Friday, November 26, 2010

Small Groups Literature Discussions as Seen Through CHAT

When I was a child, my dad was a mechanic and I remember him using the common proverb, “Use the right tool for the right job.” I know that it is nearly impossible to get a SAE (American standard) bolt tightened with a metric wrench, therefore I have to identify the job I want done and find the appropriate tool. In schools, matching the right tool to the right job is just as important, whether that tool is in curriculum, pedagogy, or materials. However, sometimes, when a new tool is developed, it tends to be applied to multiple jobs, with varying results.

In response to calls for more student-centered instruction in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one tool that has been applied indiscriminately in schools is small group literature discussion groups. Several different structures for small groups literature discussions were developed such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles; Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations; Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997) Questioning the Author; and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Each of these models guide students to take a distinct stance toward literature, often through pre-discussion written preparation of questions, notes or role sheets. Stance, originally theorized by Rosenblatt (1978), means the purpose for reading the text and she identified a continuum of two stances – aesthetic, or the experience lived through the literature and efferent, or the information the reader can take from the text. Chinn, Anderson, & Waggoner (2001) add a third stance, that of critical/analytical in which the reader questions the text for its argument,bias, or worldview. Each stance requires a particular type of thinking and privileges a particular style of discussion.

Currently, language arts teachers are encouraged to use a generic form of small group literature discussions as this embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice as defined by Daniels & Bizar (2005) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills. Often teachers select a defined model, like those named above, and implement it by-the-book. Yet, without interrogating the purposes and structures of the small group discussions, from the perspectives of both teachers and students, there is a good chance that fulfilling the method becomes more important than the impact on learning. In other words, both teachers and students need to identify the job that needs to be done before the right tool can be chosen rather than choosing a tool for an unspecified job. As the old adage goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)

Originating in the social-cultural theories of Vygotsky, cultural historical activity theory attempts to understand human learning as it takes place through activity, mediated by physical and psychological tools, in contexts and with practices that have cultural, social and historical groundings. Vygotsky (1978) theorized that higher mental functions (thinking) in an individual develops from the social processes that the individual is involved in and can only be understood through the tools or signs used to mediate the process. Since humans can not directly interact with the world, the psychological tools or signs (such as language) and physical/technical tools (such as a pencil) mediate human thinking and action. These mediational tools are shaped by the cultural, social and historical context, yet they also shape the context (Wertsch, 1991). Vygotsky tended to focus on individual action and thinking, whereas Leont'ev believed that activity is a collection formation of the person(s), world and the activity itself, therefore focusing on the whole activity, with multiple participants moving toward a group outcome or motive, is more important than the individual action and that the individual action can only be understood in the context of the activity. Engestrom moved the unit of analysis to encompass the entire activity system, which would then account for tools use, distributed action among members and the evolving social, cultural, and historical results of action over time. In this model, the system is a dialectical relationship in which people influence and are influenced by the context of the activity. Engstrom identified the major component of the system as: subject (person), instruments (tools), object(ive), outcome, division of labor, community and rules (See Figure 1). The activity system is being constantly constructed and renewed by the interactions of the components, which, over time can develop contradictions within the system. These contradictions motive change to new forms of activity

Contradictions are the core of activity system analysis. By using cultural historical activity theory, an activity system can be analyzed at multiple levels. Primary level contradictions are those that occurs within the components of a system. For example, the understanding of how to use a tool differs between people, so although the same tool is used, it is used differently. Secondary contradictions occurs between components of the system. For example, then the rules of the context does not allow for the outcome to occurs – otherwise known as a Catch-22. Finally, a tertiary contradiction occurs when activity systems intersect such as the activity system of school district policy collides with the activity system of the classroom.

Small Group Literature Discussion

In the past, literature discussions in the secondary classroom were specifically teacher-led and generally focused on textual, surface level comprehension or one-sided, lecture format. This led to a pattern of interaction known as IRE – Initiation by teacher, Response by student, and Evaluation by teacher (Mehan, 1979; Sinclair & Coulthard, 1975). With this staccato rhythm, students generally did not originate or extend the conversation. This has been the model classroom for almost 100 years – teacher firmly in control of covering the curriculum, while students obediently follow. In other words, a strong focus on what Rosenblatt (1978) called an “efferent” stance to the literature, or information gathering.

However, with the development of reading response theory (Rosenblatt, 1978) and an understanding of the power of discussion based approaches, many teachers began experiment with instruction that was more responsive to student interests. Often these led to discussions that lie within the “aesthetic” stance (Rosenblatt, 1978) or an “expressive” stance (Jakobson, as cited in Soter et al, 2009) such as Eeds & Wells' (1998) Grand Conversations, in which students took a more active role in the generation of discussion. This precipitated a move toward peer-led discussions such as Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles, and Raphael & McMahon's (1994)Book Clubs. Both forms emphasize student generated response to create authentic conversations about text, not just answering questions.

Most of the models of student-led discussion use some form of pre-discussion writing based on the text. This may take the form of Role Sheets (Daniels, 1994), reader response logs, double entry journals, or sticky-notes on the page. Some of these techniques have been researched individually and separate from their use in discussions and have been shown to provide opportunities for students to actively make meaning from the text. However, there has been anecdotal evidence of mechanic, stilted conversations when using Role Sheets, or reading response logs within a student-led discussion of literature. This sometimes leads teachers to abandon student-led discussions because they feel the discussion lacks depth and meaning. However, multiple researchers have shown that discussion based approaches leads to better understanding of the text. (Applebee et al, 2003; Murphy, et al, 2009).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Teachers Taking Charge of Their Own Professional Development

Too often, professional development programs in schools use a “drive-by” or “shot-gun” method of in-service. In the drive-by, teachers are herded to an auditorium to hear an expert explain how to use a new method or technique and the teachers are expected to implement it in their own classrooms without any support or follow-up. The shot-gun approach provides teachers with a variety of choices, but no focus for the school or student learning. It is clear neither approach is effective in changing teachers' daily practice, yet it continues ( Loucks-Horsley, Hewson, Love, & Stiles, 1998). So, what should schools and program directors consider when approaching the professional development of its teachers?

When designing professional development programs, Ball & Cohen, (1999) encourage a systematic approach for designers which asks the following questions: “First, what would teachers have to know, and know how to do, in order to offer instruction that would support much deeper and more complex learning for their students? Second, what sort of professional education would be most likely to help teachers to learn those things? Third, what do these ideas imply for the content, method, and structure of professional development?” (p. 7). Rather than focusing on bringing in a new method or technique, this approach encourages teachers to investigate their own work, determine their own needs and time-frames and provide scheduled time to allow teachers to meet, talk and document their investigations.
This follows the theory of andragogy - the methods and techniques used to teach adults - as schools must also take into account that the “students” of the instruction are adult learners with unique needs. Malcom Knowles (1984) considered the adult learner to be a different type of learner than a child. He reintroduced the term andragogy, as compared to pedagogy, to help distinguish the characteristics of working with adult learners from those used with children. These characteristics include: 1) Being more self-directed 2) Having a reservoir of experiences as resource for learning 3) Needing immediate relevance to learning 4) Having clear purposes for learning 5) Being internally motivated 6) Wanting problem-focused learning experiences. Ball & Cohen's (1999) recommendations address most of these principals.

