Monthly Archives: April 2012

H Files Installment #3: Text Complexity, Variety, and Hamlet (aka This Is What the Inside of My Head Looks Like)

So about those texts…

If you judged me in the previous post based on my true confessions about planning, hopefully this post will work to somewhat redeem me. My title for today is a reference to the photo in the liner notes of John Mayer’s CD Continuum, which I once listened to before boycotting his music due to his racist, misogynist 2010 interview for Playboy. (Seriously, I won’t even let myself hum along to Mayer-inspired Muzac in the grocery store.) Mayer’s CD photo captures a messy recording studio with the caption “This is what my heart looks like.”

Well, this is what the inside of my head looked like as Jenny and selected texts to include in the resiliency unit.

When Jenny and I started planning together, we were guided by the notion that we wanted to teach Hamlet in ways that aligned with the CCSS. In our CCSS work with the CSU Writing Project, we’d been reading Sarah Wessling’s new book Supporting Students in a Time of Core Standards: Grades 9-12. It’s a great book all around, but we’d been especially taken with her figure on reading complexity circles, available here on the NCTE website. (Scroll down to figure 2.1.)

As you probably know, “text complexity” is a big deal in the CCSS.

I’m not altogether crazy about the ways text complexity is framed in Appendix A of the CCSS. Print-based texts are privileged (and digital texts are referred to as “text-free or text-light sources”). Expository texts are privileged because they’re more common in the workplace. Finally, their argument that text complexity is steadily declining in K-12 schools relies heavily on quantitative measures to determine text complexity (i.e., Lexile scores), though they do present a more robust three-part model for “measuring” text complexity later in the Appendix. The model devotes attention to “qualitative dimensions” and “reader and text considerations.” (Dear CCSS authors: Please review a definition of the term qualitative. Can dimensions and considerations really be “measured”? )

Despite my bone-picking, I do agree with the overall gist of the argument presented in Appendix A:

Students need to read a range of texts at varying levels of difficulty and read them well and independently if they are to thrive in post-secondary settings.

And that’s where Sarah Wessling and her figure on reading complexity comes back in. It’s s a great tool that increases the likelihood that teachers will include a range of texts in their units by planning with three concepts in mind: context texts, fulcrum texts, and texture texts.

Briefly, context texts are shorter, accessible, high-interest texts typically used at the beginning of a unit to introduce the unifying concept around which the unit is built—in our case, resiliency. Most students will need very little teacher support to read and comprehend these texts, but context texts frame the more complex fulcrum and texture texts they’ll encounter later in the unit. In the resiliency unit, most of our context texts are on the weebly site, but we’ve also included a Hagar the Horrible comic strip and a choral reading I wrote. It’s a fun student-performed synopsis of the entire play of Hamlet.

As its name suggests, the fulcrum text serves as the primary focus for the unit; it’s usually book-length, more complex, and thus more likely to require teacher scaffolding to support students’ understanding. We’re using Hamlet and the students’ choice of one book club text from the following list: The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak,  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Shine by Lauren Myracle, and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand.

Texture texts are woven throughout the unit to extend students’ understanding and focus their attention on particular aspects of the fulcrum text as well as the unit’s unifying concept. Texture texts are also likely to require some form of teacher support because of their level of complexity. Here we’re using poetry, podcasts, various versions of Hamlet, and YouTube video.

As you saw from the photo above, Jenny and I used the text complexity circles figure extensively in our planning. My CSU Methods students also found it to be such a useful framing device, I created a blank text circles template. Jenny and I have considered our version to be a living document that we’ve adapted as we’ve been teaching the unit. As a planning device, it helped us ensure that we were selecting a range of texts at varying degrees of difficulty, including informational texts, for students to read. (By looking at our class website, you also know that digital texts have been a priority, so take that, CCSS!)

We took the organizer a couple of steps further, though, in ways that we’ve also found useful. One is that we’ve also used it to organize our thinking about student-produced texts. In other words, they’re producing context texts, fulcrum texts, and texture texts throughout the unit, too. And at the bottom of the picture that opens this post, you can see that we converted the circles into a matrix to ensure that we were incorporating a number of genres for students to both read and produce.

Again, this document is living, working, and otherwise unfolding in ways we could not have predicted going in. Consequently, we hath added and taken away as students’ needs have required, as other texts have occurred to us, and as time has dictated. Also, the standards and our summative assessments are keeping us honest so that we can kill our darlings.  As always, there’s so much to teach and so little time! Ah, the little joys of teaching….


Hamlet Files Installment 2: True Confessions about Unit Planning

In determining what texts to teach to the kids in the Resiliency unit, Jenny and I have known from the start that we needed to think about the standards we want to address and the assessments we want to use to determine whether or not the kids are “getting” what we’re teaching, both along the way (i.e., formative) and at the end of the unit (i.e., summative).

In my Methods class, my students and I have read multiple texts that advocate “planning backwards” (e.g., Smagorinsky, 2008; excerpts from Wiggins & McTighe, 2008). Jenny’s and my work on NWP’s national “Literacy in the Common Core” team has also emphasized that you start with the task, consider the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) it requires, and then plan your lessons and activities as well as your formative assessments from there.

So here’s the true confession: We believe that all this is important, too, but to be honest, we started first with the text we wanted to teach together—Hamlet. This is partially because we’ve immersed ourselves so much in the CCSS, we feel as if they’re pretty much in our bones. We were confident that we could design instruction and assessments that would meet them in rich and diverse ways. Jenny also had two pressing external constraints that she had to address before the end of year–teaching a Shakespearean text and preparing students to take the impending AP exam. We were also confident in one another; we’ve collaborated together on so many CSUWP tasks in the past, we trusted that team-teaching had a good chance of enhancing the learning opportunities for the kids and would make us both better at our jobs to boot.

