Saturday, September 19, 2020

Six Questions for Growing Readers

The silence in a room full of reading students is broken by a small gasp. That is one of my magical moments as a teacher—I know they’re fully engaged, and I know it’s on more than just an intellectual level—and it happened Friday. 

Toward the end of the 6th/7th grade English class discussion of the previous night’s assigned pages in the novel Wonder, I was having trouble restraining a couple of the students who’d read ahead from spilling the beans. “It’s the saddest chapter in the book!” one let escape. Others were shushing the spoilers. I didn’t help matters when I drew attention to the portentousness of the paragraph we’d ended on: “Finally, the door opened. It was Via. She didn’t even bother coming over to my bed, and she didn’t come in softly like I thought she would. She came in quickly” (219). Then I turned them loose for the last 10 minutes to get started on the next reading chunk. Silence descended for approximately 30 seconds. Then the gasp. 

That gasp told me my experiment had succeeded. It’s not just the one moment for that one student that I’m happy for—I’m happy that it is evidence that an approach to scaffolding reading that I’ve honed over years of working with 10th and 11th graders can also work for 6th and 7th graders. I want to give readers the tools to comprehend a text, make connections within and outside of it, and to read like writers. I don’t want to give them a list of questions that I think they should know the answers to—I want them to be able to pose and answer their own questions that they want the answers to. 

So the assignment each day is a box with 6 squares with at least 1 answer to each of the following prompts:
  • What is one important plot development? 
  • What is one important thing you learned about a character? 
  • What is one quotation you found significant? 
  • Why did you find it significant? 
  • Notice something about the style: an unknown or interesting word, phrase, or sentence.
  • Draw a picture representing something you envisioned while reading.
I know this works with older students, but the last time I taught 6th and 7th graders was over 20 years ago, and when we read novels, I had given them a list of specific questions on each chapter for them to find the answer to. Now I want to walk the fine line between enough scaffolding to engage readers with deeper reading than they’d do on their own without committing what Kelly Gallagher so memorably called readicide in his book by that title.

One thing that helped was my modeling. The first entry I did on the whiteboard as we read aloud together and they copied it into their notebooks. After that, I’ve done every entry in my own notebook (see above). Not only can I show students what I’ve done, but I can also know exactly what I’m asking students to do and I can comment on how doing the exercise builds my own understanding. It’s especially helpful to “show off” my drawings. They’re terrible. Stick figures. But they also communicate a specific moment or thought. Some have to do with plot, and some are more symbolic. It’s interesting to see who chooses what. I do a quick visual check at the beginning of the discussion to be sure each student has something. Sometimes a student has drawn exactly the same picture as me. Sometimes I have to ask a student about what she drew because it didn’t even register with me, but when she explains it, I can reinforce how important it is that we each notice different things. 

My goals are for students to understand how plot works to contribute to theme, how authors develop characters over time and through different point of view, to think deeply about specific quotations they find significant, to read like writers by paying attention to words and phrases, and to notice how they envision images as they read. These are strategies they can transfer to any reading. The 6 boxes let me do a quick visual survey at the beginning of class to be sure students have done the reading and held their thinking to bring to the discussion. I’m transparent with them about this: I tell them I’m asking them to fill in these 6 boxes so (1) they will be sure to think at least about these 6 things as they read, (2) they will remember the thoughts they had to contribute to the class discussion, and (3) I will be able to see the evidence of the thinking they did because I can’t see inside their heads. 

I’m so excited it’s working with 6th and 7th graders as well as I’ve seen it work with older students. 

What kind of transferable tools do you give students for growing as readers?


Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Learning Power of a Game

It’s 2:30 on a Friday afternoon, and 8th grade English language learners are jumping out of their seats, squealing, laughing, and smiling (well, their eyes are smiling—I assume their mouths are, too, underneath their masks…Oh, Covid…). And it’s all about the past participles of irregular verbs. Yes, really. 

