Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Can test prep also be meaningful learning?

When we spoke at the Conference on English Leadership, after the NCTE Convention in St. Louis this November, we ran into an important and serious concern: does a focus on test preparation, at least to some degree, diminish our commitment to our students’ real and meaningful learning somehow?

Our presentation, “Supporting Teachers in Rigorous Literacy: A Matter of Access, Equity, and Opportunity,” focused on our cross-disciplinary, collaborative lessons: on male aggression in fruit flies and Lord of the Flies; on chromium contamination and gentrification near the schools where we teach; and on the microfibers in our clothes and in our oceans. Each of these lessons was centered around high-quality, challenging pieces of nonfiction; each asked students to read and think with rigor about important, relevant issues in our shared world.

Our presentation offered strategies to support all teachers in creating and developing these sorts of cross-disciplinary and challenging lessons so that all learners can succeed. We feel strongly that rigorous literacy means that all students, regardless of their learning challenges and reading levels, need to be reading high-quality texts about real issues (like male aggression, chromium contamination, and global pollution).

And yes, as we always do, we talked about using multiple-choice, PARCC-style questions (we are in a PARCC state) to prep students about vocabulary and check their understanding of the reading. We stressed how these activities should be practiced in groups, in a low-stakes environment, where the students can problem-solve answering multiple-choice style questions while developing their understanding of the reading.

It was striking, however, that one person in our audience worried out loud during our question-and-answer period (in a productive and supportive way, to be clear) about whether our work was somehow unduly shaped by concerns about test preparation. We were a bit taken aback initially: our overarching motivation for incorporating challenging informational texts into our instruction is to motivate students by tapping into relevant, engaging issues that resonate with our students’ interests and everyday lives in order to empower them to think critically about their present and future realities. We believe doing so enables us to do our best teaching and for our students to experience meaningful learning, and so we offered this explanation to our interlocutor.

But yes, these kinds of science and social studies texts are the kinds of reading we see appearing on a variety of standardized tests.

During the Q & A for our session, we also reiterated our strong belief that these kinds of high-quality, cross-disciplinary units are opportunities for the best kind of test preparation: work that can be done without taking us away from the important texts and topics we need to teach. Given that standardized tests are an unavoidable part of our students’ academic reality, and that they present a disproportionate challenge to disadvantaged students, we think this belief is very much aligned with the CEL conference theme of access and opportunity. Indeed, we feel strongly that disadvantaged student populations need explicit test preparation in schools because their more advantaged peers are getting this practice, at a high cost, in after-school programs and tutoring.

It was interesting, then, to come across a piece in The Hechinger Report suggesting that “instructional quality declined with the rise of high stakes testing, especially in the weeks before the exam.” Particularly striking was the fact that “the quality gap between a teacher’s regular lessons and her test-prep lessons was largest in a school district where the teaching quality was the highest …. instructional quality sank a lot when these excellent teachers were delivering test-prep lessons.” Research did find some high-quality test prep lessons, but the overall quality of these sorts of lessons varied widely, leading the researchers to conclude that teaching to the test “can be done well, but it’s not easy.” In other words, much test prep is done poorly, even by high quality teachers who normally deliver excellent instruction. Innovative and substantive test prep, however, is possible, but teachers needs to think hard about how to make it work well.

To us, this study underscores both our sense of urgency around meaningful test prep and the concern our audience member expressed about the deleterious impact of test prep on instruction. Whether we like it or not, American students inhabit a universe of high-stakes testing – in K-12 and well beyond. Test prep, in nearly every school, is a reality. But even our best teachers, according to this research, are probably not doing a great job at test prep. Unless we embrace the challenge of delivering high-quality test prep, we are shortchanging all our students.

We think the answer is to build high-quality instruction around some explicit and regular practice for standardized tests. That seems to be a better solution than abandoning our normally strong instruction to spend days or weeks drilling on pre-made test-prep materials or leaving all test prep in the hands of paid after-school providers who serve only those students with resources. This explicit and regular practice for standardized tests means, however, that all teachers need to take some ownership over preparing our students for this unavoidable and deeply inequitable aspect of their educational lives. Especially in districts that serve some disadvantaged students (which probably means every district today), it shouldn’t be someone else’s job to teach students how to tackle standardized tests.

Most importantly, from our perspective, doing this test prep work does not mean turning away from rigorous literacy and high-quality learning. Just as it’s part of our job to make this explicit practice a regular part of our instruction, so too is it part of our job to do so in the most meaningful way possible.

That’s why each of our informational text units includes opportunities for students to both learn about and take ownership of the issues that shape their realities and to practice answering the kinds of questions they’ll see on standardized tests. Check out our website for sample units and resources for developing your own lessons and units that can help you maximize your instructional time no matter how soon the next standardized test is.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Talking About Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump at NCTE

We had a great time yesterday talking with teachers at NCTE in St. Louis about “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” When we began work on our fourth volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, we were far from the Age of Trump. But now that we are firmly enmeshed in the world of President 45, our project with Gatsby seems more relevant, more pertinent, and more pressing.

