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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Integrating Literacy by Jenni Plante

One frustrating aspect of education is the fickle nature of educational theory. Reform movements roll in like waves and then recede, leaving teachers soaked and sputtering, wondering what hit them. Too many waves, and teachers become jaded. Why embrace the next innovation when it will only fade like all of the ones before it? Luckily, it seems we may have reached the end of the long era of pedagogical fads.
            Educational research has always primarily been qualitative. While qualitative studies are no less valid than quantitative ones, qualitative studies typically involve smaller sample sizes and are therefore more susceptible to erroneous extrapolation. Teachers perpetually crave “what works,” so it is no surprise that new teaching methods spread like wildfire as each innovation is discovered, even if early studies only show success for a limited number of students. As these innovations permeate teaching, flaws develop. Methods may be applied inconsistently, inappropriately, or haphazardly, often due to a lack of teacher training prior to implementation. Enthusiasm begins to wane and eventually practices that were once lauded are excoriated. The problem is deeper than just educators’ propensity to glom onto pedagogical fads, however. Until recently, educational research was by default trial-and-error because not much was known about how the brain processes information. As science gains more and more insight into the physiology of learning, educational research will become more meaningful, and reform movements will become less cyclical and more effective.
            For me, this year reform has meant integrating best practices derived from brain-based research. One of the most fundamental changes has been to the structure and rhythm of my lessons, especially the opening and closing activities. Although the introduction to my lessons have always included a “Here’s what we’re doing today” summary, those monologues were not formally structured and often did not state the objective correctly—i.e., in student language with active verbs derived from Bloom’s Taxonomy. Also, activities to connect to students’ prior knowledge typically occurred after the explanation of the day’s lesson, and they did not always include discussion. Starting the period with a quickwrite followed by discussion allows students to immediately activate their prior knowledge, priming them for the lesson ahead. Because this is followed by a well-stated objective coupled with focus questions, students have both a learning target and a framework for achieving it. Closing the lesson with a short, written assignment (i.e., “Exit Slip”) linked to the objective helps solidify new information and gives me an easy, concrete way to assess students’ learning and plan for the next lesson.
            Teaching students metacognitive language and skills has had a profound effect on my classroom. Students are on task during small group and whole class discussions, and the content of those discussions reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy more frequently. Students have begun using the language of metacognition in both formal and informal conversations—e.g., “I think . . . because . . .”—and on written assignments. Because there is a concerted and consistent effort school wide to enhance students’ metacognitive skills, I cannot take credit for the increase in metacognitive awareness. Instead, I try to capitalize upon the progress students are making overall.
            As the school year progresses, I log my successes and failures and make notes for the future in a special notebook. Looking through it reminds me that teaching is both a science and an art. Many say teaching is a juggling act, but teachers do not simply rotate through discrete sets of knowledge, ignoring one or two in favor of the one at hand. Teaching is like weaving a tapestry. Reading comprehension, discussion, writing, vocabulary, rhetoric, speaking, literature, etc.—none can be taught in isolation; all are interdependent. This year I incorporated a plethora of literacy strategies into my curriculum but failed to successfully maintain an effective word wall, so perhaps my tapestry is resplendent with shades of blue but lacks a certain orange hue. There are loose threads here and there, representative of things explored but not adopted. Blogs, for example, which fell victim to my early and intense frustration with the capricious network filter. Lapses in consistency have led to small holes, too, and clearly this tapestry is the work of an eager but inexperienced weaver. It is my nature to scrutinize and fret over imperfections, and I’ve had to force myself to step back far enough to allow the missing colors, loose threads, and holes blur until my work can be viewed as a whole. What I see now is imperfect but beautiful.

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