Friday, February 24, 2023

The revolutionary potential of ChatGPT?

Audrey Fisch recently published a piece in the Star Ledger about ChatGPT.

Drawing on her work with students at New Jersey City University and in the college access and success program, More Than Bootstraps, Fisch explores what she calls the “revolutionary potential” of ChatGPT to help first-generation college students navigate the college application process and advocate for themselves in the alien and often baffling world of higher education. She also reminds us that new literacy technologies, from the pencil eraser to ChatGPT, have always posed challenges to writing instruction and ponders the kind of social change this new technology may or may not engender.


Sunday, June 27, 2021

An eye cream to revive your teaching of Gatsby?

Just as I was about to close the books on this unprecedented school year, a Facebook ad caught my eye that I immediately screenshotted and forwarded to Audrey. This is not so unusual; we are always on the lookout for text connections that can help teachers enliven their teaching of the most commonly taught texts – especially Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, Speak, and of course Gatsby. But this ad for Gatsby New York Ultimate Reviving Eye Cream was puzzling. In fact, for me, as an English teacher, it was quite provoking.

We have all become accustomed to cookies and algorithms personalizing ads for us. Was I seeing this ad because I’m an English teacher? Because Audrey and I have written and presented about teaching Gatsby? Because I’m an exhausted educator at the end of an endlessly challenging school year whose eyes clearly need reviving? These questions remain unanswered, however, as I remain stuck on my first reaction: Gatsby? Eye cream?

Clicking on the ad took me to the product website where everything about it seemed genuine and oddly devoid of any reference to The Great Gatsby or the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg that famously loom over the valley of ashes in Fitzgerald’s novel. That said, the tone of the marketing copy, which promises to restore youthful appearance around the eyes and enable customers to “look more graceful with age,” is reminiscent of the exuberant claims that ads in the 1920s made for various powders and elixirs. And the yearning to reclaim something lost in youth and deemed necessary for future happiness certainly aligns with the novel’s themes.

While reading the website, I couldn’t help wondering what Daisy would make of its exhortations: “Every woman looks her best when she’s happy. … Gatsby eye creams are designed to give you that look of health, vitality, happiness and joy.” Perhaps middle-aged Daisy would seek out such a product? (A marketing email I received from the company was sent by a Daisy Aston?!)

It is intriguing to wonder what students might make of this product and its website as texts to consider alongside Gatsby. We often encourage students to look out for pop culture references to canonical works, in part to prove the relevance of what we teach. A teacher might use Gatsby New York Ultimate Reviving Eye Cream as a model or part of a cluster of such contemporary Gatsby references and give students the opportunity to think critically about the ways in which these references intersect – interestingly, engagingly, oddly – with the novel. Or we might use it as an entry point for comparing the advertising rhetoric of today with that of the 1920s.

Later in the summer, I might flesh this out into an actual lesson, but for now, I’m going to leave it there because, though part of my brain is already racing ahead to think about what new, better things I can do in the fall, the rest of me – including my eyes – needs to rest and let go of a school year that required us to “beat on … ceaselessly.” We hope you are doing the same.

I didn’t buy the cream.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Tell Me Who You Are: Windows and mirrors for our students and ourselves

Thinking of the works we read with our students as “windows and mirrors” has become a popular way of conceptualizing why and how we diversify our curricula, thanks to Emily Style who named the concept in 1988. In “Curriculum as Window and Mirror,” she wrote:

… [S]tudents’ educational diet is not balanced if they see themselves in the mirror all the time. Likewise, democracy’s school curriculum is unbalanced if a black student sits in school, year after year, forced to look through the window upon the (validated) experiences of white others while seldom, if ever, having the central mirror held up to the particularities of her or his own experience. Such racial imbalance is harmful as well to white students whose seeing of humanity’s different realities is also profoundly obscured.

Through the work of individual teachers, teachers working collaboratively with colleagues, groups like DisruptTexts and ProjectLit, and professional organizations like NCTE, our curricula are becoming more diverse. In addition, we continue to ask ourselves how we use texts in our classrooms, given the disparate teaching contexts each of us faces, the students we are teaching, and the events of the world swirling around us. 

