Cooperative & In Unison

“Why did you choose this text?”, I asked the ninth grader, noticing the I Have A Dream speech in his hands.

“I had always heard about MLK and wanted to read the speech,” he smiled. He gave me a copy and gathered the other two members of his group to the table.

They began to read aloud together and at the second sentence, a student breached, or stopped the group, “Five score? What does that mean?”

“A game?” a student replied.

There were no handy dictionaries, so I gave them my phone to google it. They learned a score was equal to twenty years, so five score meant 100. “Why didn’t he just say that?” a student quipped. “Well, it’s a speech, and that’s an old-fashioned way of speaking, so maybe he is just trying to make it sound special or formal.” Satisfied, the group kept reading.

They breached again at the end of the next phrase, “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.

“What’s injustice? I mean I know justice is something that is good. Like the police.”

“Or not, like when the police beat Black people up.”
“Well, if justice is like doing the right thing, maybe injustice means the opposite.”
“Maybe that’s what “in-” means”.

I take a moment to point out what they were doing, following in to where their own attention already was focused– and explained how they were identifying parts of the word they knew, and taking strong guesses at the “in-“, which I told them was called a prefix, a term they’d heard of.

Then the focused turned to “withering”, and the student leader said, “let’s use the strategies we’ve learned so far so we don’t keep looking up words. I notice –ing which means a kind of action. So withering must be some kind of action.”

A second student responded, “we could read around it, break it down into parts, sound it out…”

“None of those really help,” his friend replied. “Let’s re-read the sentence and think about it.”

“It is also talking about injustice, so withering is describing a kind of injustice and the earlier part about being seared in the flames.. That’s really negative. It’s talking about the horrible things slaves went through.”

Although I was itching to explain or have them look up the word, I understood their desire to just try and understand the gist without looking up every unknown word, especially since their motivation was to challenge themselves. I pointed out the strengths in what they were doing but suggested we jot withering down to look up later, before moving on.

They continued to read, noticing how MLK says 100 years ago, connecting to what they had read earlier. They also noticed the metaphor and poetry in his use of phrases like, “flames of withering injustice”, and “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”

What was so exciting about this particular UR was that while one student knew more word attack strategies, one student knew more of the history and context. Reading independently or with my constant instruction and interruption, would never have allowed this kind of shared learning and student success. By allowing students to create the focus, they are able to identify problems in their reading, and are challenged to delve into their collective banks of lesrned strategies for such problem-solving. Rather than me playing the role of pre-planner and problem-solver, I am freed up instead to follow in to their noticings. This allows me to teach at an authentic point of challenge and difficulty, and I can use what I learn through their struggles and successes for whole class “grassroots” lessons, rather than pre-planned lessons for which I have to create “connections”.

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One of the literacy strategies I had learned as a new teacher was guided reading, where a teacher gathers a small group of children to read a book that is just above their independent reading level (guided reading goes hand-in-hand with a leveled classroom). The teacher chooses the book because it can teach a skill or strategy the students need practice with, whether it’s differentiating the sh vs ch sounds, or keeping track of multiple characters in a book laden with unmarked dialogue.

As an ESL teacher, I abhorred guided reading (GR) for two main reasons: I hated reinforcing the levels in class and because I didn’t feel it helped my students to really learn whatever skill or strategy I had chosen for them to learn; I never felt it stuck with them.

I think if I had had more freedom over what we learned or read, perhaps I could’ve used GR in a way that I felt could be beneficial but it wasn’t until I read the book on Unison Reading (which I have posted about here), that I realized the whole theoretical foundation GR stands on is problematic.

I started using Cooperative Unison Reading as a tool for teaching reading since joining my new school in September. Some background: Five-six student leaders (which rotate) choose a short text they’d like to read. In my ELA class, there are no restrictions on content but in my Citizenship & Sustainability class, the leaders are encouraged to choose a text relevant to what we are studying, and there are options available in the class.

The chosen texts get posted in the room and students choose among the five until there are five students in a group. The next day we begin reading. The teacher takes notes on the “breaches”, leading kids to notice and discuss the strengths of their Unison Reading.

A humbling curriculum

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I feel I have always been a very reflective and responsive teacher; if I saw something I was doing wasn’t working properly or supporting the kids enough, the next day would be different. Sometimes that meant a new center, chart to reference, a new approach to behavior management or reorganizing the room. I was self-critical enough to learn from my mistakes but not dwell on them. I believed I was a good teacher because my students grew quickly; I could assess their learning and it was even obvious to them. They often made more than a year’s progress, sometimes going from a first to a fourth grade reading level.

So, why was I worried every time I stepped out of my room to let a cluster or sub teach them? Why was I scared about what would happen to them in middle school?

Even though part of my worry was knowing how little some teachers understand about ELLs, or truly horrible experiences my kids have had with other teachers, it was also because the students themselves were worried. They weren’t entering middle school as confident language learners and problem solvers.

It wasn’t until I became apart of the Learning Cultures curriculum that I realized just what a disservice other forms of teaching are, especially for ELLs and special education students. This curriculum, which puts student independence and student-led problem solving as the pivot around which everything else moves, really humbles you as a teacher. You start to see all the things students don’t realize about their own strengths and weaknesses or how to identify, initiate and solve problems, and you start to really wonder about yourself as a teacher.

In trying to conceive of ways for students to learn things without my constant guiding hand, I have had to really examine my beliefs about learning and teaching, and I’ve had to re-imagine some activities that used to be student centered but very teacher-directed (such as teaching academic language to ELLs). I have constantly asked myself, “what do they need to learn? Why? How can they learn it through real practice and independence, which requires them making mistakes to learn from?”

It has not been easy, and there are teachers who look at a curriculum like this and say, “that’s not teaching. How are the kids learning? Where is the rigor?” Kids as similar questions, like, “why won’t you help me?”. That one question absolutely defines how students have come to see teachers, and it’s the students who say that most frequently who need me to intervene (in that sense) the least so that they can unlearn that self-destructive habit.

Of course the help or instruction I give comes via the joint intentions we create through 1-on-1 conferences where I learn the work the student is doing (since everyone is doing their own work dictated by both Common Core standards and their own interests), their perception of their strengths and weaknesses, and then we problem solve together in a way s/he could replicate without me. (It’s not as neat and easy as that sounds, but it is definitely the first time I ever felt student conferences truly mattered and had a place in the curriculum since it is where I get my lesson ideas — unlike the TCRWP approach I was initially trained in).

This curriculum is humbling but only if you allow it to be. It’s too easy to try it out, half-commitedly, and then declare it isn’t working and kids aren’t learning. Spontaneity will always drag you back to what’s familiar and the “norm”, even if it was honestly not better. Going against the grain by nearly totally upending the ways you have been teaching, before you see the benefit,is definitely a challenge for the daring. It is also for those who want to stop worrying about how their kids will do with the sub or with next year’s teachers. I want to believe, when I wave at kids at the end of June, that they are leaving me more self-aware, and more equipped to self-advocate than before.