Their lives, fears, needs, dreams
THEIR objectives, tests, demands
Meeting ground needed.
There lies the conundrum.
The Power of Words
Struggling literacy learners enter my room already wrapped in a cocoon filled with negative experiences in reading and writing and with educational labels attempting to define them. As their teacher for the school year, my job is to give them the tools to emerge as literacy learners. This ten-month journey begins with recognizing and harnessing the power of words. Struggling readers and writers develop an aversion to literacy because words have become a mystery and a hindrance to them. They have not cracked the code. They tend to ask questions such as “Why I gotta read or write this?”
The purpose and the process of literacy have eluded them. Amidst their problems with decoding, comprehending, composing, and other literacy skills, some struggling literacy learners have not found an author or a writing topic that has titillated their desire to read or write. They seek initiation into the “literacy club” where their peers laugh at and discuss books or reign words into well-crafted writing.
They know words are powerful because their daily struggle with them has resulted in a wall of resistance against literacy learning. The words themselves have forged the outer shells of their cocoons. Standardized assessments, teachers’ comments and (mis)perceptions, constant academic failure, and sometimes peers’ ridicule have assailed struggling readers and writers and created their lack of confidence in literacy learning.
Whether positive or negative, words carry energy and evoke memories. When struggling literacy learners enter my room, they will still associate reading and writing with their past experiences. “The written and spoken word determines what we do in life and how we do it.” (Iyanla Vanzant, One Day My Soul Opened Up)
The written and spoken word can also hinder struggling readers and writers. Negative experiences enable them to concede to defeat when it comes to literacy learning. As a language arts teacher, I want my students to gain back their confidence. Theme-based literate environments allow me to utilize the classroom as a tool for setting change into motion.
Elements of a Theme-Based Literate Environment
When people enter a pleasant home or restaurant, the ambience—the arrangement of furniture, the array of paintings, collectibles, and plants, the aroma of meals, scented candles, or air fresheners, and the feeling of positive energy radiating throughout the place—surrounds them with warmth and invitation. They feel comfortable and relaxed in being themselves with no noticeable threats to the peaceful environment they have entered. The mood of the home or restaurant solicits conversations, celebrations, and memories.
As avid readers or aspiring writers stroll through Barnes & Noble, the literary atmosphere instantly mesmerizes them with mahogany cases filled with books. Bookstores contain oversized chairs sporadically spaced and cozy cafes alive with conversation. Budding writers find refuge and inspiration as they perfect their craft in the company of hallowed authors. These places become literary havens where people lose themselves inside literacy.
The elements of the places described above characterize the concept of theme-based literate environments. Students should be able to walk into a soothing setting with several selections of texts, snug chairs and pillows to sit on, and invitations to be themselves as readers and writers. An abundance of print and non-print texts, ranging from picture books and audiotapes to young adult literature and nonfiction (and if funds permit, digital texts), are present to whet their appetites.
Theme-based Literate Environments Contain the Following:
- A multitude of learning experiences requiring students to question, evaluate, experience and appreciate all types of texts
- An underlying theme evident through classroom décor and ambience
- A central guiding question that ties together the course concepts
- A sense of flexibility in movement of classroom furniture and students
- A reflection of students’ interests
- A collaborative framework of student and teacher input
- An ample supply and implementation of young adult literature
Looking at the Concept in Action
During the course of my teaching career, I have created several theme-based literate environments. The themes have ranged from coffeehouses, gardens, oceans, boutiques, and safaris. I have painted bookcases to reflect the themes, and bought butterfly chairs, body pillows, and bean bag chairs for independent reading areas.
I have decorated wall with fabric designed with parrots to convey my safari theme and hung up curtains behind a writing conference table with candles in glass bowls and a tablecloth to accentuate my boutique theme. Along with the infectious nature of the classroom, I bring a positive energy into the classroom. If teachers enjoy what they do, their attitude will rub off on their students.
I have had students who were considered lost causes blossom in these environments. Olivia* (pseudonym) used her writer’s notebook as a place to record her feelings about living with her dad and his new wife. She copied down their conversations and conveyed her emotions through poetry and song lyrics from favorite artists. We wrote to each other in her notebook about her feelings. These snippets of life formed the basis of personal narratives and stories she composed in the writing workshops.
Writer’s notebooks became a literate space where reading and writing informed each other’s practices. In class, she used her freedom of expression to write about her life. She volunteered more in whole class discussions. Her face brightened, a better alternative to the saddened eyes she once had. My theme-based literate environment coaxed a timid girl out of her shell and invited her to participate in literacy learning.
Alex* (pseudonym) was an eighth grade student who read on a second grade level. He never completed a book on his own. Through interactive word walls, read-alouds, literature discussion groups, learning centers, and differentiated instruction, Alex gained confidence in reading. At Open House, he expressed his newfound interest in Walter Dean Myers’ book, Monster. This student, who is described as a Level 1 reader, told everyone every detail of the book and explained how the book had changed his life. His parents approached me after the event and expressed their gratitude. Alex was reading more of Myers’ books with confidence.
Sometimes the classroom environment is just as important as the curriculum in literacy learning.
Other YAL Suggestions for Struggling Readers
Step to This Nikki Carter
Who Am I Without Him?: Short Stories About Girls and the Boys in Their Lives Sharon Flake
The Misfits James Howe
Tangerine Edward Bloor
Conception by Kalisha Buckhanon
Domino Falls by Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes
Green Angel Alice Hoffman
Artichoke’s Heart Suzanne Supplee
Bucking the Sarge Christopher Paul Curtis
Jason & Kyra Dana Davidson
Tears of a Tiger Sharon Draper
Forged by Fire Sharon Draper
Born Blue Hans Nolan
If You Come Softly Jacqueline Woodson
Hush Jacqueline Woodson
Slam! Walter Dean Meyers
Make Lemonade V. Wolff
True Believer V. Wolff
Pushing Pause Celeste Norfleet
Shortie Like Mine NiNi Simone
Seedfolks Paul Fleischmann
YALSA’s annual list http://www.ala.org/yalsa/booklists/quickpicks/2013
Teacher Resources for Building Literate Environments
A Time for Meaning: Crafting Literate Lives in Middle & High School by Randy Bomer
Literacy in the Secondary Classroom: Strategies for Teaching the Way Kids Learn L. Meeks & C. Austin
Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents’ Lives by Donna Alvermann et al