Sunday, November 3, 2013

Working Toward the Promises of Disciplinary Literacy

Join us Monday 11/4 at 2pm EST for the first LRA Research to Practice Video Chat with Michael Manderino, Kristy Pytash, Phil WilderPaula Di Domenico, and Catlin Dooley for a conversation about disciplinary literacy hosted by Ian O'Byrne and Greg McVerry. For resources and a place to leave comments and questions use this link: TitanPad.

Here are some initial thoughts before our conversation:

The promise of disciplinary literacy for me is grounded in the opportunities for young people to become more agentive in their knowledge construction. Disciplinary literacy is fundamentally about knowledge building instead of knowledge banking. To scaffold adolescents’ skill and agency in constructing knowledge we can attempt to approximate disciplinary inquiry through activities like Document-Based Questions (DBQ’s) in history, science labs or experiments, and critical analysis essays with literature. The rub, however, is that these approximated activities should engender disciplinary inquiry that apprentices cognitive skills (i.e., thinking like a historian, scientist, literary critic) with a range of disciplinary texts and tools rather than lay out a prescribed path to a fixed answer. Questions that may arise then, is how do we best scaffold these skills and how do these skills unfold so that students can grapple with existing disciplinary knowledge, critique extant interpretations, and generate new knowledge?

An argument I make about approximating expert skills with students is that we ask students to act like experts in multiple aspects of their school experiences.  As a former basketball coach, we used highly technical language, and expected our players to run sophisticated offensive and defensive schemes taken from college and pro teams. If we had a less proficient team, we didn't just say lets play pick up ball and hope for the best.  We still expected our players to mirror more expert practice yet acknowledging they we're not college or pro players. I think the same could be said of the speech team, the musical, the marching band, or the debate team.  We expect applications of expert behavior in every area of a student involved in extra curricular activities but not in our disciplinary classrooms when we reduce the text or summarize the content into supposedly more digestible bits.

A disciplinary literacy approach also offers the promise of apprenticing students into the communities of disciplinary inquiry that use cognitive skills and knowledge of linguistic markers. But perhaps more importantly, we avail opportunities for students to gain access to the ways knowledge is constructed and communicated.  We also give students the thinking and language to critique content and the agency to construct knowledge for their own purposes.  While reading Dr. David Kirkland’s A Search Past Silence, I was struck by his use of the African proverb, “Until the lion has his own historians, the tale of the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter”.  We need to build the capacities of young people to be able to construct instead of simply consume knowledge.

An approach for me to help build that capacity is authentic inquiry versus prescribed inquiry that seeks a single correct answer. We can scaffold and support inquiry practices but should aspire to release responsibility to our students to ask and seek meaning to their own disciplinary questions.   While that may seem lofty, I believe it is the best way we can support students learning while also valuing their interests and cultural knowledge.  Disciplinary literacy instruction then draws on the habits of thinking to interrogate the texts that are instantiated in the disciplines.  Disciplinary texts are constructed using norms, conventions, genres, and linguistic patterns that have evolved in the discipline.  Teaching isolated sets of disciplinary skills is insufficient because the disciplines are not static. They are historical, contextual, and contested sites of organized bodies of knowledge.  Therefore, students need to be apprenticed into disciplinary inquiry.

Questions that arise for me then are: What approaches are profitable for disciplinary apprenticeship?   How can we best support student learning in the disciplines?  What specific studies will uncover how to get kids to construct models in science, create defend interpretations in history, read and create arguments about literary interpretation, or communicate mathematical representations?  Are literacies in biology the same as chemistry and physics?  How do we prepare science teachers, for example, to tackle multiple subjects like earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics?

For example, model building in science may be a generalized disciplinary literacy but models constructed in biology may represent visible biological processes whereas in chemistry models are created to make the invisible' visible. I love the way Elizabeth Moje discusses youth navigation across the disciplines.  How do we conceptualize navigation within a discipline as well?

While some might argue that a disciplinary literacy approach may only reify the disciplines, I would argue that epistemic commitments to the tentative and contested nature of disciplinary knowledge through apprenticed inquiry can empower youth to critically engage with their world.  The use of literacies to develop those habits of thinking, the cultural tools, habits of practice, and ways of knowing are critical. Researching student learning, teacher practice, the design of learning environments, and use of texts are ripe with possibility.  Our young people deserve opportunities to read and write the word and the world as agentive and critical citizens.

