Choosing Texts that Build Understanding and Classroom Community

Reflecting on the curricula we taught last year, we determined that the texts our students read did not provide enough opportunities for students to seem themselves in the literature. As documented in previous posts, we spent a month traveling last summer specifically to learn about resistance murals and the role that these murals played and continue to play in their communities. When we returned from our travels at the end of July, we spent August designing the unit that would launch our 2017-2018 school year. Both of our schools use a backwards planning template, and we combine the two, pulling the best from each, to scaffold our thinking.

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One of the most daunting parts of planning any new unit is finding good mentor texts that are at appropriate reading levels for students, are about the content you want students to learn about, and use the writing skills you want to teach. This deep work was so much easier to do as thought partners. We balanced four different things when we began selecting mentor texts: 1) types of border crossing we wanted our students to be inspired by (physical, cultural, emotional, etc) 2) authors diverse in race, ethnicity, religion, age, gender, and sexual orientation 3) engaging text types (e.g. graphic novels, photographs, short stories, poetry, music and children’s books) and 4) texts that we could deconstruct into the components of memoir writing that we would be teaching in the second part of the unit.

We started with texts that were familiar, and then did research to find texts that filled in the gaps. Besides determining our whole-class texts, we also created a supplementary reading list that we could purchase for our classroom libraries. We both have robust independent reading in our classrooms, and we had intentionally set aside a portion of our Fund for Teachers grant budget to purchase mentor texts for our unit, so we loaded our cart with the books listed below:

Unit Texts:

  • “Names/Nombres,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Exile,” Julia Alvarez
  • “Gate A-4,” Naomi Shihab Nye
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario (Chapter: The Dreaded Stop)
  • “Fish Cheeks,” Amy Tan
  • Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie (Chapter:In Like a Lion)
  • March Volumes 1 and 2, John Lewis

Texts for Children’s book activity:

  • The Name Jar, Yangsook Choi
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  • Come On, Rain, Karen Hesse
  • A Chair for My Mother,  Vera B. Williams
  • Too Many Tamales, Gary Soto
  • Last Stop on Market Street, Matt de la Pena
  • Amazing Grace, Mary Hoffman

Independent Reading Books

  • Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You, Hanna Jansen
  • Dear Martin, Nic Stone
  • Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, Sungju Lee
  • I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez
  • Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey, Ozge Samanci
  • Saving Montgomery Sole, Mariko Tamaki
  • Bystander, James Preller
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, Thi Bui
  • Outcasts United: The Story of a Refugee Soccer Team that Changed a Town, Warren St. John
  • Zahrah the Windseeker, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu
  • The Silence of Our Friends: The Civil Rights Struggle Was Never Black and White, Mark Long
  • Hidden Figures Young Readers’ Edition, Margot Lee Shetterly
  • One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia
  • Good Enough, Paula Yoo
  • A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah
  • A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoir, Daisy Hernandez
  • Piecing Me Together, Renee Watson
  • Girl in Translation, Jean Kwok
  • Enrique’s Journey (The Young Adult Adaptation): The True Story of a Boy Determined to Reunite with His Mother, Sonia Nazario
  • Mexican WhiteBoy, Matt de la Pena
  • American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
  • Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave, Shyima Hall
  • Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin
  • The Distance Between Us: Young Readers’ Edition, Reyna Grande
  • The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Wendy Wan-Long Shang
  • Tomboy: A Graphic Memoir, Liz Prince
  • I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Young Readers’ Edition), Malala Yousafzai
  • We Were Here, Matt de la Pena
  • Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, Meg Medina

It felt like Christmas morning when our big box of books arrived! We each previewed a selection of the texts, pulling chapters or segments that we thought would be most engaging and help us fulfill our learning targets for this unit. We selected 14 mentor texts, including two graphic novels and 5 children’s books. We then turned to asking ourselves: Which text would be the best entryway into our unit for our students? We selected a chapter from Enrique’s Journey by Sonia Nazario because we wanted to ground our students in the concept of border crossing with a literal interpretation. As this was our first unit of the year, we wanted to provide an access point that would help all students feel successful. In hindsight, the excerpt we chose from Enrique’s Journey was long and the vocabulary was challenging. As our unit progressed, we realized that our students had the engagement to tackle the more figurative examples of border crossing. We will likely start with another text–perhaps “Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan–next year and build towards the stamina necessary to tackle Enrique’s Journey.

Besides our focus on student engagement and diversity of text, we also focused on selecting texts in which the author’s used moves that we planned for our students to master. This way, students would be able to revisit texts in the second portion of the unit that they had already encountered, allowing them to focus more on the writing moves and less on comprehension. We developed a great formatting strategy to facilitate close reading skills that we have carried through the units we’ve taught this year. In this example of Names/Nombres, it is clear how the texts are structured for students to read multiple times for different purposes. It is also clear how we differentiated texts for our different levels of readers. Students saved all of the texts that they read and annotated in the first portion of the unit (the reading portion) and returned to them in the second portion of the unit (the writing portion) to identify writers’ moves that helped the author effectively convey a story.

After completing the reading portion of the unit, students took a mid-unit assessment that focused on their ability to read a text, find the gist, and answer text-dependent questions. But more than that, it asked students to communicate their new understanding of borders, why people cross them, and how reading other people’s stories and interpreting their themes and messages builds a richer community.

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