While we turn to works of fiction and their characters to humanize past, present, and visions of the future, our students still can struggle to connect with stories about times, places, and people that are far off from their own experience or to realize that fictional stories are derived from the experiences of real people. 

As we have found, informational texts can help students connect fiction back to and enrich their understanding of the real world. We experienced this when discussing Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun with Susan’s sophomores. Until we shared with them excerpts from a report by the City of Chicago on acts of violence and harassment toward African-American families who had moved into previously white housing developments in the 1950s and 1960s, many of them believed Hansberry’s play was just a made-up story.

Style’s article is helpful again in understanding this:

In considering how the curriculum functions, it is essential to note the connection between eyesight and insight. … no student acquires knowledge in the abstract; learning is always personal. Furthermore, learning never takes place in a vacuum; it is always contextual.

The remarkable array of voices collected by Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi in their 2019 collection, Tell Me Who You Are: Sharing Our Stories of Race, Culture, & Identity, can provide just such personal context for a wide range of works, both fiction and nonfiction. Following their graduation from high school(!), Guo and Vulchi traveled the United States, starting in Anchorage, Alaska, in July 2017, and completing their journey in Charlottesville, Virginia, in February 2018. Along the way, they interviewed more than 500 people and recorded their stories in their own words. Bound together, these stories, each with a photograph of its teller, present a beautiful encyclopedia of the people of the United States, featuring unique experiences, histories, and perspectives that many readers – both adults and students – will not have heard before and/or will recognize themselves in.

Particular excerpts readily lend themselves to connections with texts frequently taught in ELA classrooms. Butler, a man from Montgomery, Alabama, tells the story of his mother, Aurelia Browder, who was the lead plaintiff in the federal court case that overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and legally ended desegregation. This story would provide valuable context for students reading Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice; while Guo and Vulchi’s interview with present-day students at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, provides powerful connections with Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry

Louise from Seattle tells of being interned with her family, and all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, just six months before she was supposed to graduate from high school. While she shares her experience of the concentration camps, she also talks about her life afterward and how she feels about being an American now. Louise’s story is an obvious complement to Farewell to Manzanar. The story of Claudette, a rising chef from Chula Vista, California, meanwhile, provides a real-life role-model similar to the heroine of Elizabeth Acevedo’s With the Fire on High.

Tell Me Who You Are provides a wealth of windows and mirrors that allow readers to see aspects of ourselves in others and to see how each of our identities shapes our views and experiences of the world. Each story is short, usually 2-3 pages, so it can be easily accessed once a week or so, allowing students to meet new people and consider their way of living in the world. This collection is also a very human and accessible illustration of intersectionality, a concept Guo and Vulchi return to frequently as they narrate their journey as two young BIPOC women talking to people all around the United States. (The website of CHOOSE, the racial literacy organization they founded, also provides a rich array of resources, including profiles of teachers and K-12 lesson plans across all disciplines.)

Finally, as we began writing this, we shared in the widespread tributes to Beverly Clearly, who passed away this week, at the age of 104.
In her honor, let us continue to give our students opportunities to read stories they can see themselves in, to encourage them to “embrace their too much-ness,” and to write the books that they want to read. And let’s continue to create the ELA classrooms we and our students need and want.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Reparations and A Raisin in the Sun

Over this last year, we’ve watched as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the many forms of inequity that shape the lives of our students. Looking back, we find strength and hope in the new things we’ve learned with our students and the emerging efforts to redress historic wrongs.

This past week brought news that the City of Evanston, Illinois, approved a first round of reparations for Black residents who have suffered the effects of housing discrimination. This effort is believed to be the first of its kind enacted in the U.S.

