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Teaching Challenging Texts: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Multimedia


reviewed by James M. Lang - August 06, 2014

coverTitle: Teaching Challenging Texts: Fiction, Non-Fiction, and Multimedia
Author(s): Lawrence Baines & Jane Fisher
Publisher: R&L Education,
ISBN: 1475805217, Pages: 168, Year: 2013
Search for book at Amazon.com


In the opening chapter of Teaching Challenging Texts, Lawrence Baines cites the alarming statistic that the average daily reading time of an American adolescent “has shrunk every year since 1976 and now sits at an all-time low of about six minutes per day” (p. 3). Meanwhile, he notes, the Common Core has initiated “the rise of a curriculum predicated upon books of increasing difficulty” (p. 7). Put these two facts together, and a major problem looms on the horizon. How can we convince middle and high school students to engage with the kinds of challenging texts that the Common Core will require them to master, and how can we provide them with the tools they will need to achieve that mastery?

This book seeks to help middle and high school teachers solve this complex puzzle. Baines, a former high school teacher and now a professor of English Education, paired up with middle-school teacher Jane Fisher to provide a range of suggestions for working teachers. The book offers an excellent compendium of ideas, practical tips for teaching difficult texts, handouts for classroom activities, and links to (usually free) resources that teachers and students can access online. It should prove invaluable for teachers who are seeking ways to revitalize their classroom practice and align it with the standards of the Common Core.

Baines and Fisher split the writing duties for the book’s three chapters: Baines has authorship on the introductory chapter, as well as the second chapter for high school teachers in which he focuses primarily on teaching George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984. Fisher handles the third and final chapter, aimed at middle-school teachers, which centers mostly on Lori Halse Anderson’s contemporary novel Chains and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (she provides teachers with a list of chapters from Hugo’s novel that they can read to avoid inappropriate material while still maintaining the thread of the story). Both of the two main chapters consist of multiple lesson plans developed and road tested by Baines or Fisher, interwoven with narrative accounts of their experiences; both chapters conclude with a set of “Free Resources and Correlations to the Common Core” as well as a dozen or more handouts connected to the lesson plans for teachers to photocopy and use with their students.

The lesson plans in both chapters are creative and carefully constructed, and the authors seed good ideas for student engagement all throughout the book. For example, Baines provides a lesson for teaching action verbs in which he slowly reads aloud the opening paragraph of a novel and asks students to stand every time they hear an action verb. “Movement is an essential, albeit unheralded instructional strategy,” he points out, and “the association between the physical act of standing and the identification of an ‘action verb’ will endure” (p. 16).

He presents a host of interesting ways to help students connect with Orwell’s 1984.  An early lesson plan on the book asks students to view and discuss the Apple McIntosh advertisement from the 1984 Super Bowl which played on the setting and themes of the novel; later, to help students recognize the power that language can play in shaping our thoughts—one of the major themes of the novel, epitomized in Orwell’s invention of “newspeak”—he asks them to reflect upon and invent their own band names, and consider what messages are conveyed by our language choices. For teachers seeking to push their students intellectually, he offers a fascinating assignment in which students evaluate the long-term prospects of Oceania (one of the three major nations in 1984) according to the theories developed by Jared Diamond, a historian and anthropologist of human civilizations.

The lessons developed and presented by Fisher in Chapter Three are equally creative and engaging. In order to help students better understand the environment in which the protagonist of Chains plays out her story, she assigns her students the task of making a “Guide Map” of New York City based on the action of the novel. She charges the students to “use colored pencils, crayons, or markers to illustrate places of significance and routes frequented by Isabel.” To add some physical activity—and some fun—she has students crumple and tear the map’s edges to give it the feel of a lost and found historical document.

When teaching The Hunchback of Notre Dame, she wants her students to recognize that literary characters, just like real human beings, often have both positive and negative traits to them, and that protagonists are not always perfect and antagonists not always evil. So she has her students create “Character Yin Yangs”—initially blank images of the popular Chinese symbol that the students fill in with the characters’ positive and negative attributes. The way in which the two sides of the Yin Yang symbol are intertwined helps the students recognize how the same character trait can lead to both generous and selfish actions.

One especially laudable feature of Teaching Challenging Texts is the commitment of the authors to facilitate access to as many free resources as possible, both for teachers and for their students. They describe simple strategies for accessing free source materials online, as well as plenty of links that teachers can pull directly from the text.

Like Fisher’s Character Yin Yang, one of the book’s primary strengths—its co-authorship, which enabled the presentation of ideas and resources from two different perspectives, and covered ground from middle school to high school—can also be its weakness.  A definite shift in style and tone occurs from the second to the third chapter, one that could have been smoothed over with a stronger editorial presence.  Baines writes in more measured, academic prose; Fisher writes expressively, with lots of enthusiasm and exclamation points. The book could also have used a concluding chapter to draw the major themes and idea back together. Neither the individual chapters nor the book as a whole conclude with any kind of summary or statement of principles, which leaves the book feeling unfinished.

These flaws are modest ones, though, in comparison to the valuable contribution that the book makes to the ongoing work of America’s middle and high school English teachers. Teaching Challenging Texts should become part of every middle and high school core library of useful resources, deserving of a full read and then available on the shelf whenever teachers need inspiration for a creative and engaging lesson plan. Baines and Fisher are likeable and intelligent narrators, and readers will enjoy the time spent in their company, as well as benefiting from their resources and recommendations.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 06, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17634, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 10:19:53 AM

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About the Author
  • James Lang
    Assumption College
    E-mail Author
    JAMES M. LANG is a professor of English and Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College. His most recent book is Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard University Press, 2008). He is currently writing a book about the continued relevance of George Orwellís work for the 21st century.
 
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