How can our in-class activities fully support students out-of-classroom lives?
This is a question many teachers ponder as they design learning activities – particularly as we embark on a new school year.
In order to maximize the potential of having in-class work impact students’ out-of-class lives, teachers need to ensure that literacy content is relevant and applicable to students’ out-of-the-classroom lives. When designing units and lessons, Thoughtful Literacy teachers consider the following characteristics:
Experiences. The literacy curriculum should provide students with many different reading and writing experiences. These experiences change when readers read for different reasons and when writers write for different reasons – and do so for different durations. The multitude of literary experiences mirrors the multitude of life experiences thinkers encounter in their out-of-the-classroom lives.
Take for example the following scenarios: being put on the spot to share an opinion when dialoguing with friends, being taken aback when someone aggressively disagrees with you in a meeting, being given a week to prepare for a product-launch presentation at work. Life is full of different thinking experiences that we need to prepare our students to navigate.
The idea here is similar to what professional athletes do when training. They conduct drills and practice sessions that mimic real-game scenarios.
In a Thoughtful Literacy classroom, students are exposed to a gamut of literacy experiences. Readers practice analyzing everything from quotes, short articles, poems, and novels, while sharing everything from their immediate reaction to their longer-term, researched analysis. Writers practice responding to prompts, to writing freely, to sticking with a piece for several drafts. They practice writing exclusively for themselves, exclusively for an audience, and sometimes for both. Thinkers are asked to debate and collaborate.
Many of these experiences can be built into the routines of a classroom. For instance, some teachers start class with a quick write about a provoking quote before getting into researching information for a persuasive article. Others carve out time for students to write in a personal journal on a daily basis.
The driving force behind providing students with different experiences is all about applicability. How can we best prepare our students for the life experiences they’ll encounter as thinkers?
Thinking about our lives as adults and the thinking experiences we encounter: these experiences are often very different, they’re sometimes emotionally-charged, sometimes instantaneous and knee-jerk, they’re sometimes methodical and longer-term. The more students’ in-class thinking experiences mirror their future out-of-class thinking scenarios, the better.
Choice. The literacy curriculum should provide students with the freedom to choose what to read and what to write. The driving force behind the importance of providing choice for readers and writers is relevance.
As much as there’s a place for common writing assessments and shared reading texts (e.g. see the “Experiences” section above), the majority of students’ writing and reading decisions needs to be controlled by them.
Think of how adults would feel if everything they wrote or read was prescribed by an external governing body. Over time, telling students what to read and what to write will not only reduce buy-in and motivation, it implicitly sends the message that they should expect to be told what to do. It’s the latter point that decays what all literacy teachers hope for their students:
We want our students to see themselves as unique, confident readers and writers.
If students are not given choice, the concepts of reading and writing become institutionalized; reading and writing becomes “something to be done in school”. Providing students with choice builds agency and self-awareness.
Choice allows thinkers to explore what’s interesting to them, to explore what best connects to who they are, and to explore what they’re currently grappling with in their out-of-classroom lives. Teachers make room for choice by framing class as a time for different literacy experiences – some of these experiences will be dictated, some of these experiences will be independent. This is where independent reading and writing projects gain traction.
When Thoughtful Literacy teachers conference with students individually, and guide them to use the T-Tool and E-Tools to analyze a personal, out-of-the-classroom issue/belief, authenticity is paramount. The spark for self-reflection comes from the student’s reading and/or writing. That individualized reading and writing needs to spring from an authentic choice the student made. Otherwise, relevance diminishes, and the feel of the conference becomes more of “compliant or coerced student jumping through an academic hoop” rather than a genuine conversation about something meaningful for that student.
Variety. The literacy curriculum should provide students with opportunities to see a variety of thinking strategies and tools. Just as students benefit from exposure to a variety of genre and topic (e.g. see “Experiences” and “Choice” sections above), they also receive an important message when exposed to a variety of strategies and tools (or “thinking paths”).
The message: there is no one right way to think and no one tool to cling to, but there are best-practice principles that should be monitored.
This premise speaks to one of Thoughtful Literacy’s key principles that teachers need to teach “the how”. It’s not enough to provide for students a list of reading comprehension strategies or step-by-step guidelines for writing an essay. It’s not enough to just show students how to apply comprehension strategies or writing guidelines.
Thoughtful Literacy teachers aim to showcase and emphasize that writers, readers – thinkers – are individuals who go about the decision-making and idea-forming processes in unique ways.
Consider adult thinkers and their tendencies. There are some thinking pathways that have been reinforced when making decisions and analyzing ideas. These pathways can alter depending upon the circumstances. For example, the cognitive strategy or tool we use when we are emotionally-charged can differ from the strategy or tool we use when we are well-rested, or emotionally-drained, or melancholy, or fearful.
Thoughtful Literacy teachers recognize this and coach students to get to know themselves by noticing their different thinking paths in different circumstances. By doing so, thinkers become more self-aware of their fall-back or go-to cognitive pathways when faced with a stressful situation. This awareness helps students to recognize some of the pitfalls of a particular decision-making pathway, and prepare them to be on watch for making similar missteps (if any) in the future.
This is why providing students with a variety of thinking strategies and tools is key: a menu of options provides adolescents with just that – a list of strategies to choose from to fit the given situation.
Above all, when Thoughtful Literacy teachers showcase their own thinking as a model for students, they emphasize that what’s on display is a cognitive pathway that was effective for that given moment in time. In class, students explore different paths, and engage with different strategies and tools – essentially, explore what strategies and tools work best for them as thinkers and feelers.