I have been having small conversations with students. Isn’t that what teaching is in so many ways? Much like we live life in the moments in between the big, we teach in the moments in between the big as well, the big assignment, the best draft, the presentation. We go throughout our day using our voice to connect, our bodies to show our listening, our eyes to show we care. We seek out those moments in between hello’s and goodbye’s to make sure that with us, these kids, our kids, feel seen, challenged, and cared for.
So in thinking about how I could structure more conversation to build trust, I have been starting each reading conference with a simple yet meaningful question. Inspired by Sara Ahmed’s work in Being the Change, after I have asked them how their night was, how their day is going, I then ask, “What is important to you in your world right now?” It took some finessing with the question, in some conversations it flows seamlessly and the students latch onto it and take it in the direction they need it to go. Others ask for clarification which I typically bumble through, but what it shows me each time, is that continued need to connect that drives everything we do in room 203.
That there is still much to be done.
That all of the community we think we have built is still not enough. That each child is still carrying so much within them that ties in with their day, their mood, their thoughts, their actions, their dreams. From the worries about homework as the end of the quarter nears, to friendship issues they are navigating. From coming to terms with sports ending and figuring out what else to use their time on, to not quite knowing what to do with something they know, these kids take that question and allow us one more glimpse into their lives. One more way to build a way for them to trust us with the emotions that are tied into the work we are doing.
Because I can start a conversation asking just about their book.
Because I can start a conversation getting right to the skill.
Because I can start the conversation by asking what they are working on as a reader.
Because I can start the conversations moving into the work as quickly as possible.
But what that will never do is build the kind of trust we need to have with each other when kids tell me how they really want to grow. Why they worry about reading. Why they worry about writing. Why they worry about being in a community where some seemingly don’t understand them. Why they worry about grades, about the future, about the news.
So for now our conferences are taking a little bit longer. So for now, I am not quite sure how the conversation will go. I am not sure when we will get to the work they are doing as readers. But we will and we do.
But before then. Before that.
I get a tiny glimpse into their world and isn’t that what teaching is also about in so many ways? A tiny glimpse so we can help them capture the world the way they want to.
For a long time, I felt like an oddity within my reading beliefs: provide students with independent reading time every single day, provide a fully-stocked culturally relevant collection of books, remove all of the reading projects that stood in the way of reading joy, focus on reading identity at all turns. But then I discovered others who shared those same beliefs, who had held those beliefs long before I had reached them, who had pioneered the work spreading the word around the globe. The relief and power that finding others provided is one that cannot be underestimated. The strength that comes with working for a district that shares these beliefs is a blessing.
And yet, I know there are many others that have felt and do feel like the oddities in their school. Who constantly have to defend why self-selected independent reading is a cornerstone of their work. Who have to explain why they continue to spend their own money, ask for money, write grants and do anything they can to purchase more books. Who spend so much time trying to keep up with new books, who weed and discard books that do not have a place in their collection. Who feel alone but might not be.
An incredible honor for me is when I am asked to work with a district or school who is on a journey of trying to reach their readers in a more significant way. Who knows they have work to do and who are ready to take the next step. Who are not afraid to reflect and change even when change is hard. When I am asked to do this work, I always have many questions; what does reading look like now? Which experiences are each reader guaranteed as they go through their journey? What are the rights of your readers when it comes to book choice, independent reading, and reading identity? These questions lead to many discussions, many aha moments, and provide a road map for change. Much like we need to give students the space to create their rights a readers within our community, we need to also create our expectations and rights as a district. What are the experiences that each reader is guaranteed at each level of their schooling beyond the curriculum we use? How can we then make curricular and business (because let’s face it part of schools’ direction is determined by the business aspect) decisions that protect and further these rights? How can we offer training and funding to support these rights? Hw can we invite the community into this conversation? How can we embrace antiracist principles and establish an emphasis on the individual’s rights and needs?
In the spirit of this pursuit, I offer up several questions that should be asked at a district level or at the very least, school level, in order for student reading rights to be protected. After all, if our goal is for students to leave our care not only being able to read well but also find an inherent human value within reading then we need to create experiences that safeguard that.
