Shifting Gears in the ELA Classroom

Please welcome Julie Faulkner, an English teacher from Tennessee.  Julie shares with us how a shift in your view of how to accomplish Common Core standards can change everything.  Thanks, Julie!

The Common Core State Standards really had an impact in all areas of education, but ELA classroom teachers are especially feeling the shifts. Common Core introduced a whole new way of teaching and learning, so with that comes a need for shifting gears in how we deliver our instruction and think about our standards. Our guest blogger shares how she worked through those shifts in her classroom.

I am excited to guest post for such an accomplished blog – Minds in Bloom! When Common Core was first introduced to me, I saw lists of standards, new testing requirements, and instructional shifts. I wasn’t feeling too overwhelmed with the standards themselves, and the new testing requirements certainly incited anxiety, but that wasn’t something I have much control over inside my four classroom walls. The instructional shifts, though – that was another story. After days of training this past summer to be a Common Core ELA coach for my state, I began thinking about how I was going to reshape my instructional approaches to be more rigorous and where I was going to stretch my class time to bring in nonfiction in a meaningful way so as not to take away from my literature units. Literature is, after all, synonymous with English class!

The first shift (I have summarized them into three shifts for my own peace of mind) for building an ELA Common Core classroom is to build knowledge through content-rich nonfiction and informational texts. Typically, I would start a novel unit or short story lesson with a PowerPoint presentation with loads of background information that I had researched, and students would write pages and pages of notes before we would begin reading. Sometimes I gave a quiz, but almost never did the students fully retain the information, and rarely were we ever able to actually connect that information to what we were reading. Accidentally one morning before school, I stumbled upon an idea. (Isn’t that how all the great ideas happen?!?) Honestly, I was tired and a feeling a little drained – I needed something that required the students to work instead of me! Thus begins the story of how I welcomed nonfiction into my classroom.

That morning, instead of conducting my 10+ slide presentation to introduce my Native American poetry study, I pulled out an interview with the poet that I had found years before but never used. I just hadn’t had time to use it, right? In a flurry I fixed up five key text-based questions to go with the interview. My thorough and colorful PowerPoint was on back up just in case. Upon entering the class, students picked up the article and began reading and writing. Still nervous if this strategy was going to work, and feeling a little guilty, I watched as students read and read and wrote and wrote. When I began to ask students to share their answers, it was as if I had indeed shown them my presentation. Their answers were thoughtful and on target. After the discussion we had covered every topic, plus some more, that my PowerPoint had listed. I didn’t even show one slide that day! What followed was a rich close reading and understanding of the poem because the students worked to achieve their own knowledge surrounding the poem, and their brains were engaged and activated. But – the pre-reading hadn’t given away the theme, ending, or gist of the poem at all. It had only built up specific knowledge that they would need to read and understand it. As it turned out, that activity was a much better use of time because in doing so, I covered so many more standards than ever before! From that point forward, I began shifting my pre-reading activities from teacher-focused to student-centered.

So how does this work in my classroom day-to-day? The shift says to build knowledge through the texts. The key words “build knowledge” struck a chord with me. I began rethinking the structure of my pre-reading activities, and I realized that this age-old classroom instructional tool would be the perfect place for me to incorporate more nonfiction/informational texts. Common Core asserts that students take ownership of their own learning. Instead of me giving them all the knowledge prior to reading a novel, for example, I decide specifically what my essential question(s) or purpose will be for the upcoming reading. Then I work backwards. Maybe students truly do not need to know the author’s life story, if my purpose for reading is going to be an analysis of plot and characterization. The pre-reading activity must coincide more purposefully with what our unit goal is going to be.

Sometimes we do the “Fast Five” reading strategy, where I have carefully chosen an informational text that provides the specific background information students need to fully grasp the upcoming piece, and they respond to five key questions. In that case they must read and gather crucial pieces of information rather than me lecturing it to them. Other times it is more appropriate to begin a text with a short quotation that relates the theme instead of a “how do you feel about it” anticipation guide. Students may write in response to the quotation or pick key words or phrases that resonate with them to share. If the text we will be reading is a reflection of a certain time period, I might choose a timeline for students to analyze and discuss. With each pre-reading activity, students are engaging with a nonfiction text of some sort to build knowledge they will need for understanding the upcoming piece.

In achieving the Core, students are required to employ higher-order thinking skills, and they are held accountable to stronger responses. For me that means I need to be consciously aware of what I put in front of them so they are gaining knowledge that they are able to demonstrate and justify. As always, it’s a work in progress, and I’m eating the elephant one bite at a time!

Creative and Purposeful Pre-Reading Activities for the ELA Classroom - All Grades

Looking for more pre-reading activities? Make sure to download my Free Creative & Purposeful Pre-Reading Activities for ELA. Click here to download.


Julie Faulkner has been teaching English in TN for over 10 years. She has taught 7-12 English, as well as composition and literature at the college level.  Julie has worked this past year as a Common Core trainer in ELA for TN to train teachers to implement Common Core.  Follow Julie at her TPT store!

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