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April 2011
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Archive of the web conference “The Power of Nonfiction: Using Informational Text to Support Literacy in Special Populations,” which took place April 26, 2011. This web conference accompanies the article of the same name.


Electronic voice – (00:02)
Recording started
Bobby Hobgood (00:05)
Good afternoon and welcome to this, the eighth and final session in the year-long series “Reaching Every Learner: Differentiating Instruction in Theory and Practice.” I’m Bobby Hobgood, and along with my colleagues Emily Jack and Lesley Richardson, we’re happy to bring the series to you, a series of web conferences based on the articles that appear on the LEARN North Carolina website. Today’s session is devoted to the article by Joan Barnatt, “The Power of Nonfiction: Using Informational Text to Support Literacy in Special Populations.”
I’m going to turn the microphone over to Joan and also over to Paul Niles who is one of our featured speakers this afternoon and let them introduce themselves, and we’ll take it from there. When they finish, we’ll have an opportunity for questions from our participants from around the state of North Carolina.
I’m happy to acknowledge that Joan is at Elon University and we have participating with us this afternoon, the Teaching Fellows program at Elon University. So a great coincidence that they are both here. So I’d ask everyone to join me in a virtual round of applause and to welcome Dr. Joan Barnatt and Mr. Paul Niles. Joan?
Joan Barnett (01:25)
Thank you! My name is Joan Barnatt and I’m an assistant professor of education at Elon University where I serve as the middle grades coordinator and I also teach elementary and social studies methods courses to undergraduates, as well as literacy to masters-level students in teacher education. In the not-too-distant past though I was a teacher in middle grades and upper elementary classrooms where I taught English language arts, social studies, and science. I do have my National Board certification in social studies and I’ve also worked in curriculum development for more than ten years now. And, I’m joined today by a master teacher in Massachusetts who was also my mentor in the past, Mr. Paul Niles.
Paul Niles (02:12)
Thank you Joan. It’s great to be with you today and hello to everyone down in North Carolina. As Joan said, my name is Paul Niles and I‘ve had the privilege of working with Joan in the past. And, I’ve been a middle school science teacher for about a quarter of a century.
And, I’ve been involved in curriculum and assessment development for the last fifteen of those professional years. And, I still do teach in an eighth-grade science classroom, even as I serve as interim director of the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School. And, for the twenty-five years that I’ve been teaching, informational text has become a more and more important piece of my classroom ritual.
And I’ve had great success with informational text and promoting the learning of very difficult concepts for students. And some of the most successful informational textual elements that I use are — there’s a great richness of scientific essays and great essayists out there that we use. We use many graphic selections.
Graphics are great elements of informational text that can be scaffolded to get the most basic elements of a concept and then to build from those graphic explanations. We have great success in elective classes. There’s an amazing food literature out there that merges with some great scientific concepts. And in the picture there you’ll see some codium fragile from a seaweed distribution project that we did a few years ago. So, those are some of the basic areas of my experience that I welcome questions about later. Thanks.
Joan Barnatt (04:05)
So, I’d like to start today by defining terms. We’re talking about using nonfiction, specifically informational text as a means of differentiating to support literacy in special populations. Starting to define and clarify our terms, I think, is a good place to start. Nonfiction is the broad term that stands in contrast to any form of fiction. Fiction, of course, being an imaginative creation and nonfiction being fact-based. Informational text is used here, specifically includes trade text that goes beyond the use of textbooks and basic reference materials in the classrooms.
So, in addition to what Paul’s mentioned, this included specific books in science, social studies, or the fine arts, biographies, and autobiography, how-to books, how-things-work books, even cook books. And, we can include magazines, periodicals, and now a growing array of web-based media. Additionally, there are informational books made up of narrative text woven through with factional information, sometimes referred to as creative nonfiction which are increasingly available especially for very young children.
I’d also like to pinpoint the student populations that we’re particularly targeting as benefiting from using informational text, though certainly all students benefit. First, children from low social economic strata are more likely to come to school without the academic language or experiences with literacy than their peers. These are students who are very capable, should be held to high academic standards, but they are at risk with struggling with literacy unless we explicitly attend to gaps, differentiating through these needs, and using their strengths.
