Humanizing the Teaching of Reading: Toward More Transformational and Humane Practices

By Vicki Vinton and Maria Nichols

Like many of you, we began hearing rumors last March that schools might shut down because of a virus sweeping over the country. At that point we couldn’t begin to imagine the full scope of the disruption, devastation and death the pandemic would bring, but we each did begin to find emails in our inboxes postponing or cancelling work we had scheduled—and at some point, in an attempt to make sense of what was happening and to know that we weren’t alone, we reached out to each other and began a journey of thought that continues to this day.

In those first early days, huddled together on Zoom, we talked about supporting teachers and schools as they moved to virtual learning. But we’d scarcely settled on meeting dates and tentative questions to explore when our world errupted again with the murder of George Floyd, which shook us out of our “how do we support literacy as we know it,” focus and led us instead to listen to voices like Bettina Love, who talked about abolitionist teaching, and Sonja Cherry-Paul who challenged us to be “the new architects of school.”

All of this convinced us that a return to normal could no longer be our goal. Instead, we wanted to be voices for transformative change, which, in the words of David Kirkland, recognizes that “Teachers are human rights workers, and our classrooms are progressive vineyards thirsty for liberation’s laborers.”

This wasn’t a difficult shift for us to make, as we’d both been questioning many commonly accepted literacy practices for years. We’d also both been advocating for change, as we believed that the goal of literacy instruction should not just be ensuring students’ mastery of skills, as demonstrated through test scores, but should tap into the deeper, more meaningful aspects of reading and being a reader, which we found was best articulated by writers. 

Ursula LeGuin, for example, believed that “We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.” And, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley advocated for what he called a “moral imagination,” which we see as a capacity to occupy another mind and feel the emotional pulse of another heart, which reading can support. And that led us to think about whether we had experienced that, ourselves, as children.

I, Vicki, keenly remember reading The Phantom Tollbooth, a book that was given to me by friends of my parents, which I’ve kept all these years. I remember being put off by Milo at first. But as I kept reading about Milo’s adventures in the strange, confusing world he found himself in, I began to realize that he was changing – that indeed, humans could change. They could become kinder, braver, and more helpful, as they started doing things they never thought they could, which I found enormously comforting. And it made me want to become a kinder, braver and more helpful person.

As for me, Maria, the Betsy series by Carolyn Haywood was an early childhood favorite. Oddly, I had all but forgotten that little girl with the brown pigtails until a random day in the school library with my first graders.  I was pursuing shelves, hunting for an unexpected literary gem, when a very worn red spine caught my attention: a copy of B is For Betsy!  As I thumbed through the musty, fragile pages, memories of Saturday trips to the library with my mom, long afternoons with nothing to do but read, and nights under the covers with books and a flashlight came flooding back. Through this favored series, I had bonded with Betsy, learning to face childhood fears through the comfort of family, true friends, contagious kindness, and the superpower of red ribbons and plaid bookbags. Truly, Betsy helped me construct ways of being as I went out into the world.

As we reflected on these memories, we found ourselves thinking about something else Bettina Love had said: “Why,” she asked, “had it taken a pandemic to see the humanity of all children?” This opened our eyes to the humanity in our own process.  We recognized that we had been privileged to have access to texts that helped us see ourselves and create a vision of the people we wanted to be. But, we were also aware that we were able to do that without having been taught to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it,” or to “determine central ideas of themes of text.” Instead, we  did these things by connecting with and being moved by the humanity of a character in a book, in a way that helped us become more humane, too. And believing that every child is capable of being moved and thinking deeply, just as we had been, we found ourselves thinking that the transformative change we longed for was a shift from a system based on standardization to one focused on humanization. But what would humanizing the teaching and learning of reading look like?

Before the pandemic, we’d already been asking educators to consider making some key shifts in their practice, which we realized, as we kept talking on Zoom, served the purpose of humanizing classrooms. For instance, 

  • Shifting from what we saw as a pedagogy of right-answerism to inviting students to think, explore and develop their own ideas.
  • Shifting from being a deliverer of content (like comprehension strategies, standards and skills) to becoming a facilitator of student thinking.
  • Shifting from seeing confusion as something to be fixed to seeing it as the place where learning and thinking often starts.
  • Shifting from seeing learning as something that can be achieved in a single period to seeing it as a much more complex and messy process.
  • And, shifting from listening to students in order to assess them to listening in order to better understand their thinking.

These shifts all supported our shared belief that, given the gift of time for students to engage in that messy process, they not only have the ability to intellectually grapple with complexity—they crave it. And to see the effects of these humanizing shifts in action, here’s a conference Vicki had with a seventh grader named Yusef whose class was reading “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s short story about village that, for reasons none of the villagers remember, holds a lottery every year and stones the winner to death.