Like Jay Bilas would say; we gotta go to work. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Delving Into Disciplinary Literacy

This is the first in a series of blog posts in preparation for an upcoming Literacy Research Association Google Hangout with Kristy Pytash, Phil Wilder, Ian O'ByrneGreg McVerry, and myself on November 4 to discuss the topic of disciplinary literacy.  Disciplinary literacy has been theorized as an approach to disciplinary or subject area instruction.  Stagnant literacy growth in terms of standardized scores like the National Assessment of Educational Progress is often cited as a rationale for moving towards a disciplinary approach versus a content area literacy one.  It is also argued that disciplinary literacy acknowledges the unique literacy demands of the disciplines as opposed to more generalized approaches.  In this first post, the construct of disciplinary literacy is discussed. 

What is Disciplinary Literacy?

"What matters in learning science is not only what we know but how we know what we know and how that knowledge came to be. Anything less offers only a partial view of the achievements of science." Jonathan Osborn, Stanford University
Literacy scholars have argued that each domain or discipline possesses unique literacy practices (Alexander, 1998; Moje, 2008; Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; 2012).  Content knowledge is often the primary focus of subject area classes like science, history, or literature.  These subjects are considered an academic domain.  Domain knowledge refers to the scope of an individual’s knowledge, including content knowledge, in a given field of study (Alexander, Shallert, & Hare, 1991).  Alexander (1992) posits that domain knowledge consists of declarative, procedural, and conditional knowledge that are not equal across domains of learning. Domain knowledge is a specialized field of content knowledge.  Domain knowledge in history is different than domain knowledge in chemistry and both possess a broader scope of knowledge than non-academic domains. Courses like chemistry, biology, and physics are what constitute the domain of science in school.  Topic knowledge is what most often guides teaching and learning in content area classrooms. Topics often come in the form of curricular units like states of matter or acids and bases. However, disciplinary knowledge is the more formalized subset of domain knowledge (Alexander, et al., 1991).  Shanahan (2009) distinguishes disciplinary knowledge to include knowledge of how information is created, what information is valued, how knowledge is communicated, and who controls knowledge dissemination in a domain.  

The focus of disciplinary knowledge is not on content itself but on how readers come to make sense of content based on their knowledge of how the domain functions. According to the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh:
“Disciplinary literacy is based on the premise that students can develop deep conceptual knowledge in a discipline only by using the habits of reading, writing, talking, and thinking which that discipline values and uses.”  (McConachie, S., Hall, M., Resnick, L., Raci, A., Bill, V, Bintz, J., Taylor, J., 2006). 

Disciplinary literacy then, is an approach to building the requisite disciplinary knowledge required by a given domain.  Consequently, disciplinary literacy cannot be solely reduced to habits of thinking. It is comprised of the:
 1.     cognitive literacy processes used to make meaning;
 2.     cultural tools, including language practices and the full range of texts that mediate thinking and  practice;
 3.     linguistic structures that serve to communicate disciplinary meanings;
 4.     habits of practice instantiated within the disciplines, and;
 5.     epistemic beliefs about knowledge and knowledge production that constitute the discipline (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2010; Manderino, 2012; Moje, 2007; 2009 Shanahan & Shanahan, 2008; 2012, Wilson, 2011).

These five elements may serve as a useful starting place for grounding teacher preparation and classroom instruction. In subsequent posts, these five elements of disciplinary literacy will be unpacked and how they impact instructional and assessment will be discussed. Stay tuned. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

Those Who Can...Teach

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am very passionate about education.  I tweet, I blog, I annoy people on Facebook. But I am passionate because I am a teacher.  It is fundamentally who I am.  I remember teaching swimming lessons in grade school with my mom and getting the kid in my class who in June wouldn’t put his face in the water but by July he was beaming with pride after he jumped in off the diving board.  I remember walking out of my Accounting 201 lecture as a sophomore in college and heading straight to the LAS office to change my major to secondary history education.  And I have never looked back.  I am starting my 18th year as a teacher. 

