by Victoria Gillis
The original version of this piece was first published in
The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy (v. 57, n. 8, p. 614-623), May 2014
This article argues that all teachers are NOT reading teachers, nor should they be. Adapt rather than adopt is the approach suggested, with examples of adaptations provided.
Recently, I was reading online and came across an item titled “All teachers are literacy teachers under common core” (ASCD, April 17, 2013). My first thought was, “Oh, no–not again. We can’t go back there!” The “back there” to which I refer is the quicksand of “every teacher a teacher of reading.” This notion, dating from the early part of the previous century, has hobbled our efforts to improve adolescent literacy for more than 75 years. Every teacher is not a teacher of reading. This may seem like anathema to readers of JAAL, but if we are to make a difference in adolescent literacy, we have to approach the problem in a different way (Moje, 2008). Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” which, it seems to me, is what we’ve been doing in adolescent literacy for far too long.
Secondary teachers are experts in specific disciplines, and as such have no desire, let alone sufficient knowledge, to teach literacy (Moje, 2008; Ridgeway, 2004). Although literacy professionals may not mean to turn science or history or mathematics teachers into reading teachers, this is what secondary teachers hear when we say, “every teacher a teacher of reading.” This sort of pronouncement just turns secondary teachers against ideas that, when implemented, can improve student learning and their literacy simultaneously. I know whereof I speak because 40 years ago, I was one of those content area teachers forced against my will to attend a “reading meeting.” I wrote about this in a First Person piece several years ago (Ridgeway, 2004); suffice it to say, I was opposed to being told by a reading person how to teach science. It was in my attempt to show the reading supervisor that she could not tell me how to teach science that I discovered the power in appropriate disciplinary literacy practices in science, such as explicitly linking data (evidence) to inferences and conclusions, focusing on multimodal reading, and attending to vocabulary. These practices turned my unmotivated junior high students into engaged learners and solved classroom management problems at the same time. The key, as in many parts of life, was in how I envisioned literacy instruction in my classroom.
Initially, literacy never crossed my mind; instead, I was trying ideas that might improve students’ learning in science. I did “think alouds” as I read diagrams and text before they were assigned; I did not assign every page because some passages were so poorly written that I directed my students to skip them and read the diagrams instead; I assigned reading after students had engaged in a lab and discussion so that they had constructed sufficient prior knowledge to comprehend the text; and I focused on vocabulary, emphasizing morphology. I envisioned literacy instruction as science instruction–they were the same thing for me. Perhaps this is the difference between conceptions of content area reading and disciplinary literacy. Often, content area reading seems to impose generic reading strategies on content-specific text whereas disciplinary literacy considers content first and asks, “How would a scientist (or historian, mathematician, or writer) approach this task?” For many content teachers, “adding” literacy to their curriculum means adding something separate and divorced from their content. It is like having a Mercedes sitting in the garage and looking at it as something extra you have to drive once a week or so because you are forced to do so, rather than appreciating that the vehicle will take you someplace. Content area teachers do not see the seamless integration of appropriate literacy practices as an option because most don’t think like that. They are focused on content, and these days of high-stakes testing only reinforce that focus. Content area instruction integrated with discipline-appropriate literacy practices was powerful, effective, and more efficient than instruction in my classroom prior to my exposure to content area reading. I did not select a general strategy, such as KWL or Directed Reading Thinking Activity, to implement in my classroom. Instead, I chose strategies that accomplished my content objectives and adapted them to fit my teaching style, context, and content. In my classroom, content determined process (Herber, 1970), and as I read the current dialogue among secondary literacy scholars, it seems we have come full circle.
In 2008, Moje suggested that perhaps it was time for those in secondary literacy to put content first, rather than literacy. She noted that the general approach in content area reading had been to promote inclusion of literacy instruction in con tent area classes, and this approach had not worked (see also Bean & O’ Brien, 2012/13; O’Brien, Stewart, & Moje, 1995). Moje suggested that the goal of secondary literacy should be “teaching students what the privileged discourses are, when and why such discourses are useful and how these discourses and practices came to be valued” (2008, p. 100). In a response to Moje (2008), Heller (2010/11) suggested that secondary schools should focus on general education and aim to have students communicate about civic, political, and personal issues of importance to them in ordinary language. This seems to me a call for teaching generic reading and writing in content area classes–the status quo. However, students must understand the ideas and content associated with these civic, political, and personal issues and must understand how assertions are made and supported in the various disciplines from which the issues are drawn in order to communicate their ideas clearly and effectively. Additionally, students need to understand the technical language (vocabulary) they use to communicate about these issues. These understandings are the focus that Moje (2008, 2010/11) suggests. Heller’s stance is that secondary students are not capable of reaching the goals set by Moje (2008) and that perhaps secondary teachers are unprepared to help them do so. Brozo, Moorman, Meyer, and Stewart (2013) agreed with Heller that Moje’s (2008) call for students to be apprenticed in disciplinary ways of thinking was perhaps overreaching.
