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…
by James (Jim) Thompson, consolidated by Stefanie Whitney
Towards the end of my 20th and final year of being an elementary principal, my Superintendent of Schools, Dave DeLoria, was also the guy with whom I played in a rock band in the mid ‘60s (our band was The Morticians). Dave was the lead guitar player and would often say something after a certain song: “Our plan for that song was good in theory but somehow didn’t work out when we played it... Somethin’ ain’t right...”
It was also during that 20th year of my career that Dave would say, “Jimmy, how come we don’t have more state funding for teachers coaching teachers? That would really make an impact… somethin’ ain’t right that we can’t make that happen more.”
Dave’s question touched on a topic I had been thinking about for quite some time.
In my humble opinion, I believe there are two essential questions that require our responsiveness as educators:
This article takes a deep dive into this second question. I channel Dave DeLoria in my candid response to how we’re doing:
“Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
First, let’s take a look at the current reality of responding to the question:
How are we improving our practice to more significantly impact learning for each and every child?
The following include current common approaches to improving our practice:
Let’s talk more about each approach to professional development.
Traditional Teacher Evaluation Systems
[Disclaimer: I was an elementary principal for 20 years.]
In my first year as principal, I had to conduct over 80 ‘observations’; plus, address all disciplinary issues, coordinate all curriculum implementation, and facilitate all staff development for a school with over 700 students and over 100 staff reporting ‘directly to me.’ (This experience is akin to being a secondary educator, often responsible for building relationships with, facilitating differentiated learning for, and providing feedback and assessment on work from over 150 students. In all directions, educators are overwhelmed with responsibility regarding continuous, impactful learning.)
I really loved my kids and really loved my staff. So much so that when it was time to do a post- observation conference with a teacher, I made coffee or tea for them, I gave them a warm welcome and thanks, I worked hard to affirm their great work with kids and offer some ‘stretchers’ to advance learning. And regardless of the care with which I took in providing post-observation feedback, inevitably, at the end of most of those post-observation conferences, the teacher smiled, shook my hand, and said something like: “Whew, glad that’s over until next year.” (Leaving me with a Neil Simon “Same Time, Next Year” feel.) Darn if I never heard a teacher say, “Gee, this was so beneficial I’d like to do a few more of these this year.”
I knew then, as I know now…that somethin’ ain’t right with this process. In fact, in 1998, I wrote an article for the School Administrators Association of NY Schools’ Journal (SAANYS) entitled “Supervision of Instruction: The Long and Winding Road from the ‘Kodak Moment’ to Collegiality.”
I began that article with a report card asking such questions as:
Twenty-three years ago, I gave myself failing grades in all three categories.
In New York State, the process to supervise instruction done by principals and administrators is called the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR). Several years ago, superintendents from Monroe County, NY were asked: “What was the one state mandate they would like to repeal?” Their unanimous response: “Repeal APPR.” A sign that perhaps the answers to these 3 important questions indicate no real improvement.
Doug Reeves, in an article in the February issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership acknowledges this:
“I have never seen anyone evaluated into better performance.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development with Little or No Follow-Up Coaching
Often, professional development occurs through ‘one and done’ workshops.
Back in the winter of 2003, I taught a graduate course on Staff Development. In this class of 30, the majority of participants were directors of staff development. I asked each participant to make a list of all professional development they have endeavored in the last decade and then to put three stars next to each professional development event that included follow-up coaching, two stars for each event that did not include follow-up coaching but did include time to share practice with other colleagues in the days and weeks after the event, and zero stars if there was essentially no follow up coaching nor support with collaboration after the initial event.
In this activity, well beyond 90% of the events had NO STARS, indicating no follow up coaching, and little or no chance for reflection or sharing afterwards among staff members. Further, participants acknowledged that much of the actual professional development was in the form of a workshop. This was true in the 1990s and remains true today.
Jim Knight writes in the February 2021 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership,
“In my experience, it takes about three days to forget most of what we learned in a workshop.”
A Closer Look at Professional Development by Way of "Insert Big Name Speaker Here"
During my many years in education, I have experienced a lot of “big names” giving an opening day address. Folks were flown in from the West Coast, some were even flown in from abroad, some were funny, some were serious, and some looked like the cast of Baywatch (I specifically remember folks asking how the presenter ‘got such a great tan’) .
And a few—a few—were inspiring.
Doug Reeves addresses this approach to professional development:
“...it would be impossible to find evidence that three-hour workshops or 90 minute keynotes, on their own, however popular and entertaining, result in learning or changes in professional practice.”
One year a speaker from the Midwest was brought into my district as a keynote speaker. He spoke for three hours in the morning and several hours in the afternoon. I saw the invoice for the presentation: $8000, plus expenses.
Folks kept asking me during his presentation, “Who is this guy and who made the decision to bring him in?”
In a 2013 synthesis of research on professional learning, Allison Gulamhussein concluded that,
“most professional development today is ineffective. It neither changes teacher practice nor improves student learning” (p. 3).
When we look at how we are still conducting most professional development in 2021, it is hard to deny that, “Somethin’ ain’t right…Somethin’ ain’t right.”
Watch for future articles on these topics in the coming months!
