"There are different ways that we take in information. So thinking about text sets and the way to teach with them is allowing us to really build that differentiation into our lessons and our units even from the planning stage. So we're anticipating the types of learners who might walk into a room."
In this Episode
In the upcoming Text Sets in Action: Pathways through Content Area Literacy, Mary Ann Cappiello and Erika Thulin Dawes reveal how text sets can prompt serious thinking more effectively than any single text. Teachers who adopt this approach find that the texts’ various lenses enable students not only to meet curriculum standards but also to experience lasting engagement and a spirit of inquiry across the disciplines.
In today’s podcast, Mary Ann and Erika share their background and the origin and definition of a text set, what educators will learn from their new book, and are joined by Lorraine Leddy, a classroom teacher from New York, for an in-depth discussion about her experience collaborating with them to introduce text sets in her third grade classroom and the benefits of a text sets approach in curriculum design. Lots of material to think about in this one, hope you enjoy it.
Listen to this episode
About the authors
Mary Ann Cappiello is a former English Language Arts and Humanities teacher and middle grade curriculum facilitator for language arts and social studies and is currently a Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University. She is co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.
Erika Thulin Dawes is Professor of Language and Literacy at Lesley University where she strives to equip teachers with a passion for children’s literature and a wealth of creative teaching strategies. She has worked as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, and a literacy supervisor. Erika is co-author of Teaching with Text Sets and Teaching to Complexity.
Read the transcript
Mary Ann: Hi, I'm Mary Ann Cappiello, co-author of Text Sets in Action, and I'm a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University.
Erika: And hello, I'm Erika Thulin Dawes, co-author of Text Sets in Action, and I'm a professor of language and literacy in the Graduate School of Education at Lesley University and the program director for the Early Childhood Education program.
Mary Ann: In the spring of 1997, I was teaching eighth grade English language arts, and I was in graduate school and I was doing an independent study on historical fiction. Young adult historical fiction, which was a passion of mine.
While driving to New York City from my classroom to meet with my advisor, I had this idea that I was going to write my own young adult historical novel.
I was trying to write this historical novel set during the American revolution. And so I was doing all sorts of book reading and trying to learn about everyday life, trying to learn the names of pieces of clothing and pieces of furniture. I was researching historic cookbooks and then taking open hearth cooking lessons at a historic site to figure out what that was like and what did things feel like and what did food taste like and smell like. I had this really full immersion into learning about life in the 18th century. And what I discovered was that I was remembering small details that I never would have remembered before if I hadn't really cared about why I was learning all of this. So I was learning it all to be able to create a story, to create a world up and running in my imagination and to try to write about it for young people.
And so really what happened was certainly yes, did I grow as a writer and try to figure out how to write a novel? Yes. But more importantly, I started looking at my classroom very differently and I started thinking about how can I create these kinds of multimodal learning experiences for my students. And those experiences kind of dovetailed, well, in two different ways in my classroom where part of it was curricular, how do I create curriculum that is more multimodal and multi-genre that has students in the center of the learning navigating texts, and simultaneously, how do I foster individual passions and interests in students?
But when I look back and I think of that spring of 1997, it really was also my first experience with text sets because I had inherited a curriculum where I was being asked to teach The Diary of Anne Frank with my eighth graders, and I knew that many of my students were not ready to read that book from all sorts of contexts. They weren't ready for the content, they weren't ready for the lengths, they weren't ready for the readability of the text. I knew that there was a better way to do it and that was the catalyst for me to starting to shift my approach in the classroom for students reading a range of texts. And so these two catalysts for me really unfolded at the same time. I just didn't realize it at the time. Erika?
Erika: Across my career in education, I've worked as a classroom teacher, a reading specialist, a literacy supervisor, and now a teacher educator. But when I started out as a first grade teacher, I brought with me a strong love of children's books. I read wonderful trade books aloud every day and did everything I could to fill the classroom with a broad collection of books for my students to explore. I think fondly of one of my most magical teaching moments that happened in that first grade classroom, and it involved a box of paperback non-fiction books about animals that I had picked up in a warehouse sale. So following our regular morning meeting, I took that box and appended it onto the floor in the center of our circle. And then the students and I spent a blissful hour and a half browsing those books, sharing what we were discovering with one another.
