LANGUAGE ARTS RESEARCH IN CONNECTICUT: An Agenda for the Present and the Future

Douglas Kaufman, Ph.D.

Almost twenty years ago a literacy revolution hit our schools. When Donald Graves published Writing: Teachers and Children at Work in 1983, he prompted an avalanche of research and writing that transformed reading and writing instruction in the United States. Work by Nancie Atwell (1987), Lucy Calkins (1986), Linda Rief (1992), and others have promoted classrooms where students choose their own reading books and writing topics, have time to read and write in class, receive rich response from peers while they create, self-evaluate to grow, revise work, and bring their personal lives into the classroom. We have altered the curriculum to support the constructivist notion that people learn by building off their own knowledge and interests. Literacy instruction has radically changed in the past two decades.

Or has it? As a researcher I have been in many classrooms like the ones described above where students perform brilliantly, but I have also seen many other teachers struggle to implement conditions they believe are better for their students. “Nanci Atwell’s classroom looks good on paper,” a teacher once said to me, “but it doesn’t work in real life. I tried it. It’s too hard; my students are different.”

I know this isn’t true. There are simply too many diverse classrooms that successfully support students’ own real reading and writing efforts. But I also know from where this teacher spoke, for there are many fine teachers out there who have struggled mightily to create the “Atwellian” classroom and consider themselves to have failed.

My current research agenda is devoted to learning the differences between teachers who have successfully created classrooms where students take charge of their learning and teachers who want to do so but have struggled (Kaufman, 2000, in press). In the following paragraphs I outline some of the areas of this agenda that I see as important to understanding how to create successful progressive literacy programs. What conditions promote literacy learning and why do teachers have trouble creating them?

Many researchers have suggested that methodologies, strategies, or subject matter may not be at the center of our instruction. Rather, in more student -centered classrooms it is important to first focus on creating conditions within which independent learning can occur. Brian Cambourne defines conditions as “particular modes of being” that enables students to learn language (1995, p. 184). Three of the most famous of these conditions, which were first introduced by former first-grade teacher Mary Ellen Giacobbe (Atwell, 1987), are 1) extensive time to read and write in class, 2) choice (or ownership) of reading materials and writing topics, and 3) rich response to works in progress. Others have suggested that classroom creators provide extensive modeling of work, high expectations, and many opportunities for evaluation (Cambourne, 1995; Graves 1994). In my own work, I identify two conditions that often pose a challenge for new teachers to create: organization that offers boundaries but also promotes student movement, and student-teacher relationships built on rapport that encourage the students to discuss their work and their lives (Kaufman, 2000). (I’ll discuss these two presently.)

Beginning with conditions rather than methods or strategies are important. When we focus on methods our teaching often becomes formulaic, which often prevents us from acting in the best interests of the student because the “steps” of the method preempt the student’s individual needs. However, when we focus on conditions we work to create fruitful learning environment where methods arise from the needs of the students. It is becoming clear, though, that in many classrooms where teachers want to create more progressive pedagogy, the focus is still on formula. We need to learn why this is the case.

Why do students have difficulty accepting the conditions of choice and time?

While we have come to understand that choice, time, and response are vital to students’ positive literacy learning experiences, we have not fully explored all the implications of implementing these conditions in the classroom. These new freedoms often terrify them. They feel unsafe and directionless because, for the first time, no one is telling them exactly what to do. When exuberant teachers offer these conditions, they often forget children’s unfamiliarity with freedom and then wonder why many of them resist or rebel. The result is often frustration and failure. We need more research about how to help students welcome freedom as they operate within their zones of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978). How do we best guide them until they can function on their own, raise expectations, and then guide again?

How does progressive classroom organization and management successfully promote student movement rather than inhibit it?

Many studies show that new teachers’ primary concern is classroom management (Andrade & Hakim, 1995; Boostrom, 1991; Doyle, 1986; Jones & Vesilind, 1995). Often, this concern compels them to focus on rule systems that prevent students from moving: the teacher provides information to students while they remain passive in their seats, receiving it. This feels very comfortable for most teachers because it offers them control. Potential disruptions are minimized.