Along the same lines are English Language Learners who hold great promise as future bilingual adults. But, they require different sorts of scaffolding and literacy as they work towards fluency. Specifically, we know academic or content language develops more slowly than conversational language and will need additional differentiation and attention. And, finally our children with learning disabilities also require differentiation to provide access to curriculum that addresses their varied learning profiles.
I think that I’ve gone too far here. My apologies, let’s go back a bit. Okay, so making the case for informational text. It isn’t hard to see why informational text is critical in the development of literacy skills when you consider that it is estimated that eighty-six percent of reading in adult life is for the purposes of gathering factual information. Yet research has documented that an average of 3.6 minutes is given over to nonfiction in the average primary classroom. If you need another reason, fifty to eighty percent of all standardized tests target fact-based information.
We know that particularly for these target students differentiating through informational text can move them toward literacy success, the basis for academic success. Informational text provides opportunities to differentiate through interest, learning modes, process, and content, which we should be taking advantage of.
Certainly our task as teachers is in part to have students to achieve mastery of literacy skills that provide the best possible life opportunities. But, we’re also charged with developing a depth and breadth of knowledge and the ability to use that information from content areas in meaningful ways. Early and continued use of informational text deepens and broadens knowledge base to achieve these ends.
So right now I want to talk briefly about three ways that informational text supports these outcomes as mentioned in the article. First, the use of these texts provides for increased engagement. If we can get children to read, they will sharpen reading skills. While we have long used fiction to draw students to the love of reading and learning, the reality is that many of our students prefer nonfiction. So this is a simple means of differentiating by interest as a genre and also by topic. Increasingly the research is indicating that boys will choose to read proportionately more nonfiction than girls do. And this gives us yet another reason to add informational text to the curriculum in the classroom library, given the number of boys that identify themselves as non-readers.
Second, for students struggling with language, informational text, particularly visually rich informational text, can help make connections to their lives that may not come through many of the fictional narratives, thus providing the basis to build new understandings. Fictional narrative just does not always provide context or language that is well matched to students in our target populations. Concrete, fact-based texts with visual prompts offer different sorts of possibilities for making connections, providing a foundation to build from.
Equally important, these texts are increasingly available in a range of reading levels and by their structure provide measured pieces of information in a format that becomes familiar, so that gathering information can be successful and thus more motivating and a rewarding experience. Here we are differentiating to levels of reading, amount of reading, support through visual cues, and providing experiences beyond that three-and-a-half minutes of nonfiction a day. Paul, there’s such a difference between elementary and middle grades students in terms of interest and motivation in literacy. I’d really like to hear your thoughts from the middle grades perspective.
Paul Niles (10:15)
Yes, Joan. Absolutely. These points that you are making about engagement certainly ring true in the middle school classroom. I can give you one example specifically, and that is a project that I do with my middle grades students called “The Body Biology Project.” And each student selects a body system and they develop a way to collect data about that body system over the course of several weeks to a month. For example, many students will choose the skeletal/muscular system and they’ll just very simply do a series of exercises and chart their improvement of those exercises over the course of a month.
And, the real challenge, besides data collection and design, is to understand why their muscles are improving. So, they’ve got to learn about their skeletal-muscular system and how the muscles work and how they contract. And this is fairly complicated stuff for middle-age learners. The first piece that clearly draws them in is engagement. So, to have choice in projects will certainly differentiate by interest. Some students will choose dream projects or will choose to chart their diet to see whether they are getting enough food groups. So, differentiating by interest is a very strong motivator.
Now to get students to the point where they can understand, let’s say, the molecular mechanism of muscle contraction takes intense scaffolding. So, what I have in the classroom is a series of informational texts at a variety of levels. And I start — we work on an inclusion model, so about a quarter of our students are on educational plans and are special-needs students. And, I start all students with informational text that’s richly graphic, so that whether they are trying to understand the ways the muscles contract, or trying to understand which areas of your brain control dreaming, or how the digestive system works, to start with graphic text really allows an entry point that brings all students in.
And, once they’ve got that level of understanding, then we graduate up to more sophisticated informational text. To the point where it’s not unusual for students who have special needs to be working with college level text, certainly in a guided inquiry model where there’s a teacher there to help them interpret the text. But, the motivation to get a student using that vocabulary and using that text is incredibly motivating for those students. When they see themselves, they will understand that level of text through the scaffolding, through the differentiation by interest, certainly through, part of the entry way is through familiar experiences. Students choose topics that they have experience with. So, all of those elements really work very well in the middle-age classroom, in my experience, Joan.
