Author Archives: tiffanyworden

Critical Literacy and Classroom Talk

Tiffany Worden
Blog Post # 2

On Wednesday, November 5th, I had the opportunity to attend another Teachers College Reading Writing Project professional day – a calendar day with Peter Johnston. His workshop was entitled, “Threads of Learning, Resilience, Community and Comprehension in Classroom Talk.” I connected this workshop to the idea of critical literacy that we discussed in our last class.

We can develop children’s text analyst / critical literacy skills by showing children how to examine the position of each text. One way we can do this is by inviting children to examine everyday texts and pop culture that surround them. Likewise, Peter Johnston’s work invites teachers to take a critical stance when examining their everyday teacher talk/language. Peter Johnston offers teachers ways to change their talk. This change in teacher talk actually can promote children’s critical literacy.

During the calendar day, Peter Johnston investigated classroom talk as a thread woven into every classroom event. First Johnston explored how certain types of talk patterns can rearrange power in classroom. Often classroom talk privileges the teacher-student power hierarchy. Changing the way we interact and speak with students can reposition us as learners alongside our students. Our talk can reposition the children as fellow experts in the classroom.

Peter spoke about how teacher language can promote democracy among students. Peter defined democracy as “people disagreeing in a productive way” and actually using this disagreement to grow learning together. It is important to teach children how to talk and think in this way with one another, helping them consider multiple perspectives. Peter called this “dialogic interactions.”

Peter Johnston gave us practical ways to begin shifting our teacher talk. One example Peter discussed was shifting our language during as conversation about literature or read alouds. Many times teachers unknowingly have the conversation funneled through them. We choose a student to participate, the student directs his/her response to us, we restate the idea and field another question to the class. Peter says we can set up a conversation in which we encourage kids to speak to one another. The teachers role is shifted from being the gate-keeper of conversation to facilitating participation and active listening among children. Johnston gave us several phrases which can promote this type of conversation:

1. Encourage children to make their own meaning by using phrases such as I wonder…maybe…perhaps…how could we check?

2. Encourage children to see multiple perspectives by using phrases such as: Are there other ways to think about this? and Are there any other opinions?

3. Promote symmetrical power relationships among teacher and students by using phrases such as Can we look it up in a book? and Is that fair?

4. Encourage the children to build ideas together through conversation by using phrases such as We can build that idea bigger and I notice Laura jogged your mind with her comment.

I like the way Peter’s work challenges me to take a critical stance in “reading” my own classroom. After attending his workshop, I began thinking how my teacher talk privileges certain voices or ideas. Also, in making simple shifts in my language, like using the phrases above, I can create an environment that naturally encourages children to develop critical literacy skills.

Teaching with Heart

I agree with you, Casey! Saturday Reunions are always inspiring! James Howe’s message about “heart connections” resonated for me throughout my day. Howe reminded us that when we write from our hearts we write the truth. This takes courage. I think it also takes courage to teach from our hearts. It got me thinking about how important it is to be real people, real writers, real readers in our own classrooms; to learn alongside and from our students; and to engage our students in genuine conversation and meaningful learning activities. James Howe’s message reminded me of Paley’s The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Paley taught with heart. She had the courage to engage her children in real learning. She believed in her children and knew they came “to school knowing how to think about such matters.” And that as teachers, “we only need to give them the proper context in which to demonstrate and fine-tune their natural gifts” (86). The three workshops I attended echoed this message.

I attended Mary Ehrenworth’s Virtual Writer’s Notebook session. She suggested that if our writer’s workshop feels flat, it might because we are not living like writers in our own classrooms. She suggested creating a writer’s notebook in which you do the same kind of writing your students to do. She showed us ways to teach out of these entries during small group strategy lessons. Mary suggested using an over-sized sketchpad-type notebook, so students could gather around your notebook during strategy lessons and see your writing. For example, if you notice your students are writing summary-like entries like, “I went to the beach. We swam. It was fun” you could also write an entry like this. On the next page over you could use the space to show how you improve your entry using dialogue, action and internal thoughts. She suggested writing some of these ahead of time so we teach with our best work.

While Mary showed us how to be genuine writers in our own classrooms, Kathy Collins showed us how to engage children in genuine reading – through reading clubs. I love this idea! She defined a reading club as “a couple of kids reading sets of books related I some way.” I love the idea of a pair or group of kids reading books centered on a student-selected topic or theme of interest. I imagine a non-fiction reading club (say a reading club that decides they want to read about snakes or pyramids, etc.) would compliment a science, social studies or math inquiry unit. This connects to the idea of content area literacy Casey described.

My last session was Carl Anderson’s workshop on conferencing. Carl focused on the teaching portion of the conference. He reminded us to do real teaching in the conference. Instead of just saying, “Let’s add some dialogue here,” to actually show the writer how to go about doing this.

I think Saturday Reunions are a chance to reflect on our practices, envision new possibilities and give us the courage to continue to teach, write and learn with heart.