Some key teaching concepts remain true, even across the world.
DR. LAURA RIGOLOSI
Curriculum & Literacy Specialist
Literacy is defined as “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write”, and in education, literacy is often perceived as something teachers “teach” their students. But how can teachers increase their own literacy? And why is it important?
Along with a team of CPET educators, we recently partnered with teacher leaders in the MinHang section of Shanghai, focusing on teacher research. With the goal of preparing teachers to write a research proposal by the week’s end, we spent five days in December exploring the key aspects of teacher research, including research questions and rationale, data collection and analysis, literature review, and drawing conclusions.
During our week of preparing teachers for research, we were reminded of the various types of literacy which extend beyond traditional reading and writing to include digital, media, computer, and content literacy, to name a few. For our purposes, we focused on the “literacy” of research, and found that key concepts remained true, even in Shanghai.
Humor helps just about everything
As we explored the research process, we began by brainstorming various teacher research questions that interested our group. Since we don’t speak Mandarin, we needed a translator to communicate, and were lucky enough to have Kaya Wang alongside us, who loved to laugh and make our participants laugh! Kaya posed this research question in our brainstorm: In what ways does teacher humor impact student participation? As facilitators, we know a good question when we see one, so we highlighted this question and used it for the rest of the week as we modeled each aspect of teacher research.
What a difference laughter makes in any classroom! When we asked our group of teachers to complete a model review of literature on the impact of teacher humor, their research, in and of itself, became funny. By the time they began practicing research using questions of their own, they understood the process of developing and analyzing a compelling question, and they had a bit of fun, too.
As facilitators, we realized how powerful it is to sneak the concept of humor into our teaching. It made all of the participants want to participate, and allowed them to understand the concepts we were teaching within the context of humor. When others walked past our classroom and heard laughing, they took a look inside...was this the classroom for “teacher research?” Why was there so much laughter? It made us examine how crucial the model is, and how delightful classrooms can be if humor is involved.
If you don't know, you don't know
While in Shanghai, we spent one evening at a grand spa with pools, baths, reading rooms, a dining area — it was lovely. Remember, this was before Coronavirus, so we had none of the concerns we would now have about going to a spa.
When it was our turn to get a massage, the masseuse was asking questions (in Mandarin) and when we gestured that we didn’t understand, she spoke louder (we shrugged) and even slower (we shrugged again). We had no translation book and no phones on us (everything was in our lockers), so there was no way to translate. In an act of desperation, she took out a worn, laminated sheet to help communicate — except the characters on it were in Mandarin, so this did not help!
When we discussed our spa experience later, we laughed about the misunderstandings (did we mean to get scrubbed down with a loofah sponge?), but also discussed how often this dynamic happens in classrooms. There are so many students in our care who do not have a strong background in English, and while speaking slowly and loudly may seem like a way to bridge a language gap, it won’t be helpful if the listener does not have a solid foundation in the language.
If only there had been basic images or a few key words on that laminated piece of paper, we would have been able to better understand our options and the fees associated with them. (And I’m not sure we would have chosen the painful loofah scrub.) While this is not a new concept, we revisit it often, especially when creating curriculum or trying to reach online learners. When creating content, we remind ourselves of our time at the spa, and strive to incorporate clean, useful visual cues for those we're teaching.
Great teachers make great students
At its core, research is challenging. When factoring in our language barrier with the Shanghai team, the challenges increased. But time and time again, we were reminded of the importance of allowing ourselves to be students, as well as teachers. We learned as much from the educators in Shanghai as they did from us.
At one point, we ventured out to order dinner from the Pizza Hut beside our hotel. After fumbling our way through trying to order a cheese pizza from the menu, the waitress held her phone near us and we learned about a wonderful translation app that made ordering easy. We spoke in English, and the app translated our words into Mandarin. This gave us great confidence as we navigated through Shanghai on our own, and in our sessions with MinHang teachers. This interaction (at Pizza Hut, of all places!) helped remind us of the importance of providing multiple entry points when navigating new content and concepts, and allowed us to position ourselves as learners in an unfamiliar environment.
We found that everyone played the role of student at various times throughout the week — whether discussing research or language, we all experienced the challenges and benefits of learning. Our ability to reverse roles with those we were meant to be teaching served as a tool for professional growth, for all of us. K-12 classrooms can benefit from this role reversal, too — intentionally offering points in our instruction for student expertise to flourish will allow for increased literacy opportunities through modeling, and will offer everyone (teachers included) the chance to practice lifelong learning skills.
Our time in Shanghai broadened our own definition of literacy and how it can involve humor, visual elements, or at least a hefty dose of translations. What began as an institute focused on teacher research morphed into a collaborative learning experience that challenged assumptions and led us to conclude that there are lessons of literacy in many of our daily interactions — whether in your classroom, a local restaurant, or grand spa in Shanghai. As teachers become more entrenched in the literacy opportunities around them, they can expand their practice and deepen their craft.