Monday, May 9, 2011

Literacy Gospel Unhinged

As a literacy coach, I travel from school to school. I don’t have a home base and therefore, often work in classrooms that don’t look even a smidge like what my own classroom used to look like. Sometimes desks are organized in rows and it’s difficult to move about the room. Sometimes there’s no meeting area. Sometimes there’s no easel or markers or paper. Sometimes the classroom library is nothing more than books crammed onto a shelf in the back corner of the room. I work within the parameters I am given and have to think on my feet about how to adjust to mediate my vision for good literacy instruction.

One day, while visiting a second grade classroom, I gathered the students on the carpet and taught a mini lesson. At the end of the lesson, I released the students to read independently. Generally speaking, it is my practice to invite children to find their comfy nook around the room and cozy up with their book, but in this classroom, the desks were butted up against one another in three long rows. It wasn’t clear to me where the students would comfortably and safely go, so on this day, I simply instructed the students to return to their seats and do their independent reading there. It all seemed relatively straightforward until a couple of weeks later when I was having a casual conversation with one of the teachers who observed this lesson. She and I rapped about some of the things she was doing differently and she shared that she had stopped having her students read around the room and had them now reading at their desks. I was surprised when she told me this so I asked her why. “Well, Kim, when I watched you, that’s what you did.”

This particular teacher had nurtured her classroom environment all year and had made sweeping changes. She had a well-stocked, well-organized classroom library and her students had book baggies that they were reading from religiously every day. It surprised me that she did not question me before shifting to a practice that seemed so counterintuitive to the work she had been doing. But I was her expert. She saw me do something and therefore, it was so.

At first, this shocked me but as I thought about it, it occurred to me that I do the same thing. I once heard Dick Allington discuss the “five pillars” of reading instruction: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. When he said this, I took frantic, thorough, copious notes. I memorized them so that I could recite them backwards and forward. And I have repeated his words on countless occasions—in spite of the fact that I had the hardest time explaining the difference between phonics and phonemic awareness instruction in the classroom. Aren’t they kind of one in the same when you’re teaching? I wondered. Dick Allington is one of my experts. He said it, therefore, it was so. I didn’t trust that I would be worthy of questioning the gospel spoken by one held in such high esteem.

When it comes to great literacy instruction, it isn’t enough that Lucy or Dick or Irene said it. Inquiry and reflection help us hone our skill and practice as educators. If we are going to make lasting changes, we cannot heed everything we read and see and hear as the literacy gospel. Change is rooted in understanding and the path to understanding is paved with questions. When you’re confused or uncertain, stop at nothing to find answers to the things that do not make sense.

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