Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part Two

WholeClassChoiceOnlySurvey.jpgOops! I’ve got to start by apologizing. I initiated this series and then took an end-of-the-school-year blogging hiatus.  You all know how quickly April turns into June in the classroom, so I appreciate your understanding of the whirlwind that is third trimester.

Like I said back in my last post, I want this community to expand the conversation about both whole-class novels and choice reading. We’ve got to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance. They’ve created this false dichotomy that has pushed the pendulum back and forth for too long.

The Trend

Unfortunately, I think it’s—dare I say—“trendy” to only  talk about choice reading right now. Whether this pendulum-swinging trend is caused by something extreme, like some reactionary protests to the CCSS, or it’s a heck of a lot less melodramatic, like maybe it just feels good (and easy) to only talk about choice, we have to step back and get real. Most teachers and students value some whole-class novels when they’re done right, and they value some autonomy when it’s supported appropriately.

Please don’t take this argument as me bashing those voices that are calling for more choice reading. Not only am I a fan and a disciple of those voices, but I am one of them!

The thing is, somehow the concept of “Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading” has turned into yet another needless battle in education. These omnipresent false dichotomies weigh on us as educators. They weaken our collaboration within our departments and schools by turning us into philosophical competitors. (Hhhmm… Sounds a lot like our current political landscape! And seriously, who needs any more partisanship right now?)

Let’s all just take a deep breath and admit that complex issues beg for balance.

Big News?

You may have heard recently that Kelly Gallagher, one of my favorite literacy gurus, made big news at the International Reading Association’s 2014 conference when he announced his shift from a 50/50 approach to a 25/75 approach with less whole-class shared texts and more independent choice reading.

I would have LOVED to have been in New Orleans this year to hear him speak more about this shift, but—while I anxiously wait for his next book whenever that happens to be released—I have to say that I don’t think we need a magic number declaring the right balance for every classroom and every student. I doubt that Gallagher would falsely hold out some “promise of a simple, ‘magic bullet’ solution to the literacy failure of millions of children” [1], but it certainly feels that way.

Especially if, like me, most teachers and administrators only got to follow along with the #IRA14 hashtag and were left to interpret  Gallagher’s big 25/75 announcement rather than hear how he made this decision for his specific students. Unfortunately, like so much of the other research and anecdotal evidence out there, there are already ELA decision-makers waving this magic number over all teachers and all kids.

Survey Says?

Now that the school year is over (for most of you), I want to step back and hear what’s happening in YOUR classrooms and schools. Take a minute to fill out the survey below. Share it with your teacher friends and colleagues, so we can get a broad perspective of what balance looks like across our schools.

Thanks for your participation as we continue this conversation!

 

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Whole-Class Novels vs. Choice-Only Reading: Part One

Teachers know that most adolescents lack motivation to read, both academically and recreationally, yet we can see how crucial it is for students to develop reading interest and stamina in order to become competent readers and flourishing adults.

As a kid, like most of you, whole-class novels built up the entirety of my ELA curriculum; however, there was (and still is) a huge push across the last decade or so for more independent choice reading. Yet as with most things in education, with that push, it’s obvious that there has been an even more recent reactionary, theoretical pendulum swing back towards more rigorous, shared texts, inspired by the CCSS or otherwise.

Unfortunately, when districts try to operate from these competing and drastically swinging philosophies, this further inhibits adolescents from becoming life-long readers.

It’s frustrating—I’m saying this in the most mild-mannered sense, because trust me when I say that some days I’m beyond frustrated—because there is some much literature out there that presents competing and often misunderstood theoretical perspectives.

If you’re reading this blog, than you’re probably just like me, a self-proclaimed, literacy professional literature junkie. You love studying the craft and working to foster adolescent literacy.  You’ve read everything from Rosenblatt, Krashen, Allington, Beers & Probst, Lesesne, Schmoker, Fisher & Frey, Gallagher, Allen, Burke, Harvey & Goudvis, Keene, Marzano, Kittle, Newkirk, Routman, Smith, Tovani, Miller, and on and on and on. You’ve read it all.

The thing is these texts should work to inform our knowledge of adolescent literacy and thus impact our classrooms. Instead stakeholders (other teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, publishers, politicians, etc.) take these sometimes competing philosophies and—rather than take what these researchers have to say and find a balanced approach—use them to make drastic, one-sided decisions that have long-term impact on students.

