My First Chapter: Aligning Our Practices with Our Beliefs

Last week I had the privilege of attending and presenting at NCTE’s annual convention. The theme this year was “The First Chapter,” which suggested that, as literacy educators, we were leaving an old story behind and embarking on a new one. And different speakers and sessions addressed that theme in a variety of ways.

Many, for instance, spoke about leaving the teaching of ‘safe’ content behind to embrace a more social and political agenda by directly tackling controversial issues and inviting their students to take action. Others addressed specific practices, like the need to replace deficit language (as in, “Those students can’t ________.”) for more asset- or strength-based words; while still others explored how teachers could reclaim their own voice and agency, in an environment that often dismisses them, by sharing their own reclamation stories.

I think the session I facilitated with Ellin Keene and Donna Santman touched on all three of these. Donna shared her own personal journey to reclaim those parts of herself she felt she had lost when she compromised her values to address an administrator’s worry about test scores. Ellin shared work she’s been doing around creating systemic school and district change by focusing on teachers’ and schools’ assets, not their deficits. And I kicked off the session by inviting all those present to try to articulate what they believed about children, how they learn and the purpose of education in order to see if their teaching practices aligned to those beliefs.

On the one hand, my piece was quite different from those where teachers shared classroom stories about what happened when they designed curriculum around social justice issues and activism. But consider these words from the Brazilian educator Paolo Freire:

If we acknowledge at least some truth in this statement—and believe that, like students, we need to be more socially aware and active—I think we have to examine what assumptions about children, learning and education lie beneath our practices. And to that end I want to invite you to go through an abbreviated version of the process our NCTE audience did.

I began by sharing this from Regie Routman (by way of Judy Wallis), which shows that when educators want to start a new chapter to implement change, we tend to think about resources first and then follow the practices those resources dictate. Most packaged Common Core curriculum, for instance, require teachers to ask students text-dependent questions and follow a prescribed three-read protocol for close reading.  And whether we’re aware of it or not, those practices reflect a set of beliefs we may not fully agree with.

So to start us thinking about our own beliefs, I shared an example of “This I Believe” statements from a wonderful post by Kari Yates:

And I shared a few of my own beliefs, many of which, like the statement below, were informed my study group trip to Reggio Emilia to consider the implications of their approach to early childhood on literacy across the grades.

From there I invited everyone to think more specifically about what they believed the purpose of education was. And to jump start that process I shared these examples for people to chew on:

Interestingly enough, when I asked for a show of hands, no one in the audience felt any single one of these captured what they believed; though some borrowed some language from one or more of them and then added words like confidence and soul that they felt were missing. Those sorts of words formed a natural segue to considering what they believed about children—and it did not go unnoticed that at least one of the purpose of education statements revealed some beliefs about children and teaching, which suggested this:

I then contrasted the empty vessel view of children with what teachers in Reggio Emilia believe:

And I shared the story behind a video I saw in Reggio Emilia about a toddler named Laura that demonstrated each of these crucial beliefs:

As can be seen in these stills from the video, Laura’s teacher first noticed that Laura had been looking at a page spread of watches in a magazine. Observing that, the teacher leaned closer and extended her arm, which brought her watch into Laura’s line of sight. After a few moments in which Laura’s eyes went back and forth between the watches in the magazine and the one her teacher wore, the teacher lifted her arm and held the watch to Laura’s ear. In the video you can see how Laura’s eyes widened with wonder as she listened to the watch, then she put her head, ear down, on the page to see if those watches ticked, too.

The story of Laura shows how even young children are capable of constructing an understanding of the world through their own explorations. It also shows a masterful teacher who, rather than seizing on that moment to transmit some knowledge, like the word watch, instead built on what Laura had already noticed by inviting her to notice more in a way that stoked both her curiosity and her desire to learn. Clearly this teacher does not believe children are empty vessels but rather are meaning makers who have within them the capacity to make sense of the world. And her practice is aligned with that as well as with Piaget’s belief that:

With this example of how beliefs and practices can align, I then shared several slides that represent some common classroom practices and asked people to think about whether they actually matched their own beliefs about children and how they learn:

If you’re like our NCTE audience, you may have thought that at least some of these practices don’t really reflect your beliefs, But then I shared this slide and the room went silent:

For decades now explicit instruction accompanied by teacher modeling has been the gold standard of literacy practice, as has the gradual release of responsibility model, which was first articulated by P. David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher in 1983. Yet almost seven years ago, in his coda to Comprehension Going Forward, Pearson had this to say: 

To be clear, I’m not saying we should abandon these practices. Never say never is one of my mottos, and here that means that I keep direct instruction and modeling in my toolkit to take out if it’s needed. But I think we do have to acknowledge that mini-lessons are much more in sync with the transmission view of teaching and learning than the constructivist one and the gradual release of responsibility model suggests that kids can’t do much on their own. And for many of us this can be what I shared in my last slide:

But perhaps it’s uncomfortable truths like this that help us turn a new page and write a first chapter for the story we want to embark on. Let me know what you think!

