I’ve been thinking about culturally relevant texts and how they encourage striving readers to reach for increasingly complex texts.
Gloria Ladson-Billings, a pioneer in the field of culturally relevant pedagogy, believes that students need opportunities to find themselves in the books they read and be held to “high expectations.” To build strong readers, we need to expose all students to complexity and nuance, not just those who we consider advanced.
I work as a literacy interventionist in my district with teachers and students to close literacy gaps. This year, I had an eye-opening experience with a freshman who reads at an intermediate level and selected Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah, as his lit circle book.
If you aren’t familiar with this book, it is often a summer read for some of our juniors going into AP Language. Noah, comedian and anchor of The Daily Show, masterfully recalls his childhood in apartheid South Africa, all while interspersing his trademark humor and rich historical details. Despite its levity, it’s a hard book, dense with context that even strong readers may find challenging in places.
And yet, this freshman thrived with this book. Even though he didn’t grow up in South Africa, he grew up in an area that he describes as “the projects”.
After working with me one day to develop a text-response strategy, this young man excitedly ran back to his teacher and told her about “this sticky note annotation strategy” that both his teacher and I had been modeling all year for him. He had a great sense of pride and engagement in his reading that we had never seen before. And when the time came for discussion, he had a great deal to contribute to his group.
This book transformed him as a reader.
This had me thinking… what if instead of assigning the “appropriate” leveled text to striving readers, we focus more on finding a text relevant to them?
Often reading intervention programs focus on simplistic texts. Overtime, students who read at a lower than grade levels may miss out on context-rich literacy experiences.
Literacy is about building equity, and if we aren’t giving striving readers the same opportunities as thriving readers, then we are limiting their access to diverse and timely ideas.
All readers, but especially those who are striving, need books that mirror their reality.
At the heart of a strong reading intervention lies a teacher’s ability to connect readers to texts that engage, excite, and encourage them as readers. It’s about the just-right-text, not the just-right-level.
Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is a literacy interventionist, ELA 9 teacher and co-director of the Wildcat Writing Den, a campus writing center in metro-Detroit. You can find her laughing easily with her husband and three sons while spending time in the great outdoors this summer. Visit her blog at www.learningonramps.org.