Literacy in a Global, Digital Age

Johanna Brand

Joyce Public School is located in northwest Toronto, in an unprepossessing one-storey brick building. The Joyce school community, with a majority of immigrant families, is multicultural and multilingual. Many families have low incomes. Not all parents, mothers especially, have had the opportunity to get an education. Nevertheless, the Joyce staff have won accolades for their work, most recently the Premier’s Award for Teaching Excellence as school team of the year. For the past several years teachers have been involved in a collaborative, research-based project that builds on the unique knowledge and experiences of students and their families. At the heart of this success story are the teachers who work as a team with their colleagues and with their students. THE CONCEPT  Joyce’s teachers began working with York University researcher and professor Dr. Heather Lotherington eight years ago. Lotherington’s aim was to “understand multiliteracies in action” – developing an approach to teaching literacy that involves acknowledging and building on students’ first languages and cultures and encourages them to express themselves using a variety of media. The Joyce projects are informed by her work and by the work of Dr. Jennifer Jensen, whose expertise is the use of technology in education. Graduate students from York University are also involved. Teachers at Joyce can choose whether to participate in the projects and not all do. All of the projects are designed to

  • involve teachers working as a team
  • explore a “big idea” that results from teachers’ observations of students
  • meet curriculum expectations across a number of subject areas
  • involve students in multiple classrooms, at multiple grade levels
  • involve students in planning and execution
  • tell stories using twenty-first-century technology
  • build on students’ first languages
  • involve parents.