So please start asking…
How much time is each child guaranteed for self-selected independent reading time each day?
Too often we see independent reading get cut due to fewer instructional minutes, particularly as students get older and we bring in more whole class novels or book clubs. We also see it limited for students who are in intervention or have other needs. Yet, if students are not offered up time to independently ready every single day, how can we then support them in their reading?
What are students “allowed” to read?
While the answer should be “anything they want” this is often not the case as choice is often limited due to well-meaning intentions. Students who read below grade level are often given the least amount of choices, in order to help them have more successful reading experiences, yet within the helpful intent of that we can end up doing real damage. Can you imagine always being told what to read and never being able to work through a book of your choosing? What we should be focusing our energy on is how to help students navigate the choices they make as well as develop better book selection habits.
Where and how can students access books?
A well-developed school library with a librarian should be a right for every child, as should a well-stocked culturally relevant classroom collection curated by a teacher who reads. We need books to entice every reader at all turns, so asking this question can open up discussions of inequitable access, culturally insensitive books, gaps in collections, as well as the need for teachers who teach reading to be readers themselves. How is funding appropriated for books? How are collections developed? How are books placed in the hands of kids?
What are students expected to do once they finish a book?
So often, and in my own experiences, we have a lot of work lined up for kids once they finish a book all in the name of accountability. Whether it be forced book talks, book reports, summaries or readers’ responses, reading logs or other tools that involve counting minutes and needing signatures, or having to take a quiz on a computer, we are so busy policing the experience of reading that we forget to look at what we, as adults, want to do when we read a book. These accountability practices can do a lot of damage, particularly if students are exposed and expected to do them year after year. By asking this question, we can start to look at long-term experiences and how that may be impacting reading identity throughout our years together.
What does reading “homework” look like?
While currently in my own classroom, students are expected to try to read at least 2 hours outside of English class every week, this is not how it used to be. I had packets and worksheets lined up for their reading, as well as small summaries, and book talks with friendly adults who had not read the book. This question goes hand in hand with the previous one as it looks at the components we attach to reading, as well as potential inequities within our practices. What are we tying in with the homework being completed or not? Not all kids are in a position to read outside of school, not all kids have access to what they need or are in a place in their journey where they see enough value to dedicate outside class time to reading.
Who are kids expected to read?
While this is a question that speaks to a much larger issue surrounding the canon and who we, as educators, constantly expose students to as literary masterminds, it is also important that we locally audit across grade levels to see who is being shared and more importantly who isn’t. Often we base our read alouds, book clubs, and text selections on our own favorites with little thought to what has come before and what will come after for our students, but since publishing skews heavily white, cisgendered, and heteronormative, this tends to become the reading experience for many students as well, particularly those within white majority districts or taught by mostly white educators. Diving into this questions can and should fundamentally change the canon we present to students year after year.
While there are many other questions to ask, the few shared here will offer up a path way to further investigation into the reading practices embedded within a district. It is definitely a conversation that is needed and should be pursued on an ongoing basis. After all, if we don’t ask the questions and reflect on the journey we place students on, how will we ever change?
Our daughter’s annual IEP meeting is coming up. It’s a big one, she is headed to middle school next year and this is the document that is meant to wrap her in protection. To make sure that she still gets the services that her numerous teachers have offered her through the years as we have watched her grow from barely reading to where she is now. It has been a long process, I have documented it on this blog, and yet the growth has been there because of the people who have seen her for more than a reading score. For more than a reading level. Who have sat with her, countless hours, and asked her to read, to explain, to try, and taught her new ways to look at the pages and find meaning. Who have seen her whole process as a reader as something to pay attention to, and not just her comprehension. Here as a human being. We owe so much to the teachers that have had her in their care. Who, like us, know and believe that the best we can do for kids who are vulnerable in their learning is to put highly qualified professionals in front of them in order to see the child and not just the disability, the lack of, the less than. To keep their dignity and humanity at the center of all of our work.