As we heard from NCTE President Jocelyn Chadwick during the presidential address Friday morning, “we are English teachers – we walk towards the fire.” Or, as Jacqueline Woodson said in her keynote, “We are living in a time when resistance matters – writing to resist, teaching to resist, learning to resist.”

Still, as important as those words are, we know that teachers on the front lines can find the fire hot and the work of resistance scary and difficult. We heard from teachers in New Jersey at NJEA last week about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms and their concerns about facing a political backlash if they try to engage in current political issues.

Our audience of educators at NCTE shared these concerns:
  • Sometimes opinions are so polarized that students do not know how to express their opinions without being angry or offensive.
  • It can be tough to discuss such topics with homogeneous student groups.
  • In a more liberal area, on the other hand, conservative students are "othered" and silenced.
  • I think the students want to discuss it. Our teachers are in varying stages of 'comfort' in guiding these conversations.
  • I think students are desperate to have challenging conversations. They sometimes don't know how to separate their emotions from the facts.
This last comment is so powerful to us. Of course students want to have these challenging conversations. It’s their world; they are grappling with the different legacies (of racism, of inequality, etc.) that they are inheriting and their potential to make changes to the world. As adolescents and young adults, they are coming into a growing sense of their responsibility; they are finding their voices and thinking about their emerging power. School needs to be a safe place for our young people to have these challenging conversations!

Our approach is to ground these challenging or, as one of our audience members put it, courageous conversations in text, so that students can engage with language, rhetoric, and ideas rather than just opinions and emotions. What does this text say? How does writer use language to convey his/her/their ideas? What assumptions ground the text?

Gatsby is the perfect text for this work because it focuses on income inequality, nativism and white nationalism, anti-Semitism, cheating, and bullying – all key concerns in the Age of Trump. Using informational texts, like excerpts from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy and Kenneth L. Roberts’s Why Europe Leaves Home, we can unpack the issues of racism, white nationalism, and anti-Semitism that are central to Fitzgerald’s novel and provide opportunities for students to have informed, critical conversations about the ways in which these difficult issues played out in the 20s.

And when we do this work with Gatsby, we are hardly being radical, politically-divisive teachers. We are simply being and asking our students to be careful readers whose interpretations of this central text of the American canon are informed by the source material that Fitzgerald himself invokes and that his readers would surely have known. (Or, if we examine David Vandivier’s “What Is The Great Gatsby Curve?” about wealth inequality, we are studying the ongoing resonances of Fitzgerald’s text and its importance as a cultural touchstone in our society.)

To us, this seems a productive, calculated way to step into today’s fire and to help our students grapple with the sometimes toxic and often powerful rhetoric which surrounds us.

As Jacqueline Woodson reminded us during her address, “Telling stories helps us remember where we came from in order to help us think about where we are going.” Isn’t that our purpose in reading our great American texts, like Gatsby? Reading these texts carefully, and using some powerful supplements to help us with that work, matters now more than ever.

If you attended our workshop at NCTE and/or are eager to see more of these materials, our volume on Gatsby is currently due out from Rowman and Littlefield in January 2018. But we are happy to share materials earlier; don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Talking informational text, social justice, and difficult conversations at NJEA

We had the opportunity to present our work to a lively and engaged group of educators on Friday at the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City. In keeping with the social justice theme of the convention, we spoke about “Collaborating with Informational Texts Across the Disciplines to Engage Students.”

Our participants felt strongly about the potential for nonfiction to engage students on issues of social justice. They cited the importance of students opening their minds to a wide range of information, especially from texts they wouldn’t normally read. They stressed the importance of using informational text to dive deeply into issues, to open their minds, understand facts and bias, and be informed.

We couldn’t agree more! We shared with participants our work on fruit fly aggression and Lord of the Flies (featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text), and we were thrilled to hear comments from our session participants about how this lesson can allow students to challenge the status quo of human behavior and think about the relationship between biology, gender, and social norms.

Indeed, it was clear that the teachers in the room shared our passion for using nonfiction to underscore the relevance of our content area curriculum (whether science or literature) to our students and to the world today.

It was striking and disturbing, however, to hear from the teachers in the room about their trepidation about raising social justice issues in their classrooms. Clearly, our country is at a difficult moment, and teachers, like everyone else, are struggling with ways to facilitate difficult conversations in a climate where civil discourse and debate are no longer the norm.

We offered our discussion of Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy as an entryway into discussion about nativism and white nationalism in The Great Gatsby. Stoddard is twice referenced (as Goddard) in Fitzgerald’s novel, which centers on issues of nationalism, anti-Semitism, and inequality. (This unit appears in our 4th volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield in January!)

