Strategies & Volume

For the past year-and-a-half I’ve been working on designing my teaching to focus on the essential and cut out the rest. While reviewing reading workshop materials at a K-8 Literacy action team meeting, something clicked.  When it comes to designing ELA curriculum, there are two things that matter: strategies and volume.

  1. Strategies:  I want to teach my students meaningful, transferrable reading, writing, and thinking skills.  For me, this means having a clear teaching point each day, posting today’s goal in which the students apply the teaching point to their daily work, and ending class with a share, in which students review the teaching point, and explain the progress they made on it.  (One of my favorite ways to do the share is to have students do a write-out, answering a prompt addressing the teaching point, and then share it with their reading/writing partner.)
  2. Volume: I need to provide my students ample time to apply the skills they learned.  This year, I feel like I’ve honed my ability to identify and teach strategies.  However, one growing edge I have is being sure to provide my students with enough volume: enough time to work, enough interesting and diverse materials to engage with, enough opportunities to repeatedly practice and apply skills.

As I move forward in designing curriculum, designating class minutes, and choosing what to include and what to cut out, these questions will be on my mind:

  • What strategies am I teaching?
  • What opportunities am I providing for my students to apply these strategies?
  • How am I teaching for independence?  How will my students know how to transfer and apply these skills in other situations?

On the Power of Diverse Texts

In the last month, I’ve felt like everyday I’ve left my classroom inspired by my students thoughts, background knowledge, and critical thinking.  I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.

What has helped us grow to this point?

The materials we’ve chosen to surround ourselves with.  These were some of my strategies:

  1. I made a commitment to only purchasing books from diverse authors.  In our well-resourced school district, books featuring white, straight folk are easy to come by.  My classroom is full of them! I made a personal commitment to only spend district dollars, donors choose fundraising dollars, and personal dollars on books written by and about people with diverse experiences.  My focus has been on people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.
  2. I used picture books and graphic novels as an entry point into reading about diverse literature.  I wrote a Donor’s Choose Fundraising grant for 50 picture books and graphic novels that featured people of color, people who are LGBTQ+, people of multiple religions, and people with disabilities.  Then, I worked with the school librarian to pull together a text set of about 250 graphic novels featuring diverse characters.  Using these materials, we did a graphic novel mini-unit.  During the unit, students learned a reading skill, applied it to a picture book, then applied it to a graphic novel they were reading.  Students were required to read at least two graphic novels from the text set.
  3. I was honest with the students.  Before beginning our graphic novel picture book unit, I had an honest discussion about diversity in children’s literature.  We looked at this graphic.  We discussed the concept of books as windows and mirrors (Thank you Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop).  We set an intention together of challenging to read books and perspectives we might not otherwise read.
  4. I paid attention.  After seeing students read graphic novels and picture books, I was able to better understand the topics and social issues they paid attention to.  This continually helps me make recommendations for individual readers, assemble book group text sets, and offer choices for read aloud.
  5. I made a commitment to only offering books from diverse authors.  Choice is a fundamental tenant of my teaching philosophy.  Students have choice of their independent reading novel, their book group novels, the novels they read for class, and even our class read aloud.  However, this year, I made a commitment to assembly text sets solely with books that feature diverse characters.  Students have ownership over their learning, and access to windows and mirrors they may not have otherwise found.
  6. I dedicated aloud time to narrative nonfiction.  After our picture books, graphic novels, and realistic fiction novels, students were ready to read more about real life stories.  I pulled together a text set of books for students to choose from for read aloud, and every book we’ve read has captivated the students.  Title include: Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bombs Survivor’s Story (Caren Stelson), Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom: My Story of the Selma Voting Rights March (Lynda Blackmon Lowrey) Loving v. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case (Patricia Hruby Powell), In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (Kenneth C. Davis), Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice (Phillip Hoose)
  7. I wrote a year-long essential question and focused guiding questions. Our year long essential question is, “How does society impact an individual’s happiness and well-being?”  We study this question in every unit, and then create guiding questions for each individual unit, including our dystopian novel unit, family unit, and justice unit.
  8. I chose 5-8 vocabulary words per unit.  These words help us focus our text analysis. Vocabulary words this year have included: conformity, social norms, identity intersectionality, society, justice, internalized oppression and resiliency.
  9. I utilized to study current events.  The amazing folks at Newsela make social justice teaching easy.  By covering current events, resistance movements, and pro/con articles, all at grade-appropriate reading levels, the authors make complex situations and difficult conversations accessible to my middle schoolers.  When reading narrative nonfiction, we often visit Newsela to read more about our topic.

My students’ critical thinking, analysis of text and topics, and reflection has impressed me more than I can possibly express.  I feel they’ve tried on and developed new lenses with which to view the world, and been exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences.

My students have been genuinely into their reading and thinking. As they move forward in their learning, I wonder, will they continue to seek out and hold diverse perspectives?  If it is not the priority, have we explored enough to give them the lense to keep asking tough questions, to keep analyzing the materials they are using to learn?

Time will tell.