Deborah Dillan

DEBORAH DILLAN

I’m Deborah Dillan, I’m a professor of literacy and language and also the department head at the University of Minnesota and it’s a pleasure to be here today.

Qualitative studies offer, I think, literacy teachers and researchers a lot of information. First of all they allow us to see what happens in classrooms meaning what are the activities that occur and the materials used in literacy instruction and what do learning pracicies look like, what are the actions of students and teachers as they work together. But qualitative studies offer more, they also allow us to see how activities play out and and how events progress. And what the participants actually involved in the events, what what these mean to them. So we can find out from participants like teachers and students what does it mean to be part of a reading group? What does it mean to be part of a particular lesson? How does that impact what I learn as a learner? And how does that impact how I might work with students when I have the opportunity to see how the materails are used by those students, what they think about them, um how they work with other students and and what those interacitons might mean in terms of who learns, how they learn and who doesn’t learn and why they don’t learn.

Teachers can be critical consumers of qualitative research and studies produced in journals are looking carefully and thinking what kinds of questions are reasearchers asking? Uh are they asking questions that are actually going to be important to to make a difference to teachers practices and in changing those practices or reaffirming practices that seem to work. Are reasearchers ah desciribing well the settings that they study are they describing the teachers and the students and the school. A little bit of background and history about what has been occuring in the school nad in lessons prior to the one that they might be describing in depth. Um are there plent of different data sources that are brought to bear on claims that a researcher might make in a study. For example, if you’re desciring what literacy lessons look like in a high school classroom would you be not only using field note data which would describe what occurs in a setting but would you also be trying to include data that would be interview data with students and the teacher to get a different perspective about what’s going on besides just observation. Would you be also trying to get some qualitative data that allows us to see more than just ah the descriptive pieces but also the number and and occurances of instances. I would also be looking for what we call credibility and and um just how valid the picture that’s crafted in the article seems to be. Um did this really seem like a setting that that you’ve witnessed or seen um does the the kind of stories that are created in the context of the piece seem to ring true, is there an authenticity to them? I think those are the things that a person ought to look for as well as the careful documented detailing of of how the researcher is collected the data, how they’ve analyzed the data so that you can kind of follow along as a co-reseracher and really get a sense of what has taken place. Um to be able to affirm that the claims made are are accurate and valid based on this setting. I think also you’d want to read the piece and think about how it’s crafted and whether it uh would be transferable to another setting. Meaning if the pieces about a teacher who has worked with at risk students in a rural classroom for example, um primarily African American, you can take the findings of that study and transfer those to thinking about a similar setting with similar kids and think about what one might use from that study based on that.

I think one of the most exciting things that teachers are engaging in recently is participating with others in the community of inquiry nad practice. This is where teachers would come together with common concerns, intentions they experience in their teaching and work with other teachers to first of all identify those and think about what makes those tensions problematice. Um is it a discord with one’s belief’s and what one sees playing out in the classroom. Is it a concern about kids that that teachers share that they want to try to address and make sense of. Uh but you know trying to solve problems on your own is is certianly one way that we as educators and teachers try to help make things better for kids, but working with others and really talking through problems is important. Um I’ve had the opportunity to work with some other teachers in Indianapolis public schools recently and one of the things that we’ve been doing as teachers has we’ve been bringing togetrher data that they’ve collected from students in their classroom and they’re trying to make sense of what that data mean. And what’s most powerful is when they talk with other teachers about what they seem to be seeing in this data. How they’re making sense of it and what they think the data might be saying to tem about how they might work with learners that are how they might think about their teaching practices in different ways, how they might craft different sorts of assessments to be able to be more sensitive to get at how students learn and what particular individual learners need the support they’re learning. So this discourse community, talking through these issues, testing out ideas, um being willing to be a friend but also to be able to say the kinds of things you need to say to push somebody forward in positive ways in their practices is very important to us as educators and will continue to be so.

