This was the response from a math teacher when I told him about my new job description as an instructional coach charged with helping spread literacy across the content areas.
I just listened. I hadn’t even started the role and honestly couldn’t articulate what literacy would look like in a math classroom.
But what he said struck me: “Math has its own language.” What an interesting and poetic way to describe math.
Here was a person arguing against the idea of literacy in the math classroom, yet the literacy piece was inherent in his response. If a subject has its own unique language, then the students must learn how to use it, and wouldn’t reading and writing be a natural part of that?
To this day, I don’t know if having students write an essay in a math class is the golden ticket to meeting our literacy goals. But isn’t explaining how you arrived at a particular answer part of the learning process? Isn’t learning to breakdown a problem (possibly by writing your thoughts on how to solve it) a way to solidify understanding?
Literacy for Life
One thing we can all agree on is that if students aren't able to read or write effectively, they aren't going to be able to learn the content. In fact, they aren’t going to be able to do a lot of things effectively.
Think about all of the information through which we navigate daily that requires reading and writing, such as reading and responding to emails, paying bills, analyzing data, reading contracts, writing lessons and sub plans, reading maps and signs to get somewhere...oh wait, we have SIRI and GPS, I retract my last example; you get my drift though.
For this reason and more, we will be focusing on literacy strategies to improve student comprehension on the January 6th staff development day. All content areas will walk away with two literacy strategies that will help students be able to engage in a text/problem and then write about their understanding.
Writing is Thinking put to Paper
Annotating is the fancy ELA word for writing your thoughts as you are making sense of a text or problem. Annotating isn't a finished product, but it’s a check on whether a student really “gets” something. If a student can’t get it, they won’t be able to solve the problem or write the essay. They will be stuck.
Although annotating is an informal type of writing, it’s extremely valuable.
I wonder how many of us do it naturally. I know that I have to underline, highlight, or make notes of things as I read, especially if they are dense or technical. But many students don’t naturally do this for multiple reasons.
1. They don’t know how. Maybe they learned somewhere along the way, but it hasn’t stuck with them.
2. They don’t think it’s valuable to understanding. “I got this Miss. I don’t need to take notes.” But the final product reveals that they did not get it.
3. It makes their brain hurts. If writing is thinking, then annotating is forcing us to think as we engage with something. Students push back, and we must push through this if we are to see gains in achievement.
How can we encourage students to value annotations? It starts with you. We will discuss this and more on January 6th.
So Now What?
You are the experts in your content area, and we need your help getting this right.
For our literacy day on January 6th, you will be grouped by content. Molly Koch, Wesly Guzzetta, Dusti Rhodes, Laura Lensgraf, Erica Robinson, and I will be rolling out literacy strategies that we think will be helpful for increasing student thinking.
We have tried to make them specific to your content area, but in order for the strategies to be truly successful, we need you to take them and make them your own. We need willing experimenters, Literacy Scientists so to speak, to implement strategies for a sustained amount of time--not for a day or a week—and let us know how it goes.
Department and team planning will take up the afternoon of January 6th, and we are asking for teams and departments to continue to include weekly writing in their lesson plans, and also include reading strategies, such as annotation, when they assign reading.
Have a well deserved holiday break with your family and friends, and I look forward to seeing you in January!