Resisting the Frenzy: Staying the Course of Common Sense in Literacy Teaching

It should always be ‘and what else can we do as well as what we do and know already’ rather than ‘what will we do instead of what we are doing now’.

Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative

3.20.15 Irene Fountas Photo

by Irene Fountas, Author, Professor, and Director of the Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative at Lesley University

In the past several decades, there have been a variety of movements that have shifted literacy teaching in our schools. Often the newest trend has meant a total mind-shift of instructional practice for teachers. Certainly something important can be learned from the emphases of each movement, but each swing of the pendulum has also left out some important areas of literacy teaching and learning. One cannot simply make the assumption when there is a new movement in the midst that the worthy new areas of emphasis are not already implemented in schools that are implementing a high quality literacy approach.

When we have articulated our values and beliefs about meaningful, authentic literacy learning in our schools, we can examine the contributions of each new movement in the light of well-grounded principles…

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Feeling happy and sad at the same time

Last year I attended a community led ‘Nana’ technologies workshop. Yes, that’s right nana not nano. It was held on an autumn afternoon under the shelter of the community wood fired oven pergola in the hope that methods of the past could be shared to new (and old) household cooks. Several ‘everyday’ women – and I mean this only to state they were not chefs – shared their techniques of bottling and pickling. It was a worthwhile two hours and I felt inspired and excited to start… I immediately contacted my own Nana, who at 93 still lives at home and cooks everyday. I needed the family relish recipe, the ingredients were basic but it is the spices that give each relish its point of difference, a slight nuance that brings about evocative memories of one’s childhood. Nana was obliging, after several minutes of thinking back, a feat for any nonagenarian. Finally though she had it and the surprise was on me. It wasn’t so much a ‘family’ recipe but a family favourite with its origins in the ‘old faithful’ of recipe archives – the CWA cookbook! Either way, I was off and running with my first experience with fowlers jars and condiments. The first mouthful was full of emotional heartbreak, you see mum had passed away 20 years ago at only 51, and as I was only 21 I never really appreciated things like her home-made relish. But there it was, in a pot on my stove waiting to be bottled, and handed out to friends with love. I felt sad and happy at the same time, as is so often the case in a bitter-sweet life when loved ones die too soon.

So this year I decided to branch out, or ‘beet’ out with my relish experience. I love Beetroot, especially when it is pulled out of the garden and is plump and the deepest pinky-red imaginable. I sourced some recipes and then decided to amalgamate to try my own version. Simple as it was, you worry that it won’t work, you worry the relish won’t have that ‘mmmm’ that typifies a good condiment. First I peeled and grated 3 large Beetroot (tip – use gloves to avoid pink hands), and added to a large saucepan which I had previously added 1 chopped large brown onion and a teaspoon each of cinnamon and cumin seeds and cooked down in some olive oil. I then cooked the Beetroot for 5 minutes before adding 1 cup of brown sugar, 1/2 cup each of red wine vinegar and malt vinegar and 1 cup of water. After leaving for 40 minutes on low I checked and decided to add just less than a tablespoon of corn flour to bring it together a little more. It tasted great, looked great and I felt great, a winning trifecta in any home-cook’s language.

When I knew…

When I was younger, in fact 5 years more than half my age right now (I love a good Maths riddle!), I was absolutely convinced that my future profession lay in something that when you said the word, changed people’s perception of your intellectual capacity instantly.  Unfortunately, teaching was not inclined – as a word – to do this, therefore the very thought of teaching was not on the shortlist.  Journalist, Architect and Osteopath all were.  Do you see how these words almost jump off the page?  Morphologically, and etymologically they are more challenging words, and to me, a naiive 17 year old, that would extend to a more gratifying choice of profession.  Osteopathy was chosen and off I went into a world of anatomy and physiology, swimming in names of body parts, at the micro and macro level. Looking through microscopes at the way our bodies are put together, whilst at the same time manipulating other student’s bodies to translate text-book meaning.  I look back at these two years and although I was unprepared for the 42 contact hours a week, I was totally enthralled by the notion of sitting in a lecture hall, poring over textbooks, and re-writing copious notes.  Knowing what I know now, about teaching and learning that is, I would say I was laying the foundations of wanting to be part of education back then, like a gentle lapping tide tapping at my feet as I stood on the edge of the water.  After two years I returned home to be with my terminally ill mother, saying to all that would hear me – I will come back soon.

