Activism vs. Slacktivism: A Lesson in Research and Informational Texts

Activism Lesson PlanIf you are like me, there are few things more exciting than introducing students to amazing novels and other works of fiction, but finding ways to engage students in informational texts can be a little trickier.  Today I want to share a lesson that I came upon recently that had students engaged in reading an informational text, researching credible sources, and discussing their findings.  I’ll outline the lesson below.  Please comment with questions, comments, and other informational texts that your students love!

The Lesson: 

1. Start by reading Malcolm Gladwell’s 2010 essay “Small Change: Why the Revolution Won’t be Tweeted”.  It is in my textbook and I’ve seen it popping up more and more in texts, but it is also widely available through an internet search.

2. Have students discuss the main assertion of the argument and the evidence Gladwell uses to support his thesis.  They should come to the conclusion that Gladwell’s main argument is that social media movements do not constitute real activism. I think it is also helpful to have students do a collaborative list of evidence.

3. Then the fun starts!  Start with asking students to share their preliminary ideas about whether or not social media movements are real activism.  Here are some points for discussion:

  • How can we define activism?  What are necessary elements?
  • What social media movements have you seen or participated in?  Were they real activism?
  • How have social media movements changed since 2010?

4. Challenge students to do some research about the topic. This can be an in class search if students have access or it can be homework.  Remind them about using credible sources! Here are some topics to get them started on their research, but they should be used as a jumping off point for lots of avenues for discussion:

  • Slacktivism vs. Activism
  • Social Media in the Arab Spring
  • Kony 2012
  • The ALS ice bucket challenge
  • Social Media campaigns regarding: police, sexuality, race, gender, bullying, suicide, etc.

5. After students have completed some research, structure a discussion. You could use socratic seminar, debate, or other discussion technique depending on students and time constraints.

Extension idea: After the discussion, students could formulate arguments that defend, qualify, or refute Gladwell’s assertion that social media movements are not real activism.

My students found this topic intriguing and easy to discuss in an academic setting.  I’d love to hear your questions, comments, and suggestions for other engaging informational texts in the comment section below!

“Attacking the Common Core Standards” Informational Texts – Part Three: Using textual evidence to support inferences within a Non-Fiction Text

In Parts One and Two of this series, we talked about using biographies and historical context to dig into the depths of the Informational Text standards—while avoiding abandoning fictional texts. This article will begin to break down the Informational Texts Standards into practical and accessible “chunks,” giving tips on approaching the standard using Informational Texts.

First, let’s look at the first Informational Text standard for grades 6-12:
• RI.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RL.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

So, what do these all have in common? Let’s break it down.
To varying degrees:
• Students should demonstrate the ability to read a nonfiction passage or text, understand and articulate what the text directly as well as indirectly states in order to make an assumption about or respond to prompts from the text.
• Students should be able to identify, extract, and cite text to thoroughly support the student’s response.
• Students should demonstrate the ability to identify a passage or text that leaves unanswered questions, to determine possible reasons for the ambiguity, and to articulate the implications from the uncertainties. (Grades 11-12 only)

In plain English: Students must be able to read a non-fictional text, identifying and citing direct and indirect statements to demonstrate an understanding of the information found within the text.

The concept of inference is one of the most difficult to teach, however even as low as grade 4, the concept must be addressed in some form or another, usually by reading a fictional text and being able to make an assumption or guess based on the evidence or facts from the text combined with their own prior knowledge. However, as we can see in these standards, students must be able to make inferences from an Informational Text as well as a fictional text.

Infer – verb; to conclude by using logic

Forms of the verb include: infer, inferring, inferred

Inference – noun; the process of drawing conclusions based on logic

Both definitions include the words logic, and variations of the words conclude. To conclude is to form an opinion or reach a decision about something. Logic is sensible, rational thought or argument based on facts rather than emotion. In other words, to infer is to form an opinion based on facts.

There are several ways of teaching inference. At the very basic level, students must be able to discern between fact and opinion. I will assume that students are able to understand fact versus opinion by the fourth grade, but if not, start there.
Beyond that, students must be able to make observations. Observations are clues—things that the student sees—either literally (as in a picture) or figuratively (as in a paragraph or story). Observations are factual and can be proven. From observations, students must then use the knowledge they have been given and/or their own personal knowledge to make an inference. Inferences are personal and contain opinion.

When approaching an Informational Text (non-fiction), it can be a common mistake for students to automatically assume that everything they are reading is truthful and factual. After all, it is an informational text, and the author is assumed to be more knowledgeable about a subject than the reader. Students must be warned that not everything one reads that sounds legitimate and logical, actually is. Take articles on the Internet for example. Anyone who has a computer can write what appears to be a scholarly article, post it on the Internet, and call themselves an expert. However, few are actually experts, and the “information” they are providing can contain fallacies, bias, and inaccuracies. Students need to realize that not only do they need to comprehend what the text tells them directly. Take a look at this passage, taken from a Wikipedia article on the Jim Crow Laws:

Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated. These Jim Crow Laws were separate from the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1] and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Not only must students support what the text says explicitly (directly): The final Jim Crow Laws were overturned in 1965, but they can also infer what the text alludes to, or states indirectly, i.e. African-Americans were legally discriminated against and held to a lower social status in the United States until 1965.

