Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Joys and Challenges of Literacy Instruction

Whether new or experienced teachers, we all face challenges as we enter the classroom to teach students the literacy skills they need in the 21st century. NCTE’s Guideline More than a Number: Why Class Size Matters, which focuses on the challenge of overcrowded classrooms, describes the situation well:

The Standards for the English Language Arts describe and clarify what students should learn in English Studies and Language Arts—reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and visually representing—to be literate in today’s world. This expanded definition of literacy occurs at a time when classrooms are more culturally diverse than ever, when technology and cyberspace bid for schools’ attention and dollars, and when employers are calling for more and more highly skilled workers.
These challenges make our jobs tougher than ever, yet we return to the classroom every year, knowing that the joys outweigh the challenges.

Annual Convention Speaker Jonathan Kozol, featured in this week’s Boston Globe story “Schooled in Persistence: Kozol Still National Conscience on Education,” speaks to some of these challenges in his new book Letters to a Young Teacher, in which he “gently guides a first-year teacher into ‘the joys and challenges and passionate rewards of a beautiful profession.’” As I thought about Kozol’s mentorship of the young teacher and the challenges we face as we enter the classroom, I was inspired to share a story of my own.

One of my biggest joys in the classroom is what I call “the light bulb moments”—those moments when you’re working with students and you see their sudden understanding of a new idea or concept. In cartoons, it’s that moment when light bulbs appear above characters’ heads. Those are the moments I live for in the classroom—those moments when a student “gets it.”

I remember in particular William’s light bulb moment. My first-year college comp class in Spring 1993 focused on the ways that the writer’s perspective affects the meaning and language of a message. Students read pieces by Jane Tompkins, Harriet Jacobs, and Alice Walker, and we talked about how writing takes place in a social context. I asked the class to do some fairly complex and sophisticated thinking, and their writing showed that they were struggling a bit with the task.

One day in the middle of this course, William was slow to gather his belongings and leave, so I asked him if he had a question. He stepped up to the desk and said, “I’ve been watching some of the TV about that thing in Waco. You seen it?” He was referring to the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian ranch near Waco, Texas, and the subsequent siege that was still underway there. “I was writing about it in my journal,” he continued. “You see different reports and stuff on different channels.” I nodded, and he went on, “When they talk to the witnesses, they say different things about it and it has to do with what they care about. That’s just like those things we’ve been reading. That’s what you’re talking about, right?” A light bulb moment! He didn’t know it, but William had had a light bulb moment as he wrote that journal entry and made the connections between what he had been reading and current events.

William’s light bulb moment remains one of my fondest memories of teaching. As we re-enter the classroom this fall, I hope we all have more joyful moments than challenging ones. If you have stories of joys from your teaching experiences, please share them in the comments. Every teacher loves to read of classroom successes!

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Anonymous said...

There are no "challenges" in the classroom if we focus on the lightbulb! They all become joyful! Nothing can strengthen our classroom experiences more than a positive attitude. Climbing a mountain can be somewhat stressful, but once we achieve success, joy is in abundance because of the struggles we have overcome. We must always remember the words of Albert Einstein who stated that "Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty."

Prof. Barbara S. Reall
Community College of Rhode Island

Anonymous said...

I am in summer mode and so I cannot share any current lightbulb stories, but I will give testimonial: those moments have kept me coming back to the classroom for 25 Septembers now. Just being around the kids on a daily basis, participating in interactions with them as they learn about the world around them is enough to keep me going for another 25 years (sure, that's easy to say in August; ask me again in March :). I have taught kinder, and grades 1,2,3 and 5, and each age has amazing experiences. I am also the very proud mom of three college students, two of whom are going into education. I will be sending them Kozol's book!

Maureen Morrissey
Westchester County, New York

Anonymous said...

One of my recent lightbulb moments was with an adult learner, a Somali woman who is uncertain of her age or birth date but believes she is somewhere between 40 and 50. We had been working on letter recognition and phonemic awareness in English. Since she does not read or write in her native language, we had some additional challenges. One morning something clicked with her, and from that point on her word recognition, writing, and spoken vocabulary in English "took off." Thank you for sharing your William story because it reminds me to think about the lightbulb moments that happen in learning environments all over the world. While these beautiful episodes inspire us as individuals to continue to teach, I believe it is important to remember that the joy in these moments is a shared joy that connects us universally with other teachers and learners.

C. T.