No, We Aren’t All Literacy Teachers

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By Andrew Pillow

If you have been near an inner-city school in the last couple of years you have probably heard this: “Every teacher is a literacy teacher” or “Every class is a reading class.” It doesn’t sound exactly the same everywhere, but the general idea is the same: Every teacher should make literacy their primary priority regardless of their subject matter.

Well, I’m not a literacy teacher. I’m a social studies teacher.  I happen to think that in my class, social studies content should be my primary priority.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the sentiment. Reading is fundamental to literally everything. In the face of low reading scores, urban schools are now trying to incorporate reading into every part of the day. This makes sense.  

The problem comes when people take the phrase “every class is a reading class” too literal. When I am infusing a healthy dose of reading in my class it improves my delivery of content, but when literacy test scores become the primary focus of my class, my content suffers.

Here is an example of what I am talking about:

There are literacy concepts that makes a ton of sense to teach in my history class. Primary source texts, historical fiction, and newspaper articles are probably the biggest examples.  We read current event newspaper articles almost every day, and because I teach US history my students get plenty of at-bats with the constitution and other primary sources.

This is the right way to infuse literacy into a class.

Here are the wrong ways:

1.       Mandating heavy reading every day.

I don’t mind reading in my class and we do it most days anyway, but some days a lecture or a PowerPoint just makes more sense for the content. Heck, some days a movie makes more sense. Lectures are a perfectly appropriate way to deliver content and quite frankly if we are preparing students for college it’s something they need to get used to anyway. In a 50 minute class I may be able to fit an article or something else in but if it doesn’t directly help me achieve my aim it’s probably better not to. For some students, this actually hurts their progress… which brings me to my next point.

2.       Making success in non-literacy classes a pure function of reading ability.

One of the best things about teaching history is that it is a class that students who struggle with math or reading can find success. This was the case for me. I really struggled with English and Algebra, but for some reason when it came to history I was locked in. I gradually gravitated to non-fiction texts because of my fondness for history but there is no question, the initial hook for me was the lectures, discussions, and documentaries we watched in class.

It’s a really simple concept. A student who struggles to read may still be able to find a ton of success in another class. If you turn every class into a pure literacy class, then what you have done is morph the class in which he could have had success, into a class that highlights his weaknesses.

3.       Forcing every unrelated or loosely related text you can find to be taught in class.

This is one that happens to me a lot. Pretty much every history class I taught has covered a specific timeline or geographical area. It was very frustrating to me when people would find some text set around test time for me to teach, and try and sell it to me as helping with my content.

“Here Mr. Pillow I know you teach history, you should have them read the constitution! We have a cool instructional set for it. I’ll drop it off.”

The only problem was that year I taught world history. I was in the middle of my Ancient Egypt unit and teaching a document literally 3000 years in the future did little to help my class. Especially since “teaching the constitution” could be an entire unit unto itself. I did end up teaching the set. The end result was teaching both ancient Egypt and the constitution poorly.

 

Literacy is very important and that cannot be understated. However, the other classes are important too. Don’t sacrifice them to make your literacy scores look a little better.

 

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Andrew Pillow

Andrew is a technology teacher at KIPP Indy College Prep. He is graduate of the University of Kentucky and a Teach for America Alum. Andrew just recently finished his commitment as a Teach Plus Policy fellow, and he is looking forward to putting the skills he's learned to good use. Andrew has written for several publications in the past on a wide variety of topics but will be sticking to education for his role on Indy/Ed.