We are playing a game. You roll the dice, and you get to take the move if you can give the correct past participle form of the verb printed in the square you land on. We’re studying modals to express degrees of certainty, so you simply fill in the blank: “might have ___.” For take it’s taken, for go it’s gone, for sell it’s sold. You get the idea. 

I found the game board on iSLCollective when I was collecting games this summer. The name on the board says “Ludo,” a game I’d never heard of, but Googling the rules, I discovered it looks a lot like what I know as Sorry. I had discovered in my first trimester as an EFL (English as a foreign language) teacher, April to July, that even my advanced students still struggle with irregular verbs, and I determined to come back and hit that hard in the fall trimester. I had simultaneously discovered the energy that games bring to the language learning classroom, and determined to use some of my summer break to research games to use. (See this blog post for all the games I discovered.) So when I saw this Ludo game with irregular verbs, I knew it would be good. I just had no idea HOW good. 

How good is it?
  • Friday afternoons no longer drag. We played this for the last 15-20 minutes of a 45-minute period for the first time last week Friday. This Friday students dragged into class, asked if we were going to play a game, and immediately perked up when I answered affirmatively—even though we were working on other things for the first 25 minutes.
  • Students practice. Eagerly. With social support—friends (and opponents) sitting on the edge of their seats willing them to get (or miss) the correct verb form. Communal laughter when a missed verb is re-landed on and gotten this time…or missed…again. 
  • Students strategize to practice. They don’t know they’re doing. They think they are sort of “cheating” when they realize that if they get all their pieces out and move in a block around the board, they are likely to hit the same verb in quick succession, making it “easy” to get it right. (Ha! They’ve just practiced 4 times in a row, and every time someone else lands on it, or they get sent home and have to re-cover the same ground again, they are interleaving practice!)
  • We hit the sweet spot of what brain science tells us is effective learning, with the fun and rewards triggers releasing the chemicals oxytocin and dopamine that dial up the memory circuits of the brain.

What are they really learning?
I’ve given students a list of the 50 most frequently used irregular verbs. We highlighted the ones that are on this game board, so they can prepare ahead if they want. I’ve told them there will at some point be a test over all the verbs, so this isn’t all fun and games. It dampened their spirits for approximately 5 seconds. I probably should have given a pretest to really test the effectiveness…and maybe I still will! I’ll report back in a few weeks on what they really learned. When they’ve got this set, I’ll have to design my own game board to cover the rest of the irregular verbs. (By the way, I have noticed that there are a few regular verbs scattered among the irregular ones. I think that’s a great idea to keep the kids from assuming that the forms CANT be regular!)

What about Covid?
I am lucky enough to be face-to-face with my students. Still, I have a pair of dice for each student, I post or project the game board on the whiteboard, and I use colored magnets for the game pieces. They can roll individually, and then direct me how to move their pieces, so we aren’t all breathing all over each other and touching the same pieces. The dice I clean after each class.

I’m also lucky enough to have only the perfect number of 4 students in this class. What if I had more? I might do teams with a rotating speaker with a limited number of asks for help available. Or I have several games going. In that case, I’d have to have a 5th student in each group to be the judge, and, in Covid, he or she could also be the mover of game pieces.

If I were virtual, I don’t think it would be too hard to make a game board digitally. My first thought, since we’re using Google, is the JamBoard app. 

Can I finish a game in 15-20 minutes? 
No. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Last week I took a picture so we could pick up where we left off. But we ended up starting over because I decided to tweak some rules. It didn’t diminish the excitement one bit. I took another picture at the end of class this time. I use it to start the game next Friday.

What were the rule tweaks?
Here’s a link to some rules I found. I’ve decided to not require any particular number to get onto the board—we just want to get practicing! We didn’t use the blocking or sending home rules the first time. The second time I added them in. The sending home rule really upped the excitement. The blockading rule no one has used yet. The second time I also went from one to two dice—or we’ll never finish! I decided we always use the smallest number first, and if you fail to get that answer, you don’t get the second number. However, if using the smaller one first allows you to land on another player and send it home, you can use it first. 