However, Juel, Hebard, Haubner, and Moran (2010) described first graders learning about how scientists and historians think, and Cervetti and Pearson described research in which elementary students were engaged in doing science and were simultaneously learning about reading and writing practices in science. Cervetti and Pearson’s stance that it does not make sense to teach comprehension of scientific text isolated from engaged exploration and scientific inquiry strikes a chord with me as a science teacher. If primary and elementary students can learn discipline-appropriate ways of thinking, why do we assume secondary students cannot do so?
Brozo et al. (2013) call for a “middle ground.” Their position is that content area teachers can be approached in such a way that they are less resistant to content area literacy instruction. I agree, but I have two issues with Brozo et al.’s argument. First, Hal Herber’s (1970) seminal book did call for literacy instruction in content area classrooms, but his mantra was content determines process. This crucial element seems to have disappeared from the discussion. Herber was the consultant on the content reading project in Central Florida in which I was a participant. My work with Joy Monahan and Herber in 1973/4 instilled in me the idea that first you look at the content you want to teach. Then you determine the sorts of strategies that will help students learn the content. Content first. It was an idea I could agree with as a science teacher, and one my content area reading students can relate to as well. Second, Moje’s (2008) call for students to be apprenticed into the various disciplines was not a call to make high school students experts in any field (Moje, 2010/11). Brozo et al. called for a blending of the two approaches, and noted that some struggling adolescent readers may need the generic reading strategies of content area reading. Faggella-Luby, Graner, Deschler, and Drew (2012) make this argument and provide an example to illustrate their point drawn from history. They compare a discipline- specific strategy that teaches students historical reasoning practices in order to reconcile differences in primary sources with a generic compare and contrast strategy, and claim that the latter is more appropriate for struggling readers because it can be generalized to any content. But it cannot. Not at the high school level, where history students are expected to compare sources and note when each source was generated, who generated it, any biases involved in the author(s) of the source, and to consider other events and sources that are related, to note any language that might provide clues to biases. The sorts of analysis expected of high school students cannot be addressed by generic literacy strategies that simply have students compare and contrast two sources. I think the problem identified by Faggella-Luby et al. (2012) of struggling readers incapable of handling discipline- specific thinking strategies can be mitigated by increased scaffolding for these struggling readers. For example, in the historical reasoning illustration, a history teacher might provide students with an Inquiry Chart that helps support their comparison of the sources in question and simultaneously develop historical thinking as seen in Figure 1.
This provides scaffolding for students’ historical thinking, enabling struggling adolescent readers to accomplish the task of comparing the sources. Having struggling readers work collaboratively provides additional support as well as opportunities for students to discuss their emerging understandings.
The current discussion, in a nutshell, is one of general literacy strategies vs. discipline specific strategies (Fang & Coatoam, 2013). As a former science teacher, my experience is that strategies adapted (rather than adopted) to fit the content (discipline specific strategies) are more effective than general literacy strategies. Here is an example of what I mean by adapt rather than adopt. In the following discussion, I hope to show how Response Heuristic (Bleich cited in Tierney, Readence, & Dishner, 2000; Alvermann, Gillis, & Phelps, 2013), a strategy that originated in English, can be adapted for other content areas. Response Heuristic was designed to foster readers’ inferences about an author’s meaning and create space for the reader’s personal interpretation of literature. In English, students need to understand what the “experts” say about the meaning of a piece of poetry or literature, but it is also important to allow students to personalize their understanding of the literature. Response Heuristic accomplishes these seemingly opposing tasks. Essentially, Response Heuristic is a three-column graphic organizer in which the first column targets literal information, the second column targets inferential/interpretive thinking, and the third column targets application level thinking. However, the strategy must be adapted for use in different content areas (Alvermann et al., 2013).
