Just over a year ago I was sitting at dinner with my wife Julie, Bob Probst and Kylene Beers (pinch me it was one of the greatest moments of my life) and as we visited they mentioned a new book they had been working on. I was obviously excited because any time to learn from them is a welcome opportunity. A few months later I received an email asking if I would preview the book and provide a little blurb. I was so grateful to do so and dove into the book fully unaware of how important the content inside would be.
Power and Privilege
As a teacher, I would talk to my kids about what literacy meant all the time. We would discuss reading and writing as tools of literacy. That same weekend I mentioned earlier Kylene was presenting and asked that question to the audience, “What is literacy?” She listened and smiled as answers poured in and then she presented a different take. She spoke about literacy being power and how that power has been wielded as a tool of control and that it is our duty as teachers to wield that power in the name of disrupting the systems that have so often suppressed as we need to help provide our students with the power of a literate life to be the agents of change we need in a world still filled with so much injustice. This framing of what literacy was impacted my thinking last February and as I pored through the pages of Forged by Reading both the history of literacy and the damages that abusing its power has caused and the hope for a future where all students are informed and have the tools of literacy available to them to help shape a better, stronger, more just society were evident. Literacy has the power to do that.
Responsively and Responsible
As we learn more of the history of literacy and the power it has to be both liberating and suppressing I am again reminded of this idea that was first brought to my attention in the wonderful Disrupting Thinking. This notion that we need to be both Responsive and Responsible readers. In the simplest of terms, we have to be open to the idea that reading can impact us, lead us to think, create a sense of urgency to act and then we must act. We spend so much time teaching kids to read for information that we inadvertently teach them to ignore the feelings they encounter. As teachers, we are guilty of doing the same. When we not only recognize the thoughts and feelings that we have around a text but then act we are opening doors to new discussions and opportunities to grow and facilitate change. In Forged by Reading Bob and Kylene expand on a great Framework that they gave us in Disrupting Thinking to increase the role of responsibility in reading. The Book-Head-Heart Framework is an amazing tool to help readers be more responsive, providing a structure to responsibly organize their thinking around a text and reflect on the importance to them. In Forged by Reading it goes a step further asking what we can DO. BHH-D asks us to take that next step and our students are ready for it when the opportunity is provided because our students want to talk about and work to make better the problems of the world. Just sit down and ask them.
They will change the world; just get out of the Damn Way
In Forged by Reading Kylene and Bob share a list of items that students are interested in talking about. All of the major issues facing the world come up. Our students want to solve the problems of today because they will be inheriting the world of tomorrow. Too often adults determine what is “too much” for our students. As the world starts to face these tough conversations there are forces that want to keep these topics from the discussions we have with our youth. Lawmakers are trying to ban discussions around racial injustice, gun safety, poverty and the environment because they know that literacy is power and they want to hold on to that power themselves. When we work to make sure our students have the opportunity to address these issues, to challenge the status quo and work for better we start to do the work that will bring about change. Every year my students participate in #ProjectSpeak. They identify issues important to them and research the topic in hopes that presenting it to others will not only spread awareness but attract others to their cause. Topics have ranged from feed formulas so that cattle are better sellers to pay equity in sports and everything in between. When we provide the space to explore meaningful topics our students will always rise to the occasion.
We have the power to change the current reality.
The power of Forged by Reading and really any book is in the hands of the reader. The words and ideas that Bob and Kylene have presented us with are wasted if we do not take them and act both responsively and responsibly. One of my favourite type of Superheroes are reality manipulators, I think it is the idea that only their imagination can hold them back. Literacy has the power to unlock that imagination in all of us. It provides us with the tools to see the world beyond where it currently is. As I close I share this tweet from Kylene,
What is the reality we want our students to be able to imagine? What is the reality we want our parents and community to see? We have the power to change it. To make the shifts to a better place for our students and our future. The time for sitting back and waiting is over. The time of enjoying our comforts while others struggle to get ahead are over. We can and must do better. As someone mentioned in the chat, our students are world shakers. We as teachers either need to help or get out of the way. There is important work to do.
Neither the weather or the continuing pandemic was able to dampen spirits and pull folks away from the #G2Great chat with Colleen Cruz on Thursday, February 11, 2021. As we began planning for this chat, I worried about being able to write about both the book and chat in a credible fashion that would do justice to the brilliance shared. As the chat ensued, I realized that I was right to worry with so much greatness packed into a 60 minute chat!
