Yesterday I had coffee with a colleague and we got to talking about the challenges of teaching literacy to content area teachers. Last night as I reflected on that discussion I thought back to a workshop I held many years ago for teachers of all subject areas. The workshop was one of many varied sessions in a summer Arts in Education week-long conference held in a beautiful and expansive natural area in Birmingham, AL.
To engage the teachers in thinking of literacy outside of just English Language Arts and inside of their specific content areas, we trekked to a pond area surrounded by woods and paths. They each took a clipboard and pencils, markers, and some even took watercolor paints. They had 2 hours to linger and accomplish the task at hand. Here was the task–I may not word it exactly as I am drawing solely on memory:
Go to the targeted area. When you get there, look around, explore, and find a place to sit and ponder how you view this place as an expert in your content area. Come back to our session with something to show your thinking–maybe words, maybe images.
If your content area is Math—how do you view this place as a Mathematician? How are you “literate” mathematically as you experience this place?
If your content area is Social Studies/History, how do you see this place? What questions come to mind? How do you “think like an historian” as you sit here awhile, as you explore? How are you literate as an historian in this place?
If your content area is PE, how are you “literate” here? How are you “comprehending” this place–imagining it as a place to teach your area? How are you using “words” to describe it? Are you “listening” to sounds for which you might have your students create movements?
If your content area is Physics…what are you thinking here?? How might this natural setting help you to “show” or “explain” some laws of physics?
…you get the idea. I can tell you the results blew me away. Math teachers even came back to session with artifacts—parts of plants that illustrated Fibonacci numbers! Others left the plants intact but sketched and labeled specimens. Some History teachers wrote imagined scenarios of how this place evolved into what it is today. Other History teachers, knowing a lot about the Civil War, imagined (and recorded in words) what may have taken place during that time in those very woods. ELA teachers wrote poetry, stories, vocab lists….I cannot recall all, nor is it necessary that I do so here. But, just leaving you with the thought that literacy is every which way we view and experience our worlds. Content teachers often think literacy is just reading and writing. How do you know what you know???–no matter the content area—however you answer that question is likely in the broad realm of “literacy.”