As reported by the Washington Post, qualified Black residents can apply for housing grants up to $25,000 to be used for down payments on a home, mortgage payments, or home repairs or upgrades. This measure follows research conducted by a city subcommittee that documented discriminatory practices toward Black residents, including past rules that limited where Black residents could live in Evanston. The report, for example, showed that despite the existence of a fair housing law passed in 1968, “as late as 1985, real estate agents continued to steer Black renters and home buyers to a section of town where they were the majority.” While some welcome the city initiative, even those within the community who support the idea of reparations do not necessarily agree with the approach adopted in Evanston. The Washington Post article does a great job of providing detail about the Evanston measure and its history as well as contextualizing it within the broader discussion of reparations occurring around the U.S.

Given Evanston’s proximity to Chicago, this development is particularly relevant to discussion of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun. The Younger family faces just such discrimination when Mrs. Younger buys a home in a White neighborhood on the Far South Side of Chicago in the years following World War II. The events of the play are based on Hansberry’s father’s unsuccessful attempt to do the same, an effort that ultimately went to the Supreme Court. Our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun provides text clusters on housing discrimination past and present that can help you and your students understand both the context of A Raisin in the Sun and Evanston’s attempt to redress the effects of this legacy.

In addition to the many news articles written about this historic measure, the City’s website provides extensive information about the effort, which has been in the works since 2019. Informational texts include: answers to frequently asked questions, links to municipal resolutions and reports, and videos of an Evanston town hall meeting and a presentation on the “State of Housing in Black America,” in which the history of restrictive covenants and federal redlining and their long-lasting impacts are discussed. This wealth of informational texts provides a variety of options for you and your students to draw from in making sense of A Raisin in the Sun, making connections with history, and considering historical inequities and reparations in your own locality.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Using informational text to help our students (and ourselves) make sense of so much uncertainty

As we move into a new school year defined by uncertainty, it seems more imperative than ever to try to help our students (and ourselves) make sense of the world. But with so much going on right now – the COVID-19 pandemic, civic unrest in response to systemic racism, widespread economic distress, a contentious political climate and presidential election – it’s hard to know where to start and easy to become overwhelmed. This is especially the case given that many of the intertwined aspects of the current global crisis may impact some or all of our students very differently than they affect us. As many have said in recent months, “we may all be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.”

But, even amid such upheaval, we have several enduring things going for us. First, our classrooms – though they may now be partially or completely virtual – are spaces where we can help students (and ourselves) engage in the difficult conversations needed to understand and address the issues shaping our lives – including the disparate ways these issues shape the lives of different groups of people and why. Second, literature still provides a safer space to approach such discussions, centered upon fictional events in fictional worlds that prompt us to build empathy with characters whose lives and experiences may be very different from our own. Third, putting literature in dialogue with informational text enhances the relevance of the literary work while helping us understand our present circumstances with the benefit of new knowledge and different perspectives.

So, when we heard NPR’s July 21 story on the Trump administration’s plan to repeal and replace a rule enacted during the Obama presidency to address racial discrimination in housing, we immediately thought of it as a timely update to our units on housing discrimination in relation to A Raisin in the Sun. This article on this issue also provides an occasion to look at how government policies can either combat or sustain systemic socioeconomic inequality.

As the article explains, the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule required municipalities to identify patterns of discrimination in housing and develop a plan to address them. Such a plan might include changing zoning regulations to allow more affordable housing. However, the Trump administration has deemed this Obama-era rule an example of government overreach that has had a “devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban [sic] areas,” according to a June 30 tweet by Trump.

Reporter Danielle Kurtzleben characterizes the White House’s plan to replace the rule as an attempt by Trump to win over white voters in suburban districts. She quotes UCLA professor Lynn Vavreck, who describes Trump’s campaign against the AFFH rule as “racializing the idea of housing” and championing the socioeconomic exclusivity of the suburbs. A claim by Trump during a tele-townhall meeting – that Democrats want to "eliminate single-family zoning, bringing who knows who into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down” – appears to support Vavreck’s argument.