Sadly, this dispute of philosophy begins to ignore the canon of research and slip slides its way into the classroom, appearing as very heated English department debates, Twitter battles, and blog rants (maybe a bit feisty like this one!) that call for either more rigor that whole-class novels provide or bemoan the disparity of voluminous reading that only choice novels can offer.  Teachers question whether novels should be shared as a whole-class texts or if students should freely chose novels according to their own interests and plans for growth, when instead these stakeholders should be discussing ways to find balance between them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I want to expand the conversation about whole-class novels and choice-only reading. I’m going to do my best in this blog series to share and translate the vast body of research on both “sides” of this debate.

In a dispute that has very loud voices on either end,  it may be unpopular to ask stakeholders to “chill out” and just seek some balance, but I encourage you to share the research you’ve read and experiences you’ve collected in your own classroom.

There’s no need for the literacy pendulum to keep swinging when there is still so much work for us to do.

I look forward to engaging with you in this important goal. Either respond here in the comments section or tag me on Twitter (@B10LovesBooks) using the hashtag #seekbalance. Thank you.

Getting Real with Argumentative Writing

Entering the Conversation

Most of ya’ll know my friend and colleague Dave Stuart over at Teaching the Core.  A few weeks ago, Stu shared ways that we’re working on supporting students so they can learn to really argue.  I wanted to explore this idea over here as a way to both expand the conversation and invite you all to share your experiences teaching argumentative writing.

Inquiry & Research

During the last two years, I have been researching ways that I can push my students to be better academic writers.  I’m really  fortunate in my district that students come from a rich, narrative writing workshop in the middle school, so my students were entering the high school able to free-write with great stamina.  I’m lucky also because my students are incredibly passionate about big issues (ex. they’ve raised thousands of dollars for Charity:Water in ninth grade World History).  But–even though my students had these strengths–I was noticing that they struggled to clearly organize their ideas, and their writing seemed to lack conviction, despite all that big passion.  It was becoming more and more obvious that the freedom and love of a narrative writing workshop wasn’t transferring to the disciplinary writing being asked of them in their other core subjects, namely the informational and argumentative writing tasks in social studies and science.

So, let’s be honest, this learning gap—which spans this chasm between totally focusing on love and freedom to actually working towards rigor and the realistic demands of life—only hints at the major imbalance facing current adolescent literacy instruction. This year I’d like to explore this imbalance with more than the “Tips” series has allowed me to do so far on the blog.

Today, I’ll just take a small step towards this debate by saying that  ELA teachers, even those who follow a totally free-style writing workshop, have to realize that students need to learn how to take a stance and use textual evidence to support their ideas.   From English and science to art and social studies, all content teachers need to make expository and argumentative writing the major writing focus across all content disciplines. 

When I was a single-subject teacher, my English major background lead me to believe that students would be prepared for college if they could master a personal narrative and half a dozen literary analyses. But now that I’m also teaching Social Studies and researching reading and writing across disciplines as a professor of literacy studies, I realize that this kind of limited thinking leaves my kids ill-prepared for any college major outside of English.  So as I began exploring these gaps, I kept coming back to these same questions:

  • Q: How can my students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How can my students learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how could I teach those structures without selling my soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How can my students write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Over the summer, I spent time reading and researching these problems with the Lake Michigan Writing Project.  My LMWP friends pushed me in my role as a teacher-researcher, urging me to explore how writing instructions needs to teach kids to stretch their thinking, to extend their analyses, to pull apart their claims and examine the details of an argument.

“Stretching the Cotton” became one of the metaphors I began using with my students to discuss the importance for a writer to elaborate her argument, highlighting the tiny fibers which hold it all together.

Another way to get these ideas to stick is this simple chant we’ve been using for years: “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote. Blend-in, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote.” Trust me when I say, I try to make it as annoying as possible, so it gets stuck in kids’ heads when they’re writing non-narrative essay.  So annoying, in fact, that we have accompanying dance moves for the chant.

