Monday, November 11, 2013

Cross-Curricular Connections in Literacy

"Literacy floats on a sea of talk..." James Britton (1970) in Think Literacy, p.4.
I have been really fortunate over the past week; I have participated in a number of really rich professional learning experiences with a focus on literacy, all of which were cross-curricular in nature. Additionally, all of the sessions had one key thing in common: the focus on talk (or academic discourse) as the foundation of literacy.

First, the Ontario Ministry of Education did a fantastic job of rolling out the new Social Sciences and Humanities curriculum. Part of the success of the two day sessions was the use of protocols, or talk structures to encourage equitable participation in conversation and encourage thinking (for examples, see the Facilitator's Guide for the ALG).  As a discipline, the social sciences and humanities rely on using non-fiction; teachers are, by necessity, teachers of literacy.  This expectation is fully embedded into the curriculum:

"Many of the activities and tasks that students undertake in the social sciences and humanities curriculum involve the literacy skills relating to oral, written, and visual communication. For example, students use language to understand sources, to analyse and evaluate arguments and evidence, and to present findings in oral, visual, and written forms. In all social sciences and humanities courses, students are required to use appropriate and correct terminology and are encouraged to use language with care and precision in order to communicate effectively" (Ministry of Education, 2012, p45).

Literacy GAINS resource
Foundational to Ministry documents and revised curriculum is the recently released Adolescent Literacy Guide, a resource which outlines a new vision of literacy for adolescents focused on three core skills: the abilities to read, write, and think (see graphic above).

Additionally, Literacy GAINS have created classroom-ready ALERTs (Adolescent Literacy: Engaging Research and Teaching). These practical documents use the foundations laid out in the ALG and apply them to grade 7-12 contexts. At our Literacy Symposium, one presentation focused on the "Talking to Learn" ALERT, which shares classroom ready strategies for teachers alongside the research to support the best practice. The two teachers presenting were able to share strategies that work in all classrooms (the presenters were an English teacher and a History teacher).

Later in the week, the Student Success Literacy Committee hosted the Upper Grand DSB Literacy Symposium on Friday, November 8, 2012.  Keynotes were delivered by Lucy West and Kathleen Gould Lundy, and workshops were led by over twenty UGDSB educators, who shared effective literacy practices with their colleagues in seventeen sessions. These sessions were cross-curricular in nature and covered at least one of the components (see diagram above) relating to the recent publication, Adolescent Literacy Guide (2012), published by the Ministry of Education through Literacy GAINS. Presentations ranged from discussing literacy in alternative education programs to using specific strategies in a novel study to using TED talks and Genius Hour in Geography classes to using inquiry to build knowledge in all grade 9 classes... The sharing was rich and teachers were excited to hear from each other. Participants walked away with classroom ready ideas.

Both of the keynote speakers focused on talk structures. Lucy West's focus on academic discourse involves the teacher facilitating the discussion through specific practices to ensure that all students are held accountable for the learning. The teacher should:

• Write relevant student statements, vocabulary, and/or representations on white board or on technology board—make language and diagrams, tables, etc. visible for all learners

• Have students turn and talk to a partner to explain the idea or representation and be able to explain the idea/representation to the entire group

• Ask clarifying questions to the presenter

• Ask members of the group to explain, restate, or paraphrase what was just said or demonstrated BEFORE agreeing, disagreeing or adding to the idea and BEFORE expressing another idea. In other words, the community works to keep one important idea in play until all members of the class can engage in the conversation. (Lucy West, Metamorphosis Teaching Learning Communities)
Lucy West's focus was clearly cross-curricular; as a former mathematics teacher, many of her specific examples were not those traditionally seen at a literacy conference. However, they were clearly relatable for all teachers in the room. The need to engage students in accountable talk is a cross-curricular best practice. (For an example of a protocol from Lucy's website, see Talk Circles).

Kathleen Gould Lundy was also able to share her effective practices in an engaging and often humorous way. As a drama and arts teacher, Kathy has developed several talk structures which hold students accountable for deep thinking while engaging students. Her book, Talking to Learn, contains several specific structures that help the teacher assess oral communication, embed metacognition, scaffold talk, model talk, create informed talk, and help students present their ideas. Amazingly, woven throughout her presentation were artifacts (literal and figurative) that she uses to demonstrate the true cross-curricular nature of her work: student voice was included through student poetry created in various classes. 

On Friday and Saturday, I was fortunate to participate in the "Sharing the Learning Summit" which was the culmination of the TLLP project through OTF; the Teacher Learning and Leadership Project is a self-directed professional learning opportunity supported (financially and purposefully) by the Ontario Ministry of Education. This conference was an opportunity to set up a display to share the learning from my project while seeing others' results as well. In addition to seeing many excellent projects which were truly cross-curricular in nature, we also heard fantastic speeches from Annie Kidder, of People for Education; the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals; and Ann Lieberman, a Stanford University researcher who praises the TLLP for it's lofty goals and rich action research. I found their presentations interesting and attempted to share the ideas through Twitter, which is a fantastic tool for students to use to summarize, annotate, and comment on what they find important. Brevity is important when you only have 140 characters!

Again, what resonated in this experience was another element of talk: the importance of stories. Both Kathy Gould Lundy and Lucy West spoke of the importance of story-telling as a talk structure or for discourse; Annie Kidder shared personal anecdotes about her children's experiences in education and Ann Lieberman shared about her research in Chile and China.  Even Twitter, in it's truncated form, is about story-telling. All of these speakers wove stories throughout their presentations, making them effective by allowing for personal connections in the audience. For students, a great story can pull them in, activate prior knowledge, transmit new learning, consolidate their thinking, and even help recall important facts and details. By using the narrative structure, especially in oral forms, we enable students to understand non-fiction better, creating more personal connections to a text.

All in all, I return to one of Canada's great thinkers, Northrop Frye and his essay, "Don't You Think It's Time to Start Thinking?". Frye argues that the liberal arts and humanities are essential for today's students and the development of what we would today call critical literacy.  This great essay argues its thesis by using George Orwell, a great author of fiction and non-fiction alike.  Moreover, Frye stresses the importance of talk, for
"...ideas do not exist until they have been incorporated into words. ... The operation of thinking is the practice of articulating ideas until they are in the right words."


Frye, Northrop. "Don't You Think it's Time to Start Thinking?" in Thinking Through the Essay (1993). Eds. Judith Barker-Sandbrook and Neil Graham. McGraw-Hill Ryerson.

Literacy GAINS (2012). Adolescent Literacy Guide. Curriculum and Assessment Branch, Ministry of Education.

Ministry of Education. Think Literacy: Cross-Curricular Approaches, Grades 7-12. Queen's Printer.

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