Schools must also help teachers embrace the identity of a lifelong learner. Each year brings new students, materials, technology, standards and policy changes. Hammerness, Darling-Hammond, Bransford, Berliner, Cochran-Smith, McDonald, & Zeichner, (2005) contend that teachers need to be “adaptive experts” (p. 360) who are able to balance efficiency and innovation to effectively respond to complex classroom needs. To become an expert, a teacher must be motivated to deeply reflect about his/her own teaching practices. The authors also recognize that innovation can be challenging and even threatening, as teachers must “re-think key ideas, practices and even values in order to change what they are doing” (p.361). This may at times led to decreased efficiency, as teachers learn new ways of thinking; yet by abandoning some ineffective practices and adopting new ones, teachers become more expert. In other words, we should expect a learning curve when teachers try new materials, methods or techniques and support the struggle teachers must endure in order to better their practice. This support is best found in communities of practice – working side-by-side with other teachers to improve teaching. In addition, coordinated time is needed to allow teachers to meet and discuss their work.

Traditionally schools tend to look to the principal, curriculum director or other specialists to provide the leadership and direction for professional development. However, by accepting the principles of adult learning we can change this paradigm. More teachers are becoming informal teacher-leaders in their schools, especially when the formal processes of leadership have been ineffective. According to Whitaker (1995), “These [informal teaching] relationships often determine the degree to which the beliefs of faculty members can be changed on a schoolwide basis” (p. 356). When teachers learn something new that is effective with students, they often want to share the results of their learning. “A powerful relationship exists between learning and leading. The most salient learning for most of us comes when we don’t know how to do it, when we want to do it, and when our responsibility for doing it will affect the lives of many others. This is where teacher leadership and professional development intersect . . . only when teachers learn will their students learn” (Barth, p.445.) Effective principal leadership, and long-term change, can be enhanced by identifying and supporting these informal leaders (Zepeda, Mayers, & Benson, 2003). 

Recently, teacher improvement has been a fodder for politicians and Hollywood producers, with a range of solutions proposed from pay for performance to alternative certifications. Yet the real issue is not teacher improvement, but rather teacher learning. If we recognize that teachers are learners, with unique needs and issues, we can eliminate the deficit model of professional development and instead, focus on the strengths and expertise already embedded in our schools with a goal of supporting the continued learning of all teachers, which will then result in increased student learning and achievement.

Ball, D. L. & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Barth, R. (2001). Teacher leader. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(6), 443-500.
Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Bransford, J., Berliner, D., Cochran-Smith, M., McDonald, M., & Zeichner, K. (2005). How teachers learn and develop. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.) Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 358-389). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. (3rd ed.), Houston: Gulf Publishing.
Loucks-Horsley, S., Hewson, P. W., Love, N., & Stiles, K. E. (1998). Designing professional development for teachers of science and mathematics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Whitaker, T. (1995). Accomplishing change in schools: The importance of informal teacher leaders. Clearing House, 68(6), pp. 356-357.
Zepeda, S. J., Mayers, R. S., & Benson, B., N. (2003). The call to teacher leadership. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Historical Activity Theory as Applied to Literature Discussion Groups

"Well," said Pooh, "we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really." (Milne, 1928, p. 121)

What makes an effective literature discussion? What place does gender have in small group discussions? How can teachers best support student discussion of literature? What is the role of the teacher in literature discussions? Questions like these tend to be focus of research on the use of small group literature discussions. Investigators have tallied and analyzed the content of discussions, traced the changing roles of students and teacher, and created taxonomies of the type of talk that happens in literature discussions. However, by using these approaches, which are too narrow to address the scope of the entire activity as it is occurs in a cultural, historical, and social setting with complex and sometimes competing goals and purposes, we loose sight of the forest for the trees . I propose that, by using a different theoretical framework for studying small group literature discussions than has been used thus far, we can achieve a broader understanding of both student and teacher development within this context. By using Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) we can understand how the individuals within the activity setting influence and are influenced by the other individuals, contexts, and tools used to achieve a learning objective. “Because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

Although book clubs have existed before, in the late 1980s adult book clubs became a hot commodity for libraries and bookstores and women across the country began publicly acknowledging the importance of book clubs in their lives. Researchers jumped on the band wagon to investigate the social and cultural meaning of book clubs and generally found positive results – in both generating personal and emotional support through the group and in encouraging adults to read more. Educators, many who were in book clubs themselves, attempted to translate that same atmosphere into their classrooms.

In the early 1990s, several models of literature discussions were published, including Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles using role sheets, Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations, Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997), Questioning the Author and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Most of these models focus on student choice of text, preparing for reading through some form of note-taking, having discussions generated through student questions, and supporting collaborative meaning making from text. In a educational culture of “best practices”, language arts teachers have now encouraged to use small group literature discussions as it embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice (Daniels & Bizar) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

Each model has a specific purpose and structure that guides the development of the discussion. In Literature Circles, the goal is to help students generate personal responses to the text – or an expressive stance. In Collaborative Reasoning, students are guided to take a critical or analytic stance on the text. Using Questioning the Author strategies, students search the text for for information and take an efferent stance toward text. Each of these models support a specific type of inquiry and purpose to the discussion. Without a clear articulation of one's purpose to the discussion, teachers may find themselves implementing a structure that runs counter to the vision they have for the discussion.

This is where cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) can help us understanding the complex environment of a literature group discussion. “Activity theory (Cole, 1996; Leont'ev, 1981; Tulviste, 1991; Wertsch, 1981) is predicated on the assumption that a person's frameworks for thinking are developed through problem-solving action carried out in specific settings whose social structures have been developed through historical, culturally-grounded actions. . . Activity theory also calls attention to the goals of development (telos) and the ways in which environments are structured to promote development toward these goals (prolepsis) . . . A central concern of activity theory, then, is to understand the kinds of culturally defined futures that motivate people's activity and the sorts of tools they develop in order to help mediate one another's progress toward those futures.” (Grossman, Smagorinsky, Valencia, 1999, pp.4-5 ).

Literature discussion groups are nebulous creatures to understand. There is a tangled interaction of teacher, students, texts and context, where most of the meaning-making is invisible. In this paper, I will attempt to apply the theory of CHAT to better untangle the interactions and reweave the various aspects of literature discussions in the attempt to better understand how the teacher directed use of tools, such as pre-discussion note-taking, influences the process of meaning-making from text at both the individual and group level.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Life in Seven Stories

Life is like a patchwork quilt, with experiences being stitched together to create the quilt as a whole. Here is a small part of my life’s quilt.

The Green Sheet
The Green Sheet was the 4-page comic strip section of the Milwaukee Journals when I was a child. Before I could read, I would be able to find the Green Sheet in the stack of news and pull it out before my parents would read the events of the day. Lying in the sunshine on the floor of the living room, I would follow the panels and try to figure out the story. But, I couldn't read the words. I would ask my older brother, but he wouldn't be interested in reading to me. When my dad was home on Saturdays, he would sit in the arm chair and read to me. Although I loved the comfort of being on my dad's lap, I couldn't wait to be able to read the comics to myself. To this day, Dad and I continue to discuss Prince Valiant, even when hundreds of miles apart.

