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.
Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
Concepts and ideas by Wiley Blevins; compilation and added resources by Nick Truxal
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's excellent piece on books serves as mirrors to reflect on our own experiences; windows to peer into other’s experiences; and sliding doors that can distort, allow access, or serve as a barrier frames many wider issues in literacy. One that we as educators can struggle with is finding the material that will have the content we need, the skills we need to teach, and the diversity to serve as windows and mirrors.
So, this article shall be that. Where do we find quality resources, and where do we find quality resources that help us find quality resources. It is a babushka doll of an article. Plus, if you’d like to read more about mirrors and windows, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Suggestions from the Rochester Public Library
Third Eye Education has been lucky enough to partner with Rochester Public Libraries (RPL). The resource we can most heartily recommend is one they created just for us; yet, we share here with you because we believe it’s important to spread good resources wide and far.
This list recommends books (mostly at the elementary level), along with how they can be taught across content areas, what controversies they may spark, what grade levels they best fit, and most importantly—how it may act as a mirror and window. (If you check the link, make sure to try the category tabs at the bottom.)
Suggestions from Wiley Blevins
Wiley Blevins, in his podcast episode with Third Eye (released April 13th, 2021), covers these topics and in it he shares a plethora of other resources. Blevins, a world-renowned expert in early reading and the Associate Publisher for Reycraft Books suggests the following:
Ideas for your own Reading
Finally, pick up a book yourself. Read it with a friend, or even a stranger!
by Heather M. F. Lyke
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As soon as Dessa’s voice hit the word slay in the third paragraph, I knew I had them. Even my most skeptical sophomore sat up a bit taller—took note. Clearly, this narrative exemplar was not what he and his classmates had been expecting.
We were just about to finish our Telling It Like It Is unit in American Literature and Composition, and the grand finale was to craft a nonfiction, mini-memoir overflowing with description and—ideally—cleverly framed. What exemplar could be better than the chapter “Household Magnets” from Dessa’s book My Own Devices? Oh. Wait. The audio version where Dessa herself reads her own words.
Honestly, most were leaning in, highlighters poised, right from the first sentence: “Mayo Clinic is a world famous hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.” After all, at the time I was teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, at a high school named after the famous clinic where many of my students’ parents were gainfully employed.
But, to hear the author herself use language like what students used in the hallways--slay, punk kid, s’pose—in an American Literature class was novel enough that even the cynical took note. Success!
My own students discovered what many educators know, and yet that many educators forget.
“The world is not organized like a university, with its sharply demarcated departments. There is one world, which we can (and should) approach from many perspectives. Dessa’s work is a great illustration of this principle.”
My students were expecting American Literature to be something that it is not. Stagnant. Isolated. Lacking soul.
The “transdisciplinarity of Dessa’s art and work make it well suited for rich conversation and analysis” that “allows educators to cross boundaries.”
In showing students how interlaced learning, content areas, and personal interests can be, it allowed them to break down their preconceived notions. This boundary-crossing approach is part of what makes learning “sticky” for students. According to John Hattie’s research, “Integrated Curricular Programming” has the effect of producing approximately a year and a quarter of growth, and “Creativity Programs” have an effect of producing over a year and a half of growth, when compared to an average school year. This is not how Hattie is meant to be read, but is our best approximation of simplifying his data.
“I teach English, but through that, my students learn Psychology, History, Cultural Context, and how everything ultimately connects together. The more connection between material we can make for our students, the more they will be able to see the full picture...It is not my job to tell them what to think, it’s my job to teach them how to think so they can make critical and informed decisions/ not be taken advantage of due to ignorance.”
In the same chapter I shared with my students, Dessa notes that for that day her “job was to talk about life as an indie musician, hopefully sparking some cross-disciplinary insights.” Yet, as the renaissance person that she is, Dessa manages to ‘spark cross-disciplinary insights’ even when she’s not necessarily trying to. As a rapper with a philosophy degree who once worked as a medical technical writer, it’s not surprising that her polymath skillset has her interweaving inspiration from across a wide spectrum into her vast portfolio of works.
Dessa’s work is beautiful, intellectual, witty - it speaks to me personally and is a great example to my Alternative Ed learners that you can weave your interests and your passions into your work. That the things we enjoy, like Rap, don’t have to be 180 degrees different from schoolwork, or your life’s work.
At the time I used “Household Magnets” with my students, I leaned on her references to local geography, to biological science, to kickdrums, as a way to ensure student interests. (You don’t like writing creatively, but you enjoy science? Well, maybe this will keep you listening! -- You don’t want to read a long piece by a dead white guy? Well here is a work of art created by a living, breathing, female rapper: so there!)
However, when I return to the classroom, I suspect I will do things differently. I missed a golden opportunity with this chapter. Rather than just hook the science-loving learners, what if I had collaborated with Mr. Devine on an analysis of the accuracy of Dessa’s biological descriptions in this section? Rather than simply connecting with the musicians in the classroom via the content covered, what if instead we had worked with Mr. Cole and Mr. Devine to do a side by side analysis of how a kick drum sounds in comparison to the beating of a heart?
Perhaps, this is one of the most inspirational ways in which Dessa can push us to be better educators. She is never locked into the confines of one content area, so why should we be?
Classroom Application Suggestions
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.