Harvard Ed Portal Pre-Texts workshop with Boston Public Schools teachers
Wednesday, April 6th, 2016  Harvard | Harvard Ed Portal in Allston, MA

Workshop Dates:

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016


Harvard Ed Portal in Allston, MA


Doris Sommer, with assistance from Joan Matsalia, Renelle Lawrence, Libna Ramos, and Mary McNeil


Approximately 21 BPS elementary school teachers and 3 visiting scholars.


Session One

First, Prof. Sommer provided a brief introductory explanation of what Pre-Texts is—an approach to complex texts that switches students from passive receptors of cultural productions to active producers who create their own artistic responses to canonical works.  Prof. Sommer explained that creating a piece of art that is responding to a text that is usually deemed inaccessible or “boring” by students facilitates a close reading and analysis of the canonical text, but it is done in a way that is empowering and fun for the students.  She explained that in 4 short sessions, Pre-Texts participants would develop the skills necessary to implement the program in their classrooms.

Next, participants engaged in an introductory ice-breaker, forming a circle and throwing a paper ball to other participants.  Participants were encouraged to construct a meaningful, inclusive, and caring learning community by taking note of whether their neighbors received the ball.  After the session was over, Prof. Sommer introduced a practice meant to engage the entire participating group; she asked what we did, and everyone was required to give their own distinct answer.  Once again, the exercise only ended when everyone could confirm that their neighbors had contributed to the conversation.  This best practice for the classroom is very intentional, as it teaches students not only the value of classroom citizenship via participation and engagement, but also through being conscientious of their neighbor’s participation.

After establishing a participatory learning community, Prof. Sommer facilitated her first Pre-Texts activity, modeled after the Cuban cigar workers who historically hired public readers to read to them as they worked.  One participant sat atop a ladder and read aloud the first chapter of Carl Sagan’s, “Cosmos” while the rest of the group sat at tables of five and began to design a “Cosmos” book cover.  Participants were provided Play-Doh, magazines, construction paper, pipe cleaners and a whole host of other art supplies for their artistic endeavors, and took full advantage of the supplies at hand in incredibly innovative and creative ways.  Furthermore, through asking a participant to read the passage from Sagan instead of having an assistant read aloud or reading aloud herself, Prof. Sommer modeled just one way in which teachers can de-stabilize the hierarchal role of teacher as giver of knowledge and student as receiver.

At the end of the reading, each student was asked to write down a question, which would then be shared with the class and hung up on a clothesline in the style of Latin American clothesline publishers.  As in prior group activities, each classroom

community member was required to participate, and the activity only ended when table mates could concretely say that their table members had all participated.  After questions were shared, dinner was served.

The final activity of the night was a kinesthetic activity; Pre-Texts participants were asked to break into groups of 3-4, analyze a passage of the text, and create a “bodily metaphor,” or moving sculpture that represented their selected passage.  Groups were given approximately 10 minutes to choreograph their group sculptures before the entire class reconvened and formed a “theater in the round” (because everyone is in the front row and has equal access in “theater in the round”).  As each group performed in the center of the circle, the class took turns guessing which passage the bodily metaphor-sculpture was supposed to represent until the right passage was proffered.  Such a guessing game required close formal attention to the text and its images and highly sophisticated interpretations of group choreographies.

Before the session ended, a plan was made for the rest of the sessions.   Required readings for 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade ELL students were designated as the session’s texts, and each participating teacher signed up in groups of two to three to lead an activity on the book of their choice. Choices were recorded, and the group dispersed.


Session Two

After a successful first pre-texts training, our BPS participants took the lead, asking deep and inquisitive questions throughout the entire session.

Our first activity was to “go off on a tangent;” participants found pieces of texts from magazines that had to do with last week’s reading, published them to the clothesline, and then explain the connections that they found with the texts and/or readings to Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.”  After explaining their tangent, they would select another published tangent from the clothesline, and the next person would explain their tangent.

Next, Mary and Elvy led the class in an activity on “Lon Po Po.”  While they read a classroom theatre script of the text, participants designed a background watercolor design for a poem or rap that they would construct.  Mary next performed for the class her demo of her activity; a song about the wolf in “Lon Po Po,” set to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Bad.”  Participants spent approximately 15 minutes coming up with their own songs and raps about the texts, and shared them with the class.  After this, the group formed a circle and reflected upon what they did, not stopping until everyone had shared.

For Erin’s activity, participants designed double-sided masks that were to be used to represent dualities of the characters in “Lon Po Po.”  The masks were made out of paper plates and a popsicle stick, and on the stick, participants were asked to identify and copy quotes from the text that represented the dualities of their masks.  After the masks were constructed, participants shared their masks and their textual evidence for their representations, before joining in circle and reflecting on what they did in this activity.

The last activity, led by Barb and Jackie, was movement focused.  Five pre-selected scenes from the book were printed out and given to tables.  Tables were encouraged to break into groups of two to three and choreograph a dance that represented their selected scene.  The groups performed their dances for each other, and joined in circle to reflect upon their activities and talk about next steps in Pre-Texts.

Teachers raised questions about involving and investing in Pre-Texts throughout the session.  One question was on how to adapt it so that it would be accessible to all students, especially those who may be non-verbal or of differing abilities.  Through circle conversation, they brainstormed ways in which it could work in their classroom (i.e. with clothesline publishing—even nonverbal students can participate, because students have complete control of their artistic project, they can choose to create in ways that are available and accessible to them/ don’t necessarily require fine motor skills).  Teachers also asked about written resources for implementing Pre-Texts, to which Prof. Sommer responded that there will be a guide available at the end of the session.  Lastly, discussions about certification and training were had before the group broke for the week.


