Monday, November 4, 2013

Critical Literacy Across the Curriculum

How can an English teacher help to develop critical literacy across the curriculum? What follows is a guest post from NMHS teachers who have been collaborating with English teacher Joanna Westbrook to create authentic literacy tasks in each of their disciplines.  You will hear from a science teacher, a social studies teacher, and an art teacher as each provides her take on how the Common Core and 21st Century learning goals affect what goes on in the classroom. 

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A Biology Teacher’s Thoughts on Critical Literacy by Lynne Torpie

Science teachers can tend to be myopic, focusing on acquiring content detail and teaching the steps of the scientific method instead of fostering the investigative, critical thinking and written communication skills that embody real-world scientific endeavors.  As science teachers for the 21st century, we are tasked with producing, at the bare minimum, citizens who are conversant with the language of science, and who can read, make sense of and make decisions about scientific issues.  Optimally, we inspire our students to pursue a career in which they will be posing relevant questions, and using research and inquiry to answer those questions to contribute to humanity’s general body of knowledge or, through technology and engineering, solve problems. Literacy skills are the foundation upon which these outcomes are built.

But we as science teachers can be daunted by the mandate to incorporate English language skills into the curriculum.  We have neither the training to assess such skills nor the language to develop such assessments.  We are concerned about our students’ weak explanatory writing skills and would like to see those skills improve. But we need help.  While we can develop assessments that approximate authentic science writing tasks, we need help identifying the literacy elements we should be assessing. We need guidance in phrasing a rubric so it is clear to both students and teachers what we are looking for when assessing literacy in science.  Even more importantly, we need to partner with English teachers to provide the scaffolding necessary for our students to write informational text with increasing clarity. 

Presenting Infographics in Science: That’s why I began the year with a conversation with Mrs. Westbrook (one of our 9th grade English teachers) about how the cognitive learning goals in science class connect to the cognitive learning goals in English class. What grew out of that conversation was the Infographic Project. For this project, I had my students collect data then present it graphically using Infographics such as bar graphs, a column graph, a pie chart, or a hierarchy.  In addition, I required students to explain how the data compared to other representative data, draw conclusions, and make specific recommendations based on the data they presented.  

Click HERE for description of the assignment. 

Common Core Standards Addressed: WHST.9-10.6; WHST.9-10.8; WHST.9-10.9

A Social Studies Teacher’s Thoughts Critical Literacy by Colleen Tambuscio

Learning about history offers meaningful and authentic opportunities for students to express their knowledge of the subject matter through writing and discourse.  History teachers can benefit from working collaboratively with an English teacher by working together to develop activities that engage students in analyzing and synthesizing content  -- then applying those skills to authentic writing opportunities.  

This semester, I was presented with a group of students actively engaged in the content and who have expressed, through their development of quality work products, a deeper interest in the subject matter. I decided to approach Mrs. Westbrook with an advanced text on the subject of Nazi ideology for students in an elective course on the Holocaust and Genocide.  The text includes the principles of Nazi Ideology that I teach to the students in two classroom lessons. My goal was to engage the students in the chapters that deal with non-Jewish victims, to broaden their historical framework on the subject matter, and to allow students to understand the many layers that encompass Nazi ideology.  

Curating an Exhibit in History: To accomplish this goal, Mrs. Westbrook helped me develop the BECOME A CURATOR task with the idea that groups of students will create an exhibit focused on one particular victim group from the Holocaust. For example:

  • Enemies of the Regime: political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals 
  • Territorial Threats: Polish and Soviet civilians and Polish Prisoners of War
  • Racial Enemies: Germans with mental and physical disabilities, African Germans and the Roma-Sinti)

Since students often experience history through museum learning, either within the walls of a museum or through online exhibitions, this provides an authentic method of engaging students in learning.  To begin,  I asked students to utilize a specific chapter in Nazi Ideology and the Holocaust by The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to research their assigned cluster of non-Jewish victims of Nazi oppression.  The requirements for the exhibition included the following:

