Even before the Common Core State Standards demanded that teachers teach reading, writing, speaking, and listening across content areas, progressive educators tried to find ways to do so. It has long been obvious that if students are able to make connections across content areas they will gain a more coherent understanding of themselves and the world in which we live.
There is a beauty in discovery. There is mathematics in music, a kinship of science and poetry in the description of nature, and exquisite form in a molecule. Attempts to place different disciplines in different camps are revealed as artificial in the face of the unity of knowledge. All literate men are sustained by the philosopher, the historian, the political analyst, the economist, the scientist, the poet, the artisan and the musician.
~ Glenn T. Seaborg, scientist, Nobel laureate (19 Apr 1912-1999)
As consultants in mathematics and English Language Arts, we have been engaged in an exploration to name big ideas across curriculum areas. With our fellow educators, we found ourselves tied in knots, trying to stay true to our content while creating points of alignment that often didn’t seem to exist. For years Lucy led us to research the question, ‘what are the big ideas in each domain?’ We tried to correlate the big ideas in math to those in ELA. We found that in mathematics, it was fairly easy to name major ideas such as ‘equivalence,’ which essentially states that there is an infinite number of ways to write any given number or equation. When it came to naming ‘big ideas’ in ELA, we found ourselves trying to force inauthentic comparisons.
It finally dawned on us that ELA is not a ‘content area’ analogous to mathematics, science, or social studies. In other content areas, one can easily name major ideas. Besides ELA being a content area in its own right, literacy is the vehicle through which all other subjects are expressed or explained.
We realized that Lucy had been right all along, to examine Big Ideas, but that it was the word ‘ideas’ that kept sending us down dead ends. We continued to focus on details, the concrete within each content area (counting and spelling), and the features (teaching routines like count arounds and mentor sentences), rather than the thinking.
This led us to revisit the Habits of Mind that have wended their way in and out of education (business, social work, sports…) for decades. In the 1980s, we used to plaster them along the walls of every classroom. Today, they have returned as a way for administrators to assess teachers’ lesson plans and assignments. At Metamorphosis, we have integrated the habits of mind and other metacognitive processes into all our work with each other and with educators and students.
Still, we did not find these to result in the organic, authentic kinships that we were searching for.
This is when we returned to the accepted idea that ELA and mathematics are languages. We propose that one can be literate in either language. A literate person can understand concepts at an elementary level of competency. In ELA this is decoding and spelling, in math, it is basic arithmetic. People who can do these things well are technicians. Although being a technician is important, it is not the level in which strong connections can be made.
A Beginning Examination of Authentic and Empowering Connections
Following this train of thought we did the predictable – we Googled “What is the difference between literate and literary?” We found the same explanation, in many different forms, on many different sites. The most straightforward was at DifferenceBetween.com, where we found the following:
What is the difference between Literary and Literacy?
- Literacy refers to the ability to read and write in a language where literary refers to a high level of competency in a language, particularly its literature.
- On a scale or a continuum, literacy lies at one extreme while literary lies at the other extreme.
- Thus, a literate person can understand the concepts at a very elementary level of competency whereas a literary person has a very broad level of understanding.
- A literary person has a critical mind and can compare the works of different authors whereas one cannot expect a person who is just literate to exhibit these qualities
- While a literary person is always literate, the same cannot be said about a literate person.
- Literacy is a concept having significance in poor and developing countries where governments spend resources on making their population literate.
- Literacy can be a step to become literary.
Knowing that ‘literary’ is not the perfect term for the domain we want to describe, we have taken it as a placeholder (if you have a better term, please let us know). It is here that we believe that math and ELA should meet. It is here that we can leave our silos and help our students and ourselves to think critically, creatively and analytically, to have a disposition towards curiosity, to be able to look closely, to be able to notice patterns, to be able to dwell in ambiguity, and to be open to alternative views and solutions. It is in this sphere that we delve beyond decoding or computation, and into proofs, into mathematical reasoning and literary argumentation.
We do not want to stop here, but to note that the ability to tell stories and to make meaning of texts, helps mathematicians understand and create proofs. The ability to consider quantity, shape, space, and logic strengthens one’s ability to critique and create arguments. The combination of narrative and numbers leads to discovery, beauty, and inspiration.
The more subjects in which one is literary, the more tools he has to make and communicate meaning. In our constantly changing global community, an educated person must be able to think beyond competency. She must be able to think critically, creatively, and analytically. As educators, we need to find ways to break down the barriers. We need to empower ourselves and our students in being flexible, fluid, multilingual citizens.
In our next blog, we will share lessons that epitomize such learning. It is important to remind ourselves that one need not wait until one is literate to become literary. (More on this to come.) The two support each other. If you have any such lessons, please contribute them to this on-going journey.
We invite you to join us in an on-going conversation about making connections.