Being a farm girl, I would sometime invite my friends to a sleepover in the hay mow of the barn. It was filled with the scent of fresh cut alfalfa and the chirp of crickets. Yet, one night, it was punctured by the bleat of a lost kitten. In the light of day, my brother and I searched the loft until we found a very small, very lost kitten – all white except for his gray tail and one gray ear. Fitting in one hand, we carried him home and pleaded with our parents to allow us to keep him – in the house. After several days of bottle feeding and mid-night comforting, it seemed the poor creature would live. Like many other rescued animals before him, he became Lucky and part of our household for 18 years. Furry critters remain an important part of my life with my shetland sheepdog, Rasa, and as a Feline Friend at the humane society.

Where the Buffalo Roam
One of the stereo-typical family trips for Mid-westerners is a car trip out to the Blackhills of South Dakota, with a stops at Wall Drugs, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Custer State Park. After years of hearing about the massive herds of the majestic American bison, I was determined to be in the midst of the herd. My family drove around the park for three hours, but couldn't find a single buffalo – nor did we see any for the entire 7-day trip. Once home, my mother wrote to the tourism board and requested a small buffalo stuffed animal to fulfill my desire for a Dakotan buffalo. Hence, my obsession with the American bison – the symbol of abundance – and I have been abundantly blessed.

My First Classroom
My first team meeting was frightening. One teacher told me he was just hoping to survive the two years before retirement. Another told me I was hired because I was in the army and therefore would bring discipline to my classroom. The third one told me she was very happy with what she was doing and didn't want to change anything – all the new technology seemed a waste of time. Like many first year teachers, I had dreams of changing the world and making a difference in the lives of the children - this wasn't the way it was supposed to go. I faced a very traditional school and curriculum and choose to make small changes, such as purchasing a class set of novels and approaching my team about doing some interdisciplinary work. I exchanged classes with the science teacher and taught his least favorite unit – rocks and minerals. He taught his favorite story to my English classes – “Rip Van Winkle”. The other team saw some of the unique lessons we were doing and decided to try some new things too. I learned that leadership and change didn't need to come from mandates, but rather from strong relationships with colleagues and a focus on student learning.

I'm a Medic. I can help.
A passenger airplane crashed in a corn field in Wisconsin and I was part of the team called to triage the injured. The scene was chaotic and scary – even knowing it was a training exercise. People cried out in pain and their moulage makeup wept bright red blood and certainly looked real. The fast pace of making potentially life altering decisions was both exhilarating and sobering and I liked it. As a medic in the Army National Guard, I not only learned medical skills but confidence and resilience.

Road Trip in Brazil
Part of the thrill of being an international teacher is the chance to live in a different country and see the things only locals tend to see. The Itiquira Waterfall was just a few hours north of Brasilia, Brazil, yet few non-Brazilian have the opportunity to see it. My husband and I had been teaching at the American school for just over a year when a group of friends decided to take a road-trip to the Falls. We packed a cooler full of sandwiches and homemade brownies (as ready made foods were not available) and made the trek to the largest free falling waterfall in Brazil. The roar of the falls could be heard before the entrance of the park. The rainbows generated by the spray was not damped by the chilliness of the water. Although there were many challenges living overseas, both personally and professionally, experiences like this highlight the reason I choose the adventure.

Connection to the Past
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." - Winston Churchill

When other kids spent their summer vacations swimming or going to the park, I spent it at museums, historic sites or reading about the Ancient Egyptians or inspirational historic women such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Blackwell and Sacagawea. Growing up in my family meant growing up immersed in stories of the past – family, local, state, nation and the world's stories. Oral histories gave flesh to the written histories I read. I've walked the school aisle where Clara Barton first taught. I've crept through the dark corridors of the Giza Pyramids to the sarcophagus of the kings. I've knelt in the battlefield of Gettysburg which ran red with the blood of the soldiers. These tangible remnants of the past inspire me to remember the lessons of the past, treasure my present moments and think deeply about the future.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

My Favorite Resources for Supporting Active Learning


Burke, J. (2000). Reading reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
Burke, J. (2003). Writing reminders: Tools, tips, and techniques. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
As the titles indicates, each book is a reminder of the things we know are good instruction for readers and writers, yet sometimes forget. Burke is a practicing teacher and writes for teachers. Each book includes 100 tips, techniques, and tools to help secondary teachers teach reading or writing. Both are easy to read and use, as each tip is about 2 pages long and often includes a template and student examples. Especially nice is his explicit link between theory and practice, as he sites the support for each idea. My favorites include his section on vocabulary development and vocabulary squares (reading) and how to create a culture of writing and explanation of the genres of writing. You can find sample chapters of each books here:

Buehl, D. (2009). Classroom strategies for interactive learning (3rd ed.). Newark, DE: International Reading Association
I have purchased each edition of this book and worn out my old ones. Buehl was a social studies teacher and reading specialist at Madison East High School and compiled this compendium of content area reading/writing strategies over the course of his time working with students. The third edition has expanded to include recent understandings of comprehension and how to teach for comprehension. The second half of the book includes 45 strategies which focus on instructional strategies, ways of thinking and characteristics of effective readers. Each strategy is explained, modeled, and has a template for student use. My favorites include: Discussion Web, Magnet Summaries, and RAFT.

Tompkins, G. (2008). 50 Literacy Strategies: Step-by-Step (3rd Edition). Prentice Hall.
Like Buehl's book, I have bought and worn out each edition of this book. Although geared more for elementary students, I have found the ideas to be highly adaptable for middle school and a few for high school. Like others, Tompkins explains, models and provides student examples of each of the 50 strategies. I especially like the Open-Mind portraits, in which students draw a portrait of the character and then, using a second paper, draw and/or write about the feelings and thoughts of the character, which can be revealed by opening the portrait. Another favorite is Plot Profiles, in which students graph the important events of a book and rate them for excitement/tension.

Wilhelm, J. D. (2002). Action strategies for deepening comprehension: Role plays, text-structure tableaux, talking statues, and other enactment techniques that engage students with text. New York: Scholastic.
This is one of the books in Scholastic's Theory and Practice series, which are all great books that link theory to practice in a clear and concise manner. This particular book encourages teachers to help students literally embody text through drama, tableaux and other enactment techniques. Each chapter focuses on a technique and gives a little of the theory, but really expands on the practical aspects of the technique such as how to plan for and introduce it to students, assessment and multiple ways to adapt the technique. With the addition of real life examples and voices from the field, this book truly achieves praxis.

Burke, J. (2002). Tools for thought: Graphic organizers for your classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers.
Yes, another Burke book – but so worth it! This is a great complement to Buehl's Classroom Strategies. As the title suggests, this is all about graphic organizers for content area reading and writing at the secondary-level. Although most of the examples come from English classes, most can be adapted for other content areas. The “tools” he provides are graphic organizers that are generic enough to be adaptable to many situations and are more about the thinking processes than the particular reading or writing task. Having introduced many of these tools to my students, over time, I saw their independent use of the strategies to help organize their thinking outside of my classroom. Some favorites include: Episodic Notes (story-boarding), Target Notes (identifying the main point of inquiry and elaborate on it), and Think in Threes (to expand diametric thinking).

