The Engaging Child: Raising Children to Speak, Write, and Have Relationship Skills Beyond Technolog

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The result is that the students with the weakest skills often get the least amount of practice. Other teachers assign reading and writing tasks and give low or failing marks to students who do not complete the assignments, assuming that motivation, not ability, determines if the work is turned in. The mindset of many teachers and administrators is that if students do not have the requisite reading and writing skills by middle or high school, it is simply too late. Specific literacy instruction, as part of content-area learning, tutoring services, learning centers, or study skill classes, has been virtually unknown in many middle and high schools.

For students with poor academic literacy skills, this lack of embedded and explicit literacy support results in a downward spiral that can lead to academic failure. It is especially important to motivate students who arrive in middle and high school classrooms with a history of failure as readers or writers. People are understandably reluctant to persist at behaviors that they do not enjoy or that make them feel incompetent—adolescents even more so. They want to be better readers and writers, but in addition to their weak literacy skills, other serious barriers interfere, such as minimal and often inappropriate help, alienation from uncomfortable school environments and curricula that seem irrelevant to their lives, and unreceptive environments for admitting the level of vulnerability they feel.

These interrelated elements are a primary vehicle for improving literacy. By the time students reach middle and high school, many of them have a view of themselves as people who do not read and write, at least in school. It is often difficult for teachers to know if middle school and high school students cannot or will not do the assignments; often all they know is that students do not do them. Herein lies the challenge for teachers and administrators: how to motivate middle and high school students to read and write so that they engage in literacy tasks and are willing to accept instruction and take advantage of opportunities to practice and accept feedback, thereby improving their academic literacy skills that will, in turn, improve their content-area learning and achievement.

Instruction without attention to motivation is useless, especially in the case of students who are reluctant to read and write in the first place. In other words, adolescents will take on the task of learning how to read or write better only if they have sufficiently compelling reasons for doing so. Because motivation leads to engagement, motivation is where teachers need to begin. Reading and writing, just like anything else, require an investment by the learner to improve.

As humans, we are motivated to engage when we are interested or have real purpose for doing so. So motivation to engage is the first step on the road to improving literacy habits and skills. Understanding adolescents' needs for choice, autonomy, purpose, voice, competence, encouragement, and acceptance can provide insight into some of the conditions needed to get students involved with academic literacy tasks.

Most successful teachers of adolescents understand that meeting these needs is important when developing good working relationships with their students.

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However, many teachers have not thought of these needs in relation to their potential consequences for literacy development, that is, to what extent they meet these needs in the classroom through the academic literacy tasks they assign and the literacy expectations they have for students. Motivating students is important—without it, teachers have no point of entry. But it is engagement that is critical, because the level of engagement over time is the vehicle through which classroom instruction influences student outcomes. Engagement—with sports, hobbies, work, or reading—results in opportunities to practice.

Practice provides the opportunity to build skills and gain confidence. However, practicing without feedback and coaching often leads to poor habits. Coaching—or, in this case, explicit teaching—helps refine practice, generates feedback, creates structured exercises targeted to specific needs, and provides encouragement and direction through a partnership with the learner. Note that more modeling, structure, and encouragement are often needed to engage students who are motivated to begin but who have weaker skills and therefore may not have the ability or stamina to complete tasks on their own.

Sustained engagement, therefore, often depends on good instruction.

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Good instruction develops and refines important literacy habits and skills such as the abilities to read strategically, to communicate clearly in writing or during a presentation, and to think critically about content. Gaining these improved skills leads to increased confidence and competence. Greater confidence motivates students to engage with and successfully complete increasingly complex content-area reading and writing tasks, and this positive experience leads to improved student learning and achievement.

Thus, teachers have two primary issues to contend with when trying to improve the literacy skills of unmotivated struggling readers and writers: 1 getting them to engage with academic literacy tasks, and 2 teaching them how to complete academic literacy tasks successfully. Figure 1.


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This cycle represents the learning conditions and support required for literacy learning to take place. Teachers and administrators who understand what this cycle looks like within the content-focused classroom can support the activation and maintenance of the cycle for all students. The vignettes in the next two sections of this chapter illustrate how teachers can make this happen and what types of learning environments are effective for motivating students to engage with academic literacy tasks.

For leaders, the challenge is how to support teachers to develop these types of classroom experiences and contexts so that they become typical practice, rather than the exception. Breaking the cycle of failure for struggling readers and writers and engaging all students to participate actively in their own literacy development requires the use of classroom environments themselves as interventions. In some cases, it is the classroom culture that prompts or supports reluctant readers and writers to want to engage with literacy tasks, resulting in their being more open to instruction.

Such classroom environments provide motivation to read, multiple opportunities and authentic reasons to engage with text, and safe ways to participate, take risks, and make mistakes.


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In these classrooms, students feel that the teacher really cares about them and their learning. The following vignette illustrates how this type of classroom context worked to encourage the literacy and learning of one student. Carly arrived at high school reading at the 5th-grade level. During middle school, she got involved with a rough crowd that did not care much about doing schoolwork, and figured that no one cared much anyway, so why should she try? She used to like books about real people and stories that the teachers in elementary school read aloud.

In elementary school, she had been a pretty good student. During the first week of 9th grade, Carly's English teacher told her that she would like Carly to join the mentoring club. Warren, persisted. Furthermore, she read all of Carly's papers, checked in with her daily, and had a frank talk with Carly about how she had a lot of potential, was very smart, and needed to get her reading and writing up to speed.