Have you discovered any games that energize your language learning students and support their learning? I’d love to hear about them!

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Grammar in the Wild

We had a wild time with sentences in 6th and 7th grade English Language Arts this week!

Grammar’s natural environment is print and speech. It runs around freely on pages, pen-tips, tongues, ears, and eyes, clothed in stories. So, equipped with ideas from this summer’s re-reading of Mechanically Inclined by Jeff Anderson, I set out with my students this week to study some grammar in the wild—in its context of reading and writing. Students were smiling and laughing, engaged beyond my wildest dreams. I’m so excited to see where this trip will take us, because new learning jumps out at me even as I guide my students.

We started a class study of the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio with the start of school this week. (I wrote about the unit plan in last week’s blog post.) After introducing the unit and reading the first page the first day, on the second day, I followed Anderson’s script almost to the letter, substituting sentences from the first page of Wonder for his sample sentences from other novels.

I asked the students to write a sentence in their notebooks. Any sentence. On any topic. Just write a sentence. I took a couple samples from volunteers and wrote them on the whiteboard:
  • I like to read books.
  • White horses are rare and beautiful.
  • I eat dirt.
(I’ll bet you can picture the student in your class who would have volunteered each of those sentences!) Next I asked if they were really sentences. I got hesitant nods. “How do you know?” “They have periods!” a brave soul offered. Well, yes, as the teacher/transcriber, I did put periods at the end. But then we open our books to the first page that we had read the day before. There’s a word with a period after it: “Inside.” I ask if that’s a sentence. Students are pretty sure it isn’t. I direct them back to the whiteboard and ask them what makes those groups of words sentences. 

“They tell you something.” 

“‘Inside’ tells me something. How is what they tell me different from that?” I thought this Socratic discussion might get corny, but it didn’t—those 6th and 7th graders were really trying to articulate how they knew those were sentences! After a few back and forths, someone triumphantly dug up the word “subject,” which we decided was the who or what the sentence was about. They didn’t know or remember “verb” or “predicate,” but they identified that the who/what was doing something. I added, “or being.” So we underlined the who/what subject and put a starburst around the doing/being verb in each sentence. There we have the sentence core: 2 words. 

We identified the core of a string of simple sentences on the first page: “I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary.” I find a tricky one down the page: “I’m not that way.” Because of the preponderance of “I” subjects so far, everyone gets that, but then they think “not” is the verb. One quiet student catches the trick—he raises his hand and offers, “am.” 

We go back to “And I feel ordinary. Inside.” We see the sentence core is “I feel” and the one-word sentence after it really could be part of that sentence: “I feel ordinary inside.” That’s a very standard, understandable sentence. But what meaning gets added when the writer puts the pause of a period before the last word? It makes us stop, pay attention, and wonder—so what’s up with the outside? It creates a little mystery, and primes us for what comes next. So, I review, 2 words is the most basic sentence. As we continue to read, we’re going to hunt for and collect 2-word sentences. 

A student’s hand shoots up, and I call on her. “I guess,” she says. I stare at her blankly. She holds up her book and points to a place on the first page. “‘I guess.’ It’s a 2-word sentence.” Oh, yes! I knew that! I just had decided not to take that step in this lesson today because it was getting on in the period and we need to get on to reading some more. 

