Tag Archives: literacy

A Question about Equity

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?

Of course.

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?

Choose one:

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, hboys readingow 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.”

Two books.


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.


Could We Just Get Students to Read and Write in All Content Areas?

So one of the problems on my campus is the fact that students don’t read. Oh, I know some do, but by and large, the majority of our students are not readers. As a school we are struggling with this new problem of practice, trying to define “complex language.” We’ve spent hours with this already, and have yet to come to a consensus. In frustration last week, after discussing this for two and a half hours, my colleague wrote on the bottom of our PD group’s thinking sheet:  “Could we just get students to read and write in all content areas?”

Really. It could be that simple.

A few years ago, our campus began whole-school reading. Built into our daily schedule is a 30 minute Advisory time, where a good number of minutes could be used for independent reading– if only teachers would enforce it. Most students like to read when they are given their choice of the right books. But if teachers are not reader themselves, it’s no wonder they don’t care if their students read.

Mine do, but that’s not surprising. The students in my English classes read for 10 minutes at the beginning of every class. So, if their advisory teachers are mandating reading, my students should be reading at least 25 minutes during every school day. That’s not a lot, but it is something.

Of course, independent reading will not solve all our problems. Students need to think deeply about texts, not just increase their fluency, and non-readers will abandon a book rather than struggle through it. That’s why if we really want to get our students to develop complex language skills, we must get them to practice complex reading. This is the kind of reading teachers must do with their students. You know, modeling close reading, modeling thinking about a text? And I think English teachers who know how to do this need to be given the opportunity to teach math and science and choir and business teachers how to read closely with all students.

We can talk about complex language all day as a staff. We can define it and put the definition on the walls of our classrooms, but that won’t do a thing until all teachers in all content areas start reading complex texts with their students. (And maybe it’s too much to ask, but imagine the growth if every student wrote in every class every day, too.) Hey, friends in other content areas, I’m glad to show you how.


Does your school have a wide reading program or other reading initiatives that include reading and writing in all content areas?


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