Recently, I posted an overview of the non-freaked out approach to the Common Core that I’ve been experimenting with in my ninth grade world history and comp/lit (ELA) classes during the last year and a half or so. In this post (Part 2), I’m going to dive into the what, why, and how of getting students to read, appreciate, and grow through grade-appropriate complex texts.
What are complex texts and why do they matter?
If you’ve been hearing “complex text” phraseology thrown around like crazy lately, it’s because one of the central shifts that the Common Core promotes is the idea that, instead of only giving students books that are within their zone of proximal development (“just right” books), we should be asking students to read texts that are appropriately complex for their age.
This doesn’t mean the CCSS are opposed to things like choice reading or book love; rather, it stems from one of the central arguments in the research appendix (namely, that the average complexity of assigned reading in high school has been decreasing over the years, while the average complexity of required reading in college/career settings has been increasing).
Now, there’s more than one way to tackle this Common Core shift. In this post, I’ll primarily be sharing the approach I’ve chosen, but I’ll end by addressing some common questions and an alternative approach that I learned of recently during a PD led by Penny Kittle.
But first, credit where it’s due
I can take credit for about 1% of my approach. The following three people have heavily influenced my heart and mind; it is largely because of them that I expect so much of my students.
Rafe Esquith: a freaking knight
Since my student teaching days in Ypsilanti, MI, I’ve been inspired by Rafe Esquith’s no-shortcuts-in-life, high expectations approach to teaching literacy. What does Esquith ask of his predominantly ESL fifth graders in a Los Angeles public school? In addition to performing an unabridged Shakespearean play from memory, they read the following complex texts as a whole class:
- Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men
- Twain’s Huckleberry Finn
- Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X
- Wright’s Native Son
- Tan’s The Joy Luck Club
- Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
- Stevenson’s Treasure Island
- Dickinson’s A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations
- Wiesel’s Night
- Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl
- Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
- Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye
- Knowles’ A Separate Peace
- Tolkien’s The Hobbit
For any who liken such high expectations with bored, disengaged students, check out Esquith’s classroom; if you assume this kind of shared reading would only burn out young readers, consider what Esquith’s students go on to accomplish many years after leaving his class. And if you’re tempted to think, “Well, my kids could never do that,” remember: these are ESL, free-lunch-eligible 5th graders.
Buy Esquith’s book to get the whole story. Even though he teaches in an elementary context, few books have influenced my practices as a secondary teacher like his has.
Mike Schmoker: laser focus
Schmoker’s Focus gives specificity and 6-12 applicability to Esquith’s extraordinary approach. In the book, he lays out the three essentials for effective classrooms: a focused and coherent curriculum (what we teach); clear, prioritized lessons (how we teach); and purposeful reading and writing, or “authentic literacy” as he calls it. The book outlines an approach not just for ELA, but for science and social studies as well.
“In an age where teachers are forced into the unrealistic pursuit of unobtainable standards, finally, a book emerges that cuts through the noise and helps us return to sensible, authentic teaching. Focus is insightful, practical, and, above all else, inspiring–a must read for all teachers, administrators, board members, and policymakers. Reading this book has made me a better, more reflective teacher. –Kelly Gallagher
Doug Stark: a master of efficiency and a personal mentor
Doug is a colleague, a mentor, and a friend in my current teaching setting. I was first impacted by Doug’s teaching when I was given a class of freshmen in Trimester 2 of 2010 that Doug had taught in Trimester 1. I was blown away by how much the students had learned in the 12 measly weeks afforded by our trimester schedule. Since then, I’ve sought any chance I can get to learn from Doug’s efficiency and effectiveness in teaching reading and writing to high schoolers. I also appreciate his straightforward approach to problem solving.
My approach in Freshman Comp/Lit: shared complex texts of varying lengths
So how do I make this complex texts shift in my classes? First, I’ll share my approach in my 9th grade ELA class; later on, I’ll share what I do in my 9th grade world history. Here are the complex texts we read in 9th grade Comp/Lit:
- Trimester 1: excerpts from The Odyssey; daily choice reading*; ~15 articles
- Trimester 2: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; Knowles’ A Separate Peace; Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; periodic choice reading (at least once per week)*; 7 articles
- Trimester 3: Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front; Orwell’s Animal Farm; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; 7 articles
If you’re wondering about my school’s demographics, I teach in a rural setting with 65% of my students eligible for free/reduced lunch.
*A note on choice reading: The reading I have my students do here is strictly choice. Therefore, sometimes the books students choose are very complex; more often, they are not.
So how do we get students to read complex texts that they’re not interested in?
The most common (and powerful) critique of the extended whole-class text approach that I’m using is this: most students just won’t (or just can’t) read grade-level complex texts on their own. Therefore, it’s a huge waste of time to assign anything more than an article-length complex text.