The next day I told them there was 1 kind of 2-word sentence we weren’t going to collect because there were too many of them: dialogue tags. We reviewed dialogue tags from last term, and found a few on the first page of today’s reading. A student noticed as I wrote them on the board that sometimes the subject and verb were reversed. I told them I was noticing another pattern, too.  Look for places where the sentence continues after the dialogue tag. They noticed the comma followed by an -ing verb and sometimes more:
  • …he said, standing in front of the half-opened door. (24)
  • ...answered Julian, closing the door. (24)
  • ...Julian said, walking after me. (25)
  • ...Charlotte said, sounding a little bit like Via. (25)
  • ...said Julian, shrugging. (25)
  • ...I said, trying to keep my voice steady. (25)
  • ...explained Charlotte, ignoring Julian’s smirk. (25)
I said, "I’m going to say something and then do something, and I want you to write it down. Use this pattern: the words said, the dialogue tag, then a comma and -ing verb phrase." I acted out the following:
  • “This is heavy,” said Mrs. Essenburg, dropping her bag on the floor.
  • “It’s cold in here,” said Mrs. Essenburg, opening the window.
Woo-hoo! We know about 2-word sentence cores, we have a sophisticated pattern for combining sentences, and we are getting primed to read like writers!

Who knew grammar could be this much fun or this practical? Monday we’re going to have a 2-Word Slap-Down contest (you’ll have to see Mechanically Inclined if you want all the details), identifying the subject and verb in some of the longer sentences we read…I can hardly wait!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Wonder by Design: Building a Unit

While it is always a little sad to say goodbye to summer, I’m getting excited about teaching the unit I’ve been designing for my 6th and 7th grade ELA class on the novel Wonder. It’s a really delightful book, and if you haven’t read it yet, check out this minute-and-a-half book trailer, and you just might want to! 

The book relates Auggie’s 5th grade year—his inaugural year in regular school—from a variety of first person viewpoints, including his own. Auggie has been homeschooled until now because the facial anomalies he was born with required so many surgeries that school attendance would have been a problem. Now he needs to negotiate all the social complexities of pre-adolescence…

Here’s how I’ve approached my planning, using an Understanding by Design framework that starts with the purpose and big ideas. I find it helpful to reinforce purpose by even naming units by the main idea rather than the work of literature or genre studied. So this one is called "Choosing the Good: Wonder."

Big ideas/enduring understandings:
  • I bear God’s image: I am significant, worthy of respect and protection, capable of learning, caring, creating, communicating, collaborating. That is the foundation of my significance, whatever other traits I have (race, gender, class, health, appearance, intelligence, physical capability…), however people treat me. 
  • Every person around me also bears God’s image: they are significant, worthy of respect and protection, capable of learning, caring, creating, communicating, collaborating. That is the foundation of their significance, whatever other traits they have, and how I am to treat them.

Bible background:
  • “So God created human beings in his own image…” Genesis 1:27 (NLT)
  • “ do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” Micah 6:8 (NASB)
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19, 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27; Romans 13:9; Galatians 5:14; James 2:8

Essential questions: As we read and discuss the novel Wonder, we will think about how our daily choices build character, how others also struggle with daily choices, and how we can make just, kind, courageous choices. The following questions will help us:
  • Who am I? Who is my neighbor? Why does that matter?
  • How do the parts of a novel (plot, character, style) communicate the themes?
  • How can a book be a mirror, a map, and a window?
  • How can I be an upstander rather than a bystander?
Content (literary terms): protagonist, antagonist, setting, plot, conflict, complication, climax, resolution, style, theme, allusion, character, dialogue, point of view.

Process: Students will keep a journal on each reading assignment: one significant plot event, character development, style (word/phrase), sketch, quote from the book with a personal response.

Assessment: At the end, students will demonstrate engagement with and understanding of the novel’s characters, plot, and theme by producing the following:
  • 1-page poster (A4) on theme and character 
  • New chapter: Auggie moves to Japan and joins our class.
  • Mini research/report/project on how to be an upstander rather than a bystander. 

Looking forward to starting this adventure on Tuesday! 

Saturday, August 22, 2020

4 Resources for EFL/ESL Games

“Yaruki, ne!” Eighth graders walked out of my classroom grinning and talking animatedly one day back in the beginning of July. What had we done? Just played a review game. Before exams. It’s too bad it took a whole trimester for me to remember the significance of games in motivation for language learning. I’ve spent 30 years as an English language arts (ELA) teacher using purpose to motivate. Having recently branched into teaching English as a foreign language (EFL), I realized that’s easier with reading, writing, and discussing on literary themes like the tension between individuality and community than with practicing the past perfect tense. I quietly promised myself that during the summer I’d research some games to use for the fall term, games that I could use as an energizing 5-minute class opener, a fun end-of-class review, or sometimes a longer opportunity for prompting conversation. 

