DIY Literacy, Chapters 3 & 4

In their recently published book, DIY LiteracyKate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts
guide teachers in the development and practice of four literacy tools that they claim will help students recall and apply the lessons we’ve taught in the classroom – repertoire and process charts, demonstration notebooks, micro-progressions and bookmarks. In particular, they pose the following questions: “How can I help students remember and use what I have already taught?” (chapter 3), and “How can I support rigor [read: “vigor”] in my classroom?” (chapter 4). Maggie and Kate offer the four previously mentioned tools as potential responses to this question. 
We’ve all had teaching moments when we felt confident that we’d done a good job, yet students were not able to demonstrate what they’d learned, at least not without extensive support and coaching from us. Sometimes students don’t even remember the lesson! Although we hope these instances are not a regular occurrence, they may happen often enough to make us pause and consider why this may be happening. More often than we’d care to admit, and because as teachers we are super busy juggling a ton of issues while we’re teaching, we’ve continued on with the next lesson, painfully aware of leaving some of our students to muddle alone in their confusion. However, in my case, this momentary pause didn’t always lead to solid teaching strategies that I could successfully use multiple times to solve this dilemma. In fact, much to my chagrin, I’ve expressed mild annoyance at my students because they just didn’t seem to get it. But I taught it, right? And, I probably taught it more than once. Yet, for some reason, my students didn’t learn it. This is where the tools that Kate and Maggie have developed and perfected can facilitate student learning at higher levels so that our teaching truly “sticks”. In their words, “this process – of learning things so that they become automatic – is a more complex one than simply memorizing some information. Instead, we find that students need support, time, and repetition to make learning stick,” (p. 39). Moreover, students need to understand that what we teach isn’t just for that day, but needs to carry over to their reading and writing lives, eventually leading to a personalized repertoire of skills and strategies. To me, this is a powerful lesson to impart to our students over and over again.
Charts assist students to remember our teaching. They are visible and created with students. Charts list a series of steps in a skill or a list of strategies to try when reading or writing. Bookmarks allow students to create an individualized list of skills or strategies that they have chosen to remember and practice. Micro-progressions highlight essential skills and strategies with increasingly sophisticated levels of what that skill or strategy looks like with real examples that students can then emulate. Demonstration notebooks are just right teaching for students who need extra support through one-on-one or small group coaching to reinforce what we may have already taught in a whole class lesson.
Kate and Maggie describe a predictable and easy to follow procedure for developing each of these tools. First, teachers need to research what is happening in the classroom through observation of student talk, writing and other artifacts that we deem relevant for demonstrating that our teaching has in fact influenced our students to a high degree. Then, we need to decidewhat skill or strategy we want to emphasize because it’s important or essential to long term learning. Next, we need to choose the tool that we think will best do that work for our students and teach a lesson using the selected tool. Finally, we formatively assess our students to determine if they are indeed applying our teaching. Ultimately, Kate and Maggie recognize that we need to wean students from these tools; they offer several signposts to help us decide when a particular tool is no longer needed.
The authors emphasize the importance of getting our students to work hard and move beyond “good enough” in order for them to break through to higher levels of thinking. And, I agree. We always want our students to push themselves, to raise the bar, to take on new challenges. We don’t want them to stop too quickly or too early because usually this means they’ve barely scratched the surface. In this sense, micro-progressions, the focus of chapter four, offer students a visual support to do this “harder” work. Micro-progressions start with what most of the class can already do on their own (level one) and gradually shift to more sophisticated levels that would require intentional teacher support in order for students to achieve them. We develop the micro-progressions because we intuit that our students are capable of moving to the higher levels with support. The idea here is to hold students accountable for this vigorous work. The authors assert, “As we move up the levels of the micro-progression, we want the kids to become increasingly active, while not completely removing their support,” (p. 57). The word “active” is key for me here; we are asking students to engage in more challenging work, most of the time, that will eventually result in little or no scaffolding from us. Micro-progressions, like the other tools previously mentioned, offer students necessary support for a limited amount of time. After all, we don’t want our students to become overly dependent on these tools. We want them to transfer the teaching offered by these tools in more automatic and deliberate ways. How we accomplish this is in the art of teaching and learning.
There is a delicate balance here: the tools we offer students have the potential to become crutches that work against the development of independent, self-reliant learners. This is something I am personally struggling with as I engage in professional reading this summer. When does scaffolding stop being just enough support for our students to move forward in their learning, and instead becomes a prop that stops them from trusting themselves to solve problems of learning? I think this is a real issue and not just a rhetorical one for teachers. I will be thinking about this further as I continue reading professional books this summer. 
My recent participation in two other book studies – Who’s Doing the Work, How to SayLess so Readers Can Do More by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris and The TeacherYou Want to Be, Essays About Children, Learning and Teaching, edited by Matt Glover and Ellin Oliver Keene (this last one is just getting off the ground) –  have prompted me to question some of my classroom practices. I continue to wonder which teaching moves have the potential to push students towards becoming independent learners who problem solve and apply what we’ve taught in the classroom. How do we offer sufficient support that tells our students we believe they are capable of becoming ever more independent and sophisticated learners without being co-dependent with them? When is the support we offer our students sending the message that without us they can’t do the work? The tools that Maggie and Kate have lovingly and carefully constructed support students in learning with independence, retention and vigor. However, we must continue to be vigilant that these and other tools we use in the classroom contribute to the advancement of student thinking, particularly for those students who don’t seem to know what to do unless we tell them point blank.
Furthermore, how and why students retain some, but not most of what we teach may also have to do with our beliefs about teaching and learning, and whether or not our practice aligns with those beliefs (see The TeacherYou Want to Be, Essays About Children, Learning and Teaching). For example, do we believe that our classroom is a place where only our teaching counts? Or, do we subscribe to the belief that in the classroom we are all teachers and learners? Are students doing work for usor are they doing work for themselves? Although you may think that the answers to these questions are obvious, I’m not sure that is the case. Therefore, we must engage in continuous reflection about our teaching for the benefit of our students.  

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