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.