The Politics of Policing Reading in Secondary Schools

IMG_0924

On this week’s #CELchat, I mentioned one of the central pedagogical tensions in the schools I’ve taught in is how to hold students “accountable” for assigned readings, a job the mostly has fallen to some sort of assessment mechanism like a multiple choice or short answer reading quiz that measures recall of a text’s key details.   It’s difficult to eschew practices that are engrained part of a school’s culture, and my eventual unwillingness to engage in policing reading through pseudoassessments, which are more guessing games than anything else, has earned me some blank stares, dirty looks, and stern lectures over the years from colleagues, department chairs, and administrators. 

My opposition to these practices has two parts:

  1. Grades don’t motivate students who aren’t reading to start, and grades compel compliance-based reading for those who are engaging with class texts.  Signaling to students that the virtue of reading is about earning a number in a learning-management system creates an entrenched ideology that it’s a means to an end rather than an end in itself, which would send me to surfing to SparkNotes or Shmoop in a second.
  2. Assessments need to be about more than whether a student read the assignment, which opens up a host of questions about what students’ rights are with respect to turning away from a text, even one that was assigned.  My sense is that teachers take it personally that students don’t read, and, in my theory, why so many pseudoassessments are given: it’s a way to command authority and respect through rituals and practices.  The less students read, the more we double down on making sure they know they didn’t read, a move which rarely works.  Amy Hasinoff recently wrote about this control-seeking behavior and it negatively impact on our relationships with students.  It’s important to recognize that students may have a host of complicated reasons for not reading that have nothing to do with laziness, apathy, or disdain for a teacher.  A student should still be able to engage in and learn from class even without having read a whole assigned text closely (and, maybe, even at all).

These two beliefs open up interesting ideological and pedagogical questions about what we mean when we ask students to read and what the rights are of someone we’re willing to call a “reader.”

I had a conversation with a student during this past week, one the sixth day of class, who sheepishly confessed that she didn’t make it through one of the denser readings I assigned, and students were surprised when I asked them to get as far as they thought they could in another dense reading before coming to class to hash out what they learned.  In An Urgency of Teachers, Jesse Stommel writes: “I try to encourage students to be honest about how much they read, what the reading looks like, when they stop reading, when they start again.”  Indeed, we frequently assume that reading is a linear process with universal outcomes; the idea that everyone can and should be done with your assigned readings at the same time and obtain the same information is a problematic ask.  Rather than giving quizzes or bemoaning my students’ reading abilities in commiserative teacher talk, I like to engage students in a conversation about different types of reading strategies and their reading process: why they read a section closely, why a passage stood out to them, how they made meaning from what they did encounter, and some ways they might consider making meaning next time.  A significant part of education is learning about your own learning and understanding the processes you need to make critical encounters with texts.  Psuedoassessments to shame students into writing shut down these reflective conversations in which students and their teachers can imagine alternatives.  Discussions about assessment grades and points, whether their formative or summative, can tend to cloud these conversations with an unhelpful, unspoken subtext.

It’s also vital to consider as educators the compelling reasons that a student might look away from a text, as there are likely very good reasons we’ve done the same in our own reading lives: boredom, pain, we’ve gotten what we needed.  Abandonment, disengagement, skimming, scanning, and all of the other strategies are readerly choices or moves that deserve our consideration and, more importantly, the consideration of the readers themselves.  Put slightly differently, I’d rather have a student skim a text or stop halfway through than be completely apathetic to it.  Apathy represents a kind of intellectual nihilism, while other strategies represent a more active choice, a kind of important agency.  What matters is not whether students read in the way that we think they should; what matters is what they do in response to the reading.  What matters is what kind of reader they become, and becoming a reader requires space to make real-deal choices about not only what to read, but also how to read and how much to read of texts they encounter.  This isn’t disdain, disrespect, or disengagement, but, instead, it’s the opposite.  Later in An Urgency of Teachers, Stommel quotes Mark Sample: “what is broken is also twisted and beautiful.”  Breaking our deeply held notions of what it means to read or be a reader may make room for greater discovery even in the uncertainty of ceding control that we seek so desperately to regain through methods like pseudoassessment.  As Stommel writes, we need to find ways to have honest conversations around systemic and structural common sense that we refuse to replicate in our own classes.