What do games accomplish? As well as making drill less onerous and motivating engagement with material, having fun actually increases memory retention. As I searched games related to my standards for the next term, there were 4 sites that frequently came up. One of them is completely free, and the other 3 have a certain amount of free materials that they hope I will find so useful I will pay the subscription fee to access the rest. So I’m going to spend the next term experimenting with the free stuff, and then decide if one of the sites is worth the membership fee. Here are the 4 sites, and some of the content I looked at: 

(1) iSLCollective: This is the totally free site, and there is a TON of stuff here—games, worksheets, videos, and more—though the quality is uneven (grammar errors in English materials is counterproductive unless one is teaching irony). Here are some of the games I’ve marked to use:
  • A board game to practice using the conditional, “What would you do if…?” There are 32 prompts on the way to the end, from fun ones like “You find a time machine” to more realistic ones like “You get a bad grade.”
  • Another board game (they call it Ludo, but it looks like Sorry to me) for reviewing irregular verbs. You have to give the past or past perfect form of the irregular verb you land on.
  • Speaking cards on giving advice. This would practice using modals (should, could) as well as the personality vocabulary. There are 12 cards, each with a prompt like “Your friend is very shy. Give him some advice to be more confident.”

(2) TEFL Handbook: This site has full lesson plans, many of which include games, and they are all designed to require few resources, which is a preparation plus! There are currently 2 levels each of beginning, elementary, intermediate, with advanced materials to be added. I looked at a lesson on prepositions of time. It includes a lead-in activity, a couple of class activities, and a game. The game is a sort of prepositions charades. You assign each student a time expression (10 examples are given). Students write a sentence using it on one side of a blank piece of paper and illustrate the sentence on the other. Teams guess.

(3) Teach This: If these games turn out to be as good as they look, access to all content may be worth the membership fee of $40/year! One game that I want to try is a board game on articles (a, an, the). There are 32 squares, 16 labelled true/false and 16 labelled “talk about.” For example, one of the true/false squares says, “I have never been to ___ Philippines.” The player who lands there gets a point for supplying the correct article, and then the other players guess whether that statement is true or false for that player. Any who get it right also get a point. One of the “talk about” squares says, “___ most expensive thing you’ve ever bought.” Again, the player who lands here gets a point for supplying the correct article, and then a chance for an extra point if she can talk about the topic for 30 seconds. (To see the game, scroll down to 3rd download on this link.) 

(4) EFL Sensei: I actually bought a book of 10 board games for $9.99 right at the beginning of the summer, before doing all this other research, figuring if I never got around to anything else, spending the money would at least provide me with a fun activity for, say, most Fridays of the fall term. And looking at the games, they are really well done. Similar to some of the ones on iSLCollective (like “What would you do if…?”), but a little more complex, with complete directions, and always grammatically correct. For example, in
“If…” the student to the left of the one moving asks the question stem “What will you do if...” plus one of the 17 landing spot prompts, such as “It’s nice this weekend” or “I win one million dollars.”  In addition to the prompt spots, this one has the added complexity of spots to go back 2, go forward 3, take a shortcut, and trade places with another player. 

So here’s to a little more fun in EFL class this term! Fun that will also more deeply embed what we study and spark more oral practice. I’m excited to try some of these games out. Do you have any favorite games to play with EFL students?

Friday, August 14, 2020

Resources for Teaching News/Media Literacy and Current Events

Last blog post from summer cabin work station...

