I like to use analogies in my classroom. It helps makes the abstract concrete for my students. I instruct finding meaningful evidence in literature like mining for gold. I teach transition sentences like driving a stick shift. I compare developing a thesis and subtopics like following a GPS – it tells the reader where you want to go.
Recently, I was trained by the Washington Education Association as an English Language Arts Common Core Trainer. I gave my first training a few weeks ago and found using analogies helped my K-12 teacher trainees grasp the three Common Core shifts in ELA – regular practice with “complex texts” and their academic language; reading, writing, and speaking grounded in evidence from both literary and informational texts; and building knowledge through “content rich” non-fiction.
In my next three blog posts I hope to pass my wisdom on to you. Each post will unpack each of the three shifts through an analogy, and then I will share some instructional strategies on how you can implement the shifts in your classroom.
Let’s begin with how regular practice reading complex texts is like training for a long distance bicycle ride.
In 2014, I challenged myself to complete the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic (STP). I had done the ride when I was in high school, but now I was over forty and had a bum ankle from a bad accident a few years prior. I understood crossing the finish line would be both a physical and psychological challenge. I also knew with two young kids my time was limited. I took a three pronged approach to training. I rode short, hilly, challenging rides during the week. Then, on the weekends, I would do longer rides to increase my mileage. In between, I went to the gym strengthening my legs and core. Race day arrived. During day one, I rode with confidence and finished with a personal best. But, during day two, my ankle swelled up and I was unsure I could finish. My riding partner encouraged me to persevere. After all my training, giving up wasn’t an option. The last forty miles were agony, but I crossed the finish line. My training gave me the strength and courage to endure.
Like I needed the mental and physical strength to complete the STP, we must train our students to grapple with academic language to meet Common Core ELA shift #1 – regular practice reading complex texts. The Common Core defines complex texts as “staircase of increasing complexity so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level.” In addition, students must be able to determine word definitions using context clues, and demonstrate they can use new vocabulary in their language. The Common Core divides vocabulary into three tiers. Tier 1 words are words used in everyday speech like “happy,” “walk,” and “food.” Tier 2 words are terminology used across disciplines such as “formulate,” “hypothesize,” and “synthesize.” Tier 3 words are lingo that are discipline specific such as “thesis,” “photosynthesis,” or “hypotenuse.”
To teach these, we must teach smarter, not just harder. The question becomes what vocabulary or terminology is worth teaching? Gone are the days of giving a list of words at the beginning of the week for a quiz on Friday. We need to give students the tools to both struggle through a difficult text and decode the cryptic vocabulary. How do we do this? By making the arcane relevant and engaging.
In my Senior Writing class, I assigned my students to write an Op-Ed. Before I could do this, I felt they needed to know a list of writing terms so we would speak with a common terminology. I created a list of essay terms – thesis, topic sentences, evidence, conclusion, etc. Each day we would examine a complex historical persuasive text like The Declaration of Independence and discuss how great writers like Thomas Jefferson crafted the fundamentals of academic writing in new and unusual ways. (Jefferson, for example, put the thesis at the end of the Declaration, not the beginning). Then, I gave them a list of challenging words Jefferson used within The Declaration, not to quiz them on the words, but to guide students to decode the challenging vocabulary within the context of the text. What does Jefferson mean when he says “unalienable rights?” What is Jefferson is hinting at when he accuses King George of “injuries and usurpation upon the colonists?”
We read multiple works from a variety of political writers. I wanted my students to grapple with complex texts. But, I also wanted see if they understood how great writers structure their writing to persuade their audience. Finally, I asked my students to use some of their newly collected Tier 2 and Tier 3 vocabulary in their own writing. I wanted them to evolve beyond the common Tier 1 vocabulary to write and communicate like academics.
At the end of the unit, I asked my classes what they learned about language and vocabulary. Many talked about how writers like Jefferson broke rules in order to be more persuasive. But, others pointed out struggling through the reading was equally as rewarding as learning how to write. One student wrote, “I used to think the ‘Declaration,’ ‘Gettysburg,’ and ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ were boring essays adults tell you to read in school. But, now, after chipping away at their meaning, they taught me about our history, and how to write an Op-Ed.”
I love the line “chipping away at their meaning.” I think of my ankle smarting through the final quarter of the STP. Though the throbbing pain was taxing, it was mild compared to the sting of failing to reach the finish line. This student realized the value of struggling through a complex text. Yes, it gave him a civics lesson, but more importantly, he learned the rewards of perseverance.