July 23, 2014

Information and Stories as Co-Teachers (Part 1)

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Jan’s fourth-grade son, Natie, recently informed her that 450,000 people died during the Revolutionary War. He is working through a stack of informational texts about African-American patriots during the Revolutionary War and is brimming with facts. While he is full of information that he technically comprehends, he doesn’t seem to understand much of it.

Jan told her husband that they should get him the book How Much is a Million? so that Natie could get a sense of just how many people died during the Revolutionary War. Her husband wisely suggested instead that they get him a book that offers a narrative account of one family’s loss of a son, father, or brother. While Natie may not have a sense of how many 450,000 really is, the fact that he doesn’t have a sense of what one loss is in this context is more at issue. He could write a good report, but his learning is shallow. After reading and acquiring so much discrete information about the Revolutionary War, however, he is poised to comprehend a story of the war in deep ways. Narrative (including literary and informational) offers Natie new opportunities to make connections between the texts he is reading. The reciprocal can be true as well. Reading stories about historical events or scientific concepts can arouse interest in gathering more information, such as our reading of Annie Dillard’s essay on Arctic explorers, which prompted yesterday’s post.

Narrative has long been a staple of elementary classroom instruction. It is the backbone of the fiction reading in classrooms and the favored structure for non-fiction text reading. Over the last ten years, however, there has been increasing instructional attention dedicated to reading and writing informational text, which is largely texts that explain concepts, teach information explicitly, or detail procedures. With its focus on “college and career readiness,” the CCSS formalizes informational/literary instructional variety and requires a 50/50 split in elementary schools, and we don’t think this is a bad idea.

For schools that were already thinking deeply about informational texts, a common strategy is to engage in a genre study and immerse students in a single type of text in order to study its features and practice writing in that genre. While there are substantive benefits to going deep with a particular genre, we also suggest a more integrated option: Reading informational and narrative texts about a single topic.

Pairing informational and narrative text is not a new idea, but reading the informational text in order to intentionally build understanding of the narrative text, or vice versa, is a bit of a spin-off on an older idea. We have been experimenting with this method of piggybacking informational and narrative text, and student response has been powerful.

For example, you might engage students in a shared reading of a passage from We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March and and then discuss with them possible reasons this historic event is overlooked. Then you might read aloud the picture book Sit-in by Andrea Davis Pinkney. Or you might engage students in a shared reading of this text presenting scientific information about flies before reading aloud the short story “Licked” from Covered With Nails and Other Stories that Will Shock Your Socks Off by Paul Jennings. It is hilarious, and doubly so if you read the scientific information first! (Note: The full story is in On the Same Page: Shared Reading Beyond the Primary Grades by Janet Allen, which is where we discovered it.)

Continued tomorrow!

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