place-based essay writing and content area literacy instruction for preservice secondary teachers

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    Mellinee Lesley | Marian MatthewsPlace-based inquiry can

    help preservice secondary

    teachers to understand


    applications for content area


    Place-Based Essay Writing and Content Area Literacy Instruction for Preservice Secondary Teachers

    For many practicing and preservice teachers, the term content area literacy raises questions about the relevance and applicability of literacy in subject area learning. Often perceived as teacher-directed study skills and textbook-based reading strategies, content area literacy conjures up images of graphic orga-nizers and heuristics that constitute little more than busy work and drain the amount of time available for content area instruction. Part of the resistance secondary-level preservice teachers express toward content area literacy comes from their notions of the kinds of texts and curricular material they will be teaching. Preservice teachers often tell us, Im just going to be teaching math (or musical performance, physical education, cooking) or There arent any textbooks or reading in my content area. With such implicit definitions of curriculum, reading, and text, it is no wonder that so many secondary-level preservice teachers express resistance to learning about content area literacy and view it as merely adding material in their curriculum that will detract from subject matter information (Bean, 1997; deBeck & Feret, 2004; Lesley, Watson, & Elliot, 2007).

    As teacher educators involved with teaching content area literacy methods, we try to encourage broad applications of literacy within content area instruc-tion. Our classes are filled with students seeking secondary-level certification in a range of content areas including mathematics, English, history, science, music, physical education, art, agriculture, dance, family and consumer sci-ences, and foreign languages. To address concerns like the ones raised previ-ously with such a cross section of majors, we strive to teach through authentic learning, sans prefabricated formulas created in isolation from the contexts of intended use.

    As part of our instruction in content area literacy, we seek to (1) mak[e] the discourse expectations explicit within the content area, (2) us[e] literacy as a tool for learning content matter, and (3) improv[e] students acuity with literacy skills through content area learning (Lesley, 2004/2005, p. 323; see also Vacca & Vacca, 2005). To invoke authentic learning that can ad-dress these three goals we have incorporated place-based writing and inquiry

    Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52(6) March 2009doi:10.1598/JA AL.52.6.6 2009 International Reading Association (pp. 523533)

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    with our curriculum. We believe place-based writ-ing fits well with the apprenticeship model (Braunger, Donahue, Evans, & Galguera, 2005) and other ap-proaches concerned with discipline-focused content area literacy instruction for preservice teachers. We also believe place-based writing supports models of teaching content area literacy through multiple texts (e.g., Walker & Bean, 2005). In what follows, we de-fine place-based content area literacy and discuss the ways we use place-based writing and inquiry to help preservice teachers understand authentic content area literacy pedagogy.

    Content Area LiteracyMethods of content area literacy are predicated on the notion that students need explicit instruction in reading and writing about content area materials to successfully comprehend those materials. As such, content area literacy is contingent upon the norms, traditions, Discourses, questions, and modes of in-quiry in a specific field of study (Brozo & Simpson, 2007; Moje et al., 2004). Theories of content area lit-eracy also discard the belief that students who read and write successfully in one content area can read and write successfully in all content areas. Because literacy is shaped by the linguistic and sociocultural nuances found within each academic discipline, con-tent area literacy is ultimately a situated experience. In effect, content area literacy cannot be divorced from the unique Discourses of individual content areas (Braunger et al., 2005).

    Vacca and Vacca (2005) defined content area lit-eracy as the ability to use reading, writing, talking, listening, and viewing to learn subject matter in a given discipline (p. 7). Although concise in its de-scription, this definition involves much more than comprehension of print-based text. In fact, current views of content area literacy present a multifaceted perspective of literacy in which the types of literacies found in any one content area are constituted by mul-tiple sign systems, texts, technologies, nomenclature, and ways of reasoning (see, for example, Alvermann & Heron, 2001).

    As the field has moved away from content area literacy definitions that relegate notions of literacy instruction to textbook learning and moved toward

    definitions that incorporate theories of adolescent lit-

    eracy, critical literacy, multiple literacies, disciplinary

    discourse, and principled practice, the possibilities for

    explorations of place-based writing and inquiry readily

    emerge (Brozo & Simpson, 2007; Lesley, 2004/2005;

    Stevens & Bean, 2007; Sturtevant et al., 2006). To

    see the connection between place-based writing and

    content area literacy instruction, it is important to be-

    gin with the expansive views of content area literacy

    described in this body of literature.

    Place-Based Content Area Literacy and LearningPlace-based pedagogy is essentially the practice of ex-

    amining physical settings through various forms of

    inquiry. Place-based pedagogy lends itself to learning

    in all content areas because the world is constructed

    through content area knowledge. The places we live in

    and know are filled with opportunities for content area

    learning. Restaurants, stores, museums, graveyards,

    courthouses, ponds, sidewalks, walls, rivers, fields,

    forests, grandparents homes, public parks, and schools

    all contain artifacts of every content area taught in

    educational settings. Place-based learning is grounded

    in teaching for relevance, understanding the here and

    now, and seeing how the present is connected to what

    has come before. There are no radical ideas motivat-

    ing community-oriented pedagogy such as this, just

    deep thinking about what education is for and how

    teachers can best facilitate the construction of signifi-

    cant student understanding (Theobald, 1997, p. 146).

    Place-based teaching can help students grasp the

    unity of things that a focus on teaching discrete skills

    has all but eliminated from the classroom. Even be-

    fore the recent emphasis on high-stakes testing, Orr

    (1994) noted how fragmented education had become:

    We have fragmented the world into bits and pieces called disciplines and subdisciplines, hermetically sealed from other such disciplines. As a result, after 12 or 16 or 20 years of education, most students graduate without any broad, integrated sense of the unity of things. The consequences for their personhood and for the planet are large.... True intelligence is long range and aims toward wholeness. (p. 11)

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    Orr was prescient in his predictions that we were becoming more and more ignorant of the things we need to know to live sustainably on the earth, as the current understanding of the issues of global warm-ing has increasingly demonstrated. He stated strongly that students need to know how to think in whole systems, how to find connections, how to ask big questions, and how to separate the trivial from the important (p. 23).

    However, this kind of teaching is not just impor-tant for understanding and wholeness alone. It is im-portant for the attitudes that are developed and the sense of inspiration that occurs outside of classroom settings. Inspiration is one of the keys to engage-ment in learning. This sense of inspiration is often absent from the secondary classroom where emphasis is typically placed on context-less, textbook-focused instruction that deals in excess abstractions, blandness based on a fear of controversy, and removal from lived experience or local issues and concerns.

    In place-based learning, students can become actors in making and remaking their communities. Literacy is vital to this kind of culture-making (Robbins, 2005). Robbins described literacy not as a skill but as a purposeful activity that begins through writing. We introduce content area literacy through place-based writing, and we encourage preservice teachers to become actively engaged in culture-making in their own communities. By beginning our classes with place-based writing, we hope to inspire preservice teachers to focus on broader issues and understandings of literacy in their disciplines as they investigate the possibilities of content area literacy methods.

    In order for educators to begin to think about constructing content area literacy pedagogy grounded in place, there are two key requirements that must oc-cur: (1) primary source research and (2) inquiry over time. Preservice teachers are often amazed by what they discover through the process of repeat


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