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VOICE FROM THE FIELD

A Rome bike tour led to a better understanding of disciplinary literacy

Recently, I took a group of Iowa State University students – all of whom intend to teach in public K-12 schools after graduation – on a three-week study abroad to Rome, Italy. When we weren’t enjoying all the gelato and carbonara the city offers, we were studying disciplinary literacy: that is, the specific ways students consume, understand, and produce knowledge in and across the disciplines.

During our course, we discussed a variety of disciplinary specifics, including best practices for infusing discipline-specific classroom talk, writing, comprehension, and assessment into our instruction. As a way to demonstrate their ability to foster their future students’ disciplinary literacies, my students completed a disciplinary unit plan comprised of five Iowa Core-aligned lessons. That our group came together from a variety of academic backgrounds – students who planned to teach agriculture to elementary students, history to middle school students, and English to high schoolers – deeply enriched our conversations.

Newly minted Romans of five days, our group bravely ventured on bike tour through the heart of Rome. We did not know at the time that this decision was a brave one.

That realization came later.

The experience proved to be one of the most challenging, and rewarding, moments of our trip.

We arrived at the bike shop early on our first Sunday morning in Rome. There we met our endlessly patient tour guide, Miguel, who was born and raised in Rome. Miguel spent several minutes helping us adjust the bikes for our comfort, all the while explaining what we could expect during the nearly four-hour tour. Be careful of uneven bricks in the road, and of cars that frequently run the lights, he cautioned. As much as possible, move as circular unit, not a single file line, or we will be divided, he calmly explained. Wide-eyed, we nodded, all secretly hoping we wouldn’t meet an untimely end at the hands of a rogue Vespa.

Uncertainty was etched on my students faced. I’m sure it was on mine as well.

Our trek started off a bit rocky: Some of us hadn’t ridden a bike in years, and none of us had ridden a bike through a major world city with, quite literally, ancient roads. We moved through the city, stopping to enjoy the sites: cruising downhill past the Colosseum, circling the Pantheon, and climbing the Spanish Steps. We snapped pictures. We ran into stationary objects and narrowly missed colliding with lackadaisical pedestrians. We took turns laughing at our many bike-tour-in-Rome faux paus.

At each stop, Miguel provided us with background information on the magnificent site in front of us. But he also prepared us for the next leg of our mission: what to expect when we traveled through the more car-heavy fashion district; to walk, not ride, the bikes through crowded city market of Campo de’Fiori.

Each time we stopped at a site, I couldn’t help but notice how my students interacted with Miguel. When he dismounted his bike and turned to face the group, they instantly stopped their conversations, leaned in closer and, once Miguel finished speaking, asked him clarifying questions. If the spellbound looks on their faces were any indicator, my students recognized that Miguel’s expertise was vital to their successful navigation of an unfamiliar environment. Their rapt engagement was the stuff teacher dreams are made of.

As we continued – more collectively cohesive and comfortable with each stop – I began to reflect on how the experience served as a metaphor for what teachers of disciplinary literacy must do in order to welcome students into the disciplines. Researchers in the field of literacy education have described the ways in which disciplines act as communities. And, just as communities of people enjoy and intimately know their own unique practices – their ways of doing things – so, too, do disciplines have distinct practices that mark them. Though not an academic discipline per se, the bike tour certainly required us to understand and apply a unique set of rules, or literacies.

Still ruminating on the experience, the next morning during class, I asked my students to complete a quick write, responding to the questions:

  • How did the bike tour require you to “read” the texts around you to draw conclusions?     
  • What discipline-specific skills did you need to apply to successfully complete the tour?     
  • What did it feel like having to learn a set of practices with which you were unfamiliar?     
  • How can you relate this experience to your own future teaching of disciplinary literacy?

When we came back together to discuss our writing (I completed the assignment, too), students buzzed sharing their thoughts. My students discussed how humbling it was to learn how to navigate a new terrain, particularly when the new experience was one they experienced so publicly. They expressed feeling uncertainty, embarrassment, even anxiety at times. Some students admitted they had to fight the urge to quit and go home. This led us into a discussion about the implications for our own disciplinary practice. How might riding a bike in Rome analogously speak to helping students understand the particulars of science, math, history, or English-language arts? 

One resounding commonality emerged: the important role of our tour guide, Miguel. Time and again, students voiced their appreciation of Miguel, who did not assume our understanding of the unfamiliar practices or terrain. Instead, Miguel prepared us for the realities to come: what to look for, avoid, and expect. How to navigate the city safely while calling our attention to spectacular sights that might have otherwise escaped our attention.

Though riding a bike through Rome was second nature to him, Miguel took care to make explicit the practices he, through years of practice, now effortlessly applied. Miguel discussed; he modeled. He (quite literally) led the way. He did not make us feel ashamed for not knowing how to work within a reality that, though easy for him to navigate, was challenging, even daunting, to us.

We deeply appreciated Miguel and his efforts to initiate us into his community. But what would have happened if Miguel, an expert at his craft, had assumed we knew how to navigate the streets of Rome? Likely, my students would have experienced frustration. They may have even given up on the task entirely.

Similarly, what happens if a teacher, an expert in her field, does not make clear the processes she engages when solving an inequality, evaluating a primary source, or balancing an equation? The students will experience frustration. They may even give up on the task entirely. 

But the consequences of giving up in an academic setting are far more dire than bailing out of a bike ride. Without a disciplinary leader, students are left to navigate unfamiliar terrain with no one to show them the way. Without a teacher to welcome them into a disciplinary community, students are left on the fringes of their classroom, a marginalization that will likely make it difficult for them to meet mainstream markers of success.

As facilitators of disciplinary literacy, it is our job to make clear for our students what to us comes naturally. Moreover, it is our job to be generous with our expert knowledge. This generosity allows us to usher our students into our disciplinary communities rather than to dismiss them as outsiders. By warmly inviting our students into a disciplinary community, we show students they are valuable, capable members of our classrooms.

I am often asked how teachers can work toward creating more disciplinary-rich experiences and environments for students. The bike tour experience revealed to me a new understanding of how we might more efficiently honor our work as teachers of disciplinary literacy. 

We can be explicit.

We can be generous.

We can be Miguel.

Check out the Department’s Statewide Social Studies and Science Leadership Teams’ disciplinary literacy professional learning opportunities:

Find additional resources from national organizations:

  • CEEDAR Center Disciplinary Literacy Course Enhancement Modules - A compilation of resources intended for use in the development and enhancement of teacher and leadership education courses, as well as for professional development programs for practitioners.
  • Literacy Design Collaborative - An open education resource that offers educators practical and proven tools, templates, and instructional procedures for improving students’ ability to read and write complex text with intention and deliberate purpose in every subject. Sign up for a free CoreTools account.
  • Knowledge Matters Campaign - Connects the research behind knowledge and language comprehension.