by Stefanie Whitney
I remember the day I unearthed my father’s report cards from a cardboard box in my parent’s basement. I was old enough to have felt failure in school but not wise enough to anticipate my dad’s reaction to us stumbling upon evidence of his formative years. I felt relief and recognized common ground. Maybe some of my math struggles were actually genetic? Dad did not share my feelings. As I waved his dusty cards in the air, his discontent was as palpable as my relief.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
I cannot recall how old I was when my mom first described herself as not very “school smart.” I do recall, however, how firmly she believed in this story regardless of how fervently I disagreed. Her proof? Report cards. Flimsy little pieces of paper that manage to fortify entire perceptions of self.
I could tell countless stories about both of my parents’ experiences as learners. About the lasting impression grades made on them. How their experiences in school influenced my own, and how learning was often reduced to letters on a crumpled piece of paper. I feel compelled to proclaim, unequivocally, that my parents are and were wise, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring folk. I was supported, encouraged, and challenged throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years. My parents were also deeply impacted by a grading system; so much depends upon…. I’d like to sit down with William Carlos Williams and compare notes.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I have to tell you: I don’t know this professor’s stories. I don’t know why he felt bound to an “accountability” system that felt so dehumanizing. I do know he was not a bad person; he had a kind smile, apologized when he floundered with technology, and cared about his content.
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I offer this story as the most stubborn data point in my personal belief system. For so many reasons beyond the obvious, this story does not center a person who benefited from a successful grading system. At 39 years old, I struggled to self-advocate with the most understandable reasons against an enduring and flawed system; yet, I expect teenagers to have the capacity to self-advocate against this same system?
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
My fundamental interruption occurred five years ago. Whether five years, five months, or five minutes, this idea of a more humanized world speaks to the disrupted part of my conscience and heart.
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I have been asked a time or two for data to back up systemic shifts that I have come to champion. I understand why this question is asked, as we use satellite data--a term used by Safir and Dugan in Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation--often in education. Grades, graduation rates, attendance, anonymous surveys--these all fit into the category of satellite data. Useful, for sure, as this data points us in a direction. But what does the satellite data we most study tell us about what we most value?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
I have come to believe the data that most moves us to change might actually be our own: our own stories, fears, failures, and self-perceptions. Owning them, dusting off the moldy shame, sharing them with others, and finding common ground and humanity in one another’s stories. These approaches to storytelling and story listening allow us to see the human first. To be seen first as a human.
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
Regarding stories, in her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown references the work of neurologist and novelist Robert Burton:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I have made all kinds of assumptions about my professor and others with whom I may disagree. In fact, I’m remarkably good (relative term) at creatively filling in the gaps of so many stories. It’s faster and easier, right? To fill in the gaps with what I think I know rather than sit beside someone and find out truths. But it seems to me that being human-centered is about taking the time to understand one another’s stories rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions.
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
by Heather M. F. Lyke
— The original version of this piece was first published in April 2019 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction --
If you know me, you know my husband and I recently purchased a new home. Wanting to downsize (I wanted a tiny house, he wanted no yard, so we compromised on buying and renovating a 1970’s condo), we slowly filtered through our belongings. We pulled items out of closets that we forgot we even had: placing in boxes the linens not used in years, the sweaters we no longer wore, and the camping gear we were not even sure why we purchased in the first place.
Perhaps the hardest part of downsizing was that we sometimes run into those items we needed to get rid of but struggled to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but were no longer of use. Items like:
Again, if you know me, you also know I love a good extended metaphor. As I see it, downsizing our course content is much like downsizing a home. As we shift into a new school year, we often find ourselves making adjustments for the school year to come. Particularly with over a year of Covid under our belts, we have had 18+ months of needing to trim content to simply survive in a world of constant shift: online instruction, hybrid structures, and long period of quarantining highlighting how even in education less is indeed more.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are always items that are easy to donate or toss:
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
In 2019, to get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), found ourselves watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Now, in the fall of 2021, a reminder of all the downsizing we did has resurfaced in the form of Kondō’s newest Netflix show, Sparking Joy with Marie Kondō. Having read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when it was first released, both Netflix series have served as a reminder to me of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas (which are also reinforced by her newest book, Joy at Work). Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
7 Steps for Applying the KonMari Method to Our Classrooms:
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Commit to tidying up all at once.
Marie Kondō shares that the KonMari Method is most effective when you do all the tidying in one fell swoop. Kondō puts it this way:
"From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."