I didn’t go back, earning my own money was alluring.  Having committed to an engagement so my dying mother would ‘have some comfort’ in her last two weeks was also a contributing factor.  I followed through with this promise and was married at 22 and had my first son at 24.  But something was missing.  I yearned to feel mentally stimulated.  I needed to learn.  When pregnant with my second son a year later I began a Business degree.  Why business?  It met the criteria – I could study from home, I was always good with maths and it contained legal studies to which I was very interested.  After 6 years of part-time study and three sons born in 4 years I graduated.  I had already been working part-time as an assistant accountant and the field of management accounting with its ‘what ifs’ and ‘what now’ was providing me with the stimulation I craved.  Unfortunately though my marriage did not stand the test of time and at 33 I found myself with three small children, no house, a small wage (graduate accountants are paid abismally) and ambition to learn as much as I could in my chosen profession.  I worked hard, too hard, and often found myself picking my children up from daycare only to ‘dump’ them in reception with some snacks, toys and a promise that ‘I wouldn’t be long’.  I loved the work but struggled with finding the right balance as a mother.  I look back and I was trying to save everybody and everything that came across my desk, I really wasn’t suited to charging out my time by the minute to an unsuspecting client (and not feeling guilty about it).

It was at the end of a very long week, when critical deadlines had been met, and children (my own) yelled at that I stood back and looked very closely at where I was and what I wanted for myself and my children.  I had been outsourced to complete 25 hours per week Bursar duties for a start-up independent school.  I loved this job, but the circumstances and predicament of their financial position was not immediately evident.  As I delved in and got my hands dirty (some would say unrecognisably filthy) I realised that the situation was dire.  The principal had tried to grow the school too quickly, buildings had appeared without any understanding of the burdening debt the school was carrying.  I had been asked by the principal and the Board to come on as Business Manager.  I did take this ‘leap of faith’ and I now know why.  I was turned on by the feeling of working ‘in a school’.  It was alive, it seemed the most authentic way to give to something bigger – the future of our country lies with our kids.  And, I was part of this, or so I thought.  The experience of trying to keep the school afloat nearly killed me.  The burden of not being able to tell anyone was, looking back, not fair.  But I did it until the day when the new management structure did not feel I was able ‘their type of person’.  How did I feel?  In Australia, we use the term ‘gutted’ to mean feeling as if someone has reached inside you, and viscerally pulled out your insides.  But, underneath this was also a nagging feeling that I was going to be free of the strain, the pressure to ‘pull a rabbit out of a hat’, to lessen the impact of someone else’s negligently ignorant decision-making.  Also, the gentle tidal lapping had begun to increase, I looked down and felt my feet firmly in the sand and the waves were now hitting with more than a gentle force halfway up my legs.  I had been looking, with the eyes of someone who sees green appearing from the blackened bush after a bushfire, and more than anything I had been feeling a sense of a renewed possibility in life.  My wonderings of ‘could I be’ and ‘is this me’ were forming into definite pointers in my life.  I was moving from contemplating teaching to feeling a great desire to be nothing else but a teacher.

The point I truly knew was toward the end of my Graduate Diploma year when I was being assessed on my Prac placement by a very skilful and passionate lecturer.  She sat and observed my lesson and I strangely lacked the butterflies I thought I would have.  I just ‘did’.  As I have recently learned from lessons in positive psychology, I was in my ‘flow’. At that point I was still entertaining secondary teaching, simply because I felt I had the skills and knowledge to impart to older students in the areas of Business, Commerce and Accounting (did I mention I had also completed my CPA qualification over the last few years?). When this lecturer looked me in the eyes post-teaching, she didn’t need to speak, I knew what she was going to say.  This was me, teaching and being part of young people’s lives, cheerleading, supporting and promoting their growth both as learners and young people who will one day take a place in our society was my calling.  I was home, after years of questioning my purpose in life I knew I had reached the door to the rest of my life.  Interesting isn’t it, when you know you have arrived, when that gentle lapping has washed over you, so completely that you can’t do anything but give into the giant wave.


