Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text

Kara Fusco, a sixth grade Language Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies teacher at Woodmere Middle School on Long Island in New York, facilitated a webinar entitled “Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text.” Woodmere Middle School uses the Columbia University Teachers College curriculum as the basis of their Language Arts program. The unit featured in the webinar combined non-fiction text with the narrative non-fiction book A Long Walk to Water, set in the South Sudan between 1985-2009. The book describes the plight of the Lost Boys of the Sudan and the need for all people to have access to clean water. The ability to cite textual evidence and develop a claim based on evidence is a key outcome of the Teachers College curriculum from the early grades through the middle school.  In the webinar Ms. Fusco clearly illustrated how use of three systems thinking tools, the behavior-over-time graph, connection circle and ladder of inference, improved her students’ ability to generate theme-based claims.  LongWalkWebinar participants were particularly appreciative of the way Kara carefully articulated the sequence and details of the unit prepared by Kara and the team of teachers with whom she works.

Ms. Fusco knows that when students have access to the tools and habits of systems thinking they can organize their thoughts and think more critically about the texts they are reading. Students used a ladder of inference to analyze the characters’ actions, beliefs and cultures and then developed a theme-based conclusion. They used behavior-over-time graphs to cite specific evidence for how characters are changing throughout the course of the story.  Finally, students used a connection circle, which Kara shared, “really made students’ thinking visible and led to insightful conclusions.”  For example, a student explained how Salva, one of the main narrators in A Long Walk to Water, used his growing leadership skill to increase his innovation for finding solutions to the hardships that faced his people in the South Sudan.

From this unit on non-fiction text, students were able to apply the same systems tools to learn more about teen activism in relationship to one of the following issues: girls’ education, world environment, child labor or animal abandonment.  Kara noted that she sees students spontaneously using the tools with a sophisticated level of independence. Ms. Fusco concluded by saying that, “Systems thinking has improved my teaching because I can help students think more abstractly and go back to the text, which is a critical part of my teaching.”


Click to view the webinar recording.

Social Justice and Systems Thinking

“Good Morning, Scholars,” is how you might hear Danielle Robinson greet her second grade students on any given day of learning at Brown Street Academy in Milwaukee Public Schools.  Teaching social justice in the elementary classroom is not an abstract construct to Ms. Robinson, it is part and parcel of the teaching that she does each and every day.  So it was with great enthusiasm that I listened to her share her perspectives in the webinar she conducted for the Waters Foundation entitled, “Social Justice and Systems Thinking.” You can listen to the archived webinar here.

Danielle uses the habits and tools of systems thinking to integrate social justice topics into her teaching, and she does so in a way that allows her to meet the standards and the needs of her students at the same time. “We don’t have to ignore important topics because of testing and the need to teach standards,” Danielle said. Her meaningful lessons take into account her students’ experiences and generate powerful evidence of student learning. There is a lot of talk these days about personalizing instruction, but one of the things that really impressed me as I listened to Danielle talk about her teaching is her awareness of the needs and interests of her students.  “My students have to see themselves in what they are doing,” she stated.  By focusing on authentic, meaningful concepts, Danielle is able to integrate the standards in lessons that allow her students to be problem solvers and critical thinkers.

robinson-icebergA fundamental part of Danielle’s success is her belief that her students are capable problem solvers and critical thinkers.  Further, she teaches her students that fundamental change can only come with a change in belief.  When her students examine real issues, like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or finding ways to beautify their neighborhood, they examine the feelings and beliefs of others and look for how those beliefs impact the situation.  Danielle uses an iceberg model to help her students organize their thinking around these critical issues.

There have been many things written about social justice.  However, in her webinar Danielle shared how to make a significant difference in creating equitable opportunities for students while at the same time teaching in a way that all students can achieve high standards.  The use of systems thinking concepts provides a common vocabulary and a set of tools to help students make their thinking visible. Danielle created a successful recipe for high student achievement with three basic ingredients: build a strong sense of classroom community, make school relevant, and give students opportunities to communicate their thinking. The result of that recipe is a high-achieving classroom for all learners.

See additional details and register for the upcoming webinar “Using Systems Tools to Analyze Non-Fiction Text.”