I first met Colleen almost eight years ago when she was my staff developer at my initial Writing Institute at Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Eye opening. Jaw dropping. Work. Writing. Learning. And in the interest of full disclosure I have learned from Colleen, live and in person or virtually, every year since as I continue to grow my own literacy knowledge and skills.
So where to really start with this mutual adoration of Colleen Cruz and her brilliance, this book and the chat? I reread all of my notes about Colleen’s books and presentations. I perused the Wakelet artifact from this chat and liked or retweeted almost a hundred tweets that included every single one from Colleen. How to organize? How to find a manageable set of tasks to meet my purpose: What to share in this post?
A Mistake. Two paired tweets from Colleen from the last question in the chat.
The following tweets offer a glimpse into definitions of mistakes. You can learn more from the text excerpt, the audio book or the Heinemann blog listed below in the resources. Mistakes are hard to define unless you spend some time thinking about what they are and what they are not as #g2great team member Val Kimmel offers in the second tweet. Stacey and Nadine add on to the learning properties of mistakes.
What are the different types of mistakes?
Getting beyond mistakes are “good” or “bad” takes some work or study. Not all mistakes are equal. Four kinds of mistakes include: stretch mistakes, aha moment mistakes, sloppy mistakes, and high-stakes mistakes. You can read more about those at Heineman here, “Not All Mistakes are Good”, check out the Facebook Live series here, or read from Eduardo Briceno at either Mind/Shift here or his Ted Talk here.
The goal: to be aware of the types of mistakes, when they happen, why they happen, your response to mistakes, and the effects of those mistakes. This will take study, thoughtful reflection and a bit of self-awareness. The danger is in continuing on the path of sloppy and high-stakes mistakes after knowing that these are harmful. Many sloppy and high-stakes mistakes are avoidable with careful attention to our words and actions. I wondered about characterizing Colleen’s Tweet mistake above as one of the four types . . . and yet, without an edit button in Twitter, mistakes can easily happen from nimble fingers on less than responsive keyboards. I didn’t see the mistake when I first saw the second tweet as I read the word “msitake” as I expected it to be – during the fast pace of the chat – rather than the word as presented on the screen.
My past week and two mistakes …
1. Missed a webinar. I signed in on the last five minutes. Yes, sloppy mistake on the time zone recording on my calendar. I emailed and apologized for missing and will take greater care in recording/checking the times on my calendar. (Self care? Definitely a tired mistake!)
2. Fabric rows on my quilt did not match. Border and final two rows were more than an inch longer than the above 7 rows. At the time, I thought it was a high-stakes mistake, but it was really a stretch mistake as this was my first “pieced” quilt and I had never even thought about the difference in the rows. Future: check and double check connecting rows as the pieces are assembled.
Are all mistakes equal? When do we give grace? And to whom?
Jill’s tweet above is the bridge between reflecting and learning and offering ourselves grace. Mistakes are not a cause for self-flagellation. Mistakes vary according to the type as to intent and impact. Even more, our responses vary. Do we automatically offer grace to some students? Do we like to share our magnanimity with the entire class when we bestow grace? Which students have to earn grace? All of these are questions just about grace that stem from Colleen’s tweet below. The most “telling” factor may be “Who do we withhold it (grace) from?”
So now what?
Think of a recent mistake of your own. Which of the types was it? What was your response? What is your plan for next time?
Now think of a recent student mistake. What happened? What type was it? What was your response? What might you say or do differently? Do you know enough? Consider which of the resources below will be helpful?
As Colleen Cruz says in Risk. Fail. Rise. and Val and Mary emphasize above, the value in studying our mistakes is so we “can learn to separate our ego and form a mistake-welcoming culture.” Mistakes as learning experiences. Mistakes as a sign of growth and a source of data to use to ascertain growth.
The warmth of spring made everyone’s thoughts turn toward the freedom of endless summer days, and although students were anticipating the break, they (thankfully) still engaged in class conversation and reading. We were studying the 1960s, using texts by S.E. Hinton and Walter Dean Myers to anchor our unit of study and further explore the time period through the lens of fiction. As discussion stretched to the Vietnam War, the kids had plenty of questions that our cursory conversation would not touch, so I scoured textbooks and websites for texts that would help us think about the war, and answer many of the questions that piqued their curiosity.
