My First Favourite Year

By Allyson Matczuk, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker

As the school year moves into first term, I have been thinking about my all time favourite year of teaching.  Over coffee with a couple of close colleagues it all came back and I felt that pleasant rush of excitement as I walked home later.
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We had a district early years team with one or two reps from each school.  The meetings rotated from school to school and were held after school hours with a pizza dinner served. Even though I had four children at home, my husband was accommodating enough to take over and give me that one evening a month free to indulge my appetite for all things “teaching”. Our early years team got to visit each other’s teaching environments and every meeting opened with a little “tour” of the classroom we were meeting in.  While the equipment and the organization of the room was always of interest, the ‘why’ of the room looked as it did was a richer conversation.  We all had the “same stuff” but how it was used and why we had made the decisions we had was fascinating.  We found that we were able to personalize our contexts so that others could understand that what mattered about the experiences we created for the individual children we worked with.  The team from my school consisted of myself and my teaching colleague.  We carried the things we had discussed at the team meetings back to our own school where we couldn’t stop talking about the possibilities.  It led us to arrange to do recess supervision together — twice the amount of time on the playground but also twice as much time to talk with each other and with the children.  We found that our plans about how to implement the curriculum were coming from what we knew about our context… our students.

In a radical move, we proposed a change to the principal.  We would combine our classes and our classrooms and teach together. My classroom was a blended first- and second-grade and my partner’s was a blended second- and third-grade class. We were convinced that we would more than double our enthusiasm for teaching and not double the duties each of us had.  Much to our shock, he agreed and the next year we were a team with open doors between our adjoining classrooms.  The next year was my first “favorite-year-of-all-time”.

During that “favorite year” one girl in first grade stands out.  Within the first day or two of school she informally demonstrated she could tell tall tales better than anyone…ever! Rather than stifling her enthusiasm for story-telling by suggesting she was making things up and grumbling about her sense of honesty, my teaching partner and I embraced her skill and built our plans around it. The year revolved around stories of tall tales, legends, and fantasies.  By contrasting them with narrative non-fiction and informational texts, the students learned to distinguish reality from make-believe and everyone had a favorite they liked to think and talk about. They may have been in grade one, but they had taught each other about genre. We all were fanatical about reading and writing in different genres and trying new ways on for size. First grade students were able to classify the little stories they heard, wrote and read.  The older students motivated the younger ones to read more, to listen more, to write more, and to find others who enjoyed the same types of text as they did or suggest different texts to each other. All the while, they were all having fun and the amount of time-on-task was amazing!

As we welcome new students into our schools, I wonder how much we still are able to do that.  Are we able to wrap experiences around the students? Do we greet the new immigrant student, or a student whose home life has changed, or a student who has just moved across the country, or a student who is differently abled with the same respect for their individuality, their diversity and their hidden expertise as my partner and I did with the students in my first favorite year of teaching?

As P. David Pearson says, “Children are who they are.  They know what they know. They bring what they bring. Our job is not to wish our students knew more or knew differently. Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge and diversity of knowledge we encounter into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.  We can do that only if we hold high expectations for all students, convey great respect for the knowledge and culture they bring to the classroom, and offer lots of support in helping them achieve those expectations.”  I’ve had other favorite years since, but I’ve learned that harnessing the power of diversity makes teaching my “favorite” thing to do!

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Are We Opening the Door Wide Enough for Our Readers?

By Vicki Vinton, 2018 Literacy for All Conference Featured Speaker 

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LFA2018-Vicki-VIntonRecently, I’ve been starting PD sessions by asking teachers to engage in what Harvard’s Project Zero calls a “chalk talk.”  A chalk talk asks participants to consider a question then silently write down their ideas about it, without talking to each other. Then once they’ve gotten their own ideas down, they’re invited to respond to others—again, without any talking.

As you can see, the question I ask is “What do you think are the ‘right reasons’ to teach reading?” And to spark their thinking, I share this passage from Vicki Spandel’s preface to The 9 Rights of Every Writers, where she lays out what she believes are the “right reasons” to write:

Our reason is not—or at least it should not be—to help students meet the standards we set…[Instead] I believe the most worthwhile goals of writing are: writing to think, to move another person, to create something that will be remembered, to find the most salient personal topics that will weave a common thread through virtually all the writing text in one’s life, to develop a unique personal voice with which one feels at home, to develop and maintain a spirit of unrelenting curiosity that drives the writing forward.”

 Every time I ask teachers to do this, they come up with many worthwhile and meaningful reasons to teach reading:

  • To become a more empathetic human being
  • To acknowledge the complexity of human experience
  • To help us understand how we fit into our world
  • To feel more understood and accepted
  • To not be satisfied with the status quo

Yet often, in their classrooms, these same teachers spend much of their time teaching discrete skills, standards and strategies that, in and of themselves, may never touch on these deeper reasons for reading. To be clear, this isn’t always the fault of teachers. Many schools use packaged or scripted programs, which they require teachers to implement “with fidelity,” and the lessons in those programs are mostly framed around discrete strategies, standards and skills. And in schools that aren’t using packaged material, teachers are often expected to write a specific outcome in the classroom each day—often presented as an “I can” or “Students will be able to” (SWBAT) statement—and then assess who’s met the outcome, or not, by the end of the period.

