#3TTWorkshop –Right Now Literacy

My 11th grade curriculum overview begins:  Unit I of English III invites students to explore multi-genre texts that reflect diverse perspectives through reading and writing. Students evaluate the credibility of different viewpoints and consider how the ideas of others strengthen their own voice.

I set out to design lessons that met these guidelines. I began introducing a variety of contemporary texts in a variety of forms — all about high interest, high profile topics. Good idea, I thought, for a never-an-empty-seat diverse class of sixteen year olds.

My plans quickly met resistance right there in the classroom, and I faced the terrifying conclusion:  My students are too biased to recognize bias, too emotionally attached to their own viewpoints, so they are blinded to the viewpoints of others.

Reminds me of a few of my “friends” on Facebook, a few of the people I follow on Twitter, a lot of the stories on pretty much any type of social media.

This fall as I’ve designed lessons, it’s been one puzzle piece after another as I’ve worked to meet the needs of all of my students in the limited amount of time they are with me. (Accelerated block means I have them only one semester.)

Then, the presidential election happened. The doublespeak, the false news, the protestors, the name calling, the ramifications, the incivility…on every side.

Obviously, my students are not the only ones who suffer from a suffocating bias that makes them blind.

And I am bothered. I know many of you are bothered, too.

So as educators, what do we do about it?

I wrote about this idea of Right Now Literacy in a post as I reflected on NCTE. I would love for the educators I trust most to help me think and expand this idea in a once a month post. The first Wednesday of each month, I’ll first get the ideas rolling and then ask questions to Shana and Lisa, and then we’ll run a post centered around my on-going investigation of right now literacy.

We invite you to join this conversation by voicing your own thinking in the comments. Here goes:

Amy:  We all attended some great sessions at NCTE, and we’ve all written posts with some of our reflections. One session that we attended together (thanks for saving me a seat) shines as a highlight for me:  The panel discussion called Expert to Expert: The Joy and Power of Reading with Kylene Beers, Pam Allyn, Ernest Morrell, and Kwame Alexander. (Lisa, I know you cried at least once. I would’ve slipped you a tissue if I had one.)

What was your biggest takeaway from that session?

Lisa: My biggest takeaway is that I should bring Kleenex to NCTE sessions. Rookie mistake. I had no idea how powerful this learning would be!

I wrote yesterday about Kwame Alexander’s insights that we must “be the manufacturers and purveyors of hope,” and that we must “help students become more human.” These ideas have propelled quite a bit of writing and reflecting in recent days as I reexamine my daily practice through the lens of developing my students as people as well as learners.

Early in my career, I was just getting my footing. I taught the way I had been taught and the way my collaborating teachers were teaching. It was pretty traditional. But about a decade ago, our department really started changing. More choice, more authentic assessments, more student voice. I learned to talk with my students instead of at them. Alexander’s quotes above reiterate this to me. Hope for the future flourishes when people take ownership of resolving problems with well reasoned and fair solutions. In this case, allowing students to take ownership of much of their learning fosters hope for their futures as critical thinkers and skilled communicators.

In that same vein, I’ve examined the resources I have made available to kids, because as Kylene Beers said in the same session, “If you don’t have kids falling in love with reading, take a look at the books in your room.”  All of these ideas together remind me that I need to consistently refine my role in the classroom to see learning through the eyes of my diverse students and their unique experiences. While my ideas, plans, and suggestions might guide our daily practice, it’s the students that fuel the inquiry and it’s their discoveries that we expand on to emulate in writing, debate as a class, and guide future reading selections.

Shana:  Pam Allyn is right up there with Penny Kittle and Tom Romano in terms of people who have impacted my teaching life profoundly.  She is brilliant and brave and I fell madly in love with her and her work at NCTE last year, when I sat next to her mother to listen to a similar session.  We got to turn and talk to our neighbors about a variety of topics, and at the time, I was pregnant with my daughter.  I’ll never forget Pam’s mother telling me about the books she’d read to Pam as a young child, and I think of that every time I read to Ruthie–look what a literary giant was borne of a simple indoctrination into a love of reading.

But, I digress.  Pam referred to the fact that the day she spoke was the anniversary of the Gettysburg address, a “hopeful story on a ground of despair.”  She mentioned this in the context of saying that “we’ve been enculturated to allow injustice to occur, especially in education.  We have to say when something isn’t working.

