I was reading a professional text recently that, in many ways, moved me to nod my head so frequently as I was reading that I looked like one of those bobble head turtles that you find at every craft fair and flea market. There was so much I loved about what the authors had to say about our collective practice as teachers. But the deeper I got into the book, the less I nodded my head, and the more I started to cringe at the expectations these authors had laid out for classroom teachers–at the range and the number of teaching practices they insisted were essential cogs in the instructional wheel of literacy. This wasn’t the first time I’d felt this way; as a matter of fact, I often develop that same cringe-y feeling when reading professional texts, particularly those that, in recent years, have become the most popular or sought-after among teachers of literacy.
When reading these texts, as I cringe, I often find myself wondering this: do we expect too much of our literacy teachers?
As a profession, we often talk about “balanced literacy” as if it were the most natural thing in the world: simply provide students with equal amounts of reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study, and you’re golden. Students’ reading and writing development will flourish. (The “reading wars” are but a distant memory!) When practicing literacy teachers fret about what they are “supposed to” teach and desperately ask, “What should I focus on?” too many of us–myself included–gently wince, smile condescendingly and respond with something akin to, “Well…it’s all about balance.” We shake our heads and murmur, “It’s difficult, I know.” Then we pack up our laptops and our dongles and our writer’s notebooks and sail into our next workshop, course, or consulting gig, leaving hundreds of teachers in our wake who struggle to keep afloat on a daily basis.
But if we were to look–really look–at what “balanced literacy” actually entails, we, too, would wring our hands in desperation. While some entities attempt to break balanced literacy into three essential components–reading workshop, writing workshop, and word study–others identify six components, breaking “reading workshop” into its more granular parts: independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud. I would argue that a truly “balanced” literacy program incorporates no fewer than ten potential components, including:
- read-aloud (for pleasure)
- independent reading
- interactive read aloud
- phonics instruction / morphology / etymology
- strategy instruction / guided reading
- word study
- independent writing projects / notebook play
- craft study
- handwriting and/or keyboarding
- book groups
…and on and on. My rough list doesn’t even take into account oral language study, guided explorations of genre & form, and the exploration of literacy/language through a more global, social-justice oriented lens.
Now, of course many of the components on my list can be combined; for example, I often use the time I devote to “notebook play” encouraging students to try out a particular craft move or form we have investigated. But honestly–who among us has successfully incorporated “balanced literacy” (in the way I have described here) into our classrooms? Show me a teacher who effectively manages the four most agreed-upon components of balanced reading instruction alone–independent reading, guided reading, shared reading, and read aloud–and I’ll show you someone who’s either lying or alarmingly delusional.
In this sense, I think we expect far too much from literacy teachers. No one can do all of this–never mind all of this well– and still find time to confer, kidwatch, and read or write alongside students.
BUT (and this is a big but, as evidenced by my masterful use of all caps): in another sense, I think we also–collectively–expect too little from literacy teachers. The ways in which I believe this, however, have less to do with literacy activities or “components” and more to do with literacy mindsets and behaviors. For example, I think that all teachers of student readers should read on a regular basis. I think that all teachers of student writers should write on a regular basis. I think that we should get to know and meet all students where they are, not where we–or our literacy mentors (and certainly not the authors of most literacy programs)–think they should be. I think we should teach students how to ask deep questions, seek answers, and reflect on their identities as readers and composers of text. I think we should teach students far fewer whats (like “strategies” and “genres”) and teach them far more hows and whys (e.g., “Why do you think the author used parentheses here?”).
Granted, this is a heck of a lot to ask. However, it’s also a lot to ask of teachers, year after year, to incorporate a ridiculous horde of components into their literacy instruction–in the name of “programs,” “structures,” or “frameworks”– and end each school year feeling like a failure. (Or maybe it’s just me who always feels like a failure. If so, I will gladly eat my words.) Teaching, as we know, is incredibly challenging and complex; it always has been, and it always will be.
So which is worse: expecting too much of teachers (in terms of activities and components), or expecting too little (in terms of mindsets and behaviors)?
I have yet to find an answer. What are your thoughts?
Like what you’ve read here? Check out my debut book from Stenhouse Publishers, Renew! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher, which you can preview in its entirety here. I am donating 50% of my royalties for the first year of publication (ONE MONTH LEFT!) to 826 National, a wonderful organization that provides opportunities for children who live in traditionally underserved populations to explore their creativity and improve their writing skills.