Sunday, August 5, 2012

Literacy Learning--What a Difference One Summer Can Make

As I prepare to start a new school year this week I am in a good position to reflect on what the summer has taught me about best practices in the classroom.  Being a student for the last year, including two summers, has made me appreciate the varied ways in which my professors have delivered instruction or guided my learning.  This summer has presented me with several educational opportunities including being a facilitator, a researcher, a creator, and a student.  In my program and since this journey began, I have seen each experience overlap and intertwine with another, making theory and practice come together in profound, mind-boggling ways.  While the purpose of this writing is primarily to reflect on my formal coursework, other events and adventures have also added to my learning and have a worthwhile place in my end-of-summer and course reflection.

In mid-June, facilitators led a 40-hour institute for teams of content teachers from different schools.  We represented math, social studies, science, and language arts (me).  We taught (and learned) a number of strategies through demonstrations (showing), workshops (doing), discussion (recapping), and writing (reflection).  We shared strategies such as reciprocal teaching, accountable talk, peer response, publishing using Realebooks, inquiry research, tapping background knowledge, and problem-solving strategies.  As important, though, was the discussion about "what kinds of kids" these strategies work for.  Nothing will heat up a conversation quicker than saying, "My kids can't do this."  With time, patience, and encouragement, these strategies and learning activities work with all students.  For example, the science facilitator presented her work with middle school students who are being published in a high school science journalism magazine.  Most of the student work she presented came from students in her "comp" classes, not her "AP."  They chose science topics that interested them, researched information they needed, wrote independently or with a partner, sent articles to the university who sponsors the publication, made changes based on the feedback from a university professor, and then were published in a national high school level magazine.  This is authentic; this is value-added learning; and "those kids" performed better than most other students at the same grade level in that middle school.  It seemed that the theme of the summer was to identify who "those kids" were, but more importantly what we could do for them.

During those two weeks, I gathered a great deal of information.  But as a researcher, I felt like I should have had a clearer sense of what the big question was.  However, that was not the case.  In many ways, the events and experiences of the remaining parts of the summer have helped shape some of those questions and, hopefully, in the near future, I will be able to make sense of all the data collected including teacher responses, reflections, pictures of brainstorming sessions, agenda revisions, and videos of closing remarks. An interesting point is how the perception of content area literacy changed in a positive way through the course of those two weeks.  Participants discovered fascinating ways that reading and writing could really be  assets to each content area.  This leads to something that interests me, which is the idea that students could possibly maintain their motivation for reading and writing if given the right literacy experiences in their middle school formative years.  Research says that these middle years are when declines in motivation occur.  I see that sometimes in my classroom.  But I wonder if having these content-area teachers who are equipped with research-based literacy strategies will make a difference with these students.  It's a hunch that the answer is yes.  Learning how to create great literacy experiences for my students essentially became the foundation for the rest of my summer experiences.

Shortly after this two-week institute, I embarked on another LWP-related adventure.  The Literacy Design Collaborative module writers from New York, Colorado, Kentucky, California, Idaho, Michigan, and New Mexico met outside of Denver to share our module creations, discuss the needs of the local Writing Projects, and plan for the next year's professional development that would arise from this experience with the Common Core and module writing.  Even these NWP meetings showed best classroom practices by allowing time for processing, discussion, sharing, reflection, and even playing.  Along with meetings, there were a few break-out sessions on the big topics in the Common Core.  I chose to attend one about English Language Learners because I have no experience with teaching these students, but I work with teachers who do.  I had also recently explored articles about ELL in the graduate class I was taking during this same time (more on that in a bit). Some teachers have over forty languages being spoken in their schools and must teach the Common Core standards while these students are also learning English. These statistics opened my eyes to the cultural diversity we have in our metro schools. Not only are there different languages, there are different beliefs and values.  Looking at my own rural school, I think that we have our own challenges when honoring diversity. Because we do not have wide representations of different cultures, our students are often sheltered and unaware of what is outside their own cultural experiences.  But we have diversity in other ways: socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and career choices to name a few.

To add another layer to my summer educational experiences, during July, the same month as the long-weekend trip to Denver, I was also enrolled in the Literacy Learning and Cultural Differences graduate class.  We focused first inward to our own literacy learning and experiences--we gathered important items and discussed them, we introduced ourselves to the class with the help of a symbolic book or story, we wrote our own literacy stories--and then looked each week at different aspects of culture and the effects they had on literacy learning.  One major charge we were given was to get to know a family or place that was different from us and learn what we could about the literacy within that other realm.  I met and talked with a large Jewish family with eight children who taught me a great deal about my own students.  In the classroom, they just want to be heard, to be able to talk, to work on projects together, to be creative.  So although I thought I would learn how different these children were because of their city upbringing versus my rural, or their faith, or their family size, they want and need the same things that all of my students need.  My students need to find where they fit in this world.  Learning about cultural differences and literacy is not enough if we don't learn about our individual children and learn how we can help them create a space for themselves within our communities.

In the class, we did not just learn about ELL or different faiths in the classroom.  There is a digital culture that we should embrace and learn.  There is a difference in how boys learn and in what girls are interested in.  Gang members do not always fit the stereotypes, nor do immigrants.  And how do teachers accommodate for all these differences in the classroom?  We let the students guide us there.  In order for students to achieve at the levels being asked of them in our present and our near future, we need to show them how to solve problems for themselves.  Part of literacy learning is showing students that literacy is everywhere.  We as teachers need to understand its interconnection in order to not shortchange our students' learning.  Visual media, blogs, grocery receipts, billboards, commercials, books, newspapers, zines are only a few tools we should be using in the classroom.  During this summer class, we visited virtual museums.  The physical building of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. must be a small portion of what I explored online.  That is only a guess because I haven't been there in person, but I could have lost hours visiting the museum virtually.  Everything, it seems, now has a digital presence.  I recently read a blog written by a principal who said that the teachers he interviews should have a digital presence and show (not tell) him how they would use technology in the classroom.  How many of our students already have online profiles?  Perhaps that's a question we need to ask.  Our classrooms need to enter this digital space.

We can't be afraid of all these cultures crashing into our structured classrooms and destroying the plans that we spent so much time creating.  Our classrooms need to invite these varied cultures in and be transformed by the knowledge that is unique to each of them.  We need to read professional literature and learn from literacy leaders like Anderson, Smith, Wilhelm, Gee, Beers, Fletcher, and all the researchers who show us best classroom practices. We need to find out what our students know about literacy and help them see it in ways they never thought before.  Maybe there are ways literacy exists that we never thought before, either.  And that's okay.  We're learning.