figuring out what to do when you don’t (aka teaching on any given day)

Today’s Morning Pages prompt in #CO301D comes to you courtesy of Sarah and Ana. The proposition that all teachers in all content areas be literacy teachers is a tough and long-standing challenge that’s still relevant.

Despite being enormously unpopular, the Common Core standards are still the rule of the land in many states, at least for the time being. The recently passed ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) can change that–and probably will since states are required to have academic standards to receive federal funding, but they don’t have to be the Common Core. Right now, though, the ELA standards don’t just pertain to English teachers and elementary teachers, but to teachers in all subjects, who are charged to teach literacy in disciplinarily appropriate ways.

What’s glossed at best, however, is how to actually enact content-area literacy standards  with students whose first language isn’t English or with students who have special needs. There’s a total of 5 or so pages (only FIVE!) that covers both of those student populations in the ancillary materials to the Common Core, and these pages are pretty vague. Plus, who reads ancillary materials? This despite the fact that the number of diverse students in our classes is growing exponentially and that, by law, many students with disabilities are mainstreamed into classrooms.

Closer to home in the CSU English Ed. program, I’m also aware that we don’t spend sufficient time addressing how to teach ELA effectively to these student groups, and we work with ELA teachers! Through about 2005, a standalone class existed in the teacher licensure program that was required for all teachers called something like “Teaching Special Populations,” but when the state required that degree plans have no more than 120 credits, that class went away.  The curriculum was supposed to be folded into other courses, but those courses had different focuses, so ensuring the coverage of this content has been at best uneven. In my own classes, I devote some time to teaching ELLs and less on working with students with disabilities in the context of the course, but I’m painfully aware that it’s not enough. After they get jobs, our students say so.

The same was true many years ago in my own teacher preparation. When I became a teacher, what I learned at HKHS (Hard Knocks High School, aka my job) was that I had to seek out the specialists on staff in my school to support me in learning how to accommodate those learners’ needs so I could support them. I had to read all I could about methods to use. I had to help the students themselves know that they were the best experts on their own learning, so I needed for them to teach me about what they needed, to the extent that this was possible. I needed to inquire into their backgrounds and their skills, talk with their prior and current teachers and counselors, and their parents if I could. Because students were in high school, I interacted with the latter group more frequently. At the time, Oklahoma was way ahead of the game than Colorado so most special education students, except those with severe needs, were mainstreamed into the classroom. Though my student population was also more diverse, including a much higher percentage of African American and Native American students, I worked less with ELLs because immigration patterns were just beginning to shift at the time I left the classroom.

For the last eight years of my high school teaching, I was very, very fortunate to work adjacent to a special education teacher, and my case load was assigned to her. This meant that students’ classtime was very fluid in that they could shuttle between rooms as their needs demanded. On most days, especially when I taught in a block schedule, I also structured my class to include small-group work or a workshop format (e.g., whole-class instruction followed by individual work time). These configurations gave me regular opportunities to circulate through the classroom to interact with students more directly than I would have if whole-class instruction was the norm.

The school schedule also had built-in advisory time that bumped up next to the lunch hour called “overtime,” which sounds super inviting, right? Um…. I re-named it “Overtime Club” because then it was a club! That sounds fun, right? Um… Actually, it worked mostly because I required it for students who needed extra support and built in an incentive that added small-change points to their grade just for showing up. During this time, they worked on homework or conferenced with me so that I could give them more individualized attention. This was especially important with writing.

In terms of my literature curriculum, I taught thematically, which meant that I was able to integrate more multicultural literature than was common at our school. Toward the end of my teaching, I experimented with embedding vocab. exploration into students’ reading journals. That is, when we were reading whole-class texts, the vocabulary “instruction” was tied directly to the literature. I didn’t give tests. Rather, students’ vocab lists were short (6-8 words) and were a combo of self-selected words and words I’d chosen that were key to understanding the text. The latter were words I thought many students would find challenging and/or that were tied to major concepts in the work.

In sum, I learned how to use my resources, including a phenomenal special ed. staff, who were especially good at teaching their students to advocate for themselves as learners. I learned to learn from my students and strived to create assignments that emphasized student expression (like memoir units, reader response journals, and creative writing tasks) that would emphasize students’ assets instead of positioning them as “lesser-thans.” I tried to become a better listener and to build in opportunities for listening through the classroom structures I employed. I got better at designing instruction and implementing strategies that supported students’ needs and that I hope, especially with adaptation of our mostly canonical literature curriculum, also broadened their view of the world.

I should be clear that these approaches weren’t magic bullets. Peter Smagorinsky and I have written several publications about my attempts to incorporate multimodal approaches to learning over the course of a year in one of my regular-track British Literature classes. Read almost any of them, and you’ll find that some students still got off-task. I missed interactions between students that weren’t always positive. I didn’t connect with every student, and they didn’t always connect to the content or the entire enterprise of reading, writing, and learning about language and the often non-traditional ways I tried to teach it. Sometimes, I simply didn’t know what to do–how to modify an instructional task or provide basic-level instruction for some students while pushing forward with others who needed to move at a faster pace. I undoubtedly left some students behind. There are always cracks. I always wished I could do more. (Still do.)

At CSU, the “Teaching Special Populations” class may have gone away, but guess what? The students haven’t. So the advice I want to give to beginning teachers is this: try something, anything that will give you the sensation of moving forward. Reflect on how it went. Sometimes, formalize that process through teacher inquiry. Listen to your students. Locate resources (conferences, journals, books on teaching, blogs) and people (colleagues both in your school and in professional organizations like NWP and NCTE) who want to get better at meeting students’ needs and will support you in doing that, too.

And, as we’ve been discussing all semester in CO301D, know that you’re going to fail. A lot. But let it be forward.





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