By Javonne Stewart, Sixth Grade Lead Teacher
Attributed to Margaret Fuller, an American writer, journalist, and literary critic, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader” is a quote that has shaped my approach to teaching nonfiction reading in all subject areas. Reading is truly the gateway to knowledge, creativity, and exploration. I believe that encouraging students to be avid readers is the beginning to shaping and molding the leaders of tomorrow. This is why a focus on literacy is both exciting and fulfilling. At Trinity, we are equipped with the tools to teach reading in a way that allows students to inquire, understand different perspectives, and drive change.
Non-fiction reading allows students to not only imagine but also solve problems in all content areas: word problems in mathematics, hypotheses in the sciences, and social issues in world cultures. Ben Johnson, an author and educator for Edutopia.com, writes, “In order for all this [cross-curricular instruction] to happen in a sustainable way in our schools, deeper learning requires that groups of teachers pool their talents, resources, time, and efforts to maximize coherence, relevance, and connections among the content areas.”
Trinity is already ahead of the game. Empowering students in their learning is a pillar of our community, a permanent fixture. Because of this, my reading instruction focuses on students’ not only developing a deeper understanding of how to read, but also building a reading toolbox of skills that will help them excel in school and throughout their life. Ultimately, I hope that students will leave Trinity as critical readers who are open to what reading has to offer and able to make decisions based on the knowledge that they have gained through reading.
How might reading instruction do this? At Trinity, instruction for the younger learners focuses mostly on decoding, blending words, developing stamina, and acquiring vocabulary. As students reach the Upper Elementary Division, the focus moves to comprehension and literary analysis, differentiation between certain types of texts, and research skill development. Students in Fifth and Sixth Grade are encouraged to think more deeply while reading, to determine fact versus opinion, to make evidenced-based arguments, and to develop their own thought processes.
For example, in my Sixth Grade social studies class I teach students that to engage with a text in a thoughtful and purposive manner requires preparation. At the beginning of the school year, prior to students’ reading about a particular topic, I prepare them to be critical thinkers and readers by having them participate in debate exercises. The game Pro/Con is one such exercise.
During Pro/Con, two students sit in chairs that face one another. One student is asked to be the defender and the other is asked to be the controller. I give the defender a topic, such as “conflict,” and the controller is given the responsibility of changing between the words “pro” and “con.” As the controller switches, the defender must give as many reasons as possible that make an argument for or against the word “conflict.”
Through this exercise, students learn that there is always more than one side to a story and that having prior knowledge about a topic helps them build an argument. We do this activity again after reading about conflict within a civilization, ancient Rome for example, and this time students have to use evidence from the text to support their assertions. This may seem complicated, but students learn that:
- evidence-based assertions lend credibility to their argument;
- research skills are necessary to take a stance, and thorough research makes for a stronger argument; and
- reading (comprehension, making assertions, critical analysis, etc.) is what underpins the credibility of their argument.
Pro/Con is also a gateway into teaching students that these literacy skills can be used in all content areas. For example, in science, your hypothesis does not stick unless you have evidence to back it up. In math, showing your work is proof that your answer is strong. In language arts, your ideas are more developed when details are added or when they are well-researched with evidence and citations included.
The beauty of the debate activities in my social studies class is that students are completely engaged in crafting their sides of an argument and, at the same time, they are reading across the content area, making assertions, and refuting statements. They are, in essence, questioning the author, identifying problems, and devising solutions. These are all skills that are learned through a strong nonfiction reading program. Simultaneously, students are empowered as critical thinkers: thinkers who can pull apart (deduce) and put together (synthesize) information, and who can formulate their own ideas and opinions.
By making cross-curricular connections with literacy and other essential skills, Trinity students are empowered to take ownership of their learning, paving the way for them to be the leaders of tomorrow.