Written by Gen
I am a reluctant social media user. When Facebook was new, I waited years before tentatively starting an account. I was, and continue to be, careful about what I put out there digitally. You won’t find me on Snap-chat or Instagram. I have only just started using Twitter. I’m so new, in fact, that hardly anyone knows I’m out there! In my short time using it, though, I’ve become discouraged. I suppose it’s inevitable; with the anonymity of the internet we’re bound to see equal parts courteous and hostile when it comes to most matters, including literacy teaching.
What follows are my observations regarding the large-scale literacy conversation happening in our country and the world, as well as my thoughts on the matter. My first question is, why are we fighting? I’m sure I don’t have the definitive answer, but what you will read next are some of my personal observations and thoughts about the global literacy conversation. The second question I will pose is, how do we find our way? For this, I have a few ideas about how literacy teachers can remain steadfast in the midst of the turmoil.
Why are we fighting?
The short answer is, I don’t know! But you’re not reading this for my short answer, so my slightly longer answer has several parts:
My hope is that we are arguing about the best way to teach literacy because we all care so deeply about children and recognize that becoming literate is crucial for future success in a child’s life. Passion is often linked to dedication and that’s not a bad thing. From my perspective, it seems as though literacy has been divided into two parts: phonics and authentic texts, and you are either for one or the other and whichever side you are on, the other one is wrong. If the argument is due to the fact that we all care about kids, then we can at least agree on one thing: literacy is important and we want to do what’s best.
My fear, however, is that the argument does not originate from the heart. I wonder if it is coming from a more selfish place. For the most part, I believe educators want what’s best for their students and that causes them to seek out information, particularly when students start to struggle. The problem comes from those who are there to turn the conversation for their own interests, making claims to have answers that are sure to be the end-all to literacy teaching struggles. Some of them are very persuasive, causing teachers to line up behind one or the other. These entities rely on teachers who have big hearts becoming dedicated to them and, unknowingly, perpetuating the negativity and therefore their infamy.
How do we find our way?
I’ve had to do some deep reflection on this idea because I, too, am guilty of lining up. We all are, at times, which makes it even more important for us to find our compass in the abyss of information to determine what’s right for our students.
There are a few things that I look for when determining the validity of a source. Be cautious of the following:
The Attention Seeker: You can identify an attention seeker because this person or entity will make inflammatory statements and then you won’t hear from this person again on the topic. Rather, it will let its followers vehemently go back and forth in a cycle of argument. Such statements will be belligerent to the opposite side of the discussion and will (purposely) raise your blood pressure, making you feel like joining the argument. The perspective of the attention seeker is this, “if everyone is talking about me, then no one is productively discussing literacy instruction.”
The Teacher-Shamer: Have you ever been made to feel like everything you did before a particular product came into your life was wrong? Or that you shouldn’t be, or aren’t, trusted to make decisions for your own classroom and instruction? Good advice includes the presentation of information and encourages teachers to think for themselves, it doesn’t induce guilt. But people who feel guilty purchase things to “fix” their guilt, so…you see how that works?
The Attacker: An attacker will be the one who says disparaging things about another perspective. Attackers are opinionated and, frankly, mean. Their statements may be downright vicious and will aim to tear others down. This is different than someone who simply disagrees and provides evidence to respectfully counter an opinion. The remarks from an attacker will not be respectful, therefore bullying others into following their lead in the literacy discussion.
The Razzle-Dazzler: This entity will try to blind you with how easy teaching literacy can be if you would only purchase (fill in the blank product) without actually presenting any evidence for its success. The materials will be beautiful, it will require minimal or no planning time, and it will give the impression that it is a researched product.
(To learn more about understanding the difference between “researched” and “research-based,” check out this previous post: Truth & Research: What to Consider Before Selecting Literacy Curriculum and Programs)
Finding Your Bearings
Here are a few ways that I keep my bearings when discerning what to believe in the literacy world:
Find the research. I’ve written about this before, and I’ll say it again. I’m not talking about a product that is researched. I’m talking about research regarding literacy acquisition. Approaches, not products. If you understand how children learn to be literate, then you will be able to determine for yourself if a product is appropriate or not. Can you even believe I recently read a blog post that actually encouraged teachers to disregard research?!?! Valid, peer-reviewed research is invaluable!
Remember the balance. Reading is a complex process. If it wasn’t, all of our problems with instruction would have been solved by now. No single approach will work for everyone. Avoid entities that tell you it will. Literacy acquisition requires the systematic teaching of phonics AND the development of a meaning-making, problem-solving schema. We should use research to determine how much of each should be in our curriculum.
Get rid of reactive responses. If you’ve encountered a statement that makes your blood boil, you’ve probably found an attention-seeker who is banking on your indignant replies to add fuel to the fire. Think twice about what prompted this person or entity to put what they’ve said into the world and respond in a measured way with facts, not emotion, keeping in mind that sometimes it’s best not to reply at all.
Be empowered to make it about your students. Read everything. Think critically about both sides of the argument. Ask questions and seek to understand. Think about your students. Trust yourself to make informed decisions on a case-by-case basis. You are more than a script or a product or a program: you are an educated, observant, thoughtful individual who is qualified to decide what is best for your students.
Out there in social media land, this phonics versus authentic text argument is heated. Remember that this is not about a person, it is not about a product. Be open-minded, but rely on evidence. We are all in this together for the future literate lives of our students.