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December 1, 2023
Vol. 81
No. 4

Answering “Why Do We Have to Do This?”

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The best reading strategy in the world won’t hook students if they don’t care about the work.

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EngagementInstructional Strategies
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It’s Monday morning, mid-February. Soon, 34 sophomores will join our learning lab of secondary science teachers at Willow High School. My task as a hired literacy consultant is to demonstrate how to weave in disciplinary literacy strategies, using the host teacher’s current unit, “Applied Genetics.”  
Students trickle into the classroom. Staring at the 12 observing teachers who are scattered around the room, kids ask me where they can sit. Some refuse to make eye contact, others groan as they enter. 
“Are you our sub? If there’s a sub, I’m outta here,” quips a kid with an amazing head of hair. 
“No, but I’m going to be working with you for the next two days. Tell me your name.”  
Surprised, he peeks out from his bangs and tells me “Jamal.” He then introduces me to his buddy. I can tell right away they probably aren’t supposed to sit together.  
“This is Malachi,” Jamal says. “He hates school.” Malachi doesn’t say a word. 
Just as the warning bell rings, a kid to the right of me laments, “Why do we have to do this?” 
Lately, I’ve been asking myself why teachers have to do certain things. Since COVID-19, school feels different. Teaching is still hard, but it’s a different kind of hard that I still can’t put my finger on. More and more, students want to know what the purpose is of what they are being asked to do. And when they ask, teachers should have an answer. 

More and more, students want to know what the purpose is of what they are being asked to do. And when they ask, teachers should have an answer.

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Perhaps when students ask, “Why do I have to do this?” they’re really asking, “Why should I care?” I considered this as I crafted this article, pondering how disciplinary literacy should be taught. There are straightforward answers to how to do so: model thinking, show kids how to get unstuck, and identify structures that organize discipline-specific text. These are all important aspects of disciplinary ­literacy—but for students who don’t care, they aren’t enough. 
Participants in these teacher learning labs are tasked to study engagement—not copy the way I teach. My role is to model thinking and planning strategies so teachers can observe different ways to engage students. But knowing that even the best reading strategy won’t work if kids are disengaged, I’m worried that following the unit plans the host teacher provided won’t be enough to hook all students. So I’ve added the following structures to her unit to ramp up engagement. First, I’ll provide several texts on the topic that learners can choose from. Second, I’ll ask students to respond to one of four provocative questions to activate their curiosity and background knowledge. Third, instead of taking a quiz at the end of class, students will reflect on the learning targets shared at the beginning. I’ll examine their annotations and observe conversations with tablemates to get a sense of their knowledge about genetics—and how they read. Fourth, I’ve suggested a change for the final assessment. Instead of a report on an inherited disease that only the teacher will read, perhaps a pamphlet that students design to create awareness about genetic mutations will garner more interest. The pamphlets will then be delivered by students to the local health center. An authentic task should cause more kids to care. I hope the planning I’ve done in ­anticipation of students’ needs will be enough to keep them engaged.

Needed: Daily Reasons to Care

Getting kids to care on a daily basis is hard work. During the lesson, students had very different needs in terms of getting motivated. Quinn, the self-proclaimed best reader in the class, colored her choice text with the provided highlighters. When I asked what she was wondering about, she responded confidently, “I don’t have any questions. I already know everything about genetics.” But when I read a few of her annotations, none of them indicated she’d read very deeply. Meanwhile, Rosario, an English language learner, just stared at the text. As I conferred with her, she simply smiled and nodded. I made a mental note that my first step for Rosario the next day would be to find a student who could help me translate and then ease her anxiety and assess how well she reads in her native language. 
I also realized as the demonstration lesson progressed that students weren’t making connections between various things they were learning; they simply didn’t have enough reasons, other than a good grade, to care about doing the work. At the time of this learning lab, their teacher was trying to be a good member of her teaching team by following the agreed-upon activities for the unit. She had to cover a certain amount of content. If some kids fell behind, at least she could say she got through the material.  
I’m sure this teacher knew in her gut why these facts about genetics were important. But because she hadn’t included context—the “why should I care?”—her plan wasn’t hooking most students.  
Certainly, students need to know how to read disciplinary-specific text. But often, modeling reading strategies isn’t enough to engage learners. My goal in the professional development work I do with teachers, like the learning lab at Willow High, is to model multiple reasons why students should care about the work. Some kids will work because they’re interested in the text I’ve provided; others will be intrigued by provocative questions. Creating an authentic product at the end grabs a few more kids. I wanted teachers to understand that the more reasons we can provide for students to do the work, the more kids we might hook.