So for me, this experience really showcases the power of multiple texts. As the students compare the photographs and facts across these informational books, they were learning so much. They were learning about animal behaviors of adaptations, and they were also learning about non-fiction genres text structures, text features. We were really immersed in curiosity, inquiry and wonder at the natural world.
A few years later when I began a doctoral program at teacher's college, I was able to then map educational theory onto these teaching practices and to view that moment on the rug as a really powerful example of socio-cultural learning. So as they browsed and chatted about these books, my students were not only learning about animals and genres. They were really also learning about themselves as learners within a learning community.
As I continued my studies, I came to see the potential of teaching with multiple texts within a critical literacy framework. And in my work supporting children, teachers, and graduate students from more than 25 years now, I've seen over and over how the use of text sets promotes not only critical thinking, but also motivation, engagement perspective taking, and really a deep love of learning.
Mary Ann: When you open up Text Sets with Action, part one is comprised of two chapters. What we try to do in part one is introduce you first to the concept of a text set. What is it? What is a multimodal multi-genre text set? We define a text set as a series of texts that are print texts of multiple genres, as well as digital texts of all forms. And we take a very broad definition of a text. An email is a text. A book is a text. A painting is a text. A street sign is a text. So the whole world is a possibility for us when we're designing text sets.
We then go into chapter one just talking a little bit about our process for finding and locating high quality texts, both finding children's and middle grade books of all genres, as well as digital texts.
We then walk our readers through the process of looking at texts in different categories. And then we position text into what we call our instructional models, different ways of arranging and organizing texts. And our names for the instructional models are really metaphors for the kinds of critical thinking that we hope young people can do as they're negotiating and navigating these texts.
And then chapter two talks about the concept of disciplinary literacy. What are the very specific ways in which people in different fields of study talk to one another? What are the kinds of texts that are produced? How are they created? How is knowledge constructed? How is knowledge constructed in science in a way that's different than the ways that knowledge is constructed in the field of history?
And so we try to harness those big conversations that are taking place in the disciplines and talk about how we can use that to help shape and organize text sets.
Erika: In part two of the book, we provide examples of text sets in action. Each chapter here focuses on a content area, including language arts, social studies, mathematics, and science. So in each we offer the story of a unit of study in a classroom, sharing the planning process, the text of models we used and samples of student work and outcomes. These chapters are meant to demonstrate the promise of teaching with text sets along with the joyful messiness of life in classrooms. We're honest about what worked and what we might do differently next time.
Throughout these chapters, we've included the voices of the wonderful teachers who allowed us to work alongside them. Our goal with these chapters is to demonstrate the power of a deliberate sequencing and juxtaposition of text sets within a unit of study in order to foster critical thinking, disciplinary literacies, and a consideration of multiple perspectives. Our hope is that these chapters inspire you to bring text sets into your daily practice.
Mary Ann: And to help you do that, we have part three of the book. In part three, we've created four different text sets that can be used for units of study in each of the four core content areas, and it's up to you to choose how you want to use these text sets. You could use all of the text sets that we present on a particular topic, or you can customize it and select one or two texts sets as manageable next steps for your practice.
So now we'd like to bring someone else into the conversation. I'd like to introduce Lorraine Leddy.
Lorraine: Hi there.
Mary Ann: Welcome Lorraine.
Lorraine: Hi. My name's Lorraine Leddy. I am a third grade teacher at Murray Avenue School in the Mamaroneck Union Free School District, right outside of New York City. I'm currently in my sixth year as a classroom teacher and I spent four years teaching in my hometown in Massachusetts before relocating to New York at the beginning of the 2019/2020 school year, which turned crazy as I'm sure you can imagine. But the reason that I'm here today is because I'm a proud graduate of Lesley University's master program for specialist teacher reading, which is where I met Mary Ann and Erika and became one of their collaborators.