So imagine our surprise when we were told that in middle school her reading growth would be measured using Lexile. A computer test will test her throughout the year and progress will be reported to us this way. After we made sure we heard correctly, we told them that that would not be acceptable. We know our rights as parents when it comes to an IEP. Her meeting is next week, I know we will come to a solution with her team because that’s how they are.
And yet, what about all those kids who do not have someone fighting for them? Who do have people fighting but no one listens? Whose parents or caregivers are not even invited into those conversations because our assumptions about them have shut the door? Whose parents or caregivers do not know why Lexile is problematic? Why trusting a computer to spit out a test score is problematic? Why basing a child’s reading instruction which inevitably becomes part of their (reading) identity on what a computer test tells you is problematic? Why, once again, removing experts, trained professional, from the equation is problematic? Why reducing a child to a score is problematic?
And it keeps happening to our most vulnerable kids. The kids we worry about and then have no problem putting in front of a computer who will not understand the nuances of their thinking, the way they reached an answer, or even give them enough time to think about it. But sits there, waiting for an algorithm to be complete, in order to supposedly tell us everything we need to know. And we base our instruction on this? And we base our assumptions on this?
We are in the business of human beings and yet how often do we, educators, say yes, or are forced into, instructional components that have nothing to do with valuing children as people. Education says yes to the easy. Education says yes to the packaged. Education says yes to the computer. To the limitations. To the less-than-equal instruction, because it might save us time, it will make us more efficient, it will make us all achieve, but it doesn’t. Because the kids who continue to strive are left behind while we pour our human resources into the kids that can.
My daughter will not be left behind. She will not be left behind a computer screen. Or behind layers of inequity that would rather dehumanize her than provide equity in the deepest way we can; human power, human potential. Because we will fight. But it’s not enough for me as a parent to just fight for her. Because this is a story that plays out loudly in so many places. How else can we mobilize and try to break the cycle of inequity that has always been a part of our system? That has always been based on creating further inequalities and separating the kids who can from the kids who can’t. A system that continues to protect those whose circumstances allow them access to more opportunities, better opportunities, and offer nothing but band-aids to the kids who need so much more than that. And I am supposed to be okay with that.
On Monday, we meet and while I will gladly pull out research and offer alternatives, I also know that it won’t be a hard fight, not for me, because of my privilege as a white, college-educated, middle-class woman. Because of the quality of educators our daughter is surrounded by. But it shouldn’t have to be that way. I shouldn’t be able to game the system because of what I know. I shouldn’t have to raise red flags when those flags should have been raised before the program was even purchased. Before the first child was placed in front of that test. We owe to all our kids to do better. To fight and break the continued systems of oppression who function alive and well within our educational system. Which have created a system that can predict who will succeed before they even show up.
Right now, it’s my daughter who’s on the line, my miracle, but it could just as easily be any other child.They all deserve better.
I get asked for a lot of book recommendations, it is part of the life of someone who reads voraciously and publicly. I share a lot of book recommendations in real life every day with my students as I do a 1-minute booktalk, with colleagues as we swap books, on this blog where I compile the books I use for various units, on Instagram where I share the ones I have loved, in my Facebook group for my book, Passionate Readers. I don’t mind handing over recommendations, after all, I am so grateful for those who recommend books to me and have throughout the years.
And yet, I am also reminded of why I can recommend so many books. I read a lot. Sometimes more than at other times. I try to read widely. Broadly. I try to keep up with new books and those that I missed the first time. I try to follow the recommendations of others who discover books that I have not yet come across. Whose passion in reading is a gap of mine. I try to fill my gaps and find more knowledge when it comes to the books that I can potentially place in the hands of the readers I am entrusted with because being asked for recommendations by the very students I teach fuels me to read more. Fuels me to think of the kid that is in front of me and potential books that may help them re-connect or stay connected with reading. I have seen what being able to recommend the right book can do. I have seen certain books help them out of slumps. But I also know that recommending books can be a slippery slope. That if I continue to be the only one recommending then the voices of my students are not heard and the identities of them as readers, and, indeed, as human beings, will never be fully independent. Yes, I can recommend, but it is so much more powerful when a child is able to recommend to their peers or when they can successfully find books to their liking by themselves. And so it is a fine line between recommendation and discovery. Between asking students to study their own patterns and discovering their own gaps in order to help them read more broadly and see other people’s experiences that perhaps do not mirror their own.