With this in mind, when you decide it’s time to start tidying up your course content, consider doing it in one fell swoop. Rather than doing what I used to do, which was to set aside a day every week or so during the summer to restructure and revamp; try instead setting as aside a few evenings in a row, a weekend, or even a full week to really dig-in to the task. Just as with a home, perhaps this will help you reset your instruction, allow you to confront the most important pieces, and establish the course structure you and your students need most.
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Imagine the ideal to prevent relapse.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of tidying up my instruction?
Is there a certain skill your students consistently struggle with and you need more time to fortify that skillset?
Keeping the answers to questions like these at the forefront will help you stay on track, should the tiding ever get overwhelming. (And, if you’re anything like me, it will.)
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Ask yourself questions for each item.
Marie Kondō suggests a few simple questions, moving from a rational to a more emotional approach.
When working with home items, she suggests:
Since these questions don’t really work with instruction; instead, we might ask ourselves questions such as:
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One element Marie Kondō is most famous for is the concept of discarding items that no longer ‘spark joy.’ (In fact, her second book is even titled Spark Joy.) Marie Kondō recommends holding each item with both hands and asking yourself: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, thank it for the purpose it once served and then set it aside to discard.
When it comes to course content and instructional practices, obviously this looks a bit different. We can’t easily hold up a worksheet we now only store electronically to see if it sparks joy, but we can open the file, look it over top to bottom, recall how it went over the last time it was used with students, and then ask ourselves:
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ then keep it around: teach the lesson again, use that text next year, and/or continue to utilize that strategy.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
This, at least for me, is the hardest part of tidying up. It may help to keep in mind what Marie Kondō notes in her first book:
“when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
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Finish discarding before moving on.
Marie Kondō notes that neat does not equal decluttered. It can be tempting to simply reorganize our material and call it good. But I can take all my pants from my closet, fold them into perfect KonMari rectangles, and move them to my set of drawers—but it won’t change the fact that they don’t fit right or that I never wear them anymore. For that reason, I have to purge items before I fold and rearrange. Only then, once I see what remains, do I really know where the best place is to store my pants. Only then, do I see if I have any gaps in my wardrobe.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
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Organize by category.
Marie Kondō always notes to organize by category, not by room. Classroom translation: organize by power standards/essential learning outcomes/prioritized learnings, not by instructional units or lessons. This helps ensure balance and eliminate holes.
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Designate a spot for everything.
Everything that is left, should fill a need. **Whew!** Finally, the time comes to reorganize.
This step reminds me of what I did over decade ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding it into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it led to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As my husband and I experienced firsthand with our home, the act of downsizing can feel overwhelming while in the process of discarding. However, we have moved into our new home and have placed all our remaining items back in the best order.
As Marie Kondō states:
“the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.”
This is true for our classrooms, too: we need to make them a place where students can grow into who they will become in this ever-changing world...not for the students we taught in the past.
by Sweta Patel
“How do you say your name again?”
You might guess that this conversation played itself out over and over again throughout my school-age years. You’d be right. But the twist is that this particular conversation happened just yesterday between my tennis coach and myself.
I’d like to take you back to 1990 for a moment, when I entered second grade. I was seven years old, eager to fit in. And I was still “Svet-ta.” But that year, my teacher and classmates butchered my name enough times that I resolved to just change it to make it easier for them to pronounce. I was embarrassed each time anyone called me “Sweat-a” or strangely enough, “Sweat-er.” I started telling everyone (well, non-Indians) to call me “Sweet-a.”
The name that my seven-year-old self-deemed as more culturally appropriate has continued to follow me into my 30s in all aspects of my life, from my workplace to the tennis courts… and most likely, will continue to stick for life.
My own experience with my name has made it a priority for me to get my students’ names right. With each new class, I wonder how many share a similar journey. But most of all, I emphasize that if I ever mispronounce their name, I want them to correct me rather than silently go along with it. I never want to be part of the reason why a student chooses some other name because they feel it's easier for their teacher.
As I write this article, I’m forced to think deeply about why that moment in second grade hits such a nerve. Names are tightly connected to one’s identity. In creating a new name, I feel I cemented an identity split between my Indian and Americanized self. Yes, people often choose to change their pronunciation of certain words in an effort to be understood. (I know this all too well after receiving some funny looks when I asked a teacher for a “bowel” to eat my snack in. It’s how I always heard my parents say it!). But in the case of adopting a new name because others couldn’t pronounce it easily, I feel it was a forced change… that my choice had been taken from me.