Mentor Texts & Models

My students and I read, analyzed, and emulated the arguments of published authors, like Gallagher suggests in Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Though Modeling and Mentor Texts.  Namely, we studied “Articles of the Week” that had an argumentative slant, like those found at The Week and The New York Times Room for Debate, and, more specifically, we frequently examined the work of Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts (I love, love, love his work).

To do this type of text study, we use our “First Draft Read” to explore the texts for content, and our “Second Draft Read” invited students to share what they noticed the writers were doing, like structure, tone, and use of research.

Along these same lines, I regularly wrote arguments in front of my students, whether it was modeling their assignments in class or and sharing my process of writing my Master’s project at home.

In particular I wanted to model for my students how I use sentence starters or “brushstrokes” from Graff and Birkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing. I know, I know, I’ve mentioned this book many times before.  A lot of colleges are requiring this book for their freshman writing classes; however, I think that it should be in the hands of all high school freshmen.  My high school’s English Department included some of the They Say, I Say templates in our high school’s Academic Writing Handbook that we distribute and host online each year. This way all students and staff have access to the same common language.

Great news! Jim Burke, author and teacher extraordinaire, just announced that he’s teaming up for the third edition of They Say, I Say high school edition!

Quick Writes

Keeping the end in mind–writing effective academic arguments using the language of scholars–, I worked backwards to meet students at their level of proficiency.  We began with high support: the two-paragraph “They Say, I Say” argument structure presented in Graff’s Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind.

The general argument made by author X in her/his work, __________, is that __________. More specifically, X argues that __________. She/he writes, “__________.” In this passage, X is suggesting that __________. In conclusion, X’s belief is that __________.

In my view, X is wrong/right, because __________. More specifically, I believe that __________. For example, __________. Although X might object that __________, I maintain that __________.  Therefore, I conclude that __________.

I love how clearly this structure breaks down the They Say (Paragraph One) and the I Say (Paragraph Two), and within that, the structure explicitly guides students through “Blend-In, Quote, Talk-About-A-Quote” with multiple opportunities to elaborate and “stretch the cotton.” It gives them various brushstrokes to try out as they learn the formal structures of academic writing.

In the beginning of the year, I required that all students use this format to write their Article of the Week one-page responses. As we’ve moved through the school year, students have been individually “released” from this high structure when they have shown that they’ve mastered it.  Students next step is to begin trying out the various sentences stems on their own. The hope is that–with time and repeated practice and modeling–they will use these strategies independently.

Student Examples

The following example is an argument written during Trimester #1 last year. This multi-source essay asked students to argue whether or not the United States is still a “Land of Opportunity.” In doing so, students had to support their arguments with well-explained evidence/quotes from their choice of texts we read in English and U.S. History.  This is one, especially truant, sophomore’s essay:

Is the U.S still a “land of opportunity”? I would say yes. I say yes, because in the U.S you can grow up in a poor family. But if you work hard and put in the detection [dedication], you could eventually be in the middle class or even the upper class. Another reason why i say yes is because, back when the U.S was first discovered people would come over and start new lives. Like people today, we still have the same opportunities. Its just harder to get it. my last reason is because there are a ton of scholarships for you to get, And that can help pay for a lot of the college coast.Today in America if you graduate high school with a 4.0, you can get into almost any college you want to. You don’t always have to go to a college thow. We have the option to go to a trade school. If you go to a trade school. The only thing you need is your high school diploma or a GED. In America you don’t even have to graduate high school, you can take a test and get a GED.

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

They Say, I Say Options -Anchor Chart

Aside from the lack of “They Say” research support, you can see that because this truant student has missed out on the opportunity to study mature mentor texts, he is following a very elementary organizational structure: starting off with the question, answering with a yes/no, and the very unsophisticated idea transitions (ex. “Another reason why I say yes is because…”). It’s obvious that the student doesn’t know the language of scholars, so he has to fall back on language that is beneath him.  Furthermore, he hasn’t expanded his argument to really develop his claim of the United States being a land of opportunity.