I see this play out too when we, educators, turn to each other for specific book recommendations for that child we cannot seem to find a great book for. That often we educators, who teach future readers, are not keeping up ourselves with reading. Are not aware of what is out there now in these years when it comes to the incredible books that beckon our readers, and that is a problem. Because too often I see the same authors recommended, a new canon of books exclusively by white authors touted as the must reads. I see the same books recommended time and time again, I see the same titles used as read alouds, as novel studies, as book clubs. I see books that certainly have been worth our time never be replaced because we, the adults, deciding the books, haven’t kept up with our own reading. And I am not sure what to do about it other than discuss this pattern and recommend more books.
This is not to say that we cannot turn to each other for recommendations, but it is to say that we, as a profession, need to read more broadly and more overall in order to serve the kids we teach. In order to change our own understanding of what quality literature is and also what the gaps are in our curriculum. In order to see that the canon, whether traditionally established or not, needs to be questioned, disrupted, and that we also produce our own canon year after year. That when we are asked for book recommendations we audit ourselves and think of whose work we highlight. Whose books we hold up as the best. Whose voices we give more power to when we pass the recommendation on.
I try to see the children who come to me for recommendations as the invitations into reading that they are; see it as an invitation to read more. To pick up another book in the hopes that I can pass it on. To study my own gaps; what am I not reading and why not? Why is it hard for me to think of a title for this kid? For this particular reader? I treat my book gaps and lack of recommendations as a research project; which are the books that should be read? Which are the books I can use in class? Pass on? Recommend? I dedicate my limited time to reading as many books as I can in order to better my practice and become more than I was.
And so while I will continue to recommend books, I will also remind myself that I have much more work to do. That recommending a book isn’t the only step in the journey. That I should track what I recommend so I can see what I don’t. That I should continue to listen to the voices of those who spend so much time helping me see my own book gaps. That I have so many more ways to grow. That before I ask others, I will look at my own reading habits and make a plan so I can continue to grow myself. After all, my students are not the only ones who are still figuring out who they are.
You may have noticed that this blog is slowing down a bit, while life continue to churn, I am slowly starting to work on a new book potentially. This means that there may be less brand-new writing on here and instead a mix of from the archives and new. The wonderful thing with continuing to be a teacher is that our teaching, hopefully, evolves as does our understanding of the work we do. With that I present to you a reworking of an older postfrom 2015.
I met my first book abandoner my very first year of teaching. Yet, he was not your average run of the mill book abandoner. No, he was the “look you straight in the eye and ask you what you are going to do about it” kind of abandoner. So I did what I knew best; forced him to read the book and not allow him to abandon it. And he did what he knew best; fake read for a good amount of time, skimmed a few pages, and failed the book report as well as the presentation. Repeat with every book. I don’t think he ever read anything beside “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” that year, and that was to spite me more than anything as I forced him into my choice of book time and time again. because I figured that when he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to do it. When he couldn’t pick a book it was up to me to create accountability.
Everyone has these types of readers. The ones that abandon book after book because they hate to read, always have, always will. The ones that abandon book after book because they cannot find a great book, or perhaps they found one once, or perhaps they never have. The ones that abandon book after book because they get bored easily and while a book may have started great, now it is just meh. Some years we have a lot, others not so many.
Often for every child that abandons a book, there is a conversation missing, one that we need to engage them in in order to break the cycle. One that centers on one of the true goals of reading which is that the children we teach should be able to leave us being able to find a book that they are wanting to try on their own, without relying on artificial supports such as their level, their Lexile, or their teacher because they inherently know themselves better as readers.
This conversation takes time, it takes patience, and it takes diving into all of the many components that centers around the giving up a book. While often it may be seen as a rash decision made from an overall disinterest in reading, one that we dismiss when we hand a child another book to try, it is important that we dive into the nuances surrounding book abandonment in order for a child to know themselves more every time they abandon one. Make the act of abandonment one of internal reflection so that it no longer becomes automatic but instead becomes a choice that they can use to further investigate who they are as a reader.