In the years that followed, I struggled with the yo-yoing back and forth between my two identities. I still remember an open house night during seventh grade. My mom was sitting next to me, listening to my choir teacher talk about the class and expectations. The teacher must have asked me a question, and I answered back with a soft voice. My mom turned to me afterwards and said, “What was that? Where’d your voice go? I’ve never heard you speak so quietly before.” You see, “Sweet-a” was soft-spoken, unsure of her voice and opinions. “Svet-ta” was confident. She spoke and laughed loudly.
A more telling moment happened in eighth grade when I passed a bathroom mirror at school. I remember a surreal moment where I was taken aback by the brown skin reflected back at me. I had come to feel very white in those school halls.
And now, years later, to my Indian friends, I’m still Svet-ta” - a popular Indian name that signifies “purity.” I cringe every time I have to introduce myself to a non-Indian in front of other Indians as “Sweet-a.” I feel overly American in those moments. I’ve tried to teach these same non-Indians the correct pronunciation, and they do try… but the continued butchering makes me cringe even more. So, the two names have stuck.
I don’t know how much of these dual identity experiences and feelings are connected to the moment I adopted a more easily pronounced name. But I do wonder that had I been able to remain “Svet-ta” in school and at home, whether I would have felt more comfortable bringing my Indian self into the classroom. When we’re young, we’re eager to fit in and are quick to reject anything that gets in the way as ‘uncool.’ We try to scrap parts of us that others don’t accept as easily. As an adult, we know that one culture isn’t necessarily better than the other. “Sweet-a” is a nagging reminder of how I shoved my Indian heritage down and hid it away. I regret the feelings of shame that contributed towards the divide.
With a new school year almost upon us, I hope that all staff are mindful of working hard to get student names right, the way the student is requesting that it’s pronounced. After one or two failed attempts, students generally just silently accept it. Instead, staff can double check with: “It’s really important to me to get your name right. Please tell me if I’m still missing it.” That statement can go a long way in preventing mispronounced names from sticking not just for that one class and for that one school year, but for the rest of their life.
So many in my extended family have similar stories: “Chirag” is “Shiraq.” “Hemant” is “Harry.” “Suresh” is “Sam.” “Roshan” is “Ro-shawn.” And on and on the newly created names go, in an effort to provide “easier” names. My cousin often tells the story of always running to class whenever she’d find out there would be a substitute teacher that day. She didn’t want the class to laugh when the sub would predictably mispronounce her name. So she’d walk up and quietly give her adopted name before her classmates arrived.
One idea that districts might adopt is having a place within their student management system (SMS) to include the phonetic pronunciation of students’ names. Imagine if each parent/guardian who registers their new Kindergarten student had a chance to write in how their student’s name is pronounced. This information could then be integrated into their student profile page.
Parents/Guardians of current elementary or middle school students might get a pop-up message when they access the SMS system to enter the phonetic pronunciation. Current high school students could enter the information on their own.
This change would allow staff a better chance of getting student names right on the first try. It would also help to lessen student anxiety and embarrassment around butchered names. And not to mention, graduation ceremonies would be a lot less painful for students and their families. I can still clearly recall last year’s ceremony: A student walked up to accept her certificate and told the staff member, “How did you get my name wrong? I’ve been here for four years. Really?”
To help our students know that we see them and that we hear them and that we value who they are as they stand before us, we can start with their name and take care to do our best to get it right.
We recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Lazerbeak and Ilan Blanck on our podcast, where we discuss mental health, creativity, curiosity, and a growth mindset. One thread that, authentically or through sheer force of will, pulled these pieces together was the ability to create and foster a thriving community—a talent Lazerbeak and Ilan have proven to be particularly adept at over their many years in the music industry.
The piece that most intrigues me is that students thirst for community and belonging, yet when educators spend time on building a culture and community, it’s often we tend to build it for our students. Occasionally, we build it with our students. In terms of clubs and organizations, we sometimes build it through our students. However, I have yet to see an educator help students learn how to build a community in which they can belong.
In trying to break down the component parts that we may use to help students with community building, we journeyed through several layers of an umbrella process. Ilan represents these umbrella parts by recommending that we:
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Of course, we can teach structure and organization. Through the conversation, Lazerbeak and Ilan elucidated that the organization of a community requires building an organized system that others can easily join. This also requires having a structure to reach out to those we admire or value—a clear system through which we can reach out to others. Structured discussions are wonderful in class, but we need to have the skills to engage in face to face or digital environments—to make calls, send emails, begin conversations, or “send out feelers.”
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Following up can include strategies of organization (one strategy they shared outside of this podcast is to keep a list of names and conversations as they take place). We can, of course, also lean on calendar reminders, clock apps, and other technologies to be notified to follow up.
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The piece that may be the hardest to teach—essentially having a tone of approachability—they luckily also had specific ideas for.