Joan Barnatt (13:51)
Thanks Paul. I’m going to move along to considering structure and format. And, I want to highlight here that using informational text requires explicitly teaching the unique features of this genre to students. Mrs. Coffey, in the video clip that’s included with the article does a really nice job of modeling this in her second-grade classroom. For the populations we’re targeting, walking through the ways to approach informational text can be transforming. They don’t necessarily have the experience or the understanding that this is organizing the very particular way that can provide scaffolding for literacy.
Structure and format requires underscoring the differences between illustrations and photos, the use of graphs, grids, organizers, looking at inset information, scanning headings and subheadings, being aware of highlighted or bolded words. Using the table of contents or index, students develop very specific literacy skills unique to these books. As instructors we need to guide them to compare and contrast, look for cause and effect, address different sorts of sequencing. While interacting with informational text, the focus necessarily extends beyond that structure and format though, to also address comprehension and vocabulary.
The sorts of language in informational text is not only more academically bound and content specific, but it uses different descriptive language, and these can form the basis of literacy lessons and discussions. When focusing on comprehension, then we continue to activate background, model summarizing, predicting, questioning, visualizing, evaluating, connecting, all those things that we do with fiction, but this format may offer opportunities to take different approaches. For example, what do prediction in fiction and nonfiction have in common and how are they going to be different? Again, Paul, middle grade is reading to learn, rather than learning to read. How do you see the role of using informational text in the middle grades in this respect?
Paul Niles (16:00)
Well you’re right, Joan. We are reading to learn. But, we still use informational text to certainly build vocabulary and to build comprehension. One of the techniques that I feel works well when students are reading informational text that’s above their grade level, which is a tremendous motivator for kids, is to, of course, keep vocabulary lists, but for every scientific vocabulary term that students learn, I always require them to use an operational definition at first.
For example, matter has a very technical definition, but we start off by just thinking of it as stuff. One of the key areas of focus in my classroom is to help students make the transition from the operational definition to the more formal and technical definition. And, students understand that. We explicitly make that as a goal and when students make that transition, they are very proud. And, then they can use them more sophisticated vocabulary and then they own it. I think that methodology could be applied at any grade level.
Another piece that we often work with is — there’s a great richness of scientific essays out there. We read a piece from the lectures from the great physicist, Richard Feynman, from when he was teaching freshman physics at Berkeley College, and it’s a book called In Six Easy Pieces. And, you might think, “Gosh, a freshman college lecture!” But it’s in simple language, and it’s in language that middle-year kids can understand.
Basically we model the reading of the first few essays. And we review an essay, we tell the students that an essay is like a trampoline, and it’s designed to be a springboard to bear more sophisticated ideas. And if we model reading and discussing a few of those essays, then students get excited and really develop great skills at it.
Joan Barnatt (18:32)
Okay, I agree, Paul, entirely on that. I wanted to highlight here the growing use of twin texts or paired texts, also is one strategy. This is simply the thoughtful use of complimentary fiction and nonfiction books, something that you just mentioned, Paul, as part of a learning experience. So, in the elementary years, using Bats by Celia Bland and Stella Luna by Janell Cannon, but doing this in a way that demonstrates the differences between the books and the information that we can expect from them, and how they might be differently organized.
And, again, you can use a lot of Venn diagrams, compare and contrast trees, KWL charts, and schema charts. And the peer readings, as Paul points out, need not be full text either. In middle grades certainly that we know that a portion of the texts can be used complementarily and bring this topic to, you know, being more engaging.
And, I’m thinking of things like Paul Fleischman’s book on Troy, where he pairs readings from newspapers in contemporary times with the stories from the Iliad, or David Sobel’s The Planets, or Longitude, and pulling pieces from that. The Perfect Storm was always a great book to pull pieces from. Paul, are there suggestions you have for middle grades level?
Paul Niles (19:57)
Yes, Joan. We have a lot of success pairing science fiction texts with nonfiction texts. Students at the middle-grades level tend to have a great interest in science fiction and a lot of that starts with video elements — can be TV shows. They’re big Star Trek and Dr. Who fans, and of course Harry Potter. And so it often starts with a video element or a tech element, but we’ve had great success with linking science fiction with real science concepts, Joan.
