18 September 2012

Thinking about Academic Knowledge and Discipline Literacy


I am currently participating in a preview to the Kentucky Reading Association Annual Conference through an online book discussion group using the Thinkfinity platform.  Our discussion facilitator posts thoughts and questions for each chapter of Developing Readers in the Academic Disciplines by Doug Buehl, and each of the book discussion group participants responds to the chapter.  Since our discussion facilitator also happens to be the state literacy coordinator, she presented us each with a challenge, of sorts, as we read this week's chapter stating “the examples Buehl gives in the rest of the chapter, organized by content areas…we just need to get the information into the right hands. I hope each of you will be the vehicle for that!”

 I take this challenge seriously because it speaks to my interests and goals in my new position. After spending six of my first eleven days on the new job with teachers, I must say I am very pleased with my decision to accept this district level position.   I’m now serving at the Secondary English/Language Arts Specialist for the second largest district in Kentucky.  The title is slightly erroneous, given that I am doing more work of literacy specialist than just English/language arts, but I don’t care about the title as much as I care about the work I’m doing and the challenge ahead for helping discipline area literacy be a focus for improving student achievement in Lexington’s schools.

 While I’ll do my part, I can’t do this work alone, so I’m thankful for a team of colleagues who are also committed to discipline area literacy.  Yesterday, several of these colleagues witnessed my passion for literacy & education for the first time.  I was heated up as I talked with them about Buehl’s book and my online discussion group.  We are planning ways to bring the contents of this book into regular conversations with educators around the district whenever we are able.  Meetings with principals?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with teachers?  Discuss discipline literacy.  Meetings with instructional coaches?  Discuss discipline literacy.  What will we share?  We will always share the impact discipline literacy has on student achievement and the importance of bridging the academic gap, but other specifics will vary depending upon our audience.  Thankfully, Buehl offers many specifics in his book, providing us research, theories, and practical examples which often speak to educators.

 Two of my favorite quotes so far come from chapter three about bridging academic knowledge gaps.  This very rich chapter has thus far brought the most in-depth conversation in our online discussion, too.   Buehl writes about disciplinary learning and students’ lives and worlds, stating— “students will be at risk for feeling marginalized, becoming disconnected from academic tasks and texts, and be resistant to developing identities that area compatible with reading, writing, and thinking through different disciplinary lenses… the persistence of achievement gaps is one result (p.91).”

My second favorite quote so far became my favorite as another discussion ensued among my new colleagues.  Our boss sent us a link to a story by USA today and commented that the approach hi to teaching history  highlighted in the story might be more relevant for students.  He then asked us what we thought.  Well, since I was already fired up from my online discussion with the KRA preview group and had already shared my excitement with others in the content specialists’ office, I decided to send my favorite quotes from Buehl’s book to our department and our boss to encourage everyone to join me in reading the book. 

 “A major issue of teaching social science is generational knowledge, in which our students are immersed and which is highly motivational, can be hooked into the specific disciplinary goals for the social studies curriculum  (p.93).”    Buehl goes on to discuss the need to narrow history curriculum to get at the most important parts of history by using events of today to connect to the past and to make it relevant for students who are likely asking—“so what?”