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The Q&A: Melissa Wetzel

In this week's Q&A, we interview Melissa Wetzel, an associate professor of language and literacy in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Melissa Wetzel is an associate professor of language and literacy in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Melissa M. Wetzel is an associate professor of language and literacy in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies the ways teachers integrate various literary practices into literacy instruction outside the classroom. She is also interested in critical learning endeavors, particularly when teachers and students work together to establish effective learning techniques. She designed the curriculum for this year’s Master Reading Teacher Institute four-week summer program

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: Can you explain the specifics of this summer’s program and the sort of instruction it provided?

Melissa M. Wetzel: It’s a four-week program that we do every summer. It is open to any teachers who have ... three years of teaching experience as a certified teacher in order to qualify to apply to the state of Texas for a Master Reading Teacher Certificate.

We provide one of the programs that leads towards that certification. Jim Hoffman and other faculty have been doing this for a long time. The program is also offered by the regional professional development center and other universities also offer it, so we’re just one program that offers this opportunity for teachers. We also open our program to graduate students in the College of Education who are interested in the content or are interested in pursuing the certificate.

We have a list of standards that the state wants us to include in our program and then we develop our program – it’s different every summer. I was the one who was doing the curriculum design on that with the teachers. The Josephine Houston Elementary School, they already have a summer program in place for kids there in the morning for a reading program. So these were students who had been identified as needing support in reading over the summer. And so we offered the parents the option of their child staying for the full day to take part in our inquiry camp, whatever you want to call it.

A small section of the students who were already there stayed. That group of students was second through fourth graders. We chose water as the focus because it was right around the time of the Memorial Day Floods when we began so we thought it was a local, current issue that would be worthwhile to build curriculum around for the students. 

Trib+Edu: Is it standard to use a topical issue as the focal point of the program? How was this subject ultimately selected?

Wetzel: In the past we’ve used a fiction novel to anchor the curriculum and then do various things around that novel. For example, the year before we had done a novel set in the medieval times, so the inquiry was around, "What did people wear in the Middle Ages? Where did people live in the Middle Ages?" So this year we decided to make the curriculum more relevant to the students rather than using an anchor novel.

We used this anchor idea of water is everywhere, water is a part of our lives. Sometimes we don’t think about it too much but sometimes when we don’t have enough of it or if there is too much, like in the floods, then we take notice. What do people do when there are problems around water? How do communities and people work together? So it’s kind of an attempt to make it more relevant, make it more immediate and also to bring in some of the critical social issues around water. 

Trib+Edu: Can you explain the ideology behind instituting an inquiry-based model to provide instruction for both the teachers and the students? 

Wetzel: So the inquiry-based model, there are lots of different terms people use to describe this idea. Some people would say interdisciplinary curriculum, which would be bringing together literacy and math and science and social studies. Other people talk about a student-centered curriculum, so that would be starting with the students’ experiences, knowledge, understanding, interests and building from there. The difference between those and inquiry, is inquiry is really centered on the idea that we have questions that don’t have easy answers that are important to explore and that’s something we do all through our lives. 

In Texas, and in every state, there are state standards for teaching so sometimes there is pressure on teachers to teach a more narrow curriculum that divides out subject areas, so it would focus on math separate from literacy separate from science. The teachers that we worked with and their students may have had fewer opportunities to think about a curriculum that builds from questions.

The idea is that, with teachers, this allows them to put their minds to new possibilities. We explore it and build it from the students. It’s changing every day based on what we’re learning from them, what they’re interested in pursuing as part of the inquiry. And then we come back at the end and we say, now think about your classroom, think about your curriculum, think about what’s currently in place with you and how can you use this as a standard to build on what you’ve already been doing. 

Trib+Edu: How does this instructional methodology, of asking students to research various aspects of a particular topic, help promote literacy?

Wetzel: Informational texts are something that really don’t get enough play in classrooms. We tend to focus on narrative texts — picture books and novels. Students, of course, become better readers by reading those books but not all students are interested in narrative stories. Also, narratives can be inclusive or exclusive of their experiences. I think one thing that this inquiry curriculum does is put different kinds of books in students’ hands and also asks teachers to think, "Is this a book that we read form start to finish or is this a book that can help us think about the topic that we’re interested in and how there are other ways we use text?"

That relates a lot to new literacy. Thinking about the Internet, we don’t read from beginning to end on a website, we don’t read every page. We look for the information that is relevant to what we want to know. I think it’s more of a current view of what reading is and what reading is becoming. 

One of the graduate students was working with a student and they (together) were an ornithologist, so they were an offshoot of this water story we were working on. So she had an encyclopedia of birds and the book as a whole would not have been a book that students would have normally picked up from their school library to read, it was aimed at older children or adults. They were able to access that text in different ways and use it to fulfill their purposes and answer their questions in ways that will support them in accessing other kinds of texts, the kinds of texts they may encounter on the STAAR tests — really technical or may have unfamiliar vocabulary or be intimidating. I think the ways the kids and teachers were accessing texts were ways that will support them in tasks like that as well as in life. 

Trib+Edu: Was this year’s project a success? What sort of criteria would you consider to make that determination?  

Wetzel: We’ve always seen amazing engagement from the kids in this program because they get to work one on one with a teacher and that can be really motivating for them as well as the idea that they’re able to use technology. We’ve always used laptops and the Internet, so I think it’s always been a really motivating place for kids.

The criteria I would look at for determining success is at the end, we have a performance party where the family members and many of the teachers came to see the kids present their projects. When you see the students take ownership of what they’ve learned and share it with their community and have a great time. They were saying things like, "I didn’t know school could be fun." That’s pretty amazing.

The teachers write case studies of their students, so they look specifically at the reading strategies the students are using, the things they’re doing in their writing, also their engagement and language and vocabulary. We think in three or four weeks, we’re not going to see significant growth necessarily because it’s a short period of time. But what they’re able to do is describe these students in detail as students who have a lot of knowledge and a lot of strategies that they can draw on. That’s another way I think we know that this has been successful. We are able to really tap into and see what kids can do, what knowledge they bring and what strategies they have and help them become more aware of it.

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