Note: This is a continuation of the blog series I am doing detailing the work I am doing with students in an inquiry project into how to research better. The first post detailing the set-up and our first module, How to Write an Inquiry Question, can be found here.
In 7th grade, must of my students know something about plagiarism. They know they shouldn’t copy entire sources, they know they shouldn’t pass work off as their own, that they should be the creators of their own original thought, and yet…every year, without fail, we see kids plagiarise. The most common form is structure plagiarism. They see an article and they use the same structure of it to summarize, changing only a few words here and there. For some reason, they don’t see this as plagiarism but instead as summarizing. So we knew that while plagiarism is a much larger ongoing discussion that would require a lot of discussion and practice, we wanted to establish a baseline of what plagiarism is and also give them a few tips to avoid it in order to lay a foundation for future discussion.
Before we started, I had already checked their inquiry questions from Module 1 and students were, for the most part, ready to move on. A few kids needed some discussion in the crafting of their question, but almost all were ready to move on. Those that weren’t caught up in a small group or were asked to see me. Most inquiry questions were solid, a few were too broad or too narrow, and a few needed to be rethought, but overall, I was thrilled with how brad the interests were. A few sample questions students are pursuing:
How does being homeless affect your mental health as a child?
Why do people become abusive?
Why are dogs viewed as superior pets?
How can we reduce our trash production as a class?
How does air pollution affect everyday life in India?
How do you re-enter the job market after experiencing homelessness?
What is life like for a ragpicker?
I knew I wanted students to see some extreme plagiarism examples in order to hook them into the work and so we watched this classic SNL skit to much amusement. That type of plagiarism is easy to spot, but what about the instances that are not? I used headlines from recent music battles where artists have been accused of copying other artists, which helped the students see that plagiarism is a problem that permeates many aspects of life, and not just education. This also led to a discussion of what can happen in our district if they plagiarise and what to do if they iadvertently do it.
Then it was time to practice our note-taking again, this time providing us with an actual definition of plagiarism courtesy of this video from GCFLearnFree.org . Having something short and concise allowed students to have a commun definition, as well as some beginning tools of how to avoid it. We could then release them into their Student Module 2 where most of the work took place. This was a one-day event within our 90 minute ELA block with only a few students needing extra time.
In their Student Module 2, we wanted students to have further exposure to ways to avoid plagiarism, as well get some information about citations, not just why they are important, but also how they are different than say providing a weblink. We then wanted students to walk through creating an actual citation using Easybib, which is the preferred citation tool in 7th grade overall at our school, by citing an article that is relevant to our inquiry. Our geography teachers had already created easy slides to follow for how to use Easybib, so we were able to merely adapt those and have students use them.
Because we knew students came in with different skill levels for this module, we provided an extra activity for those who had time left over. At the end of the module, they would be able to play a plagiarism game created by students at Lyocoming College, an easy game that students thought was amusing and also informative.
This module went well, although, with viruses hitting us all hard, there were some kids that did not have their inquiry question ready. The good news was that they didn’t have to have that ready for this module, so we were able to work on these skills while still working on their inquiry skills.
Time management continued to be a hurdle for a few kids, and so we tightened up around that for the kids who needed it and I also tried to take up very little of their time in order to give them as much work time as possible. Circling around while students worked helped clear up some confusion.
While the Easybib slides were helpful, for some they were confusing and so in the future I may just have kids go to Easybib and try to follow the steps themselves rather than look at slides with steps on them like I have done in the past. I am not sure how I will tweak it, but the few kids that I showed how to use Easybib live found that demonstration easier than following the slides.
And finally, I am not sure this was enough exposure, I constantly feel like I should take the kids deeper and yet then also have to remind myself that it is exposure to level the playing field and to help them all have a more solid understanding as we continue to do inquiry throughout the year. I also have to remember that what may seem easy to me is not always easy for my amazing students and even if a few students finished quickly, it does not mean it was easy.
Last year, after we finished our first read aloud, we released our kids into their first inquiry project. While we had scaffolds in place, there was plenty of choice, and also specific lessons targeting research skills, my special ed teacher, Kelly, and I still stood back and felt like what we were doing was simply not enough. Or perhaps that it was too much. That somehow we were simply pushing kids through research and yet there were so many executive functioning skills and also simple research skills that we were assuming kids already had a handle of. And yet, they didn’t not all of the kids, despite the wonderful teaching that had happened before 7th grade. We saw it fall apart a bit when kids were really worried about the end product but not focused on what they were learning throughout the unit and they weren’t fully grasping the research skill lessons we were teaching because there was this larger pressure to produce a speech answering their inquiry question.
So this year, we knew we had to do something different. Rather than have students do a full inquiry project into a topic tied in with The Bridge Home, our read aloud, we wanted to create an inquiry project into the art of research itself, not worrying about a final product but instead walk students through specific research skills in separate modules. Sounds great, right? Yet what we quickly were reminded of was that the art of research itself is vast, which we knew, so we had decisions to make; which 7 or 8 research skills did we really want to focus on as a baseline for the kids as we introduced 7th grade inquiry skills.