I used to have language in my syllabus that mirrored my department’s culture that likened coming to class without having fully read as cheating and thievery; you’re riding the coattails of someone else’s work, which is a phrase I think I actually used.  These statements were definitely inequitable and probably caused some students to shut down entirely. Embarrassingly, I gave myself license to disengage from those who weren’t reading, and, in doing so, gave them reason to disengage from our community of learners.  This not only robbed them of significant learning opportunities, it also denied our classroom of their voices.  Stommel’s co-author in An Urgency of Teachers, Sean Michael Morris, cites Seymour Papert:

Almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object.

Since ditching the mandates to police reading, I’ve been working on passage-based assessments that allow students to participate in our discussions and our learning no matter where they are on their journey through the text. The goal here isn’t to see whether students have read every page, but, instead, to see how they make meaning from texts using critical theories central to analysis. More plainly, it’s a whole lot more about skills than it is about individual texts, which is a move that has created, believe it or not, even more engaged readers than before. On these assessments, students are asked to closely read a passage, annotating it, and, then, they’re given an open-ended prompt that they use their annotations and close reading to compose.

We can’t be in the business of silencing students in our classes, especially those that our educational systems and its attendant values have harmed and hurt and who might be text-averse when they come to us because of the shame they’ve felt previously. Creating readers won’t happen with grades and threats—students, when push comes to shove, probably don’t care about pseudoassessments and their outcomes beyond the fleeting moments they took them. What they might care about is thinking about what it means to read and be a reader in a way that allows them to participate in class, be fairly assessed on their skills, and rethink reading and what it means to be a reader.

A Critical, Relevant Challenge: Shared Vulnerability, Hope + 38 Tutors’ Mission to Close the Achievement Gap

Today, the Skyline Writing Center begins its seventh year with more new tutors, 31, than any single year since we opened.  These tutors, chosen from the largest applicant group we’ve ever had, are some of the most emotionally and academically intelligent students I’ve met during my 14 years in public education.  My incredible excitement to welcome these amazing students to our team is mixed with some undeniable nervousness because our purpose, our moral imperative—helping close Skyline’s persistent achievement gaps—is as urgent as ever, and we’re starting at the very beginning.  I know that our tutors, new and returning, are capable of helping our school community create more equitable learning conditions, but it’s incumbent upon me and the Writing Center’s student leadership team to ensure students are trained and ready to help in just a few short weeks.

With the urgent moral imperatives of the achievement gap demanding action, it would be easy to start our initial training session with loads of tutoring pedagogy and pages of writing center research to ensure that our tutors know everything scholars say writing center consultants need to know.  Honestly, I considered this strategy when I realized our team was facing its most significant turnover ever, and, after checking in with myself about our core values and beliefs, especially our commitment to equity and social justice, I decided on a completely different approach, one that I believe, ultimately, will be far more successful in helping us continue to make progress against achievement gaps in our school.

Writing Center-2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation
Slide from Skyline Writing Center’s 2018-2019 Opening Day Presentation

To continue to make the significant progress against the achievement gaps that are part of our moral imperative, our tutors need to learn—and be comfortable with—sharing vulnerability with each other and the students they collaborate with daily on assignments. Our student feedback and perception data suggest that getting students to visit with tutors is often inhibited by their perception that our work is evaluative, putting an unfair burden on students seeking literacy support. Our tutor data also suggests that tutors, who often face imposter syndrome, are worried of losing credibility when they admit their mistakes, talk about learning setbacks, or say they don’t know an answer. That said, sharing vulnerability is an essential element of getting to students to use our services, so we must constantly train ourselves, primarily by being vulnerable together about the trials and tribulations of peer tutoring, to understand that acknowledging our own areas of improvement makes us stronger, not weaker, in the eyes of our collaborators.

Today, our tutors were given a prompt that compelled them to reveal something about themselves. They had to share that writing with three other tutors in the Writing Center. The prompts have nothing to do with school or Writing Center, but, in my mind, the emotional literacy skills they ask students to perform are central to the kind of sharing and relationship building between students that closing our achievement gaps require. This modeling and practice continued in the afternoon when we had Circle Time to talk about the hopes and insecurities we had after our first day of school.

