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AdLIT In Perspective > 2008 > March
Classroom Vignette

We Must Use Texts as a Tool, Not as a Crutch

by Angela Cartwright Lynskey


There is a continuum of understanding that represents a dimmer switch. At one end of the continuum, understanding sheds a little light. This type of reading results in a superficial and piecemeal idea of what the text is about. Such understanding may contain inaccuracies and will soon be forgotten. At the other end, the thorough understanding gained not only illuminates the text clearly and sharply, but sheds light on other knowledge as well.
— Chapman, 1993, pp. 5-6

As educators, our goal is to empower our students to reach the far end of the continuum of knowledge and skill. We use whatever resources are available to us, but often our resources are limited to a textbook and our own creativity.


Ask Not What Your Text Can Do for You...

Student texts are filled with knowledge that has already been interpreted, and the expectation is simply that readers will accept and recall the information. As our students advance through the educational system, this method of "instruction" is used with increasing frequency. During high school, 75 percent of class work and 90 percent of homework come from text materials (Katims & Harmon, 2000). One reason for a continued reliance on text-driven work may be the pressure we feel to cover extensive state and local content standards. Text-driven work is one of the quickest ways to cover material and has continued despite recent and growing interest in more authentic and relevant methods for instruction and assessment.

While textbooks can be a great source of information, a reliance on them as the main instructional method will often result in frustration for both us and our students. Our frustration develops from the basic incompatibility of untrained adolescent readers and their textbooks. One major difficulty arises from a lack of context for the content presented.

Because of the breadth of knowledge that must go into texts, they often end up being a "catalog of features rather than a sequence of related events" (Beck & McKeown, 1991, p. 484). Thus the burden of creating context falls upon the students. This would not necessarily be a problem if students had enough background knowledge upon which to build a deeper understanding of the facts in their texts. However, as Harmon and Hedrick (2000) indicate, limited exposure to new vocabulary and the differing meanings and connotations of vocabulary also keep students from gathering and creating background knowledge with which to engage texts and activate prior knowledge. For example, in the modern world history curriculum, we learn multiple definitions of nationalism when studying World War I. Depending on the context, it can mean a desire for a country to represent one's ethnic and cultural group, or it can mean an intense love for one's country. If there is no explanation accompanying the vocabulary in the text when studying World War I, this important difference can go without notice.


...Ask What You Can Do for Your Text

So what can teachers do to help students overcome these difficulties and maximize the potential of their texts? My first step when planning for my ninth grade modern world history classes is to review the text and see how it aligns with the standards I am responsible for teaching. The Ohio Department of Education has issued specific academic content standards for social studies, and in my district, these standards make up our courses of study. These provide a very precise focus for how each event is to be presented. For example, in modern world history, the Korean and Vietnam Wars are characterized as merely one component of the cold war. With these guidelines in mind, I identify which sections and subsections of the text are actually relevant to the story I am to tell, and I use them judiciously. Teachers often end up requiring readings that contain irrelevant or non-course-aligned information when they assign complete chapters or sections. While all knowledge is valuable, we do a disservice to our students if we do not actively seek to prepare them for the tests for which they will be held accountable. By specifically identifying where my standards are located in the text, I actually create time for those standards that do not appear in the text.

After locating a relevant section in the text, I skim through it to identify problematic words and phrases. If there is any critical vocabulary that my students may not recognize, I provide this information before we use the text. This process does not need to be long and involved; a basic call and response will give enough information for a more successful reading. As I mentioned before, explaining the different definitions of nationalism is an important component of understanding the development of World War I. In addition, most ninth graders will need help understanding terms such as militarism, mobilization, and attrition. Without understanding these words, they will struggle to see how the war developed and spread. If they lack this understanding, it will seem unrealistic that a territorial dispute in Eastern Europe led to devastation around the world.

Once the important sections have been identified and new vocabulary introduced, I provide students with a frame upon which to build new knowledge. One of my favorite ways to provide structure is to use graphic organizers. Straightforward tables, timelines, idea trees, and flow charts can give students the scaffold they need to make real meaning of and internalize new information. Easily interpreted graphic organizers help students recognize the main themes in the text selection and the relationships between them. For example, when helping students cross the bridge from World War I to World War II, it is crucial for them to see the impact of the Treaty of Versailles. A simple chart breaking down the main components assists students in comprehension of their effects. The following example is a completed chart that can be used as a handout. I prefer a more interactive method and would give it to students incomplete as a guided reading or notes activity.