Conversely, this is just an excerpt from the same student’s argument during Trimester #3. (Note: His attendance didn’t really improve, but his writing did make some gains.) This time, students were asked to argue whether or not it’s justified to do immoral or illegal acts in response to threat. Many spoke specifically about how we, as global citizens, responded to the threats of WWII. Again, the students had to ground their argument in textual evidence.

we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps. Here many critics would probably object that the camps were good because they took the people that were a threat to us and they held them all up. There was then no other way they could get information from us, through spy work. In other words, the spies aren’t free, so they couldn’t get involved with our military or armed forces. On the one hand, they are right to say that spy work was going on. On the other hand, it is still true that they were taking pretty much what was going on in Germany and doing it in the US. They thought that they had more of a reason. Basically, Germany was having a genocide going on, and that was the whole reason for the war. When we took people and put them in a camp, it was just like Hitler was doing in Germany. to put it another way, he was taking Jews from their homes, taking their jobs, and pretty much destroying their whole lives, by making them into animals. 

According to PBS’s “Internment History, “They were forced to evacuate their homes and leave their jobs; in some cases family members were separated and put into different camps. President Roosevelt himself called the 10 facilities “concentration camps ” (PBS ). In making this comment, PBS argues that this was the same concept that was going on in germany to the jews as what we were doing on are home to the Japanese-Americans. Ultimately, what is at stake here is that they’re mistreating the Japanese-Americans, like they’re not humans. Everyone should have equal rights, no matter what is going at the time. Just because someone’s ancestor is bombing their new homeland, it doesn’t mean it’s their fault; therefore, they’re not to blame for the attack….

Although this scene may seem of concern to only a small group of people, it should in fact concern anyone who cares about citizens of the United States, because they are American citizens, so obviously they have the same rights as any other American citizen. Clearly, we did not respond appropriately to the japanese internment camps.

This go-round, it’s obvious that he was able to develop his argument, add research evidence, and maintain a more sophisticated tone.

Student Feedback

When I asked my sophomores what they thought about using “They Say, I Say” brushstrokes, they responded as follows:

“I like how they give me a place to start, because they help you set up your argument and save you a lot of time.” – Sean

“The templates gave you a set format to start and end an argument, so that no matter what–if you were well-prepared on both sides–you had it in the bag.” -Nate

“[They Say, I Say] helped me by giving me a place to start, looking for a side to argue, and putting in the evidence I can use for both sides of the… argument.” -Becca

“They helped me in a lot of ways. I worked to get better in areas where I needed it, and I actually improved in the areas that I was already good.” -Aaron

“It helped me develop how I argued and made me sound more like I knew what I was talking about.” -David

What are your experiences?

Seriously, I wanna know! As I continue to research this dilemma, I’d love to collaborate with you, hearing what works and what doesn’t at your various grade-levels.

  • Q: How do you find a literacy balance between the love/freedom and rigor/realistic demands of life?
  • Q: How do you help your students start practicing the language of scholars?
  • Q: How do you support your students as they learn formal structures without losing their autonomy? –and how do you teach those structures without selling your soul to some standardized test?
  • Q: How do you teach your students to write effective arguments, according to a standard of excellence?

Thanks for the help and your support! 🙂

Professional Development: Close Reading

Are you looking for ways to improve your students’ comprehension, critical thinking, and reasoning skills all while meeting the Common Core State Standards?  If so, you will not want to miss this one-day learning experience surrounding Close Reading.  Through reading, viewing video, and dialogue, you will discover dozens of practical strategies and engaging techniques that are guaranteed to improve student achievement.  This learning adventure is interactive, goal-focused, and instruction-based.

Close Reading + Argumentative Writing Surrounding a Wordless Graphic Novel

As a continuation of our practice of close reading and argumentative writing, my students began their first U.S. History unit trying to answer the question “Is the U.S. still a Land of Opportunity?” Working from the ideas of Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, we want to maintain the idea that if I—as a student—only talk about what I think, I’ll sound ignorant to the larger conversation going on around the world on a given subject. Students must recognize that yes, their opinions—the “I Say”—are important; however, their commentary needs to also reflect what others are saying—the “They Say”—regardless if they support or oppose one’s own argument.

As an entry event to our study of the Industrial Era, my students close read The Arrival by Shaun Tan, a wordless graphic novel.

“In a heartbreaking parting, a man gives his wife and daughter a last kiss and boards a steamship to cross the ocean. He’s embarking on the most painful yet important journey of his life- he’s leaving home to build a better future for his family.

