My name is Pam Smith. That’s P-A-M S-M-I-T-H. And I am currently teaching ninth grade and tenth grade English for Selma High School and I’m also their literacy specialist so I do staff development as well.
Uh hmm
Wow. Well, I’d say that it would be almost impossible to really move ahead as far as learning is concerned if literacy weren’t a huge consideration. When I think of literacy I think of my ability to read, write, listen, speak. All of the things that allow me to be recognized, to be heard, to move myself forward in life. And I equate all of those things with how successful I am at being able to learn because had I not one of those four areas to use at my disposal, I’d be limited. I could be very handicapped in a sense. So to be able to help students excel and or at least grow in all those areas I think is critical to their ability ta to also grow as a learner.
Well, I was one of those blessed with a a home environment that was filled with books and lots of resources and I had a mother who read to me. And I think that I am every bit that reader today that my mother developed in my youth. And it, when I think about the children that I work with many of them don’t have that advantage. Uh there are very few books in their homes, and magazines and newspapers and and in that sense you know, I grew up with incredible conversations around the issues that were going on in the world and and story. And those are things that aren’t happening in their homes. So my students come to me with uh they’re like little wells in the sense that that’s an area where I feel very committed to filling. You know, I don’t think anyone should be disadvantaged because access wasn’t there. And and I think that’s the one of the bigger roles I play in the students that I teach in providing as many resources as humanly possible.
Well, I think of the things that we forget, those of us that are very privileged in having not struggled, was that there are layers and layers of learning that are involved in reading, writing, listening and speaking and that those are developmental issues. And that I was able to do well at the primary level at doesn’t mean that the reading and the writing and the listening and the speaking didn’t get more difficult with every succeeding grade level that I was in. So because the content area has become that much more uh complex and uh difficult to navigate there really are skills, there really are things that we do as we continue to develop as readers to be able to do that, navigate those things. And secondary teachers as a rule don’t see those as their job to uh provide students. They they feel that they’ve they’ve co, they’ve already come equipped with those things. But I think about the fourth grade is when teachers stop articulating them. We don’t talk about them, we don’t emphasize them. Bobbi likes to say that we don’t make them visible. Uh I know I do that but I don’t know how to really talk about that to my students. My thinking requires in order ta to really read and understand this more difficult text, other types of processes that you know weren’t necessarily taught in the first grade and they really have to be directly instructed when you get to be in junior high or high school
I think the biggest obstacle really is just background. They haven’t had the experience, the experiences, they haven’t been exposed to the number of things that many of us take for granted that we grow up with. And it’s not that they’re not intelligent enough because they really are very very bright, but they just have never experienced that term or they haven’t had that, uh, exposure to that particular content area, and it’s clearly a disadvantage when the students around them really come with so much of what we call background knowledge. And I think another thing is just, a—and I’ve found this in being out of the classroom for a couple of years, that in those classrooms where those children are, typically they aren’t wrapping their mouths around the English language. They are sitting in silence for so much of the day and what they really need are lots and lots of opportunities to use the academic language that’s being used in the classroom to, to wrap their mouths around these words that, you know, have all of these meanings, and have conversations and develop those understandings, uh, with that ability to be able to talk, but, did, you don’t do that in silence. You don’t create those deeper understandings of things, when the bulk of your day is spent silently filling in blanks, or, you know, just listening to somebody talk.
Well, you know I was in the classroom for 26 years, and then I left. And I got to go around to other classrooms, and that was the thing that stood out in those schools in my district that were particularly low and not achieving, 45 minutes out of any given hour was spent in complete silence. And I, you know, it just became so glaring to me that we needed to do something about that. You know, it was very easy to blame the parent because, well, the parents, because there’s no English being spoken in that home, but I don’t even think the teachers were aware of how little time was spent getting those students to talk and use the la—the very language that they wanted them to be able to be skilled in.
