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Read Aloud Podcast: Build Background Knowledge with Digital Text Sets

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When you make the decision to move beyond long-used textbooks, you might wonder, what will kids read?

The authors of The Civically Engaged Classroom believe in the power of curated, current text sets--collections initially created by teachers that students can expand as their knowledge grows.

In this preview of the audiobook, we'll explore how to build these text sets, starting with online sources to engage students in contemporary issues. We'll also hear practical tips on text set mapping, ensuring you cover a range of perspectives and complexities, learn how to balance digital archives with print resources, introduce challenging texts and support diverse reading levels.


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Marc Todd:

When you make the ethical decision to move away from textbooks or text packets you've used for many years, you create a gap in your classroom resources. Suddenly, you're faced with the question, what will kids read? We believe strongly in the power of curated current text sets. These are text sets initially created by teachers that kids can add to as their knowledge of the topic grows. The goal is to get into place several copies of multiple texts that seem especially appealing and accessible.

We'll begin by examining how to create text sets from predominantly online sources, which will be essential when exploring contemporary topics and issues. Then we'll consider how to get trade books into students' hands for longer in-depth study of historical events and to study with critical literacies. You want your students to have both experiences in your classroom. The immediacy, cost-effectiveness, and limitless expanse of resources online can be balanced by the quality-controlled, carefully edited books that are published especially for young readers.

There is also something profoundly beautiful about seeing kids fall in love with book-length nonfiction. In their unit of study, Literary Nonfiction, Audra Robb and Katie Clements showed that when you give kids access to books like The 57 Bus and Hidden Figures, they will read long, dense nonfiction. When you're building text sets, think about not just adding to kids' knowledge but disrupting their thinking as well. In Disrupting Thinking, Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst suggest that it's not only okay for kids to struggle with text, it's important.

They need to read texts that challenge their thinking. That means text that sit outside their comfort zone in terms of point of view and information they encounter. The notion of access to non-canonical text is just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. Young Citizens In Action. Intermediate School 289 or I.S. 289 in Lower Manhattan offers its seventh graders a unique opportunity to write and produce an opera on a topic that reflects the students' study of the Constitution and constitutional law.

The students decide the focus, conduct research, write the narrative, compose the music, design the sets, and produce the drama with support from me, because I teach at I.S. 289 and Gordon Ostrowski, a local theater expert who volunteers his time to help students promote their social justice agenda. In 2018, in the wake of the Pulse shooting in Orlando and other high profile acts of oppression and violence against queer and trans young people, the seventh grade decided to take up transgender acceptance.

They researched barriers to acceptance, read interviews and studies, listened to transgender people describe their transition and the challenges to acceptance. Then they wrote their opera. Families, students, and community members, many of whom feel differently than the seventh graders about this issue, came to see the seventh grade enact the story of a young person seeking acceptance in a new community.

When the audience of family and community members, as well as the students from the elementary school below I.S. 289 came to the opera, most of the audience that came knew in advance the subject matter. And I caution that if you tackle this kind of work, it's important for your student public relations group to not only advertise the event, but to also hint at the content.

The adult population that came to watch this opera probably had a lot more misgivings than the student population did, but they came and sat in awe not because of the controversial content, but because the young adolescents were able to take an informed stance and make their own interpretation public. The opera's theme of acceptance also became a lens through which the students viewed early US history.

As students identified outsiders in history and considered the structures designed to keep them on the outside, they not only found parallels to the oppression that trans people face in our society today, but also identified structures in their own lives that have marked them or others as outsiders. Creating online text sets in response to contemporary issues and current events. The idea of building background knowledge can call to mind images of lectures and of long required reading lists.

Since the kind of vital issues and topics we engage are multifaceted and complex, aren't we responsible for ensuring that our students understand them as completely as possible before they begin? In a word, no. Our goal in this work is to teach students how to become better readers of their own world. If we insist on spoon-feeding information, even important information, we are not helping students develop the autonomy that we eventually want them to have as informed citizens.

We also run the risk of turning an important issue into something they find boring because we have over controlled access to knowledge. Our suggestion to you is that rather than launching a study of a topic with an information dump in the form of a lecture or a single text, you instead pique kids' curiosity about a topic, launch quickly, then give kids the time and resources to immerse themselves in a topic by reading fast and furiously. When we say read, we mean devour.

When we say resources, we mean any combination of print and digital text that will serve as a starter set for kids so they can synthesize, compare, and layer knowledge rapidly. If this kind of energetic student authored research is new to you, we highly recommend Chris Lehman's Energizing Research Reading and Writing. It's a fabulous introduction to getting kids interested in research and to essential research skills. Our aim here is to teach kids to rapidly figure out the lay of the land, the terrain of a topic.

We let go of perfect understanding of any one text and impossibility anyway for deeper understanding of the complexity of a topic. This teaches a skill that will serve students well throughout their lives. To learn about something new, you must first dive in and learn its terrain. If you are engaging in a deep unit of study, students will find more information about the parts they are most curious about and invested in when they have the opportunity and resources to narrow their research.

To begin formulating a text set, you want to do little text set mapping to help you plan. It helps to ensure that you consider the complexity of an issue, topic, or event, and that you find texts that serve a variety of purposes. To balance your text set, look for text that suggests why an event happened or why a topic or issue is important. Text that explain who is involved in this issue, topic, or event. Text that provide the background knowledge students need to understand an issue, topic, or event.

Text that help students to visualize an issue, topic, or event. Text that provide multiple perspectives on an issue, topic, or event. It is important at this point that we include multiple perspectives on the issue even if we don't necessarily agree with all of them. For example, in the case of family separations at the border during the Trump administration, even if our own sympathies were with the families, we needed to include some texts that offer explanations of this event from the executive branch's perspective.