Knowing that this was a great chance to cross-collaborate between other subject areas , we did just that; surveyed other teachers to see what they thought was important to establish a baseline in, as well as brought it up as a problem of practice in our consultancies with colleagues. The results were clear, we would love 7th graders to be able to have an initial understanding of:
How to write an inquiry question
How to take notes using the Cornell Method of notetaking
How to cite their sources using Easybib – MLA
How to avoid plagiarism and understanding what plagiarism was
How to use Google Search better
How to use our databases
How to potentially revise their inquiry question
How to use the C.R.A.A.P method to check for reliability
How to check for bias in their sources
How to find the main idea and supporting details
How to synthesize their information into original thought – a primer
How to evaluate whose voices are missing and how do those missing voices impact the validity of the research
But that’s a lot so how do we do all that without losing kids in the process? Enter in discussion with my new wonderful colleague, Chris, my fabulous literacy coach, Andrea, and also our incredible librarian, Christine. With the help of them I was able to synthesize some of the thoughts we had about what kids would be able to do as, well as look at which standards this would even cover because we would also need to find a way to assess what kids were doing. After looking at all 9 standards for the year, we pulled the following standards out:
Standard 2: Draw and cite evidence from texts to support written analysis.
Standard 3: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
Standard 5: Evaluate claims in a text; assess and express the soundness and relevance of reasoning.
Knowing this led us to creating 8 different modules for students to work on throughout the month of November. We knew we wanted choice throughout and also for students to feel supported and not feel ashamed if they wanted to work in a small group with the teacher and instead embrace the knowledge that they knew what they needed at that time to be successful.
So the final modules with their standards assessed became:
Module 1: How to formulate an inquiry question – Standard 3
Module 2: What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – Standard 3
Module 3: How to use Google Search better – Standard 3 and 2
Module 4: How to use our databases (taught by our librarian) – Standard 2 and 3
Module 5: How to assess the credibility of a source – CRAAP method ALSO Do you need to revise your inquiry question Reg – Standard 5, Enriched Standard 2
Module 6: How to recognize bias – Standard 2 and 5
Module 7: How to pull out a main idea and supporting details that tie in with your inquiry question – Standard 3
Module 8: How to synthesize information without plagiarizing – Standard 3
We launched the inquiry unit while still immersed in our read aloud, The Bridge Home by Padma Venkatraman. While we did a lot of reading work, we also kept an I wonder page that we would visit now and again. We wrote down large questions we had about society as it tied in with the story we were listening to and moved away from predictions.
Sample wonderings included:
What do parents do when their children run away?
How does being homeless affect your mental health?
Who started the idea of landfills?
How can we reduce our waste as a family?
Which types of diseases affects children living on the streets of India?
Then it was time to launch our very first unit and what better way than to use a picture book?
Bringing us together with our readers’ notebooks we laughed at the whimsy within the pages and then I asked; what do you wonder about within the pages of our read aloud? As students shared, I encouraged others to write down the questions they also had as potential inquiry questions. I love when students nodded and agreed that they had questions about something similar. This also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate that their inquiry question should somehow be connected to the read aloud but should not be answered by the book, but that they instead needed to do research in order to come up with their own answer. We also stressed the importance of this being of interest to them, and while we had potential inquiry questions ready for those who refused or found it hard, we have found we haven’t needed them. This discussion then planted the seed for how to come up with a proper inquiry question.
Our next component of the day was taking notes on a video using a modified version of the Cornell notetaking method. We wanted to introduce kids to a way of taking notes that they can easily use in other classes and also encourage them to make them their own. Rather than do a stand alone lesson, my colleague, Chris, suggested having students take notes throughout as an integrated part of the units which is what we did. This has worked really well and much better than if I had done a separate unit on just note-taking. I explained how to set up their notebook and we watched the first video, How to Develop an Inquiry Question, uploaded to Youtube by Kansas State Libraries. The video was a good introduction to why developing a strong inquiry question was important before kids went any further with their work. We took some notes throughout as I paused the video and then introduced the final component; the reflection questions.
One of the things we discussed in our planning was that a major reason for this unit was for students to understand the transfer of these skills to other subject areas, and also to life outside of school. However, this doesn’t always happen without the proper time and reflection. Therefore, our students have four questions to answer every time they finish a module. They are collected in a packet that I hold on to for ease:
What do you think you will remember learning from this module?
How is this skill useful to you in life?
How is this skill you useful to you in school?
How could you use what you have learned in this module in geography/STEAM/or science when you have to do a research project?
After this, we released students into their student module 1 – note this was over the course of two days with 90 minute blocks of English and each student was given a copy of the slides to fill in. The student module 1 allowed them to watch another video that discussed the levels of inquiry questions, look at examples of inquiry questions, and then write different levels of inquiry questions. At the end, I asked them to please come up with a potential level 3 inquiry question that they would be interested in pursuing the next few weeks and then submit it to me. And then I held my breath, how would it go?
