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!

Giving Thanks to NCTE

multilingual thankyou

Every year as NCTE approaches, I find myself wishing it was held at another time of the year—some time when things don’t feel quite so hectic, with the holidays looming, my work ramping up and a book still to be done. But this year in particular NCTE was exactly what I needed: the perfect kick-off to the holiday season and a great kick start for writing, with so many people giving generous gifts of wisdom, inspiration and joy.

Talk of joy, in fact, was so prevalent that my wonderful colleague and session pal Kathy Collins warned us not to talk about it so much, lest it become the next new thing, like grit, to teach, complete with lesson plans, assessments and rubrics. But another pattern I noticed in the sessions I attended was the importance of process. In a session titled “Rethinking Our Thinking: The Role of Revision in Writing and Reading,” for instance, Georgia Heard, Ralph Fletcher and Dan Feigelson put process front and center as they shared a range of ways to consider and help students embrace revision as, Naomi Shihab Nye puts it “a beautiful word of hope,” that’s integral to the process of both reading and writing.

Appreciative inquiryProcess was also at the heart of a session called “The Art of Knowing Our Students: Action Research for Learning and Reflection,” which was chaired by Matt Renwick. The first speaker Karen Terlecky shared the Appreciative Inquiry process—and showed how it could transform the way we think about meeing professional goals, not as something to achieve but something to inquire into and explore. And Assessment in Perspective authors Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan offered a process for thinking about and looking at formative assessment that can help us move beyond beyond raw data to the living, breathing child beneath the numbers.

Journey of ThoughtAdditionally, process formed the heart and soul of a gorgeous session presentation by Randy and Katherine Bomer. Called “Tracing the Shape of Human Thinking: Reclaiming the Essay—and Writing about Literature—as Complex and Beautiful,” Katherine began by making an impassioned plea to return the essay to its original intention, to explore something through a journey of thought (i.e., a process), rather than to argue or prove. And Randy invited us all to attend to our own journey of thought as we drafted and revised our thinking about poet Li-Young’s devastatingly haunting poem “This Hour and What Is Dead.”

But perhaps what stood out the most for me was the way the whole Convention seemed to be the result of a process that we, as educators, went through over the last several years as we sought—and fought—to find our voices in the age of mandated education reforms and the supposedly objective supremacy of data.

VoldemortOnly three years ago, for instance, the only whisper of push back I heard (at least in the sessions I attended) came by way of the teacher and cartoonist David Finkle. In a five-minute presentation called “Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain,” David shared a classic scene from The Wizard of Oz, which he used to question the authority and wisdom of the man behind behind the curtain of the Common Core Standards, a.k.a., David Coleman. At that point, however, like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, he seemed like a “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” specter—someone who’s so powerful his very name could unleash dark forces.

And now, three year’s later, here’s a stand-out moment from a stand-out panel discussion called “Expert-to-Expert: On The Joy and Power of Reading.” Chair Kylene Beers ended the session by asking the three panelists what policy changes they would make to ensure that schools become the place we all want them to be. And without missing a heartbeat, here’s what each panelist said:

Kwame Alexander, the author of this year’s National Book Award winner The Crossover, said he’d make every politician across the country read Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl NCTE PanelDreaming. And he’d insist on filling grade K-12 classrooms with much more poetry.

LitLife and LitWorld’s dynamo Pam Allyn said she’d require all members of Congress to send their children to public schools to ensure that they’re actually stake holders in whatever legislation is being considered.

And recent NCTE President Ernest Morrell called for the elimination of all deficit language in schools, for students and teachers alike, which means no more labeling of children as strugglers and teachers as ineffective.

This process also led many of this year’s speakers to share new thoughts and ideas. Ellin Keene, for instance, shared her latest thinking about what’s involved in true student engagement, versus its evil twin, compliance. Her answer? Engagement requires the following four factors:

Intellectual urgency (or the need to know),

Emotional responses to ideas,

Perspective bending, and

Opportunities for aesthetic experiences

Tom Newkirk, on the other hand, helped me recognize something I knew but had never really articulated before: that we don’t read great nonfiction to learn information, but for the same reason we read any other kind of literature: to deepen our understanding of the human experience and, in the words of Kenneth Burke “to arouse and fulfill our desire” to connect. And my friends and colleagues from the Opal School, Matt Karlson, Susan Mackay and Mary Gage Davis, were on fire as they shared new ideas on the connection between beauty and social justice—and made their own impassioned plea to bring imagination, “the neglected stepchild of American education” back into classrooms.

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about these ideas as time goes by, as they really got my mind churning. But for now, many thanks to NCTE for reminding me to always:

Trust the Process