I’m sure at this point most (if not all) of us have seen the EngageNY materials and marveled at them. I remember my first experience with an EngageNY lesson. It was like a choir of English teachers were surrounding me in song and Carol Jago was looking down on me with a reverent smile. However, the more time I have spent studying and using materials from EngageNY, I have come to recognize a certain equation that, once identified, we can all incorporate into our lesson planning “toolbox” and begin applying to texts we are teaching. In my opinion, the success of EngageNY lessons is predicated on the following criterion:
- An excerpt (or short piece) is studied over multiple days
- Addresses multiple and varied standards
- Engages students in the text
- Develop deep understanding of the text
- Explain their knowledge
- Knowledge is extended or complicated in some way
- Respond to the text
- Apply their knowledge
There are many ways to construct a unit that achieves these points, but below is a unit I developed over the novel The Things They Carried for my academic juniors. Even though this took place over several weeks, the unit still managed to be enjoyable and entertaining for the students while matching the criterion and rigor of an EngageNY unit plan. I will break down my unit and how the various lessons fit together to create a cohesive unit while still meeting the components of an EngageNY unit plan and the goals of the Common Core.
Before they even received their copy of The Things They Carried, I asked the students to select 5-10 things they would take with them if their house were on fire. This is based off of a website we have featured on our site before: The Burning House. Essentially, I was asking them to activate prior knowledge, similar to an anticipation guide. They were thinking of the things they would carry without having knowledge of the book. We then created a large bulletin board of anonymous images to share our varied values.
Then we began by studying Chapter One in isolation. Before a close reading could be done, the students had to develop a basic comprehension of the premise of the novel, so they identified the possessions each character were described as carrying in the first chapter and what these things symbolized about them, eliciting a response to Tim O’Brien’s subject matter and purpose of the chapter.
After comprehension was established, the students were able to begin recognizing and addressing the writer’s style. I provided them an excerpt from the chapter and a handout that walked them through several major elements of Tim O’Brien’s style. They had to study their passages to definitively state how he wrote and begin to speculate how these elements contributed to tone and theme. It was at this point that the students had to explain their knowledge by using the text to support the observations they were making. My students generated and very thorough (in my opinion) sophisticated list.
They continued reading the novel through his chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” in which O’Brien basically admits that everything they had read up until that point had been fictionalized to an extent. To me, this is the one of the most important steps to lesson design. We can’t just ask our students to accept a premise or take the easy interpretation. Their ideas have to be challenged to be deepened. EngageNY has a lot of great ideas on how to do this, including providing students with op-eds or articles that approach the same topic or argument as the core text. For my unit over The Things They Carried, the complicated matter was provided by the author himself, which really allowed the students to consider the purpose of the story: is it to engage or teach the audience a lesson, or is it for the author to come to a greater understanding of his experience with the war?
This notion of fictionalizing true elements, took as back to our burning house images that were stapled to the wall. I asked students to pretend as though they were Tim O’Brien and they had to choose one image of the 5-10 things someone else would carry. After studying the image and thinking of it creatively, they had to construct a fictionalized story about this person incorporating the things they would carry and embody O’Brien’s writing style. One of the aims of the Common Core is to implement a variety of writing: informative, analytical, and narrative. When I first read this, I shuddered to think of students writing about their favorite summer memory. However, I realized that narrative doesn’t have to be personal; narrative can be mimicking an author’s writing style through construction of a story. The goal of this culminating assignment wasn’t necessarily to write a story but to write using the elements of narrative writing. To reiterate this even further, before collecting the mimics, I asked the students to annotate their own writing to reflect the choices they made that mimicked that of the writer. Typically, the more annotations they had, the more accurate the mimic, which made grading pretty seamless. The writings I received were phenomenal, primarily because the students had met the above criterion. They had such a firm knowledge of the text and had shared that knowledge in a variety of mediums, that they were able to apply their knowledge in a way that was more creative than just assigning an essay. I’m providing a copy of one of my favorite writings (with the student’s permission—of course) and the image that she used in constructing her response. To me, her response could have fit flawlessly into the text, which indicates a mastery level of knowledge about not just what the author does, but why he does it. The students then attached their writings to the image they fictionalized, allowing students to see how people interpreted their items or how multiple interpreted the same image differently. It is has been one of the best bulletin boards of my career. Every day students come into class and gather by the board to read the mimics and look at the images on the board.
I have devised units like this for a variety of texts, especially those with shifting narrators. While my standard assignment is for students to write analytically about the text during the unit, I am always more astounded and aware of their understanding when I ask them to apply their knowledge of the text by writing a pastiche.
Standards met during this unit:Reading Literature: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1 Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3 Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed). CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful. (Include Shakespeare as well as other authors.) CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5 Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.6 Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement). Writing: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1a Introduce precise, knowledgeable claim(s), establish the significance of the claim(s), distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and create an organization that logically sequences claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.1b Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly and thoroughly, supplying the most relevant evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3b Use narrative techniques, such as dialogue, pacing, description, reflection, and multiple plot lines, to develop experiences, events, and/or characters. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3c Use a variety of techniques to sequence events so that they build on one another to create a coherent whole and build toward a particular tone and outcome (e.g., a sense of mystery, suspense, growth, or resolution). CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.3d Use precise words and phrases, telling details, and sensory language to convey a vivid picture of the experiences, events, setting, and/or characters. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. Language: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 11–12 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings. CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.11-12.6 Acquire and use accurately general academic and domain-specific words and phrases, sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression. Speaking and Listening: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 11–12 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.