How should ELA teachers approach informational texts?
This question informs the lessons in this unit, which emphasize approaches to teaching informational texts in the context of literature study. Rather than replacing or superceding the study of literature, I see informational texts as ways to amplify literature so that students see it as relevant to their lives.
Thus, rather than a shift away from both the literary canon and contemporary imaginative texts, the CCSS offers teachers a unique opportunity to embrace innovative approaches to teaching both informational texts and the imaginative literature that led us to teach English.
In its original context, this lesson is part of the unit The Poetry of Nonfiction and Informational Texts.
The lesson has several parts:
What Sesame Street Teaches ch 10 in Amusing Ourselves to Death.mp4 discusses finding the essay I use in this lesson and offers some ideas for updating "What Sesame Street Teaches" by having students rewrite it.
"Do you know what I mean by annotating?"
That's the first thing I ask students. Most say, "no." However, four of the students in my English class had speech w/ me, so they have heard about annotating.
I define annotating:
"Annotating is simply writing your thoughts about what you're reading on your paper in any space you can find. This means you can write in the margin. You can write between lines. You can write where you see white space. And you can write whatever you want to write. There is no right or wrong way to annotate. You think what you think and write what you want. I don't care if you disagree w/ everything Postman says, show those thoughts on the essay."
After defining annotating and writing a definition on the board, "Showing your thinking on your paper," I demonstrated annotating and invited students to annotate along w/ me. I did this so that they wouldn't be waiting on me to finish and so that they could share their thoughts, too.
The essay I use for modeling annotating is "What Sesame Street Teaches," which is in chapter 10, "Teaching as an Amusing Activity" in Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.
I don't have a document reader, so I used an overhead projector for my demonstration.
1. I read the first paragraph and gave students a chance to annotate it as I annotated mine. Before sharing my annotation, I asked for a student's thoughts.
One student responded: "I wrote, 'Sesame Street' was made to entertain and teach."
I told the student I love that response.
I asked if the students had found any new words. Silence. I asked, "Is the word intuitively new to you?"
I heard a chorus of affirmative responses, so I told the class that I like to define unfamiliar words w/ a synonym above them. I did this for assuaged and transfixed and consonant during my think aloud.
2. Next, I shared my annotations:
Right margin: "Were kids raised on commercials?" I told the kids that I was 11 in 1969 and that I wasn't allowed to watch much t.v., so the statement is one I questioned.
Left margin: "I never thought of "S.S." as being a series of commercials."
3. I repeated the process for the second and third paragraphs, each time asking for student responses and following those w/ my annotations. During our discussion of the third paragraph, one student said, "T.V. can't solve the problems of schools." I explained that one can go back to the 1930s and 40s and find the same criticisms about students and reading. I told them about a popular essay from the early 1980s: "Why Johnny Can't Read."
The image shows the portion of the essay I annotated as a think aloud w/ students. Teacher Annotation of "What Sesame Street Teaches"
After modeling annotating, I passed out the X-Ray Text template and instructions. This is a technique I read about in How to Teach Students to Read Like Detectives. While the original idea is for a novel, it's also applicable to essays, which I mention on the handout (Resources).
I read the directions to the class.
Next we discussed the thesis. I asked, "What's the most important part of your skeletal system, the part that holds your body upright."
Students immediately responded, "Your spine."
I responded, "Yes. A thesis works that way for an essay. What opinion is Postman wanting us to accept?"
Several students chimed in w/ a variation on the thesis: "'Sesame Street' teaches us to love school only if school is like 'Sesame Street.'"
"Yes," I responded. That's the spine of the skeleton template. Now, decide what the supporting structure is for the essay. That is, how does Postman try to get us to accept or believe his opinion?"
From there I gave students time to work w/ a partner. At this point, I'm giving them various reading strategies that they have the option of using later for working through essays of their choice.
I noticed several students having trouble getting started as I walked around the room. I stopped and talked to small groups of students and listened to their questions. I encouraged students to use Plan B if the template didn't work for them. I reminded them not to worry about "right or wrong" because I'm interested in their thinking process.
These reminders seemed to help those struggling. Because they had not finished, I told students to complete the annotating and X-Ray at home as tomorrow I'll have individual conferences and do a progress check w/ each of them. Student Text X-Ray and Student Example Text X-Ray show student work in progress.
At times I like to use The Close Reading Cooperative. The visiting professors from Eastern Illinois University offer brief podcasts that help prepare my students for the world of college.
Since Postman uses litote as one of his rhetorical techniques, I decided to introduce the term and show the short podcast.
First I wrote litote on the board and told students it's simply defining something by saying what it is not.
I showed the podcast and asked students to return to the Postman essay and identify the litotes in it. I gave them a few minutes to locate the litotes examples and encouraged those who had trouble to look for the words not and isn't as they perused the document.
A student offered the response, "'Sesame Street' does not teach children how to be better students; it teaches them to love 'Sesame Street.'"
I see we're on our way to understanding litotes. Next step is to construct our own!