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 Heather M. F. Lyke
Over two years ago, in the spring of 2019, I had grand ideas of how to grade differently—of how to motivate students with an intrinsic desire to learn and grow, rather than with extrinsic letter grades and percentages. After having spent four years working in the office of Curriculum and Instruction for the Rochester Public Schools (RPS), and with plans to return to the classroom that coming fall, I wanted to take what I had learned over my four years—part of which had been a deep dive into grading practices—and implement them with flare. That plan resulted in the article "Seeing the Motivation: Filling ClassROWEs with Jagged Learners," which was first published in May 2019 and the full text of which is also embedded below..
*All additions are in this font and noted by a gray, vertical line.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, vs. letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as RPS's established Prioritized Learnings.
In my current school community, Dover-Eyota Public Schools, we call these 'Essential Leaning Outcomes (ELOs)'. Some schools call these 'Power Standards'. No matter the name, this is valuable work the really helps hone the focus of student learning and growth.
However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
Last week, a student of mine from 2019-2020 reached out to me to inquire about a letter of recommendation. While a letter was the reason for her setting up a Zoom call with me, during our time together she shared with me that it was this flexibility—this acknowledgement that learning doesn't always happen 'on schedule'—that saved her in the spring of 2020 when we suddenly shifted to online learning. Numerous times throughout the video chat, she thanked me for grading this way.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic), even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
Since 2019, I have also been reminded often of how important visuals are for our English language learners, especially when students are involved with creating those visuals.
Advertisers lean into the power of visuals, so why shouldn't teachers? Essentially, we are 'selling' skills, a love of learning, and content...
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it All Together
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to the classroom in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
Perhaps the most complicated piece of this whole shift was figuring out how to explain it to students and parents. I suspected that many would need to understand why the shift was occurring and that most would want to know the logistics of how it would work and what they would see when it came to student report cards, transcripts, and online student information systems (SIS) like Skyward, JMC, Gradelink, Infinite Campus, etc.
As it turned out, while there were a few parents and students who were initially frustrated, ultimately everyone was either ambivalent (rare) or fully onboard (more common) about the change. Those who were the most hesitant to join us on this journey: students who had done well in the past because they knew how to navigate a traditional school system and now found themselves disquieted by this new one, and those who wanted to know what the minimum requirement was to get an ‘A’.
strategies for balancing voices and minimizing cultural-bias
by Third Eye Education, consolidated by Heather M. F. Lyke
I am addicted to podcasts. There is something about cramming learning into my commute, pairing it with laundry, and adding it as a workout buddy that fits my hectic lifestyle. Even when life slows down, I enjoy learning while listening in the bathtub, while swinging in my hammock, or while taking a scenic drive.
It is because of my podcast addiction that I recently learned a few new strategies for balancing voices, and in-turn minimizing cultural-biases, when collaborating with colleagues or facilitating student discussions.
Turn and Learn
Catching up on old episodes of Unlocking Us, I listened to Brené Brown’s talk with Dax Sheppard and Tim Ferriss. This is the part of the conversation that perked my ears:
“People’s expectations and understanding of things are so different:” now, isn’t that pure truth. Yet, in leadership roles and as classroom instructors it’s often easy to inadvertently allow halos to form and for bandwagons to take over. Not only does this enhance only certain voices, but it also can minimize the variety of perspectives that are brought to the table.
For instance, sticking with the element of time noted above. My husband has a degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota. He has shared stories about his sophomore year Ojibwe Language class—during which he was often the first student in the room. For my husband, a cis-gendered white male from a middle class family with European heritage who was raised by parents who often noted “if you’re not early, you’re late,” being on time was par for the course. Had you asked the sophomore version of him what was going on, he’d have likely said, “everyone else is late,” “they’re not respecting the professor,” or “I thought that if you’re not early you’re late.”
That said, had you asked is fellow classmates—most of whom were idigenous—to write down on a sticky note about the importance of being “on time,” you’d have seen a wide swath of answers:
Now, if the professor flips his sticky note first, people may wish they’d changed their response (bandwagon). If there is a classmate that many respect who flips first, others may wish they’d shared a similar response (halo). However, by flipping all sticky notes at the same time all voices get put on the table and, as in this instance, different cultural beliefs come to light.
The thing about listening to podcasts is that it’s passive. I hit play and I take in new learning. Sure, I have autonomy over what podcast I listen to, which episodes I download, and what I may opt to fast-forward past—but it’s still passive. If we’re not careful, meetings and classroom instruction can become passive, too.
Last week, our Third Eye Education collective came together for our April session. During our time together, John Alberts of Austin Public Schools shared a new-to-him strategy that he had learned from the IDEAL Center: we all tried it. Like Brené Brown’s Turn and Learn, this approach balances voices in a way that helps disrupt some dominant cultural norms.
