Literacy for ALL

Literacy for All

Sometimes a question is so beautiful it becomes part of you. One such question, posed to me last year by a grade 5 student, has stuck with me in my work as a district literacy specialist. While interviewing students as part of developing our school board’s literacy strategy, I had the opportunity to chat with a group of students attending a school that specifically supports students with complex learning disabilities. The classrooms in this school sound very similar to the literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer Allen describes in chapter 7 of her book Becoming A Literacy Leader. After sharing all of the helpful ways their teachers had prepared them to learn and reintegrate into their community school, one student leaned in and stated, “I just don’t know why the teachers at my old school couldn’t have taught me this way. I don’t know why I had to leave my school to learn”.

What a beautiful question. We know that “every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design” (Fisher, Frey, & Hattie, 2016, p. 2) and with this question in mind, I thought about what every teacher might take away from Jennifer’s description of a literacy intervention classroom. What structures and elements might make our classrooms and our teaching effective for ALL students?

There are many research-based principles and characteristics that teachers can use to design effective literacy classrooms. Jennifer specifically mentions the success of the following practices, which could easily be taken up in any classroom:

  • daily reading and writing
  • quality books to hook students
  • explicit strategy instruction
  • predictable classroom routines
  • ongoing assessment
  • chunking instruction

Identifying the “bubble-kids”

Jennifer’s description of literacy intervention classrooms specifically mentions that these classes were designed to support the ‘bubble kids’. Each school has a different name for the students who are slightly below grade level. Some people call them “bubble kids” or ‘at-risk’ students. Names matter. They carry immense power to impact student’s self-concept. While chapter 7 has nothing to do with what we name this group of students, I believe it is important to address before looking at effective structures and strategies for literacy learning.

This summer one of my colleagues introduced me to the term ‘at-promise’. I instantly loved it. We know literacy itself is a political act and the way we frame and name groups of students matter. Let’s begin thinking about students who are slightly below grade level by thinking about the promise of success they hold.

Let’s also think about how we identify the ‘at-promise’ students. Jennifer presents a rich process including student criteria, classroom observations, and conversations with classroom teachers and parents (p. 134 – 137). However, one addition I would add is to talk with students themselves. Students need to be active agents in their education and contribute to the decisions made towards their success. Our ‘at-promise’ students do need a different level of support from us and so it is important to identify them early on in the school year. As you plan for the beginning weeks of school, how will you come to know your students as literacy learners? How will you forge strong relationships with your ‘at-promise’ students?

A slow start

 Another aspect of literacy intervention classrooms Jennifer describes is using the first month as a “Literacy Boot Camp”. School start up is already a stressful time of transition for students, families, and staff. Intentionally building a learning community and “opting for simplicity and consistency, we [can slow] down the start of the year and [take] the time to teach the whole class our expectations” (Allen, 2016, p. 139). Spending time on how a classroom community will learn together and building strong relational trust will provide a solid, positive foundation for the rest of the school year.

Harvey Daniels also talks about the importance of beginning the day (not just the year) with soft starts in his book The Curious Classroom. He shares that “when we let kids find their own way into the day, we activate their curiosity and sense of self-direction, mind-sets that serve learners well in the formed inquires that follow” (Daniels, 2017, p. 59). When I transitioned from beginning my kindergarten teaching days with scripted carpet time to an open inquiry and play block, I noticed a huge change in my students and myself. We lost the rushed ‘have to’ feeling and found the joy of learning and community.

 Large blocks of uninterrupted literacy instruction

 Time is a precious commodity in schools and as teachers we must make strategic decisions and advocate on behalf of what we know our students need. We know that extended time for child-directed learning, at least an hour, results in sustained engagement (Banjeree, Alsalman, & Alqafari, 2017, p. 301). When comparing a regular classroom with a literacy intervention classroom, Jennifer points out that the transitions can be quite different. In regular classrooms, students move between teachers and supports frequently. In a literacy intervention classroom, the “teacher has the whole class for the entire day and does not have to worry about reteaching lessons” (Allen, 2016, p. 138).

This is where I challenge all teachers to critically look at the decisions you can make in your day. How can you arrange your instructional time so that transitions are minimized? What are you doing in your school day that you can let go of? What are the pieces that ‘have to’ stay or are beneficial to keep? During my last full year of teaching kindergarten my class included many students who were working on improving their social skills and behavior. Simplifying our daily schedule and creating large blocks of integrated learning time gave these students in particular, time to sink into their learning and the opportunity to develop sustained engagement.