In an English class that is reading Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1998), and focusing on figurative language, Response Heuristic might be completed as in Figure 2.
In a history class studying 20th century history, students might be asked to read from their text book, identify one to three significant events described in the assignment, the immediate effect(s) and perhaps long- term effects or unintended con sequences, and provide evidence for their assertions (see Figure 3). Students need to be able to make these connections and be able to provide supporting evidence for them. Response Heuristic provides an appropriate frame to support students’ historical thinking.
In science, Response Heuristic can be adapted to help students make connections between data/ observations, inferences, and conclusions. The example shown in Figure 4 relates to a class activity in which students view a video of sodium, then calcium, reacting with water (this must be presented as a video because solid sodium is no longer allowed to be kept in science labs, although as a young science teacher 45 years ago, the demonstration is one I used with students to great effect).
In mathematics, Response Heuristic can help students focus on the process of problem- solving (Polya, 1973), and might have four (rather than three) columns. I must thank my math colleague, Dr. Linda Hutchison, for the adaptation in Figure 5 and Leigh Haltiwanger, doctoral student, for the problem illustrated. Leigh commented that the heuristic forces students to generate a plan, something they frequently skip, and that it helps students identify their prior knowledge and forces reflection on the process (personal communication, December 2, 2013). As a science/literacy person, I needed disciplinary experts to help me adapt this strategy for a discipline with which I am not as familiar.
Note how in these examples, a strategy is adapted to reflect the kinds of thinking found in the different content areas. As a content area teacher, this is the kind of “secondary literacy” that was helpful to my students–scaffolding that helped them acquire the habits of mind in science. This is the kind of scaffolding found in Juel et al.’s work with first graders (2010) as well as the work reviewed by Cervetti and Pearson (2012).
Secondary teachers need to understand how literacy can be used as a tool for learning so that students improve their literacy and content knowledge simultaneously. When presented in this light, content area teachers are more willing to consider ideas presented in content area literacy courses. I must tell you, however, that as a science teacher I cared little about students’ literacy. I wasn’t opposed to students improving their literacy, but my focus was on their learning science, and appropriately so. It took many years before I realized what I was doing; initially, I was just thankful the strategies worked. But once I perceived the literacy principles operating in science literacy, I was able to be more focused and purposeful in my instruction, which increased my effectiveness as well as instructional efficiency. Even then, however, I did not fully appreciate the complexity of literacy in science.
A number of researchers have noted differences in literacy practices across the disciplines (Johnson, Watson, Delahunty, McSwiggen, & Smith, 2011; Moje, 2006, 2007, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Wilson, 2011). In the following discussion, I focus on literacy in science to illustrate the complexity involved in reading secondary texts, because this is the discipline that I still consider my academic home with respect to teaching in secondary schools, but use examples from other disciplines to illustrate major points.
In science, reading is multimodal and readers must read diagrams, experimental results, graphs, and prose alternating among these semiotic systems as they think about what they are learning (Shanahan, 2009; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; Wilson, 2011). Diagrams, photographs, and graphs each present important information in science textbooks in contrast to social studies texts that use photographs less in support of the prose and more for graphic design purposes. Diagrams are not read left to right, top to bottom; it depends on the structure of the conceptual representation. Some concepts are processes (for example, photosynthesis or how a bill becomes a law) and are best represented as flow charts. Other concepts are structured as part- to-whole (the structure of a leaf, a lever, an atom, or a map of the United States) and are best represented as labeled diagrams. Concepts such as the classification of animals, plants, elements, lenses, or parts of the government are hierarchical taxonomies that are best represented as branching tree diagrams. The structure of the content determines the kind of graphic that best represents the concept (Alvermann et al., 2013). But the multimodal nature of science involves more than diagrams and prose.
In science, text may very well be a graduated cylinder. Reading might involve reading the volume of a liquid in it and knowing to read from the bottom of the meniscus. Text might be a wet mount slide of pond water, and in order to read it, one must know how to move the slide as you examine it (if you need to see the top portion of the slide, you have to move the slide down toward you in the opposite direction). Or text might be a chemical reaction that changes color, produces a gas, or gives off or absorbs heat. In chemistry, text includes symbols (Al, H2, CO2), numbers, diagrams, and prose. Text, in its broadest sense, can take many forms (Draper, Broomhead, Jensen, Nokes, & Siebert, 2005), and teachers and students need to understand this important feature of scientific text and understand that to read science text, you have to move between the various semiotic systems as you work in order to comprehend the text. In contrast, history text might be a video of an historical event, photographs, journals, diaries, or maps. Students must learn to read these artifacts, including primary documents that might contain archaic language and vocabulary (Draper et al., 2005; Nokes, 2013). Clearly reading science and history texts require different complex cognitive processes. Neither reading nor English teachers possess the requisite prior knowledge necessary to teach students how to read or write in science, social studies, or mathematics.
