Unexpected Texts: incorporating diverse media and formats into unit design

4.1 Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy: Teacher’s plans and practice reflect familiarity with a wide range of effective pedagogical approaches in the discipline. In the English Language Arts classroom, effective pedagogy depends on aligning teaching practices with anchor texts. It also depends on creating assignments that require deep thinking about those texts while developing concrete writing skills. 21st-century students must become proficient readers and interpreters of many different kinds of texts, electronic, visual, and auditory as well as written.  As described in one anchor standard for reading, students shall be able to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016). Likewise, 21st-century educators must develop effective ways of teaching diverse texts.

Units planned around multiple formats require clear thematic connections, to build conceptual categories that allow students to interpret and analyze divergent texts related in abstract or theoretical ways. Those thematic connections should  link to students’ daily lives, express big ideas at the heart of the discipline, and address real world problems and solutions. The following hand-out describes a unit I designed around the topic of cross-cultural communication, with a focus on the importance of attentive listening. Texts for this unit included Ted Talks, short films, documentaries, a popular family movie, radio broadcasts, a school assembly on environmental justice, and several short stories.

ss unit overview

Because the conceptual connections in this unit were abstract and theoretical, I took care to express unit goals in direct, student-friendly language: identify elements of effective listening; analyze how aspects of culture affect communication; and practice creating theme statements for a wide variety of texts.  I teach in an exceptionally diverse, urban high school; my students experience the need for cross-cultural communication daily, in the hallways, cafeteria and gymnasium as well as the classroom. Unit texts also addressed contemporary, real-world problems, from Jay Smooth’s Ted Talk, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, to Oil & Water, a documentary that explores the impact of the petroleum industry on the Ecuadoran Amazon and on the Cofan people, who depend on the river and surrounding rain forest for their cultural and economic existence. Since many unit texts reside outside the literary canon, I explicitly tied unit goals to state standards, lending the unit “credentials” as well as authentic purpose.

Another way in which I supported student literacy with divergent textual formats was by providing tailored note-taking tools. I designed a “master note sheet,” then tweaked it for each individual visual or auditory text. I checked notes weekly, and awarded “accountability points” for detailed notes and thoughtful, authentic theme statements. This allowed me to track student progress with the unit goals and to adjust my teaching practice and support accordingly. As Marzano (2007) states, “This is at the heart of formative assessment–examining the gradual increase in knowledge for specific learning goals throughout a unit” (p. 25). I have included a screen shot of one note-taking sheet, and detail from one student’s use of it, below.

ss wade davis notes


Student work example: use of note-taking tool

By tweaking the note-taking tool to align with individual texts, I helped students practice their own “art of listening,” and pay attention to textual details that inform an accurate theme statement or interpretation. Dreams from Endangered Cultures is a powerful lecture about the disappearance of indigenous languages around the world. Wade Davis shares his message about “what is lost when a language is lost” with beautiful, thought-provoking photographs as well as words. I wanted my students to pay attention to the visual as well as auditory information in the lecture, particularly given Davis’ high-level, anthropology-specific vocabulary that might “lose or confuse” some of the class. By including a note-taking category for “images” and instructing students to capture specific details from and reactions to the photographs, I stretched students’ understanding of how different textual formats create meaning, and expanded their cache of interpretive tools.

The student whose work is shown above has already begun to wonder about the way in which those photographs relate to his own perception of reality. When I was checking notes, this student’s written theme statement was imprecise, so I asked him to refine it orally. I recorded what he said in my teacher notebook, since I loved how he honored his experience with the images as well as the words: “Having an image describe what we…know about a particular place makes me wonder about how words change what we know about the world.” By breaking the note-taking sheet into two categories, one for images and one for words, I allowed this student to notice the importance of those two aspects of the text. He then synthesized the two details into an accurate and insightful theme statement about how words shape our understanding of the natural world.

Another way in which I creatively supported student learning in this unit was through diverse assessment practices. I “chunked” the assessments, both in terms of their alignment with the unit goals and in terms of their increasing difficulty. As Rosenshine (2012) elucidates, “Education…occurs when knowledge is well rehearsed and ties to other knowledge” (p. 12). In this unit, students incrementally developed their understanding of cross-cultural communication (and its relationship to careful listening) as well as their facility at  creating theme statements. Structured note-taking sheets provided a foundation for the first formal assessment, a written opinion piece. This assignment asked students to “identify and define the most important element of effective listening, based on the texts we have covered so far.” I provided a list of potential “elements of effective listening,” brainstormed by the entire class and linked to specific texts, on the back of the assignment sheet. Here are the first two paragraphs of one student’s opinion piece.


Student work example of first formal assessment for unit (opinion piece)

You can see from the essay’s engaging opening that multiple encounters with diverse texts around a common theme have paid off in sophisticated understanding. The student complexly defines what it means to truly listen to another person, and considers the importance of considering cultural background and personal experience when interpreting someone’s words, or needs. The second paragraph reveals a solid grasp, not only of Jay Smooth’s main idea, but of the language of the text. She cites and then “re-applies” a central metaphor from the Ted Talk (see teacher feedback in margin), demonstrating careful listening and note taking. When I graded the opinion pieces I saw similar evidence of students benefiting from the note-taking tools, both in their references to concrete examples from visual and auditory texts, and in their ability to synthesize an evaluative claim about listening from that evidence.

