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    When We Teach Programming Languages as Literacy

    By Ziva R. Hassenfeld and Marina Umaschi Bers
     | May 16, 2019
    kibo-1

    Sarah sits with a small class of 4- and 5-year-old students. She is teaching students to use a KIBO robotics kit, which uses a tangible programming language for children made of wooden blocks. At the heart of her lesson is a maze task. There is a start spot and end spot demarcated on the carpet. First, to get comfortable with the idea of commands, the students play a game called “Program the Teacher.” Sarah invites students to get her through the maze using the KIBO language. KIBO can step forward and backward, turn, shake, spin, beep, and sing (KIBO plays a short melody). The students jump right in:

    “Sing!”
    “Beep!”
    “Shake!”
    “Spin!”

    Reluctantly, Sarah obliges, but probes the students: “Is this going to get me where we want me to go?”

    “No,” they reply, “but it’s fun.” The students are clearly excited by the KIBO programming language, they just don’t care that much about the maze.

    “OK. straight,” they oblige.

     Sarah immediately shows excitement. “How many steps?” she asks.

    “Three,” they answer. “OK, now sing again!”

    The activity continues until, through a series of probes and pushes, Sarah gets the students to tell her to walk straight and then turn so that she can get through the maze.

    kibo-2Next, they try to get an actual KIBO through the maze. It doesn’t go much better. They want KIBO to sing and beep and shake and spin. Sarah gently asks them whether their program will get KIBO from the start spot to the end spot. But they’re too busy experimenting with KIBO, the performer, to worry about the task Sarah has assigned them. At one point, they make KIBO lurch around the room spinning and they run in circles squealing, “It’s eating my feet! It’s eating my feet!” Sarah tries one more time: “But, tell me, how can I get KIBO to the end spot?” With utter sincerity, one student answers, “You could pick him up and move him.” Sarah calls a snack break.

    There was no problem with KIBO. In fact, the students loved playing with KIBO. They quickly mastered the idea of using commands to make KIBO follow their instructions. They just didn’t care about the maze task.

    Literacy educators have long known that students are far more likely to take on a cognitive challenge when they care about the task assigned. The anecdote above sheds light on what kinds of activities teachers should design to teach young children programming languages.

    Learning programming languages is like learning to read and write a new language. Experts in literacy stress that students can only learn to read and write when teachers give them activities that leave room for their own self-expression. In a 2007 Research in the Teaching of English article, literacy scholar Maren Aukerman explains, “When reading instruction principally focuses on a teacher’s interpretation and interpretive techniques, we misrepresent to children what reading actually is.” When literacy instruction focuses solely on phonics, or the transmission of authoritative interpretations, reading in schools becomes cut off from the reading children do outside of school. Outside of school, children (and adults) read and interpret as part of the natural activity of sense-making. Inside of school, it’s easy to lose this most basic purpose for reading and writing. At the heart of the balanced literacy approach is the understanding that students learn literacy better when it’s taught through tasks that matter to them (i.e., tasks that make room for their self-expression and sense-making).

    The students in this anecdote were not interested in the maze task their teacher assigned. As such, they could not get into the cognitive work it required. The task wasn’t guided by their own questions or curiosities. I can’t help but wonder how the outcomes would have differed had they been allowed to explore KIBO’s performance capabilities. Imagine if they had gone through the process of developing a performance for KIBO, writing the program for that performance, and reflecting on how their written program did and did not realize their vision. Instead, their interests were continually thwarted in service of the task at hand—a task that didn’t hold the students’ engagement.

    In the November/December 2018 issue of Literacy Today, educator Chris Panell wrote, “Those who are digitally literate in the future will be those who can read not only the surface of the text, but also the programming that makes it appear as it does.” Panell is correct in connecting the two. We would go one step further and connect how we teach students to read both “the surface of the text” and “the programming that makes it appear.” Educators must think about the teaching of programming languages like we think about the teaching of literacy and natural language, emphasizing student meaning-making, imagination, and creativity.

    It’s much easier to ask students to write a program that moves a robot from a start spot to an end spot than it is to allow them open exploration of this block programming language. However, the nascent field of early childhood programming education need not repeat the mistakes of the past. It must take as its starting place the hard-learned lessons from literacy education: Students learn more when the task matters to them.

    Ziva R. Hassenfeld, an ILA member since 2016, earned her doctorate in curriculum and teacher education from Stanford University in 2016. She is currently a middle school teacher in the Boston area and a post-doctoral fellow at the Dev Tech Research Group of Tufts University and at Brandeis University. Her research focuses on the tools and reading strategies young children employ when reading texts, as well as the pedagogies teachers use to support student textual interpretation, fluency, and comprehension.