Here is the process Alberts took us through:
There is some magic in what may seem like a simple rotation of ideas and share alouds: each woven in intentionally by the IDEAL center in the way it was shared with Alberts and his team:
Additionally, to assist in the above process and purpose, the IDEAL Center has at its foundation these shared norms (which are always evolving, according to a recent communications with their team):
Of course, depending on where you are in your journey with racism, cultural understanding, and appropriation, understanding why structures such as the Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles help (especially if the intentionality of these strategies are rooted in awareness) break down the dominant white-culture norms that tend to permeate many organizations across our nation.
To increase one’s awareness of how white supremacy exists in our communities and organizations, often without individuals even knowing it, is broken down in Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” article from Dismantling Racism, which was shared by Shavana Talbert, the Statewide Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Wisconsin RtI Center. Understanding the imbalance is one of the first steps to creating balance. How might these characteristics show up within you? Your organization?
When it comes to those norms from the IDEAL Center, my personal favorite is the second half of the last one: “what’s learned here leaves here.” Perhaps that’s why I love podcasts so much: there is power in sharing one’s learning and at its root, that’s what podcasting does. Podcasters share their knowledge, while in turn their listeners can share new learning with others. Unlike podcasting, however, Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles are less passive and less presumptive: they create a place for active engagement that leaves room for authentic individuality. (Maybe this is why we at Third Eye are so anxious to try out Clubhouse some day, as it’s a refined version of podcasting: it removes the passivity and presumptiveness. Anyone want to toss us an invite? Let us learn from you!)
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?
by Heather M. F. Lyke
There is an old adage that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This year, I thought I’d try and grow the population of the specific village raising ‘my children’ (or, in my case, the 174 students I taught first semester) by widening the access my students have with adults in our community.
The First Community Collaboration
Some might assume—because I’m married to a social studies teacher or because I once had a job supporting social studies teachers—that I am well-versed in all things historical. This is far from true. While I love reading historical fiction and I’m well versed in certain literary and philosophical movements, that’s where my historical expertise ends. For this reason, when a colleague of mine pointed out that a local expert on the orphan trains of the early 1930’s was going to be giving a Community Education Class on the topic, I decided to reach out—see if she’d come in and work with my students.
My sophomores and I had started the school year off reading the novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Not only do students love the snarky zest of the protagonist who happens to also be in high school, but this character’s world-view ties in well with our Native American Indian Literature state standards. Simultaneously, however, the other protagonist navigates a part of history my students and I knew very little about… So why not bring in a community expert?
My students loved Dorothy Lund Nelson’s visit. She had done a lot of research and was passionate about her topic. She had students wear name tags and she talked to them as if they themselves were orphans in the early 1900’s. For the rest of the book, and occasionally throughout the rest of the year, students would reference her visit. Plus, she left a copy of The Home We Shared: History and Memoir of the North Dakota Children’s Home at Fargo, North Dakota behind for our students to share, and when we were still together in the classroom it was checked out often.
The Next Community Collaboration
Working with Dorothy Lund Nelson is what got me started—and it led to a community connection that just keeps on giving: our Mayo High School collaboration with the Rochester Public Library (RPL).
We stumbled into this collaboration naturally because every Tuesday, when I would meet one-on-one with roughly a half-dozen students throughout the period to talk about what they were reading, I kept finding myself recommending audiobooks to my more reluctant readers and to my students struggling with fluency when reading aloud. Personally, being addicted to audiobooks, I was surprised by how many students were not aware of the audiobooks they had access to for free via our school library and via RPL. This prompted me to reach out to RPL and see if they’d have any interest coming and getting my students connected with library cards. Sarah Joynt, their librarian who does student outreach, was instantly on board.
Joynt spent the day with me and my students. Each period, she shared with students some of the many online resources RPL provides, discussed some of the in-person opportunities that teens often enjoy at RPL, answered a wide variety of questions that students had, and then got those who wanted them set up with library cards (which she delivered to us about a month later). A high-energy presenter, students leaned in and listened to her every word. They ask questions about the Bookmobile and the BookBike, they wanted to know how to get jobs at RPL, they even wondered aloud if there were ways to get overdue fines waved (yes, by the way, there is). In fact, this collaboration went so well, that now all 10th graders at Mayo High School—not just those who have me as a teacher— have had Joynt come into their American Literature and Composition classrooms to share about RPL’s free resources.
Here are a few snapshots of the magic that Joynt brought into my students’ lives:
Future Community Collaborations
There was a time in my teaching career where I though bringing in community members wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Well, color me a different color now. In both cases this year, reaching out was fast, easy, and simple. The benefits far outweigh any negatives that came with scheduling these visitors. In fact, I’m already making plans for next year—and I’m not just planning to bring back Lund Nelson and Joynt: I’ve already started lining up community experts in the field of writing to work with my Creative Writing students in the school year 2020-2021!
If nothing else has been verified by the pandemic, it is indeed that it does “take a village to raise a child.” I am heartened by, and lucky that, this year I took the time to expand my students’ village this past fall, because it certainly made this pandemic-spring a bit easier for them to navigate. We never know what the future has in store, so why not give our students as many connections as possible? And those connections can easily extend far beyond our classroom doors.
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.