For me, that rang true.  I can’t sit back and listen to people discuss practices of blatant readicide, assuming someone else will speak up–they have been enculturated not to.  Instead of viewing this as a battle, though, I think standing up for what’s right is an act of hope.  As Kwame said, “Teachers, librarians, and parents are purveyors and manufacturers of hope.  We have to offer literature to kids to help them find, raise, and share their voices.”  That’s what I want literature to do for kids, and I have to speak up about it.

Amy:  When Ernest Morrell answered Kylene’s question about the kind of literature we should be reading now with the comment: “We are in a new classic movement in English Language Arts. It’s a need for right now literature.” I thought of a million reasons why a workshop pedagogy fits the immediate need of students today. It wasn’t seconds before my brain connected so many dots made bold by the election:  What we really need is Right Now Literacy, not just literature.

Here’s some of the thoughts percolating in my notebook (They may even work as chapter headings).

  • Story as an Equalizer — How do we give voice to every student’s story?
  • Audience Participation — How do we truly give voice if we are the only listener?
  • Communication as Compromise — How do we move speaking and listening skills to the forefront of instruction?
  • Reading as Literacy Presencing — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to see themselves in the books they read?
  • Reading as a Bridge — How do we provide opportunities and encourage students to view multiple perspectives?
  • Critical Lenses — How do we teach bias, fallacies, multiple viewpoints, how to validate of sources, including a focus on digital literacy?
  • Design Thinking — How do we shift learning to designing? This is what employers want.

How do you define Right Now Literacy? What would you add or take away?

Shana:  Amy, you are so great at conceptualizing books as mirrors, windows, or doors.  I was thinking about this and realized that while I’ve heard those terms thrown around a lot at NCTE, I don’t know where they originated.  After some googling I discovered the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who pioneered the idea of taking these terms from architecture and applying them to the reading of literature.  Here are her words:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

So, those concepts to me are central to what Right Now Literacy is:  in an era of homophily and a lack of cultural responsiveness, we need to teach kids how to see not just literature as windows, doors, or mirrors, but also the stories of other people’s lives.  I’ll draw on the Tom Newkirk lovefest when Tom’s editor read aloud the first line of his book, Minds Made for Stories:  “Our theories are really disguised autobiographies, often rooted in childhood.”  She advised us to get curious about the stories that lead people to their stances and belief.  I don’t think kids know how to do this, and for me it’s a big part of Right Now Literacy.

Lisa: I love what Shana shared about literature reflecting the “larger human experience,” and how we seek ourselves in books. In addition to these ideas, I think what Amy referred to as “suffocating bias” is at the top of my Right Now Literacy Focus.

Literacy instruction can be daunting enough when goal is to help students gain the necessary skills to first comprehend, then analyze, and evaluate what they read. This is, of course, in addition to the self-affirmation piece Sims references. But now, it’s become downright demoralizing that teaching literacy must not only mean standing guard against bias, but evaluating sources of “news” for outright lies.  

But while it’s difficult to stomach that teaching these additional skills has to be a part of Right Now Literacy, and that we need articles like NPR’s “Fake or Real? How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts,” this is necessary work in our modern world. Students need to be able to sift through the information around them, tossing out the misleading and sometimes incendiary “news,” if we are to hope that they can synthesize the perspectives and get back to the enlightening work of finding that self-affirmation referenced above.



photo by Jeremy Thomas   Longmont, United States

Amy:  Thanks for sharing your thoughts here, Lisa and Shana. Dear Readers, I hope you will join the conversation, too. What are your thoughts on a Right Now Literacy?


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6 thoughts on “#3TTWorkshop –Right Now Literacy

  1. […] our students need right now — what our country needs right now — is critical thinking around a wide variety of […]


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  3. Kerry December 8, 2016 at 11:32 am Reply

    Unfortunately, I believe we live in a world today that promotes a dichotomy between diversity and unity. Recently, I read a New York Times article entitled “The End of Identity Liberalism” in which Mark Lilla makes a poignant and striking claim when he notes “… fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the tasks of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life…By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy, and the common good.” I appreciate Lilla’s point that it is quite possible we have let the pendulum swing too far to the left in a well-intentioned effort to celebrate everyone’s differences but in that effort sacrificed unity and, in some ways, humanity – the parts of us that make us the same in nature and desire.

    Whenever I ask questions about my students, I also ask them of myself. Not too long ago, I was a high school and then a college student (I am a 4th year teacher). And I know in the past my empathy and sympathy were underdeveloped, even nonexistent at times. So, what has changed me? What made me not only able to connect to others but desire that connection?