Same Unit, Different School—But Rich with Context

As luck would have it, a month later I worked with a high school science teacher in a different state on virtually the same unit. Tara used a case study of a person with cancer to give students context. They researched the disease to see the role of inheritance and genetic mutations. When I asked why students should care about the topic, Tara immediately answered, “All our students have been touched by this disease. They may not have experienced it themselves, but they know and love someone who has.” We listed these reasons why learners should care about the content of the unit:
  • A basic understanding of genetics can inform our decisions about lifestyle changes and family planning choices.
  • When we know what causes a disease, we can be proactive and less afraid we might “get it.”
  • Not all mutations are bad. Some help us survive.
  • Sometimes where and how we live affects our genes. If we know what causes cancer, we can protect our body and environment from toxins.
  • There are positive and negative aspects of genetic manipulation. A basic understanding of genetics can inform how we act when faced with a controversial issue. 
Tara never mentioned covering content. She knew providing context for learning factual information is the Velcro for understanding.

This teacher never mentioned covering content. She knew providing context for learning factual information is the Velcro for understanding.

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Marrying Content and Relevance

Connecting content to relevant issues beyond students’ personal lives also helps students care. Last spring, I coached Jenn, a 10th grade English teacher in a rural part of New York who was planning a unit around the novel, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. She wanted students to study different points of view in this powerful novel. We came up with two reasons why this novel and the English language arts standards ­connected to teaching point of view should matter to adolescents:
  • Readers need to see themselves reflected in their reading; to expand their view of the world, they also need to read about people and places they don’t normally encounter.
  • Finding our voice gives us power in the world to make changes and stand against injustice. 
Once Jenn articulated her reasons for using the novel, I pushed her to connect her unit to a current issue to add more reasons for students to care. The Hate U Give has been banned in many school districts around the United States (actually, since Jenn taught this unit, several states have increased book-banning and censored the teaching of certain aspects of Black history). Jenn agreed and added one more reason this study was relevant: “History can inform how we act. Nazis banned and burned books, art, and any thinking that wasn’t deemed ‘German.’ ­Promoting extreme nationalism [was] a way [they carried] out genocide.”  
Pairing a novel with a current issue gives students a chance to take a position and do some argumentative writing. Teachers can model how to read different disciplinary texts like op-eds, data tables, and journal articles. Jenn’s students explored historical texts that helped them trace the roots of modern-day censorship to Nazi book burnings and wrote op-eds arguing a position on book banning, which they sent to local papers.  
It’s not Jenn’s job to sway students to refute or defend book banning. It is her job to teach students how to be readers, writers, and critical thinkers. Writing about something that has more than one “side” gives students practice so they can hit the complex standard of argumentative writing. After all, when there’s only one right answer, students have nothing to argue about.  

Putting a unit in context of both current controversies and students’ lives by articulating why that unit matters also helps teachers respond if the community questions curricular choices.

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Another way to get students engaged is to offer provocative, compelling questions that drive reading, writing, and discussion. Wrestling with open-ended questions gives students opportunities to engage in critical thinking as they analyze text and weave together discourses from different points of view. It also honors different student perspectives. Jenn used these questions for her unit on book banning:
  • What makes a book dangerous?
  • Who should tell teenagers what they can and can’t read?
  • When should books be restricted, censored, or banned?
  • How can I use my voice to make a difference? 
Similarly, in her unit on cancer and genetic mutations, Tara asked students:
  • How do I read scientific text differently than I read fiction?
  • If someone in my family has cancer, will I get it?
  • Do the benefits of genetic manipulation outweigh the risks? When does science go too far? 
Putting a unit in context of both current controversies and students’ lives by articulating why that unit matters also helps teachers respond if the community questions curricular choices.

