Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge
Director, Learning Support Services, Livingstone Range School Division
In contemporary classrooms, two undeniable truths exist in relation to literacy instruction. The first is that the definition of what constitutes literacy instruction has significantly expanded for today’s educators and school systems. Literacy is no longer merely focused on reading and writing skills, it is not restricted to isolated Language Arts periods and it is not the sole responsibility of the English department. Literacy instruction encompasses a much wider set of skills for students and teachers, infused into every subject area and the responsibility of every faculty member.
The second undeniable truth is that today’s classrooms are more diverse, with an ever-expanding range of student needs and learning styles for teachers to not only be aware of but to plan for accordingly. As classrooms continue to evolve as inclusive learning environments, where differentiated instruction and attention to individual student learning needs are the norm, the skill set required for teachers is much greater than in the past.
Teacher quality has been argued as one of the greatest predictors of student success (Davis & Higdon, 2008). Teachers are undoubtedly the most critical piece of the greater puzzle that is effective literacy instruction. However, the puzzle has undergone a major fundamental shift in its overall design. How we envision teachers’ part within it must shift to meet the multi-layered demands of effective literacy learning for students.
Expansion of Literacy Instruction
Colloquial views of education have long supported the pillars of the three “r’s” – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Traditionally, literacy instruction hinged upon the first two, focusing primarily on the development of reading and writing skills, and thought of almost exclusively in terms of print (Wright, 2007). This instruction was confined to English or Language Arts classes and, at later grade levels, was the sole responsibility of the English department. Today, this view no longer fits what we define as literacy or literacy instruction. As Gee (2003) argues, the contemporary literacy domain includes “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g. oral or written language, images, equations, symbols, sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (p. 18). What is viewed as literacy has ballooned to include a wide range of skills, processes and understandings.
Grisham and Wolsey (2006) contend that traditional literacy classrooms are environments that typically ensured the transmission of knowledge. In these environments, students were taught how to decode early reading passages, learned various strategies to comprehend text (typically fiction), and mastered the formula for crafting a five-paragraph essay. However, the arrival of the “new literacies” (International Reading Association, 2002) has profoundly influenced and forever changed this transmissive mode of instruction. Literacy has always been about sharing and responding through text and writing, but “the new literacies contain even more of a social component than traditional literacies” (Leu, 2002, p. 314), as well as an emphasis on constructing, not just transmitting knowledge. These new literacies require that teachers of literacy become teachers of what the New London Group has referred to as multi-literacies, which include but are not limited to technological literacy, visual literacy, media literacy, and information literacy (Sylvester & Greenidge, 2009). As a result, teachers are increasingly challenged to “thoughtfully guide students’ learning within information environments that are richer and more complex than traditional print media, presenting richer and more complex learning opportunities for both themselves and their students” (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2004, p. 1599). Obviously, this shift from traditional print media means that in “today’s primary classrooms, the definition of ‘text’ has expanded to include multiple modes of representation, with combined elements of print, visual images, and design” (Hassett & Curwood, 2009, p. 270). Despite the obvious reliance on the critical selection, navigation, and utilization of a wide array of technologies, further compounding this challenge is that as many as two thirds of teachers graduating from education programs today feel underprepared to use technology (Kajder, 2005), a percentage that, it would be safe to assume, is considerably greater for teachers with years of experience in the classroom.
This shift in what constitutes literacy has resulted in a shift in the role of the classroom teacher. Traditional roles included teacher as facilitator, teacher as instructor, and teacher as model; but, now teachers must contend with additional roles – teacher as resource manager, teacher as co-constructor of knowledge, and teacher as design consultant (Larson & Marsh, 2005).
As these shifts in the basic definition of literacy and literacy instructions have evolved, so has the perception that literacy is an integral component of all subject-based instruction. Although it can be argued that “Literacy across the curriculum is not a new idea” (Welford, 2003, p. 10), it remains evident in many schools that there is still work to do in this area. In elementary and primary classrooms, literacy instruction has typically been an ever-present focus. However, explicit instruction in literacy, including what has been defined as multi-literacies, is needed on a grander scale, interwoven into different subjects, themes, projects, and learning activities. Middle and secondary levels require literacy foci not only in the English or Language Arts department but also across subject areas and strategically taught throughout the timetable. “Often teachers assume that, by the time students have reached secondary schooling they possess the knowledge and skills about literacy and language that are required to access the curriculum or students will acquire appropriate literacy practices without explicit teaching” (Wyatt-Smith & Cumming, 2003). However, this assumption is inconsistent with shifts in how literacy is viewed in our current educational landscape or greater society.
Increasingly Diverse Classrooms
It is no revelation to read, “Within any given inclusive classroom today, students’ level of competency, rates of learning, and degrees of motivation to acquire concepts and skills will vary” (Karten, 2011, p. 10). Practicing teachers would express that student diversity has always described classrooms, even prior to the systematic shift to inclusive learning environments. However, “Today’s classrooms are increasingly diverse. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and have a wide range of interests, preferences, learning strengths and needs.” (Alberta Education, 2010, p. 3). The philosophical meta-shift to inclusive schools and classrooms has magnified and intensified the variance within the classroom, with an increasing number of individual student needs and challenges for the teacher to address. As a result, it should come as no surprise that, “teachers feel ill-prepared to deal with matters of diversity in their classrooms” (Beacham & Rouse, 2012, p. 3). As classrooms become increasingly more diverse, the challenges for individual teachers have intensified. As Schnorr and Davern (2005) contend, “the complexities and demands of orchestrating such environments with 20-30 students, each with his or her individual learning profile, cannot be overstated” (p. 494). With that overwhelming reality in mind, they offer hope by suggesting, “What may be perceived as impossible for an individual teacher may be quite possible for a team” (p. 494). Carroll (2009) echoes this sentiment:
The idea that a single teacher, working alone, can know and do everything to meet the diverse learning needs of 30 students every day throughout the school year has rarely worked, and it certainly won’t meet the needs of learners in years to come. (p. 13)
Our classrooms will continue to be home for a growingly diverse group of students. The key to successful literacy instruction in this changed landscape lies in how we approach that challenge, from an organizational perspective and in how we view the role of the individual teacher.