Shaun Tan evokes universal aspects of an immigrant’s experience through a singular work of the imagination. He does so using brilliantly clear and mesmerizing images. Because the main character can’t communicate in words, the book forgoes them too. But while the reader experiences the main character’s isolation, he also shares his ultimate joy” (Summary from Goodreads).

To start, each student was assigned 3-4 pages of the book to close read. They were to write a brief argument, stating what message they believed Shaun Tan was trying to share with his readers. Students used sentence templates from They Say, I say to strengthen the academic awesomeness of their arguments.

Academic Templates for Introducing Something Implied or Assumed:

  • Although Shaun Tan does not say so directly, he apparently implies that _____________ due to ______________.
  • Shaun Tan  apparently assumes that ______________ based on ___________.
  • The artwork suggests/hints/implies ___________ because __________.
  • Based on my understanding of _____________, I have to assume _______________.
  • What I know about ____________ makes me think that __________________. Continue reading

Use In-Class Debate as a Transition to Argumentative Writing

New Waves of InitiativesWhen it comes to the Common Core, many teachers today feel a bit overwhelmed by the barrage of ever-changing standards and top-down state expectations.  In terms of these changes, most of us will readily agree that we just want to be protected from the waves of new initiatives that wash upon us as school employees.

The agreement for protection, however, usually ends at this desire.  Some teachers are totally convinced that these changes are tsunamis or personal attacks on the beaches of their individual teaching philosophies. They maintain that they’ll lose all ownership of their classrooms with each new crash upon their shores.  Although I agree with these sentiments up to a point,  I am too optimistic to accept the overall conclusion that we’re turning into script-reading robots.

The Common Core Anchor Standards for Writing begins by stating that students should be able to “write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.”  While the CCSS is rolling out new language and structure, there is no need for teachers to freak.  Jaws is not approaching the beach!  Argumentation is something we’ve always asked students to do, regardless of grade-level, subject-matter, or standards-era.

They Say, I SayInitially,  I’ll admit. I was freaking out. Even the CCSS shift in semantics from “persuasive essay” to “argument,” threw me for a tizzy; however, with the support of my colleague Dave Stuart’s blog www.teachingthecore.com, I felt comfortable at least experimenting with these changing standards and argumentative writing expectations. This year, Stu introduced me to Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein’s book They Say, I Say: Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, which as one reviewer said, this book “demystifies academic argumentation.” My goodness! I wish I could jump in my DeLorean, fire up the flux capacitor, and force 17-year-old me to read this book before heading off to college. It would have saved me many an all-nighters. <<More on the awesomeness of They Say, I Say later>>

In the following videos, you’ll see my sophomore Humanities students practicing their argumentative skills in our first in-class debate.  I began experimenting with argumentative writing by starting with debate. The awesome students I get to “hang out with” this year are not only very engaged socially but quite competitive. I figured they might internalize the CCSS aspects of speaking and listening before tackling the writing.

An example of student close reading notesDuring the week, students were first asked to independently close read an article about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Like most of our Articles of the Week, I found the article on one of my favorite resources: The Week. <<Find my students’ version of the Article of the Week (AoW) here.>> At the end of the week, they divided into two teams, with one side supporting diplomacy and the other supporting military action.

Debate Requirements

Debate Framework

Following a modified Lincoln-Douglas debate format, students had a few minutes to organize who was speaking when, since I require all students to speak at least once during the debate. Each team has three minutes to speak during the opening session. Then each side rallies back and forth with two minutes each to shoot down the other side. This leaves each side four minutes to conclude and wrap up their arguments. As long they show social intelligence and encourage all students on their team to speak at least once, the remaining students can “reenter the arena” to expand the argument.

Be mindful that this was prior to instruction on the importance of They Say, I Say, so you’ll note that they’re not using it.


Following the debate, the most powerful learning happened when I had the students watch the footage of the other class’ debate. They critiqued and praised their fellow students, noting ways they could improve before our next debate.  When they watched their own debate , they cringed at all the things that they had just bashed now apparent in their own flawed arguments. Since this initial debate, I’ve found deep experiential roots for them to drawn upon as we practice writing some of our first CCSS argumentative writing tasks.

Obviously, we’re still experimenting with debates, so I’m wondering how have you begun experimenting with argumentative writing in your classrooms? What have you done to support student learning?