One of the most frequent conversations I’ve had this year as department chair has been about students who don’t do the assigned readings for class. When folks initiate these conversations, they tend to do so for commiserative or palliative reasons, meaning they either want a knowing nod or pedagogical reassurance. As a leader, one of the goals I have for the new year is to steer these conversations into a more reflective direction that allow individual teachers and my department as a whole to consider substantive reasons for why students might not be reading what we assign that moves beyond “kids these days” and to think about alternatives in pedagogy and practice that might increase reading participation without resorting to compliance-based methods that lead to performative reading in school and, worse yet, disengage students from the thought of readerly lives outside of school.
The benefits of choice reading for students are well-documented. I’ve written about how reading has been, in a way, recuperated from the doldrums of school. However, there are sociopolitical realities for teachers in schools that often makes a choice-centered classroom a difficult proposition. I worked in a district that mandated whole-class texts and required every teacher to be on the same page as their colleagues on the same day. Not being on schedule was cause for at least a talking to by someone with authority. Even choice reading, when it was allowed in one unit, featured lists of vetted books that were at the “correct” level. In addition, while choice reading can be a really great tool for engagement, not every school—let alone every teacher—has the resources for a robust library and might rely on whole-class texts provided to them.
If we’re assigning whole-class texts, then it’s important to realize that our reading might not be a priority on a given day. Students are in several classes with competing deadlines and they have pressing interests and necessities outside of school that need to be taken into account. It’s here where I’ve seen teachers shame students, often passive aggressively, by finding ways to exclude them from participating in class, engaging with their peers, or reducing their grade through fact-based quizzes or reading logs, and it’s here where I think we can consider alternatives, namely making assigned readings part of a recursive, integrated learning process and finding ways to allow students who may not have gotten to the reading to meaningfully participate. This comes from a foundational belief that students want to learn and that, if they’re present, they should be able to come away with abundance rather than scarcity.
Students are very honest with me about their reading lives, and I appreciate their candor: they tell me when they didn’t have time to read, they let me know when they didn’t understand something, and they’re quick to tell me when they took what they needed and left what they didn’t in one of our whole-group texts (and, sometimes, what they needed was to not read). Their openness creates room for dialogue about their readerly lives and why and how we make these sorts of choices, which is always interesting and never punitive. We need to trust our students to shape the learning environment and process in a way that works for them, even when we’re assigning whole-class texts. Most often students read—or go back and read—because they know our learning is moving somewhere; it’s not a parade of texts for the sake of saying we read, but something connected to larger ideas and concepts. Students also know that concepts are recursive, so while reading is important and encouraged, missing a single text or not reading every word of every page isn’t going to “cost” you. Again, it’s important to focus on the abundant knowledge that students have and the skills they bring to the classroom rather than focusing on what they can’t do yet or wouldn’t do today.
One of the best ways to create abundance during whole-class texts is to make your classroom passage-based. A passage-based classroom allows students to engage with key aspects of a text in ways that are both low-stakes and personally relevant. Indeed, one of the keys to using smaller blocks of text to call on key themes and ideas in a passage-based classroom is to avoid asking convergent questions; these make any discussion or activity feel like a guessing game or like a compliance quiz masquerading as genuine engagement. In my Humanities class, we work with non-fiction texts frequently, and I like to start out by asking small groups of students to think about two claims the author is making and why the think the author is writing the piece and to select at least one piece of evidence from the text that engages these ideas. This works as a getting started strategy because it allows students—and me—to get some foundational understandings of the text while charting a path for the day’s discussion. Here, students reengage the text: students who have read the text and have comfort with it push the boundaries out, often thinking about alternative meanings for the texts, students who read and don’t feel comfortable have a chance to sound themselves out with peers, and students who may not have read or read very little get a chance to skim the text and get oriented to some of its structures and major points in a low-stakes way that might encourage them to revisit what they missed. This can generally branch into other work like passage-based turn and talks, chalk-talk assignments where students have an opportunity to make written interpretations using their thinking and have other students agree, disagree, problematize, or connect their thinking in writing, or passage-based philosophical chairs activity that asks students to move based on their agreement, disagreement, or desire to problematize the passage. In each of these examples, the key is that students are not interested in being right or proving their devotion to a reading calendar, but they are making meaning together and thinking through key ideas in a way that’s inclusive and makes them want to engage the text more fully later. I believe in my core that students don’t enjoy coming to class feeling inadequate and unprepared. My goal is never to shame these students, but to invite them back into the process to ensure that they feel like going to back and reading is relevant and useful.
If a student is in your room, they want to learn, and we need to make space for everyone, whether they had a chance to read that day or not.