Inspired Ideas
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Inspired Ideas

Empowering Student Voices in Literacy Through Habits of Learning

John Slagle, Senior Curriculum Specialist, McGraw-Hill

“Again, Tata, again.”

These are words I hear repeated each time I am blessed to spend an adventurous afternoon with our two young granddaughters, Elena and Siena. “Tata” is their affectionate name for me. It is a name I am always happy to answer to, and hearing the pleasure in their young voices when they call it out fills me with unspeakable joy. Throughout all of our shared times, Elena and Siena’s voices call me to play, invite me to discover wonder, ask me to taste, encourage me to climb, and implore me to read . . . again and again.

Our best times together are crafted of teaching and learning opportunities spent guided by their voices and filled with their choices. They love doing their favorite “Tata things” — and what they relish most are the things we do over and over — our shared habits.

Playing at the park.

Crafting in the maker’s space at our local children’s museum.

Drawing and writing about the fish in the koi pond that graces our village mall.

Stopping for a well-curated treat from the “cupcake museum” which is their chosen name for the bakery.

Whiling away hours reading at the library before carting our book bounty home.

Here is what I have learned from these Elena and Siena afternoons . . . learnings which have greatly enhanced my daily work in thousands of our nation’s school districts and literacy classrooms. Learnings which have most recently enriched my collaborations with our brilliant colleagues in McGraw-Hill Academic Design.

An engaging literacy curriculum must honor the voices and choices of students. It must be filled with new discoveries and trusted favorites. It must welcome new adventures yet include valued rituals and routines. It must honor the primacy of speaking and listening. It must offer sufficient time for playing, for making, for comparing, for choosing, and most especially, for reading and writing. It must be built on the knowledge that the things we value, which teach us the most, which bring us the most satisfaction, we repeat. The best literacy curriculum must build habits.

Dr. Doug Fisher, renowned instructional expert, identified the importance of empowering students to build habits and translated this need into a tangible, actionable practice articulated through what he calls the Habits of Learning. Like the activities Elena, Siena, and I repeat in our most valued times together, Dr. Fisher’s Habits of Learning make deep literacy learning possible for every learner. The six habits are:

I am a part of a community of learners.

As with the strong relationship developed between myself and my granddaughters through shared experience, deep learning (and fun) in the classroom almost always happens best in community. How do our literacy learners find ways to learn from and with one another? Do the experiences they share in the literacy workshop so invite their shared interests and build their common excitement that they long to repeat them again and again? Do our students know that they can call on each other to gain new information and to develop as listeners, speakers, readers, writers, and thinkers? Are our activities and interactions rooted in student choice and invited by student voice?

I believe I can succeed.

Whether navigating the rigors of the playground at the park, or reading a new book at the library, many of the habits Elena, Siena, and I exercise during our shared times fill my granddaughters with confidence. Effective teachers across the nation have taught me that the learning conditions in our classrooms must do the same for our young scholars. What rituals and routines build self-confidence and student agency in our literacy blocks? What parts of our school day can our students count on to bring them joy, to stretch their thinking, and to help them discover their own new strengths and abilities?

I am a problem solver.

Often when faced with the limits of time, or when only one sprinkled pink cupcake remains in the display case when we arrive at the bakery, Elena and Siena take control. At the park, they may decide which activity we will save for our next time together. At the bakery, they decide to split the cupcake. In truth, these problems and opportunities for growth — most especially at the “cupcake museum” — are not solved without a bit of struggle and negotiation. Dr. Fisher believes that we must leverage the power of the same kinds of productive struggle and student decision-making within our classrooms. If we were to eliminate opportunities for students to grapple with big problems, if we fail to help them learn to navigate complex texts and tasks, our students won’t develop the skills they need to move forward. How do we help our learners perceive themselves as problem solvers? What do we do to encourage purposeful initiative around challenges? Do we celebrate examples of task persistence and prosocial behavior in our community of learners?

I think critically about what I read.

Whether choosing books at the library, or celebrating the titles we read again and again once our borrowed books come home to Nana and Tata’s house, during our times together Elena, Siena, and I think and talk constantly about what we read. This same kind of repeated reading and near constant thinking and talking about the books we choose is one of the hallmarks of excellence I find in powerful classrooms across the nation. Dr. Fisher’s Close Reading Routine employs these actions to equip literacy learners to think critically about what they read. Do we guide and encourage our scholars toward and through repeated reading of worthy texts? Do we invite them to ask and answer text-dependent questions as we read? Do we engage in clarifying collaborative conversations all along the way? Do we encourage and equip them to think critically as readers? Do we write to analyze what we read?

I write to communicate.

Though the girls are just beginning their journey as writers — Elena is just four and Siena is broaching two — drawing to share stories, developing concepts of print, and beginning to write so we can label our drawings are often part of our afternoon routine and ritual. After almost every visit to the koi pond or park, we paint, draw, or write to communicate and craft a record of our experiences. The refrigerator at their house is gallery for our celebrated shared efforts. Literacy instruction should follow a path which places consistent value on writing to communicate about what students read and experience. How do we highlight the importance of writing to communicate in our classrooms? Do we consistently model what great writers do? Do our shared writing opportunities invite our scholars to craft texts enhanced by the elements of author’s craft we find in worthy texts and experiences? How do we provide authentic audience for our students’ writings?

I use a variety of strategies to understand.

While the girls’ list of favorite “Tata things” is a fairly short one — we enjoy repeating a few really valued interactions as opposed to trying out an endless succession of new places — the list of new strategies we feel safe trying out in our familiar places is a growing one. One visit at the park we might move out from our favorite red swings to navigate the yellow corkscrew slide. One time at the bakery we might make our treat a cookie instead of a cupcake, though I remain confident that both treats will likely be of the pink and sprinkled variety. And while our book stack carefully placed on the check-out desk in front of the librarian will, for at least the immediate future, always include books about little animals, I enjoy seeing how Elena’s and Siena’s innate curiosities are driving them to consider new topics, and yet undiscovered genre, in their book choices. Our trusted rituals provide a safe space to try out the new, and we leverage a variety of new strategies for fun within the familiar. Literacy instruction should be the same. Our students must implement an expanding variety of meaning making strategies, and consistent instructional and textual settings can help them do this important, and at times hard, work effectively. How do we introduce new strategies within the literacy workshop? Do we try out the new while bolstered by the gift of repeated readings and familiar interactions? How do we set up opportunities for our students to integrate multiple strategies while reading and writing? Are we mindful of the importance of the gradual release of responsibility?

I invite you to work to develop these six important habits within your individual students, to ask some of the important reflective questions positioned in this post, and to work to craft a sense of collective efficacy around these habits in your classroom. Agreeing on the importance of developing these habits, talking in community about how your students are exercising their use, and labeling evidence of the habits throughout the school day will deepen literacy growth and raise achievement.

To learn more about Dr. Fisher’s Habits of Learning and to embed them into your literacy instruction, I encourage you to review Wonders, which employs Dr. Fisher’s Habits of Learning and Close Reading Routine.

John Mark Slagle is the Senior National Curriculum Specialist for Literacy at McGraw-Hill. John works in schools and school districts around the world partnering to develop teacher capacity and student engagement. His work, at all grade levels, includes advising the development of instructional resources and the shaping highly interactive professional learning opportunities. John participated in the Comer School Redevelopment Project at Yale University and is the co-author with Angela Maiers, of The Parent Teacher Partnership: Making the Most of the Middle Years.



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