Yusef had been labeled as a struggling reader, and while many of his classmates jumped into “The Lottery,” Yusef was having a hard time just getting to the third paragraph. When Vicki sat next to him, he pushed the text as far away on his desk as he could, and when she asked if he was wondering anything, he simply said, “This story’s too weird.” 

Vicki could have responded in any number of ways, but committed to listening to understand, she leaned into his reaction and asked if he could give her an example of the story’s weirdness, and with that he pulled the story back and accusingly pointed to the second line of the story’s second paragraph: 

“The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play, and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones [to make] a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.”

“Right there,” Yusef said. “That’s weird. They just got out of school and it’s like they don’t like it. Man, when I get out of school for the summer, the last thing I want to do is talk about it.”

Here again, listening to understand—and probing student’s thinking without judgment—can reveal surprises. Vicki learned that Yusef’s disengagement with the text wasn’t because it was too hard for him. He just didn’t know how to use his response to engage with the text. And so the first thing she did was validate his response by acknowledging that that was pretty weird. Then she asked if he’d noticed anything else that seemed weird, and he answered, “Yeah, what’s with the stones?”

If you know “The Lottery,” you may be thinking just what Vicki thought: that despite being labeled as struggling, Yusef actually was quite an astute reader who was unaware of that. But noticing and naming could help him begin to see that, so she told Yusef what he’d done: He’d noticed what seems to be a pattern of weirdness, with kids not doing what they usually do, and another pattern around the stones. Then she connected that to the larger work of reading and writing: Writers often use patterns to try to show us something they don’t want to come right out and say, and I think it’s possible that the writer actually wants you to pick up all this weirdness and is inviting you to figure out why she put it there. “Hmm. . .,” Yusef muttered, as Vicki gathered her things. Just before she left the classroom, she turned to look back and saw Yusef reading.

As we began sharing stories from our work with students in conferences, small groups and read alouds, we began to brainstorm what we started calling humanizing strategies. Unlike comprehension strategies, these weren’t meant to be explicitly taught to students. Rather they were strategies for helping teachers create more humane and equitable cultures in their classrooms. We broke them into categories, like these examples:

Strategies that can help students take risks with their thinking:

  • Unless it’s clearly needed, model who to be vs. what to do, like being someone who’s curious and sometimes confused but who notices things and wonders about them.
  • Trust and don’t rush the process of meaning-making—or, as Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.
  • Use conditional language, like what might or could something mean vs. does.

Strategies that can help teachers facilitate the often messy process of meaning making through talk:

  • Be invitational by asking questions like, “What are you thinking?” or “Is anyone wondering something?”
  • Encourage multiple voices by asking questions like “Does anyone have a different idea?”
  • Normalize confusion as something every reader experiences and invite students to share what’s confusing them.
  • Help students develop a sense of agency by asking how they figured out something that had confused them or that the writer hadn’t explicitly stated.
  • Honor students’ tentative thinking, even if you suspect that what they said won’t pan out.
  • Help students see that readers revise, just as writers do, by asking if they noticed anything that gave them a new idea or changed their thinking
  • Pay attention to students’ expressions and body language, as often there’s thinking behind smirks, grimacing or laughter.

Finally, as we reflect on the whole of this journey, we recognize that all the shifts and strategies we so strongly believe in had the same intention: They were meant to respect and honor students’ intellectual capacities, feelings, and humanity.  Perhaps a critical part of transformative change is recognizing that we all want to be seen, heard, and respected – as readers, as thinkers, as human beings.    

Maria Nichols is a literacy consultant and author working internationally with teachers, districts and industry consortiums. Her work includes 33 years with the San Diego Unified School District, where she served as a classroom and demonstration teacher, literacy coach, and the Director of School Innovation. Maria is the author of Comprehension Through Conversation (Heinemann 2006), Talking About Texts (Shell 2008), Expanding Comprehension with Multigenre Text Sets (Scholastic 2009), and Building Bigger Ideas: A Process For Teaching Purposeful Talk (Heinemann, 2019). Her frequent presentations at conferences convey her belief in agentive, engaging learning
for adults and children alike.

Vicki Vinton is a literacy consultant and award-winning writer who works with teachers, schools and districts across the country and around the world.  She is the author of Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading: Shifting to a Problem-Based Approach (Heinemann, 2017) and the co-author of What Readers Really Do: Teaching the Process of Meaning Making (Heinemann, 2012) and The Power of Grammar: Unconventional Approaches to the Conventions of Language (Heinemann, 2015). As a frequent presenter at state, national and international events, Vicki brings a passion for thinking and learning and a love of language and books to every setting she works in. 

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