What happens when you muck up but you are the ‘face of something’?

Recently I was told a funny story that involved a sea rescue of a friend who happens to be an accomplished triathlete and kayaker. I guess you are thinking, ‘what’s funny about a rescue operation?’ but I can assure you certain related facts made this story quite amusing.
Firstly, the man at the centre of this event is a local legend for his fitness regime and his ability to continue to be the competitor to beat, regardless of his age (he is 63). Secondly, his years of winning and competing have earned him instant recognition throughout the area and even interstate and his name is synonymous with athleticism and fitness. Thirdly, this person has been made the ‘face of the water’ in his home town, promoting safety in and around the water and partnering with local government to remind the public how to be responsible when setting out for a day on the water.

The day of the rescue started with ‘Bob’ declaring he was going to venture out into the waves on a rented kayak on the central coast of NSW with his adult son. The rest of the family decided to walk along the jetty and enjoy the sunshine on foot. Unexpectedly Bob fell out of the boat and the waves picked up very quickly. He could not hoist himself back into the boat so a decision was made to swim to shore. In the meantime a person witnessing his efforts had decided to ‘help’ and had called the Sea Rescue team. Bob was meanwhile oblivious and was paddling to shore when he was met by two different boats – one was coastguard and the other search and rescue. What ensued was a heated discussion as to whose territory the swimmer was in. Neither party was willing to allow Bob to swim back in, they had a mission and nothing would stop them plucking this man from the water and ‘saving his life’. Bob stayed put in the water whilst phone calls were made so they could prove they were the rightful rescue party… Even though Bob was most definitely a reluctant rescuee. Finally, one if the parties admitted defeat and took off leaving Bob in the arms of the very chuffed second rescuers. All Bob could think of was how this would look to the public if word got out that he had gone out without a life jacket, a phone or anything else he had campaigned to educate the public about. He contemplated giving a false name but he instead discretely mentioned his role as a water ambassador and asked for some cooperation to keep the incident to themselves.
Back on shore Bob met up with his family and everyone had a bit of a chuckle of bob’s misfortune (to be rescued without needing to be). Bob decided not to give up on his morning water outing and he took the kayak into shallow waters to practise his ‘Eskimo-rolling’ (completing a 360 revolution by rolling with the kayak under the water, then righting oneself). As he was on his second roll he became aware that no matter how hard he pushed to the left he couldn’t budge the kayak to rotate. Unbeknown to Bob a man was above the water, frantically trying to roll the kayak over, but rolling to the right – the effect created a counter-force and consequently Bob wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually he came up, spluttering, confused and looking for answers. Instead he found a Good Samaritan saying, “you’re right mate, I got you, don’t you worry about a thing”. Poor Bob – he just wasn’t meant to be in the water that day. He returned home, tail between his legs, resigned that it just wasn’t his day.

A couple of months later Bob received a call from a coy journalist at the local paper asking him to comment on the sea rescue. Bob asked how on earth he found out. The journalist had been scanning other newspapers online for any interesting ‘good news’ stories and had come across the headline with Bob’s name firmly stated. Bob asked the journalist if he could understand his predicament and let the article slide but the enthusiastic replay came as, “mate, this is the scoop of the decade, no way I’m passing this up….” Poor Bob.

So, the question remains, what happens when one does ‘muck up’ and that person is the ‘face of’ or ambassador for something important? In this case Bob had never received any payment for his role promoting water safety. He was simply ‘giving back’ to his community. His situation could have been used to further educate the public as to how easy a situation seemingly within one’s control can change to being outside your control. Instead though, Bob’s actions would be scrutinised, perhaps ridiculed, and all because a journalist wanted to promote his own agenda, sell more newspapers for all the wrong reasons. Once journalism was a source of information dissemination. In this world of making a dollar without asking too many questions maybe we need to ask one important question: ‘what is the purpose of reporting something?’ In Bob’s case we had a good chuckle when he told us about his misfortune that day, but taken out of context, others would think he was incompetent or even unworthy of his ambassador role. I argue how unfair this would be. He was genuinely the recipient of bad luck, enough to cause embarrassment and for a good chuckle, not enough that it should discredit such a worthy cause.