However, classroom conditions such as choice, time, and response actually promote independent student movement; they require students to be more mobile. Therefore, the management systems that some teachers have in place may directly contradict their philosophical groundings.

So, the question becomes, how do we not only prepare students for more physical and intellectual independence but also limit chaos? My current research looks at how language arts workshop teachers organize and manage their classrooms in ways that promote student movement that is educative and efficient. Early findings suggest that successful workshop teachers who encourage student movement 1) focus on teaching logistics and procedures more than they do rules of behavior (which channels movement into productive activity} and 2) spend an extraordinary amount of time at the beginning of the year on organization and procedures until students understand and use them independently. This focus sometimes takes the place of more direct reading and writing instruction (Kaufman, 2000), but allows students to attend more fully to language arts issues after procedures become automatic (Kaufman, in press).

How does technology influence literacy learning?

New classroom technology innovations appear every month, and many teachers are behind the curve (Pianfetti, 2000). Students seem to know much more about the Internet and related technologies than we feel we ever will. But the Internet, in particular, has the potential to offer students expotentially greater amounts of information. As a researcher, I have two questions in particular that I want to answer: I) How does this increased access to information influence the independent student motion learning that I suggest defines successful literacy learning? 2) Does technology help students not only access information better but also think about it better? This second question is crucial. We know that information access will not slow down, but the information will be useless if students do not have the time to ponder, experiment with, weigh, discuss, and challenge it. Is information from technology being used well?

What is the impact of high-stakes testing on literacy instruction?

Any teacher in Connecticut will tell you that the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) have radically influenced their instruction. Particularly in the elementary grades, teachers feel forced to abandon teaching and learning practices they believe are essential in order to focus their attention on the narrow band of literacy knowledge that the standardized tests are designed to measure. Many administrators feel their jobs are on the line if their schools’ scores do not rise. My questions become: I) Do the high-stakes nature of these tests diminish necessary literacy instruction in areas that are not covered by the CMT or CAPT tests and 2) How can we prove, or disprove, that the Connecticut standardized tests have actually improved literacy learning in the long term? At this point it appears that politicians and fringe groups have used the testing issue to promote agendas that may not have anything to do with actual good teaching and learning practices. A great deal of study is needed to move past political agendas and learn how these tests actually influence students’ literacy growth.

What are the needs of literacy learners in urban areas?

This research issue is closely connected to the previous one, for it is in urban areas like Hartford and New Haven that test scores are the lowest, and where superintendents have vowed to bring them up, no matter the cost.

However, another important issue that arises is how the greater cultural and ethnic diversity of Connecticut’s urban areas influence-and are influenced by-certain literacy education practices. For example, Lisa Delpit (1995) charges that process approaches to writing serve minority students poorly in that they are framed in the rules and practices of the “culture of power.” These rules and practices may appear obvious to those in power but may also be decontextualized and thus less apparent to those with.less power. Delpit’s work challenges us to examine the tenets of current literacy practices for their universal appeal. It may be that the reason many urban districts have adopted “back to basics” approaches is because we have not yet found ways to recognize all students’ differences, whether they are cultural, ethnic, geographic, or economic.

An Invitation

In order to be truly effective, I believe, a research agenda has to have the interest and support of a wide variety of committed literacy educators across the state. My agenda by no means encompasses all the literacy issues important to Connecticut’s teachers and learners; it is my personal beginning. As one who is relatively new to Connecticut, I invite you to share your own agendas, ideas, and concerns with me so that I can learn more about our specific needs. What questions gnaw at you when you think about literacy learning in Connecticut? What problems most need to be addressed? I welcome classroom teachers, researchers, and other committed individuals to contact me so that we may begin to collaborate and help move literacy in Connecticut forward.

Douglas Kaufman
Reading and Language Arts Center University of Connecticut
Neag School of Education
249 Glenbrook Road, Unit 2033
Storrs, Connecticut 06269-2033
(860) 486-0268
email: [email protected]


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Kaufmann, D. (In press). Organizing and managing the language arts workshop: A matter of motion. Language Arts.

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