When teachers get together as a community of learners I think one of the most supportive things that I’ve observed is that they see that they’re not alone and manyof the tensions and concerns that they have about kids and how kids learn or issues that are going up in the classroom that seem to be particularly problematic or outrside conditions and challenges that we seem to be facing with um oh gosh issues of assessment and how we’re going to be more accountable. So coming together and talking with others recongizing you’re not alone uh that others bring important strategies to bear and how to solve problems that you might not have thought of makes this community of inquiry really important.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend a year with a biology teacher where I’ve gone out and and uh sat in on a biology classroom each day 50 minutes, it was like learning biology over again and being in high school, I had great fun. Uh what I wanted to understand was how do kids use literacy, reading, writing, listening, speaking, thinking, viewing, to better learn liology concepts? And one of the things I think was most enlightening is um that they don’t use reading and writing the way that we might think they do. Um first of all they are highly social and when they get together in small groups and try to understand biology concepts, one of the most important things the kids can teach us is that they want to make learning fun. So they’ll talk about biology for awhile, they’ll talk about school and their social lives and family issues for awhile, then they’ll come back to working on biology. Um many of the ways that they read and write are very highly collaborative uh they’ll talk with each other, they’ll pick up on ideas, they’ll probably do what my collegue Joe Rule, a high school biology, teacher calls struggling where they really tear away at different issues and uh um think about how they are gonna word answers and will take a look at the book to try to get some answers, they’ll talk with each other and use their own background knowledge, but reading and writing looks quite different than we might think in terms of just putting pencil to paper and just writing answers to learn biology. It’s much more social, it involves uh pattterns of discourse, it involves uh again kids who come and each one of them having a special identity that they’ve crafted for themselves of where they want to position themselves in small group work. Um it certainly includes how other kids position them in terms of who gets to talk and who gets to write and who’s answers are valued and whose aren’t. So it’s a much more complex social actitivity, reading and writing, to learn than I think we’ve ever known before.

I think the implications are uh first of all we often times think that reading and writing are things or tools and ideas to be taught in English classroom and that you know they should know these, they should be a background knowledge that they can bring to bear and to learn in other content areas. Or sometimes um content area teachers may not think there’s a role for reading and writing to learn in their in their particular classrooms and what we’ve found is that reading and writing and talking about ideas are very central to learning. When you think about Rogotsky’s ideas about all learning being social um occuring in a social mileu, this is very important to think about in terms of uh reading and writing as well. Thesea re tool to help kids to think and to understand concepts that they are grappling with in in uh there other content area classrooms. Think the second thing to think about though is that our persceptions as adults and as teachers about what learning ought to look like. Mine for example were certianly challenged by spending a year with young peple and trying to get at their perspective fro how learning really happens in the real world and that is learning is very social and um we don’t stay on task or on task is is certianly differently defined by students than it is by us as adults. Sometimes it’s reading and writing, sometimes it ‘s talking, sometimes it’s having fun and gossiping, and then coming back to the task ecentually and I think this is something that we as adults and teachers need to consider when we when we look at studnets and have expectations for what reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing, would would really entail.

Much of the research that I’ve had the opportunity to engage in has focused on what the discussion mean and what does it look like in content area classrooms. Think onw of the things that I’ve that I’ve learned is that discussion is used a lot as kind of a catch phrase for we’re gonna talk about some ideas. But very often we haven’t really thought through what it means to have a discussion uh what does it mean to use that as an activity to really foster student’s learning. Discussion often times turns out to be what really probably ought to be called resitation, that is a teacher will ask a question, studetns will respond, a teacher will affirm yea or nea, ask another questions, students will respond and it becomes a a back and forth more so almost an assessment rather than um an opportunity to explore ideas and to um engage in inquiry kinds of thinking. So I think what we need to reconsider as teachers is what does discussion really means um how does one organize and plan for discussion, how do you engage students so that they’re really doing the talking as opposed to us, asking questions and getting responses. How do we get students to talk with each other, and that goes really back to um the purposes that we choose for using discussion as a tool for learning. Think we really have to rethink that. Uh discussion needs to be used as a way to help kids talk through ideas, to look at multipe perspectives on an idea, to know that there isn’t one necessarily right answer. Um however in math class discussion is a great place to get kids to explore multiple ways into a problem even though there may be one answer to a problem. Um in literature class it’s multiple perspectives on how um a character in a story might have thought through an issue or how other characters may see that issue. Uh in social studies and biology it certainly is a way to problamatize an issue and to look at it from many different perspectives, but again thinking about how to set it up well um getting kids to prepare for the discussion before they actually engage in that discussion is agagin another key issue I would encourage myself as well as other teachers to think through. Meaning it’s pretty scary for some kids to um engage in discussion cold, they need some practice, gear up opportunities before they actaully put themselves on the line to talk in front of their peers. So many teachers are athinking about what, well how could I give some preparatory questions or prompts or um ways for kids to respond in writing or to talk um with just another peer about some ideas and then engage in some small group work an then engage in some whole class work. So this whole area of discussion to learn, it’s really important, grappling with ideas, hearing others perspectives, um bringing in pieces of the text that you’ve read, um verifgying information from other sources, but again I think it takes a different way of thinking about discussion than we ever have in the past.

