Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Teaching Critical Literacy

What Is Critical Literacy? 

I read, "Teaching about Language, Power, and Text: A Review of Classroom Practices that Support Critical Literacy" by Edward Berhman.

In this article, Behrman outlines several components of critical literacy instruction, including:
(a) reading supplementary texts
(b) reading multiple texts
(c) reading from a resistant perspective
(d) producing countertexts
(e) conducting student-choice research projects; and
(f) taking social action.

When I reflect back on my own K-12 experience, I can think of only one teacher who did any of these things, and that was my AP European History teacher, Miss LeBaron.I remember that, while I was in high school, I was profoundly inspired by Joan of Arc. She was my personal hero. I read books about her and had drawings of her in an inspirational journal, including having drawings of her for my bookmarks.

Anyway, I remember that we came into class one day, and I saw that we would be discussing Joan of Arc. I said to Miss LeBaron, "Oh, I LOVE her!" and she immediately put me on the side in which I had to be a prosecuting attorney against her.

I appreciated the experience because it forced me to look at Joan of Arc from a different perspective. Although I still completely loved her before, during, and after the lesson, I respected Miss LeBaron for making me take a critical view.

However, as I read this list, I don't think that all items on the list necessarily relate to critical literacy. I think it depends on HOW they're taught. For instance, I had a tenth-grade English teacher who used to say, "This is not a democracy. This is a theocracy, and I am God." I think statements like this do not foster critical literacy, in the sense that when a teacher calls himself God, he doesn't really invite you to question him. So even though we conducted student-choice research projects in his class, I still don't classify them as 'critical literacy' because it was done in the context of an authoritative, teacher-centered environment in which the teacher valued one right answer.

So, in sum, although I liked the article, I would take the recommendations with a grain of salt. I think some of the items on the list could lead to critical literacy instruction, but the classroom environment would have to be right for them to be TRUE critical literacy.

Friday, February 13, 2015

My Thoughts on Writing Instruction

When I think back on my own experiences with writing in K-12 settings or even college settings, very few of my teachers and professors modeled what it meant to provide quality writing instruction, at least according to this week's reading and PowerPoint.

For instance, my tenth-grade English teacher had us write a research paper, and he graded very heavily on conventions. I think 50% of our grade was based on whether or not we followed APA format. According to the PowerPoint, conventions/grammar have a place in writing instruction, but they have a small place. Maybe conventions could be 5 or 10% of a grade, but 50%??

His instruction reminds me of a famous paper written by Constance Weaver. The link to it is here.


She reported on two groups of 11th graders: one of whom had intensive instruction on how to improve their grammar, and one of whom did not have intensive writing instruction. At the end of the year, guess which group wrote better papers?

That's right, the group who did NOT have the class on grammar. In this paper, Weaver writes: "the students' pre-course essays were not spectacular, their post-course essays were "miserable" and apparently "self-consciously constructed to honor correctness above all other virtues, including sense

No good. When we base half or all of our grades on spelling, subject/verb conjugation, and so forth, we teach our students that correctness is more important than voice, than a compelling argument, than solid reasoning, than all of the other characteristics that go into a quality piece.

So one of my big take-away messages this week was that conventions have a place in writing, but not the central place, contrary to how many teachers grade writing.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Teaching Vocabulary

Ahhh, vocabulary. 


When I think of my original content area, English, I think it poses particular challenges. For instance, Harmon Wood and Hedrick recommend choosing words that are thematically related. But when you stories or informational texts in English, a lot of words are not thematically related. For instance, stories by Ray Bradbury include words such as apparatus, gait, levity, and other words that might be unfamiliar to middle school students, yet the words do not relate to each other in the same way as "plant cell," "chloroplast," and "ribosome" in biology. 

So what do you do? Well, when planning a vocabulary unit in English, I think it's important to plan around the big words that students will have to return to several times. These words might include "style," "tone," "mood," "imagery" and so forth. 

To be honest, when I read stories, I can often understand them very well when I don't understand just one word. Harmon, Wood, and Hedrick make this point too. There is no way that I could understand a mathematics definition without understanding the word "reciprocal," or that I could understand a biology text without understanding the word "photosynthesis," but I could very easily understand a story without understanding the word "gait." 

So perhaps the English teacher could skip the word all together, if it's not important to the story. Or if it is, the teacher can model how to look up words using online resources, dictionaries, and glossaries. Dictionaries are not effective for teaching in-depth, rich, conceptual understandings of words and their applications, but they are okay for words that are peripheral to the unit. For instance, if a mathematics teacher just said, "look reciprocal up in the glossary," I don't think her students would get anything out of that, and they wouldn't know how to divide fractions any better than they did before. 

The question is: Is this word important to the unit? If so, then it's worth spending time to do vocabulary activities on that word! If not, then superficial activities, such as looking up the word in the glossary, can suffice.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Blog Posting Two: Comprehension Instruction

Teaching for Understanding

In their previous blogs, Allen and Dera both talked about "aha" moments, or moments of understanding, that can drive and inspire our teaching. Indeed, "teaching for understanding" is a buzz phrase in education. But just what does that mean? 

How do we move students from feeling like this

to feeling like this?

According to Buehl, we as teachers can help students move in that direction by teaching them how to apply comprehension processes. So in this blog, I am going to talk about a lesson I've seen in which a teacher helped her students to apply those processes.

I observed a sixth grade mathematics lesson in which the teacher was introducing students to the concept of slope. She began by graphing y=x on a calculator that was projected on the overhead projector. 

Then, she put a fraction in front of the x. So, she graphed y=(1/2)x. 

Then she graphed y=(1/4)x.


Students then had to suggest other fractions they could enter in front of the X. Before entering these fractions, students predicted what the line would look like by drawing it on the board first. Then, Grace (the teacher) graphed the actual line and students compared their predicted line to the actual line. 

Grace again returned to y=x and asked what other numbers students could enter in front of the x. 


Students suggested different whole numbers they could enter in front of the x. So Grace first graphed y=2x. 


Then she graphed y=4x.

Students then predicted what y=10x would look like by drawing a line on the board, and then Grace projected the actual graph on the board. In case you were predicting yourself, here is what y=10x looks like: 

After this lesson, Grace then asked students to write a generalization regarding the patterns they noticed, and students shared their generalization. For instance, one student wrote, "When the number in front of the X gets bigger, the line gets steeper." 

Okay, that was the lesson. So how did this lesson require students to use comprehension processes? 

To me, the biggest comprehension process that students used was "make predictions," which Buehl listed under "making inferences" (p. 5). Students had to use the existing texts (graphs) to extrapolate information beyond what was explicitly stated within the text. 

Another comprehension process that students used was synthesizing when they had to summarize the pattern at the end of the lesson. Buehl said that synthesizing includes "constructing generalizations," which is exactly what these students did. 

I think this lesson might also have used "visualizing," in the sense that students visualized patterns through line graphs. 

This mathematics teacher had the highest end-of-year test scores in her whole school district, and to me, this lesson exemplified some of her good teaching. At the same time, I think that to extend this lesson, the teacher could have encouraged students to ask questions such as, "Does this pattern always apply?" I don't think that students had learned about negative integers yet, but that could lead to other interesting questions. However, I think for the purpose of this lesson, given the stage of students' mathematical development, this lesson did require students to apply several comprehension processes in ways that made them think more deeply about patterns in mathematics.