IMG_0856-2.JPG

Sharing vulnerability and building relationships is an awesome start to closing the achievement gaps, but it’s also important that tutors believe that they and their classmates can learn and grow with proper support. The idea of a so-called “growth mindset” has gotten some blowback lately, and rightly so: a growth mindset doesn’t change the systemic injustices our most vulnerable students face every day. You can’t “grit” your way out of poverty or racism, and asking marginalized people to do so is as insulting as it is immoral. Moreover, growth mindset doesn’t mean telling everyone that they can do everything; they key is beginning with an asset-based approach and working from it to build transferrable skills and strategies. However, working within what Nancy Grimm calls a “pedagogy of hope” is really important to great tutoring that challenges structural inequities within schools and institutions to bring about a more equitable future. What we mean when we talk about a growth mindset in the Skyline Writing Center is that narratives of scarcity can be supplanted and replaced by truths of abundance. Everyone can learn, and if you’re coming to school—and taking the additional step of visiting the Writing Center—you definitely want to learn. When tutors (and teachers) fall into the thinking that some students can’t or don’t want to learn, the structures that enable to achievement gap to continue unabated remain.

In our training, students were asked to consider experiences in school where they struggled to learn an idea or concept and the resources and strategies they used or developed to eventually “get it.” The list of resources and strategies can be a helpful primer to unlocking the truths of abundance that outshine the narratives of scarcity.

When students elect to be a Writing Center tutor, they’re taking on the most challenging, critical, and relevant mission of their young educational careers: working together each and every day to close persistent achievement gaps in our school and in our community.  As Heather Lattimer shares in Real-World Literacies, the costs of not working for more equitable outcomes are far too high: 3,000 students drop out of high school everyday, mostly because they don’t have the literacy skills to keep up, 82% of inmates left high school, and 33% have fourth-grade literacy skills, and 70% of students who leave high school without the necessary literacy skills leave college without a degree or a certificate.  Equity is literacy, literacy is equity, and it’s on us.

Reading pedagogy, looking at tutoring models, and engaging in tutoring simulations are important parts of any training program, but without working toward shared vulnerability and a belief in the power of growth, the root causes of structural inequity will continue to exist. 

Today, then, our first training session had nothing and everything to do with tutoring simultaneously.

IMG_0865.JPG

Walking in My Shoes: A Guide for Post-Secondary Folks Interested in Secondary School Writing Centers

At the half dozen or so conferences I’ve attended over the last year, there’s been a noticeable spike in the interest in secondary school writing centers from college and university peers.  Moving closer to the main party from the hidden corners of the Burkean Parlor is an exciting development because we have worthwhile perspectives, excellent pedagogies, and best practices to contribute to the larger conversation about how to build, sustain, and improve writing centers.  Working more closely with our post-secondary partners also helps us develop and grow professionally, particularly as we learn the administrative skills required to be a successful director. 

While we’re excited that you’re interested in our work and that we’ve been able to form closer collaborations, we need to talk about some problematic and troubling trends.

Some Context

As we work together more closely and more often, having a contextualized understanding of the state of secondary school writing centers is vital.  Last year, I worked with a team of people to create and administer a Secondary School Writing Center Census through IWCA. Here’s a snapshot of what we learned:

NCTE 2017 - Secondary School Writing Centers SIG

We have a large segment of our population that is relatively new to being a writing center director and often these folks are self-trained.  One of the most difficult aspects of secondary school directorship is that teachers are being asked to perform administrative functions that they didn’t train for and never thought that they would have to do.  Although we’re making progress through new organizations like the Secondary School Writing Centers Association (SSWCA) and IWCA, real-deal mentorship has traditionally been difficult in secondary school centers, as centers are often not geographically close or well connected to others in the field. We also have a significant population of people that are either not compensated or undercompensated for the work they perform in the writing center, as some institutions struggle to see the value in something that may not look like or align with traditional secondary school practices.   Moreover, writing center work is most often something that we do in addition to teaching three-to-six class each day.  In other words, writing center director is an “and” in our job titles.  The point of this snapshot isn’t to draw distinctions between us—we share some familiar institution realities—but I wanted to provide insight into how to understand the very long, existentially perilous, and incredibly rocky road many secondary school centers walk.

Tips for Talking About Us and to Us

 Come Prepared

Every so often, a post will appear on WCenter that’s a generic request for information about secondary school writing centers: do we exist?  Are there any centers near me?  How do I start one?   This happens to us frequently at conferences, too.  The discussions are always about the basics, and rarely, if ever, about the rich legacies, amazing programs, and vital systems we’ve built in our schools and communities.

While our field is relatively new, there have been some true pioneers—scholars, activists, and researchers—who have put in an uncountable number of uncompensated hours to ensure that newcomers had resources and guidance when entering the field because there wasn’t much to be found about secondary school writing centers. We’ve worked hard to ensure that many of these resources are widely available for free online to anyone wanting or needing them. 

