Knowing how to analyze all the different sources that enter into our world has never been more important. On today’s podcast we’re speaking with author Sunday Cummins about her new book: Nurturing Informed Thinking: Reading, Talking and Writing Across Content-Sources.
Sunday says we need students to be able to ask question and then actively seek out answers by reading, listening or viewing multiple sources. She says we should be able to analyze any form of those sources too, whether it’s a video, photo, even a info-graph. Sunday also writes that students need to be able to connect ideas, weigh viewpoints, and balance differing perspectives comfortably.
Sunday explores what this can look like in the classroom, from planning to execution. She provides support for teachers as they plan for, and teach, with multiple sources on a regular basis. She says the more teachers incorporate multiple sources into instruction, the more students will conduct thorough research practices on their own.
We began our conversation discussing the meaning behind what Sunday calls "reading across sources"...
See below for a full transcript of our conversation.
Brett: What does it mean to read across sources?
Sunday: Actually, that's the question that started this whole endeavor. I realized that I'd been teaching for a long time, and I'd used primarily one source at a time, except for once a year when we did a big research project. So, I started exploring, and what I noticed for kids, reading across sources means that they, they're like, "Oh, I've added to my learning," or "Oh, that's different or the same."
Also, it's just this sense of, "Oh, I know more, because I read across sources," and I think that's been the most powerful thing. It's reading. It's viewing. It's listening to a variety of sources.
Brett: Well, you had even said at one point that includes video as well.
Sunday: Right, so, in the classrooms that I've been working in, video has become a regular part of what we do, because that is a regular part of our students' lives now. It's hard. It's hard to really listen to video and glean information from that. So, we have worked with students on how to impact 12 seconds, and then another 12 seconds. It's been an interesting journey.
Brett: Well, and sort of on that, I mean, we're very much living in an endless information age right now, both fact and fiction. How does this approach to reading across sources help students?
Sunday: More than anything, I think it nurtures a sense of identity and agency. When I watch kids in the classrooms where we've been doing this, it's like, "Oh, Miss Ballou, we need another article on that." It's just a given.
I was interviewing a student at the end of the year, a fourth grader, and I said to her, I said, "Well what if next year, your teacher doesn't teach with multiple sources the way we did on a regular basis?" She looked at me like, "Is there any other way to learn?"
It's just watching the kids, their identity. "I'm a reader of multiple sources, and I can talk knowledgeably about a topic, because I have read those sources or consulted those sources." And agency, "I have a repertoire of skills that can help me tackle multiple sources and different types of sources." It's been beautiful to watch. It's just how they are. It's who they become. It's their way of being when they read.
Brett: Well, and those skills will last them forever. Those skills will take them through the rest of their schooling and into college. I mean, those are very important skills that they'll last with.
Sunday: It's been interesting to watch how it just becomes, like I said, a normal part of what they do, and I think it's something we take for granted, now.
Brett: So, when we think about reading across sources, and especially the volume that you just described, it can feel a little intimidating, but we can make it manageable. How do we make it manageable, and more importantly, how do we make it last across the year?
Sunday: I have so much to say about this. When I first started talking to Heinemann about the idea for this book, I realized that I didn't know enough. So, I started contacting colleagues and getting into classrooms and co-teaching, co-thinking through how we can do this. What emerged, particularly my fiend, Nicole Ballou's classroom, was we have to do it on a regular basis, because if we only do it once a year or twice a year or once a unit, they're not gonna master thinking across sources.
We also realized that we had to make the sources manageable for kids. So, it can't be you're gonna compare an article and a book, because what you're gonna get is, "They're both about simple machines."
But, instead it's, "Let's look at this author's description of a wedge, and this author's description of a wedge. How do those come together to build your knowledge," or "Let's look at just this infographic and 30 seconds of this video clip," or "Let's look at a paragraph from a text and a video clip and an infographic."
What we decided was, or what we found was that it can't be a bunch of entire sources, a million sources. It needs to be a really tight set of sources that we vetted while they start to become familiar with what it is they need to look for when they're searching for sources on their own.
And I think one more thing, sorry. I have so much to say about this. We also found that students need a guiding question. They need to know what they're looking for across sources. It's not enough to just say, "Oh, I'm going to research hedgehogs."
I remember, I was talking to these two students, and they were so excited, because they had read a whole book on hedgehogs. When I asked them, "Well, what are you gonna write about hedgehogs?"
They were like, "The whole book of hedgehogs on hedgehogs."