This, therefore, means that there are questions we should be asking of our programming as well as the children that choose to leave yet another failed read in their wake. These questions shape the future decisions they make as well as their overall journey into their own reading identity.
Do they have choice? Because if they don’t, then that is the very first place we start. And not limited choice based on levels, Lexiles, or AR scores, but real honest-to-goodness choice where they get to pick their reading materials out of all the reading materials we have. This includes choosing the format and how to access it. Even as they abandon book after book, that choice needs to be protected at all costs, because while we may think that limiting choice will help them in the short-term, that’s exactly the problem with this approach, it helps in the short-term but does not push them further in their own understanding of book selection that works. So even when it seems like the list of abandoned books is too long to bear, let them continue to choose as there are other perimeters to consider.
Do they have time to actually book shop? Often we ask kids to quickly select a book and then wonder why they seem to not be invested in the choice they make, yet, if we study our own adult reading habits we know that leisurely browsing through selections is a pillar of how we choose books. So what are the time constraint placed on students? Do they have time to look through books, try a few pages, sit with a book for a while before they fully commit? Do they have time to speak to their peers about potential titles? Book shopping should be a social endeavor not one done in solitude if they don’t want to, so what are the conversations that need to happen as they browse?
Do they have time to read? If little time is given to reading then we are expecting them to do something they may not like only outside of school. That is foolish and also malpractice when it comes to the use of our time. Every child, every day, should be engaged in supported independent reading. So when can they read in class and try on the book? When can they be under the guidance of a trained adult that can help them navigate difficult concepts or words?
Do they have access? We know that students need great books in their hands. We know students need great libraries coupled with a librarian, but they also need books in our classrooms. And not old, worn out books, but new, enticing, high-interest books that they can check out easily. So when are they surrounded by books to choose from, what are those choices? Can they check the books out and bring them home or do they have to be kept in class? Yes, I lose books every year, but it is worth it to me if it helps a child read.
Are they overwhelmed? One student I taught told me 6 months into the year that our classroom library was simply overwhelming to browse in. That he didn’t know where to start despite my labels and bins. It took that long for him to tell me because he didn’t trust me with the information, afraid that I would think it silly or stupid, and yet, I didn’t think anything like that. What a way to know oneself! Once he had told me, we were able to create a way for him to browse specific sections of the library that he liked and able to pull out books from large stacks that I would pull for him. As he gradually got more comfortable, I was able to pull back my support.
Do they see themselves in the books? We discuss students needing windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors in their reading lives as crafted by Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, but do we also evaluate the stories we have? Are we making sure that we are not just crafting a new cannon of sorts that continues to misrepresent marginalized populations or only share one aspect of someone’s journey? What reading choices are the students surrounded by? Is it culturally responsive such as how Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings discusses? Will it further a perhaps damaging narrative that they already have about others, or will it break down misconceptions, stereotypes, and harmful thinking?
Do they have people? Is it cool to not be a reader in their friend group? Who do they have to talk books to? Do they have reading role models that extend beyond the teacher? Who are the people that have similar tastes as them, that they can speak books with? Many of my students tell me that they don’t have many others to get recommendations from despite being in book-rich environments for years and teachers working specifically on this. So how else can we increase the natural book conversations, students are having in order for them to make connections with the reading tastes of others? I often invite kids to book shop together so that they can find books together, we also use book talks for this as students discover others with similar tastes as them. Also, who are the adults that can speak books to them? It should never be just the classroom teacher, invite your librarian in, create a rich reading community so that students can see many readers int heir day, and many opportunities to speak books.
Do they have reason to read? And by that, I don’t mean because of a prize or a reward. Do they see any kind of gain from reading? Is anything positive connected to the art of reading? Will it actually make their lives better or is it just one more thing to do? Many of my students who abandon books repeatedly do it because they see no point and until we start to help them see a point of reading that goes beyond “the adults make me do it” then it is going to be hard to break any kind of habits. So how can we stress the importance of reading, what is it they want to accomplish in their lives where reading plays a central role? Is is that they want to understand others? Understand the world? Or is it much smaller than that?
