A Literate Environment

High School Standard Global Issues Classroom



On Wednesday, April 9, 2014, I observed the Global Issues and Sociology classroom of Ms. B., a social studies teacher at St. Charles North High School (STNHS). STNHS is a suburban school that is part of Community Unit School District 303 in St. Charles, Illinois with a predominantly white student population. A normal school day for students includes eight periods that are 47 minutes long, with class beginning at 7:20 am. I observed two, standard classes of freshman Global Issues, two classes of junior/senior Sociology, and one class of Honors Global Issues. The Wednesday I observed was a late start day, so class periods were 40 minutes long, rather than 47 minutes.

Walking into Ms. B.’s mobile classroom, a classroom in a building outside of the main structure, she greeted her students and asked them to take out their CURE article. CURE stands for context (C), understanding (U), reason (R), and evaluate (E). It is a new approach the freshman and sophomore teachers have modified, adopted, and begun to implement from the junior and senior history teachers. Cynthia Shanahan (2012) states, “The historians’ reading of text could be characterized as nuanced, conscious, critical, and reflective” (p. 77). With the CURE approach, students could read a text and put it into historical context of the subject or world events, identify the main idea or topic, explain why it is relevant, and evaluate the information provided by the author.

Speaking of learning goals, the learning targets for the day were projected on a screen at the front of the class for the day along with materials needed for the day. As students spent a few minutes stapling their CURE sheets to the top of their article, Ms. B. answered questions about citations. She then collected them, set them on a desk by the door, and moved on to the lecture for the day. This week, students were beginning a new unit on genocide, having just finished a Human Rights unit and returned from their spring break. The unit’s goal, according to Ms. B., is have students examine what people of the world are doing to prevent/involve themselves in the issue of genocide. They will be assessed with a summative test and be asked to explore a group in society and argue whether their scenario would be considered genocide.

Their goal, today, was to define genocide according to the genocide convention. Students had been given Learning Target Packets, and after reviewing a slide on the United Nations Genocide Convention, were asked to create a 5W description. Students were asked to identify who, what, when, where, and why, and create a sentence(s) from the information. Elizabeth Moje (2013) might say students are eliciting necessary knowledge about the text, gathering information like: who wrote it, why it was written, and how does it relate to the problem they are studying.

Next, students were given Article II of the text, “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (UN GA, 1948). They were asked to contextualize (C) the document. Questions were asked to build schema and identify the relevance of the information they had read. For instance, the convention and the resulting document on genocide was developed to respond to the persecution of Jews in WWII. It is important to note that questions were asked because students had been scaffolded in the CURE strategy. Students are now able to put a text in context and begin to look for the main idea, so Ms. B. now asks questions rather than have her students fill out worksheets when they were originally learning the process. Furthermore, it is important to begin with a primary text before moving on to multiple texts because“the text/story about the world and how it hangs together with the one we tell about and to ourselves regarding our place in that world (however nascent or limited) serves as a core building block for our encounters with other texts” (VanSledright, 2012).

Ms. B.’s students were asked to move beyond the document’s reason for existence to the document’s language, identifying the intent, groups, and acts that would be identified as genocide. The UN’s definition is:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group (p. 174).

Understanding what the UN felt qualified as “genocide” was important for two reasons: 1.) Students were going to be asked to read scenarios and identify whether they would be considered genocide. 2.) Students were also going to be asked to evaluate the UN’s definition and offer an opinion as to why a clear definition is important. As we are asking students to construct narratives of historical events, Jetton and Lee (2012) state,

Students should have similar opportunities in the classroom to collaborate through discussion by engaging in inquiry about a historical event, weighing the credibility of each source as they accumulate evidence and interpretations of the event to create a narrative that they are constantly changing and revising as they encounter additional voices from historical documents (p. 113).

The subject of human rights has been explored in Ms. B.’s classroom, but the UN has a specific definition of “genocide” that may not fit into the students’ worldviews. By identifying the specific language necessary to interpret this document, students are reading texts like historians, taking the structure, wording, issues of contingency, cause/effect, etc. into consideration (Shanahan, 2012).

In order to collaborate, Ms. B. had her students work in groups of four at their tables, reading a packet of scenarios (see example below) at their tables. After they read the scenario, students would turn to the next page in their Learning Target Packet to fill in a graphic organizer. The first column had students give their first reaction to the scenario, stating whether the thought it was genocide. This is prior to applying the UN’s definition to the scenario.

After the gut reaction, students were asked to identify which group was being targeted. In the first scenario, the government removed old or physically weak people to concentration camps, but according to the UN genocide definition, these two groups do not fit into a racial, religious, national, or ethnic group. It begs the question of whether the UN would aid these people because they do not fit into the definition.

Next, group members discussed the intent of the government, answering questions like: did they intend to destroy the group? What was the reasoning? The scenarios were ambiguous enough that students needed to think outside of the prescribed details and engage in the concepts. This discussion-based learning could help students clarify meaning, explore issues, and refine their thinking about the topic of genocide (Vacca & Vacca, 2007).