Gatsby isn’t a radical, left-wing text. It’s taught in nearly every high school in the country. And using a bit of supplemental text, like an excerpt from Stoddard, can help students unpack and discuss Fitzgerald’s references to white nationalism. Students can think about how white nationalism has worked in the past, how writers like Stoddard have used language to promote and defend a racist ideology, and how novelists like Fitzgerald interpreted and commented on the ideologues of their day. This work can equip students to think critically about the resurgence of such ideas today, whether or not those connections are made explicit in our classes.

Sadly, many teachers may find it difficult to promote open and thoughtful discussion in their classrooms, and they may worry about a political backlash if they try to engage students on current political issues.

A creative teacher, however, can use nonfiction and canonical texts, like Gatsby, to promote critical thinking and discussion without necessarily talking directly about Trump or the white nationalism in our current climate. We will be talking more about these issues at NCTE in St. Louis at the end of this week, and surely all of us will be thinking more about how we can make our classrooms places for important, engaged discussion without jeopardizing ourselves or our students.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Revamp, recharge your curriculum with Using Informational Text to Teach Literature

Now that it’s July, we hope that your end-of-school-year stress has eased and you are settling into a rejuvenating summer. We know that summer is a precious time that many teachers use to revamp and recharge their curricula and pedagogical toolkit. We think that spending time with our Using Informational Textresources over the summer will be well-rewarded come September. You can also read on our blog about our rewarding experiences with our approach to informational text in the classroom with a wide range of students.

If you are teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and wrestling with how to help your students make sense of it amid today’s conversations about race, economic inequality, and social justice, the first volume in our series, Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird, can help. Our classroom-ready units on the relationship between Calpurnia and Scout and whether Atticus is a hero will help your students think critically about the characters and the complex world Harper Lee depicts.

If you are teaching A Raisin in the Sun, the second volume in our series will help you underscore the enduring relevance of Lorraine Hansberry’s landmark play. In it, you will find ready-to-use units on housing discrimination past and present, the violence surrounding housing desegregation, the politics of African-American women’s hair, and more.

If you are looking for ways to collaborate with your content-area colleagues around literacy, check out Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text. This volume offers practical strategies for initiating cross-disciplinary collaboration and developing students’ disciplinary literacy skills, as well as a sample unit based on a science article and an excerpt from Lord of the Flies.

If you are thinking about how to revamp your curriculum, our website and our blog feature resources and strategies for finding great informational texts that relate to any literary work you may be teaching and using them successfully in your classroom. We also offer ideas for teaching key vocabulary in meaningful and engaging ways and using multimedia together with written informational texts. Check out our sample units based on Mockingbird for models.

If you’d like hands-on training in our approach to using informational text, contact us about scheduling a professional development session in your school or district. We offer half-day and full-day workshops for both English and/or content-area teachers. If you are in New Jersey, we look forward to seeing you at NJEA in November. Otherwise, we hope to see you at NCTE and CEL in St. Louis.

We have just submitted the completed manuscript for our fourth volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, which we hope will be available by this fall from Rowman & Littlefield. In the meantime, check out our recent blog posts on articles that highlight both the difficulties and relevance of Fitzgerald’s classic novel.

In anticipation of this new volume, we have also reorganized the resources on our website. You will now find teacher resources and student resources on separate pages. The Teacher Resources page features rubrics, graphic organizers, sample answers, and sample units that you can download and adapt as you wish. The Student Resources page contains all of the graphic organizers that appear in our books so that you can link directly to them from your own class website.

We hope our resources will help you create rewarding learning experiences for you and your students. If you use any of our materials, please send us your feedback. We would also greatly appreciate it if you would post a review on Goodreads or Amazon. Thank you again for your interest and support!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Highlights from NerdCampNJ: Part 2

Apologies for the delay in posting part 2! The end of the school year is so busy!

We also greatly enjoyed Kate Baker’s session on using technology to promote and assess student engagement with texts. Her quick, hands-on tutorials and models for using GoFormative, EDpuzzle, and ActivelyLearn have inspired us to try them out and share them with others!

All three of the tools enable teachers to embed the kinds of discussion prompts alongside a text that we advocate in our model for supporting student success with informational texts. All three also allow students to annotate texts as they read, view, or listen. And because we always advocate the use of multimedia texts, we of course liked how EDpuzzle allows teachers to embed questions and comments in videos at various stopping points that they determine. However, it was ActivelyLearn that particularly caught our attention.

ActivelyLearn allows teachers to embed questions and comments throughout single or multiple texts included in an assignment. Comments might be used to draw student attention to a particular text feature and/or direct students to turn and talk with a partner about some aspect of the text. Questions that teachers embed in the reading must be answered before a student can continue with the reading.

Students can also annotate and post questions or comments about the text as they read, even indicating parts of the text that they are struggling with. Teachers can immediately view the responses students have submitted, give feedback on them, and have students revise them if so desired. The paid version of the platform even includes a GoogleDocs add-on that allows students to import content from both readings and their own responses in ActivelyLearn directly into a GoogleDoc!

