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by Gay Ivey and Douglas Fisher
Table of Contents
What does it mean to be literate? More important, what does it mean to be literate in the 21st century? People answer these questions in so many different ways. For some, literacy is the ability to decode words on a page. For others, literacy is about reading and writing grade-level texts. For still others, literacy involves reading, writing, speaking, and listening—known collectively as the language arts.
Over time, the definition of what it means to be literate has changed and evolved. Conceptions of adolescent literacy in particular now consider the vital nature of the nonschool types of literacy skills and habits evident in students' out-of-school activities (such as video games and popular music), as well as the interplay of students and contexts for learning (Moje, Young, Readence, & Moore, 2000). Learning to read and reading to learn are no longer seen solely as traditional academic processes. To fully prepare students for life now and in the future, educators need to ask different questions: What will students need to know to participate more fully in a technological world? To act as productive citizens? To become critical consumers of information? To live high-quality personal lives?
Given that you are reading this, we can infer that you are interested in the literacy learning of secondary school students. We imagine that the various readers of this book come with a range of notions about what it means to be literate, but what we all likely have in common is the belief that we could be doing a better job of supporting and motivating students to use reading, writing, listening, and speaking as a way to learn and think both now and in the future. We begin with a familiar question in discussions of secondary literacy: Is every teacher a teacher of reading?
How many times have you or the teachers you work with heard the popular catchphrase that says, “Every teacher is a teacher of reading”? It has become cliché, like so many other popular education slogans, including “All children can learn.” It is important to note that in each of these clichés resides a glimmer of hope, a vision of what education could be. Each of these clichés also discounts the complexities of the educational enterprise and the hard work that must be done to realize dreams.
So is every teacher a teacher of reading? Consider the following real-life scenario. A group of math teachers is sitting in a room poring over textbooks. They are an elected adoption committee from a school site who will recommend one book for their school. These teachers, and their colleagues across the content areas, have arguably had more training on “content literacy strategies” than most high school faculties (see Fisher, 2001b). A consultant comes into the room to discuss one of the textbook series. She starts by saying, “All teachers are teachers of reading, and our program helps you ...” All the math teachers in the room cross their arms and listen politely as the consultant continues. It is clear to anyone who knows them that they will not be purchasing this series.
Following the meeting with the consultant, the group is asked about their reaction to the comment that all teachers are teachers of reading. One of them replies by asking, “Would we say that all teachers are teachers of algebraic thinking?” Another says, “It just makes me mad that our discipline seems less important and that reading is all that matters.” The department chair says, “What about writing? Or speaking, for that matter? Do we not need to worry about that—just reading?”
In response, they are asked to consider their classrooms and the learning they hope to facilitate. They are asked if they think that learning requires language. As a group, they respond affirmatively. Then they are asked if “all learning is language based.” Again they respond positively.
Learning requires reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing. Until we can download information directly into our brains (hopefully while we're sleeping), we will learn with and through literacy processes. Thus we do not subscribe to the idea that all teachers are teachers of reading. Rather, we know that learning is language based and that all teachers have a role to play in students' understanding and use of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing.
In this book, we hope not to perpetuate the “every teacher is a teacher of reading” mantra. We have seen advertisements for countless workshops and have read numerous professional materials in which middle and high school teachers are urged to “incorporate reading and writing strategies” or “teach reading within the subject areas.” No doubt, the popularity of these phrases stems from the underlying belief that in order to raise students' literacy achievement, all teachers need to pitch in, and students need lots of reading instruction. We are completely in favor of increasing students' literacy achievement. But we would argue that, primarily, students need lots of rich, literacy-based learning experiences across the school day, and sometimes those experiences require specific instruction in reading, but all have the ultimate goal of learning and thinking.