One issue I’ve been exploring lately is looking at the role of students, looking at the role of text, and looking at the role of contexts in how kids learn. Let’s start with the student first. I think uh heretofore we’ve used the word student in thinking about adolescents or other kids as kind of a 1 dimensional term that captures all these kids that we’re working with in classrooms. And I would really like to challenge myself and others to think about looking at students much more closely as individuals and instead of maybe using catch all terms, at risk kids or adolescents or learners, to encapsulate tehse young people that we work with, to really try to look at individuals and to understand the young people that we work with both as individuals and as learners. For example we’ve got kids coming into our classroom and some of the work that I’ve been doing recently is uh based on James Gees ’ ideas of um identities, multiple identities that kids bring to bear to their work and who they are and the fact that they shift in between these identities in very facile ways in the classroom. Um we’ve got young people who come to us that are daughters, um they’re girlfriends, they’re um studnets, they’re they have many different identities and they shift in and out of these in many ways as they’re learning in lessons and I think we need to think about that. Some kids are really successful in Englsih class and are least successful in math class. And yet we look at them in a one dimensional sort of way as learners. Um the other thing that that is important is the way to look at texts. Often times we’ve privilaged written text or printed the printed message over other kinds of texts. There are verbal texts, oral texts, that kids use and and certainly operate with. Kids themselves are texts, they read each other. Um so I think that that we need to look at that and certainly in an era of um technology and multiple literacies, uh the reading of texts on the web sites and elsewhere causes us to really think avbout how we use this word texts and the text that we use in our classrooms and what kids seem to be really good at being able to create, use nad and work with. And last but not least, thinking about contexts. Um kids come to us and they learn certainly in a classroom context, but they they bring with them a historical context. Who they are as young people in their their precious background, their experiences at home, their experiences in the community. Um these are brought to bear in terms of who they are as learners in the context that we see tehm in. for example in a biology classroom or in an English classroom. We need to think about that as well when we think about them as learners.

One one of the most interseting things that I’ve been involved in is being able to interview kids over time about their academic careers, particularly kids that we refer to as at risk. And having them shaare with me stories of what they remember about schooling from kindergarten all the way through um many of them in high school right now. And what they remember about teachers and other kids and what seemed to help support their learning experiences and created positive experiences for them in school. And what they remembver is particularly not pleasant. Um and why some kids seem to be able to when they’ve had a really difficult situation arise in school for them as a learner, hwo they’ve been able to shift themselves out of it and what’s percipitated that or those that never are are able to to get out of that bad situation and why. Um these academic and life histories are really important to us as teachers to again understand these young people and where they’ve been in life and to understand how they see schooling and why they see schooling the way they see it. Um let me give you an example. We had a young man we worked with in a literacy lab at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana and we were trying to understand why this young man really didn’t want to come to school, really didn’t want to learn, um wasn’t interested in reading and writing and didn’t see it as a valuable activity. And I remember sitting and talking with him and he said you know I remember one of my first experiences was in first grade and you know the teacher had already decided that I was one of those kids that wasn’t gonna learn and I was put in the lowest reading group and I I just got this feeling about myself that I wasn’t gonna like school and that nobody liked me and that nobody thought I could learn and that’s pretty much stayed with me all through life and people see me as somebody that doesn’t care about school and doesn’t care about learning and you know my dad’s a truck driver and he didn’t graduate from high school and you know I think he makes more than you do as a university professor nad he’s doing quite well not knowing how to read and write and I think that’ll work fine for me to. And quite frankly I was speechless as I was hearing this story but what it caused me to think about was wow this kid brings with him a cultural background, a value system that’s very different perhaps than mine as a teacher, um he’s helped me see that experiences early on in school with a teacher that probaly had no idea how he or she uh was shaping that child’s future with where they were positioned in reading group or what might have been said to them. How it really shaped them as a learner through their whole academic career. I think those are the lessons that we can learn as taechers to think about uh our own students. What what can we learn from finding out about their backgrounds, finding out about their academic literacy histories.