Well I think one of the bigger differences today, even with myself as an instructor compared to the instructor I was years ago, um, I don’t assume things. Uh, and I, I really am committed to teaching students as opposed to teaching my curriculum. So no matter what it is that I begin to use in my classroom, I look at what that content might be, and then I find ways to access prior knowledge. What do my students know about this particular topic? And what do I need to facilitate or add to, before we can move forward, and I think that’s a big difference between what goes on typically in another secondary English classroom as opposed to mine. Because that takes time. And many of my colleagues are very very interested in covering their content areas or their curriculums and they don’t want to take that extra time to find out what children know, and again, you, you know a lot of even very bright children, not necessarily the ones who are struggling, are sitting there kind of bored because these are things that they know, but nobody bothered to ask them what they could have contributed to the whole before they even started. And so that’s a big piece of what I try to do better from, for my students, and Oscar and I work at this a lot, which is why we’ve become, you know, the resource people that we have, because we realize that there’s a lot of gaps there before you even begin. And as you go along and you realize, well you, we’ve got to now fill this in, and fill that in, and you’ve got to build all that background, and then you can start moving forward.
That probably is the biggest challenge that I face with my secondary people because again their content area is something that they are very committed to and trying to support that with what they might construe as reading strategies, seems like a huge departure from what they really have to get done. And yet their biggest complaint with their students is that they can’t read the material that they’re giving them to navigate. So I try, uh, to convince them, I, I really send them back to their own issues with reading and what they try to understand and make sense of. And again, part of it’s just that th—we don’t realize how much we have to make more obvious. We just have to say, this is how I would approach reading this particular chapter. These are the questions I had when I started reading this chapter. Uh, I think they’re shocked when they find out that their students aren’t asking themselves questions about the reading and that surprises them and yet that’s something that they hadn’t thought about making explicit to their students, they, yes, before I start reading I think about what I already know about this, uh, as I’m reading, more questions are brought up and I try to answer those questions and if the text doesn’t support my efforts to answer those questions then these are the resources I use in order to get to those answers and I try to convince them that this is not about going back and being a reading specialist. It’s really just about sharing what you have naturally done so well over so many years and you’re familiarity with that content area, tha—I think they really don’t think about how much they bring after year, you know, several years, and that this child has walked in the door and has none of that at their disposal. And so hav—if they can be encouraged to take a little time to do that, then they’re rewarded because they can move forward that much faster and the kids seem to be that much more engaged. And that’s really what they’ve—what they’ve they wanted all along.
Well, I was given an a wonderful opportunity this last year being the literacy specialist on campus. My principal gave me the opportunity to work with the entire English department and the social studies department twice a month. We have short Tuesdays every Tuesday. Two of those Tuesdays were given a portion of that time was given to me to share reading strategies, to talk about different things that they could be doing to support the readers in their classrooms. And the conversations that the English department had with the social studies department were wonderful because they realized that you know they really had to be working together on these issues and if they were both doing the same kinds of things in their classrooms it was impacting both programs. I think for the first time they realized that this kind of collaboration is critical to moving the, everybody on you know the campus forward. One of the things that we did talk about at length that our teachers could use particularly in the social studies department were more graphic organizers. Would there be another way for them to help the children take some of the more difficult conceptual issues that they were talking about and needing children to understand and help the children develop uh ways to put that material into different forms whether it was an artistic form or whether something that just looked like uh a typical graphic organizer. And I had two social studies teachers in particular who just thought ‘you know that’s something I want to pursue.’ And they did pursue it. They created these wonderful graphic organizers and they also had them blown up so that children could work in groups to fill in the graphic organizers. And they realized that the conversations that the students were having over what needed to to be in these organizers was very very good and again about extending their use of those academic terms and then they w they were so empowered by what that was doing to their teaching and and how students were really um growing in those uh their use of those. They shared those with the entire reading, we called it a reading cadre (sp). And uh really made an impress, impressive um well, I they t very much impressed the rest of their peers. Not everybody was as willing to you know, take some of those risks and explore some of those things but I think when they saw their peers doing it and the success that they were having with and they brought in you know information that students comments students made and it was very very impressive and I hope to build on that this next year because my principal was sitting in when those presentations were made. He was very happy and so he will continue to support this group meeting like this for this next year.
