Good afternoon and welcome back. This has been such an extraordinary day so far, and I am thrilled to be here with you all on this momentous occasion. So much dedication and commitment and brain-power under one roof certainly bodes well for our students; it bodes well for the future. This afternoon, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about the power of literacy to support all learners across all disciplines. We are called to teach with literacy and justice for all.
Fifteen years ago when I was teaching middle school Language Arts (after lunch…in the chorus room with a grand piano between me and 28 seventh graders on risers in little wobbly lap desks – can you picture it?) I was looking for something to anchor us. One day, I opened up the newspaper to Jon Carroll, my favorite columnist, and the headline over his column read “this just in…words Matter.”
Words matter. It struck a chord. I hung a poster on the classroom wall – words matter – and every day we used that as our theme. The words we read, the words we wrote, the words we spoke, took on a deeper meaning. The students’ sense of voice and purpose had been awakened through one simple phrase. Those two words unified us. Those two words changed us.
I hung the motto over my desk at home as a reminder. And I have signed every email I’ve written since then with this refrain – words matter – because they do.
In fact I’ve been saying it for so long that our school district has now dedicated an entire week to focusing on promoting acceptance and respect through dialogue and activities focused on kindness. Words Matter Week has struck a chord with the school community. The program’s purpose is to spread awareness about the helpful and harmful power of words, and to choose to use words for good.
We know that Literacy is an important part of the common core standards in all the disciplines because literacy is of critical importance in every subject – to be able to read a science book, a math problem, a history timeline… A few years back I had a superintendent who used to tease me all the time – Kathy is it really all about literacy? When the standards were published and I saw that literacy thread woven throughout every subject area I felt vindicated. I had something to back me up. Yes, it’s really all about literacy.
Common core brought us literacy standards across the curriculum. And literacy Across the Curriculum matters. This is why. Literacy supports independence, honors culture, promotes reasoning, builds empathy. Literacy is the most powerful tool we can give our students to ensure their success, not just as students, but as human beings.
In a recent interview, the writer David McCullough had this to say: “(Study the liberal arts) even if you want to be a scientist, even if you want to be a doctor. Johns Hopkins is encouraging people who go to medical school not to take a lot of medicine or chemistry as undergraduates. They’d much rather have you come in (having studied) the humanities. There’s a huge issue in medicine, which is a very old issue … are you treating a disease or are you treating a human being? And the answer is of course you are treating both. But you can’t ignore the human being who is lying there. You have to understand that human being.” Their story is important.
The world of school has changed with the impact of digital resources and the focus on 21st century skills.
Textbooks are becoming obsolete. By the time they are hot off the press, the information they hold is old and cold. We’ve learned to be wary of any textbook that has “Common Core” stamped on the cover – that may in fact be the only thing common core-ish about it! We need then to rely on teaching skills and strategies that work across all disciplines and allow students to ask and answer essential questions that translate to real and relevant learning.
If we focus on the convergence represented when we look at the similarities among Science, Math, and Language Arts, we can have a laser focus on what students need to be able to do to be successful in all arenas. ARGUMENT – the ability to make a claim, support and defend your position with evidence and examples is necessary in all disciplines, in all realms.
We know that higher level math and science courses are the gateway to higher education and to the future. Literacy is a way to unlock the secrets of mathematical and scientific thinking.
Analyzing, constructing, critiquing, and building evidence- based argument: that’s what scientists do, that’s what mathematicians do, that’s what readers and writers do, that’s what participants in a democracy do. Being able to master the art of argument is a social justice issue.
We need to teach our students how to read across disciplines and also across genres. How else will they understand the nuances of reading a chart or a timeline, a photograph, a video, or even a conversation? Reading is reading no matter what form it takes. And all of these examples fit with our expanded definition of text. This work is part of our literacy framework to prepare students for the real world.
If we want our students to see the connections between all that they’re learning. We have to see the connections. They need to be able to determine which content is critical, why it is important, how it connects to their existing knowledge – they can’t do that if we don’t teach them. And we can’t teach them if we haven’t done the work first with our colleagues.
Jonathan David Farley, recognized as one most influential participants in the global conversation around science had this to say: “You do not study mathematics because it helps you build a bridge. You study mathematics because it is the poetry of the universe. It transcends mere things.” His words are poetry. And they highlight the reason that we must support literacy across the content areas. All the disciplines are connected through the power of language, the interweaving of ideas expressed in words.
With the Next Generation Science Standards we see the influence of literacy through the integration of biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and the proliferation of science storylines that allow students to engage in practices of discovery and exploration. Science literacy means reading and writing like a scientist.
We were doing a research study a few years back and noticed an interesting phenomenon. Teachers who had rich reading workshop and writing workshop experiences for their students were not using any of those protocols in teaching math. Talk was not a focus. And we wondered, Why not?
So then we Introduced the idea of thinking in equation (a math strategy taken from this simple picture book by amy Krouse Rosenthal.) As our work grew we found this math strategy could be translated into history: for example, (Hitler’s rise to power – moral outrage = Holocaust), or into language arts (noun + verb = simple sentence).
Or this science example written by an elementary student (dinosaurs + earth) – humans = prehistoric times. If we understand the relationships between ideas, we can make sense of the world.
And then, finally, there’s poetry, my passion.
Symbol, pattern, metaphor, symmetry, structure – Poetry shares these attributes with science, with math, with other subjects as well – think of PE, think of computer programming, think of dance, think of music – poetry is at the heart of all our learning.
A good poem has the power to awaken students (literally and figuratively), to stir the imagination with metaphor and surprise, to shine a light on learning.
As an example, Here’s A Math Poem by Joanne Growney
Can a Mathematician See Red?
Consider the sphere — a hollow rounded surface whose outside points are the very same points insiders see. If red paint spills all over the outside, is the inside red?
The mathematician says, No, the layer of paint forms a new sphere that is outside the outside
and not a bit inside.
Takes safe pleasure
In surface mysteries.
Or consider this poetic description of the periodic table from a recent New York Times piece by the science writer Oliver Sacks.
NEXT to the circle of lead on my table is the land of bismuth: naturally occurring bismuth from Australia; little limousine-shaped ingots of bismuth from a mine in Bolivia; bismuth slowly cooled from a melt to form beautiful iridescent crystals terraced like a Hopi village; and, in a nod to Euclid and the beauty of geometry, a cylinder and a sphere made of bismuth. BISMUTH IS ELEMENT 83.
Oliver Sacks is 82. He is dying of terminal cancer and knows he will not see 83. So he “looks to metals and minerals as little emblems of eternity.” The little circle of lead on his table helps him make peace with his place in the circle of life.
We write to discover, we write to chronicle, we write to categorize, we write to think. And so we must write In Science, in Math, in history, In PE… in every discipline.
At the end of his life, Michelangelo is reported to have said what I consider to be the most powerful words of all – I am still learning.
We are teachers – we’re continuously seeking, we’re always still learning, and we teach students so that they might embrace this same learner’s stance.
We know that the way school is structured is not likely to change tomorrow. The system in place has been in place for ages. So this is an invitation, for all of us, to do what we can to change what we can. Talk to your cross discipline colleagues. Take up the invitation to say to a colleague who teaches a different discipline, “Hey, can we find some common ground so that we are complementing and strengthening our instruction by working together?”
Plan together, learn together, grow together. Find the connections between the work you do, so your students might build the literacy skills to find their own learning connections now and always. It’s up to us. Let’s make our actions and our words matter for our students, our brilliant, literate thinking students. Thank you.