Literacy Lenses

Focusing on The Literacy Work that Matters

Yes, they can! #2 Empowering Student Voices

By Brent Gilson 10/27/2019

I was excited for this chat topic and so grateful that my week to blog fell on this date. I start with the term above. When I think about the importance of empowering student voice, the importance of students knowing they are both heard and seen the critical importance of it becomes clear to me as I think about what the alternative might be.

A quick story of my greatest failure as a teacher. Two years ago I was teaching in a small, conservative (religious), mostly white community. In one of my classes, a student made the brave choice to come out as transgender. This was not an easy road, peers did not react with acceptance, bully behaviour was excused by parents as disagreements around morality and as teachers, we worked to try and protect this student from the intolerance that surrounded them. In the end, the student left our school and community. Their voice was drowned out by the voices of intolerance. I still think about if there was more I could do. In a job interview last year I was asked what my greatest failure was as a teacher. I tearfully recalled this moment it sticks with me. I have talked to the student since. They are happy in their new school. They are doing well, despite our failings to build a community that would accept them for who they are.

When we look at the importance of empowering our students so their voices are heard I think we need to consider two essential questions. First, do our students see themselves in our classroom? In our instruction? In our libraries? And Secondly, How does our intentional practice create a culture of community inside and outside our classroom?

Looking at the first, I remember listening to a Heinemann podcast with Lester Laminack and Katie Kelly which can be found here. In the podcast, a point that stuck out to me was in reference to books in the classroom. In what we as teachers choose to leave out. When I was teaching 6th Grade Lily and Dunkin was released. I bought it for my classroom library because of well… diversity( the intentions were good). A student read it and came to warn me that it might not be a good book for our classroom because there was a Transgender student in the text. A coworker and I often discussed if books would be acceptable in our community before putting them in the library. Looking back I wonder how many students struggled to see themselves in our classroom because of this concern of angry parents complaining about literature. I have always brushed off any worries that books might bring complaints but I didn’t necessarily promote the books. My intentional choice to not talk about these important texts gave permission for my students to not read them. This unintentional erasure contributed to my students’ inability to see anyone but themselves and what they viewed as “normal” as a part of their community. Most certainly it contributed to some of my students being unable to see themselves and how does one use their voice when they do not see themselves as part of the conversation?

Even the best of intentions in creating a classroom the reflects all of our students can go wrong. I started last year with the intention of building a classroom library that represented Dr.Rudine Sims Bishop’s ideas around mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. I was building a library the was diverse in appearance but fell into the single-story narrative for many of the stories that featured lead characters of colour. It reminded me of University when my Professor shared an account of her niece coming home in tears because the “diverse” book they were reading featured African children with a monkey sitting on one of their heads. The kids all teased the lone student whose parents had emigrated from Ghana if monkeys ever sat on her head. I wonder how quick she was to share her voice?

As teachers, it is our responsibility to build a community that empowers our students. Empowers them to use their voices and also empowers them to grow, to learn and to welcome those who might not see the world with the same lens. I spoke about my missteps on this learning journey to highlight the lessons I have learned as a teacher. I am constantly looking at if my actions as a teacher elevate or erase and where to go next. To ensure we elevate I think there are times when holding tight to our convictions, that every child has the right to be seen, to feel valued and be respected and heard, is more important than our comfort. At times we need to speak up against the majority on behalf of the minority. We have to use whatever privilege we have and that might simply be as the adult in the room to be that champion for all of our students so that they know when they speak we will be listening.

As I looked back on this chat I think of my students who have yet to find their voice, who do not feel quite comfortable enough to raise their voice. To participate as members of our community. I look at how I might empower them but also how I can empower those who are in the majority to work in our community to help others to see why this is so important. In the end, what makes us all unique is what makes the classroom so great. Providing a community that empowers ALL students will continue to move this important dialogue forward.

If you missed the chat this week you can take in all the amazing thinking on the Wakelet located here

Yes, They Can! Series #1 Empowering Students

by Valinda Kimmel

You can find the Twitter chat from 10.17.19 in its entirety here.