“Mrs. Essenburg, is the letter z really going to be dropped from English on Monday?” a concerned student queried last spring. That’s when I knew it was time for a mini-unit on online source checking. I also knew I wanted to go beyond that, into media literacy, current events, and civil discourse. I’ve done that in a small way with 10th and 11th grade English language arts (ELA) classes in the past, but now I’m teaching new courses—middle school ELA and high school English as a foreign language (EFL)—so I’m going to need new ideas. That research went on the summer to-do list for me. And this was the week I did it. Wow! There are so many wonderful resources available!

Why do I want to use news media? To motivate learning, build reading skills and background knowledge, empower critical thinkers to engage in civil discourse, love their neighbors, and impact the world. 
News reading builds background knowledge, which is an important component both of reading skill and of being an informed citizen. News reading connects what’s studied in class to the world we life in, which motivates learning. News reading is an inescapable part of online life, so giving students the tools to identify bias, satire, fakes, manipulation, opinion, and fact empowers them to be wise consumers of the flood of online information. 

What is news/media literacy and how can I even begin to communicate it to students? Six years ago when I first felt the necessity of launching into teaching some of this, I had to first overcome my own lack of knowledge. Then there’s the factor of how to package and communicate it to students. For truly helpful teaching tools and sources for current topics, see Facing History and Ourselves. Here are some of the pages it offers:   
  1. Plan-ahead teacher checklist for teaching current events  Includes helping you think through why you want to do it and how frequently you want to do it, and offers a list of article sources and of teaching strategies best suited to different types of topics.
  2. Where do we get our news and why does it matter? 
  3. Fostering Civil Discourse 
  4. Current events in your classroom: Teaching ideas, activities, and strategies for middle and high school students. Current topics include Covid-19; global immigration; and hate, violence and injustice

How frequently, and what do students do with it? One frequent answer is the Article of the Week (AoW), first popularized by Kelly Gallagher for high school in his book Deeper Reading and since taken up and adapted by many others for many purposes and audiences, including middle school. Here are several resources and examples. Search the Web or Teachers Pay Teachers for many more. 
  1. Kelly Gallagher: Includes his archive of articles from the last 7 with annotation instructions and reflection questions on 2-page pdfs.  
  2. Dave Stuart Jr.: Includes his archive for articles from the last 8 years with annotation instructions and reflection questions on 2-page pdfs or Google Docs; most recent years divided into timeless and time-sensitive articles. 
  3. One-page graphic organizer template, sample completed graphic organizer, CCSS alignment, plus 19 sample short answer questions for grades 5-12 ($3 on Teachers Pay Teachers) 
  4. One-page graphic organizer template with rubric, instructions for how to make and how to use AoWs, sample questions, and a link to the last year’s worth of articles. Vocabulary emphasis; grades 7-12. (Free on Teachers Pay Teachers) 
  5. Jeremy Huyler in the Middle Web article "3 Media Literacy Ideas to Promote More Reading" expands the idea to include graph of the week and video of the week.

Where do I find articles to use? Facing History answers the question “What are some trusted news sources that represent a range of viewpoints that I can bring into my classroom?” with a variety of sources, from condensed to in-depth, to radio journalism and podcasts. The 3 below are the ones I’ve been particularly exploring this week because of the adjustable reading levels of the first 2.
  1. TweenTribune (sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute): adjustable over 4 lexiles.
  2. NewsELA: adjustable over a variety of lexiles. 
  3. CommonLitbackground information, sortable by grade level but not adjustable. 

What about bias and fact-checking? Check this blog about how I’ve used the first 2 links below with 10th and 11th graders. (I also found them helpful for my own education.) The second 2 links are to see fact-checking sites.
  1. Chart graphing news sources on a liberal/conservative x-axis vs. factuality y-axis
  2. Media/Bias Fact Check Web site explains their methodology for rating bias and reliability. You can also enter any source to get their rating and reasons. 
  3. 5 Fact-Checking Sites
  4. Plus one more: AFP Fact Check AFP