The Teacher as a Critical Piece of a Transformed Puzzle
As stated in the introduction, the teacher is the critical piece within the multi-faceted puzzle that is effective literacy instruction. But this puzzle has transformed, with an expanded understanding of what constitutes literacy instruction and increasingly diverse classrooms. Trying to fit the traditional role of an isolated teacher into this new puzzle and expecting it to lead to every student achieving literacy success is no longer plausible. Buffum, Mattos and Weber (2012) further describe this dichotomy,
We know one thing for certain: we are never going to get there doing what we have always done. Our traditional school system was created in a time when the typical educator worked in a one-room schoolhouse and served as the only teacher for an entire town. Today it is virtually impossible for a single teacher to possess all the skills and knowledge necessary to meet the unique needs of every child in the classroom. (p. 1)
Schools need to become places where teacher collaboration is no longer an option. If professional isolationism represents how the teacher puzzle piece was traditionally envisioned, this critical piece now needs to be viewed through the lens of teams working together to tackle the challenges and complexities related to literacy and students diversity.
Collaboration with a Focus on Students
Kouzes and Posner (2003) have described collaboration as a “social imperative” (p. 22) and DuFour and Fullan (2013) have argued, “Schools cannot achieve the fundamental purpose of learning for all if educators work in isolation (p. 14). The concept of teachers working together is obviously not new or something many educational thought-leaders see as a voluntary, “nice to have if you can” occurrence in schools. Instead, we have argued that, within a school’s collaborative response model, when professional collaboration occurs, placing focus specifically on students can result in greater gains than simply focusing on teacher practices (Hewson & Adrian, 2013).
Coming together with a focus on instructional practices can be an easy, non-threatening first step for educators not accustomed to working collaboratively together. Teachers share literacy instructional strategies that work for them, practices they have abandoned, resources they have developed, and things they are planning to try with their students. However, this approach is unlikely to have meaningful impact on student learning or a teacher’s ability to most effectively address the literacy and diversity challenges we have described. Collaboration with a focus on students is needed.
Using common assessments to inform conversations, teachers engage in examining individual and groups of students within their collective cohort who are experiencing difficulty in classrooms. As professional trust is established over time in a culture that has a systematic response for students, teachers are able to express “I don’t know what to do” and receive the support of the collaborative team in relation to particular students. Isolated, teachers can’t be expected to know how to respond to every challenge related to the complexity of literacy instruction and multitude of student struggles.
As a team, teachers possess collective expertise that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Students who are struggling to achieve literacy benchmarks are identified and hard questions are asked within the team. Although this may lead to difficult conversations that confront long-avoided instructional deficiencies in classrooms, they are easier to engage in when focused on students. We can’t expect teachers to have all the answers, considering the complexities we have described in relation to literacy and inclusion. However, we can expect and demand that teachers work together to identify and collectively respond with a plan of action when a student is not achieving.
The Role of Informal Coaching
Within this model of student-focused collaboration, the role of peer coaching and support takes an entirely different pathway. In schools that have established coaching roles for teachers, the entry point for these coaches to enter classrooms and work with teachers is through students. Students are identified with literacy struggles, potential instructional responses are identified, and classroom teachers initiate those responses. Coaches can help provide support for teachers who may lack the background or instructional expertise to accomplish what is proposed. Rather than this being a mark of shame for teachers, it reinforces collaborative professional growth. Collaboration proceeds from the edifying philosophy that we are all learners who continue to grow professionally. At this point, formal or informal coaches, in the form of other teachers and administrators who are team members, help to provide support. Consider this simplistic scenario:
Teacher A: “Have you tried blogging with those four students who are having difficulty with their writing and are in need of further practice?”
Teacher B: “I’ve never tried blogging. I wouldn’t even know how to set it up!”
Principal: “I could arrange for Teacher A to be freed up for an afternoon next week to work with you on this.”
When approached with a focus on student and teacher growth, the attitude changes. Coaching for teachers that might have previously been difficult, because it was approached from an instructional deficit perspective, now positively centers on growing professionally to ensure student growth and learning. Such a positive focus offers coaches multiple opportunities to collaborate with team and to determine “access points” for entering classrooms and working with teachers.
Support for Student-Centered Collaboration
Obviously, reimagining how teachers work in student-centered collaboration will not happen without school leadership. Structures and processes that establish a framework within which teachers can identify students and collectively determine instructional responses are needed. For school leaders, “it is disingenuous to assert that working together is an organizational priority and then do nothing to support it” (DuFour & Marzano, 2011, p. 73). DuFour and Marzano (2011) go on remind us that,
One of the most persistent brutal facts in education is the disconnect between the proclaimed commitment to ensure all students learn and the lack of a thoughtful, coordinated, and systematic response when some students do not learn in spite of the best efforts of their individual classroom teacher. Despite all the talk of educational reform, what happens to a student when he or she struggles to acquire a skill or concept continues to depend almost exclusively on the teacher to whom that student is assigned. (p. 173)
It is educational negligence to continue trying to fit isolated teacher puzzle pieces into a literacy instruction puzzle that has obviously evolved and expanded. Leaders at all levels must continue to work to establish intentional student-centered collaboration in schools to support teachers and ensure a systematic response with an end goal of literate students.
Faculty of Education, University of Lethbridge
Director, Learning Support Services, Livingstone Range School Division
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