When I first began planning for this unit, I knew I wanted to include the movie Chicken Run. Over the course of this film, the main character, Ginger, learns the “language of leadership.” She figures out how to translate her goals and ideals into inspirational words that reach across the diverse values and experiences of her comrades. She also comes to recognize the importance of listening, both to what others need, and to disappointing truths. I knew that many of my students would have watched Chicken Run when they were in elementary school, and wanted them to critically re-think a childhood text. But I also knew they would need support to take the film seriously, and to view it as an example of cross-cultural communication. So for the second assessment of the unit, I assigned a group project: Grade A Chicken (bad pun, alas, intended):

ss grade a chicken

This project built on the work students had done individually in their opinion pieces by requiring them to extend and apply their understanding of effective listening and how it enables cross-cultural communication. Group work requires strong communication skills, so the assessment aligned with process as well as content. As Pressley and McCormick (2007) explain, “by students thinking together–dialoguing about challenging academic tasks–students learn how to think, eventually internalizing as their own the approaches to thinking tried in the group” (p. 277). I have included a student work sample showing one group’s rubric below.


Student work example of second formal assessment for unit (Grade A Chicken group project)

The four students who designed this rubric have taken elements of listening that they wrote about or referred to in their opinion pieces and refined them as elements essential to cross-cultural discourse. They have described important aspects of communication in concrete, observable, measurable terms, and divided them into separate levels of attainment. Their completed rubric demonstrates mastery of the concepts and an ability to apply them to a “real world” writing task. Student paragraphs justifying their rubric categories and the grade they assigned to Ginger’s communication skills were equally impressive. One thing I would change about this particular assessment would be to assign it summative rather than formative points. Because I was unsure whether students would struggle with the rubric genre, I did not want to overweight the assessment. In fact, student work demonstrated insightful comprehension of the requirements of effective rubrics as well as of the requirements of effective communication.

Over the course of this unit, students practiced creating theme statements for 10 unique texts in multiple media and formats. The final unit assessment asked them to apply that practice to a more traditional English Language Arts task: identifying themes in and making an interpretive statement about a short story, then supporting that interpretation with textual evidence. I had originally chosen two 19th-century short stories for the unit, but because the other texts dealt with contemporary issues, I decided to replace those two with five modern short stories from diverse cultural perspectives. Students read and annotated these stories with the support of two note-taking tools. One tool offered students the opportunity to visually encapsulate their responses to the story in six quick “sketch boxes;” the other had students describe the story’s setting and main character/s before summarizing the plot. Both note-taking sheets required students to create a theme statement for the short story after reflecting on their sketches or on the story elements they identified.

Providing two note-taking options allowed students to choose a reading strategy that fit their individual reading needs and strengths. Developing lasting literacy requires students to make good choices about what they read as well as how they read, so students chose three of the five short stories to read, and one to write about. This instructional choice on my part aligned with the idea that, “real readers, lifelong readers, assign themselves…In every subject area, some reading materials should be chosen by the young people themselves, reflecting their own view of the topic, their own connections and interests” (Daniels & Zemelman, 2014). My essay instructions follow:

ss theme statement essay

 Because I had read student’s notes and theme statements at frequent intervals throughout the unit, I knew that my students had made excellent progress, and were able to express main ideas in their own words, identify themes (“big and recurring ideas”), and create theme statements (“what the text says about those ideas, often expressed as a lesson or moral”). I knew that their theme statements were increasingly appropriately focused (“neither too broad nor too narrow”) and accurate to the text (“reflecting the language of the text and referencing one or more themes”). The preceding parenthetical definitions reflect the instructional work we did as a whole class, to capture what we were learning about themes and theme statements in precise definitions. And the following work sample reflects the high level of literary interpretation and textual support my students achieved:

Student work example of third formal assessment for unit (in-class theme statement essay)

Student work example of third formal assessment for unit (in-class theme statement essay)

This student has clearly identified two important themes in the text (“community and identity”), then created a theme statement that expresses what we learn about those themes in her own words. While her theme statement might appear initially unrelated to the themes she has identified, as the essay progresses, she draws complex connections between religious identity, insiders and outsiders, and the way in which for both characters that religious difference initially fascinates and attracts then, once they have connected, ironically dissolves their relationship. This essay demonstrates high-level interpretive reading. It also reveals the benefit of practice: identifying themes, writing theme statements, and grounding them in diverse textual evidence.

The  interpretive thinking and sophisticated writing demonstrated in these essays was indeed gratifying. But when I teach this unit again I may delete that final assessment. The note-taking tools enabled me to track student progress and adjust my instruction and text selections accordingly. Because students wrote a theme statement for each text as the “final step” in reflecting on their notes, I already knew how much their ability to do so had grown. My students lead busy and remarkably stressful lives. Rather than spending a class period re-demonstrating their expertise with theme statements, I would give them a class period to peer edit and refine their earlier opinion pieces.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R7). Retrieved from corestandards.org on May 28, 2016

Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects Matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Marzano, Robert. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Pressley and McCormick (2007). Child and Adolescent Development for Educators. New York:  The Guilford Press

Rosenshine, Barak. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, V36N1, pp. 12-19, 39

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