Comprehension Connections (Heinemann, 2007) has influenced teachers around the world, with over 80,000 copies in print. Literacy expert Stephanie Harvey calls its author Tanny McGregor “a terrific educator with a lot to say.” Heinemann Professional Development Director Vicki Boyd says Tanny is “one of our most popular authors.” I call her my colleague. We work together daily in West Clermont’s (Cincinnati OH) department of teaching & learning, so her expertise and style are just part of what-we-do-here. Tanny is a popular keynoter and presenter around the U.S. and I’ve been nagging her for a long while to let me interview her to capture her thinking about the new literacies, what 21st century skills really mean, and whether the way we teach comprehension needs to change with digital text. Listen in to our conversation as we share some time together after work. You just finished a webinar session this afternoon. How did it go? TMc: The chat room traffic was active today. A few times I gave participants prompts and turned off my mic. I’m learning to see the chat room as the lifeline of a webinar. The more comfortable I am with the digital format, the more willing my participants are to take a risk. I think it’s a mistake to give up at first just because it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural. It’s just different. What do you like about teaching digitally? How is it different than face-to-face? TMc: At first it was the same feeling as when I leave a voicemail with someone. I tend to talk on and on and on. But since I want to maintain a conversational tone in my webinars, I have to make frequent use of that chatroom. Just like in a classroom setting, I want the students’ thinking and questions to drive the content of the lesson, or in this case, session. As much as I want people to participate, I also like it that people can just listen. It’s come-as-you-are for webinar students: tired, energized, shy or ready to interact. And of course you can wear any outfit you want. [Laughter] The term “21st century skills” has moved into jargondom. Is the expression a valid one? What does it mean for you? TMc: My fear is that it’s turning into a label like “low-carb” did a couple of years ago, overused and the all of the meaning drained from it. But what I like about it is that it’s given new attention and respect for skills that have been important all along in every century. For example, my grandfather who was born in 1900 used creativity and collaboration every day as he carved a living out of his 700 acre farm and worked with the farmhands. For the past decade, those same skills have been devalued in a culture where the “right answer” became the be-all and end-all. High test scores became the desired end point. Creative and collaborative teachers often felt out of place or like they no longer had a voice in education. 21st century skills give us a renewed focus on what matters most: people, ideas, and meaning. 21st century skills are not a fad. They have staying power. You wrote Comprehension Connections back in 2007. Is teaching comprehension skills different with digital and other non-print text? TMc: My first thought is no. If comprehension is about meaning making and taking an inquiry stance from the beginning, then it doesn’t matter if you’re reading a traditional textbook, an article on the web, a set of lyrics, or processing an image. But I can’t assume that my students see it that way yet. For many of them, “reading” is still defined in the traditional way, decoding ink on paper. I need to model thinking across all media and allow ample opportunities for them to practice comprehending across all media. Sometimes you and I talk about “doing the work” versus “writing about doing the work.” Why is it so important to have a foot in both worlds? TMc: That’s a really important question. If I want my writing to be authentic, if I want it to be current, if I want it to matter, then I need to be planning lessons, modeling lessons, reflecting upon instruction. It’s too easy to forget what it’s like to be in the classroom. You need to spend a whole lot of time doing the work before you have anything worth writing about. As we work together, I sometimes tease you about your WOO (winning others over). As a teacher of teachers, what is most often on your mind as your work with others? TMc: I never want to forget what it feels like to have 30 faces looking up at me. I never want to forget how tired teachers are at the end of the day and how many decisions they’re forced to make, sometimes without the support or resources they really need. To be a teacher is to be honored and overwhelmed at the same time. Teachers are the most important factor in the whole equation. When teachers know that I feel that way about them, about us, they trust me. It took a lot of courage and tenacity to propose, then to write, a book about your classroom experiences. What is that process like? TMc: It’s a daily process for me. It involves realizing that if I just “show up” to write, the words will come. My experiences with students and teachers give me the fuel I need. I must also remind myself that I don’t have to have an entire lesson or chapter or book all thought out in advance. I must relax and let my thinking unfold. Any advice for teacher-writers? TMc: Just write. Make time. No excuses. There are more venues and more audiences than ever. And you’ll become a better teacher in the process, so time spent in reflection, writing, is never in vain. You’re currently working on your second solo book, this one about comprehension and the Common Core standards for English Language Arts. Have you given it a title yet? TMc: My working title is Reading Connections. It will help teachers launch the genres represented in the Common Core. What will teachers learn from your new book? TMc: I want them to learn that even though the new Common Core standards have great depth and the representative text is often complex, students still need us to launch the language of these genres in a concrete way before we expect them to understand the abstract. There are creative ways to scaffold the learning to take students where they need to go…that simply “assigning and assessing” is never the answer. What is the answer? TMc: The answer is “sapere aude.” It means “dare to think on your own.”
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