By Shawna Coppola, 2019 CCIRA Featured Speaker
I am often asked by colleagues how to help their students break out of comfortable habits as readers and writers in order to facilitate new discoveries, provide greater challenge, and broaden their horizons. As someone who enjoys the security and steadfastness of reading the same kinds of texts (memoir, true crime, YA) and writing within a limited pool of forms and genres (memoir, essays, comics), I understand both students’ desire to stick with what’s “working” for them as well as teachers’ desire–and often, the outside pressure–to nudge students toward a more “well-rounded” reading and writing identity.
It is important to tread lightly when doing this work. Many of the literacy giants whose shoulders we continue to stand on have made a rock-hard case for providing students with lots of choice around their reading and writing (Guthrie & Humenick, 2014, Kittle, 2013; Krashen, 2011; Graves, 1985), which, many have argued, leads to both greater motivation to read and write as well as greater gains in reading and writing “achievement.” (I put the word “achievement” in quotes because I find that many of our collective ideas around what constitutes literacy achievement are problematic, but that’s another discussion for another time.) However, it is also important to note that many readers, in particular, may not fully comprehend what they are “missing” when they stick to a small number of forms, topics, and genres. For example, in my almost two decades of being a literacy educator, I have noticed that many readers who identify as male read very few texts in which the main character is female, just as few readers who identify as White tend to self-choose texts that feature a protagonist of color. In addition, many of my colleagues have reported–and I myself have witnessed–that when given choice about what to write, a great number of students stick with the same old “tried and true” topics, forms, and genres, whether we’re talking about kindergartners writing picture books about families and other relationships or third graders writing Minecraft comics (soooo many Minecraft comics).
So what do we do? How can we continue to honor student choice while also nudging students toward choices that will significantly broaden their literacy horizons?
One suggestion is to consider student choices around reading and writing using a reflective or inquiry lens. Encourage students to ask questions about their choices as a reader and a writer–questions like, “What genres do I tend to read? What topics do I tend to write about? Do I notice any patterns in my literacy practices? Where are there gaps in my practice?” This form, which my colleagues and I used with third and fourth grade students last Spring, is just one of many, many ways that you might invite students to reflect on their choices.
Another suggestion is to use identity as a driving lens through which to consider the kinds of reading and writing choices students make. Two big questions that teachers and students can use all year long are, “Who am I as a reader? Who am I as a writer?” Understanding that our identities are fluid and dynamic, we can use these reflections to create goals that can help us develop our identities as readers and writers over the course of a semester or school year.
Finally, we can use the metaphor of a “well-balanced diet” to help us more effectively balance our reading and writing lives. In this post I wrote for my blog, My So-Called Literacy Life, I encourage educators to “milk the food analogy” by comparing the nutritional benefits of eating a wide variety of foods to the cognitive benefits of reading different text types/modalities–and I would add, by reading a wide variety of topics representing a wide variety of lives and experiences. We can do this with writing as well, using play as a driving reason to “try out” different kinds of topics, genres, craft moves, and forms in our writers’ notebooks (Buckner, 2004).
We can do both–we can honor students’ choices around their literacy practices while also nudging them toward a wider, more balanced set of experiences as readers and writers. In doing so, however, let’s remember that our role as educators is not just to attempt to justify the benefits of this kind of nudging, but–ultimately–to model it ourselves.
Shawna Coppola is a literacy specialist with almost two decades of public school teaching experience. She has worked as a K-6 literacy specialist/coach, a language arts teachers for students in grades 6-8, and a children’s librarian. Coppola is a national speaker, a member of The Educator Collaborative, and the author of RENEW! Become a Better–and More Authentic–Writing Teacher from Stenhouse Publishers, which you can preview here. Her next book for Stenhouse is due out in the fall of 2019–yay!