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Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings, School Stories

Authentic Literacy

Time to Read and Write–and Discuss

My fourth grade literacy group right now contains many kids I have not worked with a lot in the past, because our teachers differentiate well students’ levels in literacy. I work with a core group of kids 4 days a week and others who only come in for the writing extension 2 days.  So, Monday and Wednesday we read and on Tuesday and Thursday we write–through blogs and wikis. I am providing them intensive time for reading and discussion of literacy aspects on Mondays and Wednesdays and prolonged time to write on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It is amazing me how intense the writing sessions are–for an hour, these kids type away on their wikis and blogs-thinking, reading, writing, revising and responding to one another.

Building Community

(background knowledge, getting to know each other)

Their blog entries are really surprising me–I have left the direction they take completely open, with little guidance as to topics. Initially, I really needed to just see what they knew and how they wrote.  A couple of fortuitous moves have given the kids great motivation to write. First, we have “blogging buddies” in Colorado and the two classes comment on each other’s writings–and we skyped with them last week , so the kids are feeling like they sort of know each other.  (See Jordan’s entry here about the Skype session.) Secondly, @drjohnhadley, a professor at the University of South Alabama, has recommended my blogs to his college students, so my students are getting LOTS of comments! They not only are seeing the benefits of writing and expressing themselves, but they are also getting feedback regularly, and not just from the teacher! I also give them time weekly , during literacy, to work on their blogs in school–so they see their blog work as valued. I have decided, for the time being, to let them keep using their blogs for writing of their own interests and choice. As I said, these are kids I don’t know well, and I need to discover their backgrounds, as Angela Stockman so eloquently describes in her blog, On Background Knowledge.


My fifth graders are getting ready to take the writing test the beginning of March, so Friday I asked them to please help the 4th graders by responding and helping them edit.  The 5th graders are having a ball, finding a real-life use for practicing their editing skills, even spending time this weekend sharing ideas and comments! (And, even though Elizabeth says responding is helping with her editing skills, I need to help her edit her own comments! Despite being told not to use texting language, she is doing so as she gives a friend feedback.)

Loving Books–or NOT

So, the 4th graders are writing, pretty prolifically.  These are kids who already read–and each of them are reading a self-chosen chapter book (or two or three) at home. It’s what they are doing with me for “reading” that is also surprising me.  They came to me complaining about the worksheets they have to do after reading a book.  One child even said they loved Owl Moon when they were younger, but having to read it and do a bunch of worksheets on it, “…killed the book for me–I don’t like it anymore.”

That tears at my heart–to have well-meaning teachers “kill” a child’s love for a book  inadvertently. I  decided right away, as I planned for this group, I would not give them worksheets, but instead find other ways to engage them in deep book discussions.

Thinking and Talking Together

I began with a unit on Tomie de Paola, one of my favorite authors, to discuss characters and the growth or consistency of characterization through a series of books over time.  I next pulled out Ezra Jack Keats, (to introduce a city neighborhood setting to my rural kids) and the kids next moved us to Mercer Mayer, catching the similarities in the plots and themes Keats and Mayer used. Centering our discussions on characters initially, students moved the talk to plots and storylines as we followed a Socratic  routine of  “asking questions and testing tentative answers against reason and fact in a continual circle of honest debate.” (Schmoker, Focus, p 36) As we discovered common childhood themes and talked about common childhood behaviors in the easy stories written by Mayer and Keats, I pulled out another set of books I loved, Megan McDonald’s The Potato Man and The Great Pumpkin Switch, which are set in the early 1900s, to bring in the timelessness of themes and character traits.

Showing What You Know

In these stories, the grandfather is sharing stories from his childhood–telling his grandkids about “the olden days.” Each book ends with a teaser to introduce the next book–and the third one isn’t published yet (and may not even have been written by the book author.) My kids created a wiki around these books and many of them have written (or are in the process of writing) the “third book” in the series about a lucky penny. They have created, WITHOUT teacher direction,  vocabulary pages around words in the books they did not understand, a descriptive character page, an opinion page, and are sharing their versions of the third story. India’s version not only captures the writing style and voice of the tales and Ms. McDonald, but ends her story just as Megan McDonald does, with a lead in to the next, or FOURTH, story!

Daily 5

My 4th grade teachers have these kids doing work in a “Daily 5” notebook each day–and initially the kids complained about having to do double duty–the worksheets in their Daily 5 notebook and the wiki and blog work.  Teachers, however, quickly explained to them that the writing and reading they do with me COUNTS as part of the Daily 5, so they have reduced the expectations for filling in the worksheets as they see their students working on skills in the 4th grade curriculum in the context of real reading and writing.

Literacy Standards

David Conley, in College Knowledge (2005) describes primary intellectual skills we should ensure all K-12  students have as (according to Mike Schmoker, p. 38 in Focus) being able to:

  1. Read to infer/interpret/draw conclusions.
  2. Support arguments with evidence.
  3. Resolve conflicting views encountered in source documents.
  4. Solve complex problems with no obvious answer.

Teacher Reflections

My students are clearly doing # 1 through our book studies and the discussions we’re having in class as we study the elements of literature.  They clearly need some support to do to # 2 well, as I look at the “opinions” page on their wiki. And, I need next to move to some books that provide conflicting viewpoints on an issue so that they can work with #3 and #4 in as public a way as we have shown their writing skills on their wikis and blogs.