ActivelyLearn also struck us as a great platform for cross-disciplinary collaborative assignments or projects. The model that Kate shared with us, a unit created to support students in writing a research paper on the attainability of the American Dream throughout history, included a variety of informational and literary texts (see screenshot). 

Using Kate’s model as an example, an English teacher and a history teacher could have students read and annotate specific texts during their respective classes within the collaboratively created assignment. Students could then draw from all of their work in the ActivelyLearn assignment to create some kind of cross-disciplinary project.

One thing that Kate also noted during the session was the fact that smaller tech companies like ActivelyLearn (as opposed to, say, Google!) are very responsive to teacher interest and feedback. We experienced this ourselves when we asked, through Kate, about the collaboration functionality in ActivelyLearn. Natalie from ActivelyLearn responded the same day and confirmed that teachers on the paid team and school plans can collaborate by sharing and tweaking each other’s assignments and also by co-authoring lessons together. (With the free plan, teachers would have to share an account in order to create a lesson together.) We will be looking for an opportunity to try this out. If you are able to do so, please let us know how it goes!

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Highlights from NerdCampNJ: Part 1

One of the highlights of NerdCampNJ for us on May 20 was of course our panel discussion, “Literacy Across the Content Areas,” with Kell Andrews, Laurie Wallmark, and Kristy Acevedo. It was a treat to hear everyone’s different perspectives on how informational text can enhance student engagement with fiction and vice versa.

We started off by sharing some collaborations around informational texts that we’ve done with science and English teachers in Susan’s school. (The materials we shared during the session can be found here.)

YA sci-fi author and high school English teacher Kristy Acevedo then jumped in to talk about how she has her students use research to create the details and substance of the characters and worlds in their own fiction writing, using her books and her own writing and research process as models. We loved this innovative merging of research with creative writing and the way in which this enterprise engages all sorts of skills in students!

Children’s author Kell Andrews picked up that thread to talk about how she embeds the practice of research into the plots of her books like Mira Forecasts the Future. Mira is the daughter of a famous fortune teller, but she lacks the gift of telling the future by gazing into the crystal ball, so she figures out how to make predictions in her own way by learning the basics of meteorology. Andrews’ point, which dovetailed well with Acevedo’s, is that science (like meteorology) can be embedded in any kind of text, including fiction.

Laurie Wallmark, college computer science instructor and author of two illustrated biographies for children, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine and Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code, built on all the earlier presentations in offering herself as a model. A teacher of STEM (computer science), she is also a researcher and a writer, who draws on all sorts of research and literacy skills in her work.

Clearly, the Common Core’s focus on informational text can be embraced in any number of ways. Writers know that their own work relies on their ability to research widely and incorporate information meaningfully.

One other point of emphasis that we thought was striking. Acevedo and others agreed that having students read primary informational texts (Acevedo used some of the scientific reports she consulted to write Consider) can get students to think critically about how the information they are reading is being shaped by an author. Just because Mira learns about meteorology in Mira Forecasts the Future doesn’t mean the information presented is accurate or authoritative. This latter point seems a particularly opportune one for us to think about as we grapple with fake news and try to instill in our students a healthy skepticism about the veracity of information. Just because it appears in print doesn’t mean it’s true!

Stay tuned for Part 2, which focuses on a workshop where we learned about some great tech tools that can foster active reading and cross-disciplinary collaboration

Thanks to Oona Abrams and the rest of the organizers for putting together this energizing event!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Difficulties of The Great Gatsby

We have been working for more than a year on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, the fourth in our Using Informational Text series with Rowman and Littlefield. So we were thrilled by Stephanie Powell Watts’s wonderful and provocative “I Love the Great Gatsby, Even if It Doesn’t Love Me Back: On Difficult Characters and the Unbearable Whiteness of Classic Literature.” Watts is also the author of the just-published novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us, which we are very much looking forward to reading as it remixes Gatsby around the lives of a contemporary African-American family in North Carolina.

Published on Lithub.com, Watts' brilliant essay explores being drawn to and “in love” with Fitzgerald’s novel but also being repulsed by the “demeaning” racism, sexism, and cruelty in the text. She explores, for example, the underdiscussed white nativism in the text and many of the horrific moments of repulsive racism. For Watts, as a self-described “lower working-class, rural North Carolina … southern black ki[d],” Gatsby is a text that “was not written” for her and may or may not love her back.

Still, Watts relishes the ways in which Gatsby allows us, through Nick, to have a “front row seat to this moneyed world and the cruel indifference those privileged few have for the striving and struggling masses.” And Watts is satisfied with this albeit ugly view, and with the fact that Nick is neither “a revolutionary [n]or a prophet”: his response is to flee the Eggs.

This combination in Gatsby of wondrous hopefulness, ugliness, and messy retreat works for Watts, and so she can love this book even if she also “fear[s] that the door of the book will suddenly close in my face by excluding and demeaning people of color, women, the poor.” Other readers may be less sanguine and loving toward what Fitzgerald offers. We look forward to seeing how Watts addresses this fear in her novel.

