The idea was to pilot a new English Language Arts curriculum, which was focused on teaching English while building students' knowledge of other important subjects like the arts, science, and history. Through reading, discussing, and writing about well-chosen texts aligned around a central, knowledge-building topic, students can learn important literacy skills while also building their content knowledge of worthy subjects. I got the idea, but I wasn’t exactly reassured at first glance.
Instead, I was overwhelmed by the quantity and complexity of reading and writing expected from students, and the extensive amount of time we would focus on a single topic. In the first unit of study, students would read a variety of informational texts on the Nez Perce, the Native American tribe featured in the unit’s anchor text, a complex historical fiction novel, Thunder Rolling in the Mountains by Scott O’Dell and Elizabeth Hall. Students would spend almost two full months studying the conflict between the Nez Perce tribe and the early white settlers and U.S. government.
I was sweating. How was I supposed to get a room full of students, with arguably short attention spans, to care about this topic for two full months? Students today too often experience lessons that jump from topic to topic, and our fast-paced, media-driven society inundates them with superficial information. I was confident my kids hadn’t yet developed the mental stamina necessary to engage with this single topic for two months. But I didn’t have a choice. Our leadership team was urging us to leave behind our shallow approach toward teaching and learning – sometimes called “a mile wide and an inch deep” – and teach English through sustained study of significant topics from history, science, and the arts. So, I put my head down and tackled the first unit’s reading material.
After reading through the texts, my fear turned into intrigue. Even as an adult reader, I learned so much about this time period from the curriculum’s fifth grade texts. My skepticism was replaced by a desire to share this new knowledge with my kids. I began to understand the benefits of studying a single historical topic through a variety of text types and perspectives. It would allow me to teach a critical part of American history while also building students’ reading and writing skills. It seemed to be an efficient and effective use of limited class time.
Shifting my teaching was challenging. During the unit, students struggled to understand some of the assigned readings; I was pressed for time and unable to teach everything at the level I wanted; and I missed some opportunities to extend knowledge. But, despite those shortcomings, something magical happened.
We began the unit by reading Chief Joseph’s “Lincoln Hall Speech.” As Chief of the Nez Perce, Chief Joseph gave this speech to government officials in 1879, after the US government forcibly removed his tribe from their homeland. Students followed along as I read the speech aloud, then they answered a few comprehension questions. They left that lesson with a basic understanding of the speech’s main ideas. Six weeks later, however, the curriculum planned for students to read this same speech again. I struggled to see the point of the upcoming rereading. Kids already “understood” it. But I continued on.
Over the next several weeks, I watched students learn more about the Nez Perce through informational articles, videos, historical paintings, and the moving novel Thunder Rolling in the Mountains, narrated from the perspective of Chief Joseph’s daughter. I was dreading the day of returning to Chief Joseph’s speech – I could already hear the complaints – but I began to wonder if my dread was unfounded. If my students had truly deepened their knowledge of the Nez Perce, would they understand Chief Joseph’s speech differently during this second exposure? I braced for the answer to this question when we took out our copies of his speech once again.
There is no possible way I could have been prepared for what happened next. As I was reading the familiar speech aloud, my voice started to quiver. Scanning the room, I saw tears gently rolling down cheeks. When I finished, after a beat of respectful silence, the room erupted into applause. Chills ran through me. Imagine that – a room of twenty-seven children clapping and crying and cheering over Chief Joseph’s powerful words. I remember thinking, “How is this possible? They already knew what this long-ago speech is about! What is there possibly to applaud over?”
To this day, I remember those chills. And I remember how that moment, and that speech, and that group of students forever changed what I think about knowledge building and its place in our English classes. You see, I had mistakenly believed, and taught, that it was enough to read and discuss a text once, then move onto a new topic. I rarely looked for opportunities to build students’ knowledge by re-reading material, connecting individual texts on a subject, or studying a single topic for a sustained amount of time. The tears and applause I witnessed in that class were two months in the making. By examining different perspectives on this one topic through rich texts from a variety of genres, students got it. Day after day, they grew closer to the Nez Perce through our sustained study of the tribe’s culture. And by the end of the unit, students were rooting for the Nez Perce because of this purposeful immersion.
I think about these students often. Now that I write lessons for the same non-profit curriculum they studied, I know even more about the world of knowledge they and other students will encounter. Students’ knowledge of US history will build gradually over the years. For example, kindergarteners will explore the past and present of the United States, contrasting their own lives with those of American lives long ago. In second grade, they will plant the seeds for understanding Chief Joseph’s speech by learning about pioneers and Native American tribes in the early American west. As seventh and eighth graders, they will examine the global conflicts of World Wars I and II. And they won’t just learn about US history. They will gradually build deep knowledge of art, world history, and science as well, studying diverse topics ranging from the seven continents to space exploration.
And here’s the best part of all of this: you can build deep content-area knowledge while teaching English. Choose an important topic to explore with your students, then combine rich informational, literary, and art texts, and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe in two months, your students will be applauding, too.