While your requests for information are awesome, there’s an onus on post-secondary folks to educate themselves about our contexts, structures, and realities before asking us to share our collective knowledge with you, especially when simple poking around would uncover so many great resources from some of the smartest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met.  As we’ve tried to become more central in our Burkean Parlor, we did the work—we studied, we wrote, we published, we presented, we collaborated—and it’s important that it’s reciprocal.  My writing center has two very successful collaborations with university partners, and, in each case, our partners took the time to think about our context and learn about our work.

Honor Practitioners

Honoring the smart, thoughtful practitioners in secondary school writing centers is a must.  Many folks have been on-the-ground practitioners for years—researching, writing, training tutors, presenting at conferences, building partnerships, closing achievement gaps—that its disheartening to see how little value our voices and our experiences are often given.  These folks have done some hard scrabble, often in unthinkable conditions, to establish themselves, their centers, and their tutors.

I’ve been to three conference presentations in the last calendar year about secondary school writing centers that didn’t involve a single secondary school voice in person or digitally.  There’s an ugly paternalism when those with no history or substantive involvement in secondary school writing centers pass themselves off as experts in our field, especially when we’re in the audience.  Indeed, I was so jarred by what I saw at one conference that I left early, and I know many of my colleagues felt similarly taken aback even though they decided to stay. Most secondary school directors would relish the opportunity to be on a panel with you—in some cases, it’s the only way they’ll be accepted to the conference—so it’s vital to develop a relationship with directors and invite them into your process.  Similarly, when requests for information about secondary school writing centers come through the listserv, the first person to answer is usually a member of a postsecondary writing center.  Your excitement and enthusiasm about our work is welcome, but let us speak for ourselves.  When you answer first, it silences us, preventing many of the awesome, thoughtful people with years of experience from responding.  It’s more than symbolism to allow us to answer first and have our voices be primary; it’s giving powerful space to expert voices that haven’t always been heard.

I’ve had many people tell me that they’re allies when I’ve gone direct with this message, but allies don’t award themselves the title.  If you are or want to be an ally to secondary school writing centers, it’s important to remember what responsible allies do.

See Us

tweet

We want to be involved in the larger writing center world, which is why we keep coming to conferences, participating in professional development opportunities, and the discourse going on listservs, Twitter, and online forums. When you see in these spaces, you need to seeus in these spaces. 

Many secondary school directors have reported feeling unseen and unheard, and, some, when they are seen, have reported hostility toward them and their tutors.  I experienced the former over the last year as well where, twice, post-secondary directors that I know walked right past me in hallways at conferences without a glance, nod, or acknowledgement to talk to the person right behind me.  We don’t need a long conversation, but a simple hello and eye contact can go a long way in making people from a smaller, typically marginalized group feel part of the larger community.  It really only takes one bad experience for folks to avoid spending their hard-won time and hard-earned money to come to conferences. The same set of circumstances applies within sessions, too.  Audible sighs and visible eye rolls when secondary directors (or their tutors) ask questions or make a point are troubling, and it’s consistent enough to discuss it here (note: we’ve gone direct, too). Like most of you, we have to fight for any time away from the classroom (districts have to pay substitute teachers) and many of us are on the hook for our total cost of attendance.  The impact of every pass without a glance and every negative word is the same: people never coming back.

I teach in a well-resourced district, have formal and informal leadership roles, present at conferences regularly, volunteer for several professional organizations, and have a large local and global professional learning network; imagine how someone who doesn’t have the same privileges feels when they’re invisible in these venues.  I was so shocked by the lack of acknowledgement at the conference, I’m genuinely not sure if I’ll ever return. 

Follow the Leaders

I’ve met some really great folks who have been amazing allies to secondary school writing centers since I’ve been involved in the work: Christine Modey, Brett Griffiths, Ann Blakeslee, Cathy Fleischer, Jackie Grutsch McKinney, and John Nordlof are only a few of the many.  Follow their lead.

Higher Needs, a Pyramid + Feedback

In How to Reform Capitalism, Alain de Botton writes:

“Most of us are, a good deal of the time, properly at sea: burdened by complaints, unfulfilled hopes, barely formulated longings, restless, anger, and grief.”

The argument, in extended form, is that capitalism isn’t really a “mature” system because most people aren’t happy, even if they can’t really say why. de Botton attributes the unhappiness—this sort of nausea—to capitalism’s inability to attend to our social, emotional, and even existential needs.  This line of thinking isn’t necessarily new (or even particularly groundbreaking), but it is instructive when I think about conversations with students about the kinds of feedback they want and the kinds of feedback they actually receive.

