Literacy expert shares thoughts on the transformative power of reading and writing at UMaine

Mary Ehrenworth

Literacy is a fundamental human right with the ability to transform the lives of children, families and communities. That was the message of a daylong professional development workshop held Sept. 26 at the University of Maine. Dr. Mary Ehrenworth, deputy director of Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a literacy think tank at Columbia University, spoke to more than 200 Maine educators and school administrators about the difference they can make in kids’ lives, just by teaching them to read and write well.

The workshop was offered by Maine Partnerships in Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery, both outreach programs of the College of Education and Human Development. MPCL offers professional development to K-12 educators and literacy leadership teams statewide, aimed at continually improving instruction and increasing student performance. Reading Recovery is an early intervention program that provides one-to-one tutoring for students in first grade who are the lowest literacy achievers.

Below is an edited conversation with Dr. Ehrenworth about her presentation and the importance of school-university partnerships like the ones offered at UMaine.

The title of your talk today is “Teaching Writing as a Transformative Force: For the Child, For the School and for the World.” Can you talk about what you mean by “writing as a transformative force”?

Mary Ehrenworth: I think one thing is that, we think a lot—and I think Maine’s going to be thinking about it increasingly, just like the rest of the country—of literacy as a human right. And just the act of teaching kids to be readers and writers is going to open up doors of power for them. Actually, when you look at the equity around it, it’s just not fair right now. Some kids have a lot of privilege around that and some kids don’t. And we want to narrow that gap so that all kids get literacy as a basic human right. That’s one thing that we’re looking at. And then we’re also interested in kids learning to tell their own stories, teach others, and argue on behalf of themselves and others so that they can do good in the world.

When you say some kids have more privilege around literacy, what are some factors that lead some kids to have more advantages in that area than others?

ME: I mean the biggest single factor is the quality of the teacher. The teachers who are really knowledgeable are going to grow kids who are really knowledgeable. So, like Doug Reeves and Michael Flynn, they’re both researchers in school change and school reform, and they talk about how by fifth or sixth grade what looks like differences in educational ability are really differences in educational experience. And that’s not OK. So this notion that kids don’t need good classrooms, they need good schools. We have to democratize the knowledge that teachers have in the building.

And when you talk about getting kids to tell their own stories, teach others, and argue for themselves, how do you go about doing that?

ME: Well, that’s something that I think the University of Maine really shares with us (Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University), which is the belief that if you want to raise the level of kids’ writing, you start by raising the level of teacher writing. We have an extraordinarily high level of writing we’re trying to do with kids now, and a lot of teachers need time to work on themselves as writers if they’re going to be able to teach it. So, if a teacher’s going to be a mentor-writer, she needs to be able to work on her own writing in the company of other colleagues. It’s not just really strong instructional methods, it’s also literally having time to work on your own writing.

What do you tell teachers to do to improve their own writing?

ME: They need to be studying together. That’s one of the first things, is saying that I’m not going to try to do this by myself. I’m going to study with colleagues. They need to read a lot of really powerful writing. And they have to have a kind of research mindset. So, when they’re working with kids, the sense that I know that what I’m doing is working if my kids are becoming visibly more powerful, and if I don’t see that it doesn’t matter how much I love what I’m doing, I might need to let it go. And you know work with other colleagues to do more research.

What are some of the main points you want teachers to remember when they’re teaching writing to students?

ME: That you can’t get better at writing unless you have time to write. I think looking at schools, sometimes we’re asking kids to do really high levels of reading and writing work and they’re not getting any time to work on it. Especially as kids get older. So, in a kindergarten class you would never dream of saying to a kindergartner, “Good luck. Go do this on your own.” Right? But by the time they’re in seventh grade, we say that all the time. You get this assignment and they’re supposed to just go do it, or a 12th grader, just go do it. Whereas actually, they need instruction and they need someone showing them here’s a tip about how to do it well.

What are some of the best practices for writing teachers?

ME: I’m trying to think if it’s different from best practices for teachers in general. I think having a mindset that is both collaborative and a revision mindset. Revision isn’t just for kids. We’re revising our own teaching all the time. I think having a notion that you can learn from colleagues, you can learn from universities, you can learn from published writers in the world. And you’re never done. You never get it. You’re always trying to say, “What can I do that could be even stronger? What can I do to make my kids feel more powerful?” So that’s one. And then, a really important practice is listening to kids and seeing them. Each child is really, really different. And so, developing your ability to be able to listen to kids. That I think is one of the most important practices.

You brought up revision as a best practice for teachers to improve their instruction, but what advice do you have for teaching kids about how to revise their writing?

ME: Actually kids really benefit from explicit strategies, like, “Here’s three things that writers do to actually revise their writing.” They crave that and they’ll do it. They get better in front of your eyes if they get that kind of help.

What advice do you have for teachers who are struggling with how to reach students when it comes to literacy. For example, when students say, “Well, I’m just not a good writer. I’m not interested in being a writer” or “I don’t like to read”?

ME: The first thing to understand about that is, when kids say “I don’t like reading or I don’t like writing,” it’s code for I find this hard. There’s no kid who doesn’t want to be powerful at reading and writing. It’s like when a kid says, “I don’t like math or science.” There’s no kid that doesn’t want to be an astrophysicist. That’s code for I find this hard. So, just recognizing that, and then saying, “Something about this experience has been hard for this child. So I need to be able to talk to this child and say, ‘I understand that this is going to be hard, but I’m going to be able to help you. And it might take a lot of time and a lot of hard work. But you’re going to get better at it.’” I think the other thing is, knowing that there’s no magic pill. It’s not like kids get better in 20 minutes, right? It takes a lot of hard work on the part of a child and the adults around them to work on things. In the same way that if I was going to work on something like tennis. It would take a lot of time for me to get better at it. So, it’s not an immediate pill. There’s no kit you can buy. There’s no box set. It’s going to take time, and expert instruction, and a lot of practice, and a lot of love. You can’t discipline them into being better readers and writers. You have to love them into it.

Finally, can you talk a little bit more about the importance of programs like Maine Partnerships in Comprehensive Literacy and Reading Recovery that we have here at University of Maine?

ME: I think partnerships with universities are some of the most important things that you can do, because it develops this revision mindset, this research mindset, this collaborative mindset. And your teachers here, I have to say, this group today, was one of the most literate and powerful groups of teachers I’ve worked with. And I do believe it’s because they have a relationship with the university, so they are already reading, and thinking, and talking all the time. It’s really remarkable.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 207.581.3751