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Attention is currently focused on effective practices in literacy learning. By studying what effective teachers do, together with how and why they do it, researchers are building a body of knowledge to inform successful literacy instruction (Block, Oakar, & Hurt, 2002; Pressley, Allington, Wharton-McDonald, Block, & Morrow, 2001; Pressley, Rankin, & Yokoi, 1996; Stewart, 2002c). An important area of effective literacy practice concerns the influence of classroom discoveries that may seem small when compared to overall educational issues but that often transform the big picture in classrooms and schools to enhance literacy learning. This article connects some of my classroom discoveries and reflections--made during 10 years of practitioner research--to educational literature, and it encourages other teachers to reflect upon, articulate, and share their own discoveries that help them get to the heart of teaching--engaging students in real learning.
Teachers make discoveries when they look for the positives
Every classroom is filled with people and situations that are both demanding and exciting. Teachers must decide whether to focus on what is wrong in order to "fix" things, or they must use what is right as a springboard to delve into deeper learning. Allen and Mason (1989) described these two ways of seeing and suggested that it is our job as teachers to reduce risks for children, to take risks with our students, and to empower literacy learning. In classrooms that focus on positives, all students are respected and regarded as important individuals with worthwhile contributions. Research studies from Knapp et al. (1995) and Ladson-Billings (1994) gave examples of teachers who have this positive focus. Knapp et al. found that teachers who (a) are aware of their students' backgrounds, (b) have high expectations of their students--regardless of their backgrounds, (c) tailor instruction to fit the needs of their students, and (d) demonstrate that they recognize and value the knowledge and strengths of all students in their classrooms are more likely to have students who become engaged in and benefit from academic learning. Ladson-Billings described this positive focus in terms of the many aspects of "culturally relevant teaching" (p. 23), among which are aiming for excellence, viewing teaching as an art, recognizing that knowledge is "re-created, recycled, and shared by teachers and students alike" (p. 25), and believing that all students can succeed. In the culturally relevant teaching she described, Ladson-Billings presented teachers who made connections to their students' lives, who built with them equitable and flexible relationships that extended outside the classroom, and who attended to the positives of both people and situations.
On a more personal level, I remember how I tried to refocus my own second-grade classroom away from the bickering, tattling, poor work habits, and complaining that often plagued the beginning of school. Four small discoveries helped me change the big picture of what was happening in our room so that deeper, more productive learning occurred. First, I discovered the importance of all of us looking for "good things" in our classroom. We talked about what some good things could be (e.g., working hard, getting along with peers, being helpful to someone who was having a problem, creating a strong story or illustration, solving a problem in a different way). Then we actively searched--every day--for these good things, taking pictures, writing, drawing, and talking about them.
Next, I discovered that making photography an integral part of our classroom enhanced the quality of our lives together. I gave students many opportunities to catch their classmates on film doing something good. We discussed the two important elements necessary for getting snapshots of good things: We needed smart people who were working hard to learn as much as they could every day, and we needed smart photographers who could recognize and capture on film good things about people and events. By giving as much attention to photographers as to the subjects of photos, we helped shift our focus from what was wrong in our room to what was right. We took pictures only of good things.
The third discovery I made was accidental. Because we had more photos of good things than room to display them, the children suggested putting them into a class book. On each photo we wrote the photographer's name and a sentence or two about the good thing occurring in that picture. We put in as much detail as we could fit on the page (see Figure on the following page). Our book, Celebrations!, became much more than a place to display the photos we had collected. It documented all of the things of which we were proud during our first semester together. The children rushed to pull it out to show and explain to visitors what we did in our class. Every night a different child took it home to share with family and friends. It became an amazing public relations tool that enhanced relations between the school and the community. The words and pictures of the book explained the different ways we worked together, and children sharing it talked with family and friends about …