At first glance, the concepts of rigor and accessibility might seem to be at odds with one another, if not mutually exclusive. How can a curriculum that is designed to be accessible to students of all ability levels simultaneously be rigorous enough to challenge students to do their best thinking? Doesn’t accessibility dilute rigor? The answer is an unequivocal “No!”—provided you construct a learning environment that both supports and challenges all students. Let’s take a closer look at proven strategies from the literacy block we can use to make classrooms accessible.
Social Emotional Learning is Key
Of primary importance is the incorporation of social and emotional learning into every lesson. In order to engage students in learning, the social environment in which learning takes place must be intentionally constructed. You can create a collaborative classroom environment that is respectful and supportive of all students’ voices and ideas by establishing norms and providing consistent, intentional language to scaffold students’ communication with one another during partner work. When students sit in a circle and can see each other as they share their opinions, the social aspect of learning is being cultivated. Once students sense that they are welcome to participate, they become willing to take academic risks such as thinking deeply, explaining their ideas, or considering the merit of responses that might seem different than or at odds with their own.
Second, including quality children’s literature as read-alouds and mentor texts affords all students access to the magic and meaning of stories. As they listen to captivating and well-written books, students are exposed to the transformative power of a story, and begin to aspire to the possibility that they too can read and write. Reading aloud to students-no matter their age-helps ensure that all students, regardless of their individual level of competence in reading and writing, can be transported as part of a learning community to see their own potential.
Partner Work Deepens the Learning
Third, partner work makes content accessible by creating opportunities for students to share ideas with peers, both through stimulating conversation about a text and by sharing a piece of writing with a partner. As they rehearse, practice, and refine their thoughts through conversation and writing, students have an opportunity to consider their own ideas in a powerful and meaningful way. Rather than discouraging student talk, teachers in collaborative classrooms recognize that conversation between students is a powerful way to help them glean useful insights that would be much more difficult to discover if they had to do their work silently, in isolation. New knowledge is accessible only when there is a means to explore and discover it, and those learning experiences are a hallmark of a collaborative classroom environment. In Collaborative Literacy, the social skills critical to partner work are taught, reinforced, and reflected upon in every lesson. (See evidence of this here.)
The Critical Role of Conferring
Fourth, conferring plays a critical role in differentiating instruction and assessing students. As a teacher, you can provide thoughtful, deliberate feedback and gather critical information to inform and differentiate instruction. When students confer with the teacher and with each other, they learn to communicate respectfully and listen closely. They also have the opportunity to discover different interpretations of literature and gain important feedback about their audience to inform their writing. By devoting time to conferring- between teacher and student, and between students-all students have support as they strive to master a particular aspect of writing or reading.
Revisit and Revise in Context
Finally, providing lessons in context and encouraging students to frequently revisit their writing and reading helps them perceive the skills they need to grow into successful writers and readers as both meaningful and useful. Skills that serve students’ purposes are likely to be more readily understood and employed than those that seem arbitrary or devoid of meaning. For example, rather than learning about quotation marks or capitalization out of context, consider incorporating this learning when students are most ready to access it: when getting ready to proofread a piece of writing for publication. When constructing a lesson around a certain read-aloud, be judicious about the focus of the lesson and give students the opportunity to revisit the text over several days or weeks. Don’t feel compelled to pick apart every aspect of the text in one lesson or one unit. As one teacher put it, “Each week there is a focus, and everything you do builds and scaffolds on this focus. It’s not sucking every single possible lesson out of one story. It’s not sporadic”¦offer more depth as opposed to breadth.”
Read Part 2 of this series here.