Kurtzelben’s quite readable article -- especially the central section, “What does the AFFH rule do?” -- could provide a timely hook into our units on housing discrimination past and present in dialogue with A Raisin in the Sun (or our blog for the New York Times Learning Network). The question-based headers that label each section of the article could also facilitate a jigsaw reading of it, with a different group of students responsible for reading and explaining each respective section.

In the past, when we’ve discussed housing discrimination with students, even those who have been directly impacted by housing discrimination, they were often surprised to learn that the housing policies that have shaped their lives are not immutable but instead the result of specific actions taken by people over time. And while these conversations have helped students understand a bit more about their own world, they make A Raisin in the Sun seem all the more relevant, and “not just a story,” as one student put it.

For us, this has been the most rewarding kind of teaching, and we firmly believe that it still can be, even with all that’s new and uncertain about how teaching and learning will be carried out for the forseeable future.

Indeed, this approach enables us to address two immediate concerns that might otherwise seem at odds with each other: supporting students’ social emotional well-being and addressing any “learning loss” that may have occurred over the last stressful months. Indeed, an introduction to trauma-informed teaching created by WE Teachers encourages teachers to model and give students the opportunity to engage in the healthy acquisition of knowledge (i.e., identifying credible sources, avoiding information overload, reading critically, etc.) as a way of managing anxiety and providing the basis for empowering students to take action.

More than ever, our students need us to equip them with the knowledge and skills to actively engage with the world and its so many injustices and opportunities.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Using informational text (and technology!) to help our students make sense of this strange time

Many of us are feeling fairly Zoomed out these days, but there are still those worthwhile virtual meet-ups that rejuvenate our spirits and spark new ideas. Our conversation this week about using informational texts to help our students and ourselves make sense of this strange time was definitely one of those worthy gatherings.

Our conversation focused on four primary themes/takeaways: 1) focusing on purpose and relevance; 2) fostering student engagement; 3) keeping things simple; and 4) being mindful about the difference between online and offline reading.

We started our conversation by talking about a documentary, “Most Dangerous Ways to School: Nicaragua,” that one of our participants was using with her 9th grade English students. Susan asked the teacher how she planned to assess student engagement while they watched the documentary. She said she had already received some informal responses from students about the video, but she was still thinking about what kind of writing to ask the students to produce after viewing. Susan asked what she wanted students to come away with after watching the video. The teacher responded that she wanted them to gain a greater perspective about the kinds of hardships some students around the world face in just getting to school everyday and possibly to compare those conditions to their own, either during the coronavirus quarantine or in general. Susan agreed that a comparative personal narrative, perhaps drawing upon 2-3 specific details from the video made sense. She stressed that during this time it is especially important to focus on purpose and relevance and to streamline assignments and assessments based on what is most essential as we close out this strange school year.

Susan also asked the teacher if she planned to use any tools like edPuzzle or Flipgrid that would facilitate student responses to and engagement with the video. This is where we were especially grateful that our friend Michele Haiken had joined us. She explained the different uses of the two tools: edPuzzle works well with short videos and embeds questions during the videos, while FlipGrid gives students the opportunity to respond via video.

Susan shared an edPuzzle Audrey had created for their unit on consent connected to Laurie Halse Anderson’s novel Speak. The edPuzzle featured several multiple-choice questions embedded in the short, animated video about understanding consent.

Michele then shared her screen to show us how she recently used Flipgrid to get students to respond to a multimedia unit she had built around The Diary of Anne Frank , which included 1) reading book, 2) reading or seeing the play, 3), taking a virtual tour of the Secret Annex (through the Anne Frank Museum), and possibly perusing related material on Google Arts and Culture. Her prompt for all this was quite simple: How can we take inspiration from Anne Frank during this time of isolation?

Michele also talked about using a weekly video to lay out instructions and goals for the week. And she is using Anchor to record herself reading aloud for students in a private podcast, a nice tool that brings her presence into her students’ worlds while also ensuring all students at least auditory access to the text.