Erika: And Lorraine, we were so thrilled when you agreed to work with us, but what made you want to participate in this project when we first approached you about working on teaching with text sets?
Lorraine: Absolutely. I was fortunate enough to be a student of Mary Ann's in her non-fiction course at Lesley in my very first semester there. It was such a formative course for me in thinking about the power of nonfiction. I've always loved non-fiction as a reader, and it had been something that I didn't feel fully prepared after my undergraduate degree in first few years of teaching to really infuse into my classroom. That joy for non-fiction that I felt as a reader wasn't truly translating to my teaching. And whether that was sort of the confines of the curriculum or just the way I was approaching it, I wasn't really sure. It wasn't until I took Mary Ann's course that I really started to see the potential that nonfiction has for being a teaching tool across the curriculum. Even within each literary unit of study, there's a place for non-fiction.
I had attended the International Literacy Association conference the same summer that I was in Mary Ann's course and hearing from some non-fiction authors at different panels at that conference, I was really thinking about just the role nonfiction plays in our world and the ways that we can infuse it into our classroom to benefit our students. So when I heard about the opportunity to collaborate on a biography genre study and think about what this would look like for third graders, I was so excited to jump on board because I knew that it would push my practice as a teacher and also allow my students to open that door to building this lifelong love of true stories and real life stories, what's out there for them to celebrate and learn about the world.
We collaborated while I was teaching a class of third grade students and our goal was really to create a biography genre study in which students would start by exploring the works of one particular author illustrator pair with a variety of biography subjects, then broaden their exploration to a number of different picture book biographies before stepping into the role of writer and thinking about how they could craft somebody's life story using both words and images.
So we had students progress from being consumers of biographies to creators of biographies over the course of our unit. I think students really grew from people who were taking in the concept of those mentor tacks, what they could learn from the authors and illustrators of the biographies, not just by looking at their work in terms of the text and images they created to tell the life story, but also to look closely at the back matter and the authors and illustrators notes where I think that picture book creators give us so much information about the moves they've made as researchers and as creators to dig deep into someone's life story, and then think about how they can best craft it on the page.
So we really saw students move throughout those roles of just enjoying a picture book to looking at it deeply, to looking at it alongside other picture books in that true text set model. And finally, to thinking about how they could create their own picture books about people in our community.
Erika: You know that Mary Ann and I have been writing together for many years now, that we really believe in the power of collaboration both between teachers and among students. Could you talk a little bit about what our collaboration was like. What was challenging about it, what was sustaining about it? What did you notice happening with your students?
Lorraine: Absolutely. I think we started with this vision of what would happen if we truly allowed students to dig deep with biography and explore what it has to offer as a genre and the ways that biography can help us learn about interesting life stories, but also model research and what it means to be a researcher in the world by looking at what authors and illustrators do when crafting biography. So I think we had this really clear vision of the takeaways that we wanted students to walk away with. We also had a really clear vision of how to get started in terms of exploring biography and the breadth of the genre. I think we had a really clear start and end, and the question was like, how are we going to connect these things? And I think that's where our collaboration was steepest, it was in looking at the students as our curriculum and seeing how they sort of were encountering biography and all of those things and making decisions about what we were going to do
So when we started, we knew we were going to have students craft biographies of their own, but we weren't quite sure do we want them to be about contemporary figures, people in our community, people from the past. What do we want to craft here? And it wasn't until we sort of dug into that work together of thinking like, okay, well, how can we take this to the kids? How can we prioritize the kids in our own collaboration? I think that's what was so sustaining for me, the concept of using the kids as our curriculum and as the thing that we're walking in every day and looking at them and thinking, what are they presenting to us and how can we take that in directions that we know will benefit them as lifelong learners and as readers and as writers.