One more great resource for educating myself and my students is Common Sense Media. The first 2 items below I used for my mini-unit in the spring in response to the question about the eradication of the letter z. The 3rd is a list of 30 more resources I haven’t finished working my way through yet, but I want to. And the final one is a link to an entire digital citizenship curriculum, elementary through high school. You have to set up an account, but it’s free. Maybe I’ll explore that next summer.
  1. Turn students into fact-finding web detectives (pdf) 
  2. 5 questions to ask about media (pdf) 
  3. Top picks: 30 tools (list of resources) 
  4. Digital Citizenship Curriculum

And don’t worry. The letter z isn’t being dropped from the English language. That’s a joke that’s been circulating every April 1 for the past 10 years. 

Saturday, August 8, 2020

A 4-Part Framework for Teaching

My brain is changing. And that’s a good thing. Not the part about finding the toothpaste in my sock drawer, that’s not a good thing. But the part where I read a novel I’ve taught many, many times, and suddenly see a perspective I’ve never seen before—that’s a good thing. This week I was preparing to teach Alan Paton’s classic South African novel Cry, the Beloved Country, and I read these sentences: 

Down in the valley below there was a car going up to the house. He recognized it as the police-car from Ixopo, and it would probably be Binnendyk on his patrol, and a decent fellow for an Afrikaaner. (132)

I stopped, stunned, to let my heart absorb what my brain had just noticed. James Jarvis, the white English farmer, recognizes by name the local police on their regular patrol with a friendly feeling. Turns out it’s actually a special trip to respectfully notify Jarvis of a family tragedy in the big city. Meanwhile, no such friendly official support system had existed for the Black pastor Stephen Kumalo in the neighboring village of Ndotsheni. 

This is just one of the many broken systems and relationships the novel portrays, and that I have noticed one more will not radically transform my teaching of the novel. That I noticed it, though, says something has changed in me. Months of following the news out of the US after the killing of George Floyd, the resulting conversations about race and inequality, the flood of people’s stories that were very different from mine, and undeniably full of pain, and reading books to gather more perspectives, more understanding—this has been a journey, and I am beginning to arrive some place. Where? What now?  

As I pondered this, I came across a 4-layered framework for Historically Responsive Literacy proposed by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad: identity, skills, intellect, and criticality (Jennifer Gonzales. “Historically Responsive Literacy: A More Complete Education for All Students.” Cult of Pedagogy). I found this exciting because it affirms a lot of what I already do, and it directs me to where I can continue strengthening what I do. Skills and intellect are the familiar stuff of traditional teaching. Identity and criticality are the purpose-giving frame, so I’ll expand on those. 

Identity, the author explains, involves knowing not only yourself, but also how to understand people who are different from you. I’ve often used the through questions “Who am I?”, “Who is my neighbor?”, and “Why does it matter?” Since I started teaching World Lit in an international Christian school 15 years ago, I’ve been on a quest to find literature that reflects the varied ethnic and national identities of my students as well as introduces them to a world of other voices. I can keep building on this.

Criticality is critical thinking plus doing. Gonzales’s blog post explains it like this: “‘Criticality is helping students to read, write and think in active ways,’ Muhammad explains, 'as opposed to passive—when you ask a question and there’s one correct answer, and you just take it in. We don’t want them to be passive consumers of knowledge. We want them to question what they hear on the news.’…This fourth layer is essential ‘because oppression exists in the world. Period. We want students to leave our schools not contributing to more oppression or wrongdoing and hurt in their relationships and with strangers. We also don’t want them to be silent. If they see oppression, we want them to actively respond to it.’”

That, too, is something I’ve always wanted my students to do. And now that I am more aware of the persistence of racial inequality issues in the US, as I continue educating myself on them, they join the panoply of issues that I want my students to also be aware of—along with all the places God’s image is dishonored when his image bearers are mistreated—from the Rohingya to the streets of Minneapolis to the halls of our school.  

At least, those were some of the thoughts I had reading the blog post. Now I’m reading the full book—Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. I’m hoping I’ll learn even more!