We do this because it's crucial that we teach students that people do things for reasons, and it's important to understand those reasons in order to understand all sides. Understanding others' stances also helps you to fight back more effectively against injustice. At this point in the research process, we suggest that you avoid including flawed, biased, and distorted news sources in a curated text set. You can add those in later when you are explicitly teaching how to recognize and deal with them.

We can layer texts strategically, introducing a curated text set to begin, then gradually adding to that text set as students learn more discerning evaluative skills. Chapter three discusses this in greater detail. Sharing digital text. Options for how to make a digital text set available to students are constantly evolving. As of the writing of this book, we tend to use Padlet at Padlet.com. Padlet is an intuitive digital archive website that allows us to organize web links, PDFs, videos, and more in a compelling visual format.

We also use Google Sites or Google Drive. Creating a digital archive instead of simply creating a list of links makes it easier for students to preview and access the resources you've curated. And because it's so visually compelling, kids are more engaged with sources. Your school or district does need to get a subscription if you want to use these apps often. Good digital archives also set you up well for virtual learning when needed. Using accessible text and increasing access to challenging texts.

Your search for texts from a wide variety of voices on contentious issues will undoubtedly lead you to some complex texts. In some cases, this might not be a tremendous hurdle. As Alfred Tatum describes in Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, high engagement and personal relevance will greatly help students tackle the challenges of texts that may be above their independent reading levels.

Additionally, tackling tough texts with support from you help students to view reading as an opportunity to forge their own paths and research, not simply to accept a watered-down summarization. However, you never want to assume that kids can read a text or to leave kids floundering at frustration levels. There is still much you can do to increase access to the text kids want to read. You might offer a text introduction by highlighting some of the big ideas, showing how the text is structured, getting kids started.

Read portions of the text aloud to your students. Encourage students to read more accessible texts first before shifting to more difficult ones. Have students read in partnerships so they have a processing partner to co-author understanding. Have students read with the assistance of a text-to-speech program or include video documentaries and interviews as well as a variety of digital texts.

If you are reading current news, you may also consider using websites such as Newsela that take the content from other publishers and edit them for varying levels of text complexity. Newsela can be a helpful resource for building text sets and for adjusting the level of those sets to match your students' reading levels. However, sometimes the text compacting that happens in making the text easier can lead to oversimplification in ways that can be problematic. Consider carefully before sharing such a text with students.

The easier level text may under-represent complexity, limit perspectives, or even include stereotypes. Look at your starter tech set. Ask yourself. One. Will all my students have access to this subject matter in ways that grab their attention and stimulate their curiosity? Do I need more texts geared to novice readers? Do I need more texts for highly proficient or expert readers? Two. Where are the gaps in my set, especially in terms of perspective? Are there perspectives that I haven't considered?

Three. Have I been fair to sides I might disagree with, but that represent the spectrum of people's views? Four. Did I provide enough visual support for my students so that they can make abstract subject matter tangible? Five. Do my text provide enough narrative to grab the attention of my readers? Are their hearts going to be as stimulated as their heads? Six. Have I made it clear that students can research in multiple languages?

Seven. Do any of these texts involve serious ugly moments in history or current events that might create emotional labor or even trauma for my students who have been oppressed? If so, what am I going to do to ensure those students' well-being? If you can't answer this last question, rethink using the texts. You'll want your background starter text set to hue towards narrative reporting, photojournalism, documentaries, and in-depth first-person reports. In Minds Made for Stories, Tom Newkirk describes how the human mind is drawn to stories.

We make sense of our lives and the world around us through story. Compelling stories are much more likely to grab your readers than a bar graph or a list of facts. You will also want to be alert to the potential effects of the text on your students. As you look across the text in a set, think about how the text may intersect with vulnerable students' identities and consider how you'll offer students the choice to write quietly, to not discuss in a large group, or to speak quietly with a friend or adult.


Thanks for tuning in today. To learn more about The Civically Engaged Classroom and all Heinemann audiobooks, visit blog.heinemann.com.


Mary Ehrenworth, Senior Deputy Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and co-editor for the Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Middle School series, works with schools and districts around the globe, and is a frequent keynote speaker at Project events and national and international conferences. Mary’s interest in critical literacies, deep interpretation, and reading and writing for social justice all inform the books she has authored or co-authored in the Reading and Writing Units of Study series as well as her many articles and other books on instruction and leadership.


Pablo Wolfe is a Washington DC-based educator who promotes civic education as a means to improve student engagement, celebrate student identity, and embolden the next generation of citizens. He's been a public school administrator, a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a teacher, and a parent, and in all of these roles has sought to make school a training ground for civic life. He is the co-author of The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change and the Unit of Study: Historical Fiction Book Clubs. His work has also been featured in School Library Journal and Middleweb Blog. 

Pablo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators, a national K-12 community of practice for civic-minded educators who seek to improve student outcomes and transform schools. Pablo is also a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Whether planning town hall meetings with groups of 7th graders, writing letters to elected officials, or organizing opportunities for service learning, Pablo believes that academic skills are best learned when applied towards addressing injustices. A strong believer in the role of teachers as agents of social change, he strives to thread this idea through his writing, staff development and teaching.


Marc Todd teaches Social Studies at IS 289, the Hudson River Middle School in New York, and is a national presenter for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. He collaborates with teachers around the world and leads workshops and institutes on culturally relevant pedagogy and teaching students to be critical readers of history. Marc believes in immersing kids in nonfiction reading and making notebook work inside of content classes both serious and joyful. He incorporates Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed into his curriculum.


Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Mary Ehrenworth, The Civically Engaged Classroom, Pablo Wolfe, Marc Todd, Read Aloud Podcast

Date Published: 07/01/24

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