Bromley, K. DeVities, L.I. & Modlo, M. (1999) 50 Graphic organizers for reading, writing and more. New York: Scholastic.
Targeted at grades 4-8, this book provides templates and examples of typical graphic organizers for Language Arts such as T-Charts, KWL Chart, Coat of Arms, and Venn Diagrams. This is great for making large posters (laminated) for the classroom as there is ample space to write. Although the templates are elementary looking, I have adapted many of the ideas for high school. One of my favorites is Getting Into Character Map, in which students draw the character and label the body with the various thoughts, feelings and actions of the character (located by the eyes, ears, mouth, heart, hands and feet).

Cerveny, C. & LaCotti, M. (2003). 35 Learning tools for practicing essential reading and writing strategies: Mini-lessons with reproducible bookmarks, checklists, strategy cards, trifolds and more. New York: Scholastic.
Geared toward grades 4-8, this book provides many templates for creating posters or handouts to remind students of important strategies when reading/writing. I've photocopies the Discussion Starters bookmarks on card stock and was amazed at how many of my middle-schoolers requested them. There are bookmarks for writing also, but I found they were more helpful enlarged into posters to develop a consistent language about responding to reading through writing, such as the RARE answer to a question that Restates, Answers, Revists for examples, and Explains.

Silberman, M. (1996). Active learning: 101 strategies to teach any subject. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
The author begins with a very brief overview of the theories behind active learning and moves quickly into the strategies, which cover all aspects of a lesson from grouping, team-building, assessment, discussion, and reviewing. Grounded in practicalities, each strategy gives an overview, a bullet procedure list, and variations. Some of my favorites include Jigsaw Learning (helping students teach students), Bumper Stickers (summary of learning), and Lecture Bingo. Many of these strategies can be adapted to any age level, including college, and especially useful for teachers moving to a block schedule.


Instructional Strategies for Engaging Learners – Guilford
This site has three links: Activating Strategies, Cognitive Strategies (comprehension and retention), and Summarizing Strategies. Each link has about a dozen strategies and each strategy includes a description, procedures and examples. My favorite summarizing strategies include Final Countdown and Shaping Up Review, which I have used from middle-school to college level.

Glossary of Instructional Strategies
Being a glossary, there isn't much of an explanation, but there are 1271 strategies or methods listed with brief definitions and some have links to more information.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Teacher Professional Development Resources

Adult Learning
Knowles, M. (1984). The adult learner: A neglected species. (3rd ed.), Houston: Gulf Publishing.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action: Applying modern principles of adult education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Knowles created the foundation of the modern concept of andragogy, or teaching theory and strategies which focus on the adult learner. He proses several key characteristics of working with adult learners: 1) They need a purpose for learning 2) They need to make their own choices in the learning process 3) Their experiences should be central to the learning process 4) Learning need to be relevant to their needs 5) Self-motivation is greater than external motivators 6) Learning should be problem-focused, not content focused.

Teacher Learning
Hammerness, K., Darling-Hammond, L., Bransford, J., Berliner, D., Cochran-Smith, M., McDonald, M., & Zeichner, K. (2005). How teachers learn and develop. In L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (Eds.) Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do (pp. 358-389). Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.
Although this chapter focuses on pre-service and novice teachers, there are many ideas that can be applied to teachers who are learning new techniques or methods. The authors contend that teachers need to be “adaptive experts” (p. 360) who are able to balance efficiency and innovation to effectively respond to complex classroom needs. To become an expert, a teacher must be motivated to be a lifelong learner, which requires deep reflection about teaching practices. The balance between efficiency, with routines and procedures, and innovation to adapt to individual learning needs is best supported through collegial work with more expert teachers. This allows the novice to address preconceptions, see the work in action, and be more meta-cognitive about the practice.

Professional Development
Ball, D. L. & Cohen, D. K. (1999). Developing practice, developing practitioners: Toward a practice-based theory of professional education. In G. Sykes and L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), Teaching as the learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 3-32). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
“Any design for improved professional learning must be grounded in the cornerstones of education: what needs to be learned (content), the nature of that content and what that implies about how it might be learned (theories of learning), curriculum and pedagogy (with what material and in what ways the learners can be helped to learn that content, given who they are, the nature of what there is to be learned, and theories of how it is best learned)” (p. 6) [Bold mine]. Although it sounds obvious, much of the professional development that teachers endure don't address the fundamentals of good pedagogy. The author break down each area with questions that professional development programs should ask before implementation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Teaching and Learning Symposium 2010 - Day 2

When Bad Things Happen to Good Classes – James Wells & Eileen Callahan

Case Study discussions of ethical issues in higher education.

Letters of Recommendation –
Much of these issues have to do with relationship building. Undergrads especially need to know that part of their job as a student is to get to know the professors and, although the onus may be on the student to do this, the professor needs to create a positive and open environment that invites students into this academic relationship. Student need to be interacting with faculty early in their career and not wait until the last year.

However, if an average or mediocre student asks for a letter, how can a professor handle it? In writing a letter, one must be honest about the student in a respectful way as this is an issue of credibility. In addition, this opens the opportunity to have an honest conversation about the student's characteristics.

Group Work -
The most important issue to address in using group work is the pedagogical reason for it. Does group work provide a better avenue to accomplish the task compared to individual assignments? In addition, there is a difference between cooperative work and collaborative work, therefore the task set needs to match the structure. Cooperative work means that students just need to work together, whereas collaboration requires student to depend on each other's work to accomplish the task.

Once a teacher decides on group work, it is the teacher's responsibility to provide the training and tools for students to be successful in the group work. Too often teachers assume students know how to work together, yet few have had the opportunity to participate in or observe positive group work. (Almost all students have stories of horrible experiences.) Various supports could include having students create group contracts which address deadlines, responsibilities and conflict; periodic reflective writing; peer assessment; and practice within class.

Connectedness of Faculty -
How connected should professors be? 24/7? Set times? Part of the advantage of technology is that people are available at all times, yet that can create unrealistic expectations. Instructors need to be especially clear with how and when they expect to be contacted. Face-to-face office hours are typical, which can be translated to on-line chat.

Student Write to Learn: How instructors are engaging their students through online quizzing, writing, and feedback – Robert Jeanne, Lillian Tong, Amber Smith

We know that writing increases thinking, especially when the writing is exploratory and reflective, Yet in large classes, there is little opportunity for writing and instructor feedback.

Feedback Manager, done in Moodle quizzing module, allows for large scale responses from students. The instructor asks an open-ended question online, the students answer. The instructor reads the responses. The instructor creates generic “tags” - ie, Didn't follow directions. Excellent thinking. Did you think about . . . In addition, the instructor can add individual comments. All students then receive comments via email. This is very similar to computerized report cards with a list of about 50 comments. However, the instructor sets the comments for the assignment – which makes it more relevant.