Being a “teacher of secondary literacy” is more accurately being a teacher of discipline appropriate literacy practices, and this cannot be divorced from sufficient content knowledge to understand the epistemology and philosophy of the field from which the text is drawn. One difference between science and math is the idea of proving something. In science, one can disprove but cannot prove anything beyond a shadow of a doubt (thus, all those “scientifically proven” reading programs are oxymoronic); but in mathematics, proving something is the name of the game. This difference in philosophy is important for science and mathematics teachers (and students) to understand.
As you can see, literacy at the secondary level is much more complicated than selecting a strategy to use with a particular text passage. We truly don’t want every teacher teaching reading. Frankly, they are not prepared to do so. What we DO want is for teachers to teach discipline appropriate literacy practices, which vary according to the content area - not to produce disciplinary experts, but to produce students capable of critical thinking about the issues important to them. In order to accomplish this goal, it is incumbent on adolescent literacy professionals to collaborate with their colleagues teaching discipline-specific courses, including those housed in Arts and Sciences and those in education methods. Johnson et al. (2011) working in mathematics and geography exemplify a team approach to understanding these disciplines and exploring similarities and differences between them, as viewed by content area experts. As a result of their discussions and explorations, they discovered two strategies that are particularly well- suited for mathematics; these strategies are think aloud and math circles (adapted from literature circles). They also discovered that although Cornell notes were spurned by the geographers, Inquiry Charts were enthusiastically taken up as suitable graphic organizers in geography.
This is a case of perfect symbiosis–agriculture, art, dance, English, mathematics, music, physical education, science, social studies, and theater education professors possess the deep content knowledge necessary for successful navigation and creation of texts in these disciplines while literacy professionals bring knowledge of text, comprehension, and composing processes. Together, we can find common ground.
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
Every school year, on the last day on the academic calendar, the staff of the Dover-Eyota School District gather in the cafeteria at the secondary building to celebrate the work that has been done over the course of the academic year. This year, cupcakes were served and ice cream dished out, as were many awards for years of service, retirees, and more. One person always recognized is the Dover-Eyota Education Association teacher of the year : this year, that is the secondary band instructor, Ryan Anderson.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you today. I want to start with a question. How many of you actually know something about Social Emotional Learning within the classroom?
I was wondering what that was before I took a class this fall. If I could put it into one sentence or two, maybe a question, I would have to start with: “How does it feel to be in the classroom? How does it feel to learn? Are we recognizing the feelings of each other?” If I had to put that into why social emotional learning is important, it would be because it is the magic that gets us to the next level. And, recognizing people as individuals in unique circumstances--we aren’t all going to the same place, but us recognizing that we all have potential, understanding how our students feel in the classroom, is equally important as them passing a quiz or test. Right now, if we think about how we feel… Well, it has been such a crazy year.
I don’t think I really belong as Teacher of the Year, when you consider how everyone else has been able to do such amazing things. I want to recognize a couple people that could never get educator of the year. I want to start with Carrie Frank. Carrie Frank is our Food & Nutrition Director. I’ve been absolutely amazed at what she has been able to do this year. If somehow she was asked to feed our entire school district, she would gather as many spoons and pots as needed and get her staff together, and they’d find the resources and make it happen. She put together an absolutely unbelievable Christmas Dinner. Because Carrie cares about how people feel and you can’t learn when you’re hungry. It just doesn’t work as well. And, she cares about all of our students. She had this gigantic Christmas ham, which I still have some leftovers in our freezer. I swear to God it was at least 24 pounds. And it was really good. Really good. And she had potatoes, she had string beans, she had rolls, she had dessert...she had everything.
I asked her, “Carrie, what do you need help with?” You know what she said?
“Sign up and take some food.”