Regardless, we can’t agree more with Watts’s assessment that The Great Gatsby is a book for the twenties but also especially for our own time: “characterized by economic and racial fear, a time of great wealth for a few and greater uncertainty for many.” Our hope is that students in the U.S. who encounter the world of Gatsby have the opportunity to discuss its beauty and its ugliness, to love and hate it, and to use it to think about the difficult issues we faced in our past and continue to face now.

As noted above, we are putting the finishing touches on Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby, but if you’d like a sneak peek into the kinds of issues and texts it will include, check out our blog and website. We’ve blogged about a couple recent New York Times articles that provide very timely connections to Gatsby, and the materials from our recent workshop, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump,” are posted on our website. We hope these resources will help you use informational texts to engage in and support the sometimes difficult but necessary discussions about the novel and the realities of our present-day lives.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Developing vocabulary through drama

It has been a busy week for us.

We are thrilled that Susan was honored by the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English (NJCTE) as Educator of the Year. She accepted the award at the annual NJCTE conference at Montclair State University this weekend, where she also presented some of our new work on The Great Gatsby in a session entitled, “Teaching Gatsby in the Age of Trump.” We are excited to be finishing the volume from which this work is drawn, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby and look forward to its publication as the fourth in our series with Roman and Littlefield.

Meanwhile, Audrey travelled to Amsterdam with NJCU graduate student Tatiana Reyes who was presenting at “Look Both Ways: Narrative and Metaphor in Education at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. While at the conference, Audrey attended a fascinating session presented by Jackie Winsch, “A stage for racial justice: Empowering youth through integrated drama education.”

Winsch’s focus was vocabulary development through drama. Her focus was the elementary classroom, but one of the activities she discussed could be easily implemented in the secondary classroom and fruitfully added to a teacher’s toolkit for addressing challenging vocabulary in informational text.

For the activity, the students sit in a circle and the teacher stands in the middle. The teacher narrates a story, and as she does, she calls students into the circle, one, two, or three at a time. Students are asked to engage in a kind of narrative pantomime: to act out pieces of the teacher’s story (in Winsch’s example the students were princesses and a beast) with facial expressions and physical actions (sometimes prompted by the teacher). They might also be asked to repeat bits of dialogue (the beast said, “I am hungry,” so the student as beast repeats, “I am hungry”). Each time the teacher wished to dismiss certain students from the center, she would “whoosh” them out, and then beckon other students in.

The key to this activity, for our purposes, was the inclusion of several key vocabulary words into this narrated drama. Students were physically acting out and sometimes repeating dialogue that included targeted words. In a fun, interactive manner, students were hearing and using the key words, all in an engaging narrative context. In other words, this was a teacher-led version of the vocabulary skits we love.

This activity could easily be implemented in a secondary classroom. In Winsch’s example, the teacher had created the narrative and led the activity, and secondary teachers could do the same. But students could also write and then implement their own narratives, leading their peers in a brief and simple narrated skit. As with the vocabulary skits we advocate in our UsingInformational Text series, these skits could be on any topic (Winsch’s were intended to allow students to explore gender norms) but could also foreground the content of the upcoming informational text (a skit about table manners and gender norms for clothing in preparation for reading an excerpt from Lillian Eichler’s 1921 Book of Etiquette which we offer in Using Informational Text to Teach To Kill a Mockingbird to stimulate discussion of gender in To Kill a Mockingbird).

The brilliance of this activity is that it gets students out of their seats, acting and thinking creatively, embodying and using new words. All of this enhances their necessary “massive practice” so that they can own these new words and engage any challenging reading with confidence.

Jackie Winsch used this activity to argue for integrating drama and play into education. Play is such an important part of learning, and it should play a greater role in school generally, not just in the elementary grades.

In conclusion, then, given all that we know about how crucial complex vocabulary is in determining students’ success with informational text, this narrated vocabulary pantomime activity is one tool we hope all teachers add to their toolbox.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Using vocabulary instruction to support all learners

We were very excited yesterday to see our column, “Pairing Contemporary Nonfiction with Canonical Texts,” published in the March issue of English Journal. As we were looking over the table of contents and seeing what great company we are in, Meghan Liebfreund’s essay, “Facilitate Informational Text with Vocabulary Instruction” immediately caught our attention.

Though we have not encountered Liebfreund’s work before, we feel like we have discovered a kindred spirit. Noting the growing emphasis on informational text, she calls vocabulary instruction “crucial” to student success in comprehending it. She cites her recent study that showed “vocabulary knowledge” to be “the strongest predictor of informational text comprehension for readers in grades 3 through 5, and its influence was nearly two times larger than decoding efficiency and prior knowledge” (77).

We also wholeheartedly agree with Liebfreund that “it is vital that we provide instruction that is engaging and effective when supporting students’ vocabulary development .... [and that] enhancing vocabulary instruction often requires the implementation of several instructional strategies.” And, like Liebfreund, we advocate following the model presented by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan in Bringing Words to Life: selecting a reasonable number of “important and frequently used words,” having students interact with the words in meaningful contexts that also front-load concepts that are key to the reading, making instruction explicit, and providing ample and varied practice with the words.