Even though the responses are semi-personalized, students found it useful to know that instructors were reading and commenting on their work. Plus, with more, but smaller writing assignments, student understanding was better developed and assessed.  There were multiple examples of how various instructors implemented this Feedback Manager in large classes (150+) in chemistry, biology, and ecology.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Teaching and Learning Symposium 2010

Learning Partnerships that Promote Learning and Self-Authorship  - Marcia Baxter Magolda

What is the purpose of higher education?  There are several possible  responses to this: to get a good paying job, to create well-rounded individuals, and/or to train someone for a particular job/career.  Yet,  Magolda has a slightly different perspective – to help young adults through the process of self-authorship for their adult lives.  Self-authorship is the ability to personally define a set of beliefs and identity in which to guide interaction with other people and the world.  However, according to her research, some people (in all age groups) stagnate at the developmental stage of “Following External Formulas”.  In other words, depending on experts or authority to define the facts, beliefs and requirements.  This is the student who happily and diligently takes notes in class and can parrot back the information.  It is an easy form of “learning” as it is just information consumption.  When students/people get to the point of questioning experts and authority, they are at the “Crossroads” stage.  As the apt metaphors implies, the person stands in the midst of several possible pathways/beliefs and must consider each.  There is a recognition that no single way is the only way, yet as a student, this becomes frustrating.  It is not easy learning, but rather, mentally exhausting.  Through testing out ideas and sometimes making false starts and back tracking, students are able to articulate their own ideas, beliefs and opinions, yet at the same time, be open enough to truly listen to others.  This, in Magolda’s terms is “Self-Authoring”.  Is higher education the only way to achieve self-authorship?  Certainly not, but it should be a place where this is a major goal.

To reach this goal, teacher/mentors need to build developmental bridges at the leading edge of the person’s developmental phase and, as a partner, walk along side them on the bridge.  This metaphor is quite compatible with constructivist pedagogy.  Rather than pulling students kicking and screaming into new understandings,  guidance is provided to lead them through the content and processes needed.  Meeting students where they are, knowing where they want/should go, and providing opportunities for them to achieve this is a tremendous task for teachers/mentors.

Magolda has developed these ideas through a 24 year study.  Quite impressively, the group began with 101 college freshman, then 80 graduating seniors, and just recently, follow-up with 36 of the original group.  Her study has been reported in various books including: Authoring Your Life, Making Their Own Way, and Knowing and Reasoning in College.  The application of these ideas can be found in Creating Contexts for Learning and Self-Authorship: Constructive-Developmental Pedagogy and Learning Partnerships.

I am interested in seeing more about the “Bridges”.  How do I guide students through the various phases of reasoning, and especially when there would be students of all phases within one class?  In a traditional sense, this would be called differentiation of curriculum, but it is more than a focus on ability or skill, but a recognition of individual reasoning and identity formation.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

AERA 2010 - Graduate Student Council

As I am making the transition from student to scholar, I especially appreciate the work of the Graduate Student Council (GSC) at AERA. The graduate student room is an amazing place to meet people, gather your thoughts, and gear up for the next session. In addition, the sessions that the GSC sponsor are some of the best at the conference, with a focus on interactivity and mentoring the graduate student. I enjoyed the orientation session on Friday night, as it gave me the opportunity to get to know fellow grad students who I continued to bump into throughout the conference. This helps me connect to the conference; when I can walk into a session and wave to someone I know and afterwards have a confidant to talk with about the session.

Throughout the conference, I targeted the Fireside Chats, sponsored by the GSC and specific divisions. These sessions are improvisational, filled with timely advice, and interactive. The session GSC Division E Fireside Chat: The In Between: How to Use My Time Wisely was filled with practical and inspirational advice for the student-scholar transition. The panel was responsive to the immediate questions of the audience and clearly take the role of mentor seriously. Here are some of the highlights:
  • Know your own personal path and make choices to keep you on the path.
  • Focus on filling the gaps in your CV – teaching, research, publishing, etc. It may be useful to delay graduation to fill the gap, but don't delay too long.
  • Get published – the sooner the better, even if it is in smaller journals
  • Get on committees (but not ones that are too time consuming). 
  • Do a post-doc only if it will advance your personal path. 
  • Be able to articulate not only your past work, but clearly know your future research agenda.

Another interesting point made was about creating support systems. It is fairly obvious that to make it through graduate school, then as an junior scholar, then through tenure, support is needed. However, one of the panelists had a nice way of identifying the people in her life as supports and recommended evaluating the reciprocity of the relationships. If the relationship isn't working, then it might be time to “prune” the person.

3 Tiers of Support
  1. People who help you get the job done.
  2. People who are steps ahead of you and can mentor you.
  3. People who are social supports – need work/life balance.
 Two Bumper Sticker Phrases:
Rejection is a part of academia. Get used to it. Move on.
Define success for yourself and move towards it. Don't buy into the institution's view of success.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

AERA 2010 Day 1 - Part 2

A National Study of Writing Across the Curriculum in Middle and High Schools
Background to the Study *Arthur Applebee
A Case Study of the Influence of Kentucky State Testing on Student Writing *Linda L. Baker
English-Language Learners and Writing Across the Disciplines *Kristen C. Wilcox
Science and Mathematics Writing *Marc Nachowitz
The Teaching of Writing Today *Judith A. Langer
Appleebee and Langer are major figures in my review of literature, so I was quite excited to be able to see them in person. The study they and their colleagues presented is a massive undertaking involving middle and high schools in five states and in multiple subject areas (hence, “writing across the curriculum” WAC). Data collection includes observations, interviews, and student artifacts and has generated thousands of pieces of work to look at. Langer mentioned that this was an update to studies Applebee completed in the late 1970s.
Baker specifically looked at Kentucky and discussed some of the negative effects of the portfolios introduced a few years ago, which have since been repealed. During the time of the data collection, the researchers found teachers were instructing in limited genres to have student produce writing for the portfolios. In addition, there seemed to be a lack of authentic writing, again, because of the desire to produce for the portfolios. To me, this doesn't seem too shocking. Once a school, district, or state mandates a certain type of portfolio structure, it will create standardized forms of work. If the goal is to compare students against one another, then the forms of writing will be dictated. In contrast, if the goal is to help improve writing, then students need to be actively involved in the creation of their own portfolio – to show growth and revision, best pieces, and reflection on their individual writing process. This can't be standardized.

Nachowitz discussed the ways content area teachers tend to approach the writing tasks required: 1) emphasis on content 2) Domain specific 3) Genre based. For those schools in which WAC was deeply embedded, students were working within domain specific and genre based writing. Writing was used as a means of learning, not just assessing learning and writing. (Writing as a heuristic – how to think like a mathematician, scientist, geographer etc.) In addition, the content area teachers believed writing was an integral part of their subjects, not just as a favor to the ELA teachers. From this, Langer mentioned that the direction for research may be a need to look at what is appropriate writing instruction for the disciplines, rather than a universal recommendation for all teachers.

For more information about the study, go to: The National Study of Writing Instruction,

AERA 2010 Day 1

I was shocked to find so few blogs about the experience of AERA 2010. I'm used to NECC (now ISTE) which lists the bloggers on the home page of the conference. This allows for attendees to catch up on the sessions they missed. There are so many interesting topics here in Denver, and no one can see them all. I appreciate the effort AERA is making to create a paper repository, but it would be nice to see more blogging, webcasting and/or podcasting of sessions.