That’s all she asked. Just take. She is saying, You’re important. Our students are important. We need to eat. It’s all going to be okay. And she was a superhero. It would have been so much easier if we had put on a Covidproof, bulletproof vest and taken all the shots to our emotions and peeled it off and thrown it away when we were done, but that’s not the case, because we are human. Carrie is superhuman.
I’ll tell you who else I really think deserves some recognition because he is superhuman. It is Steve Herrick: Steve, the custodian. Steve is also the most popular person in the whole dang school district. When Steve comes by lunch, the sixth graders chant and pound the tables, “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve;” because, Steve already gets Social Emotional lLearning. Because he asks kids their name, and then he purposely forgets it and gives them a nickname. My kids have the nicknames “Larry Bird” and “Harvard” because my son is tall and blonde and my daughter wears a Harvard sweatshirt. Because they already had this rapport. He remembers them. He jokes with them. He shares that it’s “Smiling Wednesday.” Steve matters. Steve’s important. Everyone is important. Look around the room: we’re all important.
I want to tell you a story. In fall of 2019, my friend Dan asked me to go skydiving, and skydiving is the type of thing where I’ve always wanted to say I did it, but didn’t really get that excited about falling out of an airplane because that’s pretty scary to me. I’m not afraid of heights, I like roller coasters, I love a good thrill like that, but jumping out of a plane is pretty scary.
But Dan called, so I said, “Let me check the calendar.”
Nothing was on the calendar at home, so I checked with my wife, and she said, “Do it.”
I thought to myself, You know, okay. I guess so.
In the meantime, before I called Dan back, I get a call from Lane Powell, who runs TriState Marching Band Association: it’s all marching band judges that go all over the country. He said, “Ryan, how would you like to judge the Iowa State Marching Band Competitions?”
I said, “Oh, that’d be awesome. What’s the gig pay?”
And he said, “$350.”
Dan had just gotten off the phone with me and said the cost [to skydive] was $350.
So now I had absolutely zero excuse. The calendar is open. I’m going to have the cash in hand. We’re going to go skydiving.
So, we put this on the calendar, a Sunday morning at 10:00. I’m nervous as all heck. Anyway, Skydive Place calls Dan up on Saturday and says, “Hey, we’re overbooked, we’re wondering if we can bump you to another weekend.”
Dan calls me, and I said, “If they can’t get us in, I’m not coming man. I’ve committed, I’ve already lost two nights of sleep, we’re doing this thing.”
So, Dan calls them back and says, “We’ve gotta take this if we’re going to do this.”
They say, “Fine, we’ll get you in.”
by Heather M. F. Lyke
I had the pleasure this week of working with a third-grade teacher when our conversation turned to the distance learning we did this year. She shared a powerful takeaway. For her, the gem she honed in on was that she now had a better understanding of what students’ lives are like at home, seeing as she bore witness to certain at-home distractions, had to work more closely with parents as they worked together to keep students engaged, and as she became a sounding board for some guardians to share frustrations regarding discipline issues and learning struggles. Moving forward, this teacher shared that she wants to maintain that better understanding of the complex layers that students and families are navigating outside of school, as they have a direct impact on students’ engagement, behaviors, and learning abilities within school walls.
This got me thinking. There have been many discussion lately about the ‘learning loss’ that has occurred during the past year as we’ve been navigating ever-changing educational structures. Simply do a search for ‘learning loss’ and one will quickly discover that there has become an obsession with how Coronavirus has supposedly created a dip in our youths’ knowledge and skill growth.
While there may be truth to the idea that some of the types of skills that typical students may have typically attained in a previously typical school year could have been lost, have we not learned from the atypical nature of this past school year?
Looking for answers, the Third Eye Education team and I took to social media—asking educators and parents to share their thoughts on what we learned during this past year that we want to be sure not to devalue. In this online conversation, the following clear themes emerged.
The Learnings from Teaching During Covid-19 That Many Wish to Maintain
Inequity Awareness & Efforts to Create Balance
In many ways, teaching during a Coronavirus outbreak brought forth inequities (or at least an awareness of them) and, in some cases, fast-tracked solutions.
As students started to need to learn from home, it became clear who did not have access to computers and/or at-home-internet. Many of these students had likely been negatively impacted by these truths in past academic years, specifically in regards homework expectations, but as students shifted to all schoolwork being done at home, suddenly districts strove to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, along with other creative solutions. As we find ourselves seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, let’s be sure to maintain this awareness and continue to adjust as needed to support our students. Returning to in-building school doesn’t instantly place all students on an equal level—we need to maintain this awareness even as we come back together.
