Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Projects & Exhibitions

Abraham Lincoln, upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe:

"So this is the little lady whose book started the Civil War."

It is difficult for most students – and teachers – to imagine 
that an entire semester could be  spent examining just what
President Lincoln meant by those words. . .

Notes on Jim Burke's  -- Chapter 14
The English Teacher's Companion
"Integrating Projects & Exhibitions"

If we are to be effective urban educators we must devise lesson plans that address three things: the problem of engagement, the problem of comprehension, and the problem of retention.

Jim Burke invites us to explore the powerful possibility – and the empowering potential – of the long-term project. He encourages us to design lessons around big ideas – to look at the big picture – to ask essential questions.

There are three main types of projects have emerged.

  • Senior Exit Projects: These projects are sometimes required as part of a larger school program and are not necessarily done in the English class. They may, however, involve the study of literature, or depend heavily on English teachers to help with certain parts of a project.
  • Exhibitions: These projects are traditionally done as part of a class, but represent a culminating activity for a quarter or semester. They are often used as a performance assessment, providing students an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and have learned to do over the course of the term.
  • Class Projects: These projects last anywhere from one to four weeks. While they are related to the other two types, class projects tend to focus on one particular unit of study to which the teacher wants to bring some closure.


"Our challenge as urban educators" Burke explains,"is finding high-leverage strategies that meet the demands of our texts and the needs of our students." As you’re looking to devise lesson plans that solve the problems of engagement, comprehension and retention – consider integrating projects and exhibitions into the curriculum.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Critical Literacy Education

The definition of critical literacy found at the website for LEARN NC -- a program of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- cannot be improved upon. Critical literacy refers to the ability "to read texts in an active, reflective manner in order to better understand power, inequality, and injustice in human relationships." The website clarifies that text is defined as a “vehicle through which individuals communicate with one another using the codes and conventions of society,” and that accordingly, "songs, novels, conversations, pictures, movies, etc. are all considered texts." Critical reading requires readers to consider not only what is being said about a topic, but also who is doing the speaking.

As a skill set that enables readers to interpret messages through a critical lens and challenge the implied power relations in a text, critical literacy skills are connected to social issues.

The term critical literacy was developed by social critical theorists concerned with "dismantling social injustice and inequalities." These theorists are focused on "oppressive and unjust relationships produced by traditional forms of schooling" where teachers assert themselves as the possessors of knowledge. Becoming critically literate means mastering the ability to read texts "in order to better understand whose knowledge is being privileged." There is often an activist component to critical literacy education. The LEARN NC website refers to the work of Linda Christensen, and notes, "by participating in social action projects or creating a public discourse, students may see the relation between curriculum and the world beyond the walls of the school."

Critical literacy education is manifested in the classroom in a multitude of ways.Edward Behrman explains that the development of critical literacy inspires creation of many curricular forms of social justice and exploration. Behrman suggests that the different types of lessons can be devised to examine the power relationships found in textual language and literature -- and that these practices show students that language is never neutral.

Behrman’s research revealed that the most commonly used practices that support critical literacy are: reading supplementary texts; reading multiple texts; reading from a resistant perspective; producing counter-texts; having students conduct research about topics of personal interest; and challenging students to take social action.

Specific classroom activities that could be employed: use of counter-texts, incorporation of new media and teaching style.

Counter-texts involves having students generate texts, including multi-media creations, from a non-mainstream perspective. Counter-texts "may be produced in reading logs, journals, weblogs, personal narratives, and student-created videos."

Incorporating media and technology is another potentially useful strategy for including critical literacy in the classroom.

Lastly, teaching style can promote student understanding of critical literacy. LEARN NC emphasizes the importance of the dynamics between learners and educators saying, "a classroom that acknowledges the critical literacy theory must also challenge traditional hierarchical relationships between the students and teacher."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Joy and Justice

Notes from Linda Christensen’s
Introduction to Teaching for Joy and Justice

What does Linda Christensen mean when she talks of teaching for joy and justice?
“My curriculum” writes Linda Christensen “uses students’ lives as critical texts we mine for stories, celebrate with poetry, and analyze through essays that affirm their right to a place in our society.” Christensen explains that teaching for joy and justice means locating the curriculum in students’ lives. For her, the language arts classroom is a place of personal empowerment where students can look at their lives, examine why things are unfair or unjust, and use their writing to respond.

The fact that a learner lacks skills does not mean he or she lacks intelligence. Teaching for joy and justice, says Christensen, begins with “the non-negotiable belief that all students are capable of brilliance.” The educator’s duty is to attempt to “coax the brilliance out of them.” Christensen advocates connecting skill acquisition through content that is personally and socially relevant to the learner. Within this process, she says there is joy in recognizing the learning and justice in recognizing the learner. Christensen speaks of a breakthrough essay from of a student named Michael and explains, “There’s joy because he finally nails this form of academic writing, but there is also justice in talking back to years of essays filled with red marks and scarred with low grades.”

What does Christensen mean when she says she longs “teach the writer not the paper?” 
Christensen states her belief that all students can write and have something important to say. She insists educators must “build writers by illuminating their gifts instead of burying them” in corrections and rules. This involves carefully measuring critique -- exploring one or two feedback items that the learner can truly grasp and incorporate into his or her work.

Students naturally resist a curriculum of correction and fault fixing. Christensen insists our students’ language is an inherited history to be discovered and celebrated. It is “a treasure of words and memories and the sounds of home, not a social fungus to be scraped from their mouths and papers.” When we start by thinking learners need to be "fixed," our curriculum seeks to erase students' home language. Such a curriculum fails to find the “strength and beauty in the experience and heritage” learners bring with them to school.

What is Christensen’s Reading Without Words assignment?
Linda Christensen speaks of recognizing and valuing the multiple literacies in learners’ daily lives. In her Reading Without Words lesson, she asked learners to interview family members about ways they “read” the world. She describes how students shared their findings: “Troy wrote about how his father, a long-haul truck driver, read his engine and the highway. Mario wrote about how his mother, a hairdresser, read hair and heads. Carl wrote about how his grandfather read rivers when he took him fishing.” Christensen is convinced that when learners write about their lives, “they have more incentive to revise the paper, and they care more about learning about mechanics.”

According to Christensen, educators need to construct curriculum around ideas that matter and that connect students to their community and world. Teachers should employ books, stories, poems, and essays that “help students critically examine the world.”

What are the benefits of using poetry in the classroom?
“Poetry levels the writing playing field,” Christensen writes. “Students who struggle in other areas of literacy education often succeed in poetry.” According to Christensen poetry is of benefit in the classroom in the following ways: unleashes verbal dexterity; helps build community; teaches literary analysis; is a means of sharing our hardships and joys; turns pain into art; teaches us how to be a human. 


Christensen, L. (2009). Teaching for joy and justice: Re-Imaging the language arts classroom.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Rethinking Schools Publications.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Scaffolded Reading Experiences (SRE)

Prereading Activities

  • Motivating
  • Activating and Building Background Knowledge
  • Providing Text-Specific Knowledge
  • Relating the Reading to Students' Lives
  • Preteaching Vocabulary
  • Preteaching Concepts
  • Prequestioning, Predicting, and Direction Setting
  • Suggesting Strategies

Reading Activities

  • Silent Reading
  • Reading to Students
  • Guided Reading
  • Oral Reading by Students
  • Modifying the Text

Postreading Activities

  • Questioning
  • Discussion
  • Writing
  • Drama
  • Artistic, Graphic, and Nonverbal Activities
  • Application and Outreach Activities
  • Building Connections
  • Reteaching