Uh hmm
You’re right.
Well, I think when I’m looking at a secondary student today who may not have had a lot of formal schooling prior to coming to Selma High School. Uh I think it’s very important to find out exactly what they are doing well as a reader and I have uh tests that I can give to a student. I have interviews that I can do with that student to find out what it is that they do have working for them because I think that’s a nice place to begin. Students typically think that everything’s a deficit. And I know from experience that they really do do many things and just need a, they just need to know that yes, that’s a good that you’re doing you know, and you want to do that more. And then wo, discover if you will, those things that they do will have to develop as certain uh specific skills. And then after we’ve decided that they may be reading uh comfortably at a fourth grade level, then we look at that curriculum that that science teacher or that social studies teacher is trying to cover. And we’re very fortunate in the United States today. We have many many publishers that are creating incredible things that again provide that background knowledge but at a reading level that that student can read and feel good about. And it’s a place to begin. I don’t tell my secondary people th that student isn’t going to be responsible for what’s in the textbook because that would be a disservice to that student as well. But I do let the teacher know that when they’re covering that those difficult concepts that sometimes, and often times now you can find materials that will at least give them enough of a foundation in that subject matter so that, as Bobbi would say, they they have a big picture of what’s going on then it’s you know working with that teacher to help the child get whatever the specifics of that particular content area and that again goes back to those graphic organizers. This is the big thing that you want the child to understand. How do you want them to think about those specifics? And I think again those are, they seem like time consuming issues but they’re everything to that student because now they feel like they they have some understanding when all they’ve had to navigate was the social studies text or that science book with nothing else in place, you know, I I know what they do. They just shut down and they don’t move forward at all. So, I’m fortunate my principal allowed my social studies department to spend $5,000 just this last year on those kinds of support materials. And it made all the difference. And those uh those teachers, it was funny to to watch them ‘cause I know how primary people feel about their picture books and their things that you know look a little more development developmental by nature but today the publishers are making those things look so lovely that you’d think that these teachers were primary teachers as excited as they were about the books. And I think secondary people really do want more than just their their textbooks to deal with.
Well because the California state standards are very clear about what needs to be taught and what theoretically will be tested uh the textbooks are making an effort to align themselves with those standards. But because those are all written at at it could be that grade level or in most cases even higher grade levels. I’ve explained to my teachers the idea that you have an independent reading level and then you have an instructional reading level. And they have to make up their minds that many of their students may not be reading independently. So while that content has to be covered and has to be understood the idea that the children will be expected to read it independently is is virtually an impossibility. So that’s why we want to put in, at least make available to those students things that, other books, other resources whether it is a picture book, whether it is a book that’s written on the fourth grade level, or it’s in a story format as opposed to this informational text. Those books need to be available to those students for their independent reading. They need the support with from the teacher for the textbook itself. But children need to read alone. They need to read on their own. And then they need to have conversations about what they’re reading. And those supplemental texts, not textbooks, but supplemental picture books or supplemental reading materials that are linked to that content area are invaluable as allowing that student a chance read something that’s not going to be as daunting as the textbook itself and yet give them a lot of the requisite knowledge that they need to walk away with. And I think the big question today and and when I go to plan all of my curriculum what do I really want the students to remember two or three years, five years down the line, which really changes the things that I think I need to emphasize from day to day, from week to week. And I think that again planning with the end in mind, you know that’s a term that’s being used quite a bit and I’m very much embracing it and planning to pass it on to all of the teachers that I’m working with right now. What do we really want the student to know? Because that really, if I’m honest about that, and this is what the assessment’s really going to be, then how does that change what I’m going to spend you know day after day plowing through. What can I let go? And I think that’s comforting to teachers. I think they get themselves into a a bind trying to cover too much. And if they just did less and did that well or in I call it layering. You you pick four or five different salient things that you really want to cover in the course of that year and then you just do what I call a deeper understanding of it. So we’ve approached it with the textbook, another layer might be with independent reading or some kind of a research effort, another layer might involve some kind of inquiry project where the students are asked to go out and research something or interview someone. But the skills that I want students to pick up are embedded in those layers but I do a deeper, deeper understanding of the most important concepts that I kn I know that they’re gonna need to carry forward because I think that’s one of the things when you’re looking at an entire textbook and you know close to four hundred or five hundred pages of content to cover uh so much minutia if you will is being emphasized and there aren’t reasons for that. Even the California standards do not require the teacher teach to all of that.
