Breaking Down Academic Vocabulary

Our Social Studies PLC has been talking a lot lately about academic vocabulary.

For me, the research guru on this one is a no brainer: I follow what Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock  say in Classroom Instruction that Works (2001).  When you get past all of Marzano’s talk about standard deviation and statistical analysis of best practice, you find that he suggests a fairly simple and systematic process.

It starts with choosing the ESSENTIAL academic vocab terms. Then, front load with the following (paraphrased) five-step process of instruction:

  1. Present students with a brief explanation of the new term
  2. Present students with a visual (or “nonlinguistic representation”) for the term
  3. Ask students to generate their own explanations of the term
  4. Ask students to create their own visuals for the term
  5. As students read over the next few weeks, ask students to review their definitions and sketches in comparison to new texts

Unsurprisingly, I notice that when I rush through these stages or skip one of the steps, my students’ knowledge of the concepts drops!

Student Example


But, somehow–despite our better judgement–we do this!

When we ignore the research, hurrying our lesson along to the “fun” or “trendy” activity, our students actually miss the chance to deepen their understanding of what really matters.

The same goes for choosing too many terms. If I have some forty+ academic vocab words for each unit, how can I seriously think that 1) my students are going to master them all and 2) all of the terms really are essential?

In some ways, this makes me think back to my own World History class in ninth grade (i.e. “AP Coloring”… We spent A LOT of time coloring in maps that year!).  Back in the ’90s, my teacher would give us a study guide of 30+ vocab terms, send us to the back of our textbooks to record the definitions, and chillax at his desk. I don’t know what exactly he was doing at his desk; it’s certainly not like he was surfing the Internet back then. Regardless, this kind of vocabulary instruction was ineffective then and still is today.

My teacher example

For me, Marzano’s rules can be followed simple enough. Sometimes, I’ll even “fancy it up” and provide my students with printed boxes for the vocabulary notes, but most of the time, we just use our notebook pages and draw boxes as we go.

1. I start by giving the students a slightly more scholarly version of the term’s definition.

2. They translate the definition into their own words, either independently or by turning and talking to a neighbor, and record them in their notes.

3. Next, I draw my own quick sketch of the term. Trust me! This doesn’t have to be Caldecott-worthy artwork. Most of the time, mine are stick figures, and my fifteen-year old art critics tease me because I’ve given Carnegie three eyes or whatever.

4. As I’m creating my thirty-second masterpiece, students sketch their own images. Sometimes they replicate my drawing, but mostly they come up with something on their own, far better than my original.

Depending on the unit and the particular vocab terms, we sometimes do a kinesthetic mix-up. Instead of drawing our “non-linguistic representations,” we create quick, dance moves to correspond with a few of the terms. Mostly these are simple, impromptu moves that we create on the spot during our interactive lectures.  What’s interesting is that I notice some kids subtly moving through the physical representations during our assessments. If a kid’s gotta break out the Sherman Anti-Trust Act dance move in order to remember it’s deeper meaning, I say go for it.

5. Lastly, we continuously reference the terms throughout the unit. Each time they close read a new primary document or revisit the concept in an Article of the Week, I point it out on our unit’s anchor chart, discussing the variations of meaning.

I know anchor charts dominate most elementary classrooms, but I don’t feel like they get enough playtime at the secondary level.  After I started using them a few years ago, I’ve found them central to mentally locking down concepts for students. In my high school classroom, the chart paper moves from the podium (when we’re in the middle of unit) and then stays on the wall the rest of the year. That way we can collect a big picture representation of our months of comprehensive learning.

When it comes to vocabulary, Marzano and Pickering break it down is the most straight up way in Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual, (2005):

“Given the importance of academic background knowledge and the fact that vocabulary is such an essential aspect of it, one of the most crucial servies that teachers can provide, particularly for students who do not come from academically advantaged backgrounds is systematic instruction in important academic terms.”

So, that’s it.

It may not be trendy or even really fun, but research-based vocabulary instruction needs to be an essential part of our instruction.

To close, I want to open it up to you: How do you work within Marzano’s process while staying true to the unique needs of your students?


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! 🙂

Tip for Teaching the Great Depression: Economics Roleplay

What is a role-play, simulation, or re-enactment?  I’ve learned that within the realm of Social Studies instruction, teachers use these different names and varying twists on methods to help students come away with a deep understanding of cause/effect, sequencing, and historical appreciation. Basically, role play is a “learning strategy in which students act the part of another character, thereby gaining an appreciation for others’ points of view as well an understanding of the complexity of resolving issues and problems in the real world.” In fact, it’s worked so well that the Battle of Gettysburg is celebrating its 150th re-enactment this year. Crazy cool, right?

Why not just use the textbook? In my class, when it comes to the 1920s and ’30s, students could just memorize textbook bullet points of cause and effect; however, they still would have a difficult time coming to the somewhat abstract understanding of where the money goes.  It isn’t until my sophomores see the money actually moving around the classroom that they can ask these deep, quality questions, like: “If we had so much money during the ’20s, how’d people lose it all in the ’30s?” “Where did the cash that was invested in the stock market actually go?” “Why couldn’t we just print more money?” “If “cred,” like credit, means believe, are we seriously just running on belief?”