Major Provisions of the Treaty of Versailles

Provision: Term of peace settlement Motivation: Who wanted it and why Effect on Germany
War Guilt Clause
Germany was forced to take full responsibility for the war and its devastation Britain: Felt that German aggression was responsible for the devastation of the war Germany felt that it had been unfairly targeted, as it was not the only country in the initial dispute
Reparations
Germany was forced to pay the total cost of the war, about $300 billion Britain: Knew it did not have the financial resources to rebuild its war-torn lands Germany's economy was devastated by the unrealistic demands, and as inflation rose, the people sank into poverty
Disarmament
Germany was forced to give its navy to the Allies and limit the size of its army France: Feared another attack from Germany in the future Germany felt vulnerable
Demilitarization
Germany was not allowed to put military forces or offensive weapons in areas bordering France France: Wanted a buffer zone between it and Germany to ward off future attacks Germany felt weak and oppressed because it could not even make decisions inside its own borders
Territories
Germany lost its colonies to the Allies France and Britain: Wanted some economic gain from their victory Germany felt as though it had been taken advantage of and robbed
League of Nations
International peacekeeping body committed to nonmilitary solutions to conflicts U.S.: President Wilson wanted some way to try to prevent future wars Germany was not bound to keep promises because the League was weakened by the U.S. not joining; it did not enforce ideals; defeated countries could not join

Discussion Questions:

  • Was this treaty fair?
  • If you were a German citizen, how would you have felt about the countries that wrote it?

Another way I try to help students see the relationships in their content is to present the basic information in a format with which they are accustomed: narrative. The level of familiarity comes from the fact that narrative is the structure of our daily speech patterns (Beck, 1991), as well as the stories provided as early reading experiences in the primary grades.

I tell them a short version of the story, as if I am telling someone about a funny experience I had at the grocery store; I provide all necessary background information, giving them the main highlights and sequence of events so that they will have an overview upon which to place the details they get from their texts. Once they are familiar with the content, I take the activity a step further and ask them to help me tell the story. Students love the opportunity to move around and demonstrate their new knowledge. As we proceed through the acted-out narrative, or even the investigation of a photograph or artistic representation, I pause to ask for ideas on how historical figures made their significant choices.

I enjoy doing this while studying the beginning of World War I and the assassination of Franz Ferdinand because it's such a dramatic story. I first project a photo of Franz and his wife, Sophie, being half-heartedly saluted during their tour of Sarajevo, and involve students in an analysis of its subjects. The students immediately focus in on the clothing, but after a bit of laughter, they are able to notice less obvious details. For example, when I ask them about the faces of the men saluting, they recognize that none of them look happy. We ponder why that might be and what thoughts might be running through each man's head. I then ask for volunteers to help me act out the story of what follows this photograph. No one is required to speak, just to follow direction. We "drive" our car through the streets, encountering incompetent assassins, until finally our wrong turn leads us directly into the path of Gavrilo Princip. This activity is a perennial favorite, and students comment on it years later. Being involved and hearing the information in story-time fashion allowed them to retain the basic ideas on which they built their understanding of the causes of World War I.

Interactive and authentic activities make the learning experience more memorable and thus increase retention; they also promote critical thinking and even problem-solving skills. Authentic learning experiences offer a contextual way to allow students to investigate perspective, which is a key theme in both the social sciences and English curriculums. When used with appropriate support, texts and other documents take on enhanced value in the classroom, providing rich learning opportunities.

References

Beck, Isabel L. (1991). Revising social studies text from a text-processing perspective: Evidence of improved comprehensibility. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(3), 251-276.

Beck, Isabel L., & McKeown, Margaret G. (1991). Social studies texts are hard to understand: Mediating some of the difficulties (research directions). Language Arts, 68(6), 482-490.

Chapman, Anne (Ed.). (1993). What is critical reading? Making sense: Teaching critical reading across the curriculum (pp. 3-12). New York: College Board Publications.

Harmon, Janis M., & Hedrick, Wanda B. (2000). Zooming in and zooming out: Enhanced vocabulary and conceptual learning in social studies. Reading Teacher, 54(2), 155-159.

Katims, David S., & Harmon, Janis M. (2000). Strategic instruction in middle school social studies: Enhancing academic and literacy outcomes for at-risk students. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(5), 280-289.


Angela Cartwright Lynskey is in her fifth year of teaching social studies at Central Crossing High School in the South-Western School District. She recently received her M.A. in teaching and learning with a specialization in drama, literacy, language arts, and reading from Ohio State University, and she is pursuing a Ph.D. in multiculturalism and social justice. In addition to teaching, she is active in curriculum and resource development and serves on various school committees. She is also a building representative for the South-Western Educators' Association and advisor for Central Crossing's Schools for Schools club.

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