A Big Box of Literacy

Remember Miss Caroline Fisher? She was Scout Finch’s first-grade teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout and Miss Caroline shared a discordant first day of school if you recall.
Some the discord stemmed from Scout’s uncanny reading ability. Miss Caroline, an idealistic rookie, trained in the latest methods of the early 1930s, wasn’t prepared to have a literate first grader (among several other realities of in Depression-era rural poverty she wasn’t prepared for). While no one could rightly trace the origin of Scout’s reading skills, blame fell on Atticus Finch for teaching his daughter to read– and read the “wrong way” to boot.
As a result, “Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading.”
Miss Caroline lacked solutions for dealing with children who did not fit into the molds she expected to use for teaching her class. Consequently, she issued that ridiculous direction not to read at home, with the warning that Scout would not learn to read the properly.
Literacy climbs out of a big box. Miss Caroline, as a rookie– and a fictional character– can be excused for not realizing that. The rest of don’t get a pass. We must take care not to fold literacy instruction into small boxes, or put the lid on our boxes too tightly.
Here’s a real-life example of a school where the literacy box is too small, and the lid is on too tight. A teacher reached out to me on social media this week to describe her school, where the library books are leveled and divided into sections by level. Students aren’t allowed to enter a section outside their level.
Being a good strategic reader myself, I formed a mental image of what was happening there. I visualized an obsessively orderly library with huge, brightly colored letters over each of the stacks– A, C, J, M, T, plus everything in between, and Z all the way in the back. I pictured a task force of tightly wound librarians patrolling the aisles between the shelves. I imagined elementary school kids with their reading levels in huge, scarlet letters, sewed to the backs of their shirts. I saw brown-shirted librarians herding students toward the appropriate sections while chasing kids with riding crops if they ventured toward the wrong stack.
Fountas and Pinnell meet Dante’s Inferno.
(Yeah, I may have overcooked my visualization.)
Leveling an entire library puts the most valuable literacy resource in a school, the library, into a small box. Denying students access to books puts the lid on too tight.
The rationale behind that leveled library reminds me of Miss Caroline’s admonition against Scout reading at home with Atticus. There are those teaching and leading among us who believe that kids can read wrong by reading material that is too easy or too hard. They believe that “wrong reading” can hurt a child’s literacy development.
I often quote Professor Richard Allington who says students need to read high volumes of texts that they can read with near perfect accuracy to fully develop their fluency. Quite to the contrary of what the leveled library folks believe, keeping “easy” books out of the hands of emerging readers could deal real harm in developing that smooth, automatic kind of fluency kids need.
I also remember my former curriculum director, a former colleague of Allington, Gaeton Zorzi, who believed that a motivated reader would overcome struggles with difficult text if they value what they can learn from it. They will learn to troubleshoot their comprehension challenges and therefore become better readers.
One of the easiest ways to get stuck in a small box is to allow products, programs, and approaches to make decisions for us. As literacy professionals, we need to be in control of the literacy decisions in front of us. Moving in lock step with a teacher’s guide does little to no good if the result is anything less than strong readers and writers.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount over the years from Lucy Calkins and her disciples at Teacher’s College. A few years ago, after working with consultants trained at Columbia, my school district purchased Units of Study for Writing as our curriculum guide. While I found many valuable resources in the Units of Study kit, there was no way I could get through the package like I was following a scripted game plan. First, that’s just not how I teach. I need freedom to move and make professional decisions based on my training, knowledge, and experience. Secondly, I found the Units of Study lacking in certain components essential to my writing pedagogy. Chief among those is the use of mentor texts, which are not a major element in the product.
Now, please, I don’t want to read comments about how I bashed Fountas and Pinnell and Lucy Calkins in my blog. I’ve nothing of the kind. I have merely suggested we don’t climb into a Lucy Calkins box or a Fountas and Pinnell box and live there. The value of a product, program or approach is in what we can learn from it and how it improves our professional knowledge. As teachers, we should be broadened by new ideas and information, not restricted by published parameters.
All great teachers are unabashed thieves. You should be stealing ideas from everywhere.
Great teachers are also like Dr. Frankenstein. Our pedagogy is our monster. We sew together the parts we steal. An arm here. A toe there. We construct our methods from the best we can find, and we do all we can to stitch it all together and make it all work smoothly together. Hopefully, we create something good and not a monster that stalks the countryside.