The types of pre-reading vocabulary exercises we include in our model for teaching informational text also follow the criteria Liebfreund calls for, such as the explicit teaching of word forms and drawing students’attention to the multiple meanings of common words. We also believe that “[w]ord learning should be a social process that involves students talking about and sharing what they know and are learning about words” (77).

Finally, Liebfreund’s piece echoes the belief we recently blogged about: that all learners can succeed with complex informational text if given sufficient support. We know that if we make the effort to give that support, especially around the challenge of vocabulary, we create an environment where all students can succeed.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Using informational text to engage all learners: Part 2

[Click here to read Part 1.]

In order to reactivate what we had learned the previous day and in hopes of rekindling the students’ engagement, we picked up where we left off with a few final multiple-choice questions. The students read through them quietly and then offered their answers aloud. Whether their answers were correct or not, we prompted them to explain the reasoning and evidence they used in arriving at their answer, and then when needed asked follow-up questions to scaffold them toward the correct answer.

We then broke into two groups to work on two open-ended prompts. We had planned in advance to differentiate the writing work as follows: the two students who have the most difficulty with reading and writing would address a prompt that involved only the article while the other group of three students would tackle one that put the article into dialogue with a short excerpt from Lord of the Flies. In the interest of time, we asked students only to articulate a response to each part of their respective prompt and then identify evidence they would use to support their argument.

The result was an outline of a response produced by each group rather than a fully written response. This adaptation of the lesson allowed us to focus on what we considered our essential instructional goals at the moment: having the students grapple with the ideas in the text(s), articulate coherent responses to the text(s), and select relevant evidence from the text(s) to support their ideas. A complete, written response, in this case, was not necessary for our goals.

The group working with the prompt focused only on the article began by working together to draft a response to the first part of the question: “Why, according to Gorman, are the scientists interested in aggression in fruit flies?” The students drew upon the RSSE strategy (Restate, Support from the text, Support in your own words, Extend) they had previously learned to use in open-ended responses and started by restating the question. They soon realized that this left them with an incomplete response: “According to Gorman, the scientists are interested in aggression in fruit flies because ....” At this point, we went back to what we had learned from the article. After reviewing the conclusions of the study described in the article, the students completed the sentence: “...because it might help them better understand aggression in humans.” The students quickly found a quote that supported their thinking and then went on to the next part of the question.

The other group began their work by reviewing and analyzing the passage from Lord of the Flies in which the boys kill the female wild pig. The students noted the “savage” brutality of the boys’ actions and surmised that the scientists discussed in the article would be interested in studying them. They connected the behavior the scientists observed in their “fight club for flies” with that of the boys in the scene, and then wondered whether the boys had the same kinds of neurons that the scientists had found to be related to aggression in male fruit flies. While the group did not get very far in writing down its responses, the students had a rich, evidence-based discussion as they put the two texts in dialogue with each other.

We decided to move on from the lesson at the conclusion of that class so as not to exhaust student engagement. While we did not have time to fully complete the lesson, its unfinished edges, as well as the parts that students struggled with the most, gave us valuable information on both what to focus on and what to give students more practice with during future lessons.

While the students’ performance was the result of their own thinking and effort, it was also clearly built upon the support we had given them, both in terms of the scaffolding we had provided and the unnecessary obstacles we had taken away. This collection of instructional supports enabled the students to connect with this rich lesson and the ideas and skills it offered, and both the students and the teachers walked away proud of and rewarded by their efforts. However, it must be noted that the social-emotional support the teacher had previously cultivated in the class was also a key aspect of the success of this lesson. The students would not have been so willing to try something new – especially with a stranger in the room – if they had not been already accustomed to taking risks and engaging in challenging work.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Using informational text to engage all learners: Part 1

Using diverse informational texts is challenging. Real-world informational texts – e.g, newspaper articles, court decisions, and scientific abstracts – often are very long, have difficult vocabulary, and include material not relevant to instructional goals. Moreover, teachers working in classes with a large number of or composed solely of students with special needs may worry that their students cannot negotiate the challenges of this kind of material.

Susan’s recent experience working with an English class in her school validated this belief. The small class of just five classified students was studying Lord of the Flies, and the teacher agreed to co-teach our lesson that uses a New York Times article on a scientific study of male aggression in fruit flies to prompt student thinking about the violence in Lord of the Flies. We published a version of this lesson for The New York Times Learning Network, and the full-length version is featured in our volume Connecting Across Disciplines.

While classified students may sometimes be given low-level work and material that does not challenge them, fortunately, that is not always the case. This second-year teacher consistently has his students grappling with rigorous texts, and he welcomed the opportunity to incorporate a new instructional model into his practice.

