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.

Dear PenPal: Reading Conversations Across Boston (Part 2)

Post 2: The Launch

Dear Alice,

What a week! We launched our pen pal letter writing on Friday. One of the biggest changes between independent reading last year and this year is that students are beginning and ending their week with independent reading time in class. On Mondays, students read, and, on Fridays, students are writing letters to your students or taking a field trip to our local Boston Public Library to get new books. This pen pal letter writing relationship is going to help keep this routine exciting and fun for the students.  

To launch the letter writing process, we did three things as a class. First, students read a letter that I wrote to you in partners and discussed and captured what I was doing as the writer in each paragraph in the margin of the letter. Essentially, my letter was the mentor text for their launch letters. Then, we examined a handout that had the components of a strong pen pal letter and discussed sentence starters. Finally, students wrote their own letters to your students using the letter I wrote as a mentor text and the directions and sentence starters as resources.

Dear Anejia

The most interesting part of this lesson was when student interest and engagement really turned on. Some students were hooked from the beginning of the lesson but some either due to trepidation over being vulnerable or a lack of interest in writing altogether spent a few minutes groaning and complaining when they saw how the long the model letter was. It wasn’t until I handed out little cards with their pen pals’ names and addresses at the beginning of the letter writing time that just about every student in the classroom became excited. I realized there was something about the name of their pen pal that made it real and increased the intrigue of this process. Many students spent a few minutes trying to figure out what ethnicity or culture their pen pal is from and if their pen pal was a boy or a girl. The difference in our student populations, GPA being over 63% latino, you have a significantly larger African American and African population. Here are a few photographs of some of my students who were so thoughtfully engaged in their letter writing that they wrote for over 30 minutes with sustained focus.

Another thing that didn’t necessarily surprise me but that I didn’t think about when we initially discussed the project is, what about students who prefer to type their letters as opposed to handwriting? I have two students who struggle a great deal with processing while writing by hand, and another student for whom using a laptop automatically increases engagement in the task, so your students will be receiving a few typed letters.

Lastly, I noticed some students did not write at all about their book, and instead wrote about themselves and asked questions to their pen pals. For a few of these students I think this is an indication that they are lacking an independent reading book that they are engaged in. For a few others, I think I’m going to need to teach into the letter writing process to a deeper level. I hope we can think about this wondering the next time we are together.

I cannot wait to hear about your students’ experiences receiving their letters and continue developing these relationships of readers and writers!

Fondly,

Kat

 

Dear Kat,

My classes loved opening their letters!! Students were up out of their seats showing parts of their letters to one another, commenting with excitement about what “my pen pal” is good at, where “my pen pal” lives, and what “my pen pal” is reading. As soon as they opened their letters, the activity became less “school work” and more about the passion of talking to someone else about life experiences and books. They were ready to write back immediately on their own lives, books, and, of course, to ask lots of questions.

My mini-lesson for their first letter was about direct  response. Our activator (after our 20 minutes of independent reading, of course) was students making two-minute lists of all the questions that they have when they meet someone new. They shared out several of their questions with the class, and we collected the common questions on the board. Then, we talked about how writing back and forth with someone you’ve never met is an opportunity to get to know a new person as well. In these letters, not only were they going to share about themselves and their current IR books (using the same template you gave your students with the three paragraphs and the sentence stems), but they were also going to build their relationship with their pen pal by asking a few questions based on the information they received in the letters. I projected the letter you wrote me on the board and did a read aloud/think aloud, underlining all the questions  that you asked me and writing my own questions and comments in the margins for you so that I would remember to include them in my letter.

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After the Read Aloud/Think Aloud, I asked students to help me figure out which of my comments and questions I should include in my letter back to you. For example, I wrote “cool!” and “me too!”in the margins quite a bit. Through our class discussion, students vocalized that, while your cooking skills are really cool, it was more important for me to share the “me too” moments because it would help you get to know me better and it would build our relationship around common interests. We also chose two good questions to ask you based on your letter, one about your life and one about your book. When we concluded our discussion, we had created a “Criteria for a Great Response Paragraph.”

By this point, students were getting antsy. They really wanted their letters. I had them take out two blank pieces of paper (raising the stakes on length just to see what they would produce if they knew they could use multiple pages) and their writing utensils and put everything else away. We did a drum roll on the desks, and then a mail call. As I read of their names, students bounded out of the seats to the get their hands on the letters. The build up made it that much more engaging for them when they got their envelopes. They tore them open and, after the initial exclamations and discoveries, got right to work annotating their letters and responding to their new pals.

I can’t wait to hear how your students receive this round of letters!

Always,

Alice