Monday, March 26, 2012

Books: Mirrors and Windows to Our Lives

"Mirrors let people see reflections of their own lives: windows let them see others' lives. Seeing oneself represented in literature engenders a sense of pride, it encourages a reader to take more interest in a book and feel a sense of involvement in literary discussions that follow a reading selection. Books that act as windows allow readers to see experiences that are different from their own lives and stretch the range of experiences that we have had." -Junko Yokota

We read to find meaning. But what is meaning? Meaning is making a connection with a text - connecting to ourselves, another text, or the world. Meaningful books are the ones we fall in love with, that we want to read again and again. According to Junko Yokota, books allow us to better understand ourselves, as well as to better understand other people and the world.

Part of teachers' and parents' jobs is to introduce children to meaningful books. Reading out loud to children is one of the best ways to model enjoyable reading and to show children possibilities for connecting with a text. Through shared reading, children can learn observation skills and inference, as well as phonological awareness. Encouraging children to talk during a read-aloud encourages them to think more deeply about a text and to make it personally meaningful to them. Ask questions to show children that it is okay to ask questions. Talk about why the author might have written what he or she did, and think out loud about how the children might be able to write similarly.

Books act as a mirror to show you parts of yourself you were not aware of; or they act as a window or doorway can take you on a trip around the world or back in time. This is the magic of books that we need to share with our young students, children, and friends. Children who have experienced the magic will be much more likely to enjoy reading for the rest of their lives, and we, as teachers and family members, have the joy of helping them begin this journey.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Literacy as a Routine

"Literacy choices" are common in elementary school classrooms. Children might be assigned or choose individual or small group literacy activities which they work on for a set amount of time. This part of the day has the potential to be incredibly enjoyable, educational, and productive for students and teachers. When students are independently engaged in activities, teachers have the opportunity to do individual student conferences, or circulate to observe and facilitate activities. If a teacher teaches the routine of literacy choices from the beginning of the year, the students will become pros at making choices and staying on task throughout their work time. It is also important to keep the choices interesting throughout the year. Teachers might provide variations on familiar choices every once in a while.

Some literacy choices might include:
~Listening to a book on a CD
~Doing a free-write (working on a story, a letter, a book, etc.)
~Writing on the chalkboard, dry-erase board, or in a sensory material
~Using magnet letters to write words
~"Writing the Room" - Looking for specific categories of words around the classroom (such as colors, names, words starting or ending with a certain letter or sound)

Families can encourage independent and collaborative literacy work at home by giving children time to read or write on their own, and working on literacy activities as a team. Teachers can send home a list of the literacy choices available to students at school so that families are aware of their children's routines. These choices can also be demonstrated at a Family Literacy Night or during parent-teacher conferences. Literacy choices are a great way for children to gain literacy independence because they are activities that can be done with little or no assistance. However, they can also be worked on collaboratively so that students can build teamwork and communication skills.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Human Learning: The End Product of Meaning-Making

"Why so many competing theories of learning?" This question started off the webinar tonight with Dr. Brian Cambourne of University of Wollongong in NSW, Australia.

As diverse people living around the globe, we have very different "ways of knowing, thinking about, and understanding the issues associated with learning and learning to read" because we have such varied world views. Dr. Cambourne says that we can look at theories of learning through two lenses: psychological (knowledge comes from outside and is stored in the learner) and biological ("learning is a special kind of knowing made possible by constructing meaning-making using abstract symbol systems"). He argues for the biological lens, saying that young children learn through experience and meaning-making. Language is just one of the systems we use to make meaning of the world, and language learning certainly fits into Cambourne's Conditions for Learning:
  • Immersion - We are immersed in language from the time we are born. We are able to see and hear language being used from the very beginning of our lives.
  • Demonstration - Because we are immersed in language, we see countless demonstrations of language use, and we begin to understand what rules are followed in various settings.
  • Expectation - We hold expectations for children's language usage - namely, that they will use language successfully. When we are young, we do not see language as an option; it is simply the communication we dive into when we begin to interact with others.
  • Responsibility - Based on these expectations, we assume the responsibility to use language in the appropriate ways we see modeled in our society.
  • Use - Learning occurs through experience; children need time and opportunity to practice language.
  • Approximation - Mistakes are necessary for learning to occur. Providing a risk-free environment for children to approximate, or "have a go," is essential for them to feel comfortable using language and practicing despite mistakes.
  • Response - The way we respond to a child's approximations can have a huge affect on their desire to experiment with language. If we respond positively to children's approximations, as well as model conventional language, children will eventually drop their approximations and use what we consider to be proper language.
Through these always-connected conditions, Cambourne argues, humans know how to learn language. It is part of our biology, and every person is capable of learning language, although we learn at different rates. As teachers and families, it is important to remember this. When a child is struggling to use language conventionally, it should not be an immediate cause for alarm. By pulling students out of a classroom for remedial work, we are interrupting the natural process of language development. Instead of taking this approach, we need to give students times to develop and make sure that we are constantly providing meaningful, real-world language experiences for each individual child.

Shaping Classroom Literacy through Self-Awareness

How do kids learn to read and write? Wouldn't it be easiest if we just sent them to school, the teacher did some basic lessons, and all students left reading and writing at the same level? Unfortunately and fortunately, literacy learning is much more complicated than that. Fortunately, literacy learning can be very exciting because all children develop in unique ways, and they bring their personal experiences and habits into the classroom. When children are assisted in developing literacy skills using the best methods for them individually, reading and writing become fun and personally meaningful. Unfortunately, the fact that children are so different from each other can make it difficult for teachers to address the unique needs of each student.

The enjoyment and success of literacy in an early elementary classroom can very much depend on the teacher's discourse - the way the teacher views the children's literacy achievement according to his or her beliefs about literacy learning (Wohlwend, 2009). If a teacher views students as young people who are not ready or able to write, or as robots who follow generic instructions in order to learn, he or she will not be allowing the children to develop their full potential, or to show how much they already know about literacy. On the other hand, if a teacher sees students as creative, social beings who already have so much to offer in literacy work, he or she will be likely to promote a classroom environment where student work is shared and valued every day. This environment encourages children to love reading and writing, and gives them confidence in their abilities.

It is important to understand our own literacy discourse as teachers, parents, and caregivers because it is our own self-awareness that shows us how we can help our students improve their literacy skills. When we know how we view our students and believe that we are doing our best work for them, we will be able to see the necessary next steps for their literacy development. In today's world, teachers are bound by standards and testing, but we should not let this completely drive our teaching. We alone can see what is best for the children in our care, and we should plan instruction based on their interests and development. When children are given the opportunity to experience literacy through developmentally appropriate but challenging social activities, they will enjoy learning as well as perform better on standardized tests.