In our class, we regularly check our books and count book check grades when calculating our participation. We use the following 10 point scale:
- 9-10 Significant Passages of the text are highlighted/underlined with key words circled and marginal notations are meaningful and consistent throughout the assignment.
- 7-8 Significant passages are highlighted/underlined and some marginal notations are evident.
- 6 Some underlining/highlighting is evident although it is inconsistent and there are few, if any, marginal notations.
- 4-5 Student brought their book, but did not highlight or underline.
- 0-3 Student did not bring a book.
We let students develop their own methods and are quite open to a variety of different styles. Some use highlighters, others different colored pens. Some keep notes in the front pages of their books, and some rely solely on the margins. Our guidelines are much less exacting than the method of my 11th Grade American Literature teacher and personal teaching hero Marie Stone, who would merely have us turn to a page and grade us simply on whether we had the correct passage marked, had written character names and key themes at the top, and taken notes in margins that met her criterion of what was important.
Yet like Stone, we require our students to consistently mark up their texts. We do this for a variety of reasons, and, in fact, using it as a way to hold our students accountable for the reading is perhaps the least important. We insist our students master this skill during their junior year because it is the best mechanism we have for making them engaged and active readers.
Throughout my 10 years of teaching, I have found that there is a direct correlation between my best students and those who demonstrate active reading by annotating their texts. In fact, it is nearly always the case that our students overall grades almost exactly mimic their performance on book checks. Of course those students who consistently score well on book checks are the most diligent, but more importantly, they are the most engaged and have the best command of the material. It isn’t so much that they have an easier time recalling the text or finding salient passages to augment their points in our discussions or when writing papers, they do, but more importantly they demonstrate the critical thinking skills necessary to dig deeply beyond the surface of the text and make the broader connections necessary for success in our course and beyond. Through developing a method of annotating texts that works for them, they gain possession of the active reading skills that will serve them well as they continue the lifelong process of learning.
Three years ago after a long and deliberate process, our school adopted an American Studies to replace our traditional US History and American Literature curriculum. The inspiration for this course which currently serves 2/3 of our junior class came both from my and my co-teacher’s American Studies backgrounds and our frustration with the apparent and unnecessary disconnect between our US History and American Literature courses. Oftentimes, students would be studying Antebellum America while reading The Great Gatsby, and students weren’t given the opportunity to see the inherent connections between the historical period of a text and the text itself. Furthermore, they seemed to see the skills they learned about close reading and critical thinking in each class as distinct and separate and only applicable to each specific discipline. In rethinking how we could best serve our students, we wanted more than just a chronological alignment of the curriculum. We wanted to give them both the tools and resources to be able to see and understand a fuller picture of how history and culture inform and are informed by each other. Furthermore, we wanted them to see that the tools of textual analysis and critical thinking apply to all kinds of texts, and we wanted to be able to serve all of our students, both high end and struggling learners better in a heterogeneous and team-taught class.
The course we came up with integrates a variety of web 2.0 platforms, many types of texts (including readings, images, films, and songs), and different modes of learning that enable us to differentiate and meet the needs of a diverse student body. A sample lesson might include reading Mary Rowlandson’s Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration “To My Dear and Loving Husband” and “On the Burning of Our House” by Anne Bradstreet while examining documents from Digital History to see points of connection and disconnection between Puritan ideals and real, lived experience. We use both traditional and 21st century types of assessments. Students blog, write lengthy research papers on a topic of their choice related to American History, create websites about artifacts from the University of Virginia’s Special Collections, present on supreme court cases, and regularly participate in seminar discussions to name just a few of our modes of assessment. Right now, we are currently reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (see lesson plan for the opening day) and studying the Great Depression using many different kinds of images including WPA posters and photographs. Our students each analyzed contribution of the WPA for homework last night. Some of which can be found at our class blog.
The course continues to evolve and we continue to refine it, but we have been pleased with the success of our students of all levels. We have been able to prepare a significant number of our students to earn college credit worthy scores on the APUSH exam while at the same time helping students who had previously struggled in our former discipline specific curriculum really thrive. I could write pages and pages, and I will. Consider this post just a brief introduction to our program.