Specific acts mentioned in the UN definition, such as killing or deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, were then noted in the fourth column, and then the students judged whether the UN would consider this situation genocide. Finally, Ms. B.’s students reflected on the scenario and whether they thought it should have been prevented by the international community and their reasoning. This question will help students toward their unit goal to address what people are doing to prevent or involve themselves in issues of genocide.

Cynthia Shanahan (2008) states, “Historians use evidence from multiple sources to construct plausible views of historical events and make cause-effect claims or claims of significance about them. They construct those claims based not only on the evidence but also on their particular viewpoints” (p. 133). Granted, the scenarios Ms. B. gave her students are examples, but they will lead into global examples. By engaging her students in evaluating scenarios to determine whether they were genocide and determining the response of the international community, the students can identify and respond to scenarios they could encounter later in class and on their own while watching or reading the news.

Engagement and Motivation

Global Issues is a class built on having students study informational texts, old and new, to address social, political, economic, and geographic issues in the non-western cultures. It is the transitional history course from middle school to high school, engaging students in current, world issues so they can begin making connections and tracing current events back into historical events.

Crumpler and Wedwick (2011) believe teachers need to consider the reader, the text and the context in which reading is being asked (p. 63). They note three criteria, sexuality, power, and innocent world, in which literature reflects or matches the development of the issues students are exploring. These three criteria undergo a change from middle school to adolescence. For example, a middle school learner may learn about social injustice and how someone might overcome the obstacles, but a high school reader may be confronted with life’s injustices and the frustration with their inability to eradicate it (p. 67).

Having genocide as a topic, then, could motivate students to engage with the materials. Ms. B. was able to help students identify and relate to the topic, making connections to their own knowledge of WWII, injustices they may have heard about on the news, and past instruction. By the end of the genocide unit, students may come to the conclusion that the UN’s intentions to prevent genocide are idealistic, but they lack the power to enter a country and usurp the government and their definition is limited so they do not have to act in cases where injustice and human rights are being violated. Discussions with students that focus beyond content to current issues and social action can motivate students to read (Frey & Fisher, 2014).

Discussion is but one strategy Ms. B. uses to engage her students with ideas and texts. Current strategies used by her department, like CURE and DBQ (data-based questions), force her students to engage with a text for a specific purpose: engaging in critical literacy. Frey and Fisher (2014) describe critical literacy as “the ability of a reader to understand who and what is represented in a text, what bias an author may possess, and how power influences the production of ideas that may or may not represent all viewpoints” (p. 8). These literacy skills, though important to all readers, are more important to historical literacy experts who need to corroborate facts and information across multiple texts and examining the author’s bias and the worldview/context in which the author is situated (Lee & Spratley, 2010).

Another motivating factor for adolescents is having a culturally responsive teacher (Tatum, 2005). Being a primarily white school, STNHS can be culturally responsive by establishing trusting relationships, apprenticing students toward success, and helping students see the relevance of texts in their future life (p. 80). One of the first items Ms. B. addressed in class was a FRQ (free-response question) the students had recently completed for assessment. She said she was almost completed review and making comments. By communicating this information, she acknowledged their work was important enough to warrant time for reading and feedback. Furthermore, one of the few wall items was a letter from her to her students, hopefully aiding students in their pursuit of identity and academic growth.

Writing is also used to engage student with the classroom content. Like discussion, writing invites students to “explore ideas, clarify meaning, and construct knowledge” (Vacca, Vacca & Mraz, 2010). The CURE article students submitted at the beginning of class was an analysis of an article the students chose related to human rights or genocide. It reaffirmed the CURE procedure, added to students’ schema through an authentic text, and allowed them freedom to participate in their own learning. Choice is considered one of the critical elements of motivating students to engage in texts (Guthrie & Davis, 2003). This is echoed by other educators, like Donalyn Miller (2009) and Penny Kittle (2012).

Since I observed Ms. B. on a instructional day primarily filled with lecture, I asked what other ways she motivates or engages her students to engage in historical literacy in and outside of the classroom. She mentioned using Edmodo, an online management system, to send links to her students to resources or articles. She encourages enrichment assignments to respond to video and articles.

She also likes to have her students participate in fishbowls. With these fishbowls, the inside group participates using discussion questions. The outside group might use Today’s Meet, an online, realtime, comment board, to post questions for the group to answer or discuss.

Some assignments or learning tasks incorporate digital literacy, including creating a video blog, recording a conversation or interview with an adult, creating group notes on a Google doc, or listening to YouTube or TedTalks and responding. This is important since digital literacy and technology have begun to play an increasingly central role in society (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006).

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Both set of students, Standard and Honors, engage in large group, small group, and individual learning tasks to promote the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). The CURE strategy is a good example because the students have been indoctrinated since the beginning of the school year and are now completing limited CUREs, since identifying context has become a learned skill.

