After preparing my reflection, I definitely believe every teacher should have to go through this process every few years simply to be aware of their role in the classroom. Why are you there? What is it that you really want kids to learn from your content (and if you say TEKS or Common Core standards, POO!)? What are the experts in your field putting out there that is important for what you do?
I do great deal of independent studying to be the best possible teacher, but I had never put any of that knowledge into a personal belief system - until now. So I share with you my reflections. They are lengthy, as I was heavily invested in this work, so I will not be insulted if you click off this blog post. But if anyone is interested or needs a springboard for their own work, I present to you my literacy beliefs (please don't plagiarize, but if you do, I will have to consider it an unknown compliment):
The AVID system defines all students as Academic Language Learners (ALL) (Bennett, Nagle, Scerrato, Castruita, & Platts, 2016). When we talk about reaching ALL students, we need to keep this definition in mind. Every student in every classroom is an Academic Language Learner, regardless of background. Although literacies in the 21st century are changing rapidly, many literacy definitions connect back to reading, writing, listening, speaking, and critical thinking. As literacy learners, ALL students are entitled to rigorous instruction within a premier educational setting that addresses reading, writing, listening, speaking, and critical thinking practices and routines in all areas of disciplinary study. The NCTE Guidelines on the Essentials for English state that literacy skills are lifelong processes that allow us to become self-sufficient, productive, and participatory communicators and thinkers. I believe that the components of literacy, including communication and thinking skills, fit into all content areas and should be emphasized just as much as the content itself. Literacy is what builds thinking, and students need to be taught how to think critically about the world they live in. It is the responsibility of every teacher to provide opportunities to write and converse to build literacy skills and to do so through explicit instruction and modeling.
Writing is a vital component of literacy. In thirteen years of teaching, I have seen a decline in students’ ability to write, not just with proper grammar and sentence variety, but in their ability to put thoughts and ideas onto paper. Graham and Perrin state that “writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy” (2007), yet many students are struggling with basic writing proficiency. Because “poor writing should be recognized as an intrinsic part of this national literacy crisis” (Graham & Perrin), students need opportunities to write in all content areas to build and enhance their critical thinking capabilities in addition to reading comprehension and writing literacy skills.
According to Graves, “‘Children want to write’” (2004), but Applebee and Langer say that “...the overall amount of time devoted to writing remains distressingly low” (2011). This is distressing because the consensus among many is that writing is an act of making sense of our learning and showing our thinking (Albers, 2014; Graves, 2004; Fountas & Pinnell, 2006; Kidd & Burns, 2014; Murray, 2007; Schmoker, 2007). Students need to be writing as often as possible for these reasons. Graves suggests a minimum of three days; Albers, Steineke, and Kidd and Burns suggest daily writing in all classes. Whether through informal assignments such as reflections, learning logs, and exit tickets, or formal assignments such as short essays and research papers, students have the ability to create physical evidence of their thinking by putting their thoughts on paper. Brooks-Yip, Andrew-Vaughn, Grant, Conklin, Putnam, and Kwok describe shorter writing assignments as writing-to-learn tasks that allow students to focus on their thinking regarding the content and “to reason, to problem solve, and to comprehend disciplinary problems” (2016). With numerous classes per day, students are being asked to take in and remember large quantities of information. By putting thinking into words on paper, students have the opportunity to look back upon those ideas to review and to reflect upon the learning, and in turn, “have a better chance of remembering that material than by just listening or reading” (Kidd & Burns).
In addition to creating a record of their thinking, students need chances to engage in extended writing. When students have more formal opportunities to write, they are building their writing proficiency by practicing conventions (Graves) that will improve their abilities to communicate in writing, regardless of the content area. Grammatical elements are important for improving writing proficiency, but as noted in the observations of my own teaching, students often struggle to get ideas on paper. Thompson noted that when teachers focus too heavily on grammar, the quality of the work decreases (2011). Exposure to authentic texts provides students with models of good writing and provides them with content from which to develop their own extended writing assignments. Using text as a springboard for extended writing helps students “explore ideas or develop arguments in depth” (Applebee & Langer, 2009) and refine “critical reasoning capacities even further” (Schmoker).
Writing in classes is for more than thinking, however. Sharan and Fullan posit that “...knowing how to write is powerful evidence of knowing how to read” (2009), and Bean states that “...evidence indicates that writing promotes ability in reading” (2014). It has been established that writing puts thinking into the written word. By writing about reading, students have the ability to make sense of their texts, regardless of the content. Writing in response to text “incorporates both the thinking readers do as they read and the ability to compose text in a way that both captures and furthers that thinking” (Serravallo, 2015). Initial writing in response may include reflections, connections to the text, notes to keep track of the information, or summaries. This thinking can then be developed further into extended writing that deepens reading comprehension as “...it provides students with a tool for visibly and permanently recording, connecting, analyzing, personalizing, and manipulating key ideas in text” (Graham & Herbert, 2010).