I think collaborating with each other was such a great way to have people as thinking partners when you're looking at the students and what you're doing in your day to day anecdotal assessment of students, and then having people to talk to about I noticed they're really getting this, or they're getting really excited about this portion of biography. How do we take this and run with it? And just to be able to collaborate with one another in that way was so sustaining for me. So that's something I still carry with me to this day, that noticing that when we really followed what the kids were presenting to us, it led us to deeper areas of inquiry in our own teaching and the way that we were going into the project.
Erika: Yeah. One really powerful example of that that I remember well is when we were focusing on characterization, we were noticing that these, beginning of the year, third graders really didn't have language to describe what they were observing about character. And so we were able to make that adjustment and come up with some concrete strategies to give them words to put to the ideas that they were forming. So we really did live the experience of better together in this project.
Erika: So what has been the impact of our collaboration on your curriculum design and teaching? What have you've taken with you from this experience?
Lorraine: One thing I think I've taken with me that I was just talking to some colleagues about today was the power of reflection. I think that we spend so much time as teachers crafting these really wonderful units of study and we're well-planned and we know what the standards are, we know where we want students to be. Sometimes we can get caught up in that day one, day two, day three, day four mentality of everything being pre-planned for us and sort of knowing that it's there, we've done that work, so we're just sort of going through the motions. Whereas I think in our collaboration, I had the opportunity every single day to reflect on what was happening with my students not just personally and in conversation with one another when the two of you were in my classroom, but also in writing.
Every day I would write about what I saw the students doing and questions I had about where we could go next or thoughts I was having about, should we do this? Should we do that? There were a lot of times where we noticed that what we had was really well planned and there was room to put in some additional things to support students in what we were seeing from them. So I think that's something I've definitely carried with me, just the ability to be responsive to students. I think so much plays into that, whether it's checking for understanding in the midst of a lesson, at the end of a lesson, and thinking about how do I meet kids where they are, how do I read the room as the teacher and see what they're getting and how I can build on their strengths while also supporting the things that I notice aren't coming quite as easily. So that's definitely something that I've taken with me is that concept of reflection.
The other thing that really stands out to me that I've tried to infuse so much into my teaching since our collaboration together has just been the authenticity that we ended up with in this project. Our students ended up composing biographies about members of our community. So we collected from students, who might you like to interview? Some students said, "I want to interview a singer," or, "I want to interview an athlete." It was really amazing to try to put the pieces together and realize all the different roles and jobs and fields that are represented within a community. So we ended up having these really meaningful matches between students and then people in the community who were living out those dreams that the students wanted to learn more about.
It was amazing to have a kid researching the life of somebody who was a historian and he got to talk to that man about his life's work. And then we had other students interviewing a woman who worked in our school cafeteria who also was a singer on the weekends and performed at local restaurants. So, I think that the thing that stands out most to me is that students took this project so seriously because they were really interested with someone else's life story. Like that's such a big deal to be like, "Here's this person's life. I want to capture it on paper. I want to communicate the big ideas and the big messages here. How am I going to do that?" And truly we saw so much from the students when they were entrusted with that.
I know we've reflected on this before that these were often the longest pieces of writing that these third graders had ever composed. I mean, they were measuring dozens of pages for some of these students. I think that having that authenticity, that real life purpose of this is someone's story and I'm entrusted with it and what am I going to do with it, how am I going to communicate it in the way that I want to communicate it, that is so powerful and I think that authenticity can be infused in every type of writing, whether it's opinion. We want real life things that kids care about, where they feel that passion for the topic. Even with fiction, what story do you want to tell? What makes you feel that fire within you that feels so authentic to you that you want to put this message into the world? That's something that I'm constantly thinking about now is just what creative ways can we bring that authenticity into our classrooms in the best interest of kids.
Mary Ann: If you were going to share with one of your colleagues what you think the greatest benefits are to a text set approach to curriculum design, what are some of the things that you'd share with them?
