Authentic (#whateverthatmeans) Texts

Back again (last time!) to Originals by Adam Grant.

I was recently supervising a “Teacher candidate” (aka, student teacher) in a high school social studies class. I suggested he have students use more authentic texts and he diligently went out and found a good packet of primary source documents relevant to the topic of temperance and women’s suffrage. He prepared his students pretty well for the reading, gave them enough time, used think-pair-share to allow them to build comfort but the following discussion was anemic. He knew it. I knew it. The students just didn’t really care.

In our follow-up discussion, we talked about the resources. The materials he found were excerpts of speeches and writings by pivotal people of the era but they obviously met the purpose and interests of whomever compiled them. How could the teacher find authentic materials that would meet his purpose and the needs of his students? First, we had to talk through what is meant by authentic text. In short it’s text that a student might come across naturally – whether in a newspaper, magazine, novel, etc. It’s not a textbook or something designed for classroom consumption. Primary source documents are important to incorporate and they are authentic but they aren’t the only authentic documents available.

To identify some authentic resources, we talked about his personal reading choices. This teacher is analytical. He is very excited about the heavy tome he recently purchased over a relatively esoteric subject that he’ll be able to weave into future lessons. But what got him to the point where he knew that was the book for him? Did he read a book review? Was it a professor that wrote an article about the topic? Did it tie to a movie or documentary? Was there are particular primary document that’s controversial, amusing, or heart-wrenching enough that it’s inspired a 500+ page book? What is his lens? His interest? His background? We brainstormed options for different authentic texts that weren’t just excerpts of primary source documents and ended with a nice list that might hook the students and inspire discussion.

And then I went home and picked up Originals and dove into the chapter called, “Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse: Creating and maintaining coalitions”. I was so annoyed I had not already read the chapter before observing the lesson and having this amazing discussion with the student teacher because it was the perfect example of an authentic text. It went into so much more depth on women’s suffrage than the teacher’s original lesson but it also touched on ties to prohibition; brought in a modern sociology study (with an experiment that could be re-done in class); used modern references like “frenemies”; tied in examples that used Google, the military, Occupy Wall Street, and other popular social initiatives; and it started off with a quote from Dr. Seuss’s “the Sneetches”. There were countless ways for students to get at least a little invested in the reading and thus learn more about the suffrage movement. This book is authentic, accessible, and the teacher could then go find the sources from which any direct quotes were pulled to bring in more primary source materials if desired. The reading is longer than what he would have used in class but he could have used just a short portion or jigsawed the reading with different groups. Even if the class were to read the entire chapter, the content is incredibly engaging and it would allow for better discussion and relevance to the themes of social studies. It might just take a day more – perhaps two if he wanted them to do the reading in class – but the impact on students would be longer lasting.

What's the moral of this anecdote?

  • Educators should take the time to read widely and deeply because we want our students to read widely and deeply*. You never know where you, with your expert eye for your subject area, will come across a resource that could be an authentic text for your classroom. Encourage colleagues in other departments to forward you “cool” articles about your subject – regardless of topic. If they think it’s nifty enough to send on then there’s a good chance students might like it (and how great would it be for other students to know other their other teachers like reading the same things!).
  • Think about the lens through which your students are reading. YOU may love one particular topic so much that it’s hard to think about people who don’t find it as exciting. What lenses do your students have? What’s their motivation? What are they reading (authentically) and why? Do you read those sources? What magazines go to their homes? Do your students follow any organizations on social media that share articles or vlogs or whatever is hip with the kids these days? **
  • Prioritize: What do your students need? Do they need names and dates of everyone involved in a particular event or movement or do they need personal connections? Do you have time for something that is longer but sets up more entry points for student interest or do you need to find something shorter and do the legwork to hook your students by yourself? Answers will vary throughout the year, of course, which is why you need to find a large variety of authentic texts and thus need to… (go back to the first bullet) take the time to read widely and deeply.

* - See the Common Core Anchor Standards for Reading, especially standards 7, 9, and 10, and the note at the bottom of the CCRA standards page that says, “To build a foundation for college and career readiness, students must read widely and deeply from among a broad range of high-quality, increasingly challenging literary and informational texts... By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.” )

** - Those of you familiar with Danielson’s evaluation model may be making powerful connections here as to why the tool talks about knowing students as a whole class vs small groups vs individuals; their background knowledge, interests, cultures, experiences, etc. It's not just to bond with them but the better you know them, the better you'll be able to find the best resources for them.

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