Teaching Disciplinary Literacy In Social Studies

Disciplinary literacy and content area literacy have been buzz words around education.  It’s hard to pick apart the two but I have been trying to focus on teaching disciplinary literacy, focusing on specific skills to read in different subject areas.  I have found some pros and cons.


Number one, I am not a scientist.  I can make educated guesses about what it means to read science texts in a specific science way, but I sort of feel like I am shooting in the dark.

I find it easier to teach disciplinary writing than reading!  Especially since a lot of our reading in science and social studies is the teacher reading aloud to the students.


Students connect with the texts when they think of themselves as reading like a historian or a scientist.

I feel like I am giving students a much needed skill set as we are practicing reading.

Does anyone have any solutions for my cons?

Below is a link that I used to jump in and look at primary sources during social studies.  Our NC Social Studies Standard says that we are to compare various interpretations of the same time period using different primary sources such as photographs.

Doing a little research, I stumbled upon this great lesson put together by the Tenement Museum.  The lesson has students looking at primary sources as clues about a person’s life.  They look at a postcard, a ship manifest, a photo of a building, and a family photograph.  The lesson provides probing questions to get the students to read these sources like historians.

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After seeing this lesson I feel like I have a better understanding of how to construct my own lesson.  As a teacher, sometimes just like students, we need to see some appropriate examples to help us run with our own creativity!

I am also a fan of using the NC Museum of History artifact boxes.  You can fill out a request form at the link above.  These are really great to have students explore artifacts and gather information about people during a certain time period in history!  They also come with probing questions, lesson plans, and recording sheets.

I have found that it is much easier to teach a child at the early elementary level to “read like a historian” when they are analyzing and studying primary sources.  First off, that’s what actual historians do and second off they are figuring out the facts for themselves from the actual source.  Using critical literacy while reading secondary sources is very important and I feel that it does play a role in “reading like a historian.”  When we read secondary sources for research, I am constantly trying to get kids to understand that we are only reading one side of the story.  Often times I try to ask questions like, whose story are we missing.  Some students are very intuitive to this and catch on very quickly.  Today in fact we were learning about ancestors and we watched a clip about explorers and settlers and I had a student say “and yes sometimes settlers took over land even when people already lived there.”  I told the child “YES! and that poses a little bit of a problem doesn’t it?”  The best part is that the student responded “that’s a BIG problem if you ask me.”  Critical literacy!

For me this is a growing process and I am certainly trying to figure out what this looks like in other areas of social studies besides history.  If you know of any additional resources to use to find primary source lessons, please leave a comment alone.

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Data…A Misrepresentation

Data tells a story. This statement can be true for many scenarios. Unfortunately in the classroom, data doesn’t tell the whole story. The job of the teacher would be much easier if we could just look at data about a child, do some magic, and then make a new data set. As we all know, this is not how the classroom works. It doesn’t even come close! Yet we are all still put in a position where we have to evaluate our students and ourselves based on normed data. Students are labeled as on grade level, below grade level, or above based on data. Too much of the time, teachers are faced with having to make the argument that the data doesn’t represent the whole child.

There are so many factors when it comes to children and learning that we can’t Clorox it down into a few pretty numbers. No teacher, I’m assuming, became a teacher because they wanted to give Mclass assessments for the first four weeks of school.  Below is a snapshot of my student’s scores from our beginning of year benchmark.

If I just looked at these numbers, I would have serious concerns about some students and no concerns about others.  This isn’t the whole picture.  For instance, one of my student’s who scored a level G on the TRC is actually able to read and comprehend a level K text.  The student kept dropping levels solely due to the student’s writing ability, the student wasn’t including details from the text to support the answer.  Since I know this, I now know that I need to focus on that one area instead of panicing since the student appears to need intensive support based on the data set.  This data is confusing and doesn’t show the whole picture.

Two of my graduate school colleagues teach first grade and third grade, the grade above and below my own.  They experience the same frustration with this type of data and the data collection process.  Too much emphasis is placed on one assessment and we don’t even feel that it is that accurate.  You can read their thoughts on The One With The First Grade Teacher and Around The Kidney Table.

We also created this video to express some student emotions on the topic.

What are your thoughts?  Do you experience the same frustrations?