Joan Barnatt (20:45)
Okay, let’s move on here and talk just for a minute about promoting an inquiry approach. We hear a great deal about 21st-century skills and 21st-century learners and the skills that are being talked about are dependent on the use of informational text. Our students, as they get to upper elementary grades, and in to middle grades especially, are increasingly expected to be able to make use of multiple texts, to make sense of topics or concepts, to use primary sources, to act like a historian, to be a scientist.
This also provides multiple opportunities that the target populations we’re talking about today need to really master the vocabulary of the topic. We want our students to think across disciplines, to see the connections in content areas, and to look at real-life situations. We want them to be critical thinkers and questioners.
By using informational texts as the basis for an inquiry approach, and we’re talking about inquiry as explorations into problems and questions in the content area, we provide the opportunities for just these source of experiences. With a variety of reading levels, with visually rich texts as you mentioned, Paul, with using those graphic organizers, having the multiple sources, these can be really successful and enriching literacy experiences. And, Paul, I think really this is your forte, this is where you’re the master. Do you have a favorite example maybe that you can share with us about inquiry in practice?
Paul Niles (22:29)
Yes, sure Joan. I tend to involve my students in special projects that involve sometimes free inquiry and more commonly directed inquiry. So, if you saw the introductory slide, I was holding up an invasive seaweed called codium fragile. And we did a project with my middle school students where we received a grant to map the incidence of codium fragile across Pleasant Bay which is an enclosed embayment here in Cape Cod.
As part of that lesson, really we started with sort of a blind inquiry. There’s something really great about topics where students don’t know anything to start. And so, we did blind brainstorming inquiry about why this specific seaweed might be gaining in its influence on Cape Cod. And then, of course, once they had their theories to their sort of unguided inquiry, we had to comb the local and broader literature to sort of assess those theories.
One of the greatest moments that I’ll have in a classroom is when a student has not been exposed to an explanation from an expert, does their own brainstorming, and then when they get to the literature, they find that the experts have had the same thoughts. And, that’s one of the most powerful inquiry moments that you can get. To feather back to Richard Feynman, one of his characteristics was that he really wanted to figure things out for himself. And, we even call that in my classroom “Do you want to go for the Feynman moment or do you want to start with the literature?” So, that great moment where students find the literature that is thinking the same way that they’re thinking is one of the most powerful moments that I think can happen in a classroom.
Joan Barnatt (24:59)
Thanks, Paul. Before we go to questions, I did want to provide some suggestions for finding the best in informational text. And, I would first suggest that you really start with your school librarian or media specialist. And we’ve included here, two lists, two annual book lists, one from the National Council of the Social Studies and the other from the National Science Teachers Association, where you can get updated lists of the most exceptional books in those content areas.
In addition to that, look at magazines. Kids Discover is a favorite of mine; there are the current events periodicals that always come to us. National Geographic always has wonderful pieces. We haven’t talked too much about the social studies, but Cobblestone provides us with some wonderful materials. The Usborne books, Eyewitness books, Scholastics, are wonderful, visually beautiful, nonfiction books for students to look at. Think of adult coffee table books, actually, The Hungry Planet — What the World Eats is a wonderful example of that. And again, check with your librarian. They will know those twin texts list. They’re also available online, as well. And I am going to stop here so we can perhaps take some questions.
Emily Jack (26:23)
Thanks Joan. Actually the first question relates to something you were just talking about, and that is sources of informational text. And, you mentioned school librarians as potential sources of informational texts and I think that is a really important resource that teacher can draw on. One of our participants would like you talk, if you can, about how school libraries and school librarians can do a better job of supporting teachers in differentiating with informational text.
Joan Barnatt (26:55)
Well first of all, the librarians are our first stop in terms of what is purchased, and so having them know your needs and being able to say to them
“I’m using more informational texts. What is out there and can we have more of that available in our classrooms?” is really an important piece of the partnership between both teachers and the librarians. Librarians also frequently offer classes to students and they too are starting to bring in more informational texts, doing book talks around informational texts, coming into classrooms to do that very specifically is helpful.
Most of the librarians that I have ever worked with are so passionate and so excited about text and literacy in general that if you give them a topic, they’ll give you a list of books that they feel are helpful for you. It would be very unusual to find anything less than that. So, I think the bigger piece we need to do is to keep going to them and saying “This is important for my classroom. I’m using more of this. Can we have more available? And what do you know about it?”