It would be disingenuous, then, to say that we knew everything going in. Instead, we planned the Resiliency unit in the same way we often teach new units—focusing our instruction around the kids’ likely interests and learning needs; external mandates; and a texts we already knew and loved. We knew from experience as we purposefully planned and reflected on students’ experiences, our focus would sharpen over time. Because we’re documenting our work and reflecting on it daily, we’re able to make immediate adjustments, and we know that next time we teach this, we will be better.

The Hamlet Files: Installment 1

“Why are you doing this?” Cait from my university English Methods class asked. “This” being writing a unit on resilience that features Hamlet and actually teaching it at a local high school with CSU Writing Project teacher Jenny St. Romain.

Why indeed (especially considering the stack of projects that need to be graded and returned to Caitlin and her fellow students)?

Because I want to model good practice for my CSU preservice teachers (or maybe just “model practice,” depending on how it goes with the HS kids) by writing curriculum according to the principles we’ve been reading about in our Methods texts. Because Jenny and I are working together on a the NWP Literacy in the Common Core team and are learning to write instructional modules aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Because I need my high-school teaching fix. And last but not least, because I want to write about it.

And so begins “The Hamlet Files.”

Today was the first day of that experience, and my plan is to update this blog at least weekly with an account of how it’s going. Jenny was actually absent today, but trustworthy friend that she is, she allowed me to start the show. I’ll be curious to hear what the HS kids think, but by my and the sub’s estimation, I haven’t forgotten how to teach 17-18-year-olds yet. Ask me again in 4 weeks, and I let you know.

Before I talk specifically about how today went, I want to give a little context for the school, Jenny’s class, and the unit.

Jenny’s school: Jenny teaches at Fossil Ridge HS in Fort Collins, CO. Founded in 2004, Fossil is the newest school in town; it serves a little over 1,900 kids. Demographics reflect the racial homogeneity and affluence of the east side of town:

  • 87.5% Caucasian, 7.42% Hispanic, 2.86% Asian/Pacific Islander, .68% American Indian/Alaskan Native, and 1.14% African American, .40% Undeclared.
  • Of the 1957 students enrolled, 6.59% qualify for free lunches and 2.35% qualify for reduced lunches.
  • 98% of the class of 2011 pursued post-secondary education; 76% attended a four-year college, and 22% attended a two-year or career education school.

The school is architecturally stunning  and large–over 290,000 square feet, but it has maintained a focus on smaller learning communities by dividing the building into 3 smaller “houses” of classrooms, lockers, teacher/administrator teams, and kids, and they employ an advisory system that is part of the regular school day. It’s not Griffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravensclaw, and Slytherin exactly because everyone is more or less on the same team–the Sabercats, to be precise–but they do try to “create the intimacy of a small-school environment with the advantages of a large school’s diverse curriculum and opportunities.” The school’s goal is “Excellence, Everywhere.”

Jenny’s class: The school is on a modified block schedule, and the class Jenny and I are team-teaching meets last period for 75-94 minutes, depending on the day. It’s an AP Literature and Composition class, and there are only 15 students (9 girls, 6 boys), all seniors, all white except for one Asian girl. This is the last unit before to be taught before the AP exam, which is about a month away.

The unit: As I said before, Hamlet is the primary text for the unit–or the “fulcrum text,” as Sarah Brown Wessling refers to it in Supporting Students in a Time of Common Core Standards–and we’re teaching it alongside a range of shorter “context texts” and “texture texts,” all grouped around a theme of resilience. Students will also be reading a contemporary text of their choice in book clubs. As opposed to giving students a definition of resilience and going from there, we’re taking an inquiry approach to unit and asking the kids to help us define what resilience is as this concept emerges from the set of texts we’ve gathered for them to read and those they’ll be producing. The other important thing to remember, as I mentioned before, is that we’re developing this curriculum in alignment with the Common Core State Standards. I’ll give a fuller description of the unit, the texts, and our approach to choosing them in a later post.

The first day: Today’s goal was to get to know the kids a bit, to talk about the unit focus, and to start developing some definitions of resilience. Introductions, featuring names and random personal facts, went well. They asked for permission to call me Dr. Ms. Professor O’Donnell-Allen, and I demonstrated that I can lick my elbow. (This is true.) Then we dug right in with my very brief explanation of the unit theme and my request for help in defining resilience.

To do so, I drew a four-column chart on the board with a heading of “What is resilience?” First we free-associated words (see column 1).

Then we took an informal resiliency quiz, scored it, and I asked them, “Based on this quiz, what do you think the quiz-makers think resilience is?” (See column 2).

From there, we moved to the computer lab just outside Jenny’s room, and they got on the weebly site I designed and pre-loaded with lots of texts that relate to the unit theme, including YouTube videos, still images that came up when I Googled the word resilience, links to StoryCorps podcasts and other websites, texts on resilience, and so forth. I asked students to take notes about they saw and heard as they surfed the site that would give us insight into our working definition of resilience.

When we came back to class, I asked them to free-write for 7 minutes about what resiliency looks like/sounds like/feels like, based on their investigation of the weebly site. I and the sub wrote, too. When time was up, I asked them to underline a line worth sharing, and we compared notes, recording our observations in column 3.

We noted some patterns and surprises, then looked across columns to generate a list of questions regarding resilience that we want to investigate further through the texts we’ll be reading and writing in the unit. (See column 4, black ink.)

To wrap up the class, I asked them to look back over our chart and write a working definition ofresilienceon an index card I collected. By the end of the class, we’d read, written, and talked a good bit about what we think resilience might be and created a common lens through which to view the texts to come in relation to this question. The wordle at the top of this post captures the gist of their responses.

I really enjoyed thinking and learning with the kids today. I hope they did, too. Wish us luck. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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