Audrey then shared how she has used Perusall, a social annotation tool, to foster engagement among her college students as they navigate reading in isolation without as much classroom support. With Perusall, the instructor can add specific questions for response or the students can simply annotate on their own. The nice aspect of this tool is that it allows students to participate in a community conversation as they are reading. They can indicate questions (and upvote questions they share) and they can respond to or upvote responses they find useful. Responses can also include images and links. There’s even a computer-generated grading tool, so that instructors can assign a score to the annotation work, and easy analytics to note who is responding frequently and substantively.

Despite our excitement about the many tools available, especially right now, we all agreed that keeping things simple is the best course of action for both our students and ourselves. For Michele, this means using the same four tools. For Susan, this meant going back to GoogleDocs to create a guided reading template for a recent New York Times editorial about leadership in a crisis (which you are welcome to copy and use!) that could be shared with students so that they could add responses to the reading prompts and/or annotations via comment, which their classmates could also see and add to (similar to what Audrey did with Perusall).

Susan also mentioned a conversation she had recently with a teacher about a Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby unit. She explained that she encouraged the teacher to think about her purpose, given the rapidly approaching end of the school year, and streamline the unit according to her instructional goals. For instance, instead of having the whole class read both articles in the unit, she could assign one to half the class and have them read and discuss it in a breakout room on Zoom or GoogleMeet and then have them present their article to the class.

Michele, however, cautioned that we need to be mindful about the difference between reading in print and online and that we need to tailor our expectations for reading during remote learning. She advocated presenting smaller chunks of reading and streamlining reading assignments overall.

In response, Audrey echoed Michele (and the Anne Frank unit) in noting the importance of giving students a variety of choices and not (inadvertently or otherwise) shutting down options students might want to pursue about a topic, whether it be producing a creative response or following up on a particular aspect of a subject, through links or multimedia.

As should be evident from the above, we had a great time during this inspiring and energizing conversation. Our only regret is that we didn’t quite have enough people to do our beloved vocab skits, which we think would be easy and fun to do using the breakout rooms in Zoom. If you and a few of your colleagues and/or teacher friends would like to schedule such a conversation with us either before the end of the school year, or over the summer, please feel free to reach out to us at usinginfotext at

Stay well, everyone!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Let's Chat About Using Informational Text During Remote Learning and Beyond!

We hope this finds you and your students as well as can be during this strange time. As educators, the set of dynamics and concerns that we are normally in the midst of, especially as we near the finish of a school year, has shifted dramatically. As always we want to care for and support our students while also challenging them to expand their knowledge and develop their skills; however, this global pause brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us all to question what that means and what it looks like, or should look like, both now and whenever we might return to our non-virtual classrooms and school buildings.

As you likely have over the last several weeks, we have been trying out new tools that enable us to keep doing what we’ve done in the past, and some that have enabled new forms of interaction and learning. It’s great that so many tools and platforms are being offered for free to educators and students right now, but it also creates option anxiety, and who needs anything else to be anxious about right now?

What has grounded us professionally, as well as personally, in the last several weeks has been the virtual conversations we’ve had with colleagues near and far, to share strategies and common concerns, and of course, to offer moral support. So, we’d like to do the same with our Using Informational Text friends.

Informational text certainly has an important place in making sense of this time, and especially when used to help students make connections with literature that depicts other times, places, and peoples experiencing their own cataclysms and everyday lives. So, let’s get together and talk about how to do this work at this time and in whatever the future may hold for teaching and learning.

Please join us on one of the following dates/times (click on the link to register):

Click on the link(s) above to RSVP for your preferred date/time; you will receive the Zoom invitation upon approval of your registration.

Our approach to using informational text has always been about building relevance and engagement. So, the underlying question of our discussion will be: What makes sense now? What is our purpose? We will share ideas about text pairings in our current climate, including strategies for leading a whole-class or small group discussion of a reading via videoconference and ideas for how to use informational text, including media links, to foster engagement and community.

We’d also be happy to join you and your students via whatever remote platform works for you to read and discuss an informational text with you. This moment is particularly conducive to remote guest appearances! Let us know what and when might work for you. Reach out to us via Twitter @usinginfotext or email.