Friday, November 8, 2013

Who is the Expert?

I remember back in 2005 when I moved to my current school and was asked by my former principal to take on a building leadership role - Balanced Literacy Coordinator.  See, when I spent some time working near Chicago several years before this, I had a superintendent who felt that it was imperative that I take a class in teaching reading, even though my primary focus was social studies - so I did.  I should have thanked the man back then, because what I found was a new passion that eventually grew into a career path - content area reading, now known as content area literacy. So I became a trainer for Project CRISS and talked a good "content-area reading" talk, and before I knew it I was the . . . Balanced Literacy Coodinator.  Fancy title, right?

Well, it was not fancy.  It was aggravating, and here's why.  At that time I taught science (way too many endorsements on my certificate, apparently), and our department chair - a well-loved and vivacious eighth grade science teacher - fought with me over and over and over again that science did not involve reading.  Well, it wasn't really a fight.  It was more of a statement - with his fingers planted firmly in his ears.  He wanted nothing to do with my Balanced Literacy Coordinator job that I was taking so seriously.

I bring this story up because, when I went to hear Cris Tovani speak last week, she brought this question up to her listeners: with the new informational text CCSS standards, who is responsible? Tovani discusses the finger-pointing and the shoulder shrugging that goes on in schools.  CCSS pinpoints those standards as ELA standards, but her argument is so brilliantly legitimate - why would my amazing science-teaching colleague dispute it?

The ELA (English Language Arts, for those of you who are confused by this new acronym) department will absolutely continue to support all of our students with the informational text standards.  Part of our curriculum is non-fiction and informational text, but who is the real expert in reading a piece of text from your content area - either in the text book or found elsewhere?  Look around . . . I'll give you a hint.  It certainly isn't your favorite language arts colleague.  It's you!  You are the one who loves your content so much that you spent eighteen or more hours studying it so that you could teach it at the middle or high school level.  You took those classes.  You spend your time diving deeply into the text to pull out information and add it to your lessons.

Tovani says that thinking in a science, math, health, or music class requires completely different techniques and strategies that we, as highly educated professionals take for granted!  Some of you have one or more graduate degrees, which implies that you have done more than your fair share of informational reading - it's become like second nature.  But your students are being met with more and more complex text with the expectation of meeting higher and higher demands in both reading, writing, and thinking.  Not to mention the fact that you may have thirty (or more) students staring at you with any variation of learning styles, and you are expected to bring them all up to snuff this year.  Without your expertise, some of them will never make it through those difficult texts that our text book companies continue to publish.

"Okay," you say.  "So what can I do?"  Below are some ideas to get you thinking about ways you can support your learners in reading informational text in your classroom.  Tovani included some great content-specific strategy charts in her talk on November first, but before you can think strategy, you have to think philosophy.  How will you modify your already-fabulous teaching philosophy to reflect this addition of reading in your content area - not just content-area knowledge?

  • Know your learners.  Know that you have a variety of students sitting there in front of you, and in order to reach them all, you need to vary your presentation-styles. Talk some, put some on the screen, stop and have students process through discussion strategies, expect them to write, and get them up and move them around.
  • Know your text and how you attack it.  You are the expert in reading your content text.  Know how you approach it.  Science teachers and math teachers may rely more on the illustrations, graphs, charts, captions, and tables than a literature teacher would.  Social studies teachers may jump directly to illustrations or maps before trying to conquer a piece of text.  Literature teachers may do a quick once-over on the text to see how it is organized before making the jump into the text.  Whatever it is, watch yourself do it once and be sure to note how you do it!
  • Demonstrate how you attack text.  Once you know how you approach a text task, demonstrate how you do it.  Over and over and over again.  Let your kiddos know that the way you do it may be specific to your content area.  You can even ask them how reading or thinking in your class might differ from another!
  • Chunk the text.  This is especially important for your struggling readers (and you're all going to have them).  Break it down into manageable sections if it isn't already broken down for you.  Stop and have them process after each chunk so that your students get used to reading metacognitively.
  • Give students specific purpose for reading.  Say things like, "Read the next three paragraphs to find out why . . . " or "After you predict how the main character will respond to X, read on to find out if you were right.  Stop when you can tell me, and write down what you learned."  Giving struggling readers (or any reader, for that matter) specific purpose for reading each small chunk of text not only shows them that purpose setting is important, but it makes larger pieces of text (even three pages can be daunting out of a social studies or health text book) not as overwhelming.
As you explore the idea of not just teaching students your content, but how to acquire more knowledge within your content by reading, you will find that you have questions that need to be answered.  There are no better professional developers than your own colleagues, so go to those within your department and start the conversations there.  From there, seek out language arts teachers, your reading specialist (yay!) or literacy coach, department chairs, and others who may be currently taking classes or have had experience.  You never know who may have just the tools you need to move forward and embrace our new informational text standards that are weighing so heavily on so many people. 

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