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.
Show the video montage of Billy Collins' "The Names." This is only a part of the poem, but I have included the entire poem in the resources.
After listening to and viewing "The Names," I introduced students to Thunder Dog, which tells the story of a blind man's survival of the World Trade Center attack.
Since I own a copy of the book, I showed it to students. Additionally, I have an on again-off again book blog called "Hanging by a Book," where I occasionally blog about books, particularly YA lit. I started this particular blog so that I would have exemplars to show students when I require them to review books. I wrote a post about Thunder Dog and had it projecting on the screen as I talked about the book.
I told students the book appeals to me because it tells the story of someone who not only survived 9-11 but whose life is about surviving against all odds. The author earned both an undergrad and grad degree, among many other successes.
I shared a personal story about my father, who lost his site when I was a child as a result of juvenile diabetes complications.
I ended by telling students that the book isn't great literature but that it is an inspiring story of an everyday hero who has much to say about overcoming life's obstacles.
After finishing the book talk, I told students we were going to look at a picture taken on 9-11 but not released until five years later. I explained that they would be "creating a narrative" about the picture. Then I projected the picture onto the screen so students could view it. 9-11 Photograph.
Next, I showed them the citation information, which includes the photographer and source of publication.
I then put the picture back on the screen and gave students ten minutes to write. Before they started, I told them they could get a closer look at the picture if they wanted.
The students wrote quietly. I reviewed the essays I would be sharing w/ them and didn't write because I already know the history of the photo.
After the students finished, I asked them to share their observations about the photo.
Three boys sitting close to the screen and who typically don't contribute to the dialogue eagerly shared their observations, which included these comments:
"They look like they are just chillin."
"They look like they don't have a care in the world."
"They look like they're in a relaxing place, like a park."
"That girl with the tramp stamp doesn't have a clue."
"They're having a relaxing time."
Perhaps their proximity to the image influenced their responses, but I found their responses compelling, and I suspect they might have silenced some in the class whose opinions differed with those of the boys.
One student asked, "Did you take that picture?" That was a surprising question.
When the students had finished offering ideas about the photo, I asked them to "burrito fold" a piece of paper I had given them when they entered the room. (Burrito fold is simply a trifold of the paper turned to the horizontal position).
Next, I asked the students to "hamburger fold" the paper, which is folding the paper in half.
I reminded them that we had talked about writing as having a beginning, middle, and end the previous day.
Next, I told the students that when the photo was published in 2006, Frank Rich wrote a New York Times opinion piece about the photo that I would be reading to them. I also explained that Rich's point of view evoked a response from a writer at SLATE and that I would also read that response. I gave the students listening directions:
1. Listen as I read.
2. Think about the beginning, middle, and end as you listen.
3. Put ideas from the beginning in the first column, from the middle in the second column, and from the end in the first column. Student Notes Example 1
4. Put Rich's ideas on the top of the page and the SLATE response on the bottom. Student Notes Example 2
I then read Rich's essay slowly. Because it is long, I paused in the middle to give the students a chance to rest their hands. Frank Rich Whatever Happened to the America.docx
I paused once again when I reached the end of Rich's piece and then proceeded to read the SLATE article, assuring students that it's much shorter. Frank Rich Is Wrong About That 9.docx
When I finished reading, I asked the students what they thought about the two pieces. Many students said they liked the SLATE piece better and noted that it gave those in the picture the "benefit of the doubt."
We talked about how both the Rich and SLATE pieces quoted the photographer, Thomas Hoepker.
The students wanted to know about the responses from those in the picture. I promised to put those on our LMS site for accessibility and explained that the SLATE article links to them.
I asked students if they know why I chose not to read the point of view of those in the picture. Eventually, we got to the idea that pictures express ideas, and that we consume those ideas and make judgments about them. I explained that I wanted them to think about the picture as observers on the outside rather than as participants in the action.
I asked students if they could see these ideas in their notes and as I read the contrasting opinions. Student Notes Example 3
Once the students grasped the idea that they could compare and contrast Rich's and SLATE's response to the Hoepker photo, I revisited the idea that they too, could compose essays that respond to multiple genres.
Finally, I told the students that we'll be going to the lab Friday so they can search for an essay w/ a topic and/or theme similar to their poem's and that I would help them find one if they want. I also announced that our new media specialist will be coming into the class tomorrow and sharing information about using the library resources to find an informational text on which to base their comparison/contrast essays.