Mike Schmoker also implies, in Focus on page  26, that wikis and blogs are “faddish, time-gobbling activities.”  I would argue that the way my kids are using them that they are assuredly NOT faddish, or time-gobbling–that they are instead simply a tool my students use for the intense amount of writing, reading and thinking they are doing daily.

Lasting Work?

Doug Reeves speaks to three  ways we should examine what we are doing with students–does the work provide for

  • endurance-are the students using knowledge and skills that will serve them beyond a single test date?
  • leverage-are the skills and knowledge of value in multiple disciplines?
  • readiness for next grade level?  Does the work contain essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for their success in the next grade level?

From my descriptions, what would you say?  Does this student work exemplify or provide support for endurance, leverage and readiness for more sophisticated learning? Is it authentic literacy?

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


6 thoughts on “Authentic Literacy

  1. I love the style and purpose of this post, Paula. For me, so much of this year has been about working with teachers who are investing more and more in reflective practice because it helps them help kids better. This post is a great example of what that can look like. You aren’t simply reporting out on something great you are doing with your students, you’re sharing what you are noticing about them, where they might need more support, and where your next potential entry points might be as someone who is guiding them. You’re also making deliberate connections to your growing background knowledge. The older I get, the more I realize that teaching is a great experiment. Approaching it in the way you model for us here reinforces the notion that none of this is about imposing our assumptions about what works on kids. Rather, it’s more about taking what we’re learning, putting it to use, assessing how it all works out, and shifting again in response to what we notice. Bookmarking this to share with others—thanks for sending me this way!

    Posted by Angela | February 20, 2011, 12:18 pm
  2. Hi Paula,

    I really enjoy this post and that you describe your literacy practices for others to ‘see’ so that we can enlarge our repertoire of teaching practices. The description of blogging and peer help is especially interesting to me – great food for thought.

    I wonder about grouping children by ability level. Research has shown that this is detrimental to the ‘low’ group. They become stigmatized and virtually never lose the self-perception of being dummies. They virtually never move out of the low group when grouped. Yet, ‘low’ students, when placed in a mixed setting, do sometimes move up and raise their standing in class. The research is clear about heterogeneous groupings.

    I am therefore wondering, is the grouping of these students within your control? Are you a literacy support person or the classroom teacher? I am wondering if this aspect can be changed (if you wanted to change it)?

    A great blog post!
    Ingrid 🙂

    Posted by Ingrid @mmeveilleux | February 20, 2011, 12:30 pm
    • Hi, Ingrid,
      I am a gifted resource teacher. Our groups are not grouped by ability–we do not give ability tests in our division beyond a gifted screening in 2nd grade. We group somewhat by achievement, but only for directed small group literacy work. Classwork and projects are heterogeneous. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I have 8 kids who are extremely high performing for the reading discussions. The writing days I am in the lab with “my” kids and open to any fourth grader with a blog. Only one teacher has her whole class on…the rest of the “classroom” kids are mixed in both motivation and classroom achievement, so the classrooms ARE heterogeneously grouped, with great high role models still in there. (8 kids don’t even begin to tap the incredible talent we have in this whole group of kids.)

      Thanks for asking–that’s an important clarification to make.

      Posted by Paula White | February 20, 2011, 12:56 pm
  3. Much that is really useful to comment upon here later, but I wanted to refer you to a great game that might help in your literacy work: You Can’t Take That Away! which is described here:

    Posted by Tellio | February 20, 2011, 12:58 pm
  4. I’m in the midst of responding to mid-year data with targeted literacy support for some and self-directed learning for others. Your question hammers away at several chords for me.

    I “like” asking myself questions like these, even though I’m not satisfied with my answers lately.

    1. What do the kids say?
    2. Would I be doing it this way if I wasn’t doing it this way?
    3. What the hell is digital literacy?

    Paula, I think you have done an exemplary job of givings kids ownership over their work – if they are engaging in reading and writing for an hour at a time, the work must have worth for them. I trust that you would be tweaking things even more if any seemed lost or resistant. Certainly this post is evidence of your determination to give kids time and support to do authentic work.

    What I wonder about in my own work and in my kids’ work with screen-based reading and writing is whether or not we’re practicing digital literacy, or print-literacy made more democratic, which, in and of itself, is a good thing.

    I saw an amazing video game trailer last week. I love reading. I grew up a comics junkie. I watch a lot of movies and TV on DVD. I’m working on my music appreciation. I am comfortable in all kinds of narrative media. When I say the trailer was amazing, I mean it was amazing. I really think it set a new bar in commercial short-form digital storytelling – for whatever that’s worth to anyone.

    What are we doing in my classroom that prepares kids for the kinds of collaborative authorship involved in that trailer and software?

    I think the social reading and writing you describe is an important step towards authorship like that, but in working with a student this semester to learn the basics of object-oriented programming, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t start teaching programming earlier in a some systemic way. It’s a language, concept, and habit of mind rolled into one. I’d love to resurrect our plans, perhaps next year, to have our kids work together on programming. I think we need a community of programmers like your community of bloggers to help push ahead kids’ digital literacy.

    With thanks,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | February 20, 2011, 4:50 pm


  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Authentic Literacy « Cooperative Catalyst -- - February 20, 2011

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