So, what Nicole and my colleagues and I found was that we have to give them clear, guiding questions like, "What are the types of details the author is using to describe this simple machine? What are the problems and solutions shared in this video? What is the author or narrator's viewpoint of Columbus in this video clip?" Helping them develop really clear guiding purposes for reading across sources.
Brett: Well, and you also, on that note, you write about how we need to investigate the truthfulness of the source. How do we do that?
Sunday: I don't have an easy answer for that, and I think it's an area that I'm still learning and growing in as far as how to tackle that with kids. What we found is that you can't send kids out and, "Oh, go search on the internet," and I think a lot of us know that, now. So, we create sets of sources, and those sources not only are sources they can get information from, but sources that serve as mentors for the kinds of sources they need to look for.
You know, you can have anchor charts where you list reliable organizations like the Library of Congress. You can have conversations around what makes this reliable or a truthful source. I think there's a lot of information out there to help kids vet sources, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. So, one of the things I've been talking about and contemplating is how do we help students by just beginning to say, "Who created this source?" Before you get into all these other questions that help you vet this source, who created it and what does that mean?
Brett: And that's a pretty powerful question, because a lot can come out of that question.
Sunday: Exactly, exactly. I think through this whole process, what we've learned is we have to unpack these tacks that we're asking kids to engage in and make them manageable. As far as vetting sources, that's one place.
Brett: How do we nurture a sense of being informed and transformed?
Sunday: Nicole was working with her students. We'd been reading a series of articles about buy catch and how sometimes whales are caught, trapped in fishermen's nets, and this is particularly relevant off the coast of California where we live. They had read several, consulted several sources on animals that get caught in fishermen's nets, and the kids were so into it and so aware of how they were growing that they, I don't know, they took a turn. One of the kids said, "Well, you know what, we haven't read anything from the fishermen's perspective," and to me, that's transformative. When they start to think about, "Oh, wow. Look what happens when we look at all these sources, and we think about all these sources. How else do I need to make that happen for myself? Is it with this conversation or is it in another place?"
Another student, "Well, we need another article on that." They just started to assume that you were gonna have another article or another source or another video clip on that.
I think that's what I look for as far informed and transformation; it becomes a part of who you are. Maybe I said this earlier, but talking to that little girl at the end of the year, she's in fourth grade, and she was like, "Well, how else would you teach? Why would you not do this on a regular basis?"
It's just who they are, who they become as readers.
Brett: Well, and what I love about that is that brings in different voices, different perspectives, and that goes back to adding to identity and agency as you were saying before. It allows that to grow and to increase and keep the perspective, that crucial perspective of hearing different voices.
Sunday: Yeah, absolutely.
Brett: In the book, you trace a trajectory of gradual release of responsibility to students. Why is that important for the students to take control of the learning?
Sunday: I think we've known for a long time that kids who are engaged in asking their own questions and doing their own research, there's a light that burns within them as far as growing as learners. I think what we learned when we went into this is that kids are not developing the depth of knowledge they need on topics when they're just released. Go research.
I remember my daughter one night... She was supposed to learn about submarines. So, we started Googling for submarines. Well, we got all sorts of stuff that she couldn't make sense of. How do we step back and take control and help kids, like I talked about earlier, realize what are quality sources? What are sources that I'm really gonna be able to get some information from? How do we help kids analyze those sources, read and reread or listen and listen again? How do we just hold on tighter to them and watch them begin to bloom, but then we have to trust what we've done and begin to release them?
I'm not sure if I'm answering the question, but that work we did up front with the kids, the work we did up front where we had vetted the sources, we had picked manageable sources, we had developed the questions or had co-developed the questions with them really paid off later as they took on their own research in the classrooms that I'd been visiting or teachers I've worked with. The students had a better understanding of what they needed to do. I think what I'm saying is, yes, gradually releasing responsibility is important, but we can't do that, unless we've invested in building their capacity and expertise for taking that on themselves.
To learn more about Nurturing Informed Thinking and download a sample chapter, visit Heinemann.com.
Sunday Cummins, a former classroom teacher and literacy coach, is the author of Close Reading of Informational Texts and Unpacking Complexity in Informational Texts. She has a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and taught at National Louis University. As a literacy consultant, she continues to teach and learn alongside educators with a focus on reading, writing, and creating informational sources. Sunday is a graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University and also served as Literacy Education Professor at National Louis University. You can learn more about her current work through her blog at sunday-cummins.com.