Changing the Narrative

Literacy as sustaining practice in every classroom

Régine recently decided to plant a flower garden. A friend, who was also a master gardener, volunteered to help. Immediately, this friend began talking about how plants create “themes” in a garden. Would there be a theme of color, height, or texture? That’s when Régine nearly gave up before even starting. She didn’t want a theme, she wanted flowers. When Régine asked her sister for advice, the response was perfect: “How about the theme of plants that stay alive?”

Creating Common Ground

To us, Régine’s experience in the garden became a metaphor for why a “culture of literacy” creates anxiety for many teachers. While we all work to improve student learning, what becomes problematic is when academic “themes” or initiatives distract from our own class goals or curriculum. Although literacy instruction has always existed in content area classrooms, it has not necessarily been recognized as such.

In “Reading as Reasoning,” Edward Thorndike noted that “it is in their outside reading of stories and in their study of geography, history, and the like that many school children really learn to read.” Unfortunately, what Thorndike observed in 1917 has been replaced with another view suggesting that content area teachers are not doing enough to support the literacy development of their students. We should abandon that narrative, which is one of blame, and replace it with dialogue that shows how the disciplines offer a sustainable approach to literacy instruction.

Most teachers recognize that using meaningful reading, writing, and discussion strategies improves thinking and learning. Yet, when there is discussion of embedding literacy instruction in school culture, teachers often think that this requires significant knowledge of early reading instruction (phonics, syllables, fluency, etc.) It may, but, more importantly, often it does not!

How we think about literacy has expanded considerably over the years so it now reflects the listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills necessary for the effective, even elegant, communication and construction of knowledge in any field. Likewise, our ideas of what constitutes “text” have also developed to include maps, images, blueprints, performance, and other media. These new ways of thinking about text position teachers to use the unique materials and resources of their own disciplines to support literacy instruction. So, our concerns about implementing seemingly contrived reading and writing activities in our classrooms may be a thing of the past.

Innovative and creative instruction using texts that are more unexpected may be one way to keep things “alive.” For example, clips from the movie Money Ball have helped us illustrate the need to approach problems flexibly and demonstrate the importance of knowing which data are most helpful when making decisions. It’s not a matter of data being available, but rather having the data that’s needed. In another class, we ask students to analyze several pieces of artwork that depict life in the Middle Ages to create a story of the time period—one that is shaped and supported by the art—before diving into textbooks and other challenging sources.

Sowing in Rocky Soil

We ask teachers and administrators to rethink how they define a culture of literacy. If it’s packaged as another initiative to improve reading and writing scores on mandated testing, it’s not surprising when efforts to embed one type of literacy instruction in all classrooms meets resistance. This resistance can become entrenched when certain issues are not addressed: time, a disconnect between content and “strategy of the month” models, and whether teachers feel they have the adequate preparation to take on this work. Thus, a singular approach to literacy instruction is unsustainable.

The Intellectual Greening of Our Classrooms

What we need is a renewal of literacy practices across the curriculum that returns teachers to their comfort zones of content expertise. This is not about complacency; it’s about starting from what we’re already good at. In this way, the emphasis shifts from targeting basic reading skills to one where teachers model how mathematicians, scientists, or historians contribute to their respective fields by using the language and methods that are distinct from other subjects—an approach embraced by many literacy researchers. With this in mind, two core beliefs guide our work in middle school: (1) content knowledge is valuable and (2) share what you value.

Content Knowledge is Valuable
Knowing what something is should be as important as knowing what it’s not. In the era of Common Core State Standards, teachers may feel the need to leapfrog over literal knowledge so they can focus on questions considered to require higher level thinking. Yet, no inference or analysis can stand up to scrutiny if there’s a wobbly understanding of the facts. And, yes, there are facts; it’s how we order, reveal, and interpret them that create a narrative. Based on this narrative, we make decisions and act for good or ill.

Our interactions with students over time create another narrative, one that tracks their learning and engagement. Class activities need to be dynamic so they motivate students to take on challenging texts and concepts. For example, one reading activity involves having each student articulate one piece of newly learned information—ideally from a reading, video, or experiment—in one sentence or even just a phrase that can be revised, further developed, or corrected by other members of the class (including the teacher). In most cases, this information will include discipline-specific vocabulary that reinforces students’ awareness and understanding of it. Scribing the facts so all can see makes this process easier. While some facts might be duplicated, the goal is to develop a more comprehensive overview of a topic by having numerous and different statements. You can also see whether students have been distracted by an incredible statistic or an edgy detail that’s not really pertinent. Rather than putting students or the teacher on the spot, this sort of activity shows that learning requires community, collaboration, and the need to revisit a text. Finally, developing a written summary together supports content-based writing instruction, especially with transitions and academic language, until students are more adept writers.

Share What You Value
Some of our colleagues have argued that the internet makes the need to establish information in long-term memory obsolete. While the web can provide nearly instantaneous access to the content students might include in projects and papers, seeing and having does not make an expert. Information may be a prerequisite for knowledge, and students need to engage with the information they collect (or are given) every day in every classroom if they are to become knowledgeable.

Not Just Alive, but Thriving

One discussion-based activity that has worked well with our middle school students is called an “Exercise in Credibility.” It allows us to learn what students believe is pertinent in relation to their understanding of topics, issues, and circumstances. It’s straightforward and quick but reveals a lot about what students know, as well as their misconceptions. For example, a health teacher might pose the following query: “Being immunized for certain diseases means that you: _____.” Typical student responses to this stem might include:

“won’t get sick.”

“might have a bad reaction.”

“can show the school you’re healthy.”

“won’t spread germs that are bad.”

These stems quickly supply the teacher with information that shows students’ understanding of facts related to different topics within a subject and what those facts could suggest or mean. We have found that stems specifically addressing content have led to discussions of how evidence is needed to support claims. Finally, this “Exercise in Credibility” is nearly limitless in its adaptation to multiple subjects. It can also help students argue effectively. For instance, in a social studies class, students might read Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address and respond to: “An effective leader is/does …” In math, a teacher can prompt: “To solve for x in 2 + 3x = 8, you must …” In physical education, a teacher can check students’ knowledge of what different positions require after watching a soccer match: “Being a striker means …” Of course, these are just starting points. Teachers can make stems as sophisticated or text-based as they wish.

We do recognize that knowing something, however, doesn’t mean you can put the information into practice. As Joe himself points out, “I know what a curve ball is but couldn’t hit it and definitely can’t throw one!” So, our primary goal with this user-friendly strategy is to jump-start thinking, discussion, and writing especially among students who are hesitant to participate.

Reaping What You Sow

Creating a vibrant literacy culture stems from knowing and valuing how each discipline can contribute to a student’s overall development. Only then do we facilitate content area study, enable students to more fully participate in the classroom, and allow them multiple ways of demonstrating learning over time. Like soaking seeds the night before planting, subject-specific literacy practices prime students to learn more material, more quickly, and with the lasting understanding that sustains them.