An example from a middle school classroom will help to clarify this distinction. At the onset of a unit on the civil rights movement, a 7th grade teacher reads aloud to her class the following excerpt:
The body had swollen to almost twice its normal size; the head had been severely beaten, “torture, horrible beating,” said one deputy. One side of the victim's forehead was crushed, an eye had been ripped raw by the barbed wire wrapped around it. The beatings and three days in the river had turned the face and head into a monstrous mess of stinking flesh. The remains were so grotesque and mangled that deputies could only determine that it was a young Black male. (Crowe, 2003, p. 64)
She gets students to think about the issue of civil rights, what they already know, and what they want to know by having them view a photograph appearing in Toni Morrison's picture book, Remember: The Journey to School Integration (2004). In this picture taken in Cambridge, Maryland, in 1963, a white restaurant owner is shown breaking raw eggs over the heads of white and black protesters kneeling on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. The teacher asks students to write for five minutes about any images they observe in this photo, feelings it evokes, and links to their own knowledge on the topic and personal experiences.
As students progress through the study of civil rights, the teacher maintains a good balance between specific information required by the official curriculum and other high-interest angles on the topic that students find intriguing. For instance, to explore specific required topics such as bus boycotts, school segregation, and the influence of Martin Luther King, the teacher creates readers theater scripts from these three texts: I Am Rosa Parks
(Parks, 1997), Through My Eyes (Bridges, 1999), and I Have a Dream (King, 1997). Students are divided into three groups, each taking one of the scripts to study, rehearse, and perform (see Worthy, Broaddus, & Ivey, 2001). Through repeated practice and familiarity with the text, each group is able to perform a text—that is, to read dramatically, with fluency and understanding. The gist of each topic is clear to the rest of the class as the students listen intently to their classmates, who now sound like expert readers.
Also along the way, the teacher asks students to select a topic within the overall unit that they find personally interesting and wish to study more explicitly and deeply. Students focus on a range of topics, from the life and rhetoric of Malcolm X to the Negro baseball leagues. As students read to learn and collect information from multiple sources in preparation for creating an original piece of writing on their topic, their teacher takes advantage of an opportunity to teach reading strategies that seem particularly useful to students at this point, such as how to summarize what they read and how to identify the main idea. She explores with students various genres and forms of writing, such as persuasive essays, journal entries, and newspaper articles, that might be outlets for their own work. One student, inspired by the interviews published in Oh Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen (King & Osborne, 1997), sets out to do some fieldwork by interviewing members of her own family who were affected by the civil rights movement.
This brief description of a social studies classroom driven by rich, literacy-based learning experiences is a far cry from what we believe most people think of when they hear the phrase “every teacher is a teacher of reading.” Reading and writing are not simply added to the curriculum. Reading instruction is not just “included.” Rather, learning depends on and is enriched by engaged reading, writing, listening, and viewing. Literacy and language are fundamental to learning.
This scenario and this book are grounded in some common beliefs about literacy learning for adolescents. Recently, the people who think a lot about adolescent literacy have felt it was worthwhile to describe some principles to guide us in our thinking. In 1999 the International Reading Association published a position statement framed by a list of seven areas of support all adolescent literacy learners deserve:
Adolescent readers need—
Teachers of adolescents need—
You will notice strong connections between these suggestions and the way we describe high-quality reading instruction across the day in secondary schools in this book. Chapter 1 focuses on the all-important English classroom. Although we know that literacy as a way of learning should be evident across the school day, we know the English or language arts classroom experience is crucial for students' literacy development. We also believe that English classrooms of old times, centered on traditional instruction and classic literature, will not suit the needs of many of our students. We urge you to reexamine reading materials, writing experiences, and expectations for what students learn. In Chapter 2 we move to the content area classroom, with a focus on some solid, reliable strategies for reading and writing as well as alternatives to the one-size-fits-all textbook. Chapter 3 emphasizes the role of independent reading within the school day, and we look at not only schoolwide, sustained, self-selected reading, but also the role that independent reading can play in content learning. We tackle the often contentious but always popular topic of literacy intervention in Chapter 4. We want to give you some ways to be critical consumers of commercial programs and to design interventions with components that really matter for students still struggling to read and write. Finally, in Chapter 5 we examine the schoolwide structures that should be in place to ensure that teachers and students are supported in their pursuits of high levels of literacy and thinking. To that end, we discuss professional development, peer coaching, leadership, and assessment systems.
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