Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Acknowledging the Role of Professional Development in Literacy Education Reform

I teach a reading course for 9th grade students who have been identified as needing additional support as they transition to the literacy demands of high school. Last week, students were learning about photosynthesis by participating in variety of reading activities involving picture books, websites, and excerpts from textbooks and trade nonfiction. At one point during the period, a student asked, “Why are we doing this in here? If this is a reading class, shouldn’t we be reading novels and writing summaries?”

Well, we do read novels and we do build comprehension skills such as summarizing in that class. But the student’s question couldn’t be more relevant in light of the recent introduction of the LEARN (Literacy Education for All, Results for the Nation) Act to the US Senate. Too many adolescent learners think of English as the class in which they read. Too many teachers and administrators think of English as the class in which reading is taught. Logically, then, novels are taught, read, and written about; content area texts are “taught around.”

I am hopeful that the proposed LEARN Act lives up to its acronymic promise by helping us all better understand that, even for (especially for!) adolescents, school has to be about both learning to read and write and learning through reading and writing. This isn’t to say that every teacher has to become a literacy specialist, but it does suggest that everyone involved in the education of America’s students needs to be aware of the powerful ways that reading and writing can be used to learn content, with improved proficiency in reading and writing achieved in the process.

This shift in understanding doesn’t come easily, though. That’s why it’s so exciting to see that one of the three prongs of the proposed LEARN Act specifically mentions funding for professional development for teachers. Teachers are used to mandates that, even if philosophically agreeable, are doomed to fail because they focus only on the what of educational reform. The how of school reform involves time and money, so we’re often on our own to develop solutions.

I know I’ve profited immensely from engaging in ongoing, job-embedded professional development such as NCTE’s Pathways for Advancing Adolescent Literacy and web seminars like On Teaching Content: Building a Schoolwide Culture, all of which support the goals of LEARN. So even though this legislation is still in its very early stages of the process, I still have to be encouraged by a proposal that includes teachers as part of the “All” in LEARN and acknowledges us as active learners in the reform process.

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