I have this idea stuck in my head, and it keeps spinning like the record player my sister broke when I was 11.
When we think about equity in an English class, what comes to mind?
I hope fairness, impartiality, “justice in the way people are treated,” says Webster.
But what does equity look like? What does it look like every day in an English class?
Too many days I spend too much time with my students who do not do the assignments than those who do. Is that equitable?
Too many days I find the time to talk to the talkative students about their lives outside of class, but I rarely take the time to talk to the quiet kids who have a gentle grace, pay attention, complete assignments. Is that equitable?
A week or so ago I conducted a training, and one of the teachers asked something like this: “Do you still have students who do not read, or do not move forward, in your workshop pedagogy?”
Will I keep encouraging, pushing, pulling, doing everything I — and my extensive network of workshop teachers –can possibly think of to help that student want to read and grow in her literacy skills?
But let’s be real. I offer choice reading in my classroom. I offer choice of writing topics on every writing assignment (except timed writings when we specifically practice for the AP English exam.)
I’m going to have to allow the student choice when it comes to actually reading.
I can tell you this though: More students read and grow and become avid readers than ever did when I chose all the books, all the prompts, all the everything.
And this brings me to the real question spinning in my head: What does equity look like when it comes to instruction in an English class?
a. A teacher chooses six books for her students to read in a given school year, all books shining with literary merit. She teaches in a school where the majority of her students live in poverty. The children come from diverse homes where they face some struggles, but they seem eager to learn. She believes that since the more affluent school across town requires its students to read these six lofty books, she must require her students to read them. (Maybe her administrator even told her she has to teach these books– she’s just doing what she’s told.) This teacher wants her students to have the same rich literary experiences with these books she had in high school. She wants them to think about literature and analyze the language. She want them to grow in cultural literacy. All good goals. But probably, more than anything, she wants them to be on equal footing with the students across town. She wants them to have the same advantages and the same knowledge about the world’s great books.
b. A teacher allows her students to self-select the books they read. She models the moves of a reader. She talks about rich literature, what makes a compelling story, how characters and plot lines develop and how they mirror their lives. She challenges students to consume pages, develop stamina, and grow in fluency. She gives them opportunities to read more and read harder because she knows the value of reading in building confidence and competency. She introduces different genres, authors, themes. She surrounds them with shelves weighed down by high-interest books and gives them time to read in class. To this teacher, it is not about the book — or the six books of lofty literary merit — it is about the reader. Readers who read 12 books in a year instead of just six. This teacher knows if she makes a reader she can make a life. And the skills gained through reading extensively transfer to their writing and permeate like energetic friends into the reading they must do in other classes.
I am going to go with b.
Equity is not in the books we require students to read in English classes. Equity is in the skills and the fluency and the stamina students need to read those books if they chooses to read them.
Too many students in high school read below grade level. The only way to help them read better is to read more. Six books (and I’ll question if he really reads them) is not enough. So much research helps us understand this. Donalyn Miller collected a lot of it for easy access here. And Penny Kittle cites scores of it in the bibliography of Book Love.
I met with a reader today. I asked her about the reading she did as a sophomore in her Pre-AP class. “Did you read last year?” I asked.
“Uh, no, not really,” she said. “I only read two books last year. But I only remember one.”
And before you jump all over me, I know there is option c. Yes, we can have a mix of both, but I will hold my ground: If we are not advancing readers and writers, we are doing it wrong.