National Writing Project

“Third Space” Inquiry Group Examines Intersections of Multiple Literacies

By: Kristin Schweitzer
Date: September 17, 2010

Summary: A group of history and science teachers from Writing Project sites across the nation gathered—in person and online—to read about and reflect on content area literacy and delve into creative ways to support multiple literacies in content area classrooms.


What different lenses and perspectives do students bring to the classroom that impact how they interact with disciplinary texts? How can teachers create a "third space" in the classroom—a context in which home literacy and school literacy overlap to create a new lens through which to think about content area material?

Five science and five history teachers from Writing Project sites across the nation joined each other in 2009 to participate in the Third Space Inquiry Group, an online group in the NWP Content Area Literacy Ning , to collaborate and examine what they do with their students to help them become readers, writers, and thinkers in their disciplines.

The term "third space" means an alternative space that merges the "first space" of people's home, community, and peer networks with the "second space" of the discourses in which they engage in more formalized institutions such as work, school, or church.

I gained a variety of new teaching techniques from my colleagues.

The process began in September 2009, when the inquiry group members participated in a two-day-long kickoff event in Denver, Colorado. Participants read research, including An Annotated Bibliography for Elizabeth Birr Moje and Reading in the Disciplines: The Challenges of Adolescent Literacy (PDF) .

The teachers also examined texts that their own students found challenging and analyzed the writing students produced in reaction to those texts. The ensuing discussion helped the teachers identify potential within the student writing and create new ways for their students to make connections to the texts they encounter in science and social studies.

After the kickoff event, the teachers blogged on the Content Area Literacy Ning about their own classroom experiences as well as content area literacy research.

As the discussion took shape, each teacher identified a question about literacy connected to his or her own practice. Through blogging, research, and reflection the teachers examined their students' strengths in literacy and brainstormed ways to connect these strengths to the discourses of the science or social studies classroom.

The group of teachers met again at NWP's National Reading Initiative (NRI) Conference What's Next: Possibilities for Literacy and Content Area Learning in New Orleans in March 2010 to present posters that illustrated issues they had explored and observations and reflections they had made in working with their students.

Building Bridges with Images

Waylon Yarbrough, a social studies teacher from the Boise State University Writing Project in Idaho, recognized that his high school students had highly developed visual literacies but struggled to make sense of traditional classroom text.

At the conference, Yarbrough presented the results of having his students dissect and create political cartoons as a bridge to help them access his content texts, a subject he also wrote about in a blog post on the Ning, Deconstructing and Reconstructing Political Cartoons .

He chooses subjects from a variety of political cartoonists. The assignment is a set of seven questions, ranging from the deconstruction of the elements of a given cartoon—who is represented in the cartoon, for example, or what symbols are at play—to what Yarborough views as the important question: "What do you think the cartoonist's message is and why?"

He uses this exercise daily in his U.S. government classes, and often in his U.S. history classes. Yarbrough found that repeated exposure to political cartoons allowed his students to more easily connect with the text and gave them a more sophisticated understanding of the historical themes they were investigating.

"I particularly see value in the government classes, as this exercise gives students an extra lens from which to view current events, from terrorism to Tiger Woods, Obama to the economy, health care reform to FOX news," he wrote.

Bringing Informality to Science Writing

Nilofer Momin, a science teacher from the Greater Houston Area Writing Project in Texas, recognized that her high school students were writing for a variety of purposes outside of school—they texted each other, blogged, and wrote messages on social networking sites. But she found that despite the facility with which her students wrote in their home lives, they struggled to write in her science classroom.

At the conference, Momin reported on her inquiry into using informal writing to support her students' understanding of science and to develop their critical thinking skills.

Writing about their reading made the students "realize that scientific theories and discoveries keep changing," Momin wrote in her blog. "I like the idea of making [the students] jot down some questions which will make them think deeper."

The Value of Inquiry

After the conference ended and the teacher-consultants returned home to their classrooms, they had the opportunity to reflect on their participation in the Third Space Inquiry Group.

Maggie Brewer, a high school history teacher from the Eastern Kentucky University Writing Project blogged, "I enjoyed being able to communicate with people across the country. Working in an online environment allowed us as participants to comment on and respond to each other's lessons and assignments. Throughout our time together I gained a variety of new teaching techniques from my colleagues. In addition, their feedback allowed me to reflect on my teaching using questions we asked at the beginning of our work."

Paula Callender, a science teacher from the Northwestern State University Writing Project in Louisiana agreed. "It was nice to get to share our work with others and get their feedback. Science people working with science people is the best form of evaluation. Especially when we are all of the mind that writing has to be an intricate part of the work."

She continued, "I think each one of us gave something to someone that was both useful and thought provoking. I am truly thankful!"

Watch the Keynote Speech at the National Reading Initiative Conference

Professor Elizabeth Birr Moje makes the case for a disciplinary literacy that focuses on the literacy skills required of practitioners in a content field.

About the Author Kristin Schweitzer, a teacher-consultant with the Eastern Virginia Writing Project, teaches high school and college-level Spanish in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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