This year we’ve had a window into students’ home lives in ways we have not in the past, which has increased empathy and allowed for adjustments. Some students have learning environments full of distractions while others have a quiet place to study and focus. Some students have parents who can help them with their homework, while others (due to the time constraints or the specific skill ability of those living in the home) may not. Some students have responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings, while others do not. This imbalance is one teachers are able to continue to adjust for, as long as we maintain the awareness.
Other such discrepancies uncovered this past year to which adjustments were made in some schools included:
Flexibility, Autonomy, & Focus on Individual Need
Covid-19 created a constant need to adjust. Systems had to keep shifting as we learned more, as the virus morphed, as vaccines became available. So did the methodology used in many classrooms.
Particularly in the spring of 2020, asynchronous opportunities for learning became a must for many learners as their schools and families adjusted to spending most of their time indoors and at home. While not always ideal, and certainly not best for all learners, it did become clear that some students learned better this way, at least on occasion, in certain contexts, or in specific content areas. Therefore, we need to maintain this as an option when possible: when it makes sense to, consider utilizing a flipped classroom approach, experimenting with outdoor learning spaces, and supporting online/hybrid courses. (In fact, last year I taught Creative Writing in a hybrid structure: in-person three days a week, writing and one-on-one conferencing twice a week—a perfect balance for such a course.)
Other flexible environment suggestions emerged as well. Due to safety concerns, buildings got creative in what classrooms and shared spaces looked like:
Similarly, the realities that learning doesn’t always happen at the same pace and in the same order for students was highlighted during this past school year. As we have the opportunity to adjust back into more traditional educational structures, educators will want to maintain this realization. One way to do this moving forward is to consider creating more of a ROWE (results only work environment) or adjusting the focal points of what we teach.
Amber Henry, a teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, noted that this malleability has helped students grow skills in the areas of “resilience, grit, flexibility, and technology independence.” These may not be skills we see on a traditional academic report card, but they are exactly the skills we want them to grow none-the-less. Such skills will surely help them grow academically in the years to come.
Other new flexibility, autonomy, and individualization made this year include:
In such a complex year, everyone has been navigating life differently than they likely did in years past. What that looked like, or how it impacted each individual, varied. This led to an increase in empathy in schools in ways that many had never seen before. Students and staff were often reminded to “be proactive about spending time with people [they] care about,” district leaders and teachers exuded more patience, teachers wove more coping and planning skills into their teaching rather than simply making one-size-fits all structures for students to follow.
In Think Again, Adam Grant’s newest book, he notes that “we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.” If nothing else, Coronavirus has illustrated how rapidly changing our world really is, and has forced educators to rethink certain aspects of how we run our schools and support our learners. As the concern around the virus subsides, let’s not lose the power that rethinking can have.
Grant goes on to state that, “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong.” This is not an easy feat, as “we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones,” but there is no denying that it’s the new views that are the ones often helping us move forward into a world we don’t yet understand.
Is ‘learning loss’ really the concern we should be having? Or, should we be concerned that we may lose the learning we’ve gained from such an atypical school year?
by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
Independent Choice and Independent Learning in Elementary Physical Education
By Eric Aeschlimann
In most ways, this pandemic has been a tough ride for teachers but it hasn’t been all bad. As educators, if we can’t see obstacles as opportunities for growth, then we aren’t living up to our growth mindset ideals we expect our students to strive towards.
In Physical Education (PE), my system has always included a schedule of units and skill-building that allowed an introduction to skills, time to practice, and opportunities to build on previous skills. Out of necessity, the schedule depended on weather (soccer in fall, gymnastics in winter when stuck in the gym, etc.) and much of that has stayed the same. But, this year, with fewer minutes for PE, it was an opportunity to take a risk and attempt something I’d been wanting to try for a long time: independent learning for grades K-5.
I wanted to have students come to class and immediately start independent work for the first 5-10 minutes of class. In theory, if students were motivated to improve on these chosen skills then these 5-10 minutes would add up to a lot of practice by the end of the school year. After set time for practice, then our PE units would follow the same order as before: a quick chat about the day, a warm-up, and finally our daily unit/game/activity.