    There are many reasons for this – some small, some not so much. There are quotes that I have read or heard that have become mantras for my personal and professional life. Quotes such as “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” There have been experiences – you know those shameful ones where you say something only to find out it was probably the most insensitive comment one you could make at the time – that have bedded themselves in my conscience for future caution. I have also been blessed to travel all over the world and experienced different cultures first hand and heard stories from people of suffering and hope that so often reflected my own. And then there is reading. Oh, the reading. If one cannot leave the country, one only has to simply read to find herself in a different place engaging different people in order to find connection and compassion.

    This week I completed a Socratic seminar with my sophomore English class. Right now they are divided into small groups, and each group is reading a book, or chapter, of The Odyssey. The seminar was a time and place for these groups to ask questions and get answers from the book and each other while I listened in, facilitated when needed, and quietly thought to myself “this is awesome!” when I heard them speaking up and helping each other and themselves comprehend, analyze, connect, and evaluate. The way I set up my seminars, each student must create 4 questions – one for each level. Level 4 is evaluation – students must make judgments and create questions like “Do you agree ______?”, “What do you think about_______?”, and “How would you decide_______?” Level 3 is synthesis – “What would happen if______?”, “What would you have done _________?”

    Last year with a different class and a different topic (The Hobbit), I kept hearing the students asking each other these questions more than the others. At first, I thought it was because at first glance it didn’t seem to require them to dig deep into the text. So, I asked the class why they always seemed to come back to these “simple” questions, and what I found out was really interesting. They told me that they liked these questions because it made them think about the situations and how they would handle them based on resources, circumstances, etc. They weren’t looking for a way out – they were actually looking for a way in – a way into the story, into the minds and actions of these characters as a way to expose and extend themselves outside their norms. In effect, I truly believe they – we – can then apply these ideas to real life, real situations that deal with real fear, suffering, hope, friendship, love, etc.

    So, back to my sophomores. I had them complete a reflection after their seminars to get some feedback on how they thought the process went for them. One of the prompts was, “Explain how the seminar influenced your thinking about the topic or the text(s).” And here are a few of the responses I received:

    “…it was interesting to see everyone’s answers. Not everyone thought the same and it gave me other view points of different things.”

    “The Socratic seminar definitely opened my mind up to new thoughts and reflections. Hearing responses from a different perspective was very interesting. My group members brought up ideas and observations that I never would have thought of.”

    “The questions made you stop and think about what you are reading. When the questions asked about the text I was face (in a good way) to wonder about answers and I had to put myself in different positions of the characters.”

    So while these remarks weren’t entirely grammatically correct, beautifully descriptive, or incredibly profound, they are indicative of something. These kids are recognizing the voices around them – in books and in each other – and at some level appreciating different perspectives. This can only be the beginning of what I hope is their ultimate ability and desire to see themselves in others and thus find the compassion and community we all so much crave in this world of derision and division.

    I realize that these questions they are asking about the characters of The Odyssey are just tugging at the corners of the greater patchwork of what it means to be human. But it’s a start. I only hope to continue to ask these questions and develop new ones that lead them even further down the path of compassion and unity as they have their own “aha” moments about humanity that will mark their own journeys.

    Thank you for letting me share. Writing is good for the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen January 2, 2017 at 2:11 am Reply

      Kerry, your thinking around all of this is inspiring as are the discussions your students are having. I would love to be a part of your class.


  4. Lori December 7, 2016 at 9:34 pm Reply

    After my limited experience st NCTE last month, I realized that I need to be more connected with professionals across the country. I have always made it a point to read something related to my profession over the summer “vacation” and the ideas have fueled my passion and guided my instruction. NCTE took it to a whole néw level… I felt a combustion… An ignitin of sorts. Now all I can think about is how to get to St. Louis!

    Right Now Literacy fits so well with my flexibility as an AP Language teacher. I have been pulling in current, relevant examples for years. This idea validates my work. That might not seem important, but it is. I am the only AP Lang teacher in my building, so this kind of validation rarely happens. This year I do not have on-grade level classes, but I have in the past, I felt like I had to “sneak” in the good stuff (Right Now Literwcy) for them.

    I am one of very few in the department experimenting with workshop style instruction, and others aren’t interested in trying. My heart breaks when I think of what other kids are missing in those rooms where curriculum is stagnant and instruction in standardized. I want to be the voice Shana calls for us to have, but until I can find the balance in my own room, I hesitate to speak up about what others are doing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy Rasmussen January 2, 2017 at 2:13 am Reply

      Lori, your students are blessed to have you! We often go it alone with workshop instruction, which allows for choice, and moving outside of “the canon”. Thank you for your comments, and as always, let us know how we can help support you.


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