Paul Niles (28:07)
Could I address that as well? So, one technique that I use, Joan, is to actually go around to the local town libraries with books lists, and also meet with the librarians and also with a copy of our curriculum because of course it’s important to have your school library be well stocked.
But, one of the great things about literacy development is if you can support the families, and the community, and the local librarians in being in sync with the educational needs of the students because there’s nothing more defeating than for a student than to be an excited student out with their own family at their community library and going out to get some informational text on a project, and to just have a town library that’s just fallow, doesn’t make the grade. And, I’ve found that our local librarians in the towns are very happy to have that kind of interaction.
Joan Barnatt (29:18)
I have to say, Paul, I really like that. It’s another place where students are going to see models of literacy — that see that reading is valued and valuable. You know we’re also talking about many of these students who don’t have the resources to have a huge library at home and so this is exactly where they’re going to go outside of the school to be able to find these pieces.
Paul Niles (29:43)
Yeah, I’ll just add that we have one local librarian who is just so pleased with the response she was getting from students, once she added material from our curriculum, that she engaged our school and our students to help to redesign the children’s room in the library. And, it really all started by our going over there with copies of our curriculum.
Emily Jack (30:17)
Thanks both of you! You both made really good points. Joan, I love your point that the school librarian should be the first stop when we’re talking about bringing in nonfiction instruction. And, also, Paul, the point about working with the public librarians is very important. I’m actually a recently minted librarian myself and I’ve talked to public librarians who say that when they start to see students coming in and they’re all asking for the same thing, that they wish that they would have had a heads-up from the teacher and that way they can start to pull resources together and be prepared, and know what these students are going to be looking for. So, that’s a really great place to build a partnership. So, I’m glad that you made that point. The next questions is: How does our instruction need to be different for preparing students to engage informational text in a digital format now that reading online is more ubiquitous?
Joan Barnatt (31:17)
That’s a really good question, and it brings in a whole different layer that pops to mind immediately and that’s in terms of media literacy. So, we’re looking for still good quality material in terms of nonfiction or informational text. And, what we have to do as both instructors and to teach our students to do is to be able to judge the quality of where that’s coming from and how that’s being presented.
Text online, in addition to drawing on that is a challenge for us, text online also tends to be in smaller bites which is both very attractive, especially when we’re working with students who are being challenged by literacy. It can be an advantage, but we want to stretch them so it can’t be the only thing they’re looking at. We want them to be able to pull information that’s both small, meaty bites and pull information that’s lengthier, that goes into more narrative, that’s going to use more descriptive language. And so it calls upon us to be able to pull into balance those pieces, as well.
There are some great online resources. I’m not sure I would say go online and necessarily look for literacy moments in the same way that I’d say go online and look for sites that provide you with good nonfiction information. So, let me offer an example. If you go to the site called Journey North, which is about migration, at any point in the year they are probably tracking ten or twelve different species. For example, hummingbirds right now, I think whales are on target, the monarch butterflies, all of those species, and they will have short bits that are factual. They will have longer pieces that are narrative.

They will have grids and graphs and visuals that you have to analyze and look at. And for each one of those pieces, a teacher working with these students is going to have to guide them in what they’re looking for and why it’s important and then thinking about that question of “Is this good quality information? What’s missing? And, where can I find additional information for it, too?” Paul, do you have thoughts on this as well?
Paul Niles (33:43)
Yes. I can talk about two different things that I do in these circumstances. When I have a project that I would describe more as guided inquiry, like the Body Biology Project, where it’s pretty clear what the topics — the scope of the topics are going to involve, I will do my own search, internet search, and create a library of sources, like the American Heart Association has some great sources about the cardiovascular system with some great graphics. So I’ll create that library in advance.
And another point to make is, you know, part of literacy education is the student’s ability to write and communicate. And, students generally have a very high interest in creating their own content that can be put up into perhaps blogs or links to our website and there’s an information and a literacy standard that’s really, really high. I just got a grant from Toyota Tapestry to do a whale research project and part of the project is going to involve students developing their own web content on very, very specific topics. So, production that can be part of the webosphere is a highly motivating area as well.
