During the holiday season of miracles, I become nostalgic for the greatest sports miracle of my childhood – “the Miracle on Ice.” The 1980 US Olympic Men’s Hockey Team was a rag-tag group of college kids managed by their innovative coach Herb Brooks. At the height of the Cold War, this misfit group of no-name players improbably defeated the Soviet Union’s mighty “Red Machine” in the semifinals, the so-called greatest team in the world, and eventually won the gold medal.
While the 1980 US Hockey Team’s victory seemed like a classic David vs. Goliath story ready-made for Hollywood, (and it eventually was in the movie Miracle), the events leading up to their miraculous victory were anything but. Brooks carefully selected each player, and rigorously practiced the team emphasizing speed and agility drills. One of my favorite scenes in Miracle is when Brooks is asked by his assistant coach why he cut many of the nation’s top players. Brooks responds, “I’m not looking for the best players, I’m looking for the right ones.” Brooks constructed a team to explicitly beat the Soviets. He was leveling the playing field by design.
Common Core ELA Shift #3, building knowledge through content rich non-fiction, allows teachers to become Herb Brooks to our students. Embedded in the DNA of the Common Core is the goal to prepare all students for college and career readiness. One way to achieve this is building their background knowledge through “content rich” text sets.
What is a text set? A group of informative texts that gives students background information about a complex subject matter. In elementary school, students may read a series of readings on the metamorphosis of the butterfly or the process of photosynthesis. In secondary school, students read supplemental information to prepare them for challenging novels like The Giver or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Text sets create equity for all students. According to a landmark study by Recht and Leslie, struggling readers with background knowledge and interest in baseball were able to comprehend a text that described a baseball game better than high performing readers who had no prior knowledge on the subject matter. This proves, like Brooks’ hockey team, background info can level the playing field.
But, it is not just what texts we give to students, but how they are organized. Creating a well-constructed text set is an art unto itself. In essence, the teacher is like a DJ. Flashback to the Nineties, when I was in high school. I used to make cassette mix tapes for my friends. It wasn’t just what songs I wanted to put on the mix. The juxtaposition of music was important as well. Do I begin the tape with a slow song or a dance track? How do I transition from hip hop to country? Is there a theme I am trying to convey with the music?
To understand what makes a strong text set, let’s compare the following text sets for Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 created by the Washington Education Association:
|Anchor Text: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury||Anchor Text: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury|
• “‘Chaos:’ Gunman Ambushes, Kills Two Firefighters at New York Blaze,” Catherine Shoichet and Greg Botelho (CNN) (Informational)
• “Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press,” Mary Bellis (About.com) (Informational)
• Fahrenheit 451, Francois Truffaut (Film)
• “About Ray Bradbury: Biography” (Informational)
• “The Pedestrian,” Ray Bradbury (Literary)
• The Children’s Story, James Clavell (Literary)
• “You Have Insulted Me: A Letter,” Kurt Vonnegut (Informational)
• “Burning a Book” by William Stafford (Poem)
• “The Book Burnings,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Informational)
• Excerpts from The Book Thief, Marcus Zusak (Appendix B Exemplar)
• “Learning to Read and Write,” Frederick Douglass (Informational)
• “Learning to Read,” Malcolm X (Informational)
• “Unto My Books So Good to Turn,” Emily Dickinson (Poem)
• “The Portable Phonograph,” Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Notice the text set on the left is randomly thrown together including articles about firefighting, the printing press, and a biography about Ray Bradbury. While all the articles cover information related to Fahrenheit 451, they do not adequately prepare students to discuss the difficult topics Bradbury addresses. The texts on the right, on the other hand, examine issues of literacy and censorship and gives students critical background information to have an informed discussion about the major themes in Fahrenheit 451. To paraphrase Coach Brooks, “it’s not the best texts, but the right ones” that will help our students be successful.
To be clear, text sets build background knowledge for all students – not just struggling readers. If the anchor text is outside the life experience of the students, this gives them an entry point to have empathy for a foreign concept.
My AP students recently read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich conducts a sociological experiment posing as a minimum wage worker to expose the economic plight of the working poor. I teach in an affluent neighborhood where most of my students’ parents work at a large tech company. Though they may sympathize with the economic disparity that Ehrenereich is trying to expose, they have no life experience to empathize with the people profiled in the book.
I created a text set including Op-Eds about the minimum wage fight in Seatac, WA, the tipping debate in New York City, and a Bureau of Labor Statistics chart that shows a direct correlation between wages and the degree one earns. Then, the students role played a simulation I called “Minimum Wage Survivor.” Working in groups, I gave them each a worker’s occupation (waitress, maid, or retail worker), a life situation (student, pregnant woman, or disabled veteran), and a geographic location in America. Their goal was to see if they could “survive” on a minimum-wage budget for a month including rent, utilities, food, transportation costs, and miscellaneous expenditures. Later, when we read Nickel and Dimed, I returned to many of the supplemental texts in the text set to bring context to the issues Ehrenreich addresses in her book.
As a summative assessment, the students responded to an essay prompt on a H.L. Menken quote about the tension between safety and fear. The students were required to use Ehrenreich and two texts from the text set as evidence to support their claim. To demonstrate how much impact Nickel and Dimed and the text set had on my students, one student organized a fundraising campaign for my school custodians for the holidays. In an email urging her peers to donate she wrote, “After reading Ehrenreich and thinking about the other issues we discussed associated with the book, I thought how we could help the minimum workers in our lives. Who does more for us behind the scenes than our school custodians?” She and her classmates raised enough money to give each custodian a $50 pre-paid Visa card.
By selecting the “right players” to beat the seemingly invincible Soviet hockey team, Coach Herb Brooks leveled the playing field for his players. With text sets, teachers level the playing field for struggling readers and equip students without background knowledge to have a gateway to participate in a conversation outside their life experience.