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Taking on Social Literacy in the Classroom

By Peg Grafwallner
 | Jan 26, 2016

57279871_x300We go out for dinner, and the waiter doesn’t greet us. We go to the grocery store, and the bagger doesn’t ask us if we want paper or plastic. We go to the drive-through, and the attendant doesn’t make eye contact when handing us our change.

What were once referred to as “manners” are now called “soft skills” and, if you didn’t know this already, many young people don’t have them.

We’re quick to blame society for these missing skills. Obviously, these individuals were never taught these basic, yet vital, behaviors. It’s someone else’s fault and someone else’s problem.

But it’s not someone else’s fault, and it’s not someone else’s problem.

As teachers, we have been entrusted with the education of our students, but the term “education” has taken on a new meaning. Today, education means the whole child, not just the academics.

Bill Daggett, author of “Five Trends That Are Transforming Education,” writes, “We know that there is more to life than the core subjects of math, science, English language arts, and social studies. Personal and interpersonal skills—such as responsibility, self-management, integrity, honesty, collaboration, and leadership—are critical for success in college, career, and life. Strong schools build these skills into their curricula and create educational cultures and relationships that value more than just academics.”

As Mr. Daggett suggests, it is imperative for all teachers to embed the soft skills into their daily lesson planning. Creating lesson plans where the skills are rooted in prereading, during reading and after reading strategies is no longer just a good idea. Rather, helping students navigate confidently in the world has become essential.

Implementing “leadership” in a typical literacy lesson may seem like a daunting task, but by scaffolding the concept and using cross-curricular literacy strategies, students, who usually tend to compartmentalize their learning, will be able to transfer the concept of leadership and the reading strategies to other disciplines.

Begin with the end in mind: What is it that you want students to learn about leadership? What is it about leadership that is so vital, so critical, that you are going to create, develop, and implement an entire lesson plan around this single notion? We want our young people to lead by example and inspire others to have the courage to defend their convictions. So let’s end the lesson asking students to write a reflection based on one of these ideas: Explain what it means to lead by example and ask students to offer an illustration in their own life, or ask students to explain what it means to inspire others and to highlight a situation where they have offered hope, or ask students to show how one can illustrate the courage to defend their convictions in their school or in their neighborhood. Make leadership the goal, but use reading strategies to make it happen.

Scaffolding this conceptual lesson into prereading, during reading, and after reading strategies helps students stay focused and engaged. Leadership brings all sorts of discussion and personal reflections to the table; let’s get students motivated about the idea!

Prereading strategies

Begin with Janet Allen’s Wordstorming to Anticipate Content reading strategy. Allen’s alphabet grid validates what students already know about leadership. Using an interactive whiteboard, ask students to give you one word that defines a leader. As they offer their examples, write the words under the correct letter. By activating their prior knowledge of leadership, you will soon realize what your students think about leadership and what they understand leadership to be. In this way, you can determine where you need to start—either with a basic definition of leadership using rather pedestrian examples or more abstract analysis and synthesis.

During reading strategies

Now that you have an idea as to your students’ understanding regarding leadership, you can develop your next step. How about giving your students a reading choice? As examples, they could read a brief article about Will Allen of Growing Power and his desire to bring healthy food to those less fortunate, or they might read about Fr. Greg Boyle’s work with gangs on Homeboy Industries, or students might read about Diane Latiker and her work with homeless youth on Kids Off the Block. When you give students the opportunity to choose their reading (digital or print), engagement and motivation will follow. As students read, ask them to annotate, thereby initiating questions and comments from their reading.

After reading strategies

Once the reading is complete, encourage students to share what they have read. Embolden students to use their questions from their annotation as starting points for discussion. Now go back to the beginning. Give students class time to demonstrate their thoughts in a reflective paper—showcasing what they’ve learned about leadership and asking them for evidence based on the articles they’ve read. In that way, students have had the opportunity to relate this conceptual topic to their own lives and, more important, they have used research-based best practice strategies to learn about a theoretical subject.

So what is it about leadership that is so vital, so critical, that you are have created, developed, and implemented an entire lesson plan around this one concept? Students began with their own thoughts on leadership, thereby validating what they already knew and giving them a chance to listen and learn from their classmates. Next, they chose to read about other leaders by interacting with the text, asking questions and making personal connections. Finally, with time and support, students were able to take all of the information gathered and craft their own ideas and philosophies about leadership.

Next time, let’s not blame society for these transgressions; rather, let’s focus on our own classroom and offer opportunities to assist our students in developing manners to be lauded and respected.

peg grafwallner headshotPeg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.



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  7. <a href=""></a> | Mar 09, 2016
    From this point, we gain the concept that learning to read and write is a social practice rather than an individual skill. As will be discussed further below, those who are considered literate in any community are those who have apprenticed into certain social practices.
  8. <a href=""> - Online Essay Writer</a> | Feb 08, 2016
    Very regularly, perusing guideline is deferred on the grounds that educators trust that understudies in their classroom are excessively youthful, making it impossible to learn proficiency aptitudes. The safeguard that is regularly advanced is that it is not "formatively fitting" direction..
  9. T. Knight | Jan 27, 2016
    I always enjoy reading Ms. Grafwallner's articles. She is inciteful and offers practical examples of best practices. 
  10. Amy Koch | Jan 27, 2016
    It's not just young people. I was just commenting on the lack of customer service skills, or "manners," from the receptionists during a recent medical clinic visit. These are people in their 20s or 30s. However, if adults do not have manners, kids will not learn them. While it in one way it is overwhelming to think that this, too, falls on teachers, if we take the opportunity to incorporate leadership skills or manners into our reading instruction, it is not something extra.
  11. Rob Stevens | Jan 26, 2016
    Great read, innovative look on bridging the gap between knowledge and application. 

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