As educators, we see our profession hailed in many different contexts and media:  in blogs, movies, the news, and even TV commercials.  More often than not, pop culture portrays our profession from a vantage point that differs slightly--if not dramatically--from our day-to-day realities as educators. (In 2010, one example that struck Melissa, an elementary teacher at the time, was a Quaker Oatmeal commercial that showed a teacher enjoying her oatmeal breakfast in the serenity of her empty classroom with sunshine streaming in as she read a book.  Apparently this teacher-actress didn’t face coming to school before the sun rose, reporting immediately to morning duty to supervise a cafeteria full of early-arriving students, and eating breakfast at home to make sure she actually had time to eat!)

While we may think, “So what?  It’s just a commercial!”, commercials reach a wide audience and subconsciously influence our perceptions and beliefs. Looking critically at commercials set in school settings reveals portrayals of schooling that are usually more antiquated and less aligned with current best practice, especially in literacy instruction.  We might not even realize this discrepancy at first because these commercials likely show school the way we remember it as students.  All happy feelings and memories aside, would we accept technology and science being at the same level of development today as they were when we were in 3rd grade?  Probably not.  Actually, definitely not.

Let’s look at a few recent commercials (Quaker Oatmeal, Great Wolf Lodge, and AT&T) and compare them with the changing realities of teaching readers and writers in elementary classrooms.  For ease of access, here are some screenshots from these commercials that we will revisit in our discussion to follow.

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Quaker Oatmeal Commercial (2010), 0:24


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Great Wolf Lodge Commercial (2014), 0:02


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Great Wolf Lodge Commercial (2014), 0:14


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AT&T Commercial (2013), 0:03


Changing Reality #1:  Collaboration.  

Even though you may remember sitting in rows of desks just like the Quaker Oatmeal and Great Wolf Lodge commercials show, best practice reflects that learning is social and students learn more by interacting and collaborating with each other.  You may remember desks, all lined up in neat rows, separated by spaces, and all facing the front of the classroom. Today, students are provided opportunities for collaboration. Desks are bunched together in small groups, some even replaced with tables (like in the AT&T commercial).  In these settings, students are expected to work together to solve various tasks. In addition, an important component of collaboration is student talk.  Instead of featuring one teacher or student as the featured speaker and the rest of the class as the captive audience (but not always captivated, like the Great Wolf Lodge commercial humorously shows), collaboration centers around meaningful student talk.  Speaking and listening are even in South Carolina’s current state standards, as well as Common Core.  Finally, charting information, or learning through the use of anchor charts, provides evidence of collaboration among teachers and students as they collaboratively explore content.  As teachers and students co-construct anchor charts (think:  large pieces of paper that record the learning process and/or important understandings), these documents make a living, responsive learning environment that can be referred back to as learning continues. While the Great Wolf Lodge and AT&T commercials show some student work and posters in the background, no anchor charts documenting learning are visible.  These 21st century skills of collaboration and conversation help to prepare our students for the world they will face when they leave our schools.

Changing Reality #2:  Accessibility.

Our second changing reality in elementary literacy instruction is accessibility.  Instead of content being controlled and delivered by the teacher as a “sage on the stage,” students are readers, writers, and researchers.  If you look closely at the Quaker Oatmeal and Great Wolf Lodge commercials, you will see the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom, alluding to the “sage on the stage” mentality.  Also, all three of these commercials are missing an important element of information accessibility in elementary classrooms:  technology!  While not all schools have the luxury of being 1:1 or even having a smartboard in every classroom, the majority of schools do have at least some access to technology (which likely includes at least a dry-erase board, even though two of these three commercials leave you thinking that chalkboards are still in style these days).  Computers, iPads, Kindles, and other devices allow for access to information via internet search engines, educational videos, and electronic books.  Instead of controlling our students’ access to content by positioning themselves as “experts” and controlling discussions (as seen in the AT&T commercial), teachers are coaching students to ask and answer their own questions, which develop important inquiry and critical thinking skills for college and career preparedness.  Our students are growing up as digital citizens, and our classrooms need to recognize the skills that accompany this identity and incorporate them into instruction.  

Changing Reality #3:  Choice.

Our third changing reality involves student choice.  Even though you may remember learning to read out of the same textbook as every other kid in the class or writing a response to the same prompt as every other kid in the class, best practices today focus on reading and writing continuous, high-interest texts that students choose themselves.  Such a workshop model involves three different components:  a minilesson, in which the teacher briefly provides explicit instruction on a skill that students demonstrated as an area of growth in previous assessments; work time, in which students apply this skill or work on other personalized goals in their own texts of choice; and share time, in which students and the teacher share how they used the minilesson skill or worked toward other individualized goals as readers and writers.  A successful workshop-based classroom environment offers extensive classroom libraries to provide students with resources from which to choose.  None of these three commercials shows such a collection of resources (only one section of a bookshelf is visible in the Quaker Oatmeal commercial, with no books visible in the other two commercials).  Likewise, student work will show this differentiation.  Instead of a panel of self-portraits (interestingly seen in both the Great Wolf Lodge and AT&T commercials), students may choose to publish different genres during writing workshop.  Choice engages learners and recognizes that as learners and as people, we are not all the same.

From Commercials to Reality

Over the past few years, education has changed in many ways, especially in the type of literacy instruction our students are provided.  Collaboration, accessibility, and student choice grow 21st-century readers and writers who are independent thinkers, inquirers, and problem-solvers, but many pop culture representations of school environments do not reflect these current practices. As educators, we can make the realities of best practices in literacy visible by sharing our approaches with co-workers, families, and community members (Twitter and social media are great ways to do this!). Teachers are faced with preparing our students for a future and careers that don’t yet exist, but one thing is for sure, creativity, student choice and ownership, and collaboration are skills that will far exceed any other skill that can be taught in separated desks, lectures, and teacher driven instruction.

Ashley Roberts is the literacy coach at Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg (S.C.) County School District Two. She serves as the school RtI coordinator and has facilitated numerous workshops on the topics of inquiry, literacy, and differentiation. She is a graduate of University of South Carolina, has a master’s degree in literacy and administration, and is a South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leader. Connect with Roberts on Twitter @_my3boys.

Melissa Summer Wells has served children in Spartanburg (S.C.) School District Six as a 3rd grade teacher, a kindergarten teacher, and, most recently, a literacy coach. She received a BA and MA from Furman University and is nearing completion of her PhD coursework in Language and Literacy at the University of South Carolina (USC). Her research interests include critical digital literacies in early childhood settings and bidirectional family learning communities. Wells is a member of the South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leaders Class of 2015 and an adjunct instructor at USC-Upstate. Connect with Wells on Twitter @mswells01.

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