Once back in the gym in late January, I trained students to choose a skill to practice for the first 5-10 minutes of class. Luckily, I had whiteboards at my disposal for daily reminders, and I put 6 skills on one board and 5 exercises on another. I had skills and levels of expectation for grades K-5 on each whiteboard. It looked like this:
This became a habit: students were taught that each day they’d have 5-10 minutes to work on a skill or exercise of their choice. My goal for them was to get to their grade-level-ability or better by the end of the school year: the first number was generally a first-grade level and the final number listed a fifth-grade level. I stressed to students that this year we were behind in our typical learning and that while some kids already had some of these skills, others may not, so each should choose a skill they individually needed to improve upon. To keep the “watch me’s” at bay, I told students this was independent work time and that I would ‘test’ each of them on a different day: my goal was to check about 5 kids each day and give feedback to those students, while everyone worked independently on each of their skills of choice.
What I’ve learned in the first month and a half of this process has proven what I had hoped.
Additionally, I have noticed how much interest there has been in the pull-up bars. I have five spots for this and they’re typically full: students race to get to them so they can work on pull-ups or the flexed arm hang. We’ve also had the rope and arm ladders available during much of February and it has been so fun to see students getting stronger just by using those muscles.
I am always reminding students that if they want to get better at something then they need to practice. Climbing the rope, swinging on the rope, pull-ups, and flexed arm hangs are very real examples to students, who after a little over a month of practice, are seeing their work pay off: those who could not do a flexed arm hang have been able to hold themselves up after they work on it and play on the rope.
Students have been able to choose a skill, find out which grade level they are at, and then work on it every day they have PE and track their own improvement. It has been exactly what I had hoped for: not just me telling students what was important, but them choosing a skill and putting actual effort into improving at it. The focus has been tremendous.
I will continue to use this system of choice within my classes moving forward. I’m impressed with how much content I’m able to assess with this new system. Plus, the smaller class sizes we have had this year due to Covid-19 have allowed me to really get to know each student’s skill level better and to monitor individual progress. With elementary PE, units are still practical and necessary due to equipment set-up and the simple fact that elementary kids, in order to learn new skills, need personal practice as well as to see their peers demonstrating practice. At the older levels, however (fourth & fifth), I can see this system expanded to more than the first 5-7 minutes of PE: I can see a warm-up choice, small unit choice, or even skill-practice within each unit.
Prior Understanding Matches Findings & Bonus Discoveries
What I had previously learned about personalized learning was that students would be on task with more focus because each student’s education was tailored to their current level. Students in their ‘sweet spot’ of not too hard and not too easy would take ownership of their learning and really focus to improve their skill. This is true in my newfound experience.
A healthy side effect of this model has been how little I’ve had students give up or refuse to participate. Discipline is hardly needed, as kids simply know what to do and do it. They don’t get bored because they have eleven choices and each one at their own skill-level.
Tips for Sucess
I am excited to see how far, moving forward, I can stretch putting kids in charge of their own learning as they become independent learners. After all, students becoming independent learners is our endgame.
My suggestion to any teacher who wants to put students in the driver’s seat more often:
Personally, I tried this a couple of years ago with fifth graders, tweaked a few things, then added fourth graders. Though it might not be viable in every subject area every day, I do believe whenever individual work is being done, it is possible.
The trick for the K-3 students was to ‘train’ students prior to setting them free to explore: I was nervous about them learning something the wrong way and becoming embedded muscle memory. Therefore, I spent a few minutes on each skill and spent the first few days after not tracking or assessing, but monitoring proper technique instead.
There is a sweet spot of not too hard, nor too easy. For younger students who are not yet readers, this can be tricky; so, I used pictures and symbols with numbers underneath and encouraged kids to help each other or ask me if they forgot or couldn’t figure something out.
Application Beyond PE
This technique is not only for PE! In a math class, for example, one choice could be flash cards, another could be white-board practice, another could be manipulatives (cubes, coins, etc.), money counting, etc. On a whiteboard or poster, could be the levels. I think it is key for students to know where grade level is and beyond. It could look like this:
I was looking for a way to give choice and voice to students and hoped for focused work that led to increased assessment scores and fewer discipline issues. What I learned in my K-5 PE classes this winter was that it can be done. Students were self-motivated and focused on the task at hand; therefore, I had fewer issues with students off task.
I am excited as I look ahead to how I can expand choices in different units and settings, as I feel I have opened a new door that has endless possibilities. When teachers choose to go this route, students will become more independent and self motivated. Who doesn’t love that?
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.