National Writing Project

Doing Literacy

By: Joanne Toft
Publication: The Voice, Vol. 9, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: A fifth/sixth grade teacher is challenged to bring her literacy competencies to a visible level in order to share them with observing practicum students.


I was a proud teacher looking at a model classroom. My fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders had settled very quickly into an amazing routine. I was drifting along with them in this wonderful state when my two new practicum students—full of theory and short on practice—entered the scene. Visiting on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, these young women sat politely at the back table completing their 15 hours. Sometimes they listened; other times they balanced their checkbooks.

One morning during my prep, we were discussing what goes on in my room. What the two told me quietly later became a roar in my head: "We may move to another classroom to observe and work. You know, it's our literacy block this semester, and since you don't do literacy we asked to meet with our . . ." They continued to talk, but I had stopped hearing. Inside, my head was screaming: WHAT? I don't do literacy! How dare you! Who are you to know? What right have you to say whether I teach literacy or not?

Who knows what else they said that morning. I know I was polite to them, and I know I taught the rest of the day, but my mind kept racing around this idea. "I don't do literacy?"

At the end of the day I asked my student teacher tersely, "Do I do literacy?"

"They really bugged you this morning," he answered. "I thought something was eating at you." But he never said, "Well, yes, of course you do literacy. What were they thinking?" So there I sat angry and confused, wondering: Do I do literacy? What is literacy? How do we define literacy today? What is it—this literacy thing I apparently don't do?

I went to the dictionary. Being old but not out of date, I used my online Britannica dictionary:

  • the quality or state of being literate
  • possession of education
  • a person's knowledge of a particular subject or field

Not much help there. That night, I wandered the Internet for hours looking at site after site, finding 6,820,000 possible hits when I typed in literacy: a hotline for literacy help, hundreds of organizations dealing with adult literacy, literacy groups worldwide and early literacy. It seems there are tens of thousands of projects and people all working to create this thing we call literacy.

But was I one of them? My search did not reward me with a specific answer to my question, but it did reinforce my understanding that there is a lot more to literacy than my practicum students understood. They were looking for more direct instruction than I provided. They asked questions like, "Do you use reading textbooks?" "Does your district expect you to use a certain set of materials?" "What time do you meet with reading groups, and where are their workbooks?" I reflected on what these young women had observed. They did not see me conducting teacher-directed lessons from the basal textbook—the literacy they were looking for. So where was the literacy teaching in my classroom?

I looked to my students themselves for the answers. The students were involved in science lessons about plant and animal environments, making observations in their journals, reading on the Internet or in other resources about environments around the world. They drew and painted pictures of deserts, forests, and oceans about which they had read. They talked about what environments are best to live in and why. While a visiting artist helped them to create a play around the theme of relationships, they used personal journals to record their thoughts and emotions. The children read novels like The Outsiders, Under the Blood Red Sun, Jar of Dreams, and The Pushcart Wars. And they talked about what they read.

"You got to read this . . . because . . ."

"We have to use the Pushcart Wars in our skit."

"No. Use The Outsiders. I think the relationships are stronger."

Although my students did not have silent reading at 8:05 a.m., phonics at 9:00 a.m., and writing at 9:45 a.m., we read, wrote, discussed, and made connections to the world around us. Even my reluctant readers took books home. Danielle, one of these, stopped by to say that she was sorry but she had left Dragon in the Family at home because she was going to read it again to her brother. One day, my class was too busy even to go to recess. Having moved from relationships to mysteries in our reading, they sat and watched a video of The Hound of the Baskervilles, searching for clues and red herrings, making "wanted" posters with torn art, and planning to write a murder mystery of their own.

I knew I was in the company of great teachers when I thought about my class. Things that I had done in teaching literacy over the years were also present in Reggie Routman's whole language approach, in Lucy Calkin's writers workshop, and in the work of Donald Graves, which urges us to have students write regularly, with choice and purpose. Literacy was happening all around me: in my students' stories, book reports, discussions about science and the world, and relationships with friends.

The children learned skills and used them in a real context. They planted seeds, took care of fish, and wrote down their observations. They wrote about why we should all live under the ocean. My life, as a teacher, was to see that language skills and standards permeated each adventure. These skills must have been tucked so neatly—so invisibly—into the curriculum that my practicum students decided I didn't teach them at all.

I talked with the practicum students' adviser to see what she wanted her students to observe. She was supportive of keeping these students with me during their placement, and it became a learning experience for all of us. Challenged, I brought my competencies to a conscious level and learned how to share what I do with those coming to observe my classroom. The practicum students learned to recognize literacy in many places and to understand what they had been studying by seeing it used in context. They no longer read words without meaning as they went through text materials and articles about literacy. Their adviser also learned to watch for understanding and comprehension in her students. She was able to see their literacy more clearly.

Literacy is more than just reading and writing. It is learning to read and write in order to make sense of the world in which we live. Thanks to my two practicum students, I got angry enough to reflect on my own literacy-rich classroom.

About the Author Joanne Toft teaches a fifth/sixth grade classroom at the Marcy Open School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is a teacher-consultant with the Minnesota Writing Project.

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