Teaching is the one profession where everyone feels like they are an expert because everyone has spent 12 plus years in school (Bruner, 1986).  The perception is that teaching is easy.  Claims are made that some people are born to teach.   Movies and television best exemplify the role of the teacher in the imagination of America.

From the hero who comes in and saves kids from themselves, those teachers were just born to teach.  Or conversely, look at the buffoons who run our schools (“2 months Bender”).  

But these narratives are far too simplistic.  Because while that phrase, those who can do, and those who can’t teach is the way teachers are represented, it couldn’t be more false.  And here is why.

First, teaching is craftsmanship.  It is a mix of art and science. Like artists and scientists, teachers are not born.  Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers calls this the 10,000 hour rule.  Those who excel at something put in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice.  While that "rule" is actually challenged, the point is that teachers spend hours developing their science of teaching.  Teachers continually strive to improve their craft through lesson (re)design, continuing classes, advanced degrees, workshops, reading journal articles, etc. etc. etc.    One simple example is the endless amount of teacher chats on Twitter.  Teachers aren't paid to tweet with other teachers.  They do so because they seek, in the words of Daniel Pink, mastery and purpose of their craft. 

Teachers also refine their artistic side through years of experience.  Humor, passion for a subject after teaching it 100 times, getting kids to learn without even realizing it, are all  part of the acting and the dance of teaching.  Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan calls the work of teaching intentional and unnatural.  For example, typically we ask questions about things we don’t know the answer to.  But when teaching, we often ask questions we do know the answer to but need to ask the questions in a way that draws on kids’ natural curiosity and leads to inquiry. The word education itself comes from the word educe or to bring out, to lead forth.  It is not just filling up the pail with facts.  In the words of Paolo Friere, it is teaching kids to read the word and the world.  Those who can teach, and they teach well, as a result of the relentless pursuit of their craft. 

But teaching is far more than the craft enacted day to day.  It is subsumed by love.  It is a love for learning and a love for kids.   It is a love that transcends age, race, gender, socio-economic status.  It is the selfless acts that nobody sees.  Giving up eating lunch to help a student or colleague, exhibiting patience when the time for patience has long passed.  It is a warm smile when kids enter a room, a hug, a high five.
Spending multiple hours planning so that the kids have a good learning experience for 50 minutes.  Treating 30 kids like they are all your own children.  Without love, classrooms are cold warehouses, but with love they are warm and dynamic spaces.  And we all have several teachers we can reflect on and realize it was their love that made us love their class or a particular topic. 

There is also the love that students have for their teachers.  My own daughters beam when they talk about their teachers.  And it is love and trust that make classrooms work year after year.  I have learned more and grown more as a person because of the students I interact with. 

Finally teaching is really fundamentally about hope.  It is a hope and a faith that kids can aspire to the greatest of heights.  While the media would have us all believe that we are getting dumber by the day, schools are failing, and kids are more disrespectful than ever (all false), education is really designed so that in the words of JFK, “the torch can be passed to a new generation”.  Teachers possess an unwavering hope for all of their students to succeed.  A hope that this year, kids will learn more than last year.  A hope that they can impact the life of a child to go on and do great things.  A hope that our society will be better than we are today.  Schools represent the promise of our democracy so that all have access to the American Dream. I have yet to talk with a teacher who doesn’t want to inspire kids to soar to the best of their abilities.  Nothing inspires me more than when a former student comes back and tells me about all the great things they are doing.

Teachers don’t do these things in isolation.  They teach in community schools, on athletic fields, after-school programs,  and many other contexts.   Teaching is an exercise that is vital to the health of a community.  And because of those teachers who can and do, communities thrive on the skill, love, and hope that they bring to children each and every day.   Our children, our communities, our world. So while we often hear how important teachers are and how much they really should be paid (but aren't) and how much they should be respected (and are not by ed reformers and politicians) or conversely how bad our educational system because corporations would love nothing more than to make a profit on a system that is locally controlled, consider the actual role teachers play in our lives.  Consider the immense amount of themselves they pour into their work with kids.  As we begin the promise of another school year, I take pride and comfort knowing there are teachers, who can and do for our young people and for our communities.