So! I am sincerely curious as to who is out there. This is my attempt to reach out and see if we can interact a little more often. I’d like to belong to a community of people who want to grow. I want to be a part of a community that wants to grow together and that wants to help others to grow. What say you? And even if you aren’t interested—thank you for being engaged enough to read this far.
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 Jean Prokott
Until the day I retire, or die, or as luck will have it both at once, I will feel the same way about education theory and articles and professional development as I do now, which is that I find it entirely abstract without the acknowledgment that the system thwarts much of it from succeeding; that is, the hard work is put on the teachers, who have no control over the arrangement of the school day, or the Horace Mann scheme itself. I am not concerned with the amount of work, because the work is valuable and sometimes enjoyable. Rather, I am concerned about teacher morale when most things we create, in theory, work best in a fantastical (dare I say utopian) system we are not afforded.
Sir Ken Robison’s TED talk comes to mind as I consider the question: are there so many books on theory because we’re starting bottom-up rather than top-down? Why hasn’t school changed? Or, at the very least: why don’t our professional development seminars and theory texts begin: we know you’re boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past BUT…
Many communities and school boards are in the midst of discussions about Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has inspired my thoughts here, as has Cathy Park Hong’s book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, which I listened to on short walks between my online classes last winter. The book is part literary criticism, part memoir. I recommend it highly. Hong explores how Asian narratives have become a single narrative and does so in a raw, poignant, and even humorous way. (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk comes to mind as well).
There are mountains of discussions we could have about CRT, but I won’t address those here. Instead, I want to discuss what obstacles arise even when we have control of our curriculum. I want to explore how intersectionality might put some of us in a box.
It’s important to note that I am writing as a cis white woman. If one were to Google “stock photo of English teacher,” my picture would probably come up. I have many blind spots that my government-issued teacher Ray Bans cannot bring to focus.
The Minnesota English standards appropriately direct teachers to use diverse texts, both teacher-chosen and student-chosen. For the most part, teachers are not directed to use specific texts, nor are they directed to read “Black authors” or “Asian authors.” The term “diverse” allows autonomy, but I am indecisive here. I love autonomy in my classroom. I attempt to bring in as many intersectional voices as possible. (The resources, or “book room” needed to do so is another article.) However, as Hong’s book made me consider, this forces teachers to say “we need an Asian story,” “we need a Black story,” “we need an Indigenous story,” or “shoot, I don’t have time for the feminist story, what do I do?” Other than to say “students, please keep in mind this is only one experience,” I’m lost. To give students access to as many absent narratives as possible, I have to, ironically, put those voices in a box and define them by the authors’ or protagonists’ identities.
This is not our “fault.” We are doing the best we can within the literature repertoire that understands kids need stories that expand their worldviews. (Unfortunately, the CRT debate has made this complicated for teachers to explain. Telling someone else’s story does not negate one’s own. Discussing one’s privilege does not mean they haven’t overcome obstacles.)
The challenge with the standards is the system, in that we rely on the one story, year after year, because of access to materials and time, and the weight of the job. As much as I am embarrassed to acknowledge this, I’ve had the thought that teaching A Raisin in the Sun ticks both the “Black” and “woman” boxes.
What then happens is we teach children the same absent narrative each year.
A wonderful resource is the Minnesota Humanities Center, which offers an abundance of stories that address the absent narrative. These resources help us fill a gaping hole. It also takes an incredible amount of time to explore every story, a rewarding, engaging, and time-consuming task. Time is always in short demand. One wonders whether we’ll have time inflation any time soon and the time economy will crash.
But if we change how school works, we might make more room to find these voices.
The teachers I know are impeccably well-read. Our professional development is diversity focused, compelling, and student-centered. But the school and “factory” has looked the same for the last 200 years, and for most of those years, they have mostly told cis white male stories. I wonder if the best way to make room for the rest of the narratives is to change up the system, which was built for white middle- and upper-class students.
I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but we cannot dismiss it as impossible. I became a teacher so I could infiltrate and fix the problems from the inside, and I’m doing the best I can by keeping myself as well-informed as possible. I listen to National Public Radio 39 hours a day. I participate in book groups. I write for an amazing Education online magazine. I know we can’t beat the system on our own. What we can do is keep our personal bookshelves diverse when we find time to read for pleasure, and we can ask our students what they’re reading and which stories they’d like, and we can rely on our colleagues. I don't want you to apologize for not having time, because finding the best literature is a second job. My point here is to tell you I’m on your side, to tell you: we can’t beat the ocean’s current, but…
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.