Reading & Writing in the Disciplines
Comprehending Informational Texts
Wendy Barrales engages students in various activities to build their ability to glean information from different genres. Students answer genre-probing questions using claims, evidence, and reasoning and take part in a unison reading group.
Teacher: Wendy Barrales
School: Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women, Brooklyn, NY
Discipline: English Language Arts (Humanities)
Lesson Topic: Analyzing genres
Lesson Month: March
Number of Students: 25
Other: This is an all-girls college preparatory middle and high school with a focus on math, science, and technology.
Featured Lesson’s Student Goals:
- Content objectives – Begin to learn about the Silk Road of ancient China; through the context of a map, build on prior knowledge of ancient civilizations to further understanding of the new topic
- Literacy/language objectives – Become familiar with a map as a genre; learn content by questioning the decisions the author of the map made to ensure that we, the audience, understand what she/he is intending to convey through the text; cite evidence to support claims by explaining why a specific claim is being made
- Engagement/interaction objectives – Respond to questions with a partner before sharing out with class; during partner share, encourage other students to explain their thinking process and give evidence for their answers
New York State K–12 Social Studies Framework
- 6.1 Geography of the Eastern Hemisphere Today: The diverse geography of the Eastern Hemisphere has influenced human culture and settlement patterns in distinct ways. Human communities in the Eastern Hemisphere have adapted to or modified the physical environment. (Standard: 3: Theme: GEO)
- 6.1a Maps can be used to represent varied climate zones, landforms, bodies of water, and resources of the Eastern Hemisphere.
- 6.8 Interactions Across the Eastern Hemisphere: Trade networks promoted the exchange and diffusion of language, belief systems, tools, intellectual ideas, inventions, and diseases. (Standards: 2, 3, 4; Themes: MOV, TCC, GEO, TECH, EXCH)
- 6.8a The Silk Roads, the Indian Ocean, and the TransSaharan routes formed the major AfroEurasian trade networks connecting the East and the West. Ideas, people, technologies, products, and diseases moved a long these routes.
Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts
Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Analyze how a particular sentence, paragraph, chapter, or section fits into the overall structure of a text and contributes to the development of the ideas.
Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.
This six-week unit on ancient China followed a unit on ancient Egypt and was the second-to-last unit of the school year. (The final unit was on ancient Greece and Rome.) Although the content of this class was based on social studies units, the focus was reading—in other words, students explored social studies through reading. The lesson on analyzing genre occurred at the beginning of the unit. Students chose to analyze a text from the previous unit on ancient Egypt. During this lesson, students contextualized the geographic location of the Silk Road and how it connected to the civilizations they had already studied.
The Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women uses the Learning Cultures approach, which has a primary goal of helping all students learn how to carry out their own learning intentions. At the beginning of the year, students are given a list of the standards they are expected to meet for the year. The path they take to meet the standards is up to them. Students are guided to make their own choices and hold each other accountable to a learning community. The content of the class is social studies-based but the learning goals address historical thinking skills as well as reading and writing skills.
Before the Video
Before this lesson, students had learned about ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. At the start of this unit on ancient China (and of every unit), students were given a syllabus-like study guide that outlined what they would be assessed on at the end of the unit. They had an essential question that they would need to answer by the end of the unit, which helped give focus to their course of study in the unit. Each student was also given the task to create a resource by the end of the unit that would help his or her classmates understand a specific concept. They were to “choose a learning target, write a research proposal, learn as much as you can about the topic, and decide how you will share the information with your class.”
During the Video
Students looked at the map and made observations aloud of what they saw. Using genre-probing questions (questions that help one determine what the genre is and what choices the author made to create that genre), students further analyzed the map as a genre (e.g., What is the author’s motivation?). With partners, students used claim, evidence, and reasoning to answer their genre-probing questions, then shared out to the larger group (e.g., The author’s purpose is to inform. How do you know that? Why do you think that?). Students then shared general takeaways from the 8- to 10-minute map lesson.
After analyzing the map, the majority of students engaged in independent reading while a small group engaged in unison reading. The goal of the unison reading was to increase fluency and to help students comprehend and retain content. Unison reading texts were chosen by students and selected based on length (to be read in two 15-minute sessions), interest (they are high interest), and difficulty (text is challenging, but accessible).
Students read aloud a fact sheet. Because they felt they were already familiar with the topic, they focused on the word “engineering” and its connection to ancient Egypt. During the reading, students “breached” the reading when they had something to add, were confused, or saw that another group member was not following the rules. (As a rule, breaches are done in the moment and resolved immediately as a collective group.)
