Creating Abundance: Making Space for All Readers When Using Whole-Class Texts


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.

Redefining “Rigor:” Trust, Choice + Inclusion


As the director of a secondary school writing center, I’m used to the skeptical questions about the rigor of our program from colleagues, from students outside of the writing center, and even from college admissions officers who question the value and the difficulty of our work despite having six years of quantitative and qualitative data that suggests we’re having a real-deal impact on narrowing existing achievement gaps in our school and preventing ones from opening.  Much of the skepticism about the rigor of a class called “Writing Center” stems from the way it calls into question traditional educational models that rely on direct instruction; there’s no teacher giving lectures, and there aren’t worksheets to do, but, instead, students go through a training process that engages them in thinking about how to use their role as a peer to honor their classmates’ literacies and funds of knowledge, promote growth-oriented thinking that moves away from education’s infamous deficit models, build relationships with classmates through writing by sharing their own vulnerability, do community-facing work with local universities and organizations that promote K-8 literacy, where achievement gaps begin, and engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as tutors using their own experiences with writing and substantive writing center pedagogy.  This is all while trying to navigate complex peer-to-peer relationships, peer-to-teacher relationships over writing, peer-to-writing relationships, and structural and institutional inequities within our community in order to make lasting, positive change.  This work, while learner-centered and learner-led, seems legitimately rigorous to me even without an Advanced Placement designation or its standardized test at the end; students are using the collective knowledges and resources in an effort to solve pressing real-world, real-time educational issues impacting their friends, their school, and their community.

Narrow definitions of what constitutes rigor in schools extend beyond the Writing Center.  Notions of rigor are frequently discussed when we discussing issues of making space for more choice reading in classes, as there’s an intractable belief that students will scam the system, taking the easy way out.  Indeed, this belief is so pervasive that a recent conversation with a colleague revealed that they were reticent to share their amazing choice reading practices because of negative optics; it simply doesn’t seem hard enough.  However, we know that choice in the classroom promotes high levels of student engagement, and high levels of student engagement encourage students to persist through learning obstacles by thinking metacognitively to find solutions.  We also know that students have an exceptional degree of pride when finishing tasks that they’ve chosen, making them deeply invested in both the process and the product.  The belief that students will somehow scam a system in which they have choice is not only unhelpfully distrustful, but it also further ensconces the idea that we need to force students to learn in spite of their unwillingness to do so.  This hasn’t been my experience; students are deeply passionate and want to expand their literacies in areas that are relevant and meaningful to them.

When given the opportunities to make choices about their learning and their educational process, there’s a palpable energy.  If that feels too anecdotal, then there’s a proverbial boatload of research that there’s a direct relationship between literacy growth and reading volume: an hour of independent reading a day gives students access to 4.3 million new words each year.  Additionally, Judy Willis finds that:

“The highest-level executive thinking, making of connections, and ‘aha’ moments are more likely to occur in an atmosphere of ‘exuberant discovery,’ where students of all ages retain that kindergarten enthusiasm of embracing each day with the joy of learning.”

There are hosts of examples like this one highlighting the ways in which independent reading is both purposeful and rigorous when implemented with fidelity to researched practices.

Here’s the rub: when we anoint ourselves as keepers of rigor, beholden to traditional academic models of what that word means, my fear is that we’re creating more walls than doors, especially for students already on the outside looking in. All students deserve access to lessons that meaningfully challenges them within their zone of proximal development, but rigor doesn’t have to have an AP designation, take the form of standardized test preparation, or be completely teacher-centered. These practices measure exceptionality by exception; the gatekeepers are effective enough without legions of allies. Instead, rigor should—even must—engage our sense of curiosity, the imagination of solving relevant, real-world issues, and the deep metacognition that comes from reflection. As Peter Rorabaugh, Sean Michael Morris, and Jesse Stommel write in “Beyond Rigor:”

“We must move past our traditional definition of rigorous academic work, and recognize that a learning experience or a pedagogical methodology can be both playful and also have the qualities of the best academic work, if not the reagents of traditional rigor.”

Like school itself, traditional notions of rigor work for a very small subset of folks whose funds of knowledge and literacies tend to be highly valued. These funds of knowledge and literacies generally tend to be those possessed by white, middle-and-upper class, cishet males, which sends strong messages of exclusion to those who don’t share those literacies or the values, beliefs, and ideals inherent in them. As Rorabaugh, Morris, and Stommel argue, we need to shift our definition of rigor away from reading really long books that are assessed with really hard multiple-choice questions to finding ways to get students to use their funds of knowledge to imagine, explore, and maybe most of all, create. This new notion of rigor requires rethinking power asymmetry in school and empowering learners to use their agency to seek their rigor and relevance in forms and content central to their interests and assets using inquiry, play, and metacognitive reflection, and we have to trust our students—all of our students—to do the learning that they want to do. It’s here where we can begin measure exceptionality by inclusion rather than exclusion.