We know that reading doesn’t always spark joy.
We became Literacy Instructional Leaders because we want to help teachers and students enjoy reading while also learning and engaging with its purpose–to construct meaning. While neither of us are situated in the classroom anymore, we support middle and high school ELA teachers in Mobile, Alabama, as they strive to provide sound and rigorous reading instruction for their students…and spark a little joy. This task is not always easy; but, we have learned that if you provide three elements – content knowledge, connection, and engagement – instruction is made easier. As we construct pacing guides and provide professional development opportunities for our teachers, we leverage the Newsela platform to assist us in supporting teacher success and student achievement.
1. Provide content knowledge for literature - Without background knowledge, students are just reading and processing information off of a page; they lack the ability to get deep in between the lines of the text.
For our district’s pacing guides, we chose 1-2 Newsela articles connected to each literary text that provided the necessary background knowledge for students. Newsela helps to create variety and diversity of articles. In addition, Newsela’s library of relevant topics provides teachers with additional opportunities to create a foundation for instruction. For example, in our 7th grade curriculum, students read “Papa’s Parrot,” which is a story about a boy who learns through a pet parrot just how much his father misses him. We paired “Papa’s Parrot” with the Newsela text "Red-faced encounter: Rare new species of parrot discovered in Mexico" that examines the vocal abilities of parrots, particularly the blue-winged Amazon parrot. While the story, “Papa’s Parrot” is a favorite for students within our district, using the Newsela article to spark their thinking and allowing them to make connections between their prior knowledge and the new knowledge contributes to the students’ enjoyment of the story itself. Of course, a teacher could have simply provided students with a few quick facts about parrots, but the colorful picture in the Newsela article, along with the new information, pulls students deeper into the learning experience, anchoring their understanding and building on it.
2. Make cross-curricular connections - Students tend to compartmentalize their learning–when the bell rings between classes, so goes many students' abilities to transfer what they’ve learned between subjects. Our district uses Newsela Social Studies and Newsela Science, so we merged the two worlds inside of our ELA pacing guides by including Newsela articles that connect to the units of study in those classes. For example, in the ninth grade curriculum, students were required to read a nonfiction essay entitled “A Celebration of Grandfathers.” This reflective essay details how the elders of Native American culture are celebrated in New Mexico. To provide background information about New Mexico, which helps not only prepare them for reading the essay but for what they learn in their ninth grade history classes, we chose the Newsela article “New Mexico: Land of Enchantment". The pacing guide’s instructional guidance provides the teacher with minimal, but essential steps to ensure cross-curricular connections are being made. You can check out the mini lesson here.
3. Engage Students - During the quarter, Tanisha had the opportunity to return to the classroom and teach a group of eighth graders using a curated text set “Pets vs. People” to support a teacher who was struggling to get her class to read. Once students started reading about cats, dogs, and hamsters, laughter and giggles spread, and students were not only volunteering to read, but begging to. Aishia had a similar experience supporting a first-year teacher who was teaching argumentative writing. The lesson Aishia created was titled “We Beefin’: Perspectives and Credibility in Argumentative Writing.” Aishia used two articles about “beefs” Beyoncé had with fans over her sampling of classic songs. The students loved the lesson and reading the articles. Power Words from the articles were used in questions that connected to the context of the lesson, but required textual support from the articles. Aishia played videos of the songs referenced in the articles–students danced as they read, discussed, and learned. Because students felt confident in their knowledge about the subject, they were able to trust the process of the lesson and dig in deeper. Seeing this also inspired the teacher and gave her confidence that she would be able to teach such a rigorous task in the future. You can find a sample of Aishia’s presentation here.
Newsela can be the introduction to a lesson, it can be a bridge within a lesson, or it can be the lesson itself. When planning your next lesson, ask yourself how you want to activate prior knowledge or provide background knowledge and use some of the strategies we’ve found successful. If you need a spark in your lesson, remember to provide content knowledge, create connections, and engage students with relevant texts. If you are feeling overwhelmed by all of this, know that you can choose one strategy to implement in your instruction and build as the year progresses. Do what works for you. The simple fact that you are using Newsela will do wonders for your students.
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