In this post, two state-level ELA leaders share their insights after working with the Student Achievement Partners (SAP) team to design the World Knowledge Companion Text Sets project. Download the World Knowledge Companion Text Sets.
Over the past 7 months, the SAP team joined forces with state-level literacy leaders to develop a guidance resource that supports educators in creating impactful secondary text sets. Rooted in the principles of academic growth, community and connection, expanding perspective, together with agency and autonomy, the World Knowledge Companion Text Sets provide opportunities for students to explore themselves, others, and the world around them through literacy.
Below Naomi Watkins and Jason Stephenson share their reflections on the inspiration and purpose of this work.
What inspired you to commit to co-designing the World Knowledge Companion Text Sets?
JS: After I heard a virtual presentation from SAP about some of their work in English language arts, I was reminded of their helpful resources. I scoured their website and printed numerous SAP handouts. My colleague from Utah, Naomi, said she was interested in working together on a project with them, so the plan easily formed from there. Also, in my state, I have pushed for more literature circles at the secondary level, so implementing text sets seemed like a natural next step.
NW: Background knowledge about the world is so essential to reading comprehension, and many students do not have the background knowledge to adequately comprehend the texts that they are assigned to read in their content area classes. I view World Knowledge Companion Text Sets as a powerful tool to support students in building this essential knowledge.
What opportunities do the World Knowledge Companion Text Sets create for the teaching and learning experiences in middle and high school classrooms?
JS: This guidance creates numerous student-centered opportunities for reading and writing. Teachers work in advance to curate a cohesive text set about a relevant topic. Students then get to explore the topic through multiple perspectives and genres, thus building their background knowledge. Whether there are required reads in the text set, or students have total freedom as to which texts to read, students can deepen their comprehension of the topic, which can lead to authentic writing and research. The shorter and more accessible texts that comprise a text set invite all students to read about and analyze the topic—even those students whose stamina is low when reading longer texts.
NW: Traditionally, secondary ELA educators organize their instruction around singular novels. When asked what they are teaching, they may respond with, “I’m teaching Hamlet or The Outsiders,” but state standards rarely, if ever, mention specific titles of novels or texts that need to be taught. Standards can really be taught with almost any text, which is one of the many things I love about ELA!
As ELA educators, I believe our charge is to help our students understand why we read, why we write, why we communicate—and then, we must support students in developing and fine-tuning these skills, so that they are able to access, interact with, and create knowledge on their own. However, when we organize instruction solely around novels, we often miss the opportunity to explicitly show students why we read and how this reading connects them to the larger world. They may think we read to answer test questions or write essays or because the teacher assigned it. Instead, when instruction is organized around essential questions about the world, and texts are selected that respond to these questions, students then are brought into the greater community of world engagers and knowledge builders. This interaction is how we as adults use reading in our daily lives. We usually are seeking to answer questions: How much of this film is actually based on real-life events? How do I file my taxes? How can I better communicate with my boss? Why is there continued conflict in the Middle East? We must show students this real-life application, and that begins with how we structure our instruction.
What is something you would want educators to know when considering the use of text sets in their planning and instruction?
JS: Using text sets will allow students to more deeply explore a topic on their own terms since they choose the modes and genres they find most appealing. Since you as the teacher have curated the list of high-quality and varied options, anything that students select will be informative, relevant, and engaging. Building an effective text set can take time, so plan to add just one per semester or school year. If you work on a large team, perhaps you could each take turns building a text set throughout the school year. Eventually, you will have multiple text sets to use with each novel study or literature circle. Text sets have the power to help students build their world knowledge, so students will have greater comprehension of other texts after the text set experience.
NW: I hear from educators that they are frustrated by their secondary students who are not engaged in reading. Often, these educators struggle with showing students the relevance of what they are reading.
While planning instruction around essential questions and text sets may be a big lift at the beginning in regards to planning and implementation, I can guarantee that the payoff will be great since less time will be spent on trying to convince students and more time will be spent on student engagement and deep learning.