That’s an excellent question because one of the things that I think is kind of revealing when you look at what your content area people create in the name of assessments that even they have not realized that just asking 100 multiple choice questions and the type of questions that they’re asking don’t even begin to cover what their content standards are really asking children to understand. And when you bring that to their attention and they realize now wait a minute, the standard says this uh and the standards for and I’ve I’ve not looked at them specifically for science but I know the social studies standards are very general and they’re very conceptual. And they want children to come away with bigger understandings of political issues and social issues. And you can’t assess that with just 100 questions that are supposed to cover the entire textbook. And and once they realize that then they have to really rethink that kind of assessment to begin with which then means that I’ve got to teach differently. I’ve really got to present this material differently. It can’t be about these little pickie-unie questions. And then the idea that that’s going to require students to have an elevated idea of what it means to read a textbook. What it means to write in response to those conceptual issues. And and to to speak and and developing your listening skills. All of that literacy issue is critically embedded in reading for a deeper understanding of a concept than just to memorize just you know one thousand history facts from my freshman year in high school Which unfortunately is still the case as far as their assessments. But they’ve been assessing like that for a number of years. So hopefully when we can take a better look at what we’re really asking, and again that’s ask, what are we asking kids to do? What do I really want them to know? And if I say I’m teaching to that standard, how do I know? Where’s the evidence? And if that test is not really reflective of what that child needs to know in with regard to those particular standards then I’ve got to rethink that completely.
Very good
Well, that’s very interesting again that I get an opportunity to talk about what I would do with a teacher that’s just beginning. Where do I begin this issue of curriculum? I have all these things to teach. I’m going to be working with a group of brand new teachers a week from today and the very first thing we are going to do is pull out our language arts standards. I think you have to have a working knowledge of what it is those standards are and then we are going to start uh with just the idea that I can decide that these are the standards that I really want to cover. Then I have to select a novel that will meet those particular standards. After I’ve selected this novel that I think will meet the standards, then I’ve go to decide. I’ve got to answer this question, what is it that I want these children to know by the time they finish this novel. And once I’ve decided what it is from the standards now that I I really think can measure, because I think that instructionally I can weave in a attention to many of the standards. We have 50 language arts standards uh and so the idea that I’m gonna try to cover all of those all of the time is nearly impossible. But I can weave in many of those standards. There could be fifteen that this novel will address but out of those fifteen there may be five that I can adequately assess or demonstrate. The children will be able to do something that will demonstrate that they have in fact learned those at some level. And so I have to do that then, decide what are those five standards that I think I can come up with a way to measure. Then I have to create the assessments. Once I know what those assessments are going to look like, they could be something oral, they could be something written, they could be something more project based. Then I have to decide, well, what are the things now that I’m going to put into what I’m going to call an academic reading journal. In other words, as we read this novel we will be doing this response to this chapter, this response to this chapter. And each one of those responses will be building toward this assessment possibility. In the past our journals have been just a place to collect things. And when we’re done with the journal we’re done. My thinking today is that that journal needs to be a tool. The child needs to go back and access what it is that I’ve asked them to do in preparation for. So if my culminating assessment is is going to involve writing, typically in English class it’s gonna be an essay. Well, what in this journal is gonna support that child’s efforts to really do a good job on that particular essay.