Projects have often involved retelling fairy tales like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs, and The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Because students come from many different countries not all have grown up with these stories. Students retell the traditional tales in different ways, inserting themselves into the narrative as a character or by creating new characters. The students tell their stories using a variety of media: video, photography, visual art, audio recordings, and movement. Parents have helped to translate the student’s story into the family’s first language. Still other projects start with a concept that students flesh out. One project involved parents or grandparents telling children the story of their family’s immigration. Students taking part in a project based on Deborah Ellis’s novel The Breadwinner created a backstory for one of the minor characters. The topics open wide-ranging discussion. For example, in reworking The Three Little Pigs students are asked to think about what it would take to create a structure that the wolf can’t blow down. “What sounds like a folk tale ends up being a lesson in science, art, arithmetic, and English,” says Lotherington. For grade 1 teacher Shiva Sotoudeh, this approach was an eye-opener: “In the past I would read the story and ask questions. Now I may read the story five times – in five different versions. We discuss the material. They retell the story replacing the character with one of their own. They learn how to infer and make connections. They are not just answering questions: they are able to do upper-level thinking and give their own ideas and point of view. That’s hard for someone in grade 1.” Students work in groups and tell the story in different ways, using puppets, role play, and Plasticine. “Students are learning from each other,” Sotoudeh explains. “They spark each other and develop more ideas.” PLANNING  Project planning begins at the start of the school year. Teachers who decide to take part meet monthly with the researchers. Special education teacher Rhea Perreira-Foyle, who has been involved for five years, says that “every project involves the hidden curriculum – a big idea based on what we learn from observing students and listening to them talk.” Fairy tales are well suited to this approach. “The Three Little Pigs is also a story about bullying,” says Sotoudeh. “Students start to talk about what happens at home with older siblings.” Chris Lee, a Junior grade teacher, says the big ideas are topics that “should be integrated into everyday activities. Last year my multiliteracy project focused on the issues of respect, and understanding similarities and celebrating differences. I try to incorporate more terminology from these areas into everyday vocabulary. “Math problems, for example, may deal with two fathers who are trying to build a deck,” Lee explains. “Students became aware of their language and more reflective of what they say. The snickering that would happen in a grade 4/5 class as soon as their own teacher would say gay or homosexual went away altogether and was replaced with acknowledgement, understanding, and questioning.” The big idea for any given year is developed by the team during its monthly planning meetings. “We come up with a consensus about how it will look and how it will evolve, what the end product will be,” Perreira- Foyle explains. Collaboration is a key element to the success of the projects. Andrew Schmitt, a Junior grade teacher, says that “working as part of the team gives structure and an opportunity for meaningful planning. Without the research project, which pays for the planning time, we would still be working together but it would not be as rich [an experience].” Chris Lee echoes Schmitt: “The projects could not be nearly as successful without the collaboration of all the teachers. The number of ideas that radiated and that bounced back and forth created a more living project that evolved with each discussion.” All of the teachers acknowledge that collaboration requires time and planning, and that the projects would not flourish without the support and encouragement of Principal Cheryl Paige. ADDRESSING THE CURRICULUM  The group meticulously sets out the curriculum expectations for the project and begins discussing an end product. “What we envision at the beginning is the process. In our planning we make sure the expectations are as explicit as possible and in turn we make them explicit to the students,” Schmitt says. Invariably teachers find that at the end of the project curriculum expectations are not only met, they are exceeded. The end product, often a video or a book, is not the focus of the project. The final product can change as the project evolves, and this flexibility is key to meeting students’ learning needs. “As teachers we tend to be product driven, to have that thing, that document, that shows learning took place,” Andrew Schmitt notes. “In our projects we don’t look at the end product in isolation. It isn’t our only evidence that learning took place.” “The end product can be stressful,” says Rhea Perreira-Foyle, “but really it is the process that is the key thing – seeing how much the children grow in working together and how much they learn about their strengths, weaknesses, and interests.” Often, however, the end product is impressive, says Lotherington: “Children have produced books of publishable quality. They are very beautiful.” STUDENT INVOLVEMENT  The projects typically involve students from more than one grade, and more than one classroom. Students take ownership, contributing their ideas about content and how the story should be told. “You can see it on the faces of kids immediately when they start to bring in their own lives – the conversation changes,” Schmitt says. “You immediately see the change when they are talking about things that are relevant to them.” Take, for example, The Breadwinner project. Students worked together to create their stories, then created an Oprah-style interview show, with dramatized inserts in which they acted out their stories. As they worked together, there were many discussions about what is believable and what is not believable. During the filming there were many retakes. “They watched their film work critically. They critique each other, telling each other how to act it out, modelling for each other,” says Perreira-Foyle. The projects help students understand that reading and writing have a purpose. One student who had not been reading decided a storyboard was required; this student learned he needed to write to communicate. The projects also develop collaboration skills. Students of different abilities work together and take on different roles. Special education students are included and the experience “stretches them,” says Perreira-Foyle. It changes their status because their skills are recognized which “provides a rich experience and raises their level of thinking.” In The Breadwinner project a domineering boy who wanted to be the interviewer eventually gave that key job to a girl with intellectual challenges. She had been coaching him, and finally he realized she was better suited to the role. As a result, a child who might have been marginalized was allowed to shine. “It’s rewarding as a teacher to see the growth of learners as people,” says Perreira-Foyle. “They take responsibility for each other; they find new skills when they work together, they complement each other’s skills. They constantly surprise us.” Special education students particularly are “more capable than we give them credit for.” “This is individualized, customized learning, not standards-based learning,” says Lotherington. “It’s based on the premise that we don’t all have to do the same thing. The child who isn’t spelling is doing video editing. The students do all the things that are needed. It allows them more agency and independence. It develops confidence and allows them to extend their knowledge base.” Lotherington believes the projects have increased students’ “immersion in language and the joy of working with language,” and as a result their test performance has also improved. However, she hastens to emphasize that “our work is not about test results. It is not intended to cause a change in test performance.” BUILDING ON STUDENTS’ FIRST LANGUAGES  Including community languages in schools and showing they are valued is a specific goal, says Lotherington. “We want to create a space for the languages children speak” and change “the abrupt loss of identity” that happens when they step into a Canadian school. Research consistently demonstrates that parental involvement enhances student success. But being involved in the school is hard for immigrant parents, Lotherington says. “We need to understand how to welcome parents better, so that their children don’t have to abandon one world for another.” At Joyce, the projects are planned to involve parents and to incorporate their experiences and cultures. “Parents are often content to leave the education to us, the teachers,” Andrew Schmitt says. “We are trying to change that so that it is parents and teachers together.” When students in kindergarten and grade 2 reworked The Three Billy Goats Gruff, each family helped finish the story and then translate it into the family’s first language. At curriculum night that year every student received a copy of their own book in their own first language. “It was powerful to see the parents’ reaction. They heard their own language in their child’s work at school. It has a profound impact when parents realize that their language and culture is valued,” Schmitt says. “Before the project, the students would make fun of each other’s languages,” Shiva Sotoudeh recalls. “Now they use their first language at roll call and to say hello.” Research shows that supporting children’s first language enhances their English language learning. REWARDS  The project offers rewards for teachers too. Shiva Sotoudeh says she is more comfortable with technology now. Rhea Perreira-Foyle values the discussion of broader ideas and social justice issues that the projects stimulate: “I want to open my students up and get them to think in different ways about issues. I love this aspect of it. It feeds my passion of how I want to teach.” Chris Lee says the projects have given him a “fresh perspective on the workings of the mind of a child, on their perceptions of the world, social issues, and how they collaborate with their peers.” Andrew Schmitt says collaborative teaching has long been his goal. It is the commitment of these teachers combined with the vision of their principal that makes Joyce a special school, says Heather Lotherington. That, she adds, is something “any school should be able to follow.”


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