Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The New Literacy

Visual Thesaurus subscriber Debbie Shults is a veteran teacher, literacy coach -- and now, blogger -- who's helping her Sarasota, Florida, middle school define a "new literacy." So what's so new about this new literacy? We spoke to Debbie about innovations in language arts education at her school, where teachers there now make literacy a fundamental part of their class work -- no matter what the subject, from math to gym to shop class (yes, even shop!). How? Read our conversation:

VT: First, tell us about your work as a literacy coach.

Debbie: This is my first year as literacy coach, a position that was created by the Florida legislature to increase literacy in every school in the state. I principally work with teachers to enhance reading and writing instruction. But we also include many other kinds of activities that support literacy, like learning how to interview, learning how to view a film critically and write about it, and other exercises.

VT: So you're making English class more productive.

Debbie: Not just language arts classrooms. I work with teachers to implement literacy programs in math classrooms, science classrooms and social studies classrooms, too.

VT: Math classes?

Debbie: One of the things we're doing state-wide is working to train every secondary school teacher in Florida as a "content area reading teacher."

This doesn't mean that we're going to say, Okay boys and girls, in math class today we're going to go over phonic skills. It simply means we're helping math teachers become aware of literacy in their classroom. We know that literacy is a key ingredient for anyone to become a critical thinker. When children are studying math, of course, critical thinking is absolutely essential.

VT: How does this work?

Debbie: There are many math problems that children have to be able to read, analyze, and sort out how to solve. We want to assist teachers to help their students accomplish this. Furthermore, we're encouraging math teachers to really embrace their discipline and talk to kids about books on math that they've read.

There are some great books about math out there. One that I read a couple of years ago is called Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea. It's a terrific history of how the idea of "zero" came about. I shared it with my students and they just thought it was great.

There are also lots of books about the histories of the brilliant people who developed math. A lot of kids don't realize that math as a subject makes really fascinating reading, as does the history of math. So we're encouraging math teachers to develop classroom libraries.

VT: So math becomes more than solving number problems; you're giving students a sense of the world of math through literacy training.

Debbie: Yes. It's so easy to teach literacy in social studies and English classes, of course, because they are about stories. But why not math and science, too? We have a young science teacher who has ordered classroom sets of Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. The excerpts in that book are fascinating, funny and sometimes weird stories about different things that have happened in scientific history. There's one story, for example, about a researcher a long, long time ago who was interested in the human eye so he actually put a needle through his own eye. Middle school kids, of course, eat that stuff up.

VT: I'm sure.

Debbie: Yes, the grosser it is the better. There are so many things that are really interesting in science. The idea is to motivate kids to read about it.

VT: But how about other classes, like PE class?

Debbie: Our PE teachers are really doing a fabulous job with writing and reading, working with sports biographies and things like that. They teach the traditional PE classes where you dress out, come out on the gym floor, do your exercises or play softball. But they will also take, maybe, one day a week off where the students may write or read about something sports-related.

In our school we do a monthly sample writing test that is patterned after our State Writing Exam. Even the PE, art and music teachers participate in assessing the writing that is done by students in their team area classes. Every teacher in the school does it. But I have to tell you, that when we first started doing this many non-academic teachers said, I don't think so.

VT: What happened?

Debbie: The teachers got used to it. We ask our teachers to give this a shot, even shop teachers. The more they do it, the better they became at teaching literacy. But it took a lot of training.

For example, one thing we had to train them was on the type of writing we do for the State Exam. What we call "on demand" writing. The kids come in with their pencils sharpened and get a little booklet. They open up their booklet and there's the prompt. They've never seen it before. They aren't allowed to have a dictionary or an encyclopedia, anything. They have 45 minutes to plan an essay and write it on that topic.

VT: Sounds tough.

Debbie: Well, it takes a lot of work to teach kids how to think and organize their thoughts and when we train teachers to assess these tests, one of the big things we have to say is stop worrying about spelling. You have to remember the students don't have an encyclopedia or a dictionary or a thesaurus. They are doing the best they can off the top of their heads.

VT: This is a brave new world for teachers who traditionally aren't language arts teachers.

Debbie: Yes it is. But everything is changing in education today. Teaching tools are changing constantly, of course, especially with the Internet. What we're being asked to know and try to deliver to our students is really changing. A huge challenge is that with so much information available, teachers don't have all the answers. As a matter of fact, if they attempt to have all the answers they're only going to embarrass themselves.

VT: So how do you deal with this?