I arrived at school rather early the next day with one text in particular in mind. Once in the workroom, I made photocopies of “Calling Home” from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and imagined, as the bar of light hummed across the open-face book, the different questions students might ask. We’ll treat it as an inquiry, I thought. I’ll gather their questions and use them to find more texts. Or, better yet, send them out to research the answers themselves. When the final photocopy emerged from the machine, I gathered the stack of papers and ambled to my room, excited at the prospect of what I believed would be an engaging conversation.
My excitement was short-lived.
I read part of Tim O’Brien’s piece to them, invited them to jot down their thinking, then asked them to read the rest by themselves. “When you’re finished, ask two questions that you really want to know,” I said before sending them to read the rest on their own. Compliantly, heads turned toward the page, but very few students were actually reading. I glanced around the room and recognized an overall detachment and lack of interest. O’Brien’s story is one of longing and emotion, an imaginative exploration of what it means to feel distant, yet connected. There was so much to think about, but once they were finished, most of the class doodled in the margins of the page or put their heads down. And only a few kids wrote something down once they finished.
Believing a conversation would bring everyone back together and energize the classroom, I started with an open-ended question: “What did you think of the story?”
The expected students offered elliptical responses, but even they seemed disengaged. Allen, a student whose insightful comments across the year had deepened class discussion, sat twirling his pencil. Ask him, I thought. He’ll offer something worthwhile.
“So Allen, what did you think of the story?”
“Oh, I didn’t really read it.”
“Well why not?”
His voice was louder when he responded, “Because this was boring!”
He held my gaze for several seconds, then turned his attention back to twirling the pencil, and I, hurt, frustrated, and embarrassed, moved the class to something else. I don’t even remember what it was.
I tiptoed through the rest of that year with Allen, and for fear of the same thing occurring again with successive groups of students, I spent several years opting for easier texts, ones I felt would engage kids and that no one would label boring. But these texts minimized class conversation even more. Students read, but there was little to sink our teeth into. Discussion fizzled after just a few minutes. Time to move on to something else, students’ eyes told me.
So we did.
It would be several years before I realized how wrong this all was. Anyone who knows me understands the value I now place on professional reading and digging deeper into the craft of teaching, especially the craft of teaching language arts. But it wasn’t always that way. When I discovered that there were people who were answering the questions I had about reading, I devoured a host of books. Leaning into the words of wise educators caused a shift in my practice— I abandoned the tired strategies that did nothing to engage kids and sought methods and ideas that would lift my level of instruction and the enthusiasm in the room. Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? was one of the many books I pored over, and although connected primarily to content-area reading comprehension, I found myself jotting down tons of notes, chapter after chapter, realizing how I could help students unpack texts in class. While I had loved every single professional book I’d read, something about Cris’s writing made me feel as though she had walked into the room I’m sitting in and had joined me for a chat just between friends. I’ve learned so much from other reading specialists, but Cris’s delivery is specific and dependable. She grafts experience with strategy and moves you, the reader, into an imaginative space where you can see yourself engaging kids in the beautiful work of reading and thinking. Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? gave me a way to approach reading with kids, especially in regard to outlining why I’m using a particular text. Defining my instructional purpose first, then exploring how I want students to hold their thinking as they read helps me not to arbitrarily choose a text. It encourages me to select a text with purpose. Cris made me consider my why and understand the barriers I was putting between kids and deep, close reading. My reading instruction evolved.
But Cris is always teaching us. When she is inspired by a question or is seeking a more profound understanding of teaching readers, she molds her thinking into a book and gifts it to the world. Her newest book, Why Do I Have to Read This? has stretched my thinking about reading instruction even further. While her other work has challenged my thinking, Why Do I Have to Read This? provides more shape and structure to the literacy work I do. Story drives the work she does in this book. She doesn’t just tell us or show us. She models it. Narrative, rich dialogue and beautiful writing all combine to pull us further and further into her method of teaching.
I love how Cris discusses the masks that students wear and how she has learned to recognize them, to understand them. She approaches teaching with such empathy, helping me critically examine the biases I carry with me into the classroom and reflect on how I approach conversations with students. Right now, thinking of Bryan in third period who is a class clown, who loves to voice his opinion, with evidence, during discussions about controversial topics. Cris knows about him. She explains,
“When I value compliance over controversy, I’m just asking for students to disengage. After a while, vanilla gets boring. Students who wear the mask of the class clown thrive on controversy. They want to argue. They need to argue. Learning reasons why they feel a certain way about an issue and then being able to articulate those reasons is empowering…” (p. 99).