Lorraine: Oh my gosh, I have so many things I could say about teaching text sets and why I think it's really the way to go no matter what type of unit you're teaching or what content area you're talking about. But if I had to highlight just a few things, I think, firstly, it gives so many access points to kids for the same type of learning. When you think about one standard and how you want to support students in differentiating the ways in which they access that standard, I think text sets allow that to happen in a really authentic way. We know that different things work for different kids and for one kid to reach the standard by looking at images and another kid to reach the standard by looking at texts and a third kid to reach the standard by looking at video, I think we know that that's just how we work in the world as people.
There are different ways that we take in information. So thinking about text sets and the way to teach with them is allowing us to really build that differentiation into our lessons and our units even from the planning stage. So we're anticipating the types of learners who might walk into a room. You're going to have kids who get really passionate about looking at visuals and pointing out things they notice, and you're going to have kids who just really appreciate language and are excited about the ways that authors communicate messages in that manner. So I think it just gives so many different access points.
One thing we noticed in our biography genre study was that most students, in terms of what they had read, just thinking about the title of books, it had always been the name of the subject. When we started teaching with text sets, we were bringing in so many different biographies, coming back to them at the end and noticing that they were all titled in such different ways. There were really ways other than just the subject's name to title the book. So even just that concrete example of bringing in so many different choices to see the ways that students took it and ran with it in so different directions just spoke to me even on that tiny, tiny level of the power of bringing in more than one example of something and having more than one way to see something, more than one way to access something. I think that's so rich and that's so at the heart of what we do. So that's one thing I would definitely say to my colleagues.
Another thing I would say is just that I think looking at text sets more closely reflects what we do in the world. We're constantly trying hopefully to take in information from more than one source and more than one format. I think that preparing students to do that work; even at the elementary level, they're already doing that. They're already hearing things verbally from someone and seeing a video about it and looking over their parent's shoulder at the newspaper and seeing it in that way too. And I think we're really preparing students to do the work of critical thinking when we think about showing them things in more than one way.
And then I think also when you take things on the text set level, it then allows you to go more deeply within each text. So if you're used to looking at different formats, different components of something, even within one text, you can think about, okay, what am I learning from the visual here? What am I learning from the words? What am I learning from the author's note? How do I put all that together? What themes do I see from all those separate components of this one text? So I think working with text sets and allowing students to look at things in different ways allows them to think even more deeply once you go back to one text. So I definitely think they build those critical thinking skills that just benefit students in so many ways. So yeah, a lot to say about why text sets are the way to go in my opinion.
Mary Ann: If a colleague was interested in getting started with text sets and wanted to collaborate on a grade level team, what's some advice that you would share?
Lorraine: I think collaboration is so key when you're thinking about text sets just because in the same way that our students differ from one another in the types of texts they gravitate towards, I think that we as adults do as well. I think we know this about teaching in general, that when you're one of those great teams where that collaboration feels so rich and you're able to plan together, there's so many different things that everyone's bringing to the table because their repertoire is so different. I think with text sets, it's the same thing. You're probably going to have someone on your team who loves listening to podcasts and has that auditory lens where they're used to looking at things that come to them as sound and not necessarily as text. You might also have someone on your team who's an avid reader and frequently reads emails with articles that are sent to them by different newspapers or something like that, so they're very used to looking at things in the text format.
I think looking at a teaching team and thinking about what do we all gravitate towards, it really helps you think about the diversity in students and their own preferences for how they choose to take in information. Also knowing that we're not just one thing. I'm someone who loves a good podcast and loves a good book, and some days I just need to see it as a video. So I think that looking at that, together taking that inquiry stance of what is true for us as adults and how are we navigating looking at different texts in the world can really help us in thinking about how we can position things for our students in that way.
So I really think just that element of having different texts to bring to the table, but also working with your colleagues I think really allows you to take that inquiry stance in the work you do with kids. So being able to say, "I'm noticing that my students are able to do this and they're not yet able to do this really well." And how do we scaffold this so that we can get them there. I think when you have a team together, it just makes it so much easier to talk about those things and to have those thinking partners in working through how to infuse text sets into your teaching.
