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Joanne Toft

© 2003

Doing Literacy

It was a crisp, cool fall day and my fourth, fifth, and sixth graders had settled into their amazing routine very quickly. My class was purring like contented kittens. I was a proud mother cat watching her brood. I drifted in this wonderful state when in came two upstarts: the jazzy young cats, otherwise known as practicum students. They came on Tuesday mornings. These jazzy cats are in their last set of classes before student teaching and they are sure they know it all.

These two sat politely even if they didn’t focus during group discussions with the students in my room. I guess that is why I didn’t see it coming. The young cats were on the prowl and ready to spring.

We sat that morning discussing what goes on in our room. What they said in a quiet tone later became a roar in my head, “We may move to another classroom to observe and work. You know it is our literacy block this semester, and since you don’t do literacy we asked to meet with our . . . ” They continued to talk, and I just sat there. Inside my head all I heard was this scream. WHAT? I don’t do literacy! How dare you! Who are you to know!? What right have you to say whether I teach literacy or not?

Who knows what else they said that morning I was lost in the phrase “you don’t do literacy.” I know I was polite to them. I know I taught the rest of the day, but my mind kept racing around this idea. I became a roaring lion instead of “quiet momma cat.”

I asked my student teacher tersely at the end of the day “Do I do literacy?” He said, “They really bugged you this morning. I thought something was eating at you today.” He never said – Well, yes of course you do literacy. What were they thinking? So there I sat angry, and confused then slowly wondering: Do I do literacy? What is literacy? How do we define literacy today?

I am an old cat who has taught for years. Maybe something is missing from my teaching. Maybe I just forgot to teach it. What is it -- this literacy thing I don’t do?
The first step, as a good student, is to go to the dictionary and look up literacy. Being old but not out of date I went to my “online” dictionary to discover what literacy is:
1. the quality or state of being literate
2. possession of education
3. a person’s knowledge of a particular subject or field

Growling that night, I sat I wandered the Internet for hours looking at web site after web site on literacy around the world. There were about 4,410,000 hits when I typed in literacy. I found a hotline for literacy help, hundreds of organizations to help with adult literacy, literacy groups worldwide and early literacy. It amazed me how many projects and people are working to create this thing we call literacy in our society.

So do I do that? Do I teach literacy?

I wondered, are we literate only when we read and write? Is literacy just reading groups?

That was it!

My young jazzy cats were looking for reading groups, phonics lessons, workbooks, and “direct instruction.” They were not seeing teacher-directed lessons from the basal textbook. Therefore, there must not be literacy going on in my classroom.

I reflected on what they were seeing. Was literacy there? My class was involved in science lessons about plant and animal environments. They made observations in their journals and read on the Internet or other resources about environments around the world. They drew and painted pictures of deserts, forests, and oceans. They talked about what environments are best to live in and why. The children worked with a guest artist to create an abstract play under the theme of relationships and they created personal journals to recorded their ideas, emotions and thoughts.

The children read fiction books and discussed the relationships they found in them. Some of those relationships were good and others not so good. Outsiders, Under the Blood Red Sun, Jar of Dreams, Pushcart Wars -- we had not had literature circles for a while, that was true, but discussions happened everywhere.

“You got to read this . . . because . . .” , or “We have to use the Pushcart Wars in our skit,” said another. “No use Outsiders. I think the relationships are stronger.” “I don’t know, I haven’t finished that one. I read Pinballs first. Let me finish reading Outsiders tonight then we can talk.”

Everyone in the room read an easy book titled Dragonling and my slower readers became possessive of the second book in the series. They took ownership of books and their reading.

At lunch I was reading aloud Andrew Clement’s new book Things Not Seen. It was about the relationship between parents, a child who became invisible and a blind friend. Parent-child stories began showing up in our theater skits.

Although my room did not have silent reading daily at 8:05, phonics at 9:00 and writing at 9:45, we read, wrote, discussed and found connections in the world around us. My reluctant readers took books home to see what everyone was talking about: What did go on in Pinballs or the Outsiders? The stories and journal assignments took longer to write and longer for me read and respond.
Danielle, one of my emergent readers, stopped by to say that she was sorry but she had left the Dragon in the Family book at home because she was going to read it again to her brother.

A parent of an emergent writer in my class walked in, threw a paper at me and said, “Here, he wrote this, this morning. My non-writer. It clicked.” She walked out yelling, “Thanks!” There in my hand was a poem:

In the morning I won’t be glad.
Because I’ll have to be fully clad
In shoes, socks and coats galore,
And then walk in the big school door.

“It just came,” he said. “I couldn’t stop it.”

My class was too busy one day to go to recess. We moved from relationships to mysteries in our reading. They sat watching, The Hound of the Baskervilles for clues and red herrings, making wanted posters with torn art and deciding if they could write a murder mystery at a school that is declared an International Peace site. How peaceful was a murder anyway?

I knew I was in the company of great teachers when I thought about my class. All that I had done over the years showed up in Reggie Routman’s whole language, Lucy Calkin’s writers workshop and Donald Graves’ work reminding us to have students write regularly, with choice and purpose. There it was: stories, book reports, ideas, discussions of science, the world, and friends tumbling around me.

Yes, literacy was happening in my classroom. The possession of education was going on. It just happened in a “constructivist” way. The children learned skills and used them in a real context. They planted seeds, took care of fish, told us why we should all live under the ocean, and developed skits about relationships with friends and enemies. My life, as mother cat, was to see that all the skills and standards permeated each adventure. These skills must have been tucked so neatly into the curriculum that my practicum students decided I didn’t teach them at all.

As I looked over these kittens, they read more than I had planned. They wrote, discussed, and edited their work. Somehow I think literacy -- the quality or state of being literate -- was happening.

Thanks, young jazzy cats, for making me angry enough to look at what happens in a literacy-rich classroom.
Joanne Toft
Marcy Open School
Grades 4,5,6
Teacher and
One happy momma cat!