My 11th and 12th graders did not do “learning loss.”
I asked my students what they thought accounted for this trend-bucking improvement, and they basically said: shrug.
Students don’t really like it when you ask them about teaching. That’s your job, they are too polite to come right out and say. But I do think someone should say something about how we managed to defy the odds, so let me share what I think is replicable and scalable about our success.
1. Assign this for homework: Ask your students to explain why four to seven interesting and not already completely familiar words make sense in their independent reading. For structure, give them a spreadsheet with one column for the word, another for the sentence and citation, a third for their explanation of the word’s meaning in context. The fourth column is the payoff: Why does it make sense for the author to use that word in this sentence?
This encourages students to think about a text as a thing that has been created, with meaning they can discover and interpret for themselves. Furthermore, public school students are willing to do vocabulary homework. It feels right to them. So be it.
Don’t insist that they use the spreadsheet. It’s just a model. The key here is letting them discover their own words and meanings. Three sample words that pop up from a random student’s work: manifold, synthesis, province. Students develop reading power when they grasp the meaning of such evocative vocabulary for themselves.
2. Encourage almost complete reading independence. We would typically read an anchor text together, such as the short story “Gryphon” by Charles Baxter, about a bizarre substitute teacher or the essay “Until Black Women are Free, None of Us Will Be Free” by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
This would get us started on exploring such questions as “What is education?” and “What is freedom?” To continue the exploration, I encouraged students to choose from titles ranging from “American Conservatism: Reclaiming An Intellectual Tradition” to “The Combahee River Collective Statement.” They didn’t have to read the whole thing, just enough to have something to think and write about.
I also gave students the freedom to pick one book they wanted to read to go with one book from my long list of recommendations. My main restrictions were that I did not want to hear about these three titles: “Go Ask Alice,” “The Outsiders” and “A Child Called It.”
I find these books symptomatic of raging generational illiteracy, and it makes me crazy whenever they are the only book a student can summon. I didn’t tell them that, however, because no one likes a party pooper. I simply reminded the students about keeping the audience in mind and told them that as the main audience for their writing, I simply had heard enough about these books.
This explanation must have sufficed because no one decided they needed to practice their own remix version of antidisestablishmentarianism by reading one of those please-don’t titles.
We did exchange some texts about books it would or wouldn’t be OK for them to read, and I did sigh whenever it was something they had obviously already read and had picked just to get it over with. But whatever they wanted to read on their own was almost always OK because I would willingly, if not happily, trade literary merit for student autonomy.
4. Let students know the results of their reading tests. I have yet to come across a student who does not want to read at or above grade level. However, they can’t act upon that desire if they don’t know where they stand. So each of the three times we took the district-mandated test, I went to some trouble to share the report from the testing company about what the student’s next steps could be. I don’t know why they can’t access this information themselves, but as I often say when facing gigantic educational bureaucracies, oh well.
I would like to say I then differentiated instruction for each student according to their needs; however, we haven’t come all this way for me to start lying to you now. There were some students who were so heartbreakingly low, I did make some accommodations for them in terms of sharing books like “The Poet X” and “brown girl dreaming” and “The Crossover.” I feel a moral obligation to reach out that way to high school kids reading at elementary school levels.
Everybody else, I pretty much let them self-differentiate by choosing their own reading and vocabulary. I also gave them choices of topics to write about.
For example, you could write about whether you agreed that until Black women are free, none of us will be free; or, if that was not the topic for you, that’s OK because The New York Times has 300 other things you can argue about; and if you don’t like any of those, then you might further consider these.
The point is that students can make impressive gains in reading even under severely suboptimal circumstances if guided and encouraged to think for themselves.
Mark Gozonsky teaches English at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts in downtown Los Angeles.
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