Monthly Archives: April 2013

Literacy–a word for all educators.



I just returned from a terrific professional learning day with my literacy counter parts from across the Northeastern region of Ontario. This session was hosted by  educators from the Curriculum and Learning Resources Policy Unit, Joanne Folville and Julie Gayoski-Luke.

The focus of our conversation was The Adolescent Literacy Guide, a new resource from the Ontario Ministry of Education. This resource was placed in our hands last fall and we were asked to review it and consider how we would use it in schools with teachers and administration. Now, we gathered to share our work around this resource. Like everyone else in education, the Ministry is interested in gathering evidence of its resources’ effectiveness. The idea behind this resource was not a full roll out; that is, the guide was not to be handed out en mass. Rather,  its content was designed and formatted to be accessed as needed-more of a ‘dip in and grab’ process.

I am still processing the rich conversation around this resource, but today I wanted to comment on the ongoing issue of the word literacy. There was a strong feeling around the table that the Ministry should have used the title The Adolescent Learner’s Guide rather than The Adolescent Literacy Guide. The claim made is that when high school teachers hear the word literacy, they immediately think that’s the responsibility of the English department, and tune out.

I get that. But it’s time we called these teachers on this attitude. We can no longer rely on a definition of literacy that is limited to a person’s ability to read and write.

According to the Canadian Council on Learning, “true literacy encompasses much more than just these basic skills. It includes the ability to analyse things, understand general ideas or terms, use symbols in complex ways, apply theories, and perform other necessary life skills―including the ability to engage in the social and economic life of the community.”

And for Douglas Kellner, Ph.D. at UCLA “literacy involves gaining the skills and knowledge to read and interpret the text of the world and to successfully navigate its challenges, conflicts and crises.  Literacy is a necessary condition to equip people to participate in the local, national and global economy, culture and polity.”

These are useful and relevant definitions for literacy in 2013. They are inclusive. Here is the beginning of a list of literacies:

  • Ecoliteracy
  • Financial Literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • Critical Literacy
  • Emotional Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Aural Literacy
  • Visual Literacy
  • Multicultural Literacy
  • Physical Fitness and Nutrition Literacy
  • CyberLiteracy
  • Digital Literacy
  • Web Literacy

Is there any course offered in high school that does not include reading and writing? Is there any course offered in high school that does not require thinking, analyzing, or the application of theories?  Is there any course offered in high school that does not also tap into any of the above literacies?
It is time for all educators, even high school content area teachers, to accept that they are teachers of literacy.


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Considering critical literacy

Recently, questions about critical literacy  and critical thinking have come up with some of the teachers who I work with. The teachers are implementing student inquiry and as they work on questioning with their students they are realizing that just because students ask questions, even questions that are evaluative and analytic in nature, does not mean that the students are intellectually engaged.

What does intellectually demanding or engaging learning look like? And how do we get there?

We know that simply creating the environment to foster questioning is not enough. Sure, it is early days, and we’ve  just begun this work on inquiry. None-the-less, the learning opportunities put in place in one classroom include a knowledge building circle, a book study, a variety of mentor texts from print, video, and Internet sources, oral presentations by local experts, and field trips. Lots of chance for student choice and voice. The content is meaningful and relevant because it comes from the students’ own history.  And yet, there is little evidence of growth in student thinking.

So, what gives? Well, to paraphrase Steven Katz, a student learning need is a proxy for a teacher learning need, and our learning need is to dive more deeply into what thinking is, and to understand more about critical thinking and its partner critical literacy.

These are the  definitions of critical thinking and critical literacy that we are working with. They are  from the Ontario Language Curriculum:

Critical thinking.
The process of thinking about ideas or situations in order to understand them fully, identify their implications, and/or make a judgement about what is sensible or reasonable to believe or do.

What does this look like?
In reading this  includes: examining opinions, questioning ideas, interpreting information, identifying values and issues, detecting bias, detecting implied as well as explicit meanings.

In writing this includes: questioning, hypothesizing, interpreting, inferring, analysing, comparing, contrasting, evaluating, predicting, reasoning, distinguishing between alternatives, making and supporting judgements, synthesizing, elaborating on ideas, identifying values and issues, detecting bias, detecting implied as well as explicit meanings.

Clearly, there’s a lot of work in thinking critically–look at all of those verbs–but it is also invisible work. How do we make that process visible? How to help students learn how to question ideas, make judgements based on evidence, or problem solve?  Some methods include:

And then, we need to learn to step back and let the students get to it. We need to get out of our students’ way, so that they can engage in the process of thinking. Is it hard to watch the kids struggle? Yes.  And that’s ok.

Another piece that is important in critical thinking is making deep, rich, meaningful, relevant connections. This habit of mind only comes over time with lived experiences and by reading widely and deeply. We need to know something of the world in order to make connections, to theorize, and to think critically.

What else? Let’s listen to Dr. Allan Luke speak briefly on critical thinking . He will make reference to the Four Roles of the Literate Learner and he will talk about critical literacy and metacognitive practices.

Here’s the definition for critical literacy:
The capacity for a particular type of critical thinking that involves looking beyond the literal meaning of texts to observe what is present and what is missing, in order to analyse and evaluate the text’s complete meaning and the author’s intent. Critical literacy goes beyond conventional critical thinking in focusing on issues related to fairness, equity, and social justice. Critically literate students adopt a critical stance, asking what view of the world the text advances and
whether they find this view acceptable.

In both critical thinking and critical literacy, it is imperative that students use the metacognitive process because it is only when we become aware of what we know and understand the process that we used to get there that we can reproduce the process consciously in another context.

So to the above list, I want to add

  • metacognitive routines

And there is no magic about this work. Luke is speaking of the primary grades, but his comments about what good teaching is are applicable to all grades. We need to look around our world and use those resources to teach students to be skeptical. We need to have students look around their world and use those resources to question. This is an empowering process that goes a long way to answering, “What’s the point?”

Deep connections, that’s what we are looking for.

I believe Luke is right when he says no package is going to do this for us or our students. Rather, when we heighten the intellectual demand of our students and create opportunities in the classroom that connect them to the world, we will be engaging our students in both critical thinking and critical literacy. This is not a stand alone lesson or a unit of study, but a stance, a lens through which teachers and students must view all the content.

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The Daily Five…A place to start

The foundational principals of the Daily Five

•Trusting students
•Providing choice
•Nurturing community
•Creating a sense of urgency
•Building stamina
•Staying out of students’ way once routines are established

The K to 3 teachers had their second meeting for the book study The Daily Five by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. What terrific conversation! We are using a protocol called the levels of meaning to guide our thinking as we read each chapter.  This is how the levels of meaning works:Participants read the chapter and then choose one sentence that grabs their attention. It may capture the gist of the chapter, highlight an ongoing concern, or challenge the educator’s thinking. Next, the educator chooses one phrase from the chapter. This is the process of synthesizing the information of the text. Finally, each educator chooses one word from the text that gets to the heart of what she understands from the text.We began be going around the group to hear everyone’s general impressions of Chapter 2 “From “Management” to “Principled” habits: Foundations of the Daily Five”. Next, we discussed each of the levels of meaning: sentence, phrase, and word.Some examples from the group include:


“What beliefs influence the decisions you make in your classroom?” (p. 18)
“Through lessons and guided practice, we gradually build behaviors that can be sustained over time so children can easily be trusted to manage on their own.” (p. 19)”


“Purpose+Choice=Motivation” (p. 21)
“highest quality of instruction for students” (p. 22)
“stay out of the way”



For our next meeting we will read chapter 3 “What’s the difference?: Key Materials, Concepts, and Routines for Launching the Daily Five.” But we will also view the video below from Balanced Literacy Diet and choose one idea presented in the video that challenges our thinking about our current practice or what we believe about students and learning. Here we are drawing upon the ideas found in Steven Katz and Lisa Dack’s Intentional Interruption.  How do we intentionally interrupt the status quo in order to overcome barriers to learning that impede permanent change?

Questions or comments? Please join the conversation.

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