    Marina Umaschi Bers 
    is professor and chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development and an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Tufts University. She heads the interdisciplinary Developmental Technologies research group. Her research involves the design and study of innovative learning technologies to promote children’s positive development. She also developed and serves as director of the graduate certificate program on Early Childhood Technology at Tufts University.

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    What’s in a Name

    By Justin Stygles
     | Apr 24, 2019
    pulling-instructional-model

    My students are not a fan of my name. Throughout the year, I find a number of variations to my last name in writing and speech. I own it. Stygles, as in /Sty/ /guls/, is not an easy name to say or read. Ask Alexa. She’ll get my name wrong too! I have one of those great names that has a single vowel. Even then, the /e/ is relatively silent and the “y” functions as an /i/.

    Nonetheless, I expect my students to learn my name in spelling and pronunciation. Maybe I seem “mean” because I won’t let kids call me Mr. S., but I believe teachers who abbreviate their names by reducing long names or complicated pronunciations to the initial consonant or initial vowel sound are denying students exposure to unique oral language. We are a country constructed with Spanish, Arabic, Pacific Islander, Polish, and Russian surnames, among hundreds of others. Learning the sounds of these unique surnames provides decoding insight into the English language and many others we can experience or learn.

    Students who are raised in culturally homogenous communities tend have limited exposure to first and last names from various origins. Growing up in a military family provided me the opportunity to learn correct pronunciation of African American and Latinx names, much of which has carried over into my career as a teacher in terms of oral readings, pronouncing names, and helping students clarify the names of characters from various cultural backgrounds.

    While teaching in rural, relatively isolated schools, I’ve realized exposure to and interaction with diverse languages, other than localized lexicons, is limited. Students in these districts have fewer opportunities to practice phonetics such as letter sounds and spelling patterns.

    For example, having known an Eoin, I understood how to pronounce the Irish name, “Owen.” I have seen students and teachers trip over this name in reading. I happened to “know” the pronunciation from my interest in horse racing. Otherwise, I’m sure I would have pronounced Eoin incorrectly. Likewise, learning -guez or -eaux, of Spanish and French origin, through experiences in foreign language acquisition, and the racetrack, supported my ability to read and say people’s names correctly, thus respectfully. Had somebody allowed me, or a student of mine, to say, “Mr. D.” instead of Dominguez, a learning experience would be lost.

    As school districts become increasingly diverse, I think we have a responsibility as teachers to learn and impart the proper pronunciation of names, even if we must ask the student—an opportunity to foster the student’s sense of belonging and show you value his or her culture and identity. Furthermore, if we intend to teach our students appropriate letter–sound correspondence, syllables, and morphemes, we can start by modeling how to correctly pronounce names, or, again, the courage to ask when uniqueness appears. In doing so, you demonstrate that you too are a lifelong learner who is not afraid to admit a mistake.

    Although my name isn’t pleasant, there are some pronunciation rules that can be transferred to other words. There as so many other names out there that create special learning circumstances. So why abbreviate a 13-letter or a four-syllable last name to a single consonant sound? Children who are learning to pronounce sounds will benefit from practice and error more than denying an experience entirely. I feel teaching students to say the full name of their classmates and teachers is a critical exercise in language development.

    Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.

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    Choosing Care When Choosing Books

    By Diana Wandix-White
     | Mar 28, 2019

    the-greatest-giftA caring and inclusive classroom environment can have a significant impact on student outcomes, and one way teachers can demonstrate caring is through the books they choose for student learning. By carefully selecting the literature used in our classrooms, we aid our own growth and development as culturally responsive teachers while cultivating our students’ literacy development, capacity for compassion, and acceptance of themselves and others.

    Teachers practice culturally sustaining pedagogy when they choose literature that acknowledges and respects the gamut of students’ backgrounds and experiences. This practice shows students they are cared for and valued and creates a classroom culture of care that encourages students to respect and understand diversity.

    Culturally sustaining pedagogies and diversity in literature

    Django Paris, professor of multicultural education at the University of Washington, theorized that culturally sustaining pedagogy “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.” To practice culturally sustaining pedagogy, teachers must recognize that they have a leading role in initiating and encouraging discussion and dialogue about the meanings students draw from the texts they read.

    Lauren Leigh Kelly, professor of urban education at Rutgers University, comments that by acknowledging the cultural identities of students, “educators can simultaneously engage students in critical literary and social dialogues while also sending a clear message that students’ lives and communities are present and relevant to classroom learning and culture.” By providing students with literacy-rich environments that promote critical thinking, we can help them to better understand the wider world and their own role as a global citizen.

    Diversity in literature promotes student voice

    Perhaps more than any other academic activity, reading has the potential to facilitate identity development and give voice to marginalized students. As Paris states, there can be no “democratic project of schooling” if students don’t feel confident and secure enough to contribute to the democratic process.