After reading this part, I walked into class the following day a much different teacher. My lens changed, and although I had given Bryan the space he needed to discuss his thinking, I understood him differently. There was a nuance there that hadn’t existed before. He must have felt the difference, too, because that day, he engaged in holding his thinking in his notebook for the first time all year.
In addition to the mask of the class clown, Cris explores the masks of anger and apathy, minimal effort, and invisibility. Real-world connections give meaning to what we study, she asserts, and when we give students interesting things to read and to consider, those masks start to fade. Engaging, authentic questions move us to press closer to the heart of an answer, and although we may never find a full answer, the journey, and what we learn along the way, are what matter.
Throughout the book, Cris offers real teaching examples, showcasing how she models close reading and annotations for her students and the feedback she gives to kids. I am in awe of her authenticity. Using her CYA structure (Content You Anticipate) — topic, task, target, text, tend, and time — teachers can better meet the needs of students. Good teachers anticipate what students may already know about a topic, what authentic tasks will help them explore the topic, what students need to know (target), the texts that will help them make sense of the topic, the needs of the students (tend), and how much time learners will need. CYA, coupled with long-term planning, gives our teaching room to breathe. It helps us curate a wide selection of texts that will meet the needs of our students in case our first choices aren’t a good fit. And, it helps us anticipate the students who will ask, “Why do I have to read this?”
Whenever I read a professional book that speaks to students’ reading engagement, Allen is one of the first students whose face materializes in my mind. His story haunts me each time I sit down to plan a unit of study and search for texts that will move kids to ask more questions and reconsider what they already think. While I have gone to Cris’s other books for several years to guide my teaching, Why Do I Have to Read This? will be close by anytime I attempt to plan an upcoming unit. I’ll also keep it close by as a reminder that all students come to class with unique needs, and it is through understanding and compassion that we begin to unpack what those needs are.
Cris’s writing has mentored my teaching for several years. When I feel frustrated or isolated, or have no idea what to do next with students, her soothing words build a bridge from where I am to where I need to be. Early in the book, she shares a letter from Sam Bennett (author of That Workshop Book, which is a wonderful text for teachers) that left her angry, but nudged her to reframe the way she taught some of her most vulnerable students. The beautiful thing here is that Cris opens up about how her thinking changed, and the ways she challenged and transformed the way she taught striving readers. Even after years of experience, Cris models for us what it means to confront feedback and use it to move our classrooms forward.
Several weeks ago, while reading Why Do I Have to Read This?, I laid the book face-down on my desk and stared at a stack of responses to texts we had been reading in class. Students’ writing was lifeless and detached, and even though I believed we were talking about good stuff, their connections were not as deep as mine. And yes, I saw Allen’s face, too.
As I sat there, I recognized how conversations across the year had proven that students wanted to talk about deep topics, ones that were relevant to their lives. They wanted to talk about controversy. They had been ready for the “hard stuff,” but I had not yet given it to them. So, I recognized my own mask of minimal effort, slid it off my face, and returned to Cris’s book. I generated stronger overarching questions, invited students to evaluate them with me, and gave them a chance to explore their initial thinking before diving into a new collection of texts that would help us press closer to the heart of an answer.
But like every other teacher, I am still learning.
Cris’s book is a work of (he)art. It challenges us to rethink our teaching, but most importantly, it reminds us of the humanity of teaching. When we walk into the room with our students, we know them best. We know what they need and the things that will make their hearts sing. In the last part of the book, Cris says,
“We have a choice. We can stormily enter the room and with a grumpy face look at our students with disappointment and disdain. Or, we can be a ray of light and come to class giving and expecting the best. We can blindly follow a curriculum guide that someone else has made, or we can use it to enhance our own long-term planning to ensure that our content is compelling, accessible, and reflective of all learners. It’s up to us. We decide who we give up on and who we try to re-engage. We hold a lot of power” (p. 178).
We hold a lot of power.
What a beautiful statement.
In a time when high-stakes tests dominate many district conversations, it’s important to remember that we still have agency. It may not seem that way all the time, but it’s there. Cris explains that it’s important to interrogate the texts we use and to recognize that controversial topics give us a chance to discuss topics that for too long education has ignored. If you’re like me, Cris’s book will remind you of the light that shines inside of you. And while it may be a flickering flame, it still burns and has the power to burst into a roaring fire.