The teacher began the class with a do-now prompt asking students what kinds of issues or situations annoy them and how they respond. One student’s response offered a perfect segue into the main focus of the lesson. He admitted that he sometimes struggles to control his emotions: “that’s just how my mind is; my body runs really hot.”

Susan and the teacher then moved into the lesson by showing the short, fun video created by the New York Times that accompanies the article on the fruit fly study. We first played the video straight through, then played it again, stopping several times to discuss and check for understanding. Though our students are always absorbing media, we know they sometimes do so passively, so multiple viewings of a media clip, perhaps with prompts for what to look for as needed, are key in using media clips to hook student interest successfully.

The teacher had prepared the students for reading the article the previous day by working on the vocabulary exercises for the text (in our Connecting volume). The value of this work was evident when we began reading the article; students were confident in their comprehension of the words they had studied the day before – e.g., hypothesis, neuroscientist, suppresses – and seemed to be quite willing to tackle other challenging words in the article that they had not learned previously.

During the 46-minute lesson, we read and discussed the excerpted version of the Times fruit fly article aloud as a class, using the sidebar questions designed to prompt student thinking about the text. Excerpting and using sidebars are key elements to our approach. We use excerpts and cut anything from the readings that might distract students from our instructional goals. And we create sidebar questions that prompt active reading: scaffolding for students the process of thinking and asking questions about what they are reading along the way.

As we worked through the text, an interesting trend emerged. When we asked students high-level questions about a particular phrase or sentence of the text (e.g., “The article indicates that Anderson and his colleagues identified ‘a tiny group of neurons ... that can control aggression.’ What is the idea here? Why would scientists be interested in studying aggression? Why would they care that a small group of neurons control aggression?”), they were engaged and willing to think out loud.

However, when we approached a fairly long paragraph in the article, the teacher clearly became concerned about keeping students engaged and turned away from the sidebar questions to ask students easier comprehension questions (e.g, “What is substance P?”) as we read the paragraph aloud. But when asked this kind of low-level comprehension question, the students tended to look at the text for a few seconds, make a guess, and then clam up in frustrated silence.

This of course was the opposite of what the teacher intended, but such a result makes sense. Basic recall or identification questions are often harder than they seem, especially for students who struggle with reading comprehension. If the answer is not explicitly stated in the text exactly the way it is framed in the question (“Substance P is ...”), a struggling student is likely to stare at the long block of text that contains the answer somewhere and then guess. If the student isn’t supported by the original question or follow-up questions to think about how the language in the relevant phrase or sentence works, the student’s guess is likely to miss the mark, no matter how long they stare at the text. What seems like an easy comprehension question to a teacher can often be perceived as a more challenging question to a student.

And the higher-level question, which promotes deeper engagement with big issues, can in fact be easier, even when a student has some basic reading comprehension problems. Just because a student might struggle with reading words on a page, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t think. The key is to craft questions that simultaneously supply what is needed to support students’ thinking about ideas and language and remove any unnecessary barriers that might impede that thinking. Getting students who have difficulty with reading and writing to talk and supporting them in thinking out loud are essential to helping them improve their reading and writing skills.

Though we much prefer thought-provoking, open-ended discussion and writing opportunities, we also use multiple-choice questions as part of our working through a reading for two main reasons. First, they are an inescapable part of our students’ reality, so we feel obligated to give them low-stakes opportunities to tackle such questions, especially in the often very challenging two-part formats posed by the Common Core-aligned and other high-stakes assessments. Second, they are a relatively quick way to check for understanding.

So, after our successful reading of The New York Times article excerpt, we grappled with a few multiple-choice questions, talking through them aloud as a class, during the last few minutes of the period. This gave us an important opportunity to not only check for understanding in anticipation of moving on to written responses to the article the following day but also to reinforce effective test-taking strategies and build confidence with the kinds of questions our students often struggle with on standardized tests.

The students were game for tackling these questions after reading the article and discussing the sidebar questions, especially after we explained that we would do them together. We asked what strategies they used when attempting multiple-choice questions. They said they would eliminate obviously wrong answers first; they also said they would plug the answers into the question to see if they fit. We used process of elimination to answer the first part of the main idea question. The students quickly identified the main idea of the excerpt: “Studying aggression in male fruit flies may help us understand aggression in humans.” We then asked the students what they would expect to see in a piece of evidence that supported our answer. They said that a strong piece of evidence would talk about studying aggression in male fruit flies and aggression in humans. We then used these criteria to select the three best pieces of evidence from the quotes given in the answer choices. After successfully completing this task, we reiterated to the students that whenever they see a two-part question, they should use the second part to help them check their answer to the first part.

We were so pleased by the students’ level of engagement and demonstration of high-level thinking throughout the class, we were very eager to build on our success the next day.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Atlantic highlights value of historical fiction in building context, critical thinking

We just finished reading the great new piece, “Using Historical Fiction to Connect Past and Present,” in The Atlantic. Anna Diamond discusses how teachers are turning to historical fiction to build historical context around some of the issues of race, gender, and discrimination raised by the recent election and the current presidential administration. Diamond talks about the ways in which historical fiction also allows teachers to “[h]umaniz[e] history” so that students can “connect the historical dots” and build empathy.

