Tag Archives: engagement

Getting Smarter about Informative Texts

I’ve been thinking about how we use informational texts in our classrooms–if we use them and how often–since Tosh wrote about this topic about a month ago. Her statement is so me:

“I, like many other language arts teachers, overvalued and overemphasized the genres of fiction in the lessons I taught, and now I’m on a mission (crusade?) to help teachers connect students with interesting and complex informational texts that can broaden their knowledge of the world around them as well as model the writing they will have to do in that world.”

Like Tosh, I have my own 20/20 hindsight. And while I never taught my own children in an ELAR class, I did facilitate years of workshops where students “wrote prolifically in their journals and experimented with different writing styles. . . [and] a lot of poetry writing and narratives and imaginative stories” and little focus on reading “more complex informational texts.” Like Tosh, I felt “by focusing on the beauty of language and expression, I neglected the power and practicality of strong informational reading and writing skills.”

And then I got smarter.

It wasn’t that I needed to do away with the the reading and writing practices I had been doing. This kind of reading and writing works magic in developing relationships and beginning the habits of mind of authentic readers and writers–engagement soars when students feel the emotional tug of a beautifully written story or poem, and we invite them to write beside it and then share their writing with their peers. What I needed to do was use these practices as a springboard into an exploration of the more complex informational texts I knew my students needed.

I also knew that to keep students engaged, the spring in my board needed just a little bounce not a 10 foot one. Instead of a sharp shift from one type of reading and writing into another, we took a slow curve. We started mining our own expressive writing for topics we could research, read, and write about in other forms.

For example, since our first major writing piece was narrative, we’d packed our writer’s notebooks with multiple quick writes that sparked reflections about personal events in our lives. Imbedded in these events were topics–topics that could lead to a search for information.

Take my student Jordan (name has been changed for privacy) as an example. He wrote a touching narrative about his first memory after arriving in the United States from Mexico with his parents. He was five. A few of the topics Jordan identified in his piece included: immigration, parent/child relationships, parental responsibilities, financial hardships, mental health, physical health, citizenship both in home and new country. Jordan had a lot of ideas to work with as he chose a topic for our next major writing piece, an informative essay.

Topic mining like this can take time. Many students had a difficult time putting a name to the topics they had written about in their narratives. They also had difficulty in narrowing down those topics. But this is the beauty of talk in a workshop classroom–students talked about their writing. They reflected on it more. They shared their ideas–and they gave one another, writer to writer, authentic feedback.

Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash. Narrowing topics is often like this quarry: stair step it down until the topic is small enough yet rich enough to write enough. Photo by Bruna Fiscuk on Unsplash.

Of course, as my writers moved into thinking about their informational writing, I started sharing informational texts we used as mentors. This is when we challenged ourselves with text complexity. We read and studied structure and language use. We discussed objective and subjective views and determined if we read any bias. We delved into how writers use data and statistics or why they might choose not to. And more.

And the bounce from narrative into informational writing worked. And it worked again later as we moved from informative writing into argument and later into spoken-word poetry.

Topic mining like this saves time. More often than not, students stuck with the same topic throughout the school year they wrote about during the first three weeks of school. And with each deep dive into form, students practiced layering skills, be it a variety of sentence structures, precise diction, or good grammar. (Skills all learned and practiced via mini-lessons.)

Informational reading and writing is vital to the success of our students beyond high school. We know this. (Think contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) I think we also know that some informational texts are downright boring (contracts, lease agreements, college textbooks.) And if your students are like mine, any text over one page–no matter what the writing style–is not likely to get much more than a quick skim without some pretty intense pleading.

When students choose their topics, our chances of engagement–pivotal for learning–grow exponentially. And the student who chooses to write a narrative about her family getting evicted after her father’s illness just might end up being the adult who writes that complex lease agreement.

While not your typical complex informational texts, here’s two I’ve used with high school students with great success: Joyas Voladores and How to Change a Diaper both by Brian Doyle. (P.S. If you are not familiar with The American Scholar, it’s a gold mine of fine writing.)

I’d love to know your favorite informational texts you use to teach your readers and writers. Please list them in the comments.

Amy Rasmussen reads voraciously, writes daily, and chooses texts to use with students wisely. She’s an advocate for student choice in every teaching practice. She lives and works in N. Texas. You can find her on Twitter @amyrass, although these days she’s mostly a lurker.

In Favor of Fun

How many English classes have you been in during which students do not read or write?

Think back. Truly. How many of your own educational experiences, your own lesson plans, or classes you’ve observed contain a rich amount of student reading and writing? And…how many are filled with round robin reading, audiobooks, review games, vocab quizzes, grammatical dog-and-pony tricks?

Equally frustrating is when reading and writing is being taught in an English class, but it’s still the dog-and-pony variety: classics only. Whole-class texts only. Five-paragraph you-know-whats only. The teacher makes all the choices, and often, those choices were not made by the teacher, or he or she made them many years ago.

Day in and day out, I see these complacent practices in place–a classroom in which students see words but rarely read or write them independently; an autocratic, teacher-centered class in which students do some reading and writing but exercise no choice.

I have seen all of this in a wide variety of classrooms in just the last few weeks, as I’ve been doing some classroom-hopping in the form of substitute teaching. As I watch preservice teachers get their feet wet, as I read lesson plans left for a lowly, inept sub, as I talk to students who are unaccustomed to having the chance to speak during class, I keep returning to one question:

Where is the fun?!

Where is the talk, the chatter, the laughter, the rapport, the pure enjoyment of learning? It’s almost as though the culture of fear so common in traditional schools has permeated the student-teacher line, and made school and classroom leaders as afraid of fun as the learners are.