  1. Develop an escalating timeline of events that demonstrate the step by step process by which the particular sub group was marginalized.
  2. Gather and display 4 pieces of propaganda which best illustrated the Nazi ideological principles that placed this group in this category.
  3. Gather 2 documents which demonstrate the systematic nature of the Nazi strategy that marginalized this group of people.
  4. Gather 4 archival photographs to provide documented proof of the specific abuse towards the victim group.
  5. Drawing on previous lessons on Nazi ideology, identify and explain the particular ideology used against the group. (i.e. survival depends upon racial purity, survival depends upon seizure of territory or survival depends on nullifying or eliminating anti-social groups who undermine society and government)
  6. Utilizing the archives of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum through online access of the collections, students will cite in MLA format their sources.
  7. Exhibitions will be presented to students in English classes studying NIGHT utilizing a gallery walk approach.
Click HERE for a description of the assignment. 

Common Core Standards Addressed: RH.9-10.3; WHST.9-10.2; WHST.9-10.4; WHST.9-10.5; WHST.9-10.8.

An Art Teacher’s Thoughts on Critical Literacy by Lisette Morel

Writing/Literacy skills in art is crucial if we as educators want to empower our students with the 21st century skills needed to engage and question the world they live in rather than merely occupy a seat on the sidelines in life. As a working artist, I recognize how writing is utilized to convey and make connections for my audience. And like all artists, I use my artist statements to clarify and to provide insight into my work. These statements provide the viewer an inside view into the artistic process and the artist’s thinking.

In the art classroom reading, writing and art making should be happening simultaneously. It is important for my students to acquire background information on artists and to learn the art making process. But it is even more important that they gain expertise in describing, evaluating, and engaging in critical discourse about art. I am not concerned with the regurgitation of art history dates and names and meaningless artist information onto paper.  No one needs another report on an artist. What I am more interested in is that my students learn during the creating process. It is important for my students to understand why artists choose certain themes, why they choose certain art processes, why imagery and ideas change, and what connections to world history are apparent. But like my science and social studies colleagues, I too need guidance to develop literacy components that encourage my students to build on their visual imagery and insight. 
Writing Artist Statements 

Mrs. Westbrook and I have been collaborating to create writing components that support what my students are learning in Art.  One such assignment is the creation of Artist Statements to accompany their finished pieces for exhibition. We used exemplar texts from our MOMA fieldtrip as students worked to create statements that mirrored the professional standards of the art world. This assignment gave them experience in articulating their process and in writing clear statements that describe their own intended effect.  We then created a rubric that balanced the literacy demands of the Common Core with the content I wanted to see in their finished pieces. 

Click HERE for description of the assignment. 

Common Core Standards Addressed:WHST.9-10.2; WHST.9-10.4; WHST.9-10.9

Real Literacy/Real Content by Joanna Westbrook

English teachers are the lynchpin for the common core in our buildings – the new standards combine the critical literacy and thinking skills we have been addressing in our instruction for years and challenge us to find new ways for our kids to interact with and learn content. As English teachers, we all know writing in the content area can no longer be centered on tired, recycled 5 paragraph essays our students write year after year – the idea of making the content classes into extensions of the English class just does not have traction.  

We as English teachers have to work harder for our colleagues and for students than merely suggesting the same old essay about a scientist for science class, the repetitive research report about a hero for social studies, or the Van Gogh PowerPoint for art class.  What we bring to the table when we collaborate with our content colleagues has to be rich and has to push kids to interact with text and present their ideas using the authentic discourse of each discipline. This work is hard and requires us to really listen to our colleagues as they describe the type of reading and writing that will move kids forward within their discipline.  In the three tasks we built, you see real content coupled with real literacy in ways that apportion reading/writing throughout the curriculum and that broaden our students’ literacy preparation 


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