Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Day 2 at NCTE: Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction

Maybe our favorite session at NCTE this year (okay, besides our own excellent session) was “Critical Encounters with Non-Fiction: A Literature Lover’s Approach” with Deborah Appleman, Carol Jago, and Rachel Malchow-Lloyd.

If you missed the session or are curious, here are the slides.

Some stand-out moments:

  • You need to find the sweet spot of proximal development – texts that are challenging but not too challenging.
  • Use visuals to provide entry to informational texts. We so agree on this one.
  • Find the narrative thread in non-fiction.
  • Use jigsaw technique to offer different perspectives (critical lenses) on an informational text or to cover different sections.
  • Decontextualized close reading is necessary (Common Core) but not sufficient for complex text.
  • Think of intertextuality and text bouquets as you bring multiple texts into conversation. (Don’t you just love the image of text bouquets!)
  • Look for moments to contemporarize – to bring in texts that allow for a contemporary perspective
Finally, Appleman drove home the importance of non-fiction: “Knowledge is the lens through which we view ourselves and our world.”

But how do we offer students this knowledge when so much of what we read is fiction? Carol Jago noted that only 10% of classroom libraries is composed of non-fiction. And that includes a lot of material on dinosaurs and baby animals. This needs to change.

To that end, Jago offered a wonderful survey of some great non-fiction titles. Here are some we jotted down as quickly as we could:
  • Moonbird by Phillip Hoose (author of Claudette Colvin) on climate change
  • Tommy: The Gun that Changed America by Karen Blumenthal about the automatic weapon developed too late for WWI
  • Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary by Gail Jarrow
  • Invisible Microbe: Tuberculosis and the Never-Ending Search for a Cure by Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
  • Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights by Ann Bausum
  • Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dimitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad – by the amazingly versatile M. T. Anderson
  • Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of the 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle that Set Them Free by Hector Tobar
These titles can serve as independent reading, but we also need to find ways to include bits and pieces, whenever we can, in connection with our anchor literary texts to add color (our metaphor) to our text bouquets. Tobar’s volume would likely be a valuable addition to a discussion of Lord of the Flies paired with the story of the Chilean miners. The possibilities of interesting connections with these high quality, timely, and engaging informational texts are vast.

And, as Carol Jago pointed out, just as it’s okay to jigsaw and excerpt when we work with these informational texts, it’s also okay to do so sometimes with our literary anchor texts.

We want to build our students’ reading stamina, but building wonderful bouquets out of the intertextual connections of a variety of fictional and informational complex texts will create the robust learning and deep-thinking students we most want.

Thanks for this great session! We can’t wait to get ourselves and our students reading!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Day 1 at NCTE Minneapolis (where it’s very cold)

Getting ready for our packed session on "Teaching To
Kill a Mockingbird
 in (Not-So) Post-Racial Times"
We arrived bright and early in the morning from New Jersey. One of our first highlights was Brian Sweeney’s discussion of how his high school journalism student was able to turn a quirk in the New York City sexual education policy (teachers could talk about condoms but not actually show them) into a breaking story about policy change that was picked up by national media. Sweeney’s talk was part of a panel about writing forms beyond the essay and student agency. It was an inspiring way to begin our NCTE.

Next, we presented our work on informational text and Mockingbird. The panel, Teaching To Kill a Mockingbird in (Not So) Post-Racial Times was the brainchild of Susan Groenke (thanks to her for that!). We were thrilled to talk to an informed and lively audience about ways to think about Calpurnia and Lula vis-à-vis an audio interview of Dorothy Bolden, who worked as a domestic for 41 years and founded the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968, and excerpts from “Growing Up White,” featuring the reflections of white women who grew up in the 1930s South, like Scout, on the nannies and sharecroppers of their childhoods. If you missed our presentation, our slides are available on our website, as is the unit we focused on, “What Does Scout Really Know About Calpurnia?”

Robert Prickett followed us, with wonderful examples of graphic novels featuring African-American characters and history. We can’t wait to read Jennifer's Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl and the many others. Our favorite takeaway from his talk: use just a few panels from these various text to fill in context, make connections, and enrich your classroom discussion of Mockingbird.

Next, Stacy Reece and Susan Groenke talked about their research on pre-service teachers and the teaching of Mockingbird. Their qualitative research on how these students had been taught to read and think about Harper Lee’s novel – Atticus as hero, for example – was so compelling, especially given how universally the students talked about the erasure of race in their experience of the novel in high school.

Their next task was to help these pre-service teachers design lesson plans that would foreground an anti-racist pedagogy. What was so striking about this work was how challenging it was for these young teachers to imagine this work. All new teachers worry about how to handle conflict in the classroom; inviting a politically challenging discussion of race into your classroom is no small feat for a new teacher. But if we don’t help these teachers to think about this work now, when will we? We need our new teachers to take on these challenges; we can ill afford another generation of students who read Mockingbird as an unqualified tale of white heroism.

Thanks also to a great audience for their feedback. There’s no question that Mockingbird remains a problematic text today. Yet we know it remains one of those universally taught texts, so our challenge is to teach it well in combination with other texts that allow our students to have the difficult and informed conversations about race that we need to have in our classrooms.

Finally, we closed our day at a session entitled, “Responding to College Readiness,” featuring Audrey’s colleague, Caroline Wilkinson, along with Susannah Kilbourne and Hollye Wright. This highly interactive session allowed for great discussion of the vexed and vexing topic of college readiness. We did not, as one disappointed audience member noted, leave with the “answers” as to what constitutes college readiness and how to achieve it. But we did take away a sense of the importance of continuing conversations about the academic and non-academic skills necessary for success in college, the academic and non-academic obstacles (particularly poverty), and the difficulty of ensuring real access and opportunity for so many first generation students.

All in all, a great day at NCTE, as usual.