During the class, Ms. Barrales had a one-on-one conference with a student about a challenge that the student was facing during the lesson. At the end of class (and at the end of every class), that student shared out her challenge to the larger group and described how she planned to address the challenge (in a creative storytelling format of her choice).
After the Video
Later in the week, the unison reading group that appeared in the video met a second time to continue to make connections and draw on previous knowledge and experiences to reach to a conclusion about what engineering had to do with ancient Egypt. There was a different unison reading group for each week of the unit, and each group focused on a unique text. Next, students learned about dynasties, Confucianism, and the impact of the Silk Road on different communities and took a test to assess standards and performance. At the end of the unit, students presented the research from their initial proposal (via PowerPoint, websites, biographies, maps, brochures, etc.).
Ms. Barrales planned the map lesson in response to a need for map exposure that she had identified among students. Students had very little sense of where China was located on a map, how to navigate a map, and how a map works. Ms. Barrales identified an appropriate map for the lesson (i.e., not a political map)—one that showed the Silk Road while conveying that it was a symbolic rather than traditional road.
To participate in this lesson, students needed prior knowledge about the ancient civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia. They needed to know the definition of “genre” (as defined by Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin) and have experience answering genre-probing questions.
Ms. Barrales made sure the map she chose did not have a lot of text, so that it would be accessible to all students. She distributed the genre-probing questions intentionally to specific students (to a new student to make sure that she was involved in the lesson and could be held accountable; to a higher-level student so that lower-level students could hear her answer; to a mid-level student who struggled with reading but articulated her thoughts well so that she could feel confident in her skills). Ms. Barrales had students work in partners in a “turn and talk” before sharing their ideas out to the class. Unison reading groups are based on students’ interests (they sign up for the text that is most appealing to them), so that students are exposed to a range of reading levels in those in groups and peer assistance with reading is encouraged.
Students worked in partners for a turn and talk with the genre-probing questions; some met in a small group for unison reading. During the map lesson, Ms. Barrales had students sit close to the front of the classroom to encourage engagement and to make it easier for her to circle the room to observe during the turn and talk. The breaches that occurred as part of unison reading allowed for struggling readers to ask questions and for strong readers to offer more information and to make personal connections.
Resources and Tools
- Map of the Silk Road
- Genre-probing questions on index cards
- Posters around classroom stating lesson expectations, purpose of citing evidence, things to remember when analyzing a genre, previous responses to genre analysis
- Class website on Google classroom
- Class website on school server
- Computer technology (five Nexus tablets, five Chromebooks, five laptops, two desktops)
- Engineering Facts: Egyptian Pyramid Facts handout
Ms. Barrales assessed students’ use of the genre-probing questions throughout the class in various formats—during independent work, unison reading, and one-on-one conferences. Ms. Barrales observed the unison reading group closely and recorded breaches in a “unison reading record.” Through this record, Ms. Barrales created an anecdotal record that allowed for in-action and on-the-spot feedback on students’ cognitive processes (she looks for comprehension, social processes, decoding, and understanding of genre). She also tuned in to students’ conversations to assess their understanding of the lesson as they grappled with an unknown text and genre (through questions such as, If you’ve never seen this genre before, what will you do first to try and make sense of what you’re reading? What kinds of questions do we ask ourselves when we are looking at a text that we are having trouble understanding?). Students also had two quizzes in which they read another Silk Road map and answered genre-probing question.
At the end of the unison reading group, students self-assessed their breaches and reflected on what went well and what did not. All students filled out a “responsibility sheet” where they chose activities they felt would help strengthen their literacy skills. The student who participated in the one-on-one conference reflected on her challenges as she narrated a story for the class about her newfound insights.
There was a post-test at the end of this unit. The test covered general content as well as the reading skills students focused on in this unit (as outlined in the syllabus-like study guide provided at the beginning of the unit.)
Impact of Assessment
Ms. Barrales responded to trends that she saw in the breaches by creating future lessons that supported them (as she did with the map lesson in response to trends in the previous unit’s breaches).
Every student had a one-on-one conference during the six-week marking period/unit. In the conferences, students explained the challenges that they faced. Ms. Barrales observed and probed before stepping in to offer support. Students then did “shares” with the class to explain their challenges (in a creative way) and how they overcame them.
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