The books and short readings that Ms. Warren assigned in English were interesting and relevant to Carly, describing real events and people with dilemmas, but they were hard for her to read. Students in Ms. Warren's class were encouraged to share their opinions and ideas—but they always had to back them up with what they had read in the text. Warren taught her students multiple strategies for approaching different types of texts and always connected what they were reading to important themes in students' lives—power, cheating, love, violence.

Carly tried the strategies and found they helped a lot. Carly began to work hard—but just in that one class. She agreed to join the mentoring club because Ms. Warren just wore her down and kept asking her again and again. To her surprise, Carly found she loved tutoring younger students, and the experience made her work harder on her own reading and writing skills so she could be a good role model for Tyanna, the 4th grader she met with after school.

Carly's attendance improved because when she skipped school, both Ms. Warren and Tyanna got on her back about it. She started working harder on her papers because Ms.

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Warren commented on them and scheduled time to meet with her one-on-one to revise them. She asked Carly questions about her intent as though she were a real author. But then I started thinking more about it. Warren always gave students a choice of what to write about. Midway through the year, Ms.

Warren told Carly that she had a lot to say and suggested that she submit one particular essay to the school literary magazine , The Mag. Carly balked, but Ms. Warren submitted it anyway and it was accepted. Kids whom Carly did not even know came up to her and commented on how much they liked it. When she was asked to be on the editing committee for The Mag , she was surprised. She started to think that maybe she wasn't so stupid after all and went to the Learning Center for help with algebra.

Her grades started to improve.

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Warren, Tyanna, and that darn piece she [Ms. Warren] submitted to The Mag. Kind of a combination. I'm still not so good at math. I have trouble sometimes reading my history book, and I hate biology—it's gross. But now I know that I am smart and that what I do matters and that I am just shooting myself in the foot if I don't try. I never thought about college before, but now I think I want to go.

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Middle and high school leaders can reverse the downward spiral of failure many students experience by creating a literacy-rich environment throughout the school see Chapter 4 for suggestions , establishing classroom environments as described in this vignette as the norm, and expecting all content-area teachers to provide literacy instruction in the content areas.

Although Ms. Warren was apparently well versed in strategies for improving reading and writing, most content-area teachers, including many English teachers, are not. School leaders can support teacher learning about content-area literacy instruction through frequent, high-quality, job-embedded professional development and by providing opportunities for strategy sharing, feedback, and coaching. Content-area teachers must accept the challenge of integrating literacy and learning for their students. Likewise, students cannot be expected to develop skills when the contexts for engagement and support for instruction are not in place.

As described in the vignette, Carly was unengaged in school and not willing, at first, to participate in her own literacy development. She needed to see that someone cared, needed to have authentic and motivating reasons to read and write, and needed support to improve her literacy skills. None of this was likely to magically happen just because the educators in the school system announced that they believe in high standards for all students. But Ms.

Warren knew how to create a classroom culture that supported literacy development. For Carly, as for many students, motivation and engagement led to increased literacy skills and higher self-esteem as a reader, writer, and learner, which led, in turn, to improved academic achievement. The literature is full of examples of how the climate and conditions of the classroom really can make a difference in whether or not adolescents choose to engage in literacy tasks.

We know that the learning environment and culture within each classroom play a part in supporting or undermining the chances that middle and high school students will participate in, and therefore benefit from, literacy development through the engagement-instruction cycle. This is the case with students at all literacy levels, including struggling readers and writers, English language learners, reluctant readers and writers, and aliterate students those students who have adequate reading and writing skills but typically choose not to read or write.

This understanding means it is well worth paying attention to the elements of classroom culture and environment to ensure that the conditions for literacy learning are in place. The following vignette describes students' engagement with a variety of literacy tasks when these were assigned within a motivating and supportive learning environment coupled with effective instruction.

The 8th grade students on the Dream Team at Lincoln Middle School were studying the topic of water quality. For this interdisciplinary unit, Kamal, Ayan, Mara, and Erika were put into a group. None of them really understood why watersheds were important when they began the project. The first assignment was to read and discuss a chapter in the science book. The terminology was hard, and they really did not understand what the chapter was about even after previewing it.

But the science teacher provided strategies for learning the vocabulary and reading the text, so even though the group members were not inspired, they were able to complete the assignment.

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Members of Kamal's group became more interested when they saw the results of a local survey of waste disposal habits of businesses and households. Students listened to a local scientist and a government official talk about watershed and water treatment issues—policies, pollution, protections, and current threats. Students then took a tour of the local water treatment plant. In social studies class they debated the pros and cons of bottled water in terms of environmental and equity issues.

Based on additional research and responses to e-mail questions submitted to the speakers, the students created a physical model of the watershed and the water treatment facility and discussed possible areas of concern. Each team of four identified key questions and went into the field to conduct tests of water and soil for the presence of pollutants. Then they learned to read government charts representing safe levels of these substances in the public water supply and technical documents describing the treatment plan for the city.

Kamal's team carefully compared its test results with the information on the charts. What they found was disturbing. Levels of certain toxic substances and bacteria were high in the reservoir, but the water treatment facility was not addressing the problem by changing the treatment of the water, suggesting that the city's drinking water may not be safe.

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