I want to talk for a moment about uh the multiple literacies of some at risk so called at risk kids that we’ve been working with at at Lafayette, Jefferson High School. They were the most amazing things, these were kids that were working proabably reading at about the third grade level all the way through, maybe eighth grade level. These are kids that are suppose to graduate from high school very soon, eleven and twelth graders. And they haven’t been very successful in literacy classes, in fact when we would test them with um more traditional forms of assessment they probably would be placed very low uh in terms of their literacy development. But we decided, we’ve got o figure out a way to get tehm reading and writing and to help them see reading and writing as purposeful and motivating activity. One of the ways we decided to do this was to allow them to engage in using multiple literacies, particularly through techology. So we decided to involve them in some project based learning where they got a chance to take a project like uh violence in our communities and in schools and really explore that theme through reading a variety of different materials nad media um delving into the internet, newspaper articles, and then crafting with that media and other multiple literacies, talking about issues, um representing ideas through different forms of literacy. Allowing them to really explore and practice their reading and writing skills in this way. And the thing that we’re finding is that these kids are highly sophisticated in terms of their ability to work with different kinds of texts, visual texts, media texts, they’re very facilate um talking about what they’re they’re learning, uh explaining the reports that they’ve crafted on uh multi media projects, uh it’s amazing the skills and the abilities they have in terms of literacy. If they get fired up about an activity and if they’re given um some creative form to do so. Think what we found out is that they aren’t so at risk, they tend to be much more expert than we as teachres sometimes are with our literacies.

Teacher need ot really understand the literacy development of students. Um early on in their careers all the way through as they become highly literate adults. So that they can work with those students at any level and know what has taken place previously and what will take place in the future in terms of situating what they do on a daily basis with a particular developmental learners. This is really important. I think the best way to undersatnd the literacy development of students is to really look at case study work of young people as they as they develop. Really look at data that’s been collected about what readers from emergent reading development all the way through elementary years, middle school years, high school years. To really examine the kinds of materials that kids are are createing and crafting through their written work. What kinds of books that they’re interested in reading, stories that they’re interested in reading, what are some of the complexities and difficulties with the expository materials that they’re asked to engage with in school settings as well as outside of school settings. Um to understand the challenges that they would be facing and working with through those developmental periods. I think the other thing that we tend to neglect is looking at their emoptional devlopment as literacy learn learners, what motivates kids at different developmental stages and how can we tap into that to really get tehm highly engaged in literacy work um all throughout their academic careers?

I think the experiences that really help teachers understand and know about kids literacy development, the teachers that seem to me to be most expert are those that really have sought to look closely at students literacy work. And sit down and talk with those studnets to undersatnd where the ideas for a piece of writing might have come from, what um processes studnets use to craft a piece of writing, to understand the struggles that they might have had to be able to come up with a topic to write about, work through an issue that they’ve had trouble with in the reading process as they’ve crafted a piece of writing. Um similarly with reading teachers really understand student’s reading abilities by looking at theprocesses they use, by talking with tehm as they read, um by talking with them about how they select particular books, how do you know if something is difficult fo you to read, how do you make choices about picking certain uh books that you think are gonna be more difficult or easy or hard. Um these are the important sorts of things that that I find that teachers are abvle to tap into that really are knowldegable about student’s developmetn. Uh last would be a knowledge of multiple kinds of assessment. Teachers that are able to use quantitative types of assessment tools to be able to get a read on where students are, uh and as well as qualitative assessments and they use those in an on going fashion as part of their teaching as opposed to on add on that takes more time or effort that they only do at the beginning of the semester as a pre sort of sort of activity, and maybe at the end of the year as a post activity. But really use on going assessment to feed into their ideas about how they should be crafting teaching and learning opportunities, what kids are learning and what impact that has for then future directions in the classroom.