Bennett, S. (2007). That workshop book: New systems and structures for classrooms that read, write, and think. Heinemann.
O’Brien, T. (2009). The things they carried. Mariner Books.
Tovani, C. (2004). Do I really have to teach reading?: Content comprehension, grades 6-12. Stenhouse.
Tovani, C. (2021). Why do I have to read this?: Literacy strategies to engage our most reluctant students. Stenhouse.
Travis Crowder, M.Ed., is a middle school English/Language Arts teacher at East Alexander Middle School in Hiddenite, NC. Travis frequently shares his thinking about teaching on Twitter @teachermantrav and you can read more of his exquisite writing on his blog https://www.teachermantrav.com. Our #g2great chat team is honored that Travis is a guest writer to our blog several times each year. We are so grateful for his thoughtful contributions.
On 1/28/21, #G2Great was honored to celebrate the remarkable work of #DisruptTexts and co-founders, Tricia Ebarvia, Lorena Germán, Dr. Kim Parker, and Julia Torres. Our #G2Great team steadfastly supports their efforts and are grateful for this opportunity to spotlight the guides they created for all of us so that more teachers can bring them to life in the company of children.
What is #DisruptTexts? I can’t think of a better way to respond to this question than in the words of the founders. In a January 2021 Statement they help us to understand both what #DisruptTexts is and is not:
#DisruptTexts is “a crowdsourced, grassroots effort by teachers for teachers to challenge the traditional canon in order to create a more inclusive, representative, and equitable language arts curriculum that our students deserve.” We believe that education, and literacy in particular, can be transformative. Through a more equitable curriculum and antiracist pedagogy, we believe that we can effect a more just world. All students deserve an education that is inclusive of the rich diversity of the human experience. They deserve one that introduces them to and affirms the voices both inside and outside their individual lives.
In addition to helping to spread this important work, we specifically wanted to share their #DisruptTexts Guides that include eight titles. The four Core Principals of these guides are shown in this visual.
Throughout our #G2great chat, we shared their wise words:
A gift for all teachers are the eight guides that are located on the #DisruptTexts website. These guides will spark conversations about the texts that are used in classrooms. Are they representative? Do students see themselves? Can these texts be paired with existing resources? Could/should some texts be replaced with texts that will be more relevant to students in 2021? The existing guides created by the founders offer rich mentor texts that will support thoughtful additions based on your students.
The guides include:
At the Mountain’s Base by Traci Sorrell
Frankly in Love by David Yoon
What Lane by Torrey Maldonado
Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi
Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson
Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay
As I looked at the eight guides above, one thing that immediately struck me is how far removed they are from traditional “lesson plans” riddled with the ‘telling and doing’ that leaves little room for respecting teacher decision making guided by foundational understandings. Rather these powerful “guides” are designed to provoke and support new THINKING through considerations, suggestions, vocabulary, key concepts and questions to ask ourselves as trusted professionals. They explain in the guide description:
“Each principle stands for actions that are culturally sustaining and antiracist. Through each principle, teachers aim to offer a curriculum that is restorative, inclusive, and therefore works toward healing identities and communities. As you read this guide, you’ll see how each of these principles informs the approach recommended …”.
Across each guide, these four remarkable educators keep this promise as they honor those principles within all titles. And through these eight guides, they offer a pathway that will support each of us in embracing instructional practices that are “restorative, inclusive, and therefore works toward healing identities and communities.“
It is our shared humanity that quickens the urgency for change. As I reflect upon the collective wisdom of these brilliant educators, I find that more questions are stirring inside me. How can healing and restoration begin? What are the long-standing practices that have gone unchallenged by me? What are my biases, and actions sustaining? What voices are silenced in the texts I am using? What voices are amplified in those texts? Why? When we interrogate our curriculum in this way, we are honoring all students. What better place than school, a public yet intimate space where we can broaden perspective and raise expectations that there are many sides to any story.
Now. Now is the time to take action to change literacy instruction for the better. Right now, we can take steps towards a more responsive curriculum. Find a partner. What can one teacher do without a partner? Begin with the four core principles from #DisruptText and you may well be the spark in your school that ignites a movement towards equity, antiracism, and social justice.