Literacy and the World of Work

For some students, reading texts connected to real-world activities or jobs is motivating. And working with such texts gives all students confidence with writing, or at least reading, about the basics in various fields. Real-world texts are specialized: Consider the reading and writing a plumber or a genetic counselor does. The text they use to construct and communicate meaning is very different from that of, say, a journalist. Students need opportunities to read and write different text structures so they can change the way they read and write as needed to participate in, or at least understand, communication within specialized communities or professions. The Carnegie Council for Advancing Adolescent Literacy recognized this need for flexibility when it suggested that students’ inability to respond to the reading demands of different disciplines may contribute to lower adolescent reading scores. 
We can help students become more skillful at reading and writing disciplinary texts by sharing what experts in the fields do literacy-wise. Literacy professor Rachael Gabriel defines disciplinary literacy as “instruction that highlights and explicitly teaches students how to create and use texts that are specialized for a given purpose or audience.” So if we’re serious about teaching disciplinary literacy, we must investigate what practitioners do. This is why whenever I talk to an expert, I ask them how they read and write text connected to their field—from querying my financial planner on how he reads a prospectus to asking an actor, “How do you usually read a script the first time you see it?” Finding examples of authentic products various workers create provides students with models and criteria for success. When I plan with a teacher, we brainstorm who uses the facts, skills, and strategies we want students to learn. For example, texts created by historians, social scientists, and activists might include: open letters, memoirs, protest art, photo essays, pamphlets, position statements, feature articles, infographics, and speeches. We study what those professionals create to communicate their thinking.

Reading the Real Stuff

Many middle and high schoolers mentally check out because they’re unable or unwilling to read the assigned text. The hard truth is, if kids aren’t reading, they aren’t getting better at it. And as students progress through the grade levels, the span of reading abilities a teacher needs to accommodate grows wider; one text will never meet the needs of all students. So teachers need to search for reading material that represents a variety of text structures and reading levels. Yes, curating text choices takes time. But even adding one more option to what’s ­currently being offered might double the number of kids who actually read.  

When we know why something matters, it gives us the energy to learn.

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For the demonstration genetics lesson, for instance, I chose sources I would read if I wanted to know more about a disease. I pulled text from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic, and the National Organization of Rare Disorders. I found infographics connected to cell division and gene mutations, photos depicting physical ­manifestations of maladies, and a few firsthand accounts of teens suffering from disease.  
When Jenn and I gathered text for her English unit, we discovered open letters signed by authors whose books were banned, online form letters where parents could fill in blanks to protest a book, infographics and tables comparing where books were banned, and commentaries from librarians and parents. Reading choices included articles about the banning of The Hate U Give, political cartoons, historical text about Nazi book burnings, and more.  
My criteria for text selection isn’t reading level; I go for high interest and authenticity. I think about English learners who are learning the language and also needing to learn the content. Finding infographics with minimal print provides a way for them to get information about the content and it gives teachers a chance to teach a bit of decoding and vocabulary. I consider what might appeal to students who are obstinate and refuse to read. Sometimes an age-appropriate graphic photo grabs a reluctant reader’s attention enough to ask a question, which can open the door to another piece of text. I look for sources that provide information so students can gain background knowledge about a topic and texts that model what students will write themselves in a unit or lesson.

Energy to Learn

With strategic planning, teachers can help students care. We all need reasons to engage in complex work. The more reasons we have, the more compelled we are to dig in and stick with the task. When we know why something matters, it gives us the energy to learn. Teaching disconnected facts, isolated skills, and a few token reading strategies isn’t enough. Learners need compelling reasons to read, write, and think.
Author’s note: All teacher and student names are pseudonyms.

Reflect & Discuss

Think of a unit you will be teaching soon. How could you change up your lesson plans or structure of that unit to add context and “reasons to care” for students?

Thinking outside the box, what supplemental texts could you use in this unit that would feel relevant and give access to readers with various abilities?

How do you tend to answer the student question, “Why do we have to do this?” Talk to other teachers on your team or a critical friend: What good ways have they found to answer this?

End Notes

1 Carnegie Council for Advancing Adolescent ­Literacy. (2010). Time to act: An agenda for advancing adolescent literacy for college and career success. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

2 Gabriel, R. (2023). Doing disciplinary literacy: Teaching reading and writing across the content areas. Teachers College Press. 

Cris Tovani is a veteran K–12 teacher and an education consultant for pre-service and secondary teachers, focusing on disciplinary literacy and integrating literacy strategies into lessons so students can be better readers and writers. She is the author of many books, including most recently, Why Do I Have to Read This? Literacy Strategies to Engage Our Most Reluctant Students (Stenhouse, 2020). 

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