And indeed, if it’s true that most students won’t read what’s assigned, it is a wasted assignment for most students. So, seeking to determine what percentage of my students were reading the assigned texts, I began tracking the percentage who had completed the previous day’s reading assignment (see image below).
Let me give you a little context: last spring, only 46% of our Juniors scored at the college/career ready threshold in reading on the ACT. I know that some will scoff and say, “Well, the ACT is just another demon-possessed, mandated test,” but, to me, the ACT is at least a hoop my students must jump through in order to access college, and at best it’s a time-tested, fairly reliable measure of how ready my students are for the demands of post-secondary life.
So, keeping that 46% in mind, I currently consider 70% the “win threshold.” As you can see above, Things Fall Apart — the first book I tracked — was pretty much a fail. However, we saw quite an increase in completion with our next extended complex text, All Quiet on the Western Front. If we can keep those numbers up during the remaining months of school, I’ll be pumped. And I know that, even if students didn’t finish the assigned reading, due to the way I’ve structured class, all are reading, writing about, and discussing large portions of it.
(If you’re thinking, “100% is the only number that should be green on that board,” please read this article, in which Rafe Esquith differentiates between equality of opportunity and equality of results.)
So, here’s the question: How do we get a vast majority of kids reading whole class, extended, complex texts? These are the strategies I’m using:
- Hook well: To get my students into an extended text, I use a pre-reading model that my colleague Doug Stark developed. Here’s what I used for All Quiet on the Western Front. It includes anticipatory questions for discussion/debate, 8-10 key concept vocabulary words that I explicitly teach, and a choice of three personal narrative prompts that link to the key concept vocabulary.
- Start slow: More than once, I’ve felt pressure to cover a book quickly, and that pressure has led me to assign just as many pages at the beginning of a reading unit as I do at the end. This doesn’t work well; many students quit. During the first few days of reading, I assign small amounts of pages (10 to 15), and I take time in the following days to closely read and discuss difficult portions from the preceding day’s reading. For example, within the first few pages of AQWF, there’s a scene where Paul and his comrades are enjoying a leisurely, communal card game in a field; disconcertingly, they are also defecating. I photocopy 4 pages from this section, have students highlight their confusion, have students discuss their confusion in their groups (I model how to clearly articulate one’s confusion and how to helpfully work through it as a group), and then we discuss confusions as a class. Finally, I ask students to brainstorm why in the world Remarque includes this scene [and they come up with awesome theories (see image at right)].
- Simple reading checks at the start of each class: I ask a question before we begin each day’s reading lesson. In crafting these questions, I aim to see if my students have a basic comprehension of a major event or concept in the assigned reading; put another way, I usually only ask a question about something that the author used several pages to develop or portray. This question isn’t intended to be a “gotcha”; in fact, it’s not uncommon for a few of my students to write “I didn’t get that far” or “I wasn’t able to read last night.” These checks help me figure out who’s struggling with doing the reading, and who’s struggling with comprehending the reading. (Here are the responses I received for this reading check: What awkward event happened in the hospital room? Remember, I teach freshmen!)
- Model reading: During the first few days of reading a text, I will read 1-3 pages of the day’s assignment aloud and model my thinking with whatever is most difficult about the text. In Things Fall Apart, I’ll model my confusion with the rhythm of Achebe’s prose, or with how the text seems to randomly jump around. In All Quiet, I’ll model using the glossary, dealing with Remarque’s subtle use of flashback, or whatever else is raising flags for my students.
- Simple homework assignments: There are two basic things I want students to habitually do when we read complex texts. First, I want them to ask questions (see “Q & A Session,” below). Second, I want them to record quotations and paraphrases that connect to our key concept vocabulary (this makes our summative assessment a million times easier). Here’s an example of a reading assignment for AQWF (this simple sheet is another brainchild of Doug Stark); one of these sheets will often cover several nights of homework. If this homework seems simple, that’s exactly my hope; as Marzano shares, “Parent involvement in homework should be kept to a minimum” (Classroom Instruction that Works, 2001).
- Q and A session: Using their reading assignment sheets, my students discuss their questions from the previous night. I expect everyone in the group to turn to the page indicated by their questioner, I expect the group to do their best to offer insight into the question, and I expect everyone to ask at least one question. For my 3-4 person groups, I allow 5 minutes for this activity. Then, we do Q and A as a whole class, stopping to take notes along the way as necessary. There are usually 2-3 passages I want to dig into briefly during this whole class time; if the students don’t take our discussion there, I will. I randomly call on students for questions, and I take volunteers.
- Provide 20-30 minutes for reading in class: Homework completion is a major problem in my school; to get high percentages of my students reading the book, I provide time for them in class. However, it’s not wasted time for me, as you’ll see below. This is time in class is one of the key reasons my percentages are increasing.