Do they have different ways to read? Reading is not just done with our eyes but also with our ears, so if a child is constantly abandoning books get them hooked on an incredible audio book. This has changed the reading path of several of my students in a profound way. Sometimes getting them into text is what makes a difference, especially if they would like to read a book that may be difficult for them to decode independently, why not use audio books as a way to help them become invested in a text? Then we can work on the decoding separately.
Are they hiding gaps? I have taught several students that could ace their reading assessment, mostly because it had been given to them so many times, and yet had a large gap in their skills. So is their book abandonment masking a larger problem such as not actually understanding what they are reading or not having developed the stamina to stay with the story? Is reading seen as something emotionally draining because it is incredibly difficult? We cannot dismiss the emotions that are attached with reading for many kids, especially our vulnerable readers, and so we must work on developing their understanding of themselves as readers along with the skills of reading. This requires trust.
Are we making them do things that kill their love of reading? When students abandon books a lot, it is a sure sign that we need to reflect on our own practices. And not just skim over that reflection and pretend that everything must be ok. Are reading logs killing their love of reading? Are programs liked Accelerated Reader or LLI? Are we constantly asking them to do things with their reading rather than “just” read? What else is attached to our reading that may make a child abandon rather than finish a book?
Have we asked them? This is the biggest component needed because too often we try to figure out why a child is abandoning books and we never ask them why. Not beyond the “What didn’t you like about it?” So instead we must give the students a chance to discuss or reflect and really start to study their own habits. What patterns do they see? What types of books might they like to read? What can they do to change their habits? Students need to feel empowered in their self-reflection because otherwise, their pattern won’t change. They also need to set goals and then be able to honestly assess their own progress. This is part of the much larger work that must be centered in who they are as readers and how they want to take control of their reading identity.
Do they trust you? Trust is often something that is taken for granted in our classrooms, as if by simply being together, we build trust, and yet that is not true. Often we have to work hard to earn the trust of students, particularly those whose school experiences have not been safe or those whose lives are different than the ones we lead. Trust takes many things; choosing to be vulnerable, creating a calm and safe space, acknowledging our own limitations as a teacher and adult, recognizing our own limited experience of the world, and also being genuinely invested in the success of every child no matter where they are in their journey. We earn trust, plain and simple, and we do it by showing up, asking questions, actively listening, and passing no judgment. By investing into the lives of each child, by partnering with those at home, and by removing shame as a tool in our learning environments. By expanding our tools as a teacher, and more importantly our knowledge so that we can do better. Often students tell me much later in the year why they really hate reading or why they abandon book after book but it takes time for them to feel that I deserve the truth. Sometimes they are not sure why until much later. Until they do, I engage them in conversation both planned in our reading conferences and casual, I congratulate them on the accomplishments they do have, and I continue to provide them with the tools I can think of to help them be successful. It takes time, it takes patience, and it takes trusting your students even if they don’t trust you.
Abandoning books is often seen as an irritating habit that we must break quickly at all costs when it comes to students, but what if it instead is viewed as a starting point for a deep and nuanced exploration into the reading journey that a child is on? Think of the conversations we can have.
A conversation I find myself having often with other educators is just what to do next for curriculum. How do we get everyone on the same page? How do we ensure that what we do is actually happening in different classrooms with different teachers? How do we ensure that the very kids we are entrusted with have somewhat similar experiences within our classrooms all while protecting the art of teaching?
You may think that textbooks with daily lessons are the answer, and for many it appears to be, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As Dr. Allington reminds us, “…no research existed then, or exists now, to suggest that maintaining fidelity to a core reading program will provide effective reading lessons.” (What Really Matters When Working With STruggling Readers, 2013) . Yet, fidelity has become a major selling point as we see many programs being touted to schools who are unsure what to do next. Fidelity has become a point of judgment; how closely aligned are we? Do we use the same texts? The same worksheets? The same words in order to ensure the same experience for all? I was once told by a well-meaning but ill-advised administrator that “I better be on the very same page of the textbook as my colleague next door” as he passed from classroom to classroom.
