Reflection: Unit Planning From the Valley of Ashes to a Tourist Attraction? - Section 3: Application


At the high school level, 70% of all student reading should be informational text and only 30% should be literature.  

No doubt, you've heard this statement before, and no doubt, you've cringed.  Common Core "alarmists" screech that we're taking the "fun" out of reading, but employers and college professors everywhere are beating their heads against the wall as they watch adults coming out of high school (scary to think that they are technically adults!) who cannot follow directions, read textbooks, or comprehend professional manuals, or decipher legislative mandates.  I completely understand both sides here, don't get me wrong.  I LOVE to read.  I don't get to do it enough.  I'm the reader that can't start reading a book at night because I won't be able to put it down until I'm done with it...even if that's not until 3 in the morning.  My greatest joy this summer (outside of my wedding, obviously) was probably getting to wander around an airport bookstore on my way home from a conference in Denver, luxuriously perusing book jackets until landing on a book to read on the way home.  I actually arrived early to the airport so I could cozy up in a ridiculously uncomfortable airport lobby and read uninterrupted.  When I finished the book unexpectedly early (only halfway through my connecting flight out of Dallas!), I was heartbroken that I hadn't splurged on two books, though honestly I probably wouldn't have been able to finish them both and would probably look suspicious chilling at the airport post-flight to read.  So, long story short, I'm with you book-lovers!  I want students to love it just like me.  Most days I pretend that they do and approach them like they, too, are spiritually fulfilled by whatever text we read for homework.

I've also been on the other end of the spectrum.  I am horrified by some of the grown people I see wandering around with no clue of what's going on in the world.  I recall taking classes for my Educational Leadership M.A. and being appalled by people my age struggling to follow directions all the way or failing to understand readings from the assigned texts that I would say are of regular difficulty.  I've worked in leadership roles and had to go through the process of hiring people, and if you've never done that, it's a wakeup call that I think everyone who works to prepare students for the "real world" should have.  Students should DEFINITELY have familiarity with informational text.  We NEED this.  

After much research, I can still honestly say that I'm still not exactly sure if it's all the ELA teacher's job to teach that 70% informational text or if it's ALL content-area teachers' jobs to teach informational reading skills.  I believe that the standards suggest that it's 70% of a high school student's reading assignments (encompassing all classes) that should be informational, which, as long as other content area teachers are teaching their students to read their content area critically, shouldn't be really big change for the ELA teacher.  I don't believe that all content area teachers are teaching literacy skills though, so in the mean time, I'm trying to get them on board with this practice. 

Even though I believe this informational text is (and should be) and shared responsibility among educators, I DO feel compelled to take a personal role in teaching my students how to read and evaluate informational text.  (A prime selfish reason for this is because if I'm getting evaluated on my students' test scores, I don't trust anyone else to take over part of my job.  I'll teach it too, just to be safe.)  It's definitely in the ELA standards as an emphasis to teach it, so that's another reason to do so.  Finally, if you really think about it, it's really helpful to students to teach informational text side-by-side with literature.  In this lesson (and many others), I use informational text to offer background and context to our fictional text.  Students learn more about the novel, and they also get relevant, engaging reading material that fits the "informational" bill.  It ends up being a win-win situation for everyone!  

As a bonus, I incorporated other multimedia elements with the informational and fictional texts as well to pull in speaking and listening skills and writing skills.  Building logical, varied units in this fashion is really the easiest and most helpful way I've found to incorporate multiple skills into one overall concept.  It also mirrors what good readers should be doing whenever they read (for enjoyment or otherwise!).  Literature provokes thoughts, and thoughts should make students want to seek out answers.  Usually, those answers will be found in informational texts.  (I can clearly recall becoming obsessed with learning about Chernobyl as a child after reading Phoenix Rising!  While it was morbid, it was also fascinating and genuinely inspired by a fictional account.)  By building our units this way, we can best meet our student needs, teach to the Core, and model what real learning looks like for our students.

  Why Being Miffed About Adding Informational Text to Your Curriculum is Misguided
  Unit Planning: Why Being Miffed About Adding Informational Text to Your Curriculum is Misguided
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From the Valley of Ashes to a Tourist Attraction?

Unit 9: Is Gatsby Really so "Great"?
Lesson 2 of 12

Objective: SWBAT identify characteristics & motivations of main characters in The Great Gatsby and contextualize "The Valley of Ashes" through a multimedia investigation of coal ash.

Big Idea: Think the Valley of Ashes is gross? You don't know the half of it. (And did I mention you probably have your own toxic "Valley" nearby?)

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valley of ashes makeover
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