[H]umans possess the ability to learn language and to use language in learning. We use language not only to share our insights and experiences, bet also to reflect on our experiences and learn from them. If teachers have a deep appreciation of the universal ability of children to learn and use functional written language, and a basic understanding of how written language works, then a very different kind of classroom emerges, one in which the teacher supports learners as they move into reading and writing by building on their language strengths. …
This vignette was written by Debra Goodman, a former middle-grades teacher at the Dewey Center for Urban Education, a magnet school in inner-city Detroit, MI. Key activities are represented in italic.
In the math center, several students are staring at post-it labels clustered under the headings “Basketball” and “Freeze Tag.” Jay is reading to the group from the book Sideways Arithmetic at Wayside School.
“Oh,” says Marcella, “I thought you said ‘cheese tag.’… I LOVE freeze tag.” Demetrius says, “OK. Well, if Marcella plays freeze tag, then Janice will too. She does anything Marcella does.
“And there goes Freda,” says Renata. “She said she’d only play basketball if there were ten people.”
Steven, a new student, is instructed to move the names from “Basketball” to “Freeze Tag.” Jay then goes back to the book to read more as the group collaborates to solve the puzzle the book has posed.
Elsewhere, the Art Committee is meeting. Meagan and Ben are making a sign titled “Rules for the Art Committee.” The rules are:
- There are no rules.
- Pay attention to rule #1.
John looks up from his poster — a pencil puncturing a basketball, meant to demonstrate that the Art Committee is more important than the Sports Committee. “I think we should have real rules,” he says. Tamika looks up from filling out the weekly committee report and the discussion begins.
In the Sports Center, Bethany is organizing books and materials. As she puts the books away, she looks at the cover and then flips through each book, sometimes stopping to read or examine an illustration. At times she comments to Heather who is reading a book called Teammates and thinking about Jackie Robinson. “You won’t believe this,” says Heather. “He couldn’t even stay in the same hotel with the other players.” Bethany stops to read the book with Heather.
I am also in the Sports Center, working with Derek who’s been having some trouble with his research. Together we’ve been reading about the origins of soccer. I put the book aside and ask Derek what important or interesting facts he’d like to remember. “Put down how warriors would kick heads around the field after the battle,” Derek says. I act as scribe as we list the salient facts.
Meanwhile, three boys are sitting in the reading corner surrounded by Matt Christopher’s books. They are talking about the books they’ve read and deciding which books they want to read next. They consult the bulletin board where a chart entitled “Matt Christopher Fan Club” has a place for the club members to check off the books they’ve read. They get a little noisy, and Monique looks up from her Babysitter’s Club book. “Be quiet,” she says. “I’m trying to read.” Anthony never looks up from the thick fantasy book he’s engrossed in.
In the Science Center, six students are reading instructions for a fitness experiment. Julia, a member of the Science Committee, answers their questions if they become confused. After reading the instructions, they sit quietly for 30 seconds and then Julia helps them find their pulse rate and record it on a worksheet. The group moves out into the hallway to examine walking and running pulse rates.
John and Donavan have been circulating around the room with their survey Question: “What is your favorite sport?” They return to the open work area to discuss their data. After talking over the responses, they begin to organize the information on a survey tally sheet. Carol sits near them writing a letter to the editor of Sports Illustrated protesting their lack of serious attention to women as athletes rather than sex objects, as in the swimsuit edition. A stack of magazines are piled next to her and she refers to them from time to time. Other students are looking through the same magazines for articles related to their research questions.
At the writing conference table, Lisa and Eli listen as Reuben reads a poem about swimming. Eli says it reminds him of some of Arnold Adoff’s poems and he runs over to the Sports Center to find the book.
At the listening post near the Sports Center, Sam and Daniel are listening to a taped interview of a local athlete who visited the classroom. They look over the notes in their thinking journals. They read the notes that have been written on post-its and posted around the listening post carrel, and they write out some comments of their own.
Sharon throws up her hands in frustration from the desk where she’s been looking through a stack of books for information. She walks over to the secretary desk to sign up for a research conference. Kenneth, the classroom secretary for the day, finds the right folder for Sharon and crosses her name off the pencil list as she returns her pencil and goes to put her books away. When Barbara comes into the room with the bathroom pass, he calls over to Lisa that it’s her turn. Then he puts away the folders and sign-out sheets and goes back to the book he’s reading.
When the research group returns from the school library, work time is over and it’s time for everyone to clean up. As the class gathers for sharing, Natasha, who’s in charge of the sharing session, turns to Steven first.
“How did you like your first day?” she asks.
“It was a lot of fun,” Steven says, “but when do you do reading?”
“It IS reading, stupid,” Derek shouts.
“You’re out of order,” Natasha says. “Steven, we’ve been ‘doing reading’ all day.” I don’t say anything as she and the others explain.
I chose this vignette for two reasons. First, it shows the possible scope of reading and writing in a classroom where the teacher understands that it’s her role to involve students in a wide range of functional reading and writing and to support them in their development. Notice the range of genres that are represented. The students use reading and writing to serve the many functions of problem-solving, inquiring, engaging in functional discourse and organizing and acquiring knowledge. And as they use written language, their control over the genres develops and solidifies.
My second purpose is to show how pervasive the belief is, even among students (as Steven demonstrates), that reading in school consists of exercises, drills and prepackaged, controlled texts designed to teach reading. Many children tell researchers that even the literature they read is supposed to teach them words and skills — they know that because their grades are based on how they do on the exercises and test results, not on their actual reading. Months after school began, some of Debra Goodman’s students were still incredulous that they got credit for reading at home, for instance. They had trouble letting go of the idea that reading is workbook pages. …
There’s a whole lot of reading and writing going on in this classroom, but what about reading and writing instruction? We see the teacher in only two events. She works with Derek who needs help with his research on the origins of soccer. She reads with him, assists him to get information from a book he can’t read by himself, demonstrates the required style of reading for informational purposes, encourages him to organize what he wants to report and takes notes for him. Later she’ll help him reorganize his information, but he will be the one to produce the final draft of the report and share it with the class.
We also see her involved in the class sharing, but she’s a silent participant. So is this teacher not teaching? Of course she is: she has created a classroom community of learners and, under her guidance, the students have taken responsibility for much of the ongoing organization of the class. They take turns acting as class secretary and chairing class meetings and discussions, not only relieving her of many duties but also giving them responsibility for and ownership of their classroom — and creating opportunities for many functional reading and writing activities. The students are involved in planning what they will study and how, encouraged to collaborate and help each other, and engaged in a lot of self-evaluation. They know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and they judge how successful they’ve been. What they are reading is authentic language, chosen because it serves their functional needs, so they know how well they’re comprehending what they’re reading.
These students control their reading and writing and research. They learn on their own, in pairs, in committees, as a whole class, and they solve their problems together. They discuss what they know and need to know, and what they’ve learned. In the course of a school day, they initiate and/or participate in many different kinds of reading and writing.
Much had already been done before we looked into this classroom, of course. Centers had been organized, committees established to maintain and staff them, and rules drafted for their use. Systems, structure, planning, order and organization were set in place to encourage literacy learning in authentic literacy events. The teacher is everywhere and nowhere.