Literacy Lessons: Content and Structure

Before presenting his students with a textbook on Weather and Water (see Managing Texts), my cooperating teacher oriented his seventh-grade students to the subject matter by having them take seven minutes and write down two to three sentences on what they knew about weather. After the seven minutes was up, the teacher went around the room asking students to share their understandings and reflections. In addition to highlighting his class’ previous knowledge on the subject of weather, this exercise allows students to see the purpose of the unit, and it also provides a reference point for all other knowledge-building exercises to come.

On the following day, students were instructed to describe the weather outside as a part of their daily warm up. When the students finished writing, the teacher told them that the work they had been doing for the past few minutes was called “making observations,” and that they, without even realizing it, had been acting like scientists. Now this large, seemingly unimportant word, “observations,” was a major part of their daily learning, and their practiced scientific behavior. This introduction a new word coupled with a new way of viewing the world and themselves was a beautiful example of creating captivation between students and subject matter.

All the reading that is done in class is done aloud. This serves many purposes, not the least of which is creating an environment of dialogicality that allows students to freely ask questions about the material as they occur. Students volunteer to take turns reading one or two paragraphs of the assigned reading aloud, and after each reader there is a brief pause for the purpose of asking questions or making comments. These questions and comments will often trail slightly off topic, but in large part they will still orbit around the topics outlined in the reading. By encouraging students to constantly make observations, reflections, and questions about the reading, the teacher allows his class to make personal connections with the material and create a spirit of inquiry powered by what matters most to them.

I think that what I admired most about how my cooperating teacher structured the content and structure of his lesson is that he made sure to include time for his students to reflect. Before and after every reading, students are given time to reflect on what they know and what they learned. These reflections take the form of simple Think Write prompts, or of more complex worksheets. Even more remarkable, before and after every exercise—be it worksheet, discussion, or writing and reflecting—the class would come together and reflect as a whole on what they felt about the exercise, if it was useful, and how well they performed it as a class. Reflection formed the backbone of this classroom’s content and structure, and it made a perfect point for branching off into approaching literacy.