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Inevitably, what this does is narrow the door for readers in a way that can give them a warped view of reading—and it prevents us from seeing all they might be capable of. To see what I mean, let’s imagine two groups of students both reading the following passage from Patricia Reilly Griff’s Fish Face, which is a Fountas & Pinnell level M book. One group is being asked to identifying character traits, a commonly taught skill, while the other is reading the passage more holistically to consider what it might mean in a broader way.

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When asked to identify each character’s trait, many students will read this passage and conclude that Emily is nice, friendly or kind and that Dawn is shy. In each case, they’d be able to support these conclusions with evidence from the text: Emily is nice because she wants the new girl to sit next to her and says friendly things, like “You have a pretty name,” while Dawn is shy because she’s a new girl and doesn’t always respond to Emily. They might meet the outcome on the board by doing this, but they’d be missing a lot. I’ve seen many, for instance, who miss the fact that Emily has lied to Dawn because, having already identified a trait, they think their work is finished. And by missing that, they also miss the chance to engage in meaningful reasons to read: to realize how complex people are.

Now, let’s see what can happen if we opened the door wider and set the task, not on practicing a skill, but on exploring what the writer might be trying to show her readers. And let’s say we do this in a way that encourages students, not to rush to make claims, but to consider multiple possibilities. Those students might think that Emily could be nice, kind and friendly and also envious, while Dawn might be shy but also mean or snooty. Many might also consider that envy could lead to lying, which would help them understand that people are complex—and might make feel understood and empathetic.

So how do we open the door wider to give students more room to engage in deeper thinking and reap the real benefits of reading?

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Shift from Answers to Thinking

While standardized tests are all about answers, reading is an act of meaning making, and the first thing we need to do is shift our focus from looking for answers to thinking. To do that, we need to be, as Walt Whitman once said, “curious, not judgmental.” That means not hopscotching from student to student until we get the answer we’re seeking, but accepting a wide a range of thinking—not to debate, but to consider. It also means honoring provisional thinking, which uses words like might, couldandmaybe. After all, the only way to really know what’s going on with the characters in Fish Face is to suspend judgment and keep on reading with these possibilities in mind, revising your ideas as you go.

Use Kid-Friendly Language

 I’m often in schools that want teachers and students to use academic language because, after all, they’re in school and that language will be on the tests. Much of that language, though, consists of abstract words connected to abstract concepts, like theme, and while we can teach students to use this language, it doesn’t mean they really understand it.

Take, for instance, the small group of fourth graders I used the Fish Face passage with. Like our second group, they inferred up a storm, though they hadn’t explicitly been asked to. After they’d shared their thinking, though, I asked them—in front of all the fourth grade teachers—if they knew what the word inferringmeant. To their teachers’ dismay, some said they’d never heard it before, while others said they’d heard it, but couldn’t remember what it meant. But finally, a boy said he knew what it meant: reading between the lines.

Of course, that definition is abstract as well. So to help them see what inferring meant, I named for them what they’d done: they’d added up small details in the story to figure something out the writer hadn’t said directly. And to make that even more concrete, I took one of the inferences they’d made and wrote it out as an equation:

Dawn had curly hair and ladybug earrings

+ Emily had straight hair and no earrings

+ Emily wanted earrings (“She flicked at her ears” and has begged her mother)

Emily is envious of Dawn

“Ah,” they all said, now they got it. What they needed was an experience and a concrete example drawn from their own thinking to attach the abstract word to.

Trust the Process

In our current climate of teacher evaluations, accountability measures and mandates, trust is often in short supply. And I’m aware that some teachers are afraid that, if they open the reading door wider, they’ll be seen as not doing their job.

I’m reminded, though, again of something else Vicki Spandel says about writing:

The problem with standards is not that they aim to high but that often they do not lift us up nearly enough. The great irony is that when we teach writing for the right reasons. . . the little things tend to fall into place anyway. . . What’s more, the writer learns to care about such things, not because we said we said she should, but because they took her to a place where her writing became powerful.

 When we open the door wide enough for students to engage in real meaning making—which involves continually revising your thinking and considering multiple possibilities—the strategies and skills we can belabor often seem to magically appear. Like the fourth graders, students reading for meaning often infer at higher level than students who are charged with practicing a skill. Also, the claims students reading for meaning make tend to be more nuanced and complex than those of students reading to identify a trait. And when it comes to standardized tests, they’ll be ahead of the game. Instead of starting to think once they’ve read the passage and get to the questions, they’ll be thinking from the very first sentence.

Finally, when we open the door wider, we create enough space for students to feel the power of reading to help them better understand themselves, other people and the world around them. And if those chalk talks are any indication, that’s just what we want to happen.

 

References

Spandel, Vicki. 2005. The 9 Rights of Every Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Giff, Patricia Reilly. 1984. Fish Face. New York: Random House Children’s Books.