The first session I attended was tremendous - Reciprocity and Collaboration in Qualitative Research
Building a Stance of Reciprocity Into Research Designs *Audrey A. Trainor *Katherine Bouchard
Creative Nonfiction as an Experiment in Reflexivity, Vulnerability, and Meaning Making *Danielle M. Cowley
Developing Participant-Centered Research Methodologies *Heeral Mehta-Parekh
In Pursuit of Reciprocity: Researchers, Teachers, and School Reformers Engaged in Collaborative Analysis of Video Records *Marnie Curry
Reflective Processes in Qualitative Data Analysis *Luigina Mortari *Chiara Sita
Discussant: Hillevi Lenz Taguchi

Trainor and Bouchard discussed a stance of reciprocity – which means a shared design and implementation of research. Bouchard expounded on several ways of looking at providing reciprocity: as an economic negotiation, as a service/labor exchange, as a collaboration, or as giving back to the profession in general. They both challenge the idea that just disseminating results isn't a fair exchange. In addition, reciprocity should be part of the entire design, not just a part of the recruitment of participants. However, it is also a negotiation, as not all participants wish to be fully or actively involved in the project. Cowley discusses using creative non-fiction as a way to better connect or situate one's self in the research context. Although she confessed she had no idea why she was scheduled with the reciprocity group, her creative story of her as a researcher reaching back to her middle school days, did tie nicely with Mehta's idea of participant centered research. Mehta used several ways to invite active participation in generating ideas, rather than just interviews. She tried using reflexive photography and artifact centered conversations with her participants. Then, to capture the adolescents real words, she created “found poems” of their conversations. Curry provided examples of co-construction of analysis of videos of lesson studies. Not only did the participants look at the video data, but they were invited to view the researchers coding the video data, which opened the process of the research to the participants.

This session brought out a lot of interesting questions for me, when entering a research site. Should researchers strive for reciprocity? Do participants really want it? How does it change the relationship of researcher and participant? Is it really possible to have a balanced reciprocal relationship? Do and/or can both parties get what they want? What are the ethics of reciprocity?

I think this is a sign of a really great session – when one walks out with more ideas to ponder than when one walked in.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shirley Brice Heath, Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classroom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. LB1139 L3 H37

Part 1
Young people tolerated school, waiting for the time when they were blessed old enough or big enough to leave.” (p. 26) Ah, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I supervisor secondary English education student teachers in the local schools. One school, in particular, has a high incidence of truancy and drop-outs. The student teacher was flabbergasted by the apparent apathy of the school towards this issue. However, there was also a teacher culture of “It's my job to teach, and the kids' job to be here. If they aren't here, and ready to learn, there is nothing I can do about it.” Part of what Heath shows is that the school learning wasn't relevant to the home life and projected life work. Yet, that also brings in the debate of vocational verses college prep tracks. Is it a good thing to track students? I haven't found a satisfactory answer to this yet. However, if a vocational track provides skilled labor jobs, such as plumbing, construction etc. - isn't that better than having a student drop-out, not find a living wage job and going on welfare? In rebuttal, the critics would then mention that in general, only working class students would be in the vocational track and not have the opportunity to get into the college bound track. In response, from what I've seen, the working class kids of my current city don't get into the college bound track, don't get solid skills in their remedial classes, and don't engage in the school and drop out. In addition, few schools will admit to tracking. Wouldn't it be better to freely admit dual tracking and provide solid education for both?

Much of what Heath describes in the old timers' recollections remind me a lot of my hometown and childhood. I grew up on a 40 acre farm with my parents, paternal grandparents, and aunt/uncle and cousins all living on the farmstead. We had a huge communal garden and orchard, froze and canned food, used layaway for big purchases, and joined a Christmas club to afford gifts at Christmas. My mother's family lived in the city, though it was a small town. However, even then, most of my aunts/uncles and cousins lived within a 20 minute drive of each other. 
There were major differences between my father's family and background and my mother's. In a way, Mom (and family) was Roadville and Dad was Trackton. Mom grew up in the city, had all the appliances and conveniences of electricity, went to dances and belonged to the after-school clubs. She was a fair to good student, liked reading and trained to be a secretary. Reading and words were a part of her everyday life. In her family, there were clear male/female roles and right and wrong ways to do things. Manners and politeness was explicitly taught. Children were expected to be quiet and play away from the adults, but toys and games were provided. My Dad's father died when he was six. My grandma had two small children and a farm, plus several other acres to tend. She took on the mantle of head of the household, even once she remarried.  Dad tells stories of Grandma's temper and inconsistent moods – which was part of her family. It was survival of the fittest, for him, growing up, and to be fit, meant to be strong – mentally and physically. Few books were in the house, and Dad said grandma even burned some of his books when she felt he was spending to much time lallygagging and not working.

When I grew up, there were few books, records or toys in the houses of my father's family. Since my aunt and grandma lived within walking distance of my parents, in the summer, I tended to float around and stay with whoever I wanted to for as long as I wanted. Conversation were long, multiple and loud, with people talking over and butting into the conversation frequently. Frugality, responsibility and cleanliness were valued traits. In my mother's family houses, there were books, magazines, toys, TV, crayons etc. People had mostly polite conversations where turn-taking and indoor voices was the norm.
This week I visited my parents, who live in a small town outside Milwaukee. My father was a farmer when growing up and a blue collar worker as an adult. My mother was a secretary and saleswoman. Neither had formal education past high school. My mom and I went for lunch at the Olive Garden and I was explaining some of the stuff I was reading and working on. Mom nodded her head and smiled and then exclaimed, “How did we end up having such smart kids?” Being both a compliment intended for me and a criticism of herself, I was at a loss at how to respond. She and I had attended the same high school, in the same town, yet here I am pursuing my PhD and she never took classes beyond high school. Yet, somehow, she instilled in me a love and desire for learning and knowledge, something not especially valued in my high school 20 years ago. Beer, ice fishing, deer hunting, and racing cars were highly valued. I would guess that less than half of my class went on to college. The rest took blue-collar jobs locally or went to trade school.

When growing up, much of my homework made no sense to my mom, much like the Roadville parents who found “the tasks [looking up definitions, finding answers to questions] always seem to point to something else, to suggest that they will have some purpose, some place to be put to use. But neither Roadville parents nor children see and participate in these ultimate occasions for use. The average, and even the good, students seem to do only minimally what is asked of them to conform.” (p. 46-47) I was one of those students – one who knew how to play the game and do what was asked, but I really didn't get into my own education until late in college. I didn't realize that the point was to do more than regurgitate – it was to think and create. When I finally understood the full potential of learning, I then decided to be a teacher.

For the past twenty years of my life, I've been living in transition, like the Trackton residents. Since 1988, I have moved every 3-4 years of my life. Fortunately, for the past 13 years, I've been happily married, which makes the transitions easier. But, I totally understand the mentally of not looking at what you have presently because of the promise of the future. As an international teacher, it isn't unusual to move that frequently, but it does make it difficult to find a “home” and community to really integrate into and give back too. Knowing I would be living eventually, some people didn't want to become to involved with me. As a couple, we looked at our apartments as places to sleep and eat in, not as homes. The kiss of death was the year we finally put artwork on the wall. Within a year, we'd be moving again.

