Authentic to the Core: The "Disciplinary Literacy" Approach Creates Authentic Learning Experiences in the Core Curriculum as Students Read and Analyze Primary Source Documents

By Kukral, Nicole; Spector, Stacy | Leadership, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Authentic to the Core: The "Disciplinary Literacy" Approach Creates Authentic Learning Experiences in the Core Curriculum as Students Read and Analyze Primary Source Documents


Kukral, Nicole, Spector, Stacy, Leadership


When you walk into Jon Perry's high school history classroom, it is clear from the moment you cross the threshold that it is not a traditional learning environment. Co-constructed charts full of students' thinking adorn the wails, as do charts that set an expectation for a true learning community.

Students are not sitting compliantly in desks as they watch Perry lecture from a PowerPoint. Instead, they are reading and annotating primary source documents, making meaning about these documents with each other, and learning alongside their teacher, who is skillfully coaching them not to simply learn history, but to actually become apprentice historians through a "disciplinary literacy" approach to instruction.

While this may sound like an educational fantasy--the stuff dreams are made of--the transformation in Perry's practice hasn't happened spontaneously or magically. Instead, it has developed through intentional moves by Perry, as well as through the powerful support he is receiving from leaders at both the site and district level.

When we think about what makes learning relevant to students, often we narrow our thinking to electives or career technical education. While these do provide powerful opportunities for students to make relevant connections to their learning, we can also create authentic experiences in the core curriculum.

Learning for a new era

In the San Juan Unified School District, we are choosing to do this through an introduction to disciplinary literacy in secondary English/language arts and social science. Disciplinary literacy, an approach that asks students to read, write, think and speak as a member of a discipline (McConachie, Petrosky and Resnick, 2009), engages students as historians, scientists, mathematicians, readers and writers.

Through their work in the classroom, students see themselves as doing work the way that a member of a discipline would work in his or her field. This allows them to understand how the subjects in the core curriculum connect to life outside of school.

When Perry talks about the way disciplinary literacy has benefitted his students, he discusses the way this approach is more like the way we learn in the "real world."

"In life," he says, "you're not given a range of choices where only one is right. Life just doesn't work that way." And he's right.

Through the routines and structures that create a disciplinary literacy classroom, students are required to read, analyze and annotate complex text; write about what they are learning; discuss their learning with their peers in multiple ways, ranging from pairs to whole group; chart their learning and display it in the classroom; read texts multiple times for multiple purposes; draw connections between texts in order to synthesize understanding; and learn significant content while simultaneously learning to think.

If you can't see it in the core, it's not there

As Harvard Professor Richard Elmore discusses in his book "Instructional Rounds in Education" (2009), the instructional core has three elements: the academic content, the student's relationship to the content, and the teacher's knowledge and skill. Elmore and his colleagues argue that the only way to improve instruction is to improve the core. They also state that if we improve one element of the core, we must improve the other two.

When we examine the work of disciplinary literacy that is happening in Perry's class (and elsewhere across our district), we realize that this approach is grounded in changing all three elements of the core.

First, students in a disciplinary literacy classroom are reading and analyzing primary source documents instead of simply reading their textbook's interpretation of historical events. This addresses--and improves--the level and quality of academic content in their classroom.

Second, their interactions with the content change as students become not passive recipients of information, but active creators of meaning. …

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