The Value of Quiet

When I was a child in grade school— sure, we’re talking about the ‘70s and ‘80s— quiet was a rule in school. You walked in quiet through the halls. You sat in quiet in the classroom. I guess we were allowed to make some noise at lunch and in the gym.
Quiet assured the dominance and control of a single voice, the teacher’s. Learning was a teacher-centered affair. The student’s role in the class was limited, listen and do work. Between listening and doing the work, we got debatably smarter.
The early years of my teaching career weren’t much different. My voice was dominant. I assigned work. The kids were supposed to get smarter.
But the paradigm shifted. We recognized the value of collaboration, cooperation and student talk. Then we took it further and began to differentiate instruction with packages of activities. Five concurrent activities to meet the same learning objective for various types of learners assures everyone has a voice, even if no one exactly gets heard.
If your classroom is quiet, your students can’t possibly be learning anything. At least that’s what the conventional “wisdom” says.
The other day on social media I ran across this quote by author John Green, “Reading forces you to be quiet in a world that no longer makes a place for that.”
The quote reminded me of an end-of-year survey a teacher friend of mine gave her kids. Several students commented on how reading workshop provided much needed quiet time during the day. It was the only time they could be alone with their thoughts.
As educators, we are right to value student voices in our classrooms. The problem is, we’ve lost track of an important voice.
In each of us, teacher and student, there is a voice in our heads, a thinking voice, the voice of our own cognition and metacognition, the voice we talk to ourselves with, the voice we work things out with, the voice of our conscious and the voice of our conscience, a little voice, a quiet voice, a loud voice, the voice we hear writing, the voice we hear reading.
We need to honor that voice most in our classroom. But we are drowning that voice out with poor imitations of the sound of learning.
We honor students thinking voices by giving them time to write and time to read. We honor thinking by giving students time to think about answers.
There can be a little talking with the thinking. Students can share thoughts. But they need time to listen to the thoughts first.
I remember the first time I heard Cris Tovani talk about annotation. She spoke of it as means to get students thoughts about reading onto the page as they read. Since then, I’ve been amazed, but never really shocked, when students say they don’t hear any voice in their heads when they read. They don’t think about their reading. They just quietly say the words to themselves.
If you read, but don’t think about it, are you reading at all?
However, why should we expect students to attend to their thinking voices when reading if we don’t ever teach them to listen to that voice at other times.
Learning occurs when students have time to process their thoughts. That won’t happen in a noisy, chaotic environment.
It’s time that we honor the value of quiet.

Stop Starting Small!


My son is in his first year of college, taking Chemistry 111 as an engineering science major. Smart kid, most days. He was a little underwhelmed by his first class. The chem prof began class by writing on the board: “1 meter = 1000 centimeters.”

“Dad, do you have any idea how many times I’ve done that?” my son complained.

A review of the metric system struck my son as a bit too basic for the first day of college for a future engineer. Apparently, in forming his objections this otherwise intelligent young man failed to consider when one of the basic principles of schooling: you must always master the basics before moving on to more complex concepts. The metric system is as basic to chemistry as atoms and test tubes.

Good teaching starts with the basics. Always begin a unit by defining vocabulary words. It’s impossible to move forward until we conquer the basics.

(Clunk…other shoe drops.)

I hate that kind of teaching.

I believe in starting at the highest levels of thinking, never the lowest. Create something. Solve something. Learn the basics along the way.

Consider this example: suppose you wanted to build a deck onto your house as a DIY project. Where would you begin? Most folks would start by designing their deck. They would sketch their plans; then they would start measuring. They might make more detailed sketches; then they would calculate materials and cost.

Few people would start a DIY project by taking a Home Depot course on how to hold a hammer. If you started any DIY project at that level of the basics, you would never complete anything. You would never engage in the highest level of creative thinking. You would never have a new deck.

Everyone who has ever completed a DIY project understands that you learn new and valuable skills along the way. You learn the basics as you create, not before you create. If you want to learn a heap of building trades, fix your house up to go on the market and do all the work yourself. You will learn everything from HVAC to plumbing, from carpentry to landscaping.

Several years ago I ran a workshop on writing learning objectives in lesson plans. As an activity, I asked teachers working in small groups to create objectives for an imaginary character education unit. Nearly all the groups insisted on first writing objectives at the lowest end of Bloom’s taxonomy. The teachers argued vehemently that they couldn’t teach lessons about empathy or respect until students first copied the definitions of those terms out of the dictionary.

There is no reason students need to learn the word for a thing before they learn about the thing. Words are not things. For example, you don’t need to know that the comfy thing in the living room with all the pillows is called a couch, or a sofa, before you lie down on it to take a nap. Who cares what it’s called whey you need a nap?

Yet, I couldn’t convince those teachers that students could grasp the concept of empathy before they learned the word itself. They were too entrenched in their belief.

I wish all teachers understood this: humans are driven by a need to create, and the need to create is a powerful force to drive learning.

Take a moment to consider the architects, stone cutters, masons, artists and laborers who created the pyramids and the great cities of ancient Egypt. What must they have learned in the process of creating extraordinary structures the likes of which the world had never seen before? Architects still study the methods of those ancient builders.

ELA teachers often feel the need to “front load” students with content knowledge before reading a story or novel. On the surface, it makes sense to build background knowledge about the French Revolution before reading A Tale of Two Cities or about the Holocaust before reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I have done this myself.

And I was wrong.

Rather than front loading background knowledge, I should have modeled curiosity and inquiry from my students. I should have shown them how to identify historical references and allusions and provided my classes with the opportunity to develop their questions, then research the answers.

Granted, this approach would have radically slowed down my Anne Frank unit. However, I would have greatly enriched the learning.

The opening pages of To Kill a Mockingbird contain references to the time the story takes place. A teacher launching a novel study should assign the first chapter and ask students to generate a list of questions about the setting. The students should then use the questions to guide their inquiry into the Great Depression. They may not learn everything, but what they learn will be meaningful.

No two words mean more for learning than create and discover.