Puzzling Through a Movement

One of the reasons I love eduTwitter and the friends I’ve made here on Moving Writers is because it makes me feel less like I’m on my own teaching island. The other day, I tweeted a question about a resource for evaluating bias, and Tricia responded that she was looking at the same site with her students. Then, as I started to piece together the ideas for this post, I read Mike’s latest and realized he, too, was grappling with very similar issues.

Now, with an event as staggering as Parkland and its fallout, it’s no surprise that teachers are on the same wavelength. This time feels different, though.  And I know we’ve heard that so many times it almost seems trite. But I don’t just mean that it feels different from a political standpoint. Maybe it’s the students and how crazy-proud we are of their activism, but teachers this time seem to be digging deeper into our literacy practices.

In Mike’s post, he makes the case for reading like a writer to analyze angles to help students process modern news cycles. My thinking stemmed from a very similar goal, but also from the way that I stumbled through a (somewhat) failed lesson.  

My failed lesson

I presented my students with several articles following the Parkland shooting and asked them to sort the articles. I assumed they’d sort them on a range of opinions: left to right slant, pro-legislation restricting access to guns and against. I was wrong. They had trouble sorting because, many times, they weren’t even recognizing that the article conveyed an opinion. They fumbled through headlines and quotes and graphics, and I stumbled my way through helping them make some sense of what they were reading.

As they finished sorting, we took a look at what they’d come up with. One group sorted their articles by the ideas that each author focused on (gun control legislation, arming teachers, Parkland students as activists) while another group sorted the articles into those that seemed to be persuasive vs. informative in nature. It was pretty clear that they weren’t going to land where I’d hoped they would, so I tried to claw towards a takeaway.

Puzzle ReadingWe ended up agreeing that, when we’re trying to process an issue as big as this one, there’s a lot that we have to think about as readers. When we encounter a text, we have to approach it with the understanding that it’s just one piece of a puzzle.  In order to start putting together the puzzle, we have to work to understand the ideas presented, the author’s opinions, and the purpose for the text we’re reading.

Backing up

The next day, we revisited this puzzle concept, and we zeroed in on how to start understanding the authors’ opinions. So, we put on our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses, and I asked students to revisit one of the articles from yesterday in order to start answering the question:

When do we see clues that the author’s opinion is showing through?

The conversation started off fuzzy. They said things like, “I don’t know. It just sounds like she’s got somethin’ to say.” So we drilled into that.

“Good,” I said. “Every time you hear that coming through, I want you to mark it. Underline it, circle it, highlight it. Just do whatever to hold that spot to remember that it feels persuasive.”

Once they identified some of those areas where they recognized an opinion showing through, I asked them to take it a layer deeper and answer:

What do authors do to clue us in to their opinions on an issue?

The discussions were fantastic. Students gravitated right away to word choice, but their list quickly grew until they came up with the following criteria to answer their question:

  • Loaded word choice
  • Exaggerations
  • Ignoring the counterargument completely
  • Dismissing the counterargument quickly
  • Ignoring whole ideas within a bigger issue

With the start of this important list under their belts, we went back to their original articles to see if they recognized any of these tricks at play. It was eye-opening to say the least. Many of the articles that my students had originally thought were purely informational were anything but.

Moving Forward

Puzzle WritingSo now that we’ve got our “Reading Like a Writer” lenses on, we’re ready to dig into thinking about how we respond. Next, we’ll take a look at those same articles to evaluate:

  • When are these persuasive elements effective?
  • When do they weaken or strengthen the author’s credibility?
  •  Which strategies will be most useful in our own responses?

As we work through these lessons together, it’s no surprise to me that English teachers everywhere are thinking about how literacy fits into this much bigger picture. At the risk of exposing just a little too much of my dweebiness, it reminds me of the title character’s line from Hamilton, “This is not a moment, it’s the movement!”

We are in the midst of a movement. Not just one about gun violence and the NRA, but also one about literacy. About teaching students to really understand what they’re reading. About arming students with the power to write and speak in meaningful ways. About making sure our students are empowered to impact the world around them. Perhaps the reason I’m so proud of those Parkland kids – and their teachers! – is because I know that so much of what they’re doing is rooted in literacy. It’s hard, and it’s important. And it’s time.

What about you? How are you working through literacy’s place in this movement? What puzzle pieces are you working to put together? Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt   

– Megan

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