This week at NCTE, Meaghan Gulledge, a student in UWF’s Master’s in Reading Program, presented an engaging session related to the dialogic classroom. Here is a summary in her own words, of what works in getting ALL students reading. I especially love the innovative terms she uses, as she talks about “KINDLING” (books) and stacking these just right to provide the students with the background knowledge needed to conquer more challenging text throughout the school year (or, as she puts it, “starting the fire”).
NCTE 2019 Presentation
I believe that all children are learners… however, not every child believes that of themselves. How, as teachers, do we fire up our struggling learners? Kids who have not found success are often our most apathetic students. They come to third grade having already given up, just when accountability is at an all-time high.
I think the answer lies in genuinely empowering students to take ownership of their learning. My colleagues and I have seen the transformation that occurs in a classroom that centers student voices. Instituting dialogic practices allows all students, even non-readers, to actively participate in meaning making.
Our presentation at NCTE 2019 concentrated on how to use read alouds, especially those focusing on social justice, to spark critical inquiry among students of all levels of ability. We use a critical inquiry framework that I created and first presented at a UWF Colloquium in January 2019. The framework creates a pathway to use authentic literature as a fire starter that sparks conversation and collaborative meaning making among all students.
Teaching students dialogic practices gives them a procedural foundation for talking about the books we read together as a class. The read aloud component of this is the great equalizer- it makes content available to students regardless of their ability to independently decode the text. The ensuing conversations are strictly comprehension based- the paradigm of reading shifts from decoding words to thinking about text. A dialogic read aloud disrupts the hierarchy of learners in a classroom because suddenly non-readers’ thoughts about a text are valued by their peers and their teachers. Struggling students are given a voice and can practice grade-level thinking about a grade-level text. When non-readers are limited to text that they can read independently they are denied access to complex stories and thus denied the opportunity to think with complexity and nuance. Decodable texts are often not rich enough to practice complex thinking and lack the ability to spark interest in struggling readers.
Students’ interest must drive the inquiry process because only they can decide what tensions they would like to explore and resolve. Even passive learners become engaged when they are the ones posing the questions. The Critical Inquiry Framework starts with a “fire starter” text and allows students to ask and answer questions together while building understandings of the text. The questions coalesce into critical inquiry questions, which can then be refined into a social justice question that applies to the world outside the book.
The key to engaging students lies in choosing books that make students sit up and take notice. Often, the books read aloud to elementary students don’t contain conflict or injustice. Sweet stories with predictable endings that wrap up neatly by the end will not spark inquiry. Stories about injustice, especially institutionalized injustice, will spark outrage in elementary schoolers. 8-year olds will not tolerate injustice, whether its being cut in the lunch line or Malala Yousafzai’s recounting of Pakistani girls being denied access to education under the Taliban’s rule.
In a dialogic classroom that is driven by student-led inquiry, the role of the teacher is to stoke the fires of injustice through social justice books. Once students have struggled to make meaning of the situations presented in the fire starter book, the next step is to provide the necessary kindling to keep the flames burning. Supplying text sets of books that present more information, build background knowledge, and add context to the injustice is the kindling students need to sustain their inquiry.
I teach in an inclusion classroom where third graders with disabilities receive instruction with general education students. The first Fire Starter Text I read with Amy Lewis (my co-teacher) and our class was Unspoken by Henry Cole. Our students questioned why slavery existed, wondered about the Underground Railroad, and wondered what life was like during the mid -1800s in America. In a dialogic classroom, teachers do not provide the answers to questions. Instead I provided kindling to feed student questions. We provided books on all levels and in multiple formats including picture books, graphic novels and middle grade chapter books. Some of the books we provided included Meet Addy and Addy Learns a Lesson by Connie Porter, The Underground Abductor by Nathan Hale, Real Stories from My Time: The Underground Railroad by Bonnie Bader, Welcome to Addy’s World by Susan Sinnott, Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline Ransome, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt By Deborah Hopkinson, Moses by Carole Boston Weatherford , Who Was Harriet Tubman and What Was the Underground Railroad by Yona Zelda McDonough.
Our students were engulfed by outrage when Amy Lewis read Malala’s Magic Pencil by Malala Yousafzai. Rather than quenching their indignation, we added fuel to their fire by providing Who Is Malala Yousafzai by Dinah Brown, Grace for President by Kelly DiPucchio, Ruby’s Wish by Shairin Yim Bridges, She Persisted and She Persisted Around the World By Chelsea Clinton, Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prevot; Little Leaders: Visionary Women Around the World by Vashti Harrison, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca Cavallo, and The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Fire Starter books can be used to encourage content area integration with ELA instruction.
Deandra McKoy incorporated social studies standards into her 3rd grade ELA block by choosing the fire starter book Mama’s Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat. The questions raised by her students were kindled into flames through reading Island Born by Junot Diaz, Polar Bear Island by Lindsay Bonilla, Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh, The Name Jar by Yang Sook Choi, A Different Pond by Bao Phi, We Came to America by Faith Ringold, Home for Navidad by Harriet Ziefert , Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, and The Journey by Francesca Sanna.
Kayla Sutcliffe is a former third-grade teacher who currently teaches gifted Math and 3rd science support. She enriched our science curriculum by introducing the story of Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prevot. This story extended science concepts but also sparked questions from our students about gender inequality, deforestation and profiting off the environment. We were able to extend student inquiry into conservation social justice questions by stoking student interest with books like One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, A Tiny Seed by Nicola Rijsdijk, Maya Marshak, and Karen Lilje, The Water Princess by Susan Verde, The Water Walker by Joanne Roberston, The Barefoot Book of Earth Tales by Dawn Casey and Anne Wilson, When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee, If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams, Green City by Allan Drummond, and Mama Miti by Donna Jo Napoli.
As our students realize their voices are valued, we see the results of their empowerment changing the routines of our classroom. Students are more engaged in critical thinking in all content areas. They are motivated and willing to attempt challenging work. They approach their classmates with increased empathy. The students talking in our classrooms are more confident learners. Our jobs are teachers are easier because we have less disruptive behavior and students own our classrooms as places of authentic work.