- Page checks during the reading time: Once I release my students to read on their own for the day, I go around with my clipboard and note what page they’re on. A core value in our class is that life is fair, and those who “fake it” eventually get pwned. Because of this, most of my students won’t fake their page. If I do get a sense that a student is doing this, I’ll pull them for a quick conference and ask some questions.
- Chart the class reading percentage: Based on the data I collect from reading checks, page checks, and conferences, I note on my clipboard who has read and who hasn’t (and who shouldn’t be counted today because of an absence). I then calculate our reading percentage and write it on the board (as shown above); if we’re above 70%, I use green; if we’re below, I use red.
- Offer audio: I haven’t tried this, but my colleague Erica Beaton had success with offering students an audio option through their netbooks when they read Great Gatsby in 10th grade. If you’d like to ask her about it, hit her up in the Twittersphere.
- Parent contact: My students are now used to the fact that, if they do not complete homework, their parents could be receiving a concerned phone call or email from me. This, like all the others on this list, isn’t a bulletproof solution for every kid, but it is very powerful for some.
- “Motivational speeches”: One day after school Erica came into my room and saw that our reading percentages were increasing; she asked, “What’d you do?” A student was in the room doing some make-up work, and the student said: “He gives us motivational speeches.” I’m not sure what exactly she meant, but I do repeatedly try to communicate the following to my students:
- “If you were mediocre, I’d expect mediocrity; since I happened to get a group of exceptional students, I expect exceptional percentages.”
- “Our society expects few of you to read stuff that’s difficult or (gasp) boring; you all should be angry about such low, condescending expectations.”
- “I am thankful for my ability to grit through difficult reading for the eventual payoff of a good discussion, a powerful moment, or simply the growth that comes from practicing grit; reading is a chance for you to develop the ‘delayed gratification’ muscle that all successful people tend to have.”
- “More than anything, I want you to have choices in life; for many of you, that means you need to make drastic gains in reading and grit. If you give 110% in your reading of this book, you’ll grow in both reading and grit.”
What’s a typical lesson look like?
So here’s what a typical 70-minute class period looks like when we’re reading a whole-class, extended text:
- Grammar warm-up (5 min)
- Reading check (2 min) — here’s the list of reading checks I used for All Quiet on the Western Front
- Q&A/Discussion with note-taking (table groups, then whole class) (20 min)
- Reading assignment (35 min)
- Once we’re into the book, I try to assign slightly fewer pages than minutes I provide in class; this means most students will have 5-10 minutes of homework.
- While students are reading, I am calculating our class reading percentage for the day using the reading check results, recording student page numbers, and conferring with students as I see fit.
- When I confer with students, I either ask them to come into the hall or I speak with them at their desk. I make this decision based on privacy needs and how hard I plan to push.
- Closing Q&A (5 min)
The choice reading + shorter complex texts approach
Some would argue that the best way to accomplish the Common Core text complexity shift is by using shorter complex texts that can be closely read in a single sitting so that most of the extended text reading is student-chosen and, with the proper coaching, increasingly complex. Penny Kittle is an advocate of this approach.
While I do use choice reading (most heavily in the first trimester), I don’t choose to go “all in” on it. When I asked Penny for her reasoning in doing so, she honestly answered that she tries to weigh out what is gained and what is lost. I couldn’t agree with her more in that kind of thinking; there is no “silver bullet” in education. In Penny’s experience, more is gained by providing greater choice and coaching students in conferences to make choices that will push them; in mine, more is gained by providing whole class extended complex texts. I find that my approach enables me to push the most kids to do the most growing; she finds that her approach does the same. Does my way fail for some kids? Yes. Does hers? Yes.
I respect Penny Kittle and appreciate the fact that she is experimenting with a workshop approach in a high school setting. I also appreciate the fact that she is on a curling team.
What about in history?
Finally, let’s discuss my developing approach for using complex texts in the world history classroom. I am in my second year as a history teacher, so this is still developing.
My goal as a world history teacher is to build a fence in my student’s brains. The fence itself represents a chronological framework of world history; the fenceposts represent deeper learning experiences (e.g., digging into some source documents or articles; simulating socialism and capitalism; reading Escape from Camp 14 or Julius Caesar).
To build the fence, we depend primarily on the Student’s Friend textbook, John Green’s Crash Course: World History videos, and interactive lectures (which Schmoker describes in Focus). To dig the postholes, we depend mostly on the article of the week and extended complex texts.
My approach in World History: shared complex texts of varying lengths
Here are the complex texts that my 9th grade students read, discuss, write about, and debate in world history:
- Trimester 1: ~20 articles and source documents; excerpts from Student’s Friend textbook; Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
- Trimester 2: ~20 articles and source docs; excerpts from Student’s Friend textbook; Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (I’d like to add this for next year)
- Trimester 3: ~20 articles and source docs; Students Friend textbook; Harden’s Escape from Camp 14