Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Literacy Unbound

Sixteen or so teachers stand in a circle on the carpet in the high school professional development room. English 9, history and world studies PLCs have come together to play to learn. Three of teachers are barefoot already. Several shift their weight from side to side. Some smile the sort of smile one does when waiting. Enter Brian Veprek from Literacy Unbound, a program of The Center for the Professional Education of Teachers based out of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Brian leads us in a shake-it-out, count down from eight warm up of our limbs. Then we leap into rapid prototyping of our super hero selves.

"Create your super hero self with a word that begins with the same letter as your name. Pair that word with an action and perform it. One you show us, the group will perform it. Let me show you."

And that is how we meet Brian the Beserker--who flexes and grrrs and breaks the ice with vigor and verve. I became acquainted with Brian and Literacy Unbound at NCTE in St. Louis. Several teachers from Singapore American School participated in Literacy Unbound's summer institute and they presented their learning and shared the playful methods in a workshop at the conference.

Imagine seeding students' thinking with laughter and movement. Imagine connecting sutdents to one another and text in playfully complex ways. That is what Literacy Unbound does.

We "milled and seethed" walking about the open space smiling in different ways:  "smile to someone you don't like too much" and  "smile to someone you like completely" too. We flowed like gas weaving around the room whispering a secret we wish someone did not know and then whispering a secret we were eager to share. It was low risk movement and performance. I giggled and laughed and tried to stay in character.  Unbeknownst to us, we wiggled and walked in ways that we would encounter in the text to come.

Once we'd been properly milled we played "statues." Partnering up, one person acted as the sculptor and the other clay. The rules: no speaking and no touching. We were directed to "marionette" are clay into a position that illustrates the prompt given.

We made "woman" and "girl."  These were quick iterations. As woman, my partner, Doug, posed me in a standing position, head tilted just so to the right. My gaze aimed upward; my arms reached gently out, palms up.  After each sculpted draft, sculptors walked the sculpture garden. After their gallery walk, they debriefed:  What do you notice? What emotions are evidence in the sculptures? What questions do the poses bring up? What would you title each piece? Once the sculptors spoke, we switched roles for another round. Then the thinking rippled outward as we  joined pairs to make "mother and daughter" and "teacher and student."  Posed as mother and daughter with Doug, our sculptors. at first, had us gazing into each others' eyes. It was so hard not to laugh! I was impressed with the sculptures that could  freeze and stay in character.

Collaborate, create, connect, observe, think, reflect, discuss, wonder, revise,  repeat. These verbs sequenced the on-our-feet play that comprised our pre-reading work. With each round, we practice tone and voice with our bodies. It was an hour before we even saw the text on the page, Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl."

I am still savoring the instructional sequence and how performance and play set us up for a deep reading of the text (all without directing us to analyze). For now, I will leave you at the pre-reading stage of the work. I get to play and learn with Brian again on Friday, but this time we'll work with students around an excerpt pulled from Romeo & Juliet, so stay tuned.

At the session's start, Brian introduced himself and Literacy Unbound. As is my habit, I was sketchnoting as he spoke. I am learning how to sketchnote digitally using Procreate. I'll save that learning for another post, but here's a sneak peek at the page I got down.


  1. For many years I set aside all my drama training while I taught English. That was a mistake. I'm thrilled drama activities are finding their place in English classes. I've adopted many of the Folger techniques to other texts and will definitely explore Literacy Unbound. As always, I love seeing your sketch notes!

  2. That is wild, Lee Ann. I need to work on my sketchnoting. It's one of those things that I really want to do and do well, but you need to practice. Bravo! -- Christie @ https://wonderingandwondering.wordpress.com/