Debbie: We're now switching to a "facilitator's" mode as teachers. We ask: How do we direct students toward the information that they need? How do we help them comprehend it, assess it and use it? That's really the new literacy.

We're now gathering our information through the Internet or through other means that are non-traditional and non-textbook. Even our shop teacher, who renamed his class Technology Education, uses a CAD design system - that is, computer aided design. That's a new literacy for him and his students.

It's a transition. Our young teachers are really attuned to this. I think the first time I saw a teacher with a tattoo on her ankle, I thought, boy, I'm living in a new world now.

VT: Did you go out and get one?

Debbie: Ha! It's not my generation, let's put it that way. But I definitely appreciate our young teachers and their energy and passion for what they're doing. When you find excellent young teachers today, you think, they have so many other options, so for them to choose teaching is really a wonderful thing.

VT: Indeed.

Debbie: They also motivated me in ways I didn't expect.

VT: How?

Debbie: This past year I worked with three very young teachers, my 25-year old intern, my 25-year old social studies teacher and my 27-year old science teacher. Let me just say that I'm old enough to be their mother, and kind of was in some ways. They came in and said they wanted to blog. They wanted to wiki. They wanted to do this. They wanted to do that. I was like, wait, wait, wait, define terms please. They really turned me on to all these tools on the Internet - and inspired me to start my own blog, which I call An American Teacher.

VT: Amazing.

Debbie: They got me to read their blogs, which express their daily experiences teaching. They really ponder what they're doing in the classroom. I thought, hey, I like them, these are really reflective tools.

I have eight or so years of my teaching career left, so decided I wanted my own blog to be about how we improve teaching and make it attractive to this remarkable younger generation.

VT: You have all this experience.

Debbie: Yes, mine is "the old, wise woman's" blog. I've been very serious about being a teacher since 1977 and I'm at a point now where I think I actually know something. It's very comforting to know that all those years were not wasted -- I've learned quite a bit and now I can start sharing it online.

[To learn more about wikis please check out this post. - Editor]

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 5th 2007, 7:24 AM
Comment by: William B.
This looks like more educational gimmickry that attracts more and more money into a wasteful, inefficient, oppressive system.

Wednesday September 5th 2007, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Paula E.
I don't agree so much with Mr. Brewer. I know there's a lot of waste and inefficiency in our U.S. public schools, but I think teaching kids to think critically and write coherently is really important. The problem I have is the teachers' sadly lacking level of literacy to begin with. I went through my 17-year old son's sylabi (sp?) last night after the first day of school and couldn't stop myself from editing all their grammar and punctuation mistakes. The art of proofreading alone is lost on physics and calculus teachers--I don't care how "smart" they are. But the lack of understanding of grammar and of how to communicate a message to avoid confusion is astounding.
Wednesday September 5th 2007, 8:43 AM
Comment by: S. J.
Encouraging article, and the blog is more so. Bravo! Teachers today are evolving, adapting to changing needs. This article and the blog mirror the transformation taking place - also a catalyst for teachers who read them.

One error though - the Bill Bryson book title is A Short History of Nearly Everything. You're showing the title to a Ken Wilber book [wonderful book, but not what's intended] and unfortunately the link goes to Wilber's book, not Bryson's.
Wednesday September 5th 2007, 9:47 AM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Good catch, S. Jaeschke, thanks. I fixed that link to Bryson's book. -- Harris, VT Editor
Wednesday September 5th 2007, 10:15 AM
Comment by: THOMAS H.
Huzzah! I'm glad to hear the public school system (at least in this case) is pushing literacy vs. the short term knowledge memory game to achieve a better grade. My sons are in a Montessori system for the sole purpose of literacy - being able and encouraged to think through problems, to develop solutions in both individual and group settings. My older son will play chess with a friend during free time when they can do anything or nothing!
Thursday September 6th 2007, 12:20 PM
Comment by: Robert R.
Debbie, congratulations on your new blog. I too have had to start blogging to better understand the mindset of my younger co-workers ( www.aardvarktongue.com/blog). I am very impressed with this new literacy approach - we all learn in different ways and using literature in more situations will certainly be a benefit to many students.
Thursday September 13th 2007, 11:05 PM
Comment by: anna S. (South Africa)Top 10 Commenter
Like Mr. Brewer, I believe in substance over gimmick. But this "new literacy" is not flimflam. Getting & sustaining the interest of adolescents is easier through tech stuff. Rigor is layered in by teachers in real-life, problem-solving contexts.
Send me more.

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