This, for me, is unconscionable. A deadened classroom brings no pleasure to the teacher or student, which makes for a learning environment that’s almost oxymoronic: little learning is occurring in an environment with no life.

At the end of a period in which I, the sub, have simply given students instructions to “listen to the audio” (and don’t fall asleep), “work on your online program for 20 minutes” (assuming the WiFi is working), or “complete the grammar warm-up” (that took half the class)…there is always free time. For a substitute, this is often a period of terror: untasked children, out of control. YIKES.

img_1994For me, though, this is an opportunity for some fun to finally happen. I ask questions. What do they want? What do they wish for? What would engage them?

In every instance, in every classroom–from elementary through high school seniors–students have surprised and delighted me with their creative replies to these questions. One class wrote a reading response to To Kill a Mockingbird entirely in hashtags. Another class chose to make a literary bucket list of things they wanted to do in English class before they went to high school. One group of 12th graders elected to craft a visual response to their writing prompt about what they wanted from the future.

Over and over, students proved to me that creativity, self-expression, and the desire to share their thoughts and feelings with the world was universally present. Despite their lack of recent practice, those skills were innate, and readily available. Their willingness to try was instant.

In their reflections on learning, students asked for the same things:

  • choice and challenge:  they requested to be able to choose some reading and writing topics independently, but also asked for things like “read a long book together as a class;” “do one really long writing where you help us the whole time.”
  • authenticity:  many, many requests to “be real with us,” “teach us stuff we will actually use in the future,” “teach us like you know what we’ve been through.”
  • respect:  students broke my hearts with their tales of ‘dumb-shaming,’ in which a teacher has mocked a student for not having an answer, a skill, a scholarly habit. They asked me, in so many words, to respect what students have been through and are going through, and to teach for what they will go through.

These words of wisdom–many of them from students in middle school, where I’ve spent most of my time subbing–are prescient and pressing. Engagement is universally appealing, to all students, of all ages, in all content areas. When given the chance to create, they seize it.

This indicates, to me, that if we teach in a way that prizes choice and creativity, there is little risk on the teacher’s part–we need not be afraid of students misbehaving or disengaging. It’s time to shove off the fear so many teachers have of taking a chance on a more creative curriculum.

There’s no need to be afraid of a little fun in learning.

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Shana Karnes is a “real teacher” in West Virginia, who has worked with secondary English students, preservice teachers, and practicing educators for 10 years. When she’s not in the classroom, she spends time reading, writing, and learning with her daughters, husband, and friends. Connect with Shana on Twitter at @litreader.

“Blog, blog, blog…that is all I ever hear.”

'student_ipad_school - 025' photo (c) 2012, Brad Flickinger - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

An Open Letter to Parents:

I have heard you have some questions about our student blogs and writing in my class. I hope this letter answers them.

Did you know that our classroom blog is each student’s portfolio of work, which includes all types of writing? It is a combination of digital journal and portfolio. So far this year, students have been given opportunities to write in many modes: expository, narrative, literary response, and personal reflection. In addition to the assigned writing tasks, I encourage students to write about topics that interest them. The growth I have seen in my student writers has been easy to measure, since so many of them have taken ownership of their blogs and write to their personal world-wide audiences.

This summer I attended a conference where Alan November, an international leader in educational technology, described the urgency teachers must take in changing practices that limit learning to one-year increments. Teachers must expand learning practices so students retain and build upon the knowledge they gain each year. This idea of expanding learning practices resonated within me because I have often found it frustrating that a student’s body of work is essentially not available to him for reflection, or continued study, after a given school year.

For my students, their blogs are a collection of their work. For some, this blog will become a place where they can explore and express complex ideas about our society, even after they leave my classroom. Research shows that bloggers are more prolific writers than their teenage counterparts who do not blog. Additionally, blogging allows for an authentic voice in student writing.

When a student writes for the teacher, as grader and sole audience, the writing is often contrived and trite. However, when we give students the opportunity to find an audience outside the walls of the classroom, they find their voices and their writing dramatically improves. In addition, the feedback students receive on their writing is not just from me, the teacher. The feedback may come from anyone who reads their posts, which makes the opportunity for connections to the real-world exciting for student writers. Just last month, a student elatedly read a comment on her blog from a pastor who said that her post gave him a refreshing view of heroism–a thought he would love to share with his congregation.

I received another bit of positive feedback recently. An author contacted me saying he was interested in publishing for his readers a visual literacy piece one of my students created about that author’s book. My student had posted this original piece on his blog. Again, feedback from our beyond-the-classroom audience.

In my classroom we do not “do blogging;” blogging is the medium students use to publish their work.

Many people, some personal friends of mine, have received book publication contracts simply from the body of work they have posted to their blogs. Why would I not encourage blogs as a place for students to publish their authentic work?

Still not convinced? Consider this: Blogging can be a great equalizer in a Digital Classroom.

The author is not struggling to physically form letters, and the reader is not struggling to read cramped handwriting. When students type, they are no longer judged by their penmanship. In addition, technology supports the author’s spelling. Without these limitations, students are judged by the depth of their ideas and the connections they make to their world and our society. Isn’t that the kind of thinking and learning we want?

Parents, please, I encourage you to frequently read your student’s blog. Share the link to your son or daughter’s blog with grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and all the important people in your child’s life. Imagine the kind of writing we can develop in our student writers if we show them we care about what they have to say. And, believe me, my students have a lot of good things to say.

Help me expand the Learning Community and comment on your child’s blog posts. The opportunities for growth are endless!

Respectfully,

Mrs. Cato

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