Academic journal article Middle Grades Research Journal

LITERACY INTEGRATION THROUGH SEMINARS Teacher and Student Perspectives on Efforts to Nurture Deep Thinking

Academic journal article Middle Grades Research Journal

LITERACY INTEGRATION THROUGH SEMINARS Teacher and Student Perspectives on Efforts to Nurture Deep Thinking

Article excerpt

It has been interesting to work with the other teachers on the project. We talk about texts that we are using. Sometimes I think that sixth graders can't get text that is that difficult but they do. We are asking students to have very adult discussions, to read texts that we know are above their level. We know we are going to get a lot of "I don't understand this." In our project meetings, we discuss what we do to make that accessible to that Student who reads at second-grade level. My goal with Paideia is that every kid in this room feels as comfortable participating as Abby does. She is one of my lowest readers but she is comfortable attacking text that she doesn't know yet. (Janice, interview with researcher, January 2012)

With her colleagues in the Paideia project, Janice had been developing ways to nurture academic connections with her students. As she noted, one of their central challenges was to engage students with difficult texts and complex ideas. Creating active, purposeful learning experiences has long been a hallmark of good middle level education. This We Believe (2010) affirms this commitment: "an effective middle grades curriculum must be challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant, from both the student's and the teacher's perspective" (Association for Middle Level Education, p. 17). This commitment to purposeful learning was central to the adoption of Common Core State Standards, now underway in 46 states. To better address these standards, Janice and seven other teachers in an urban middle school proposed a collaborative professional development initiative.

As a focus for their collaboration, teachers selected the Paideia Learning Cycle as their primary vehicle for improving instruction. First proposed by Adler (1982) more than 30 years ago, the Paideia approach has evolved into a sophisticated learning cycle. In Thinking like a Seminar, Billings and Roberts (2012) noted that this cycle features

1. multiple close readings of a text that is rich in ideas, relevant to the curriculum, and open to interpretation;

2. formal discussion of the ideas embedded in the text; and finally;

3. planning, drafting, revising, and editing student essays in response to the text (p. 68-69).

A central aspect of the learning cycle is the Paideia Seminar, defined by the National Paideia Center as "a collaborative, intellectual dia- logue facilitated with open ended questions about a text" (Billings & Roberts, 2006, p. 1). Studies have shown that the Paideia approach has been well received by students and parents (Heipp & Huffman, 1994; Wheelock, 1994) and improves students' writing (Chesser, Gellatly & Hale, 1997; Waldrip, Marks, & Estes, 1993).

When their proposal was funded, researchers recognized an opportunity to explore the dynamics of curriculum development and examine students' and teachers' perspectives on their experiences. The resulting case study, reported here, drew upon data from observations, work samples, and interviews to learn more about how teachers collaborated to create shared seminars and how students responded.

Perspectives on Encouraging Reasoning Development Through Seminars

Nurturing deep thinking is a fundamental goal of the Common Core Standards. All aspects of the curriculum emphasize learning for understanding through increasingly complex texts. Hiebert and Mesmer (2013) conducted an analysis of this emphasis on text complexity. They described the extent to which the standards emphasize a "text complexity staircase" (p. 44). Steps of this staircase are clearly defined quantitatively by "Lexile-to-grade ranges" that stretch previously established norms (p. 45). For example, text complexity for Grades 6-8 has traditionally been a Lexile range of 860-1010. Common Standards now define this range as 9551155. Hiebert and Mesmer concluded that while standards suggest that text complexity should also be assessed with teachers' judgments based on their understanding of the students and classroom contexts, these qualitative dimensions of complexity are defined so vaguely that Lexile scores may be given primary weight. …

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