The New Common: Looking at the “Old” Through a Fresh Lens

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A telescope is only as good as its lens. Looking at teaching and learning with the right lens will reveal fluid learning connections across the content and among varied literacy modes.

Accepting new arrows into our quiver can be both exciting and overwhelming. However, working smarter, not harder will suggest utilizing tools already present in our toolboxes to their utmost usefulness and ultimate potential across our teaching day and throughout the school year. Employing common practice in this way affords students the opportunity to focus on new information while anchoring firm to rooted schema for sure application of the building, layering, ordering, and categorizing of skills for present and future use.

A perfect example of this exists in the varied modes of writing instruction. Identifying the characteristics of the three modes of writing becomes ambiguous when students and teachers continue to grow their knowledge of multiple genres through deep immersion in varied units of study. If writers and teachers of writing are truly committed to living writerly lives, inevitably, the lines of assigning characteristics to just one genre become blurred. With increased knowledge of genre, we ascertain…it can’t be done. Characteristics once thought to only be associated with one of the three modes: Narrative, Information, or Argument, begin to be recognized in all genres when we naturally and automatically “read like writers” and work to emulate mentor craft over time. In this way, we nurture and promote the transfer of skills to flow freely between modes.

Considering modes of writing, when we introduce a new genre, we begin with immersion into that particular genre. Together with our students we learn all we can from our mentor authors, noting characteristics that are present in like texts. But the phenomenon occurs through the evolution of consciousness as readers of writing. Through repetition of process and familiar pathways towards progress, we find ourselves recognizing common patterns, structures, and craft moves previously thought only to be present in specific pieces. This eye-opening transformation of reciprocity marries the reader and writer that lives inside the holistically literate student and teacher. Growing our thinking in this way affords students the understanding of the transference of core threaded skills from one genre to another that is woven in and out of all components associated with literacy. Separating the two only results in unnecessary struggle and confusion: it’s unnatural to do so and actually more challenging to “teach” and be “taught to” in isolation. The product of teaching literacy concepts in isolation is non-transference. Doing so is counterproductive to the very reason we do what we do…to make skills transferable: from one authentic learning experience to another. We teach for life…not for school.

Recently, I was teaching a lesson in an Information unit of study to several groups of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade writers. These writers had just finished up a Narrative unit of study and their published pieces were hot off the press. As with every “new” mode focus, I began to solicit and anchor their thinking on the characteristics of our new mode: information. What I found validated what was just described in regards to the need to see “old” in new ways. Student writers generated very concrete and common characteristics associated with information writing. Characteristics such as: headings/subheadings, information, topic, bold-faced words, table-of-contents, pictures, captions, introduction of new vocabulary, facts, etc. were produced.

It was evident that they knew the surface characteristics associated with Information writing, but they failed to recognize the transferrable qualities of craft recently applied during their Narrative study to the new mode of Information writing. Was this gap their fault or the result of negligent reciprocal instruction?

Instantly, I lead them through a deliberate close read of an information piece on hurricanes. During that read, I purposed their lens to identify characteristics of Information writing that they noticed that we could add to our co-constructed Information anchor chart. Through inquiry, writers were able to identify qualities that minutes ago were thought to only be associated with Narrative, not Information texts. Qualities both genres shared such as: figurative language, story structure, and detailed descriptions of events, coupled with interesting ways to utilize punctuation to enhance meaning and the total reading experience.

As teachers we are burdened with purpose. We exist to make a difference: to grow our students. But all too often, we become locked in ineffective and inefficient ways of teaching…hanging on to the familiar security of past practice. Because of these strangely comforting insecurities we continue to allow them to take precedence in our investment of time and teaching. This is due in part to our ripened and matured perspective that we’ve developed about teaching and learning. However, in order to fulfill our innate purpose of truly making a difference, we must begin to see “old things” in brand new ways. Recognizing that the definition of “old” is not “been there, done that,” but rather in need of extrapolation and interpretation with a fresh lens. It is the conscious search for windows of opportunity to explore and sustain transference and fluidity of standards, skills, and concepts that surround the cross genre and cross curricular teaching and learning that occurs throughout the school day and year. Our purpose should include being consciously competent in the area of helping our students make these meaningful and authentic connections of content throughout their school day, school career, and life of learning.

-Val Piccini

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