    Scholars agree that providing diverse texts in literacy development helps students connect to or challenge the various representations of “truth” presented to them through their assigned readings. The voice students gain from finding themselves in literature creates an opportunity for classrooms to come alive with multiple perspectives and divergent thinking.

    Diversity in literature provides access to other worlds

    As part of the goal of culturally sustaining pedagogy is to foster respect and appreciation for linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism, recognizing that literature—especially children’s literature—is a powerful medium for entering other worlds is important. Exposing students at a young age to other worlds through children’s books creates multiple safe opportunities to recognize and explore human variations. Conceivably, this early access to diverse realities could positively influence a child’s present and future humanity toward others. These mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, a phrase coined by children’s literature scholar Rudine Sims Bishop, help students to better understand themselves and the world around them.

    Some studies suggest that books may even provide children who are otherwise socially isolated by mind-set, geographic location, or life circumstances, with a vehicle to meet people unlike themselves and gain a broader acceptance and appreciation of individual likenesses and differences. To extend cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling, teachers must ensure all students have an opportunity to hear the stories that tell their own narrative and those of others. 

    Diversity in literature fosters social justice

    When individuals have access to other people, other cultures, other lifestyles, and other worlds, they tend to recognize systemic inequities and their own personal biases and predispositions that threaten peaceful coexistence. By analyzing beliefs and values of characters in a book, teachers and students can realize and then challenge long-held biases that negatively affect human interaction.

    Ultimately, teachers pave the road toward authentic, caring relationships when they choose books that demonstrate interest and respect for the variety of cultural, social, spiritual, and socioeconomic variances represented by their students. Teachers assign value to books simply by choosing to place them on the class bookshelf or include them on the course syllabus, and the message teachers promote through the literature they choose should convey respect and acknowledgment of diverse cultures.

    Diana Wandix-White, an ILA member since 2016, is a doctoral candidate and graduate research assistant at Texas A&M University, College Station. After teaching English/language arts for over 20 years, she decided to pursue her PhD, researching urban education and the culture of care in K–12 public schools. Additionally, her teaching experience, along with her master’s degree in reading education, continues to draw her to issues of literacy. Combining her research interests leads her to the study of issues at the intersection of literacy, cultural diversity, and the importance of care as demonstrated through teachers’ selections of culturally relevant texts.  

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    Fall in Love With Reading: Bringing Access to Books to Rural Areas of China

    By Emily Spink-McCarthy
     | Nov 15, 2018
    Bringing Access to Books to Rural Areas of ChinaAt American Eagle Institute, we believe that reading is the foundation from which a child grows to become an educated person. It is the key skill from which other language skills develop and is one of the greatest gifts we can pass on to our children.

    One of the skills reading develops is empathy because reading allows us to see the world through another's eyes. With this knowledge comes responsibility. For almost 20 years at Eagle, an English education school in Taiwan and mainland China, we've insisted that schooling must include education of our character.

    Although our curriculum can help with academic success, it's the role models and the community members at Eagle who help shape our students and represent our founding values of respect, honesty, and discipline.

    Every child deserves a fair starting point

    In 2016, the Chinese government began promoting several initiatives to improve literacy. These initiatives aim to promote reading excellence for everyone in China. But despite the efforts of many organizations, there remains a wide reading gap between urban and rural areas in China.

    To add to the obstacles that Chinese families face when trying to promote reading excellence, academic pressure from regular schooling and other extracurricular activities make it even more difficult to increase time spent on reading for pleasure.

    One of the founding values that American Eagle Institute was built on is that "every child deserves a fair starting point," and I'm proud to say that this year we initiated the Fall in Love With Reading project to help provide access to high-quality books to rural children and to help raise awareness for families in both the countryside and the city of the importance of reading.

    Fall in Love With Reading is a charity project that revolves around the idea of improving literacy and providing better access to books for those in need. The project includes a reading seminar hosted by a linguistics expert from Massey University of New Zealand, a national bookmark making competition, a book donation drive, and the creation of a library in an underprivileged rural school with books from the donation drive.

    As part of the drive, we ran two separate challenges that allowed our students across 80 campuses to accumulate charity points on line. The challenges were an online bookmark-making activity and a book reading challenge. Both activities included reading books in exchange for charity points. For every charity point raised, Eagle agreed to donate one Chinese yuan toward completing a library in a rural school in Hubei province.

    We also invited influential organizations such as the International Literacy Association, McGraw-Hill Education, the Shanghai Foreign Language Bookstore, and Smiling Library to work in collaboration with Eagle to encourage more children to take part in the project.

    Through bringing together the forces of our community, we hope to provide high-quality reading resources to rural children. At the same time, we can help students experience the gift of giving and cultivate their sense of social responsibility.