The path to literacy development from elementary reading into middle school and high school often times is has been thought of as elementary school is a place where you learn how to read and middle school and secondaty is a place where you read to learn. And I think we’ve really rethought that. We’re always learning how to read because we’re encountering new forms of texts and new problems um associated with learning the complexity of all the material that’s out there and new ideas that are out there to be learned. So as learners develop, they’re learning how to read and they’re reading to learn. Um likewise early on elementary readers don’t just learn how to decode uh they have to to read to learn as well. They have to learn how to comp[rehend materials. So I think it’s more of a matter of ratcheting it up in terms of uh offfering more and more challenging kinds of opportunities that rae developmentally appropriate for learners as opposed to totally different sorts of activities between elementary and middle and high school. Elementary kids I would hope would be involved with project based learning as well as thematic instruction um grabbing onto ideas that um seem to make sense to them that they can connect with in their personal as well as in their academic lives. Really getting highly engaged in reading interesting books uh talking about those books, writing about those books and other kinds of texts as well. Uh becoming involved in crafting and creating their own text that others read. Likewise they have to learn how to read texts in content areas and I think that um often times we haven’t really equipped kids with the skills and strategies necessary to make sense of highly difficult texts like mathematics texts and social studies, all of which have their own uh individual issues and and uh challenges with reading those kinds of texts. So this is something then that becomes more sophisticated as you get into upper grade levels and um some what more challengeing because as you move into middle and high school you’ve got kids that move from teacher to teacher so they don’t have the consistency of a teacher who really understnads what challenges they might be facing and is able to work with them throughout a day to meet the needs of their their reading and language difficulties. Here you’ve got kids moving from one classroom to antoher and I think the challenge would be for teachers to work together in teams to hthink about what our our problematic issues in terms of kids literacy development in middle and high school and what can we do in a team sort of fashion wehre they the kids would would experience some coherence in the kinds of things we would have them do in all of their classrooms where they would be reading and writing to learn.

Skills and strategies that kids need to develop comprehension um there are many. And I guess what I would say is that it’s not a matter of being able in a linear fashion to learn a lot of skills and then for those skills to add up to being able to comprehend. Instead it’s a matter of thinking where we want kids to be, what we want them to be able to do, what kind of learners literacy learners we’d we’d like to help support and craft. Um and then thinking about the skills and strategies necessary to get to that point. And really working with kids to see skills and strategies as tools which we’d like them to be able to flexibly be able to use depending on the text and the context that they find themselves in. so for example if you have a particularly difficult text that you come across that’s got graphics in it um let’s say it’s a social studies text and you need to be able to read a map, to know that you can call upon strategy A and strategy C and that those are going to help you best with this particular text seems to me to be much more impowering than um we as teachers telling kids well here’s what you’re going to do to make sense of this text on this occasion. We want really for them to be avle to become indepent learners who don’t have to rely on us um as as the the way to unlock the key to what’s going on in a text but rather offer them the strategies and have them want to learn when to use particular strateigies and skills to make sense of things. Um I’m a firm believer that kids do need skills, they do need to be taught strategies uh in some explicit sorts of ways they’re not going to pick those out just by reading and doing lots of reading. They need modeling form us as teachers, they they need some explicit instruction and they need help with particular kinds of text that they’ve never encountered before. Uh this is important so the the area of having many lessons where you really sit down with kids and model for them what makes a text work the way it does and how you might bring to bear particular strategies is important. And then giving them the opportunity to practive with others and then to practice with you again is important if we’re going to see transfer of some of the ideas that that we’ve helped them with.

My particular soapbox probably now and one that has been really important to me for a long time is that we really get so caught up in the complexities of schooling and we get caught up in the the outside political pressures of what we ought to be doing in our classrroms as teachers and where kids ought to be and the accountability issues. Those are really imporatnat and I I don’t want to trivialize them or negate them, but what we sometimes seem to lose track of are the very kids in our classroom um the very individuals that we work with on a daily basis. One of the things that I’ve really be challenging myself to do is to work hard to keep kids in my sights and also to think about how to gleem insights from kids on a daily basis. How to really listen to what they seem to be telling me, what their needs are, what they’re interests are and to realy think about how I could use those ideas to creaft powerful learning opportuniteies for them. As opposed to getting rather caught up in um what I get worried about which is content coverage uh making sure that I’m uh doing all the things I need to do with kids, am I exposing them to all the activities and experiences that they ought to have. And I get so caught up in those types of ways of thinking that my opportunity to realy talk with kids, to really listen to them, to really understand who they are as indivuduals as well as learners sometimes to seems to get short shrifted. And if I could really have the best of all worlds it would be that I would spend a lot of time really getting to know kids and uh using what I learn about them to craft learning opportunities that would they could really connect to. And then that would really allow us to move forward nad to exciting things that are meaningful, that get kids higly engaged, energetic about learning opportunities,a and to really want to continue to be learners and to see the value of learning um and the calue of literacy throughout the rest of their careers.