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Changing Things Up

I’ve recently been engrossed in a class discussing disciplinary literacy.  Disciplinary literacy focuses on the teaching of specific skills for reading in different content areas.  I’ve always been in the school of thought of content area literacy.  In content area literacy, there are generic skills for reading that span content.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about this and I find myself stuck somewhere in the middle.  I truly believe that there are skills that translate across texts and subjects but I know that that skill is tweaked to fit to specific task.  For example, summarizing can be used across subjects but it looks different in science and social studies.  So I am left in this place where I do want to teach my small children how to read like scientists and write like historians and everything in between.

Then we’ve been thrown this idea of nonfiction narrative.  Essentially it means writing accross subjects more like a story…. WHAT?!?

When I was grappling with this idea I kept coming back to the idea of documentaries and podcasts.  I love watching documentaries and listening to podcasts!  These two forms of media have gained great popularity in the past couple of years.

In order to bring these ideas together I have been trying to think of what boring thing I do know in my classroom that I could tweak…thus came my idea of Biography Picture Books and podcasts.  In second grade we always research a historical person during our timeline unit in social studies.  The goal is to get students to understand the impact of historical figures and to research to write a report.  Traditionally we did the three paragraph report….yawn.  Last year I switched it up and had my kids write top five lists of their historical figures.  I thought this was great because the students really had to think of what was the most important five things that everyone should know about their figure.

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Knowing what I know now… I want my students to have the choice to create a biographical picture book or produce a podcast about their figure.  When I read biographies aloud to my class, the picture books read like a story and are chalked full of facts.  It’s way better than the traditional biographies.  We will use those picture books as models for the students.  They will have to research their figure and synthesize the information in order to write the “story” of the person’s life.

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If the children would rather write a script for a podcast, in the same narrative structure, and produce that, they can!  I’m really hoping this will excite the children and be more meaningful in the long run!

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What Do I Know

The school year is off and running again and everything seems to be happening at warp speed.  Where is the slow motion button?  I love the beginning of a new school year!  Fresh faces, fresh supplies, and the hope and promise of a new year!  It’s sort of like that feeling you get on New Year’s Eve.  “We can do it better this time.”  “This will be our year.”  There’s time for reflection on the past year and planning for the journey ahead.

I was recently challenged to think of the question “What is knowledge?” and equally as important, “Who defines knowledge?”  I love the confidence of seven-year olds who think they really are an expert and loath the confidence of adults who really just have over inflated egos.

I spent much of my summer traveling through India and Nepal and this question about knowledge really coincides with my trip.  So much of what I thought I knew was TOTALLY wrong.  It was also clear that what some people there thought they knew was TOTALLY wrong about me as well.  My experience shaped my knowledge.  I now have a totally different tool set to use when I speak about knowledge of the world and of this region in particular.  I read lots of books before going, but nothing can compare to actually being there.  I could have spent my whole summer reading and researching, but my knowledge would have been vastly different, arguably inferior.

Just taking something like Indian food.  I’ve eaten Indian food in America and even had a friend make me a list of her favorite Indian foods before traveling.  Whelp of course when I arrived I learned that in America I had been eating South Indian food and we were traveling in North India.  There was an entirely new menu to learn!

Movies and pop culture play have a major influence on what we “know.”  India is colorful and lush!  Well yes in movies it is very colorful and yes color is very important in India.  Color signifies a good life and happiness.  People decorate their homes and trucks in vibrant colors but I think there is some major editing going on in the movies.  There isn’t just bright colors everywhere, there’s a lot of dust and dirt, clay and marble too.

I thought I knew crowded…I had no idea!

I also thought I knew how societies were supposed to work.  I thought I knew what was socially appropriate.  There is an entirely different set of manners and customs everywhere you go in the world.

I created a short video of some pictures from my trip.  I wanted to try out a new online photo sharing website so I chose Slidely.  It went pretty well, a few kinks:  you can’t rotate photos and I’m not sure why my first two photos play twice.  The background song is the theme song from Aladdin.  I used this for two reasons.  Number one some people think they are going to have an Aladdin fantasy when they travel to this part of Asia when really they don’t know what they are talking about.  Secondly…it was a whole new world…  You can watch the video below.