After my first ELA block, I tweaked the student slides to make them easier for them to use and took out some unnecessary steps. There was general confusion between level 2 and 3, which I had suspected would happen and so we discussed as needed and I stressed that as long as they were out of “level 1” territory then I was happy. Some kids created much too broad or much too narrow questions and so I left them feedback or had conversations as needed, however, this is also something that will be assessed more in module 5.
One major thing we are still working on is overall time management, some kids are using all of their time well and thus working through everything with time to spare while others are not. Starting tomorrow, I will be asking students to join me in the small group to do the slides together in order for them to stay on track and not fall further behind.
I also tweaked my teaching slides, in order to get to their work time faster and not have so much talking from me.
The next module is Module 2 – What is Plagiarism and How to Do Citations – a one day module, hopefully.
I will continue to share as I work through all of this, the sharing helps me reflect on what I am missing and at times others share great resources as well, so feel free to ask questions or share resources.
For the past 5 years, I have done a Mock Caldecott unit with students as we come back to school in January. And while January is far away, the year is quietly winding down which means the reflection begins on which illustrations took my breath away. And there were many. Last year, I ballooned my choices but it turned out to be too hard to get through for my students. So this year there are a few changes.
One, I am reading all of these books aloud in the weeks leading up to our unit. While the students will still read them in their group, they will have experienced the full text with us all first.
Two, I am limiting our choices to 12. That way we can leasurely work through the unit, savor the illustrations, and give it the time it needs rather than skim through pages in order to come up with a winner.
Three, each group will pick their winner. Every year we have had a vote for class pick, but this year, I will let our groups select and root for their individual winners. We will, however, vote for an overall winner in all of my English classes combined.
The lessons will not change much; I use previous winners to discuss the different components of the award and then students grab the books they will discuss that day and rank. Each group gets a packet with the titles and a voting sheet. The slides I use are here and are pretty straight forward. The voting packet I use is here each group gets one and it helps them keep track of their scores.
So which books have I chosen for the year? (Not that I matters because we almost never pick the winner, ha)
Two potentials that I may add but I haven’t quite decided yet because then I am over 12 and I don’t want to be over 12 hmmm
She told me that her goal was to find more time to read. That life had been busy and so reading had gotten lost. That while she liked it, sometimes, there just wasn’t enough time in the day. That while she liked that book, sometimes, she didn’t bring it home because there wouldn’t be time. That while she knew she should read outside of class, sometimes she just didn’t have the time, after all, there was so much else to do. And she wondered how I read so many books, how I found the time, despite it all. And I only had one answer to give…
I don’t find the time. I make the time. I make the time to read the books so I can speak books with the people in my care. I make the time to read outside of my known, outside of the known of my students so I can bring the stories in that we maybe didn’t even know we needed. I make the time because I see the value, I live the value so that perhaps through our shared dedication, through our conviction, our students who have not (yet) found the value will.
We make the time to find the stories that will light up a new understanding. That will entrance. That will captivate. That will spark, even if only for a moment. That have just entered the world and now need to enter ours.
We make the time because if we don’t then we can tell students to read until we are blue in the face and they will know that we don’t really mean it. After all, how can we say we value it if we don’t give the gift to ourselves?
We make the time so we can speak books, develop a shared language wrapped up in our shared experiences, colored by the rollercoaster tracks of the stories we surround ourselves with.
And we question the books we love to make sure that our love is warranted. And we question the books we dislike to question whether our dislike is misplaced. And we keep an open mind so that all stories, because our kids are our stories, feel safe and valued and accepted no matter the differences we all bring into our community. No matter the sameness we bring into our community.
Because as we all know, or at least we should, the days we have lived will never come back. The moments we have spent will never trigger more. No person in human history has ever found more time. We all live by the same 24 hours, the same 86,400 seconds. We all live by the busy, the to-do and the get-done’s. By the push and pull of a life we say we control and yet at times feel such little control over.
But the time we make.
The time we take.
That’s what matters when we share this community with our students. When we wind ourselves up in stories. When we hand a child a book we loved too. When we hand a child a book we cannot wait to read. When we hold up a new story that has somehow become a part of who we are. When we admit that last night, even though I wanted to, I just didn’t read, because last night I chose to give my time to something else, but tonight! Tonight I will read because I want to. Because I choose to.
So we make the time and we urge our students to do the same. Our colleagues to do the same. Our own kids to do the same. So that this life, one that is already rich with story, becomes a life where quiet moments of great imagination are not the exception but instead the reality we choose to live on our own.
So we read so we can grow so we can share so we can learn.
And we tell all of our children, even the ones that do not belong to us, that stories are the threads of humanity and so we must take the time to read them. We must take the time to live broader in the ways that only stories can provide us, because that is the reward we can give ourselves day after day. That is the reward we can give others.
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.