Take the first step in faith.You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.– Martin Luther King, Jr.
I love to read. I love to write. But the literacy journey for a core content teacher outside of ELA is sometimes difficult. We are passionate about our content and we are very protective of the limited time we have each school year to share our joy with our students. We are sometimes stubborn, set in our ways, and resistant to change. In order to shake a content teacher out of their routines one has to be especially persuasive – and perhaps offer up an extraordinary initiative like the Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC).
After my introduction to LDC and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), I designed my first LDC module for my Sociology classes. To be completely honest, as I implemented my first module I was not convinced. I understood that the LDC easy to follow, “plug-and-play” teaching task was hard-wired to a set of standards. I knew that I would be guaranteed to “hit” these standards IF I asked the question in exactly the way I was told. So, what was the problem? Well. . . I didn’t want to. I did not want someone telling me how I HAD to design a question for my students. I was stubborn and I was difficult (Can you imagine?). For a minute, I dug in my heels. I even pouted a little. I felt like my creativity was at risk. Since I pride myself on creativity in my instruction, this was a BIG problem. However, I took a deep breath, shook it off, and promised I would give the LDC teaching tasks and mini-tasks a fair shot – my effort at radical acceptance.
What happened next was incredible! I witnessed a group of students who often struggled with reading and writing tackle tough primary sources and engage with the content in a completely new way. Students who often questioned how sociology would be important to them in the “real world” were immersed in sociological theory and having intense, collaborative discussions about C. Wright Mills’ “sociological imagination” – a very complex concept. As we completed the module, not only had the students’ fluency, reading comprehension, and writing improved, they also learned the content in a way that was deeper and more authentic than ever before. The same students who had no problem telling me that the “stuff” I was peddling was irrelevant to their lives, who engaged me in conversations about “mudding” in their trucks and brick masonry – these students were reading. They were really reading AND understanding! When I asked one young man, who was once my most disengaged and uncooperative student, about the sociological imagination – he proudly told me all about it. . . in front of the entire class! As is my custom, I pushed him a little. He then told me why “Forrest Gump” was an excellent example of the sociological imagination and how the concept relates to the life experience of Elie Wiesel. I was encouraged so. . . I pushed again. This was the big one – he was able to make Mills’ theory relevant to his own life. He was able to tell me, very clearly, how his own history and biography intersect. He was able to support every statement with evidence. I remember standing there, in the center of the classroom, with my jaw dropped for just a minute. This young man looked at me, smiled, and said, “What?” I was floored! Quite literally. . . I dropped to my knees in class and said, “YES!” We celebrated and I don’t know that I have ever been more proud. This is the story of just one student the very first time my students engaged with an LDC task. I was impressed and (with a little egg on my face) I began to look for new ways and new places to incorporate LDC into my instruction.
This may sound like an easy transition for me but it wasn’t. Implementing LDC and the CCSS is not simply layering literacy strategies over content. It is literacy first. This required a paradigm shift for me. . . a significant revision of my philosophy of education. This shift revealed areas in which I was in need of real professional growth. For example, as a Social Studies teacher, it was critical that I learn to be more confident in my ability to evaluate student writing. And . . . part of building that confidence was taking ownership of my responsibility for teaching my students to be more skilled readers and writers and more effective speakers and listeners. These skills have always been important to Social Studies teachers; however, many of us are guilty of largely ignoring – even denying – our responsibility to partner with our ELA colleagues in teaching these skills. Afterall, it is much easier to focus solely on a student’s knowledge of the American Revolution or how a bill becomes a law and blame the English teacher for any literacy deficiencies. It is easier, but it is not right. . . further, it’s not smart in this era of accountability. So . . . now there are times I teach like an English teacher and it has pushed my students to the next level. It has pushed me to the next level. As a department chair I encourage the teachers I work with to do the same.
This is my CCSS success. . . the fork in the road where my literacy journey began . . . the first step.
What did I learn?
- The standards tell us what students need to know but do not dictate how we teach. LDC tasks and CCSS implementation did not stifle my creativity. On the contrary, the standards and the Literacy Design Collaborative tools gave me the freedom to be more creative in my classroom. When I design with the standards in mind I find that I develop some of the most engaging and innovative lessons.
- Content remains as important as skills when instruction is grounded in the CCSS. Incorporating the CCSS into my teaching has created a culture in my classroom where students are reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the discipline. They are engaging in close reading of complex texts, they are making meaning from primary sources, and they are learning academic vocabulary in context. My students are having collaborative conversations and they are diving deeper into the content, supporting their ideas – their arguments – with text-based evidence.
- Teachers must approach the CCSS and LDC with an open mind. There is a great deal of noise out there surrounding the standards. The CCSS have been linked to high-stakes testing, packaged curriculum, teacher evaluations, and, very clearly, politics. The waters have been so muddied it is not hard to understand the anxiety that some teachers feel about implementing the standards. BUT . . . first hand experience is the best teacher. Push past the noise, be radical, and just TRY. Take the first step. When you see your classroom – your students – transform, you’ll be glad you did!