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Literacy and History in Social Action: Immersive Approaches to Disciplinary Thinking, Grades 5–12

reviewed by Crystal Chen - February 14, 2017

coverTitle: Literacy and History in Social Action: Immersive Approaches to Disciplinary Thinking, Grades 5–12
Author(s): Thomas M. McCann, Rebecca D’Angelo, Nancy Galas, & Mary Greska
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807757349, Pages: 160, Year: 2015
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In the foreword of Literacy and History in Social Action: Immersive Approaches to Disciplinary Thinking, Grades 5–12, Peter Smagorinsky reflects on his years as a high school English teacher. During this period, he began to appreciate the merits of writing within a disciplinary dimension. While toying with the idea of writing across the curriculum, Smagorinsky found that teachers in other disciplines perhaps might not look favorably on this imposition upon their domain:


It began to dawn on me . . . that perhaps writing has a disciplinary dimension that we are all overlooking—that writing conventions varied along with the other demands of thinking in the disciplines, and that what counts as good writing for an English teacher might be quite different from what counts as good writing for people in Science and History. (pp. ix–x)


Smagorinsky’s revelation regarding his teaching practices grounds much of why Thomas M. McCann, Rebecca D’Angelo, Nancy Galas, and Mary Greska’s book is essential for social studies teachers who wish to foreground literacy when teaching this discipline (Moje, 2008). The authors illuminate history as a problem solving subject to orient teachers and students to the genre of historical reading, writing, and thinking. They also present a detailed and profoundly applicable example of how disciplinary literacy is one of the true roots of how we ought to think, read, and write within content areas.


McCann, D’Angelo, Galas, and Greska present extended simulation activities that immerse students in three eras of U.S. history. They offer a robust illustration of how teacher educators and teachers can meet the need for advanced literacy instruction that moves away from the every teacher a teacher of reading philosophy to foreground disciplinary literacy for middle and secondary school settings (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008, p. 40). As expressed by Shanahan and Shanahan (2008) and Moje (2008), content area teachers need to have specific literacy resources addressing the key premise that disciplines are constituted by discourses. The book addresses this gap and demonstrates how literacy "becomes an essential aspect of disciplinary practice, rather than a set of strategies or tools brought into the disciplines to improve reading and writing of subject-matter texts" (Moje, 2008, p. 99).


McCann, D’Angelo, Galas, and Greska begin by introducing readers to the theoretical thinking behind their work. Perhaps the most salient statement in their introduction is the way they highlight extensive purposeful talk and define purposeful literacy for content area literacy. By doing this, they express why simulation activities are unique ways to involve students in extensive classroom talk: “[t]he simulations structure the occasions for authentic discussion by setting purpose, supporting efforts, encouraging participation, fostering the interchange of diverse views, and leading to synthesis and reflection” (p. 6). At the same time, the authors recognize that active engagement in learning does not always mean that all students are constantly talking. They also respect and emphasize the type of “quiet participation” (p. 6) that is made possible only when “thoughtful dialogue is present to witness” (p. 6). Therefore, in situating these foundations, McCann, D’Angelo, Galas, and Greska demonstrate that teaching literacy often includes both verbal and non-verbal sets of practices in ways of being. In this profound introduction, the authors give readers the tools to engage in their immersive disciplinary discourse. As a result, we are invited to become members of their community who could access and produce the knowledge written within their book.


Literacy and History in Social Action is organized by immersive approaches to disciplinary thinking. The enactments read as narratives with annotated transcripts and narrations that serve as examples of how these activities unfold in the classroom. The volume is a detailed resource for simulation activities focused on three eras of U.S. history: European incursions into North America, pre-Revolutionary War colonialism, and the Civil War and Reconstruction. Chapter One examines models for discussion and guidelines for teaching writing through the use of cases. Chapter Two examines the discipline of writing cases by focusing on research and the discourse of legislative hearing procedures.

One of the book’s major strengths is that it does not limit itself. Instead, it offers curricular materials and a thick description of the simulation activities that are included. Complete narrative illustrations with detailed examples, transcripts, student work, and procedures are found in multiple chapters, from Chapter Three to Chapter Six. These chapters can serve as mentor texts or models for teachers who want to adopt this approach. Not only do the chapters offer extensive examples, but also they align this work with the Common Core State Standards (p. 50). They further provide analytical overviews to the actions and outcomes that students participate in, such as replicating the Colonial Elmtown experience (p. 73).


In examining the first six chapters, the authors could have integrated more literature or theoretical concepts from their introduction for a stronger grounding on how these simulations can be applicable to other literacy practices. However, they stay true to the form they have already established throughout the text, which gives credence to their robust resource book. Finally, Chapter Seven offers a thoughtful and articulate conclusion to the authors’ framing of inquiry into action. They examine the effect of their work through scholarly recommendations, practitioner recommendations, and student reflections for these activities. In doing so, the authors return to their belief in purposeful literacy by affirming that, “all students can learn what we set out to learn together” (p. 132).


Overall, Literacy and History in Social Action is an excellent book for teacher educators and teachers who are looking for a detailed example of how social studies teachers can implement creative, innovative, and comprehensive content area literacies in the classroom. Although the book focuses on teaching history, Smagorinsky proposes some elaborations on how “writing is an organic part of disciplinary life” (p. xi). He offers implications that may broaden the perspectives for other content area teachers to examine this text for their own classroom teaching. McCann, D’Angelo, Galas, and Greska have developed an outstanding resource dedicated to designing instruction that is provocative, stimulating, and purposeful in honing the thinking, reading, writing, and speaking skills of secondary students for success. This volume creates spaces of possibility that value student inquiry and imagination. It also connects knowledge and power by providing enactments for students to question, challenge, and reconstruct knowledge. With these two core values along with an innovative curriculum, the authors foreground literacy in the discipline of social studies (Moje, 2008) and offer us a model for immersing students in content that requires action and interaction.


Moje, E. B. (2008). Foregrounding the disciplines in secondary literacy teaching and learning: A call for change. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52(2), 96–107.


Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content-area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40–59.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 14, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21828, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 11:12:52 PM

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About the Author
  • Crystal Chen
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    CRYSTAL CHEN is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. A literacy instructor and former high school English teacher, her research focuses on the intersections of literacy, teacher education, and urban and multicultural education. She is an American Association of University Women Dissertation Fellow in which her dissertation examines critical literacy among African immigrant girls and community-based practices in New York City.
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