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!

Some Thoughts on the Myth of Icarus

The Fall of Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” Pieter Brueghel the Elder

With awe, admiration and a dose of humility, I watched many colleagues and friends step up to the daily March Slice of Life blogging challenge. Every day they found something to say, and every day they found time to say it—while I found myself drowning in yet another revision of the book that (to mix metaphors) has sometimes felt like a ball and chain around my ankle. What was wrong with me? No blog posts for months, no poem in my pocket, not even a picture on Facebook. Beside work and the book, all it seemed I could muster was the occasional tweet—and self pity.

But then one day I found a poem by the wonderful Jack Gilbert called “Failing and Flying” in my inbox. It came courtesy of Garrison Keillor and The Writer’s Almanac, and in it Gilbert uses the myth of Icarus as a springboard to contemplate what my teacher-mind saw as the problem of deficit thinking.

As you probably know, Icarus attempted to fly with wings attached to his back with string and wax, only to have the wax start to melt as he soared close to the sun. And that sent him into a death spiral. The myth is usually seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers of hubris or pride, with Icarus punished for having the audacity to think he could fly like a god. Brueghel paints him, for instance, as flailing in the sea, so insignificant you have to work hard even to find him in the corner of the painting. But Gilbert sees it differently. “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew,” not just ignobly drowned. And so he “believe[s] Icarus was not failing as he fell/but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

As you’ll see below, Anne Sexton strikes the same note in her own Icarus poem, inviting us to admire his wings and not care that he fell back to sea:

Sexton Icarus Poem

These poems helped me rethink how I was looking at things. Yes, I’ve not managed to get certain things done (which in addition to blog posts includes folding the laundry), but boy, have I learned and experienced a lot. Over the months I’ve been working on the book, I’ve had the privilege to work with amazing teachers in amazing places—from New Jersey to Oman and from Buffalo to Bangkok. And those teachers have pushed me, in the best possible way, to keep on learning and growing.

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Of course, I’m not sure that constitutes triumph, but it does speak to what I realized was the abundance in my life. And among the many things I’ve learned is that focusing on abundance vs. scarcity is yet another way of thinking about mindsets that empower, not hobble, leaners. And that, in turn, has made me think that in addition to the passion I wrote about earlier that’s helped me keep on writing, I—and I believe all learners—need someone (or something like a poem) to remind us of both our strengths and the richness of our lives.

That rarely comes up, however, when we talk about helping students develop growth mindsets—not even in some of Carol Dweck’s recent articles where she’s cautioned teachers that growth mindsets aren’t just about effort. It needs to be effort that results in learning, and teachers have a role to play in that. As Dweck writes in “Growth Mindset, Revisited”, “Teachers do everything in their power to unlock that learning.” But even she shies away from reminding students of their strengths. Perhaps that’s due to the bad rap praise has, but I’m not talking about empty praise here. I’m talking about helping students see that how they successfully solved something one time might help them the next time, too—or at least remind them that they’re someone with a history of figuring things out.

And who knows? If Icarus survived the fall, perhaps he would have gotten up and simply tried again, just for the sheer thrill of flying—and the equal thrill of figuring things out. After all, I got a blog post up.

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