Effective literacy classrooms, by design

While the approaches Jennifer presents are specifically framed to benefit ‘at-promise’ students, I think we all can agree these are equally important for every classroom. These are the exact components that the grade 5 student I mentioned earlier wished her community school’s teachers had offered her. After reading chapter 7, I sat with the question about what was truly different in the classrooms Jennifer described. I’m left with the feeling that while there might be differences, with a knowledgable and caring teacher, there doesn’t have to be. Each of us can pick up these practices and structures and create classrooms where all learners thrive in their literacy learning.

References

Allen, J. (2016). Becoming a Literacy Leader. Portland, Maine: Stenhouse.

Banjeree, R., Alsalman, A., & Alqafari, S. (2017). Supporting sociodramatic play in preschools to promote language and literacy skills of English language learners. Early Childhood Education, 299-305.

Daniels, H. (2017). The Curious Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible Learning For Literacy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 

 

When professional learning isn’t your choice…

As teachers, we have all had times when we have been asked to participate in mandated professional learning. Before you read on, think about the last time you found yourself in this situation. How did you feel about being there? What elements worked for you and what rubbed you the wrong way?

For me, this type of learning reminds me of what our students must feel each day. I admit that I myself have not always been a huge fan of mandated professional development. It is ironic that planning and delivering this type of learning is now a regular part of my current position. Knowing that the feelings around this type of PD are not always talked about in a positive light, I was intrigued to read Chapter 3: “A Model for Required Professional Development” in Jennifer Allen’s book Becoming a Literacy Leader. I was genuinely curious to find out what might Jennifer offer to help me become a better facilitator for required learning sessions.

Right away I loved Jennifer’s honesty as she shared her moments of success and frustration. Anyone who has organized and led professional learning has had those moments where you clearly know you have failed. Jennifer begins with sharing some very challenging years that were not working for her. Paying attention to our mistakes and learning from them is important for all of us, regardless of our teaching context.

I began to think about my biggest fails from this past year. What did I learn? Probably the most important lesson I learned this year was to invest the time to learn the culture of the group. Not all groups work the same way and not all leaders want you to work with their staff in the same way. Asking questions and ensuring expectations are clear, helps things go more smoothly. Many times I am asked to introduce ideas and information that may challenge entrenched ways of thinking and working within schools. Another lesson I learned is to name this dissonance right at the beginning and open up space to disagree, in agreeable ways. My biggest learning continues to come from reflecting about the bumps in the road and what I could do differently next time.

In Chapter 3, Jennifer introduces us to three key ingredients she believes are essential when designing an agenda for mandatory professional development:

  • making meaning of content together
  • individualizing the learning
  • bridging theory and practice.

I loved her example of “My Life in Seven Stories”, but equally was a fan that she left room for me to contextualize these ideas and make them my own. When I thought about the three ingredients for professional development, I was able to immediately connect my own personal experiences with her framing.

Thinking about how groups can make meaning of new content together, I  realized how important good questions are for learning. Thinking in questions helps organize the main ideas and guide professional development but also leaves room for the learners to influence the direction and thus the learning. Framing professional learning through a series of questions signals to the participants that they will be actively making meaning together. Knowledge Building Circles are a great way to dig deep into important questions and make meaning of content together.

The second ingredient Jennifer suggests is to design professional learning so people can individualize the learning. This can be tough with very large groups but by providing choice within the session, we can increase autonomy and engagement. Choice can be as simple as offering a collection of articles to choose from, a variety of tools to use, or even providing the opportunity for groups to make micro-decisions about how to structure a block of time. Jennifer’s suggestion to take what you learn and apply it yourself (p.54), reminded me that we want our learners to be actively engaged in doing the learning and not just hearing about the learning. If your session is about reading, ask your participants to read. Taking off the teacher hat and putting on the learner cap is important for internalizing and personalizing learning.

The third ingredient was a recent epiphany for me. I used to wonder why we even needed theory. Just tell me what to do! Now I understand that theory helps us understand the ‘why’ behind our choices. Jennifer suggests that the bridge between theory and practice can happen by giving teachers time to play with the strategies in the classroom (p. 54). I think an important part of this ingredient is also to scaffold teachers to be able to name and understand what theory might look like in their classrooms before they leave the professional development session. Embedded planning time to bridge theory and practice during professional development has become a regular fixture in my planning. A handy protocol for this is ‘Connect. Extend. Try’. At the end of PD sessions, I ask participants to think about how the new learning connects with what they already know, what extends or challenges their thinking, and what is one new thing they will commit to trying.

