(Note from Dave: Heidi Bonnema calls herself a “baby teacher,” but this is more a testament to her humility than it is to her skill level. I'm honored to call her, not just a colleague, but a friend. If you follow Teaching the Core's article of the week list, you'll have noticed that, lately, the articles come from Heidi. What's awesome is that while these articles are relevant to my freshman world history students as a means of building their background knowledge, Heidi uses these in the elective classes she teaches, such as “Career and Life Skills” and “Food and Nutrition.” Because I respect her and her work so much, I asked if she'd mind sharing with you why she chooses to use AoWs [which, to be clear, are the original idea of Kelly Gallagher] in “non-core” classes.)
I’m lucky enough to have a collaborative colleague like Dave Stuart in my life as a baby teacher. Thanks to him, I know better than to be freaked out about the Common Core.
It’s also because of Dave that I know what an “article of the week” (AoW) is, and I've found this assignment to be one of the easiest ways to focus on practical reading and writing skills (especially R.CCR.1 and W.CCR.1 and W.CCR.2). The format we have been using gives students a clear focus for their reading as well as their writing. I would not use the AoW in my class if I didn’t have the vividly clear rubric and format that states specifics on how they are graded (for an example of the format, check this out). I really enjoy using the AoW in my classes because they add quality content and practical tools that students can use in any subject for reading and writing.
AoWs augment the curriculum with current material
I'm going to make a claim some will balk at: the AoW can be added to ANY content area.
What? I could be teaching writing skills in Math class, you say? Food and Nutrition? Career and Life Skills?
The beauty of the article of the week is that it augments whatever curriculum you already have in place. I don’t know about you, but the textbooks our public school provides me with are pretty outdated. I think my current Food and Nutrition class textbook is 14 years old. My students learned the joys of Olestra (and all the side effects) last week because it was a “new technological food advancement” when their textbook was written.
Now again, I don't know about you, but I don’t have time or energy to fight for new textbooks. I do, however, have access to credible online resources for information that I can pass on to my students that is far more up-to-date (thanks, Internet). Using the AoW rubric and standard format, it is easy to pop an AoW in my lesson plans to bring current information to whatever topic I’m teaching. Once I teach kids how to tackle an AoW a few times, they understand the process and consistently produce great results. It’s also often far more interesting content for my students, probably because I am interested in the article — this means it's more fun for me to teach.
I also offer bonus points, homework passes and/or shameless praise to any student who sends me a link to a possible article. How much more engagement could a teacher ask for? If a teenage student sees something outside of class and considers the fact that they could contribute to their classmates learning and takes the time to alert their teacher to this thing they stumbled upon… Now that's what I like to see! This uncommon occurrence needs to be celebrated, and so I do so unabashedly.
I have also noticed an interesting side effect during AoW discussion: students start to gain a more accurate understanding of their place in the world. They realize that America is, in fact, not the center of the universe, and that the rest of the world often has opinions that vary from those common in the USA. They may learn that we have things way easier than the majority of the people here on Earth.
Students begin to develop reading skills that are 100% applicable in all content areas
Because I teach a wide range of student ages, grade levels, and learning abilities, I need assignments that are practical and useful to everyone involved. The AoW rubric we have set up (again, here's a sample AoW in case you missed the link above) gives half the points for close reading and half the points for writing. I think this is so important in helping students change how they do assignments.
How often have we seen this scenario: A class is assigned “read chapter 4, answer questions 1-10.” The students open to the question page and begin to answer questions without reading the chapter at all. They hunt for the bold words, they find headings, and take shortcuts to get the assignment done and off their homework list. In the time they spend hunting for answers they probably could have just done the close reading of the chapter, and then smoothly answered the questions. Thinking it’s shorter to skip the reading, they miss out on the meat that the author intended in the first place. Putting the importance on the reading by giving it 50% of the grade value stresses to students the benefits of reading closely for meaning the first time.
Close reading is a skill they will use the rest of their lives! If they learn this, and it becomes a habit, they will become better students and better humans.
When I was a kid it wasn’t called “Close Reading.” Somehow I learned that I read better with a pen in my hand, and do so to this day. The fact that close reading is half their grade is a super clear way to communicate the importance of the habit of reading toward a purpose — in the case of the AoW, it's reading toward the purpose of, first, understanding, and then second, entering the conversation of which the article is a part. If this becomes a habit, they will begin to close read in other subject areas, and their overall learning, retention, and application will produce students that are unstoppable.
I teach for free, they pay me to grade
Some skills students (especially my Freshmen) are consistently lacking are finding evidence, finding a main idea, and using that information to back up their arguments. AoWs help students gain skills in this area. When they are focused on their close reading, looking for the main idea and ways to back up why they believe this IS the main idea, they are then able to easily apply the main idea in a written response.
I hate grading essays, but the “They say/I say” format gives students a really good way to get into habitual writing. When asked to write on pretty much any topic, they might have the mental muscle memory to fall back on this exact format and produce a pretty great essay. It has a spot for a parenthetical citation, a place for their personal opinion, and even a rebuttal. If they can consistently nail this format, even the most struggling writer will have no problem organizing their thoughts and ideas into a masterpiece.
I don’t let my kids go over 250 words (1 lined page in their written response). Again, I hate grading, and I don’t want to read crap (x75). I also don’t want to read 75 versions of the article rewritten with their opinions randomly inserted. They need to be direct, back up their thoughts with evidence, and give me quality, not quantity. A bad and annoying habit many students develop is a long, wordy page of barf that they think is amazing simply because it is stretched to two pages. I do not want them to get verbally assaulted by their boss someday when they write some wordy drivel instead of getting to the point (click here for more on skills employers want). When followed closely, the template is pretty darn close to 250 words. In preparing students for college and real life, the ability to write succinctly is a valuable skill. And if they are using the “They Say/I Say” template, these short essays become incredibly easy to grade and great practice for fluid writing in the future.
I believe kids need to be busy preparing for life — but not with mere busy work. That's why I use article of the week assignment in my elective classes: when my students apply themselves to the task, they develop solid literacy of all the good habits my students can get into if they use it well. All of the AoWs are current, relevant information, which has the potential to add depth to any subject. But probably most importantly, it combines the skills necessary for success in life and in other classes with content relevant to my class.