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Deeper Learning Through Complex Text

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    April Hattori

Director of Curriculum Development Suzanne Plaut discussed Deeper Learning through the study of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a blog comment today.  She wrote it in response to the blog post “A Cautionary Tale: The Difference between Close Reading and Rereading.”

Here is Suzanne’s comment:

We appreciate your well-reasoned and critical stance toward CCSS implementation. As the Director of Curriculum Design for Expeditionary Learning, I follow your blog regularly, and have particularly appreciated your recent posts about the role of informational text with an expository (rather than narrative) structure.

The lessons you mention – in which 5th graders read select articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – are a part of NYSED’s CCSS-aligned curriculum “modules” provided for ELA teachers. We selected this text because it meets many of the criteria demanded by the CCSS and aligns closely with New York social studies standards. It merits close reading, both in terms of what it offers and what it demands. Portions of this text are read as part of larger 8-week study of human rights. To get a fuller picture of the module, see http://commoncoresuccess.elschools.org/curriculum/grade-5/module-1.

It is important to note that only 11 of the 30 articles in the UDHR are included in the curriculum: all students read Articles 1, 2, 3, and 6; students then specialize in small groups in two or three other articles. We carefully selected these 11 articles because they are more relevant to 5th graders (e.g. Article 23 regarding the right to education), more accessible, and rich with vocabulary that will help students understand important social studies concepts and empower them when they read other texts (e.g. Article 1 regarding the right to be treated with dignity). We recognize this text is challenging. Teachers in Expeditionary Learning schools helped author these lessons and have infused them with a high expectation of what students can do based on their own experience from their classrooms.

During lessons, students are encouraged to “grapple” with each article and also have myriad opportunities for peer interaction and teacher support. They hear each article read aloud while they follow along in the text, reread each article multiple times, watch a background video on the UN, focus on specific vocabulary, sketch the meaning of the articles, “nick-name” the articles, work in smaller “expert groups” on just two or three articles, have myriad conversations with their peers to build understanding, and compare the original UDHR to a “plain language” version. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are integrated, as is demanded by the CCSS. All lessons include additional recommendations for ways to support struggling readers or English Language Learners.

Students are engaged in deeper learning, applying and synthesizing their learning about human rights after studying UDHR. They use “human rights” as one lens through which to analyze the challenges that Esperanza and her family face in the novel Esperanza Rising. Providing students with the analytical framework of human rights deeply enhances their understanding of this novel, and also directly addresses CCSS RL.5.2 – “Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges….”

We agree that new curriculum should be field tested and assessed to make sure it works in practice. Many teachers throughout New York State used this curriculum in the 2012-13 school year and provided us with specific feedback, which we used as the basis for revisions. Teachers using our curriculum have consistently reported how powerfully students respond to this investigation of the UDHR.

Dorenda Johnson, a 5th grade teacher at Unadilla Valley Central School in New Berlin, NY, who has been teaching for 29 years, said that studying UDHR has led to less bullying and has made her students more compassionate. “We talked about Malala Yousafzai, a student in Pakistan who was shot by the Taliban in October 2012 because they banned girls from going to school. After showing students a CNN interview, a boy in my class who was not into learning, brought in an article he saw about Malala. He did that after learning about the right to education in the UDHR.”

She added that she does not think the UDHR is too difficult for 5th graders. “People need to come in and watch and see what happens. It’s rigorous, but I think students can handle it. We underestimate their capacity to learn. If we don’t believe they can, they won’t believe they can. If you believe, they will feel it, see it in your eyes, and hear it in your voice.”

We welcome continued dialogue about text selection and instruction.