and reinforce each other’s efforts.

And they shared both the tools they use to support student engagement and critical thinking and to encourage their colleagues to try out such units.

It was a treat to hear about this very valuable collaboration, which they have outlined in their book Stretching Beyond the Textbook: Reading and Succeeding with Complex Texts Across the Content Areas (Scholastic 2014).

The other presentation that we greatly enjoyed was led by a trio of science teachers. Yes, science teachers!

As we are completing our new book that outlines our collaborative model for enhancing literacy across the disciplines, the title of their session, “Integrating STEM Readings with Secondary ELA Curriculum,” attracted our attention, and we were not disappointed.

In their presentation Adam Aldridge, Eriq Hearn, and Alexis Wren, all graduate students from Georgia Regents University in Augusta, outlined their respective efforts to incorporate engaging informational and literary texts into their biology, chemistry, and physics/math classes.

Biology teacher Eriq Hearn discussed how he guided his students to consider Darwin’s The Origin of Species and the way he presents the theory of natural selection as an argument. He also hooked their interest by pairing their study of Darwin with short stories from the collection Abraham Lincoln’s DNA and Other Adventures in Genetics by Phillip R. Rilley.

Chemistry teacher Alexis Wren described how she engages students by having them consider the moral implications of chemistry in relation to the Holocaust. Using an anticipation guide, she asks them whether they think the chemists employed by the Nazis knew what their work was being used for and how they should have been punished, if at all, after World War II. She pairs their reading of an informational article, “Chemistry in Nazi Germany” by Sarah Everts, with The Periodic Table, a memoir by Primo Levi.

In addition to sharing the wonderful texts that they’ve used in their classes, these passionate young teachers also discussed the creative ways they have hooked their students’ interest (e.g., anticipation guides, written conversations) and encouraged them to demonstrate their understanding (e.g., creating comic books and movie posters).

Toward the end of their session, Hearn urged the English teachers in the audience to work with their science teachers to help them engage all of their students. (If only we all had such eager colleagues – of any discipline – to collaborate with!) And we wholeheartedly agreed with his encouragement to start by reaching out to colleagues that you like.

Finally, our ILA convention was topped off by the opportunity to meet with the two women at the helm of CommonLit, Michelle Brown and Sarah Mielbye, who were sharing their important work in the exhibition hall. Brown and Mielbye offer a growing range of accessible, engaging informational texts as a searchable database for teachers to use to create their own cross-disciplinary and informational text connections. They are also negotiating with various content providers (like NPR) and authors to allow access for student and classroom use.

We applaud and share the vision these two women have for how teachers need to be the intellectual and creative core of innovations in education. Technology, like CommonLit, may enable teachers to do this work more quickly (by providing content and helping streamline the search for content and connections), but ultimately teachers, through their energy, their experience, their collaborative impulses, and their knowledge of their students, can and should be the ones creating curricula and making change.

As is always the case, our attendance at a national conference, and the opportunity to meet with teachers and innovators from across the country (like Michele Haiken and her innovative methods for teaching Mockingbird!), has left us invigorated about our work and impressed by the good work being done by educators, young and old, experts and novices alike. (And we're looking forward to enjoying that heady mix of inspiration again at IATE, NCTE, and CEL! Join us!)

It isn’t always easy to be a teacher, but after attending ILA, we know we are in good company.