I was quite horrified to read about how Trackton children were socialized to be assertive and aggressive with their dealings with each other. I know that this is my middle class mentality kicking in – but it just seems like such a fearful way to live. Kind of like when I watch any spy show or movie, I know that I could never be a spy because I am a horrible liar and infiltrator, I think I would be a horrible Trackton kid, or labeled as the slow or dull one. I don't like conflict and never dealt well with it. But, I can see how this form of socialization would cause problems within school. Since I taught in international schools in three countries, but with hundreds of different nationalities, I was often confronted with students who came to school with wildly different expectations of school, schooling, and peer relationships. Since their parents selected this particular American school, having the conversation about the differences was little easier, because the parental goal was to get their kids into American or International universities. So, socializing them to the “way we do school” was not as controversial as it is here in the US.

I was also quite angry to read about the unequal treatment of girls verse boys. I wonder how Heath dealt with observing this lack of respect that the girls received. I would think, since it was still at the early years of the feminist movement, she may not have had a response to it. Yet, ethically, nowadays, could I, as a researcher, walk away from the situation without trying to change it? I also found it interesting how the Trackton girls compensated for not being allowed into the conversation and they talked to themselves in mirrors. 
As Heath was describing the baby shower, I was reminded of a situation last spring. One of my graduate friends also had a baby shower, and I was giving a ride to several international graduate students. Knowing that traditions are very different around the world, I decided to ask about how the preparation for birth happened in their countries. Thankfully, the ride was long, because we all had a lot to say. But, it was a weird feeling to have to articulate specific cultural practices that are so common-sensical, to someone new. It reminds me of the movie The Mating Habits of the Earthbound Human (Jeff Abugov, 1999). It isn't a very good movie, but it is set up like a documentary, narrated by an alien about the dating scene. Again, what seems so natural, when looked at with uninitiated eyes, it quite unnatural.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Response to Graff - The Literacy Myth

Harvey J. Graff, The Literacy Myth: Cultural Integration and Social Structure in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1979. 

To begin with, in the modern era, literacy is considered a basic human right. According to UNESCO: 
  • “Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy. Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy. There are good reasons why literacy is at the core of Education for All (EFA).” (From
 If one believes this rhetoric, then the savior of the word is being able to read. However, I agree with Jean Anyon (2005) in her book Radical Possibilities that all the education in the world will not help with providing accessible, well-paying jobs to ethnic minorities in the US. Being schooled and literate does not guarantee a job, a good home, stable relationships or respect – however, I will agree that it can open doors that are otherwise closed.
However, Graff states that some statistics show that people who are literate are less content with material possessions as people who are illiterate. In addition, literacy is tied to modern values such as openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness. I think it is more the tie of schooling and literacy. In school, students are socialized to be competitive and want to do better. Although a C is average, few parents are satisfied with average, and so students are constantly pushed to do better. I would also have to admit that being highly schooled and literate, I am more discontent than in my youth. I know that there is always more to learn and not enough time to learn it all, and that I will never be an expert. I might be romanticizing, but I do remember a time when I was young, working on the farm, that the day began with chores and ended with chores, but there was a sense of accomplishment and finality of each day. Now as an academic, the words continue to flow, after the computer is turned off or the book is shut, and my mind never seems to rest. Is this an influence of literacy?

Literacy in North America has a strong link to morality. This is not new information for me, as a reading teacher, I've seen many examples of the early readers such as the Horn Book. Throughout the development of educational materials, the theme of morality or character education has permeated. Even in choosing high school texts, we are supposed to find something that teaches the students a theme or lesson, not just for read for entertainment. 
A new piece of information for me was the literacy rates of the immigrate population. As immigrants to North America, they had slightly higher literacy rates than the general population of their home countries. Plus, the farther the migration path, the higher the rate of literacy, so for the Irish moving to Great Britain, the rate is lower, yet to North America, a bit higher. Now that I think about it, being literate would make the move a little easier, but if literacy is also tied to openness to experiences, independence, self-efficacy, ambition, planning and world awareness, then the rate of literacy for migrants would be higher. Migrants, in general, tended to me more adaptive, integrated, and resourceful.

The myth of meritocracy is also not a new idea, but Graff explicitly shows that race and ethnicity had a much stronger role in getting ahead in society than literacy. Yet, at the same time, wealth and position was not dependent on literacy, as skilled workers could be illiterate and still attain middle class citizenship. Many illiterates lived and/or worked with literates, which would allow the person to get textual information, as reading aloud was a common practice. Many of the poorest people in the three cities were literate, yet poor become of ethnicity, gender or age. 
Mass schooling arose in response to urbanization with the intent to: teach habits and values, social discipline, work skills, cultural norms, national identity and finally, literacy. The purpose of schooling was more about acculturation than about reading/writing. It fulfilled the needs of a capitalistic ideals such as timeliness, discipline, and direction following. To get people on board, policymakers had to convince people that education was the path to personal mobility and societal well-being. The policymakers promised a change in the social order – doing away with social ascription and instituting meritocracy. This reasoning is still clearly ringing in the halls of American government.
Coming from a working class family, I was one of the first to graduate from university – which I always believed was built on the hard work of my grandparents, parents and me. I believed that through my own hard work and determination, I was a success. However, this isn't totally true, as much of my success has to do with knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time – in others words, luck. Throughout my education, I was introduced to people who “elevated” my working-class mentality, opened doors through recommendations, and gave me the economic resources to succeed. I am one of the “border-crossers” who moved from working class to middle class, which, without reflection, seems to support the ideology of meritocracy. But take one of the influential people out of my life, and like a missing rung in the ladder of social mobility, I may not have made it. Yet, for each border-crosser like me, there are many more who don't have the opportunity.

In addition, Graff cites the working class organizations that were disappointed with the middle class attitudes and values the schools were teaching. In their view, reading was a social and home practice and needn't be emphasized in schools, but rather, practical working skills were needed. For as much as the policymakers professed education for social mobility, the fact remained that industrialization did not demand more skilled labor and in actuality decreased the urban literacy rates. Schools were for “training in being trained” (p. 230).  

Finn (2009) in his book, Literacy with an attitude: Educating working-class children in their own self-interest highlights a Jean Anyon study of fifth grade classrooms in five New Jersey schools, which run the gambit of executive elite to working class poor. Although in many cases the curricular material was similar, if not identical, the pedagogy was completely different. Working class children were highly controlled and taught through teacher-centered, direct methods. She concluded that, “these children were developing a relationship to the economy, authority, and work that is appropriate preparation to wage labor” (p. 12). There wasn't clear problems with the teaching of the working class students, such as untrained teachers, lack of materials or racist attitudes. The rooms were well-ordered and students were completing work. However, the dispositions the students were cultivating were domesticating (ie – breaking a horse). The goal was not to educate, but to domesticate, which was why direct methods work well with working-class students.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Response to Scribner & Cole

Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Rpt. 1999.

