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We Don’t All Teach Literacy. We Do Teach Students, Though.

Literacy (created by me using Adobe Spark)

Whenever I tweet about pedagogy on social media, English / Language Arts (ELA) teachers always reply with “We’re all literacy teachers.” Few axioms unnerve me quite the way this one does and it comes up often.

I get it, too. In the age of Common Core State Standards, the adage has taken on a new level of urgency. Across the country, administrators put their English, science, and social studies teachers in one room and said “You’re all incorporating these standards into your classroom in this way.” Non-fiction texts such as articles and reports were connected to literacy markers like books and newspapers, all evidence of students’ ability to decode and make meaning of texts. Though math had its own set of standards (and science started to crowd review theirs), the push to label everyone literacy became too strong.

Of course, there’s precedent for this movement before David Coleman and company came to symbolize the movement. Folks across the spectrum, from Paulo Freire, E.D. Hirsch, Deborah Meier, and Ted Sizer, have put in works that influence our position today. Yet, I believe the current education zeitgeist suggests we all consider ourselves literacy teachers because … some expert says so.

Too much of the rationale infers that literacy matters more than every other subject in PK-12 education. Just underneath that statement is the intentional drive towards the English language and the elitism we’ve bestowed upon it. Though the United States doesn’t have an official language, English is its primary language. Thus, we can safely assume that folks who use the word “literacy” mean “reading and writing in English” and not simply “communicating simple and complex ideas through text.” And really, our country doesn’t even do that good a job at the literacy element, but that’s another post altogether.

English as a language is already problematic as is. With its emphasis on metaphor and idiom, English as a language is difficult for non-English speakers to navigate. Consider that, in Spanish (and other Romance languages), conjugating words require an understanding of time (past, present, future, etc.) and audience (I, you, him/her/it, them, us, y’all, etc.). While it seems like a lot compared to English where some of the conjugations are the same, it saves a lot of time in determining whether the correct ending is -d, -ed-, -ought, -ew, or -ied. English requires a level of mastery and nuance that a math teacher like myself admires.

Instead, our society has been ingrained with the idea that ELA and math are two totally different elements. Most efforts to sit folks together in a room boil down to creating word problems. The ELA teachers pat themselves on the back for helping math teachers see the value in their subject. The math teachers sit there listless because their language — math — was treated as accessory to the learning, not central to it. Every other subject teacher nods along and goes back to whatever they wanted to anyways.

We all lose.

Math teachers have some fault in this, too. Our need for specialization often leaves out other subject areas. Too many of us believe in “either you get it or you don’t,” creating a secret cool kids club that often excludes adults and children from math and its wonders. When someone says they’re not a math person, they’re allowing us to view math through the lens of all the people who taught them math or didn’t. Instead of allowing for a breadth of explanations about the math in front of us, we’ve stuck to the narrow explanations offered to us by unwritten guidelines. Too many of our imaginations are limited to that which we learned growing up or that which we know will show up on a state-sanctioned exam.

Perhaps that’s why I found myself initially averse to the idea that I teach literacy. I already have a whole set of standards to teach. “You mean, I gotta keep your standards in mind, too? Naw.”

Instead, I propose we reframe the question of literacy. As a teacher of students whose languages are in flux (English, Spanish, American, colloquial, slang, etc.), I’ve learned that we’re not all literacy teachers. We’re all teachers of human beings. Folks get mad at my English-language-learning students who love math and don’t like English. I’m not convinced that it’s just about math being a “universal” language, either.

With so many levels of parlance and expressiveness, we would do well to focus on the ways and means by which we approach learning. When someone says they make a claim, back it up with evidence, and conclude it with a strong statement of their theories, I hear the scientific method. I also see mathematical proofs. When a student discusses limits and number lines, they also mean they’re discussing borders, mapping, and trajectories. Decoding is so critical to all that we do that coding ought to stem from our pedagogies, not separate or in isolation.

I’m not saying we need to abstract this discussion for the purposes of abstracting. I’m suggesting that, abstractly, we teach students techniques for life and knowledges we’ve accumulated.

Given the way that knowledge has become more readily accessible at quicker rates, our function as teachers might seem tenuous. We’re in an era where quality content is easier to come by. Many of our classics can be found for free or cheap because the Internet. Yet, teachers are at our most effective when we communicate the unquantifiable and elevate the intentional. We need to have more conversation about “best practices” that don’t strip teachers of their autonomy, but allows for all of our students to gain deep understandings of the content. We would also do well to obliterate subjects as a descriptor for people (math person, English person, etc.) and instead investigate our passions for a given class.

Why would we call ourselves teachers of literacy when we can just liberate our understanding of “teacher?” That’s a more arduous task, but it clarifies our work through present and future tension.