What do I do that makes a difference in my classroom, and is this the ‘best thing’ I do?

At the start of every school year, and then at the start of every term, I create self-awareness and ownerships of students’ learning by undertaking a ‘Are You Ready?’ routine.  I place a piece of masking tape on the floor and ask students to answer this question as I pose it to them.  I say: “Good Morning Chris, are you ready?”, when Chris responds, “Yes, I am”, I ellicit further information and say: “But what is it you are ready to do?” At this point the child is forced to pause and reflect.  I will give prompts if necessary and I might guide them to an area of learning I have conferenced them on previously.  I might tell them, I have seen their attitude to handwriting improving lately, or, maybe that they have slipped on their spelling homework.  In this way, the student can see a path forward and they might/will say: “I am ready to try harder to make my letters sit on the line when handwriting”, or “I am ready to practise my spelling words every day”.  This technique is all about goal setting, and it is specific.  If a child says, “I am ready to learn”, they are turned around and asked to join the back of the line while they think specifically what they can do to work on their learning today.

I often revisit this technique during the school term to ensure children do not forget that learning is for them, and as such they should understand they can make decisions around their path. I also remember what children have said and reference their statement during the day, “Well done Chris, I can see how hard you were concentrating on forming your letters during Handwriting to achieve your goal”.

Just as I enter the classroom with an obvious and deliberate intent, I am fostering the same capacity in each and every student.  Furthermore, just as we code-switch to enter over the threshold into a church, a hospital or a library, the same can be said for a classroom.  It is not just ‘where one goes when the bell rings’, it is ‘where change happens’, or more precisely, where the changes happen that students are working toward.  There is always progress in my classroom, and it is always as a consequence of saying those three little words: I AM READY!

Different but Similar

When I met Guy I was finishing off a Graduate Diploma in Education and fully expecting I’d follow the ‘natural path’ and teach commerce or business subjects (the nature of my undergraduate degree) to secondary students. I was not in the least bit jaded with my previous profession but I was wanting to know one thing – could I teach? I had three boys, at that time aged between 7 and 10 and I had been a hands-on parent, fully embracing opportunities to read or to go on excursions or even be co-opted to school council. By nature I am analytical, but with a little intuition thrown into the mix, I began to think I ‘could’ be suited to this thing called teaching. So began my journey to retrain and move into education. What I wasn’t expecting though was my detour into Primary teaching. That was Guy’s unknowing hand, guiding me toward this life of storytelling, embracing my inner child and letting go of my preconceived notions of turning my brain to mush (so sorry fellow Primary teachers out there).

When I was assigned my Prac placement into Guy’s classroom I originally thought it was a typical country school – you know the kind, good kids, nice parents, just cruise through the day. Hmmm, was I wrong. Guy might have come across to the infrequent observer as casual but he did an impressive job camouflaging his skilled guidance with casual banter. Guy would take those kids out for one of his many games, every day, sometimes twice. I pondered this frequency and even reflected in my journal that I thought this was at the cost of ‘core learning time’. So, off I went with his blessing to conquer the primary classroom, one educational theorist at a time. It took me about three years to get it. Guy wasn’t being ‘easy’ on those kids. He was rewarding their effort. Guy had his students working at least 12 months in advance of their age, in some cases one boy was two years ahead. When he was instructing, teaching, guiding, supporting his manner was calm, patient and kind. This isn’t ‘casual’ – it is teaching with heart. I have used his pedagogical tutelage daily as I teach my students, particularly his maths lessons. But it was only after finding out for myself that his manner was what made it all work. He was educating the mind, the spirit and the heart of those kids and for that anyone of them will tell you he was the best teacher they have ever had. Ditto, the same for me! #youredustory #best teacher