Why not just lecture? Aside from the fact that an interactive lecture on the foreign and domestic economic policies of the 1920s-1930s would take days upon days, I’m willing to open up here and say: I’m a History Newbie. Extended lecture–while probably what my kids will receive in AP and college–is something that scares me.  I’ve been teaching English for a number of years, but I’ve only been teaching U.S. History since 2011. Based on the teacher certification spread at my school, it didn’t seem likely that I’d ever teach history, and now I find myself in love with my two-hour Humanities block.  Essentially, I think it’s my growing confidence in social studies instruction that has helped me (weirdly enough) identify that in this particular unit–where there is a lot of confusion–students need solid interaction that goes beyond a lecture. 

How did you design this roleplay? I have to put out a disclaimer, this role play, like all of my curriculum, is always in make-over mode, so it’s bound to change and adapt over time, but I basically designed the roleplay from the “script” laid out in my textbook. I took the sections on the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression and shifted the paragraphs into actions and dialogue for my cast of students. This probably could be done with a lot units, but I don’t want to over do the roleplay option nor do I want to scaffold something that doesn’t need the breakdown.

Which characters are cast in this role play? — Basically, I started by gathering the cast of characters who are essential to the time period. When students come in to class, they randomly choose a Cast Card and find their way to their assigned desks,  which are labeled and arranged in my room based on the photo above. Some “characters” of course need more than one student to represent that role, like the U.S. Government needs two kids because there is some interaction within the government during the Tea Pot Dome Scandal, and other characters don’t show up until Act Two or Three during the New Deal.

  • President Harding (1)
  • President Coolidge (1)
  • President Hoover (1)
  • President Roosevelt (1)
  • U.S. Government (2)
  • French Government (1)
  • British Government (1)
  • German Government (1)
  • The Federal Reserve (1)
  • Bankers (1)
  • Stock Brokers (1)
  • Gangsters (1)
  • Social Activists (1)
  • Business Owners (2)
  • Upper Socioeconomic Classes (1) to show the 1%
  • Middle/Lower Socioeconomic Classes (#) to show the represented %
  • Farmers (#) to show the represented %

What kind of props do you need? — Before class, I prepare a basic set of props that help show the information in a concrete way:

  • “Beaton Bucks,” which is basically just a stack of fake cash that we pass around to buy products, pay off debts, invest in the stock market, pay taxes, and bribe government officials. TIP: It helps to have these lamented because kids are handling them for a few days. 
  • IOU Debt Cards to show installment buying, margin buying, and mortgage lending
  • 1920s Advertisement Products
  • Character Cast Cards and Desk Labels. 
  • Social Activist Protest Sign
  • Oil Reserves (we just use a bottle of hand lotion!)
  • Painter’s Tape and Masking Tape, which I lay out on the floor to represent the foreign and domestic economic policies.

How do the students actually move through the simulation? To move through the lesson, I act as “director” of a basic interactive lecture. Students “lazy act” just like we do during our reading of Shakespeare’s OthelloFor example, in one scene…

  • The citizens get up and pay taxes to the government
  • —> The US government trickles cash down to the businesses through tax breaks and incentives.
  • —> Business owners pass on raises to their employees.  
  • —> Employees purchase goods from the businesses through installment buying, stock from the broker through margin buying, and houses from the bank through mortgage lending. 

How do students take notes during the role play? I’ve tried a couple variations of notes during the role play. This year, we went with this “Game Board” method, and it seemed to work quite well. Students drew a mock-up of the “stage” across a double-page spread of their notes. Then, as we moved through each scene, they use different colors to represent different Academic Vocab terms. For example, the yellow line below represents Trickle Down Economics, the blue line is the Dawes Plan, the pink line shows consumerism and installment buying, and so on. 

How does the role-play inspire argumentative writing and debate? After each scene, students can review their notes to process them in another way. Often, we either stop to do a Quick Write or participate in a Pop-Up Debate, tackling one of our Essential Questions.  Some of the questions that I ask are as follows:

  • How might you evaluate Coolidge as President?
    • Consider his domestic economic policy, lack of social change, and foreign economic policy, known as the Dawes Plan
  • How did upper class citizens, middle/lower class workers, and farmers differ in regard to consumerism?
    • Consider the uneven wealth distribution, installment buying, margin buying, and mortgage lending
  • What were the primary causes of the Great Depression?
    • Consider the panic of Black Tuesday, the collapse of banks, the closing of businesses & unemployment, the rise in trade tariffs, and the impact on the global economy

How does the role play affect student understanding of current events? As we start shifting our conversation from the Great Depression to the credit crisis of 2008, the “stage” remains set according to the roleplay. We can then start to pass the money around simulating sub-prime mortgages and using leverage in investing. Ultimately, the roleplay makes these abstract and sometimes distant concepts become real in the hands of the students. 

How do you set up roleplays in your classroom? I’d love it if you provided links to roleplays, simulations, etc. that you’ve done with your students or offered suggestions for my lesson (Seriously! Challenge me. Raise my consciousness.) Hopefully, we can create a plethora of resources for one another.

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