Active Literacy Strategies Across the Curriculum

Active Literacy Across the Curriculum: Strategies for Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening
By Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs
(Routledge/Eye On Education, 2nd edition – Learn more)

Reviewed by Theresa Wood

About ten years ago, our principal at the time shared a video with the staff called “Shift Happens,” which led to a discussion about how our jobs as teachers are changing – without any follow-up to show us how to meet the demands of these changes.

We added computer labs and occasionally introduced different applications and software tools, but not much was done to help teachers integrate these tools meaningfully into their classrooms. Some teachers embraced it all on their own, while others clung to the analog (i.e., more comfortable) versions of their classrooms. Most teachers, like me, fell somewhere in between.

Working together amid systemic disruption

Before the pandemic, it was easy for teachers to lock themselves behind their classroom doors and teach their content in isolation. Now that so many courses have moved online, each teacher’s practice is more transparent than ever, and it is easier to evaluate students’ experiences throughout their school career.

What is being revealed is just how inconsistently literacy is taught across the grade levels and content areas. During this time of systemic disruption, it is imperative for teaching teams to work together and provide consistency in literacy strategies that will transfer from year to year. Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Active Literacy Across the Curriculum provides the structure for us to do so.

In this second edition, Dr. Jacobs focuses on the crucial function of literacy as the foundation for all learning – regardless of age or content area. Jacobs begins by identifying the problem. She lists key criteria that are missing in education today: text interaction skills; an operational definition of new literacies (digital, media, global); consistent editing and revision strategies; consistent and on-going vertical planning; and intense and formal instruction in speaking and listening.

She issues a call for all teachers to see themselves as “contemporary communications teachers” and asks three critical questions to guide professional and curricular development:

  1. What do we get rid of?
  2. What do we keep?
  3. What do we create?

These questions can get the conversation started across grades and content areas, as well as define three levels of pedagogy:

  1. We get rid of anything “antiquated”
  2. We keep all that is “classic”
  3. We create what we need in this current, “contemporary” time

Jacobs outlines six more strategies for school leaders and teaching teams to bring all forms of literacy into all classrooms regardless of the subject area. Each strategy includes specific guidance for all grade levels and content areas; and in each strategy classic practices are blended with contemporary technologies.

Jacobs focuses on some foundational literacy practices that should be taught consistently and systematically over the course of a student’s school career:

  • building vocabulary (not just Tier II and Tier III words, but personal vocabularies for each student);
  • note taking (or note making, using digital tools such as Sketchnote);
  • writing (including media production, editing and revision); and
  • discussing (using digital tools to capture each student’s contribution, as well as to teach listening skills).

She advocates the use of Curriculum Mapping for teachers to document what they are actually teaching across grade levels and content areas – and the need to share them with each other, looking for gaps and overlaps in a student’s experience.

The right book for right now

Over the course of my career, I have read many professional books and articles. Active Literacy Across the Curriculum ranks among the best. It offers an attainable vision of the future, and includes specific direct action teachers and administrators can take now to move ahead effectively.

This edition was published in 2017 and already some of the specific digital references are outdated (Google Wonder Wheel, I wish I knew ye), but most are functional and provide a springboard to exploring other tools with similar functions that teachers can use to help students become fluent in digital, media, and global literacies.

I found Dr. Jacobs’ call for a film canon to be added to our literary canon one of the most intriguing ideas in the book, and I am curious about current efforts to create this list.

Active Literacy Across the Curriculum by Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs is the right book for right now. The shift to virtual instruction has been overwhelming for a lot of teachers as we struggle to master all of the digital tools that we have been introduced to – in addition to our need to grasp new learning platforms within a relatively short period of time.

This book reminds us that creating truly literate students, in both the classical and contemporary sense of the word, is our most important task. Focusing on literacy offers a way forward that embraces all that is good about what we currently do and incorporates the best possibilities of digital, media, and global technologies available to us now.

Keeping what works, adding what matters

The ideas put forth by Dr. Jacobs provide the missing link in my professional development. The title itself – Active Literacy Across the Curriculum – suggests a literacy approach that is alive and adaptable to our needs.

I admit that this is a new way for me to conceptualize curriculum, which seems at times to have been chiseled in stone by powers that exist outside of the classroom. One of the most frustrating things about teaching is the way in which new ideas often seem to supplant the old and we only realize what we’ve lost in hindsight. One of the strengths of this book is the way in which the author ties together various approaches and connects the old with the new.

This book recognizes what works and shows us how to move our practice forward without losing what we value. Jacobs describes the power that could be harnessed if every teacher across a student’s school experience were using the same literacy strategies so that s/he could internalize and apply them more consistently rather than simply learning in each school year what each individual teacher requires of students for success. Imagine the power that could be had if we all moved in the same direction toward the same goal.

Theresa Wood, M.Ed. has been teaching for over twenty years in elementary and middle school classrooms. She currently teaches middle school English/Language Arts, where she has worked for fifteen years, and enjoys sharing her enthusiasm for literature and language. She is an unapologetic bibliophile, has served as department chair, team leader, and a mentor for new teachers, and is a graduate of the National Writing Project.

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