Joan Barnatt (35:34)

I have to say, Paul…

[audio interruption]

Emily Jack (35:35)
Thank you, both of you. A follow-up question on that digital topic: How might informational text in digital format be advantageous for learners with special needs? Besides smaller bits of info, what other features of digital textbooks and other digital sources make them accessible to those learners?
Joan Barnatt (35:53)
I think in part, the fact that as Paul points out, we can even manage some of what the students are looking at so that you can judge the reading level and be able to make available those pieces to students who may be challenged by literacy, you know, high literacy level. Often times they will be organized on educational sites so they target particular vocabulary. That’s also very helpful.
Increasingly, I don’t think most teachers take a lesson online and simply implement it. But I think what they do is take the best features or the ideas or check themselves in terms of vocabulary, and questioning, and so forth and then turn those into lessons.
And, in the same way, when you send your students to a site, you can ask them to look for those features that might be most helpful in terms of supporting literacy, as well. Paul mentioned setting up blogging and so forth. I think that looking at the format of websites and wikis, for example and having them duplicate those sorts of things in the same way that we used to have students make children’s books to demonstrate their own knowledge and build on that. That’s another way of them pulling apart the pieces that are in front of them on a particular website by regenerating it, so to speak, with their own information that can be very helpful.
Emily Jack (37:39)
Thanks, Joan. The next question a teacher would like to know how to tie informational text into math lessons, especially at the middle grades level. Is that something that either one of you would like to talk about?
Joan Barnatt (38:02)
There are some really good books, especially engaging books to bring students into using informational text. Math Curse, I am going to brutalize this poor man’s name, by Jon Scieszka, Danica McKeller with her series on middle grades math uses real life sort of gender with the emphasis on female interests in her books. Real life sort of examples to work out math problems.
More humorous pieces: Money Math, when studying ancient Egypt, What’s Your Angle Pythagoras?, The Math Adventure by Julie Ellis is another wonderful piece. Some of those are picture books that can be used as introductory pieces. Some of them actually address very specific skills and you can build from that on problem solving. Tying those pieces in on a regular basis is both good for engagement, but also helpful in terms of adding content. Paul, do you have any suggestions from math that you have integrated with your science units?
Paul Niles (39:20)
Yes I do, Joan. One resource that we use excerpts from when we study dimensions, and area, and volume is Flatland which was a classic really from the nineteenth century. That is a great piece about dimensions. Another general genre that I find has some pretty good math cross-curricular elements is graphic novels. There are graphic novels that talk about physics concepts and talk about chemistry concepts that are often very math rich that I like to use. I’m sorry I don’t have the names of them, but it is a field that’s fairly rich. I’ve been to find a lot of those that have strong math content.
Emily Jack (40:23)
Thanks both of you. I’m curious, Joan, you mentioned one of the teachers that was featured in the video that’s part of your article and how when she was talking with her students about the informational text, and these are second grade students, and she was saying to them, “What would you find in a non-fiction book?” And, they’re answering her, “Index,” you know, “the glossary, in the front, the table of contents,” and it was very clear from that that she had spent a lot of time doing very intentional, explicit instruction on the features of nonfiction texts. How important is it to do that kind of explicit instruction and is that the case at all levels? And, how do students benefit from that?
Joan Barnatt (41:23)
It’s really foundational that we are very explicit about these pieces. For the younger students it may be the first time that they’re noticing those, and this is a part of developing literacy in terms of the physical make-up of a book of text. And, the difference that might exist especially between the fiction and nonfiction or even those shady areas of the creative non-fiction.
In addition to that, because we are talking about these special populations, there are often children who go for years without realizing that there is this very specific organization. So, there are strategies out there for repeatedly going back and it just takes literally a few seconds on an occasional basis to say, “Here we are we’re in nonfiction, or is this fiction?” and then looking for what would we expect to see.
Where are the headings? Where are the sub-headings? Did you glance at those illustrations? Are they illustrations or are they photographs? Does it make a difference? What kind of other visuals are here and how are you going to look at those to get information? And now, let’s go back and take a look at that text. Those are really important skills for the student to be able to set expectations about how a text is set up, so that they don’t spend time and energy on that piece of literacy as they go through and really shift their energy toward comprehension.
Emily Jack (43:01)
Thanks, Joan. And Paul, kind of as a follow-up to that question, you mention that you bring scientific essays into your middle grade science classes, and these are college-level readings. I’m curious: When you do that, do you talk to your students about the kinds of reading that they are going to be facing when they are in a college environment? And, how does that affect their orientation towards the text and their motivation to read those pieces?