There is interesting research on the effects of positive expectations as it relates to student performance. This is commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect and originates from the character in Greek mythology who fell in love with a creation of his own–a sculpture. The goddess of love, Aphrodite, subsequently fashioned the work of art into a live being.

Researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson shared their findings on this effect. To test their hypothesis, the researchers gave teachers incorrect information about some of their students. They related that a handful of children were high achievers and that teachers could expect performance equal with the students’ intellectual abilities. This information was not accurate as the students of which they spoke were simply chosen at random. Rosenthal and Jacobson returned at years end to collect information regarding the “high-achieving” students.

You might be surprised to discover that–

  • The students who were pointed out to their teachers by the researchers as high-achieving showed to be those who experienced greater academic gains by end of year. It was found that this most likely occurred as a result of high expectations of students, based on their perceived abilities, which in turned affected teacher behavior.
  • This Pygmalion effect seemed to be more profound in younger students, ages seven to eight. That particular group of students experienced a gain, on average, of 10 verbal IQ points as compared to student in the control group.
  • Interestingly enough students’ performance was not dependent upon their skills and ability. Students in both high- and low-ability were equally affected by the teachers’ preconceived notion that students were high-achieving.

So, why is this important and what does it have to do with our series here at #g2great?

It’s important because we often see the opposite occurring in classrooms with which we are most familiar. The antithesis of the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect. The Golem Effect is characterized by teachers having low expectations. These low expectations most often lead to student underperformance and a so called self-fulfilling prophecy, i.e., students fail as they do not see themselves as able to perform academically because sadly, neither have their teachers believed in their ability to achieve and therefore behave as though the students are unable to succeed.

Teachers do have a large part to play in student achievement beyond their content knowledge. Change in attitudes, discovering (and eliminating) bias in regard to what students are capable of achieving and the use of effective feedback to guide students toward realizing their innate potential are all critical for student growth and achievement.

It’s important to note that high teacher expectations alone will not help some students. Additional research findings posit that it is critical for teachers to also challenge (and support) students toward high expectations of themselves in order to see the full effects of positive expectancy.

And so where do we begin?

Few individuals are prone to rise when expectations are low. We must challenge ourselves as educators to maintain high expectations for each and every student. Subsequently, we must provide the most effective and timely support for students to then achieve and grow. Rosenthal and Jacobson noted, “when teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development”.

That, my esteemed colleagues, indicates causality.

Can we, as educators, commit to high expectations for ALL students? We must align our attitudes and behavior to express high standards, believe all students can (and mostly certainly will) learn. We must ensure that we provide the most effective differentiation as a means of support, and most importantly, never allow ourselves to lower our expectations of how learners can and ought to achieve.

Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Every Child Can Write

by Fran McVeigh

The #G2Great team exuberantly welcomed Melanie Meehan to the October 3, 2019 chat two days after Every Child Can Write: Entry Points, Bridges, and Pathways for Striving Writers entered the world. As I pondered both entry points and organization for this post, I decided to begin with Melanie’s words in response to our three basic author questions.

1.  What motivated you to write this book? What impact did you hope that it would have in the professional world?

Every day I get to work with writers across all grades and across all levels. Because of my work, I have seen the impact of increasing access and entry points for writers that has led to growth for these students, regardless of functioning levels. 

Very few people enjoy a struggle when they don’t believe they will overcome it, so we have to figure out ways to make the learning and growth seem possible to everyone in the community– especially to the writer. There really is a big difference between thinking about students as struggling or thinking about them as striving, and I hope that people who read this book come away re-examining their beliefs about students.

So often our beliefs become our truths. I want everyone– including and especially our children– to believe that every child can write, and then I want teachers to have practical strategies and resources to help make that happen.