Even Levi-Strauss, a well-known critic of the notion of historical progress, acknowledges that the invention of writing made it possible to accumulate the knowledge of each generation as “working capital” for the next. (p.4) I think the most important part of written literacy is the fact that it allows for the accumulation of knowledge, which can be passed on to other people in a different place or time. Yes, I acknowledge that oral stories can do this also, however, not as efficiently nor as accurately for large amounts of information. We are able to read Plato's Republic, not because people have continued to recited it, but because it was written down. We have Beowulf because it was committed to writing. What we know about the Egyptians comes primarily from their hieroglyphics. If all that stood from that time period were the Pyramids, which don't have interior writing, we would have no idea about their understanding of the afterworld and daily activities. The Egyptian writing has lasted for thousands of years and allows us to know what they knew. Without writing, their ruins would be just a bunch of clay bricks and mortar.

As literacy shapes culture, the argument goes, so it shapes human minds. (p. 4-5). Donald (1997) in the Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind, argues that the major cognitive transformations which allowed for new ways of remembering, retrieving and ultimately, defining human culture, was based on the ability to form language and then writing. What makes humans unique from animals is the ability to represent ideas through symbols or other representations. These symbols can be creatively designed, voluntarily retrieved and, taught. In addition, the human ability to speak allows for faster and more efficient transference of information, but isn't the only form of communication available. This allowed for things like tool making and expression of the past to be taught, which included the need to remember. However, this, in turn, created more complexity in social life, as longer memory was needed to coordinate daily and communal life. Therefore external memory forms were needed, such as graphic representations and text. This then forced the human brain to develop more abstract ways of thinking, remembering, and recalling information. In a way, it seems to be a chicken and egg argument – does the tool allow for new ways of thinking, or does new ways of thinking develop new tools. I think it is a little of both. One must have the ability/language to think in a certain way, but technology allows leaps of thinking.

Scribner and Cole's Study - The original intent of the study was to try to extricate literacy from schooling, as most previous studies confounded the two concepts. Therefore, the researchers had to find a culture in which literacy was not a school-based skill. In the Vai society, English was a school-based literacy, Arabic was a religious based literacy, and Vai was a society based literacy – each taught in very different ways, for different purposes. Being literate in any one of the three scripts allowed the person to move in different social circles, occupations, and cultural dimensions and helped define personal identity. Literacy co-occurred with out significant evens and experiences, which reflected the changes in social structure and economic changes that happened. However, not being literate in any of the scripts did not prevent people from reading and writing as there were literate people who would do the reading and writing for them, which was common and acceptable. The researchers' original question was: Does literacy induce cognitive change? However, as they were in the field, they realized that literacy was not a specific practice, but multiple practices in different contexts. To be able to measure differences or change in cognition, they had to tailor their tests to the context. 
Overall, I was amazed at the tremendous amount of people, time, money and organization that had to go into this study. In comparison, I'm looking at going into one school and one classroom for my research, and finding it overwhelming. Not only did they have to travel thousands of miles, to study a culture which spoke different languages, they had to hire and train field researchers fluent in multiple languages and develop new methods and tests. All experimental paradigms in common were invented in laboratories of experimental and developments psychologist for quite another purpose then the study of cultural differences in thinking. (p. 113). This, I think, was a major breakthrough in research design – taking the cognitive research “to the streets”, rather than in a lab. Just like so much of the NCLB research, as scientifically based, has very little resemblance to real classrooms, early cognitive research didn't look like real life. Plus, in designing tests for cognition, the researchers found major cultural differences in how to approach ideas and tasks. 
I found it quite humorous to read that the Vai language did not have a word for “word”. Before the field researchers could work with participants, they had to figure out a way to translate the idea of “word” into a concept that the Vai people would understand. So, does literacy change they way people think? Somewhat – as the words available defines how and what a person can think about. When I lived in Lithuania, my local friends would choose to swear in Russian over Lithuanian, because the cursing was stronger and felt better. One of my favorite phrases in Portuguese is “estupidamente gelada” , which directly translated is “stupidly cold”, but the reality of it is different in Brazil because of the style of beer and way of serving it. I have not had a stupidly cold beer here in the US.

However, the other thing I found interesting was the fact that literacy (or lack of) did not determine meta-linguistic knowledge of the Vai language. Vai written script was often discussed for correctness by both writers and non-writers. In just imaging this, I see significant differences between the Vai culture of the time and current US culture. As an English teacher, I'm always confronted with people who are embarrassed or apologize for their English, “Oh, I'll have to be be careful talking with you.” I have found that the average American person doesn't want to discuss language and often feel that they don't have enough knowledge to be able to discuss it. Even my mother, who was a secretary for 30 years and dealt with language everyday, still feels like she doesn't have a formal grasp of the English language. 
In the end, to be able to find any cognitive consequences of literacy, the researchers had to tie their tests to the actual practices of the community. In a way, I feel that is a little bit like cheating – at least in conjunction with the original question. If literacy is really suppose to affect cognition, then it should be obvious in everyday life. But, if the test has to be tailored to match the use of literacy in the culture, is it really a valid tie between literacy and cognition, or is it cultural use/expectation and cognition?

The next interesting question the researchers started looking at what whether or not knowing a specific writing influence the way on speaks. They found that yes, it does, but only showed up when the specific type and context was part of the experimental design. Which, mildly shows, that literacy affects individual mental performance of a task.

The whole ritual of letter writing within the Vai culture was interesting to me also. As an elementary student, I clearly remember the lessons of letter writing – business verses friendly – and having to send letters off. Like the Vai, there were clear structures within these formats that made the letter good or bad. However, a major difference was that the Vai generally only wrote to people they knew, whereas I learned to write complaint letters to companies and people I never met. At that time, it was a very exciting to get letters back. However, with the immediacy of Facebook and email, this is no longer a unique event. However, both the Vai and my own experiences shows that writing requires more of a cognitive load, as the sender and reader do not occupy the same physical space, so there is no interactivity and the writer must anticipate the reader's need for understanding. Before literacy, a messenger would be sent with a specific message, but he could also fill in the blanks if the receiver had questions. I think this would be a cognitive shift between orality and literacy. Which led to another finding for the researchers – that those with literacy were more likely to orient new players to the physicality of an unknown board game than those without written literacy. Vai letter writing seemed to influence the way a person organized and conveyed information orally.

In the end, the researchers came to a description of a “practices account of literacy” (p. 235) – practice, meaning a recurrent, goal directed sequence of activities using a tool, knowledge and skill. And, to understand the consequences of literacy, one must understand the specific characteristics of a specific practices and how that practice fits into the whole culture. Although this seems a bit common sense to me, I can see how ground breaking it was at a time that literacy was still very much a moral issue. Plus, the researchers found that there were not deep psychological differences between literate and non-literate Vai people. This would shatter the idea that literacy makes for a more civilized or moral person. In fact, the researchers observed that living in an urban setting had more of an effect on how a person thought than having literacy. This would seem to make sense to me. Just like there is a push now for college students to spend some time overseas, personal experience in different settings has more of an influence that just reading about something. (Yes, I know that reading opens new worlds, but living in new worlds forces people to confront new ideas and beliefs more so than reading does.)

In class, we had a short discussion about literacy and culture. As a middle/high school teacher of humanities, culture is a common topic. Within that context, language is a part of culture, along with food, dress, habits, etc. As the researchers said, “We have seen that Vai culture is in Vai literacy practices; in the writing system, the means used to transmit it, the functions it serves and contexts of use, and the ideologies which confer significance on these functions.” (p. 259) So, culture is in literacy, but literacy is not the only aspect of culture.