Saturday, March 24, 2012

Teaching Humanity

This is the first year of my career I've been tasked with teaching literacy directly. I have two groups of 9th-grade students whose literacy I'm responsible for improving in a detectable way.

Prior to this year, I'd never really thought about literacy all that deeply. Literacy - the ability to read, right? As someone trained in language arts, I know how to engage students with reading: engage and build background knowledge, make predictions, employ guiding questions, provide high-interest materials, reflect on and discuss reading after it's been done.

But I've never been formally trained in how to teach students to read - i.e. the processes around transforming words and syntax into meaning. The notion of fluency, while I've been passively familiar with it, has never played an important role in my thinking about language arts instruction. These skills have traditionally been relegated to the domain of the elementary teacher.

It seems, though, that this year my ignorance of literacy instruction must die a thorough death. And the further I wade into this pedagogical pool, the more passionate I become about fully inducing rigor mortis - because, the more I pay close attention to my students' reading habits, the more (and, just as often, less) I understand what's happening in their heads when they look at the words on a page.

Paulo Friere insisted that reading the word is dependent on reading the world. The more literate the world becomes, the more the opposite must also be true.

In August of 2010, NPR ran a series (The Human Edge) on what makes us human. One story, entitled "When Did We Become Mentally Modern?", argues that the defining characteristic of modern humanity is our capacity for symbolic thought, which holds civilization together. It was upon listening to this story that both the broad nature of literacy and its grand importance really came together for me.

Without going too far into the nuances of literacy, I'd like to share the realization I've come to in the last year. Literacy, broadly defined, is the capacity to appropriately interpret a symbol or collection of symbols in a given context.

Literate individuals approach a new experience (e.g. book, movie, lecture, interaction with authority) with a series of prior experiences that appropriately informs their understanding of the symbols used in that new experience.

No longer do I think of teaching literacy as teaching students to read. It is a much more daunting task than merely helping students make sense of words on a page. In some ways, it allows literacy to be understood as being supported in every classroom in its various forms: arithmetic literacy, scientific literacy, political literacy. While this may be off-putting for those who'd like a more unique role for the concept, I find it both empowering and eye-opening. For me, this understanding has empowered me to breathlessly articulate a new-found respect for the importance of reading. But more importantly, it has built a mental bridge between my understanding of reading and my understanding of education's purpose.

If education's purpose is to empower students to interact purposefully and positively with their world, then literacy (as I've broadly defined it) must be at its heart. In essence, a major purpose of education becomes building enough background knowledge and experiences around the immense number of symbols we encounter on a daily basis (imagine how much meaning you miss due to lack of familiarity with symbols) so that the student may make sense of an otherwise more bland world. In doing so, the student develops a major part of what makes them human.


  1. I enjoyed your blog. What is the range of reading levels in your 9th grade class and how many students are you "responsible for improving (their literacy) in a detectable way ?

    1. I have 40 students total. And reading levels range roughly from about 3rd grade up to about 11th grade.

    2. Most of them, though, are around 7th and 8th grade.

  2. Great blog! Just wondering though, what caused you to move from Renton to Seatac? Did you not enjoy working in Renton SD?

    1. Actually, I left Renton to teach in Washington, DC. From DC I went to New York City. And when I decided to come back to Washington State, I was more excited about the opportunity to work at a small school in the Highline District than going back to a traditional comprehensive high school in RSD.