My Journey As A Literacy Teacher

In January, we had an in-service day at school. During the morning staff meeting, teachers were tasked with creating an exhibit that would communicate “Who We Are,” as literacy teachers. I decided that my theme would be my ongoing journey as a literacy teacher.

As I sorted through possible artifacts on hand in my classroom, I considered what has shaped and continues to shape my journey as a literacy teacher. I quickly realized that it is the questions that are always at the wheel, driving my interest and development.

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Mapping my questions.

I mapped my questions on the white paper you see in my final exhibit. Next I linked them to concepts and resources that drove my inquiries into each question.

I noticed that my questions evolve as I progress through my career. The first question was posed 20 years ago when I first began working with young readers and writers.

My Questions:

  • How best can I teach reading and writing?
  • What does the research tell me about language and literacy development?
  • How am I providing access to students for whom English is not their mother tongue?
  • How am I providing access for students with different abilities?
  • What is the role of language in my student’s identities? How does language instruction in my classroom affect this?
  • How do the frameworks, philosophy, and practices that have worked for me (and countless others) fit in with the philosophy and framework of the PYP?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my students have equitable access to the learning at our school? In our grade?
  • How best can our school support a consistent and coherent experience for our students given their transient nature as well as that of the faculty?

My Exhibit:

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Artifacts in “My Journey As A Literacy Teacher.”

My artifacts included student work, some favorite mentor texts, recent professional reads and some old standards that I always have on hand. The exhibit is certainly not complete. Many of my professional texts and mentor texts are personal property and stored at home. The absence of some of my own mentors is conspicuous and had they been on hand, Lucy Caulkins, H. Lynn Erickson, Ralph Fletcher, Carl Anderson, and countless students who have taught me so much, would also have been represented.

What are the questions that have shaped your journey so far? Who are your gurus?

“Notice and Note” and Reflecting On Rigor

The heat wave that has been plaguing Amsterdam has finally broken. I’ve been taking advantage of the cooler weather and a quiet weekend, spending the bulk of my time on the couch with Notice and Note, by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst.

I’m just through the first section and find myself nodding in agreement, jotting down notes of my own, and following suggested resources. I can’t help but notice my own process as I read this text! Here are some of the things that I’m really excited about so far:

Rigor and Reading Instruction

Beers and Probst dedicate a chapter early on about rigor in the classroom. If I was using a project zero thinking routine as I describe my interactions with this chapter, it would be “Connect, Extend, Challenge.” I made many connections between the text and my work as a Grade 4 teacher. I feel as though I am more able to articulate what appropriate challenges are for my readers. I am inspired to make those challenges accessible to them.

One of my big connections came when Beers and Probst described reading as “transactional.” In other words, the making of meaning happens through the interaction between the reader and the text. It also happens readers interact with each other over a text. Yes, yes, yes! Sadly, many of my students, not to mention their parents, see rigor as dealing with texts that are far too complex for them.

Parents, Students, and Rigor

At the start of this school year, I was dismayed to see the responses of my students when they were asked what they should work on as a reader this year. “I need to read harder books” and ” I want to read fatter books,” were common replies. The parent surveys communicated similar goals. Every year, I am confronted with parents of fourth graders who want their kids to read books like The Hunger Games or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I look coach kids who are trudging through texts which are way too complex for them, striving to help them find the texts that will engage and sustain their interest and foster the types of interactions that will give them the rich experience that skilled readers enjoy.

What Rigor Really Is

I am grateful to Beers and Probst for extending my thinking about this incredibly important facet of literacy education. They have given me the language to discuss what rigorous reading does entail. Here are some of my highlights from their chapter on rigor:

“Rigor is not an attribute of a text but rather a characteristic of our behavior with that text.”

“Rigor resides in the energy and attention given to the text, not in the text itself.”

And, in a comparison to weight-lifting:

The quality, rigor, does not reside in the barbell but in the interaction with it.”

After reading this chapter, I feel as though I have some ideas on how to help my students understand that success as a reader is not the complexity of the text itself, but the energy and commitment that the reader brings when interacting with the text.

It’s time to start planning some lessons!

 

 

Evolving Ideas-Looking Back and Ready To Move Forward

When I first started working at my #IBPYP school, I was already a long-time TCRWP enthusiast. Having worked in a district in NYC at a time when we were mostly literacy-focused, I spent a lot of time at TC and with TC staff developers. My students have a much better experience in my class as a result of this.

The faculty at the project get to spend all day, every day, thinking about literacy and how best to support development in our young learners. Their insights and focus are invaluable, and I draw from them every day in my practice. I continue to learn from their work and find ways to apply that learning to my context as a PYP teacher.

I am on an ongoing quest to find the most powerful way to implement what we know works from TCRWP and from PYP. I know that there are schools out there who run the PYP and TCRWP side by side. The philosophies match in so many ways. But for a long time, I’ve been thinking that running them together is not enough. I wonder, is it truly supporting genuine, student-centered #inquiry? Are we grounding the learning in carefully selected concepts? What about when schools teach TCRWP units of study as they are published by Heinemann? Experienced workshop teachers can attest to the magic that happens when readers and writers get to experience the workshop approach but I worry about indoctrination. Even when something works well, isn’t it our responsibility to ask ourselves how could we make it even better? Especially when we work under multiple belief systems?