Cough cough
Oh dear!
So this this journal now becomes a means to an end not an end in itself. And then my planning, my teaching planning, is about what those, each of those responses will be and it makes me plan differently because I now know what it is that I do want this child to be able to do at the end and if it writing typically when children finish a novel and they’re being asked to write and essay it’s very difficult to go back and reflect and entire text and remember everything. So if we haven’t provided the support for them to keep track of the things that are gonna be necessary to access then that really makes the writing of that essay very difficult and any any limited English student or someone who is struggling with understanding the book as we were going along, you know that’s a complete disadvantage. So the idea that you would plan for your teaching would be about preparing for those particular assessments. Not that those assessments are the everything but when you’re trying to address your standards it behooves all of us to know how those standards are tested and then weave into the fabric of that academic reading journal different opportunities for the ch— students to respond to the the novel just the way the questions might be asked on that standards test. And that’s not teaching to the test that’s just I think working smart. You’re placing those things and the kids are getting a little rehearsal, if you will, of the wording of that question or and it makes it a lot easier when they come to the end of the novel you feel like yes, we’ve covered some things here and you’re ready to do the project. And nothing is sweeter to a teacher’s ear than can we get started? Do you feel like you have enough here to move forward? And it’s nice and quiet because yes, that’s what they’re doing. They’re moving forward.
I have.
Sigh. Well, I think that it’s, I do believe that it’s very valuable for the math teacher, for the social studies teacher, for the English teacher to know out of this classroom of thirty children who’s very comfortable reading at a ninth grade level if that’s we’re looking at a ninth grade classroom. Who really in terms of their instructional level isn’t going to have any problem with the text if I supported it appropriately. And then who are the children who are really going to find that text very difficult and may need to hear me read the text and give that the the contents of that novel at that level. Be I do the reading and then they are are following along, and again I’m supporting them but then they have something that they can be reading independently so that they don’t feel like they’re not being included. But the math teacher, the social studies teacher, the science teacher, I’d I don’t know if there’s any one test that you can really give them because a the othe the the down side of having that kind of information is that you use this one instrument this one window and then you kind of have the top, the middle and the bottom. And unfortunately not everybody handles that kind of information well. Uh, if it was really about being compassionate and wanting to support those kids knowing I’m gonna have to really provide some extra things, it would be one thing, but unfortunately it’s not always, that kind of information isn’t always accepted that way. I think it’s easier if they just, if if somebody is available to work with them, to give them other options for what they do in the name of instruction, which is typically lecture and ‘you read the text book and answer these questions.’ If we could just move our secondary content area people away from that format that there are lots of different ways to look at developing an understanding of something. Uh I’ve been intrigued with working with the Science department and the social studies department. Many of my teachers are not comfortable with uh visual uh representations of understanding or an idea. If if it’s just the words and it’s very concrete they’re fine. But they aren’t comfortable with taking an idea like uh conflict and drawing something to represent that or creating something. In other words, I I kind of call it working out of the box. Even though they have many students that would be very explore those concepts that way, they’re not comfortable with it and it becomes a handicap to them then because I, all I know really is to assign the chapters, assign the questions and lecture to these topics. So as far as an assessment to give them, I don’t think they’re there yet. I’d rather spend more time helping them feel comfortable with all alternative ways to have students approach the learning of those difficult concepts.