    The magical power of charity

    During the book donation drive, we experienced something bigger than simply accumulating books. We felt the power of communities pulling together to give to those in need. We saw our Eagle students thinking about those not as lucky as themselves. Some of them finished reading more than 300 books before we were even halfway through the reading challenge. Our thanks go out to all the wonderful families and caregivers who helped by setting great examples for the next generation.

    After one month of collecting books, our students across the country donated more than 1,000 titles. On June 13, 2018, Eagle staff set out to bring this donation to Yu-Yan Elementary School in a village 750 kilometers away from Shanghai. Benjamin Spink-McCarthy, one of our teachers and trainers, ran an English class for their fifth graders. The class was interactive and immersive, and local teachers were there to observe and learn about a different way to teach English. With these high-quality English and Chinese books, we were able to create a library space for the school as well.

    Literacy requires understanding and support

    Reading requires a personal decision and a personal transformation that can be difficult to establish from commands or the forces of the marketplace. Only when society at large advocates for reading will we have a future where everyone enjoys and benefits from the power of reading.

    The urgent need to improve literacy demands the attention of families and caregivers to make reading a priority in daily life and to encourage literacy from a young age. We call out to everyone to fall in love with reading and to make sure every child—from the cities to our most remote communities—has access to quality literature. 

    Emily Spink-McCarthy is president of American Eagle Institute, an English education school in Taiwan and mainland China.

    This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of 
    Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

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    Teach the Sewer (Writer), Not the Sewing (Writing): My Sewing Life Meets My Teaching Life

    By Kathryn Caprino
     | Nov 14, 2018

    Teach the SewerIn my literacy assessment course, my students and I are reading Lucy Calkins’s Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions (Heinemann). We have been focused particularly on her idea of teaching the writer, not the writing. 

    This concept really struck a chord with my students, many of whom want to teach at the elementary level. Many of them were familiar with the process whereby teachers correct student papers and students go back and copy the corrections in their final drafts. We talk about how though these final drafts may be “perfect papers,” the writer is not growing in these instances.

    It is important to me as a teacher educator to help my students understand that their students’ writing pieces may not be perfect. They may be working on only a few elements at a time. And their pieces will reflect that they are improving as writers. And this is hard work when our students often come to us from environments that privilege The Writing Assessment, which needs to be perfect.

    And, as happens many times when I am teaching, I began to apply our work to my life beyond the classroom. And this led me to thinking about my sewing.

    Learning to sew for me has been a multiyear process (as is often the case with our student writers). For my birthday three years ago, my husband bought me a sewing machine that has probably more capabilities than I will ever know what to do with. Then, my mom gave me a few lessons on how to make coasters.

    I made some good coasters. And some even had beautiful double stitching. And some had straight corners. But more of them were not any of these. And that’s OK.

    So when my mom came up about a few months ago to visit, she gave me another lesson. She did all of the first lessons again about how to thread the machine, how to get the needle into position, and how to work the foot pedal. And she showed me some stitching and some backstitching. And then I practiced.

    And once again, some of my lines were straight, and some were not. Some of the corners were perfect. Some were not. And that’s OK.

    When my mom came up most recently, I wanted to learn how to do curves for some burp cloths I want to make for my friends who are expecting. And once again, my mom modeled for me how to do curves. And then she let me practice. And I did all right. Beginner’s luck, perhaps.

    I have not made a perfect coaster or a perfect burp cloth yet. My mom’s lessons are not about creating a finished piece. But they are able helping me learn to sew—no matter how many lessons I may need.

    Maybe not for a particular piece. But in the future.

    So, with all of that, here are some tips for teaching your writers, not the writing, in your classroom.

    • Encourage students to share hobbies they are developing that have nothing to do with writing. Having students share how they are progressing in other hobbies (e.g., sharing a new video game level they reached or a new recipe they want to try) will help them think more about the process than the end goal.
    • Showcase works in progress around the classroom or out in the hall. We have to convey to ourselves and our students that writing takes time and that we are all—even those of us who teach writing—constantly working on our writing. Showcasing more examples of our works in progress and those of our students can help convey this belief.
    • Create process videos. One of my favorite projects in my children’s literature class is having students create process videos as they create one image in the style and media of an illustrator of their choosing. On the due date, students bring in the final, completed illustration and a video that highlights their process—from blank canvas to final product. It is very cool to see the work and effort they go through to create wonderful illustrations.

    I look forward to hearing the ways in which you are teaching the sewers (I mean, writers) in your classroom.

    Kathryn Caprino is an assistant professor of pre-K–12 new literacies at Elizabethtown College and a book blogger for teachers and parents at katiereviewsbooks.wordpress.com.

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