Half of the 7th graders in the school were reading well below grade level when I was hired as a reading teacher. To say that my preparation for the job was substandard would be kind, but I was young, naïve, and in need of a job.
Absent any meaningful preparation for the role, I did what many educators do. I signed on to use a "research-based," scripted approach to teaching reading. My saving grace was that I was a dedicated kid-watcher and somehow knew that it was important to interpret and attend to students' cues. When it was time for "reading," their cues weren't all that hard to read. Their usual high spirits exited and they had the appearance of being consigned to menial labor.
How Donna Woke Me Up
Maybe I'd have changed course fairly quickly even without Donna's note. But her message made it impossible for me to linger as the dispenser of someone else's idea of what it means to teach reading. Her eyes were red and her cheeks tear-stained as she handed me the note and asked if she could go to the restroom. As I read her words, I felt a compelling need to find Donna and speak with her immediately—and would have, had I not reminded myself that I was the teacher and couldn't just walk out of the room.
Donna apologized for cheating on an exercise that followed one of the prescribed passages in our reading program. She said she was ashamed of copying answers from the answer key and hadn't been able to sleep all night because she was so disappointed in herself. Almost parenthetically, she explained why she'd cheated: The readings were so excruciatingly dull that she simply couldn't find it in herself to read another passage.
I knew instantly that the apology was misplaced. I needed to apologize to Donna—for not understanding that "learning" disguised as indentured servitude isn't really learning at all, for not responding to the reality that when students park their enthusiasm outside my classroom door, I've lost their humanity.
I did apologize to Donna. I promised her that I'd be the one who would lose sleep—until I could craft a better way for us to be readers. I began the journey of understanding that reading is compelling for kids when it enlivens the mind, rouses the soul, or tickles the funny bone. So we read about people—often kids—whose lives were complex and whose decisions challenged us to think about our own. Students mostly had choices about what to read, as long as they were reflective about the contents. We interpreted readings through music, photography, art, and mime. We talked to one another about ideas from reading, and we learned to listen and debate, showing respect for perspectives unlike our own. It shouldn't be surprising that enthusiastic reading led to more reading, which led to better reading performance.
How Chad Makes It Relevant
Fast forward to a recent encounter with a stellar young history teacher, Chad Prather. Chad, who elects to work in the toughest high school in his city, has grasped the need to make the work of reading attractive earlier in his journey than I did. Most of his students are abysmal readers. Most come to school bearing discouragement, anger, and fear. They are kids with whom teachers often develop an unspoken pact: "Be compliant, and I won't ask much else of you."
Chad, however, believes that learning elevates us and won't settle for less. He understands that being a lousy reader at 16 is humiliating and that rejecting reading and school is easier than feeling like a failure. He understands that teachers can't "make" kids better readers; rather, strong teachers issue kids invitations to find out about the complex fabric of their lives through reading.
As a unit on Machiavelli begins, Chad revisits questions that frame the year in his class—and emerge in his students' lives. What is "order," and how much control is necessary to maintain it? What is the tragic flaw in people?
Before reading assigned selections from The Prince, Chad's students work in teams to grapple with the meaning of rapper Tupac Shakur's poem, "In the Event of My Demise." (Shakur used the pseudonym Makaveli near the end of his career.) Shakur's language connects with these learners—even if his message is initially obscure. Team members have assigned and numbered roles and work in a jigsaw-like way to probe various aspects of the text. The "ones" in each group, for example, predict what the poem will be about, the "twos" clarify the meaning of confusing words, and so on.
When the class reassembles, Chad has the twos from all groups stand, and he asks for a volunteer to talk about words in the title that need clarification. Because these students are prepared for the task, no one is on the spot alone. Each group shares its insights.
After this conversation has run its course, Chad assigns students to peer groups to read from Machiavelli's 1532 text, using the roles and strategies they'd just adopted in discussing the poem. He sets the goal of thinking about the lesson's essential questions—and discussing how these questions about "order" and the flaws in humanity played out in Shakur's life, in their lives, in history, and in The Prince.
Students grapple together with the challenging language and ideas, spurred on by links with the poem and their special assignments that keep each group attuned to the skills of analytical reading. The pace is brisk. Tasks change often. The ideas are relevant and compelling. Students seem to find reading worth the often gut-wrenching effort.
Breathing in Life
Chad knows that it's essential to avoid reading instruction that asks kids to pick to death texts that are meaningless to them—read a sentence, find an allusion, read another sentence, give me a synonym for the verb the author uses. This practice is deadly and extinguishes motivation to read.
It's teachers' job to breathe life into whatever work we ask students to dedicate themselves to—and to ensure that this work doesn't suck the life out of them, especially in reading. I'm glad Donna understood that—and taught me to begin by creating an invitation.