Literacy acquisition is also enhanced through the explicit instruction and modeling of literacy skills in all content areas. Particularly in secondary education where classes become more isolated from one another, teachers are focused on the content presented in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) and not necessarily the literacy skills needed to support the TEKS.
“If we want students consistently using the language of math, science, or any other content in their active listening, daily speaking, reading, and writing, then we must ensure that they acquire academic language and literacy. That happens through explicit instruction in language functions as they relate to the content, through learning and then using precise vocabulary, through reading rigorous texts, through writing to express complex thought and ideas, and through engaging in rich academic discussions” (Bennett, Nagle, Scerrato, Castruita, & Platts, 2016).
Content area teachers need to understand that students do not come along pre-packaged with those skills. They need to understand that students need to be shown how to think in order to become thinkers. Students need strategies. Ogle expresses that teachers need to provide specific strategies that help students think about the content they are focusing upon and teach them to think deeply about those strategies (D’Arcangelo, 2002), and Beers notes that “we’ve got to be very direct and explicit in strategy instruction” (2003). This includes integrating modeled reading and writing practices and routines (Holloway, 2002), “direct explicit demonstrations of the cognitive strategies” (Allington, 2002), and the teaching of how to “read and write and communicate like mathematicians, historians, scientists, literary critics, and educated members of society” (Heller, nd).
Teachers also have to be aware of the unique literacy challenges their content presents to students and present and model strategies that assist with literacy acquisition, many of which are cross-curricular. “During whole-class instruction, teachers model behaviors, skills, and strategies that they expect to see from their students...this modeling is based on an established purpose and provides students with a mental model for completing tasks they will encounter in another phase of instruction” (Fisher, Frey, & Rothenberg, 2008). Beginning with steps like previewing the text allows students to see how more proficient readers acquaint themselves with unfamiliar readings. Teachers can demonstrate their thinking with graphic organizers or Thinking Maps. Marking the Text strategies help students learn how to identify important aspects of the text. Modeling writing furnishes students with a visual of what is expected from them. “...how can middle and high school students learn the strategies…” (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2005) if we, the teachers, do now show them what those strategies are and how to use them?
According to Joellen Killion, forms of literacy other than reading have been neglected in the national focus (2003), but that does not make them any less important. “Reading, writing, and oral language instruction must be integrated” (Fisher & Frey, 2007) to give ALL students an adequate literacy foundation to function in life outside of school. Today’s generation of children is living in a world of constant communication, much of which is not taking place orally. Guided practice in academic conversations helps students to develop speaking, listening, and critical thinking skills that will help them communicate effectively in the world at large.
In many classrooms, students only have opportunities to speak one at a time and in response to a teacher question. This practice disengages other students and limits “the amount of time each student gets to talk (Zwiers & crawford, 2009). Anyone who stands in the classroom long enough doing nothing but lecturing is likely to notice students tuning out. Discussion brings about engagement. Allowing students to take part in guided, collaborative conversations assists them in “processing new content and concepts”, and just like writing, “[c]onversation helps immensely when processing new content and concepts” (Alber). Talking to others means students have opportunities to clear up misconceptions, ask questions, and develop broader views. Ketch says,
“Conversation helps individuals make sense of their world. It helps to build empathy, understanding, respect for different opinions, and ownership of the learning process. It helps students sort out their ideas of the world and begin to understand how they fit into it. Used as a connection to cognitive strategies, conversation fosters comprehension acquisition” (2005).
Oral conversations also benefit teachers immensely by allowing them to hear what their students are thinking. Regardless of content, teachers are able to incorporate speaking sentence stems into lessons that model and teach more formal conversational skills to students.Less formal conversations can take place through Think-Pair-Share and small group discussions. As speaking, listening, and critical thinking skills develop, teachers can try out Socratic Seminars and Philosophical Chairs to engage students in more rigorous conversations. In these discussion formats, formative assessment can occur quickly and immediate feedback provided to correct misconceptions in learning.
All of these elements of literacy are not independent of one another. Graves asserts that research shows that we currently underestimate what students are capable of doing and that it is possible to raise expectations (2004). We must challenge students to consciously read, write, listen, and speak, as they develop critical thinking skills that we know they will need to make sense of the world and all the information they receive on a daily basis. We must make conscious decisions to incorporate all elements of literacy into every content area classroom and to show our students how to think.
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