2.  What are your BIG takeaways from your book that you hope teachers will embrace in their teaching practices?

Not everyone is ready for the same curriculum and instruction on the same day, but it’s overwhelming to deliver an entirely separate lesson for students who aren’t getting it. That being said, the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development as described by Lev Vygotsky is a game changer for me. We can’t keep asking students to try out tasks and strategies that are way beyond their reach and ability, and it’s exhausting to create scaffold after scaffold that helps writers create a product without understanding the process. When we do that, we’re sending messages over and over that they can’t do it without us or the scaffolds we create. With those consistent messages, it’s human nature to stop trying and avoid the task or situation all together. So how do we change it up in ways that empower students, but is within the realm of possibility for teachers? That’s where reconsidering entry points may welcome students into the learning process. Or maybe it’s constructing bridges so that students have different ways to join the process. That’s where those metaphors that make up the title come it. I hope that teachers see practical and possible ways to teach all students to write. 

3.  What is a message from the heart you would like for every teacher to keep in mind?

Our job is to find the entry points and provide the access so that students are challenged and moving forward without being overwhelmed and over-scaffolded. We live in a world where being able to write is a critically important and empowering skill. We can all teach them to write when we believe they can and we have the tools and understandings.

So many times even when students look like they are paying attention, they have no idea of what the lesson is really about. Engagement, interest, caring about something– those have to be in place for not only behavior, but also for academic growth. I feel like I keep repeating myself, but the message of the book is that all children can write.

Why this book?

I am a bibliophile. I probably need a 12 step program because I am addicted to books. I love to explore the ideas in a book through multiple readings. I also love to meet authors and hear about the books in their own voices. So when an author that I admire professionally writes a book, I study it pretty carefully. I was waiting for this book for months. I asked Melanie about it in March over coffee. We put the chat on the schedule in June, and Melanie submitted the quotes and questions in record time.

And then I finally had a copy to read. Every Child Can Write had me hooked from the first reading of the Table of Contents – written in complete sentences. Thorough. Thoughtful. Timely. With provocative yet practical ideas. Well organized – so well organized that I read it from cover to cover, TWICE, before I drafted my first blog post. I reread some parts, read the Blog Tour posts, revised my draft, and studied the blog posts again. I was worried about capturing the essence TWICE and doing justice to this gorgeous addition to the professional world.

This book is based on these beliefs:

1. All children can learn to write. 2. It is a fundamental imperative that we do everything in our power to teach the students in our care how to express themselves through words and through writing. – Meehan, M. Every Child Can Write. xviii.

Who has to have those beliefs?

Students and teachers alike have to believe that all students can write and that is fundamental to every chapter in Melanie’s book. It’s also fundamental to the literacy instruction in classrooms around the world. All students. All teachers.

What are obstacles that interfere with student writing?

Beliefs are the beginning. Then instruction has to match those beliefs. Sometimes the instruction does not meet the students’ needs. What obstacles might interfere with learning? Check out a sampling of responses from our twitter chat. Have you heard these from your students or teachers?

Knowing “potential obstacles” can help you address obstacles confronting writers in your classroom. Do the students need practice? Do they need choice? Do they need confidence? Crowd sourcing these possibilities from a #G2Great Twitter Chat is one way teachers can step outside their current practices, sharpen their focus, turn their gaze back to their students, and study them anew. (The responses to “perfectionism” as an obstacle can be found in the Wakelet link.) You may also have collaborative conversations with your grade level team to explore improvements in environment, routines, practices and usage of charts through a book study. Every Child Can Write provides support for instruction and problem solving with entry points, bridges and pathways to help striving writers gain independence.

What do you need? Entry points? Bridges? Pathways?

Where will you begin?

Additional Resources:

Blog Tour Stop 1 with Clare Landrigan – Link

Blog Tour Stop 2 with Kathleen Sokolowski – Link

Blog Tour Stop 3 with Paula Bourque – Link

Blog Tour Stop 4 with Lynne Dorfman – Link

Blog Tour Stop 5 with Fran McVeigh – Resourceful Link

FYI:  I reviewed an advance prepublication copy of “Every Child Can Write” that was available for the #G2Great team.