Students should be able to answer questions about the text using both these explicit as well as implicit statements, providing support for their answers. Here are two examples using general questions one might find attached to an Informational Text document or passage:

  • Question #1: Would this document (passage) be considered persuasive, narrative, descriptive, or expository? Give reasons for your choice.
    • Sample Student Answer: This passage would be considered expository, as it is using factual evidence, including dates and citations to support the document. For example, the passage states that the final Jim Crow laws were overturned in 1965.
  • Question #2: How does the author feel towards the subject of the document? What loaded or biased language do you notice, if any?
    • Sample Student Answer: There is no bias or loaded language evident in this passage. The author simply states facts, and it is up to the reader to make inferences based on those facts. For example, one can assume that African-Americans were legally discriminated against and held to a lower social status in the United States until 1965.

The more students read about or study a subject, the more comfortable they begin to feel making assumptions or inferences about the subject. This takes time and practice, which is why introducing a variety of Informational Texts when teaching a piece of literature is so valuable. The more students learn about the historical and aesthetic background of a text, the more they can appreciate the meaning and significance of the literature itself. (See Informational Texts: Part One and Part Two)

For more help with teaching Inference and Observation, see my FREE handout and activity on TPT.

Attacking the Common Core Standards: Informational Texts-Part One

The Common Core State Standards are quickly becoming a reality for the vast majority of the country.  Many teachers in the U.S. are being faced with the task of aligning teaching materials to the Common Core Standards beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, and while many teachers are just trying to make it through the end of this school year in one piece, most are beginning to feel the pressure to find and/or create practical, usable, and appropriate materials that meet the rigors of these new standards.

This article is the first in a series about how teachers can address the Common Core Standards and to align their materials to the rigors they are being faced with through the implementation of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.  In this series, I will explore several options for addressing the Common Core Standards to help English Language Arts teachers like you to learn to seamlessly align your teaching materials to the Common Core.

Starting With Informational Texts
As I travel the country at teacher conferences, ELA teachers continually express their concern and stress over the thought of providing access to and teaching Informational Texts within the Common Core Standards.  Many teachers are under the assumption that in order to “make way” for these Informational Texts, it is at the sacrifice of fiction—novels, plays, and poetry.  Understandably, English teachers are appalled at the thought of forsaking fiction for a seemingly “unbalanced” emphasis on non-fiction.  By nature, we love our literature—especially a great novel!

It is imperative that ELA teachers realize that it is NOT the English Language Arts teachers’ sole responsibility to address this aspect of the Common Core Standards.  According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s Myths versus Facts section:

Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.
Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.
Myth: The Standards don’t have enough emphasis on fiction/literature.
Fact: The Standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. Appropriately, the remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination. In addition to content coverage, the Standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.


In other words, it is not necessarily up to ONLY the ELA teacher to take on the rigorous task of providing and studying Informational Texts alone.  Savvy and educated Principals and Department Heads should be aware that it is not only up to the ELA teacher to fulfill this task of providing and teaching informational texts.  In fact, it is up to Social Studies/History, Science, and even Math teachers to provide and teach non-fictional literature according to each subject area.  Similarly, all disciplines should be responsible for helping to improve literacy for all students.

Now that some of the pressure and fears may have been assuaged as you realize you should NOT be on your own teaching non-fictional “Informational” texts, let’s look at some of the ways you can address this strand, and still keep the novels, plays, and poetry.  You CAN have your cake, and eat it too.

One very simply, straightforward way (and we will focus on other ways in subsequent articles) to address the Informational Text aspect is to have students study biographies.  If you are going to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird, why not read a biography on Harper Lee?  If you are studying The Crucible, then you should have students learn about Arthur Miller.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as biographies are concerned.  To use our example of To Kill a Mockingbird, why not have students do research on/read a biography of Homer Plessy (Plessy v. Ferguson), Truman Capote (Lee’s neighbor upon whom the character Dill was based), or Emmett Till (killed at age 14 for allegedly flirting with a white woman).  Even if the literature does not have a historical aspect, biographies can still be an option.  For example, in the novel When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, the author mentions Dick Clark.  The protagonist, Miranda, reads A Wrinkle in Time, which provides the opportunity for students to read a biography on A Wrinkle in Time’s author Madeleine L’Engle.

But simply reading the biographies may not be enough to fully address the standards of Informational Texts.  Students should also be prompted to answer questions or complete an activity to analyze the intent and purpose of the biography.  Some generic questions that can help you address these standards are:

  • What is the purpose of this text?  How do you know?
  • What loaded or biased language do you notice?  
  • If there is a good amount of loaded or biased language, what do you think is the author’s purpose? If you cannot find any loaded or biased language, why do you think that is?  
  • How is the information in this article arranged (cause/effect, chronological, order of importance, compare/contrast, etc.)?
  • What details/support can you find that indicates how this person’s upbringing and education has ultimately affected his later life?
  • Briefly summarize the important milestones in this person’s life, including dates.
  • Write an original one-sentence thesis based on the information in this article.
  • Write a list of 10 unknown, technical, or subject-specific words from the article; define each.
  • How does the use of these words affect your reading of the article?

While biographies are a simple way to keep students interested in a novel while still addressing the strand of Informational Text, they are effective, and can be a brief exercise that when added to your curriculum not only help to provide support for a novel, but can reassure you that you are taking steps to integrate those non-fictional standards.  Additionally, by providing another medium (i.e. a video) on the person of interest and having students analyze the text in comparison to the video, you also address an additional aspect of these standards.

If you like the idea of integrating biographies into your curriculum, I have put together a collection of Ten Author Biographies – Popular High School Authors for $7.99, available on TPT.  I also have a smaller, FREE version simply called Author Biographies.

Keep checking back for more ways to integrate Informational Texts in your curriculum and lesson creation!

Thanks for stopping by!