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. 

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