Looking back, one of the ways I have worked to integrate my reading and writing workshops into my program of inquiry is by lining up the reading and writing units with the transdisciplinary themes. I saw this as one way I could ground my reading and writing units in specific concepts.

Here’s an example of how I fleshed these out for the purposes of my own planning:

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It’s always a work in progress and I would welcome feedback on how to make my generalizations even better!

For the past several years, I have planned out my reading and writing units this way, starting with the transdisciplinary theme, then I move on to generate “central ideas” and “lines of inquiry” for each workshop. I then plan out the related concepts and possible/probable skills that will be taught within the conceptual constructs of the unit. This varies from year to year depending on the student’s prior experiences, as well as the evolving program of inquiry. In most cases, this creates opportunities for my students to make connections to the units of inquiry. Sometimes it doesn’t and the degree to which always varies. This makes me think that I need to continue on my quest to make my program even more transdisciplinary.

This year, when planning the “what” of my curriculum, my plan is to try to move away from fitting my “units of study” into my program of inquiry. I hope to work towards building a truly concept-based language curriculum that is open enough to student-direction. I don’t plan to abandon the valuable lessons from the TCRWP, rather I will take with me some of the core philosophies and attitudes, as well as the time-tested practices and structures and apply those to the “how” of my curriculum after I have planned the “what.”

As always, I’m on the lookout for collaborators and resources!

Integrating A Persuasive Language Study Into A PYP Unit of Inquiry

Working at a PYP school, there is often discussion around how we can incorporate quality literacy teaching and learning into a program of inquiry. Here is an example of how this can be done by using the unit of inquiry and key concepts as a base, and “workshop” style mini-lessons and engagements as a vehicle for students to develop their skills and understanding.

At the end of an inspiring two days with Georgia Heard and Kathy Collins last month, we were asked to reflect on our take-aways. Long-term, mid-term and immediate-I had so many ideas vying to be my main focus, but Kathy Collins’ session on close reading was right on time for the unit I was starting with my fourth graders that Monday.

As a part of our “How We Organize Ourselves” unit, we explore the marketplace. Our language integration for this unit focuses on persuasive speech and texts. The unit has moved this year, and now occupies a comfortable six weeks, split up by our February break. In the past, it would get crammed in right before the Christmas break, vying with holiday festivities, special events, and waning attention spans; along with all of the other “loose ends” that we wanted to tie up before a three week break. The time now allocated to this unit has it brimming with possibilities. There is more time for students to pursue their own inquiries into the marketplace, as well as for some in-depth exploration of language within and beyond the context of the unit. Students can be afforded compelling opportunities to become critical readers of (or listeners to) persuasive and argument language; as well as skilled users of this genre when their writing or speaking goal is to persuade or convince others.

We’ve always looked at different forms of advertising during this unit, and we extend the literacy integration to include persuasive essays and stories. This usually begins with an exploration of advertising gimmicks, such as slogans, logos, smart facts, spokespeople, etc. Students learn about these gimmicks and then use them to advertise their own products and services, which they work on developing and preparing to sell at our grade 4 marketplace. We then usually continue building on our understanding of persuasive language, by examining author/creator’s purpose, and craft moves for persuasive essay writing. We would read persuasive texts together, but there was never much time for a reading unit. This has always been frustrating for me, as there are so many amazing links to the skills habits our readers need to develop, but there was never any time. Until this year…

Coming up to this unit, I knew that my students needed to work on their critical reading skills, and to recognize the need to develop their own ideas about what an author is saying. While persuasive texts are not the only ones requiring these skills, they do provide a very concrete point of entry for fourth graders to develop the skills and dispositions to read/listen to what is being communicated closely, consider it critically, and make determinations based on their own experiences, knowledge and feelings related to the text.

Planning ahead, I developed three questions for students to use as they practiced close reading of/listening to persuasive language:

  • What is the author/creator trying to convince me of or persuade me to do?
  • What strategies is the author/creator using to persuade/convince me?
  • What are my thoughts, connections, questions and reactions to this?

Modelling and then releasing responsibility:

Students began using these three prompts as they watched television commercials on youtube. I first modelled “close watching” using a commercial from my childhood, for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. I pointed out the jingle (I know I’m not the only person out there who can sing the “Tony the Tiger” song by heart). I noted the use of healthy, active children, playing sports and showing off their energy. I talked about Tony, the spokes-tiger. I then modelled reflecting on what the advertisement was telling me, and what it was trying to get me to do. At this point, students were catching on and joining in, thinking along. We captured our ideas on the chart below and then I sent them off with a pre-selected collection of commercials from around the world, to practice this very same thinking. 

Close Listening to Commercial
Some of our thoughts in response to the Frosted Flakes commercial.

As the students practiced close listening, I noticed that many were easily picking out the purpose of the commercials, as well as some of the more obvious advertising gimmicks, but many students found it more challenging to discuss their own ideas/reactions to the commercials.

The next day, we engaged in a similar engagement with a print advertisement. This was definitely more shared reading than modelling. As the students became more comfortable with the type of thinking we were practicing, they took on more responsibility.

As our unit unfolds, students are able to revisit the collection of commercials and print ads that I had curated for them during the readers workshop, as well as explore other persuasive, and non-persuasive texts. I will continue to look for ways to support them as they develop their understanding of persuasive language, how it is used, and how they can be critical consumers when they are on the receiving end. Very soon, we will start looking at all of these ideas as writers and creators of persuasive texts and language.