And yet if there is one thing I know about teaching, it is that our kids are not the same. From class to class, from year to year, the kids have needed different things. Have needed educators that are adept at adapting, that are unafraid to try something new, that know their research, but also know to seek out others for more ideas. Who know their own areas of growth so that they can provide better and better experiences year after year. Sure, use a program to start you off, but don’t forget about the very art of teaching that asks to be responsive to the very kids we teach, that require us to be disruptors of inequitable practices that have shaped the educational experience of so many.
I teach in a district that puts an incredible amount of trust in their teachers and fellow staff who support our students. Whose very core of teaching is autonomy, responsibility, and professional development. Who believes in developing teacher craft so that students can be vested in classroom experiences that speak to them personally and not just whatever the pacing or curriculum guide has told them to care about. Who believes in disrupting inequitable education experiences and providing the room to do so, supporting each teacher on their journey. But how do you then ensure that students aren’t unknowing members of an educational lottery where their growth is based on the experience and know-how of a single teacher? How can you create room for your teachers to personalize while still ensuring that certain experiences are in place?
The foundational idea is deceptively simple; create student rights together. A living breathing document that shows which experiences every child should have in every room, no matter the teacher. Live by it. Work by it. Discuss and change as needed.
But in practicality, how do you get there?
The first step is to have time to discuss what the experiences of students should be. What do we, as the practitioners, believe every child should have as rights in their English (Or whichever curricular area) educational experience? Reading books they like, having a librarian and time in the library, abandoning books, picking writing topics, a teacher that will confer with them, discussing relevant topics. Brainstorm as many things as you can. Group them to see patterns. And then step back.
What is missing? This isn’t something that is done quickly, after all, this will be a guiding document. Do research on best practices within your curricular area. What do you not know about? What do people like Dr. Rudine Simms Bishop, Dr. Richard Allington, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Zaretta Hammond, or Dr. Louise Rosenblatt say about the experiences students deserve?
Then group all of the post-its or thoughts together. What are the clusters? What clearly speaks to all of you as a team? Try to come up with words that can tie it all together. Which patterns do you see? The right to read, to speak to one another, to have texts and materials that reflect their experience and the experience of others? The rights to connect with others? To free write? To skillful instruction? Again, pay attention to your own gap areas, which parts of instruction are you not thinking about? Do these potential rights mirror an entire experience or only parts of one?
Then translate the goals into actual experiences, such as if your team believes in student choice in reading, what will that actually look like? When will there be guaranteed time for that? How often do they get to choose? How will you support their choice? Who else will support it?
Then it may look something like this…
If students need…Empowerment – then we will commit to giving them choice throughout their time with us.
How: Choice in their independent reading book, choice in their topic of writing when possible, choice in who they work with, choice in who they share with, choice in how they work through learning. Space to reflect on their experience, speak up about it, and shape the teaching that happens.
If students need to read and write every day, then we will commit to giving them dedicated independent reading time every day and writing time every day.
How: Start with 20 minutes of independent reading focused on developing their relationship to reading and reading identity. An emphasis on free writing when not otherwise steeped in their own writing. Planning reading and writing experiences every day.
It may end up looking something like this then.
Go through each foundational right as a team and then commit to it as a team. Bring it up throughout the year to see whether you are actually living it. What are the opportunities for the students throughout the year? What is missing and needs to be added?
Having a foundational understanding of what the experiences should be for every child provides us with a guide of which direction to go while also being able to see our own gap areas. Where do we need to grow as practitioners? What are we not yet providing for students and how is that impacting them? How do our choices in our learning tie in with these rights?
So often we look at curriculum and think that is where to start with any changes when really what we need to do is step back and look at the foundational beliefs and rights that support and determine the curricular choices we make. Because those beliefs are what shape every single experience kids have with us. Because those beliefs sometimes hurt the very endeavors we are trying to accomplish. While I know our documents and guiding beliefs are not perfect, nothing ever is, it gives us a place to start when we discuss what we are working on, what kids need, and the disruptions that need to continue happening for all of our students. Perhaps these guidelines can help others as well.