Session Three

This past week, Pre-Texts/UDL participants convened for the third session of the training.  One of the teacher participants took the reins as the lead facilitator. First, participants shared their tangents from last weeks’ readings of “Lon Po Po.”  The tangents were published to the clothesline.  Next, Hillary passed around one sheeters about creating UDL/Pre-Text compliant lesson plans.  She briefly elaborated upon the ways that Pre-Texts complements the barrier-free learning goals of UDL.  After this, Prof. Sommer had the course recap key parts of our discussion from the previous session about the ways in which they could implement Pre-Texts in the classroom to support barrier free learning.

The first activity of the session, led by CJ, involved the making of a triptych piece of art that both resembled the illustrative style of “Lon Po Po” while asking participants to find passages that supported their reasonings behind the grouping of their illustrations.  Participants organized their triptychs around “themes” of the text such “deception,” as well as sequence of scene. After the activity was over, the group opted to share in small groups before convening as a full group and discussing what they did.  During group reflection, Prof. Sommer asked if all neighbors had shared.  This prompted a question from the audience about enforcing this in the classroom and whether it would cause students to “snitch” on their neighbors, disrupting the experience.  There were several solutions brainstormed by the group, including instructing students to quietly inform their neighbors that they hadn’t read, as well as to have a system in place where each student had a stick that they laid down after they shared in order to gauge who has talked and who hasn’t.

Next, led by Theresa and Caitrin, the class made puppets to be used to enact a scene of their choosing from “Lon Po Po.”  Prof. Sommer suggested that each group select a different scene and act out the entire story, which took a bit of time, but was ultimately successful.  Participants had to quickly decide which characters and pieces of dialogue were key to the scene, and enact them for the class to see.   The performances were sequenced based on the plot of the book.  During our reflection on the activity, one participant asked about the fairness of assigning groups scenes to act out—what if two groups wanted the same scene?  The class decided that it would be fair to have scenes pre-selected and printed out, and for groups to be able to pick from the bunch so that “choice” was still present.  Another participant noted that the activity forced participants to think critically about the characters and how to convey nuances of their personalities in the puppet show.

Lastly, Amy, Candace, and Hilary led the activity in a quilt making exercise for “The Hope Chest.”  While Hilary read the story aloud, participants began illustrating a quilt square and developing a question about the text.  Decorative papers and mimeographed letters were provided as collage material to unify the quilt squares.    Prof. Sommer suggested that participants only work on the border of the quilt while listening to the text read aloud, and save the rest of the quilt square design for after they had familiarity with the text.  The question about the text was written on the back of the quilt square.  At the end of the exercise, each participant shared their question about the text, and the quilt squares were arranged in the middle of the sharing circle for everyone to see.

Finally, there was a brief conversation about Pre-Texts implementation, its relation to UDL, and the fears of being able to implement it in schools that are so attuned to test scores as opposed to student development.


Session Four

This week, another BPS teacher participant took the reins as the lead facilitator for this session.  We started with a tangent activity from last week’s reading of “The Hope Chest.”  Teachers shared their tangents and selected another tangent that they found compelling.  It was so engaging that the last sharer felt compelled to ask one last question about an additional tangent published on the clothesline.  Afterwards, we gathered in a circle and participated in group activity to share what we did.

Next was Pier’s activity: to create a poster and an idea for a movie trailer from last week’s reading.  Unfortunately, we made copies of a different novel by the name of “The Hope Chest,” so one teacher participant read the new section aloud via the reader’s podium while we worked in tables on our concepts for movie trailers and posters.  Pier provided detailed instructions:  1) To select a scene from the passage that we found most compelling, 2) To come up with a title, 3) To cast actors for the characters and to come up with rationales, 4) To create a poster for our tentative movie that reflected numbers 1-3, and 5) To act out our scenes.   Next, discussion was opened up for comments and suggestions, where Prof. Sommer suggested that a way to extend this activity may be to have students create a storyboard for their movie trailers.   Though we did not have enough time to act out our scenes, we did share our groups’ clever movie pitches and posters based on this new “Hope Chest” passage.

Our next activity facilitators, Meron and Lindsay, had another “Hope Chest” activity that ws based on the letter-based format of the novel.  They provided us with pre cut passages from the text, a blank letter template, and an envelope.  While we listened to the text read aloud on tape, we decorated the border of our letter templates.  The floor was opened up for suggestions and comments.  Next, we selected our passages, made an illustration in the center of the paper, and wrote our corresponding line from the text that matched our illustrations.  Lastly, we “mailed” our letters to each other, and had the opportunity to see how others illustrated their passages before convening in a group to discuss what we did.

Lastly, Katie presented an activity on a new text, “Promises to Keep.”  As we listened to the story read aloud, we each formulated a question about the text, and then posed our question to the classroom.  Next, we were distributed comic templates, and selected passages from the text to illustrate in comic form before publishing them to the clothesline and discussing what we did.

Before we dispersed, we continued our group discussion about implementation of Pre-Texts in the classroom in light of mandated identifiable objectives and standards that teachers must adhere to, and the culture of “walkthroughs” by school and district administrators.  Paul from the Boston Teacher’s Union was present for this section and helped to facilitate this conversation.  Many teachers commented on a desire to implement Pre-Texts into their curriculum, but a fear that someone may come into their classroom and cold-call on a student and ask them what the objective for the day is.  We had a conversation about how to talk to students about why we are selecting Pre-Texts activities and how they help us learn so that they may be prepared for such questions.  Paul offered to be an advocate for teachers at specific schools and talk about how problematic walk-through culture can be.  Lastly, Prof. Sommer alerted participants that she would not be able to meet next week because she will be facilitating a Pre-Texts training in Mexico;  she asked if the class wanted to reschedule of self-facilitate the final session.  The class decided to self-facilitate, to everyone’s delight.






Thanks for sharing !

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