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
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’.
by Andy Johnsrud
The past 18 months of teaching have played out like the crazy “teacher dreams” many of us know too well. But rather than showing up in our subconscious in the month of August, we lived it! We all lived through what felt like a circus funhouse version of distance-hybrid-make-crap-up-as-you-dance-under-a-spotlight version of school. The weirdness of the past 18 months also provided a sustained and sometimes brutal assessment of some of the most basic things I think I know and do as a teacher.
We all struggled and got to see some things about our students and ourselves. Sometimes that view could be truly harsh as it revealed my judgment, lack of control, feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes that view was so very tender and revealed care, connection, empathy, and compassion with my fellow human beings of all ages. Many times this sustained focus kicked my bum and left me so far past vulnerable that I didn’t always know if I had what it takes to do this job. Note: none of these feelings were new--magnified and intensified, yes...but not new.
The struggle and challenge of these past months can be wonderfully fertile soil for me to grow, both personally and professionally. This is certainly not to be read as, “got things figured out now. Check that off my list.” This is the heart of our shared humanity and of being a teacher.
For me, acts of simple honesty to oneself and letting go of what we don’t control can help open a space. In that space we may be able to bring our most open and authentic care to one’s self. This is actually for the direct benefit of one’s students and their well-being beyond school, as well as for YOU.
STOP TO REFLECT
S for STOP
Adult Nervous System IS the Interverntion
A healthy mind-body system can be thought of as having both awareness and hope. Getting to that hope requires action on my part. This is not something we find in pedagogy nor plans nor assessment. My own growth has been helped by daily mindful practices, including meditation.
Pause for a moment to think of someone (teacher, parent, et al.) who had a profound impact for the better. What are two-three words that describe this person? It may be that those descriptors include terms that denote connection, limits, empathy, love and other traits. More than anything I believe that children, as humans (!), learn between the words and academics. They learn through the feeling and presence of the adults in their lives. This is another great hope--and a tremendous responsibility. My nervous system matters in “regular times” or “pandemic times”--the way I show up matters and can be a gift or a detriment to my students and my classes. This takes awareness and provides hope. There is something I can do for myself that will benefit others.
Patricia Jennings' research shows us what we intuitively know and hear: we actually TEACH better when we take care of our own nervous systems. Anyone who has ever taught knows that when one kid is hyper or "off" or whatever, there's a domino effect in the class.
Most of us are self-aware enough to know that that's true of our own regulation as well! These both clearly affect the class. A well-regulated adult nervous system IS the intervention. Simple. Not magic. Not easy. Not instant. It requires work over time. Many people do this through mindfulness or meditation.
Survival of the Nurtured
The psychologist and Pepperdine professor Louis Cozolino studies the social nature and adaptability of the human brain. He has famously said that, “[w]e are not the survival of the fittest. We are the survival of the nurtured.”
Many of us know the misleading claim that Darwin’s ideas can be reduced to “survival of the fittest.” This is contrary to what I know as a teacher. Teaching, learning, and nurturing are not a zero-sum game. Rather, Cozolino reminds us that as we modern humans change and adapt we need social connection. These connections are at the heart of what it is to be a good teacher, parent, person.
A number of good teachers teach about the importance of caregivers taking good care of self first. The notion of “survival of the nurtured” can reframe our work (and self-care!) as something we owe to our students for our benefit and their benefit. The former is an act of caring for children because it gives foundation for the latter. If the “bottom line” or “go-to” is always change/alter/fix, we risk missing a key opportunity for giving our kids what they truly need on a most basic human level.
Paradox is the Name of the Game
We do lots to try to help kids cope and learn about life. Raising resilient kids who think for themselves is a paradox. We know kids have to struggle, and hurt, and fall down, and make mistakes because they are human and this is how humans seem to learn best in the real world. This is how we instinctively know kids need to make mistakes and need us to offer the time and space, within limits, to figure things out for themselves.
The petri dish of 18 really weird months of unexpected conditions gave us a chance to see how we might recast and reconsider what it is we really do daily as teachers. This is a window, an opportunity to look at what I can really offer students as people. Experience has taught me that showing up for my students directly and unguardedly is what I have to offer my students. This is SO hard because we don’t want kids to suffer any more than possible--especially when the world turns upside down. But when I do this I can start to share emotional regulation and offer calm and secure relationships to my kids. This connection and relationships are basic human needs. Just like we preach to our kids, adults need time and practice to develop skills, too. Mindfulness is a tool for basic awareness. Mindfulness can bring greater awareness to my conditions and reactions AND my students’ conditions and reactions.
Control: That's a Funny Dream
It can be painfully clear that we have very little if any control over our students’ lives outside the schoolhouse doors. The weirdness of the past 18 months has put an exclamation point on that for us: thank you very little COVID-19! I think it has also exposed some of the “theatre” of school: all the things we well-intentioned adult-teacher-types are going to “do” to “fix” kids to “learn” them what they need. Now don’t get me wrong, systems, pedagogy, and curricular design are wonderful tools--just maybe not the magic fixes we quietly look for given the desperate conditions some of our kids and families face. Throughout my teaching career, our responses have been driven nearly singularly by notions and ideas of improvement plans, curricular design, and top-down initiatives. These are all fine...but, Maslow before Bloom is a cliche saying for very real and valid reasons.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.