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!

If a Tree Falls in the Forest: More Thoughts on Teaching & Learning

A few months ago, I found myself in a third grade classroom, modeling a social studies lesson. The class had just finished a six-week unit on geography, and this lesson was going to launch the next unit, which focused on Nigeria. My job was to help teachers create more opportunities for kids to engage in the kind of productive, collaborative talk that’s more about thinking than answers. And to that end, I’d decided to crack open the launch lesson that came with the packaged curriculum the school was using to allow for more thinking and talk.

The packaged lesson plan asked teachers to review the geography terms the class had just learned to, in the words of the lesson plan, “make sure students understood that Africa was a continent, just like North America,” Instead, I decided to ask the class to look at the following maps of North America and Africa, then give the kids a chance to turn and talk about what they thought was similar and different about the two based on what they noticed and already knew.

And here’s what happened: After a lively turn and talk, I brought the class back together and invited students to share. The first students I called on said she’d noticed that Africa had many more continents in it than North America—and I could tell from the look on other students’ faces that some were questioning that. I invited one of those students to share, and he hesitantly said he thought those were countries, not continents. So I asked them to turn and talk once again about what they thought the difference was between a country and a continent.

The consensus was that continents were made up of countries, and with that in mind, I asked them how many countries there were in North America. The class agreed that there were three, but when I asked what they thought all the different shades of red, blue and green were on the North American map, the first student to respond said, “countries”—and no one else raised their hand. “Hmm,” I said, “so New York is a country?” Again, many students looked puzzled, until finally one said, “No, I think it’s a state.”

All of this material had been covered in the just finished unit, yet clearly a majority of the students hadn’t learned it sufficiently enough to apply what they’d learned to a different setting, which brings me to the tree in forest. Like the philosophical question about whether a tree that falls in a forest makes a sound if no one hears it, I think there’s a similar question to consider: If students haven’t learned something we’ve taught them, have we really taught it?

The great progressive educator Paulo Freire would definitely say no. According to Freire, “There is, in fact, no teaching without learning.” Yet, I fear I see it all too frequently—and I hear about it as well whenever a teacher moans about how her kids didn’t seem to learn something from their previous teacher.

I do think there are some reasons why students don’t learn that are beyond our control, such as students who chronically come to school too exhausted, hungry or anxious to learn. But I believe the expectation should be that students should learn what we teach, and learn it deeply enough not just to pass a quiz or hand in an assignment but to transfer and apply what was taught to a new situation.

This is also what the late, great Grant Wiggins believed when he wrote  that “the long-term and bottom-line goal of education is transfer of learning.” Sadly he noted, though, that transfer in literacy is poor, which he attributed to numerous indicators that suggest we, as teachers, don’t make it crystal clear that transfer is actually the goal.

Making that goal explicit for kids is certainly important, but I think there are some additional reasons why students don’t always transfer what we teach. For one, we don’t always give them enough time to practice and apply what’s been taught for it to truly sink in. Many learning experts, for instance, believe that mastering anything involves a four-step process, in which learners move from not even knowing what they don’t know to becoming aware of that. Then they use that awareness to deliberately practice until the concept or skill becomes internalized—all of which takes times. And I think we don’t give kids the time they really need because of how much we’re expected to cover.

I also think we don’t always make what we teach meaningful enough for kids to value. Take the skill of identifying main ideas, for instance, which we often reteach year after year because students still don’t seem to get it. As I write in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading:

© Vicki Vinton. 2017. Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

And when it comes to something else we often moan about, kids not using end punctuation, do we truly help them understand its importance beyond that it’s a rule that helps readers know where each sentence ends? To make that concept meaningful for students, I like to share an unpunctuated passage of a text, like the one below (which I invite you to try reading yourself), so they can feel the confusion readers experience when there’s no punctuation to guide them:

Becoming more aware of the value of punctuation helps students attend to it more. But they still need time to deliberately practice before it becomes second nature. And for that I like to use Jeff Anderson‘s practice of having kids do what he calls an “express-lane edit.” Like express check-out aisles in supermarkets, express-lane edits asks kids to reread whatever they’ve written that day—be it a draft or a notebook entry—to quickly check for a limited number of things, like capitalization and end punctuation, until writing with those things become a habit.

For me, all this means that, barring those external reasons we simply can’t control, we’re responsible for student learning. And if students don’t learn something we’ve taught, perhaps, in addition to giving kids more time and making what we teach truly meaningful, we need to heed these words from the educator Ignacio Estrada: