Literacy in CTE – Why it has to be us.

As I work with our district instructional coach, who is also my partner in teaching a graduate course this summer titled, Literacy in CTE, I keep coming back to the same thought, “How did we ever lose sight of this?” And some of us didn’t. If you were one of those wise souls who kept literacy strategies front and center in your teaching, then thank you. Thank you for holding the line and waiting for the rest of us to come around again.

I’ve been in education as a school counselor at a small, rural high school in Illinois for thirteen years. The focus of my training was on brief counseling theory, risk assessment, understanding special populations and special education law, and career exploration activities for students. Of course there was a little of this and that in addition; it was good training. Don’t get me wrong. But truly, how well is any educator trained in the bachelors or masters classroom? We all know it’s trial by fire. We learn by doing, failing, and trying again to find that magic mixture of connecting with students, teaching skills, and challenging current thinking and abilities. It’s a beautiful thing when we get it right. That’s why we all stay in the business, right?

In my quest to be the best advocate for kids as well as an advocate for quality CTE programming (Because I believe quality programming that includes both skills-based traditional academics and academic-based CTE instruction is what’s best for kids!) I have come around again and again to literacy training for teachers and students. Literacy is that magic mixture of connecting, teaching, and challenging. It’s the universal job skill. It’s the great elevator, the equalizer, the skill set that separates poor from wealthy, successful from failing, engaged from apathetic. How did we lose sight of this? How is it not a focus in our training? And again, if you’re one of those people who’ve been studying and training literacy the whole time the rest of the education world has been chasing one academic fad after another like spastic squirrels, then in the spirit of Katniss I salute you and now join the ranks of believers. Try not to roll your eyes and say, “I told you so!”

As I work to incorporate more explicit literacy training into my own work with students I feel the urge to share my new-found love and knowledge of all things literacy, thus the graduate class and the presentations at conferences. I can see when an idea hits home, as a participant’s eyes glaze over (in a good way) and I know they are in their classroom or thinking about their curriculum and pulling apart ways to enhance what they already do with a little more explicit literacy training. And that’s the rub of it! Good teachers are already doing a lot of literacy work; many just don’t know that’s what it is! Struggling teachers or new teachers can elevate their teaching with some pretty simple design strategies related to questioning, grouping, classroom environment, language…the suggestions are endless and the inclusion of literacy training can be simple and natural.

Shamefully, I used to think that teaching literacy was teaching reading. To some extent that’s true, reading is clearly a central component. But I used to think it was actually TEACHING A STUDENT HOW TO READ, like C-A-T is cat. Isn’t that embarrassing? I agree, it is. Why did I even publicly admit that? Because I want you to know that if you, like me, were afraid of training literacy because you believed you didn’t have the skills to teach kids to read then, guess what? You’re off the hook! You can be an amazing teacher of literacy skills without being a reading teacher or knowing much about fluency, or phonemic awareness, or decoding. If you have kids who can’t read, yes, get them help, intervene; they need to be literate. But your job, ALL of our jobs, is to raise the literacy levels of the students we have each and every day. We can do that through our own curriculum design and instruction, through intentional groupings, through having our students read text, think about it, talk about it, and write about it in their lab books, in notes, in papers. We can be creative and fun with our art of teaching and as equally intentional about the science of teaching our content skills and literacy.

My bet is you’re already doing a lot of it and with a little tweaking you would be a natural literacy-in-CTE rock star. So my advice, if you’re up for it, is to grab a book (There are actually fun, hilarious books about teaching literacy. I know. I was shocked too.), listen to a podcast, hit up your district or region’s instructional coach, access the knowledge of your evaluator, or even reach out to me and my partner in literacy. We’re up for anything – except running that seems extreme to both of us – but if you need a nudge, a suggestion, a question answered there are plenty of people in the literacy believer camp. Just find one of us. We won’t say, “I told you so”.