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Side two
Well, I call them literacy rituals that I have put in place, and I try to put them in place right away, right from day one so that students do know there are certain things that are valued because they are gonna be given time. And that time is gonna be theirs a almost every day of the week. Uh I, because of that discovery I made about oral language I realized that one of the things I wanted to be very committed to was a ss opportunity for my students to be able to uh recite or learn uh a poem or some wonderful use of the English language in the way of prose every week. And so I introduce something again that is thematically linked to what we’re working on and I give everybody five to six minutes every morning to get in groups and and work on how they will present that particular poem or or little piece of prose. And have seen my second language learners particularly grow by leaps and bounds because of the comfort of having their peers support them in their efforts to wrap their mouths again around those English words,. Uh I think it’s real critical after they’ve had an opportunity to do something like that to let them again have time to talk about what it is that they’re learning about those things. That’s a very big issue in my course work. No matter what we’re working on I always give children time to talk about it with the people that are around them. Everything that we do is socially constructed in that classroom. And there’s a time every day for them to be able to read something that they choose to read. Uh he calls it riot, Oscar calls it Riot time. I call it SSR time. I don’t have any special name for it. Uh I know how valuable that time is to my students. Uh that’s probably one of the loveliest quiet times for them their entire day. And they again love to sit there and read for 25 minutes and have those conversations afterwards about what they’re reading. Uh it’s a always amazes me, uh my colleagues are often very fearful of allowing children to talk and because they’re sure they’re gonna be talking about things that have nothing to do with what they’re supposed to be talking about. But I have discovered that when a when a student is reading something that they are very involved in and interested in, they have lots to talk about and just like those of us that have made reading you know, it’s just been a passion for us. They have that same inclination after they’ve finished reading . They want to be able to talk about what they’re reading to somebody. Um my students know they’re gonna be working in groups. All their homework is negotiated in groups. I I look at the, I’ve used the analogy of a chain. This chain is only as strong as the weakest link so we need to bring everybody on board and so they know that from week to week that all of their homework will be negotiated and discussed and shared and that we want everybody to to be in a good place with what it is we’re learning. And that you’re not going to be uh left out of you know, and punished necessarily because you’re not sharing in that conversation. Um pause, and I think as far as the the day goes uh we start with an opportunity to visit together and find out you know, how how things are going, as my teenagers do need lots of time to just share their personal lives. And um I always like to put a little closure on the day with just an opportunity to, if anybody has anything that you know, was especially interesting that they learned in that two hours. ‘Cause like uh Oscar I have a nice chunk of time.
And teaching.
Clears throat. Sigh. Pause. Well, I think probably the most important thing that I I would hope that I could communicate and and work at diligently is that children can learn. That the potential for genius exists in every single one of those children. Not genius in the sense that you know we could measure that necessarily in an IQ test, but that every single one of those children is blessed with something and that it’s the joy of discovering that and helping that child work with that and really uh make something of that is really what teaching really, the heart of what teaching is all about. And not to be afraid to let kids to be able to do that and that we can learn a lot from them. You know we’ve again make not assumptions. They come to us with incredible stories and incredible knowledge and and it’s a, it’s a golden opportunity for every one of us to to have the time to spend with these young adults.
Well, maybe just that you know, because it it has been long. I’m really fortunate. I I look forward to the teaching. I I look forward to a new school year. I can’t wait to get into my classroom and set it up and I and I I really have, when I think about it, because I’ve been looking at Grant wi and Grant Wiggams work and Jane McTie’s work and thinking about this whole issue of curriculum design. I was one of those lucky people that never felt like the textbook had to be the end all and be all of me. I’ve spent so many hours creating things and sometimes to add nauseum because you know, I keep going back and going back and going back and revising and revising. But I wouldn’t change any of that and I and I feel so fortunate that I’ve, I was never fearful of that because I realize that a lot of my colleagues start with that textbook or they start with that anthology and they don’t move beyond that. Their, that’s their teaching life right there. And everything that they’ve prepared you know, they’re very happy to have in place. It’s been there for seven years and that’s not gonna change. So uh I try, I try to get teachers to have the confidence. I think it’s kind of ironic that you know, I’ve spent so many of my teaching years working with children that are struggling, and I think a lot of my colleagues are struggling too and they don’t know it. They really don’t know that they’re making this job a lot more difficult than it needs to be. That it could be a lot of fun and that a lot of times when I’m in a bind, if I ask those students of mine what I need to do better here, they’ve go the answers.
You’re so welcome.
Well, I’m so glad, I I----
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Wise: BEEDE Fresno
Pam Smith