What Do I Know

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Building the Talk

Man, my students talk ALL day long.  Many times I find myself thinking, “what do they even have to talk about?”  The act of talking is not an issues.  Kids want to talk and, maybe more importantly, they want to be heard.  My job is steering that talk, guiding it, modeling what dialogue looks like.  Often times I try to listen, figure out what they are talking about, and sometimes I am shocked.  Two days ago I overheard one little girl tell another “maybe I will see you in heaven.”  So sweet, so innocent, so off the wall 🙂  That’s about how seven-year old conversation goes, unless it’s something totally gross and disgusting which is neither sweet nor innocent.

I’m at the point in my career, five years in, where I feel so good about so many things and feel so inadequate about the rest.  I am still trying to figure out how to get kids to talk deeply together without me hovering.  They are seven…but they are capable!  I truly want a critical classroom where we are talking about whose voice is heard and who is being left out.

One time, we read an article about Martin Luther King Jr. and at the end of the lesson I simply asked the class, what do you think this author things about MLK?  Immediately hands went up and one little girl said “the author thinks MLK is an important man and the author wants us to carry on his work in our hearts!”  WHAT?!?! A seven-year old thought of that?  Now do you understand what I mean about capable?

I know I need to work on the all-powerful feedback of “good.”  Why am I constantly giving that feedback?  I need to replace good with something.  One suggestion is to replace it with “What do the rest of you think?”  I also never ask the kids if they want my opinion.  After I ask for other opinions, I could ask, “would you like to know what I think?”  At least then I am modeling that a) I have an opinion and b) it’s my opinion, not a fact.

My book selection can be so important!  It’s really hard to have deep conversation about a book with no depth.  Another goal of mine is to find new books, really become an expert in that area.  I’m a reader, I love to read, I love being in the library and the book store.  The way I look for new books to read myself, I want to put that energy into finding new books for my classroom.  Summer goals….

This dialogue, conversation, digging in, promotes two things that I believe so deeply in.  Number one, I am not the gate-keeper or the keeper of knowledge.  Kids can construct knowledge themselves and with each other in deep and meaningful ways.  Number 2, we are becoming citizens, who we want to be when we grow up, right now in second grade.  If we want to be thoughtful, critical, justice seekers when we grow up, no need to wait until then.

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Changing Learning Narratives

I have been on a little blog hiatus and I do apologize 🙂

This week I have been thinking alot about my student’s thinking.  What do they think of school?  What do they think the purpose is?  Most importantly, What do they think of themselves?

On Monday we went on a field trip to a local park to continue our study of insect life cycles.  Teachers from Raleigh Parks and Rec were there to guide us as we discussed life cycles, acted out insects, caught insects, and caught wildlife in the pond.  The kids were digging their hands through mud and water to find tadpoles, frog eggs, snails, fish, dragonfly nymphs and so much more.  They thought this was the best day EVER!  Is everyday at school the best day ever?  Unfortunately I know the answer is no and I know it would be an impossible yes.  Yet I still wonder, are there more great days than OK days?IMG_8695 IMG_8687 IMG_8683 IMG_8670

Alright so we go from the best day EVER back to the classroom….  How does three digit subtraction compete with that?  My biggest take away from recent readings is that agency matters, small changes in language matter.  In the classroom children must be able to count on some structure, some regular time to read, write, and do math.  They also have to be able to count on respect and freedom from personal judgement.  At the park, everyone was free, everyone was respected for what they found, and no one was better than anyone else.

It drives me nuts when children shout out “this is easy!”  I constantly respond by saying “what if you didnt think it was easy and you heard someone shout that?  How would that make you feel?”  Instead of saying “don’t say that!”  I am trying to create empathy, trying to point out that our words are powerful and it matters what we say!  I have to take my own advice here and position myself as an equal with my students and give them more autonomy.  It’s easy to get bogged down in the plan and not want to venture off course.

I read an anecdote about a child that would not pay attention while the teacher was reading aloud.  The teacher simply asked if he would like to go and read by himself and the child did.  The teacher later tried to learn from the child why the group work wasn’t engaging for him.  This BLEW my mind!  I so often am hounding a child to pay attention instead of letting them choose and then figuring out what went wrong.  I think if I asked a student if they would rather read by themself they would look at me with a shocked expression…I think I’ll try it!  The point is autonomy.  Giving the child choice and letting them explore in that.  If I am teaching something and they chose to go and do something else and they miss the lesson, then what?  Do you think they will learn that they missed something that everyone else got?  Or will they just fall behind?  I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a shot!

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