Having only finished Chapter 3 of this book, I am excited to continue reading to discover more practical and inspirational ideas about leading literacy. I know I will for sure be stealing Jennifer’s “My Life in Seven Stories” to use at some point with teacher writing groups this year!

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Please consider adding your ideas about key ingredients or some ‘tried and true’ ideas for professional learning in the comments. I’d also like to invite you to join our reading community as we read and discuss Becoming a Literacy Leader together.

Thanks for reading,

Heather

Beyond the Book: Summer Literacy Adventures

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We are in the final month of school in Calgary and it is busy! It is so busy we feel it in our breath, our movements, and every thought. At times like this, it is easy to fall prey to the busy. But when we focus on what is most important, we are reminded that busy is not why we are here. Our students deserve all that we can give, especially in the busy of these final weeks.

With this in mind, I decided to follow Matt Renwick’s example and frame this post as a bridge between school and summer. Matt’s last blog post offered some fantastic suggestions around facilitating summer reading through authentic experiences. After reading I wondered, what else might we do to support our students over summer?

Knowing oral language is the foundation of literacy, my mind wandered there. In their book Literacy: Reading the word and the world, Freire and Macedo remind us “reading does not consist merely of decoding the written word or language; rather it is preceded by and intertwined with knowledge of the world (1987, p. 29). Following their advice, I looked to the world to see what might be reflected back to me.

Below are some suggestions that might open up how students and their families approach literacy over the summer months.

  1. Make time for talk.

Remember that feeling of busy I began this post with? The great thing about summer is family and friends generally have more time to spend together. Car rides, family outings, dinner conversations, and campfire evenings are great opportunities to connect and build literacies outside of classroom walls. Dr. Catherine Snow and Diane Beals offer some useful suggestions (2006) about mealtime talk that supports literacy development. They suggest the conversations that happen at the dinner table can provide opportunities to talk about topics in greater depth (extended discourse). The common narrative or explanatory structures typically used at mealtimes expose children to relatively sophisticated vocabulary. Summer is a great time to remind your students and their families that their dinner table conversations are important. Of course, the dinner table can really be any place depending on the weather!

  1. Explore your place.

As educators, we understand that literacy does not live in one place. It occurs within and between contexts. Students can learn what words mean in the world in order to better understand and use them in print. Many places offer free summer opportunities for families to wander, experience, and talk. Sharing some examples with parents (such as this http://www.todocanada.ca/free-family-activities-every-day-summer-calgary/) can help families step into rich literacy experiences. These opportunities help build students’ knowledge, which in turn helps them with reading and writing. Lots of these hot spots also offer maps or guides when you visit, so make sure to remind parents that books are not the only sources of print in our lives.

Offering parents simple conversation structures such as ‘Strive for 5’ (Weitzman & Greenberg, 2010, p. 11) can also help deepen potential conversations to get kids talking and learning during family outings. Letting children lead the conversation, asking open-ended questions, and aiming for at least 5 turns back and forth increase the likelihood of extended conversation and extended learning. As adults, we often forget that to our children our world is new and exciting. Taking time to listen, question, and talk together will remind everyone we truly do live in a WONDERful place.

  1. Leverage what they love.

Anyone who is a parent knows that summer is not all a ball of sunshine. Some days are rainy and some days everyone just needs a break from each other. We also know how much kids love technology. Some well-chosen websites can save even the rainiest of summer days. Camp Wonderopolis offers many rich literacy provocations and the multimodal structure that draws kids in. Alternatively, playing audio books or podcasts on car rides or during ‘quiet time’ opens up more chances to listen, talk, and build knowledge together. Jennifer Gonzalez offers a parent-friendly explanation and some of her favourite podcasts here that could be a great blog post to share with parents heading into summer.

While I know that summertime literacy is not as easy as this list suggests, I also know there are some intentional things we can do over the summer months to keep kids learning and growing. If we can support parents to see the everyday literacy opportunities in their world, it opens up new ways to connect and support their children.

What suggestions would you add to this list? What opportunities can you find when you look at the world as our literacy classroom? Please share your ideas in the comments.

With thanks,

Heather

References

Freire, P., & Macedo, D.P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the word and the world. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey.

Snow, C. E., & Beals, D. E. (2006). Mealtime talk that supports literacy development. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development,2006(111), 51-66. doi:10.1002/cd.155

Weitzman, E., & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and beyond: building emergent literacy in early childhood settings. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.