11 thoughts on “My First Chapter: Aligning Our Practices with Our Beliefs

  1. Vicki,
    Your timing is impeccable…To see and hear your wisdom twice in the same week! And YES! There is still way too much of the “transmission model”; yet some of us rejoice that transmission is ten minutes or less of workshop time so it feels like students have more voice and choice.

    It’s so strange that teachers often don’t feel that they are teaching if they aren’t in the “telling mode”. Inquiry seems hard because it means less teacher talk and more student work which is all about constructing understanding. And yet we say that we “WANT” students to be more independent and we are looking for evidence of transfer …while our teaching practices are NOT aligned. Such an important point. Definitely more chapters to come!

    I love your “never say never” . . . and am wondering if a “better balance” between teaching methodologies as teachers and schools reclaim their voices and let go of the “accountability fervor” as the next chapter begins.

    • So hope you’re right about moving past the “accountability fervor,” especially not to test scores. And yes, I do believe that the workshop model was structured the way it was to minimize teacher talk and maximize choice and voice, but increasingly I think it’s not the only way to achieve those still worthy goals. But here’s to new chapters as we approach a new year!

  2. I wasn’t able to make it to your session. (Too many choices, too little time) So I am pleased to read about your thinking here. When I teach my gifted students, I am often on the sidelines watching and helping out only when needed, but I worry constantly about “doing it right.” I believe that some kids thrive in this model, but others sit back and do nothing. I am struggling with the do nothing kid. How can I push without shoving, direct without overcoming, lead without taking away the power of ownership?

    • I knew a lot of people weren’t going to make it, Margaret, just because of the time slot, which is partly why I decided to share this. But I think the questions you raise at the end are the very ones we need to consider. And for myself, I often go back to Philip Johnston’s Choice Words and Opening Minds because I believe that it’s often our word choice & delivery that makes kids not feel like they own the learning. And without really feeling that it’s hard for them to construe the supportive nudging and leading as anything other than pushing and controlling.

  3. This is you doing what you do best…making us THINK!

    Minilesson as transmission…gradual release of responsibility as deficit model…but of course. How did I not see it myself? Kind of like Chad Everett’s “There is no diverse book” post.

    My thoughts are spinning! THANK YOU!

    • Yes! All of what Mary Lee says. So grateful that you wrote your session down in this post. I keep going back to my notes, questioning, thinking, wanting to talk more about this… AND I keep doing the same to that post on “there is no diverse book”. So much good thinking. Thank you for challenging me to keep thinking and learning and QUESTIONING. It’s what I want for my students and for me. Thank you.

      • As I just wrote to Mary Lee, maybe if we don’t occasionally find our heads spinning we’re not reflection enough – or become too complacent. I think it’s a good thing to feel some disequlibrium. If we don’t feel and do that at least sometime, how can we ever expect our kids to?

    • Ha! When I was at the Elementary Get-Together a few weeks ago, listening to Katherine & Randy, I was reminded how, as I was reading For a Better World, I suddenly realized how virtually all the strategies I was giving kids for coming up with writing ideas were grounded in their personal feelings and experiences, not larger social issues or ideas. I was actually shocked and a little embarrassed because I felt like I’d drunk some Kool aid I wasn’t even aware of. So here’s to people pointing out what we sometimes can’t see! And, yes, it’s absolutely like Chad Everett’s post on diverse books. I’d never considered that either, but of course he’s right on. Maybe if our heads don’t spin every once in a while, we’re not reflecting enough!

      • Hi Vicki, I just love this post. It’s a good, uncomfortable conversation that I need to have more often. I’ve been grappling with this idea for a while now and I would love the opportunity to talk with you more about this.

      • Two comments in two days, Leah! So glad you liked these posts. And, yes, I think we need another dinner after the holidays to talk about this more!

  4. Pingback: Letting Students Be the Protagonists in Their Own Learning | To Make a Prairie

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