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?