One key point in the article worth emphasizing is the fact that historical fiction is still fiction. Fiction may be more appealing than a history textbook and perhaps more entertaining and engaging, but using historical fiction to help students think about the past poses challenges as well.

So, how can we use historical fiction to promote critical thinking and “counter the often static and monolithic view of the past”? Diamond cites the work of Sara Schwebel, author of Child-Sized Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms, as one answer. Schwebel stresses an interdisciplinary approach, in which students think about different accounts and points of view in order to interrogate historical fiction as an “historical argument” rather than simple facts or historical truth.

We think the interdisciplinary and multi-text approach is key to helping students think critically and see those different points of view in any kind of text. And we want to underscore how students today, more than ever, need to develop this intellectual skill of thinking critically about the information they are receiving or consuming. Whether we are teaching historical fiction, history, literature, or even science, students need to move beyond relatively simple questions of validity and reliability of sources; they need to assess the accuracy of information in terms of shades of grey, not just black and white.

Like Diamond and Schwebel, we think the key to getting students to interrogate challenging issues is to present them with what we call text clusters -- combinations of texts, including multimedia texts -- that represent different perspectives in relation to a complex issue. For example, we built a unit around the issue of African-American domestic labor in connection with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman. We use visuals of Aunt Jemima, excerpts from an interview with white women raised by black nannies, and a powerful audio clip of an interview with Dorothy Bolden, an African-American domestic labor organizer, in order to get students to think critically about how Scout’s perspective about Calpurnia is shaped and limited by her place in the world of Macomb.

Does Scout’s blinkered view of Calpurnia make her narrative in Mockingbird less accurate? Yes, and in literary studies we have a term for that lack of accuracy on the part of the narrator: Scout is an unreliable narrator. The fact that Mockingbird is constructed around the storytelling of an unreliable narrator, however, doesn’t make it less valuable as a text: it makes it more valuable. It underscores how important it is for readers to think critically about the story, about what Scout is and is not telling us, about the gaps and distortions in her views, particularly in relation to Calpurnia. Adding other perspectives through relevant literary and nonfiction texts, including those that offer different avenues into Calpurnia’s world, opens up the conversation for students.

To be clear: this practice of careful, suspicious reading, supported by multiple texts, makes us careful readers not just of historical fiction but of all text. It is, as Diamond notes, very much in keeping with the Common Core. And very valuable in a world in which thinking critically about disinformation and fake news need to be part of every teacher’s task.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Invoking Mockingbird, Obama reminds us of importance, difficulty of empathy

In his Farewell Address on January 10, 2017, President Obama once again charmed and pleased many English teachers across the United States with his reference to Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In case you missed the moment, Obama said, “if our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need[s] to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction – Atticus Finch – who said, `You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

This passage, a favorite for many teachers, comes at the beginning of Chapter 4, when Atticus describes the practice of climbing into another’s skin, or what we might today call radical empathy, to Scout as a “simple trick” (39). The current political moment suggests there is nothing simple about it.

Indeed, Obama acknowledges in his Address the difficulty and rarity of this act of empathy. He presses Americans to “pay attention, and listen … acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t vanish in the ‘60s.” Obama insists that we also need to work to tie the “struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face … [including] the middle-aged white guy who, from the outside, may seem like he’s got advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic and cultural and technological change.”

The allusion to Mockingbird seems a perfect exemplar for Obama’s point and for our current political moment. Tom Robinson and Calpurnia live in a desperately unequal world. In Maycomb, their lives are simply worth less; they are disempowered and dispossessed.

But so too is Mr. Ewell. Scout as narrator in Mockingbird explains that the “families like the Ewells” (227) inhabit every town like Maycomb. They are people left behind by both good times and bad: “No economic fluctuations changed their station – people like the Ewells lived as guests of the county in prosperity as well as in the depths of a depression” (227).

Just as Atticus never really steps into Tom Robinson’s skin and imagines the world from his point of view, the plight of the Ewells, who actually live in “what was once a Negro cabin” (227), is never tied together by anyone in Maycomb as part of a broader struggle for justice in the novel. One might say that the two disempowered characters live in their separate bubbles, until their worlds collide. Mr. Ewell is the antagonist, of course, but both characters suffer, disproportionately of course, from their place in the world of Maycomb in which they are not seen by the broader society or by each other.

Obama’s Address asks us to do what is definitively NOT a simple trick: to see each other and all those who are interconnected with us; to listen to each other and have real dialogue, rather than stay in our bubbles or snipe at each other over social media.

For those of us teaching Mockingbird, this is one more moment in which we can use informational text – in this case Obama’s Address – to show students the relevance of the literary texts we teach and to cultivate in our students the skills, disposition, and courage to become engaged, informed citizens.