While students are often criticized in teacher-centered spaces on Twitter or at educational conferences as being overly focused on quantitative outcomes, like grades, we need to consider how our own behaviors contribute to the transactional nature of our classrooms, schools, and districts.   We can think of instances where we used grades as an attempt to motivate students to complete an assignment, or worse yet, where we weaponized grades to compel compliance with a rigid set of our regulations, reinforcing the power asymmetry between teachers and students.  Amy Hasinoff, a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, discussed her own struggle with grading: “I was using grades to get the results I wanted…I was frustrated with the feeling that my job was becoming more about explaining and enforcing rules rather than teaching and learning.”  If the conversations we have with students are centered on points, especially justifying deductions for font choices, staple placement, and, yes, even lateness, we can’t be surprised when students are unhappy with us or with school.  Here, it’s worth thinking about how many students simply do what we ask because they want to avoid interactions with the oppressive power of grades and those assigning them.  When the work is transactional and rooted in compliance, we can’t be surprised when students skip to the bottom line and avoid taking risks.

It’s important to remember that humans are biologically designed to want feedback that helps them learn and grow; we seek out high-level interactions that help us review, revise, and relearn.  In de Botton’s argument about consumer capitalism, he argues that the vague unhappiness comes from companies, brands, and advertisers only fulfilling our most basic needs—the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid—without ever attending to our higher needs.  In my conversations with teachers over the last year at school and at conferences, I’ve frequently heard some offshoot of “grades are a form of feedback!”  While this isn’t necessarily untrue, grades only meet the most basic needs of our students.  If we’re not giving our students substantive, timely feedback that they can use to review, revise, and relearn, we’re not meeting their highest needs, which can exacerbate student feelings that school is transactional, especially when grades are “noisy,” meaning they don’t solely measure mastery of a skill, they measure a host of other things, usually revolving around compliance.

maslows-hierarchy
Graphic: Samira Jamali

Worse yet, when our grading and feedback practices stay at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, our students are not be developing important skills that they will need to be successful in and after our class, inside and outside of school because errors are seen as areas of deficiency rather than areas for improvement.  As P.L. Thomas shares:

“I struggle to break through students resisting the drafting, feedback, revision process because they have been taught to submit instantly perfect work; that their identifiable flaws are the loss of points—not necessarily areas to learn, grow, and excel.”

If school revolves around grades and grades are centered in the student psyche as reinforcing deficit-oriented thinking, we can’t be surprised when there’s disengagement and avoidance.  As much as we’re programmed to seek out feedback, we’re also programmed to avoid pain.  This is especially true for students who our educational systems aren’t structured to support and who grades are often most weaponized against.

In How to Reform Capitalism, de Botton argues that true motivation occurs when we feel the purpose is high enough to act.  We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to engage in an activity or an assessment simply for a grade.  The purpose simply isn’t high enough, as grades can often have deleterious effects on student engagement.  Instead, I argue that helping students see assignments as real-deal learning experiences that they can use to improve their skills is a high enough purpose, especially if they know that you are an invested partner and collaborator.  Providing timely, feedback that directly addresses a student’s wants and needs and that can be immediately applied to their learning goals is an excellent way to develop working, trusting relationships with them, as is taking and applying their feedback about how to best meet their needs.  Too often, we talk about building relationships with students as something wholly separate from classroom practice, but the two have intimate links.  Indeed, rethinking and reforming feedback and grading practices is key to building schools capable of closing achievement gaps. 

Last year, I revisited student-led face-to-face grading with some of my students after moving away from it, and I had forgotten how purposeful and meaningful it felt.  While I still had in-class conferences with students throughout the writing process and many students used our school’s peer Writing Center, hearing students talk so passionately, openly, and critically about their process was a revelation, so much so that the discussions often went well beyond their scheduled time.  Students wanted feedback on their prewriting strategies, organizational tips for paper structure, and advice on developing more critical relationships with their source material.  The grade wasn’t even mentioned in a vast majority of the conversations because, in the end, the grade mattered very little—students have unlimited opportunities to revise using feedback—and because the purpose felt higher than a number in PowerSchool.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Using any high-level feedback strategy effectively, whether its face-to-face grading or something else, requires us to gain students’ trust over time by showing them that we’re collaborators in learning willing to share power and vulnerability with them, and it also requires us to trust our students as people who want to learn and grow and can do so without the existential threats of grades and grading. 

Our students will be happier, and so will we.