Mary Ann: Thank you. I think too of the different teams that I've been on and the different passions that are shared in terms of the content areas as well. So even when Erika and I are collaborating together, Erika is typically more the go-to science person on our team and I'm the go-to historical person just because of our passions and our interests. I think that helps to also fuel the work.
Erika: I think this is really one of our deepest wish for teachers is that they have the opportunities to collaborate, to build on each other's learning and then to also be modeling that in their classrooms, encouraging their students to collaborate and to learn from one another.
Mary Ann: And it's so interesting to think about the time that we're in and the ways in which COVID has shifted so much to online platforms. And certainly in our work together, the three of us were using Google docs for sharing student work, sharing our plans, sharing the reflections. Sometimes the simplest of tools that we have available to us can allow us to do the deepest of work, and I think that's really exciting.
Erika: In the introduction to Text Sets in Action, we included a section that's titled it's practical, it's aspirational. And for us, this phrase really captures the essence of teaching with text sets. This is an approach that allows you to meet content standards, to differentiate learning by matching text to readers, to teach vocabulary, comprehension, disciplinary literacies, all while really engaging students' hearts and minds. As students are reading across multiple texts and text sets, they practice that critical thinking and perspective taking. Motivation and authenticity increase, and you and your students become full learners in the classroom. It's a powerful and joyful way of teaching and learning.
Mary Ann: The work that we do with our students at Lesley University really informs this balance between it's practical and it's aspirational. Just over the past couple of weeks, I have two classes where they're exploring text sets right now, and one class just they themselves went through a text set that's focused on oysters. And it's each time I experience this work with students, I'm so amazed at the ways in which a few carefully selected texts can shift and frame their thinking, get them thinking about content in different ways, make them aware of what they know and what they don't know, and build this capacity for inquiry, sometimes on a topic that they'd never would have imagined they'd be interested in before they started exploring the text sets. So the work that we've done in this book is really a reflection of years of work with practicing teachers in our classes and the feedback loop from Lorraine as a student to Lorraine as a core collaborator is really just at the heart of the work that we do in this book.
Lorraine: And I think if I were to go back to the notion of why text sets, why bring them into your classroom, I think that that logically leads us to this notion that the time for text sets really is now, to look at what we've been able to accomplish this year. I know I've been teaching one pot of students that's learning in a hybrid model, another pot of students that's learning fully remotely. But looking at the access that we have right now to all the different things in the world, I'm thinking about even some online platforms that have become open now that students need to access them from home. There's so many opportunities that we have now to pull interesting images, interesting video, interesting text, interesting articles, and pull them together to allow students to take this inquiry stance and take that curiosity and wonder with them. It's really such an exciting thing.
So I think we're trying to take the best of what we've learned with remote teaching and what we've learned about digital tools and the way we can bring them into the classroom. And remember that as we return to full in-person instruction at some point, and thinking about the ways in which we want to prepare kids to be able to navigate more than one thing and to be able to look at things in a variety of different ways and really think critically about the differences that they notice and also the themes and similarities between them. I'm remembering when we were reading the work of one author, one illustrator, in bringing our biography text set to students, they were noticing so many things about objects that were important to different subjects over the course of their lifetimes or noticing different things about the ways historical context was presented in different books even from the same author.
So really thinking about connections, thinking about similarities, thinking about differences. These are things that we want to support students in doing. I think they're part of our standard, but they're also just part of our path that we're trying to take kids down in becoming capable learners, capable citizens and people who are really able to explore their interests in the world. So I would say now is definitely the time to think about text sets and the way we can infuse them into our instruction, whether it's remote, whether it's hybrid or whether it's hopefully back in person at some point soon, safely.
Mary Ann: The world is infinitely interesting and the world has a lot of big problems. I think it's exciting to put kids in the center of exploring the world around them and coming up with their own solutions to some of the problems that we face through a text set approach.
Erika: We're so excited to share Text Sets in Action with you where you'll find the story of our collaboration with Lorraine, and we look forward to hearing how you take the stories in this book into your classrooms and let us know how it goes with teaching with text sets.