The use of multimodal literacies, including video, lecture via PP, online surveys and quizzes, and examination of texts, both primary and secondary, is also varied and could help apprentice students into the disciplines (Manderino, 2014). It it could also help motivate students to engage in learning tasks.

Areas of Need and Suggestions

Ms. B. includes a lot of literacy practices in her classroom to promote literacy and engagement with her discipline. She uses varied grouping systems, incorporates multimodal texts, and creates a learning environment where students can ask questions and know they will be supported through the learning process.

However, like any classroom, Ms. B.’s class could use a few improvements to increase motivation and promote engagement in historical literacy. First, the walls in the classroom include a world map, a letter from the teacher, quotes from famous people, a student council board (Ms. B. is one of the group advisors), and a bulletin board with Fishbowl starters.

Though the map would be ideally used to have students connect their readings and the issues they were studying to areas of the world, it was the only visual literacy available to students to view in class. When asked about other items that would be posted during the year, Ms. B. mentioned using the walls to post norms and reviews at the end of a unit. Though the classroom is primarily used for Global Issues and Sociology, other historical literacy visuals could be incorporated for each unit beyond the PowerPoint, becoming a permanent part of the classroom during the unit and creating a more print-rich environment. For example, articles and pictures of groups whose human rights were violated could be posted. Additionally, groups studied in the class as references for genocide could also be posted, adding a reference point to visual learners.

Adding more print to the walls could also increase disciplinary literacy. Brian Vansledright (2012) states, “I am assuming here that reading in history involves a very broad definition, perhaps one bordering more on the idea of a multimodal literacy when we think of all the different types of texts that can be read for historical understanding to grow and deepen.” Historians use texts, video, photos, artifacts, and stories to build a picture of the past, so why not include more multimodal lessons. Furthermore, one difference between the Standard and Honors class in regards to the PowerPoint lecture was limited pictures. There seemed to be more pictures and videos included with the honors students than with the standard. I am not sure if that is a comprehension issue, but “technology is both a facilitator of literacy and a medium of literacy,” and as such, can help improve school literacy (Biancarosa & Snow, 2006).

Another challenge I found was students sometimes spoke to peers, listening to music, or texting on their smartphones rather than pay attention, having Ms. B. restate directions and assignments more than once. Part of the issue was a teacher need to delve into content for those who were prepared versus students who were unmotivated to listen because they were more unmotivated to engage in the learning activity or discussion. Ms. B. did note it was a personal preference to not write up students for this behavior. My concern was lack of motivation and engagement.

I would recommend creating a purpose for the smartphones, like using Poll Everywhere, an online poll website. It would encourage students to participate, learn other classmates’ opinions, and identify areas of clarification so the teacher wouldn’t have to repeat the directions to a learning task. For instance, if I were to incorporate it into the lesson I observed, I could model the first scenario, including the Yes/No and multiple choice questions in the poll. This might also help improve discussion since there is an element of data. Past lessons have included data analysis, so students would be able to identify significant differences and extrapolate the reason for the responses.

Finally, knowing Ms. B. did not have a firm grasp on disciplinary literacy, or incorporating general literacy strategies, I would suggest ongoing professional development. “Learning in each discipline is a way of understanding the various processes, practices, and discourses that characterize that discipline” (Jetton and Lee, 2012). This classroom is incorporating discipline-specific strategies, like a DBQ, data-based question, and FRQ, a free-response question. The CURE strategy also seems to be an effective strategy for students to take a text and carefully read, synthesize, analyze, and intertextually evaluate the ideas, connecting them to a bigger historical question (VanSledright, 2012). This way, Ms. B. and her students can engage in texts from the lens of a historical expert rather than a student of history, emphasizing the differences between disciplines (Shanahan, 2013). These discussions with students could benefit students by giving them the language and vocabulary necessary to navigate and create a deeper understand of the discipline (Baumann & Graves, 2010). I would suggest readings by Cynthia and Tom Shanahan, and Elizabeth Moje’s (2013) online webinar, “Disciplinary literacy: Navigating literacy contexts across secondary schools.”

“All readers, not just those labeled as struggling, benefit from purposeful instruction in strategies that aid in comprehension of academic material (Frey & Fisher, 2014). Suggested reading might include Tovani’s (2000) “I read it, but I don’t get it” for a general overview of comprehension strategies that can help any discipline. These strategies could be a jumping point for more discipline-specific strategies in the history classroom (Jetton & Lee, 2012).

Since I am not a regular observer of this class, it is possible these issues or areas of improvement are addressed in other instructional or personal practices. However, I enjoyed my experience observing Ms. B.’s class for literacy, and appreciated the opportunity to watch and discuss discipline-specific literacy practices she incorporates in the classroom. The methods she used for instruction were consistent with best practices a majority of the time, and any need for improvements could be easily remedied. And as I walked back to the entrance of the school, discussing other literacy practices Ms. B. has included over the school-year, I felt she created a collaborative, engaging environment where students are comfortable learning.


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