Paul Niles (43:36)
Well, I find it’s always motivating to let students know that they’re interacting with material that is designed to be above their grade level. That is a source of great pride for students. So, when we read science essayists, there actually is a fairly good range of science essays that can, some that can be pretty easily digestible at the middle level to those that are really designed for college students and above.
So, one thing that we do is the first few time we read those, we’ll read ones that are more accessible. So, that we will start with something like Feynman’s lecture on the molecular nature of matter, which is really one of the clearest expositions of that theory that I’ve seen. And, it’s totally digestible by middle school students.
It’s got great graphics. It focuses on the water molecule which is something they’ve had experience with. But, then we build from there to essays on topics that are a little bit harder to handle, even in the science textbook realm. For example, how do you define life? You know, to boil life down to a few characteristics is a difficult thing to do. And, if you look at different textbooks, you are going to see slightly different takes on that.
So we read an essay on that that, we begin to make the point that these essays are like spring boards, or they’re like the bass guitar that’s laying down the background and that we’ve got these great brains to riff off of the background of. Or, that’s the trampoline, and our job is to jump off of that. Eventually, we train students to be very critical readers of these essays and to engage in a response system where I tell them that if they’re reading this essay in the bedroom, I want to hear from their parents that they’re talking back to it, and that they’ve heard them yelling at this essay. So, we get the written feedback that way. So, we turn students in very critical consumers of these essays.
Emily Jack (46:07)
That’s great! I love the image of the students kind of interacting with these texts as if they’re rock songs. That’s a really great image. I think that your students are definitely benefiting from that exposure of college-level texts. We probably have time for one more question and I wanted to ask you both what your experience has been with how reading informational text has affected students’ writing skills.
Joan Barnatt (46:05)
think one of the most rewarding things about using informational text, especially with resistant readers and with boys in particular, I have to say and that’s purely anecdotal, but especially with boys, when their interest is informational text and they’ve been exposed repeatedly to creative writing sorts of assignments, this is a real refreshing experience for them. They have something to say. It’s very concrete and that seems to be very helpful to some of them. So you see more engagement in the writing. You see more writing, which is certainly something that is hard to promote. And the quality of writing improves the more they write, just in the same way your reading improves the more you read. Again, this shift can be pretty significant.
One of the students that was mentioned in the article that was really infatuated with the science of the solar system, for example, and his notebook that he put together was very detailed, very lengthy. He added to it on a daily basis. He’s very intent on this. Added illustrations, added graphic information, and then requested the development of a book club to be able to share this with his peers. This was a reluctant reader, a second grader. To see him shift from “I really don’t want to do this” to being able to produce something that sophisticated and in depth, it is pretty awe-inspiring. Again, I think a lot of that has to do with differentiating through interest and then building from those strengths so that the students really produce something that’s exceptional.
Emily Jack (48:35)
Thanks, Joan. Paul, do have any thoughts about that, anything that you can say from your experience in terms of students’ writing abilities?
Paul Niles (49:02)
Yes I do. I would say first that any of these projects that I’ve been describing have significant writing components to them and I find that students’ exposure to informational text adds volume to their writing. It adds clarity to their writing. It adds structure to their writing, and it sometimes even adds beauty to their writing.
You know kids can be a bit undisciplined in their writing at the middle level, but this really adds a wonderful focus to their writing. But, if you infuse the informational text with these scientific essays, then it gives the students another model that allows them to bring their personal voice into their writing in a way that doesn’t just feel like some of the undisciplined personal writing that kids can do. So it adds volume, it adds focus, and it adds clarity.
Bobby Hobgood (50:14)
Great Paul and Joan! Thank you so much for your very thoughtful remarks this afternoon, for your responses to the questions, and we thank the participants who submitted those questions. I want to make a note here that Paul’s last name is actually Niles with an “n” not an “m.” So, please make a note of that.
I’m going to ask everyone joining us this afternoon if you would join me in a virtual round of applause and thank Dr. Joan Barnatt from Elon University and Paul Niles from the Cape Cod Charter School. We appreciate both of them this afternoon. We’re going to now stop the recording and give you information about this afternoon’s session evaluation. Thank you.