The Adolescent Literacy Rabbit Hole

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

Credited to @RabbitHoleKC

I started teaching in 1997.   My first teaching position was American History with 8th graders at a so called “suburban” school that had the unusual feel of being both urban and rural. Our district border butted up to the second largest urban district in the state, and at this point in the district’s history, it was experiencing the reality of a forced blending of diversity of culture and socioeconomic statuses for which it was wholly unprepared.   I enjoyed teaching in general, at-risk kids especially, but the challenges I had prepared for in college, mostly management concerns, weren’t the challenges that kept me awake or caused me to spend hours planning to teach.  I was surprised to find that the concerns that most plagued my existence were all connected to literacy. A predominant number of my students, probably about 67%, if it was near the national average,  were non-readers or struggling/striving readers.  Ultimately, what that meant was that they weren’t effectively reading to learn.  When reading a piece of text to glean information and evidence about a topic within my content was the objective, that objective was rarely realized.  From a social studies teacher point of view, and a new social studies teacher at that, it felt like the time spent asking students to read to learn was wasted. I had standards to cover.  I was idealistic; I wanted them to read it, hear it, speak it, write about it, know it, use it.   I wasn’t yet using power points or prezis, flashing historical images from the internet, showing an array of video clips to build background knowledge or encouraging my students to create iMovies or engage in  PBL projects to get them to internalize content.  I could tell a good story, guide a good research project,  and lead a decent discussion or debate.  I could keep my students engaged. I was about collaborative learning before it was cool, but that wasn’t enough.  My students could take notes, have discussions, write mediocre essays without good evidence, and make posters.  Not life skills, necessarily. 

As I looked back on that first year of teaching, I felt a bit confounded about how I would ever help my students “see” and engage in the big picture of this nation’s history without their ability to truly read about it.  I felt that it was essential to be able to read, write about and discuss original documents. I understood the need to bale on the one-size-fits-none textbook and bring in my own sources.  I even wrote or rewrote passages.   No matter how many first-year-level activities I pulled out of my very small bag of tricks, my students needed to be able to read and grapple with difficult texts full of deep and original ideas intended to be grappled with.

I ended that first year of teaching with some successes, but they were mostly relational successes built on my appreciation of teens and my desire to advocate on their behalf.  I doubt one of those students remembers much else about that year.  Those students are in their mid-30’s now.  I still regret what SKILLS they really didn’t develop to help them be the citizens I hoped they would be now.

I spent another year at that school, before leaving to grow child 2 and child 3.  I was granted an English position, which for me meant teaching history through literature.  I was excited for the opportunity to connect literature to time and place and to make connections between the stories that fill our canon and the lives that bore those stories. (My focus quickly shifted from the canon, for those who are worried.) Year one hadn’t killed my idealism.  However, the struggle was real and prevalent no matter what I taught. Adolescents were struggling to make meaning out of all types of text, unless the text was significantly below grade level.  Frankly, many were struggling with texts well below grade level, as well. They had a severe lack of background knowledge and dangerously low vocabularies.   I was not so concerned that they couldn’t understand everything I asked them to read.  I wasn’t even concerned that some read much lower than others or that I would need to take a serious journey into differentiation land. I was concerned that they had no skills in how to GRAPPLE.  They didn’t or couldn’t “struggle with or work hard to deal with or overcome” confusion and challenges as they read.   When asked, they couldn’t tell me what specifically was the problem, why they didn’t understand a sentence, paragraph or passage. Nor did they have any practices of their own to deal with such problems.  More than that,  I was concerned I had no skills to help students, of any discipline, truly use strategies or grow as readers of content text or even as readers in general.  I had taken a “content area reading” class in college like every other education certification seeker.  I even enjoyed it.  However, by my second year of teaching, that felt like an insignificant collection of reading engagement tools that didn’t address the struggle before me.  A list of inquiries began to take hold.  How do I help struggling adolescent readers become better readers of my content, but more importantly, better readers, writers, thinkers in general?   How do I figure out what is tripping students in general and individual students specifically?  What are the processes the brain engages in to learn to read?  What then must the growing, developing brain do to make sense of complex text as it reads to learn?   I was feeling guilty for not having the knowledge or skills to answer these questions.  I once heard someone say, “guilt is the soul’s call to action.”  If that is true, I felt the call.

So that was the challenge before me when my second infant girl took over my world and my brain.   My refusal to leave her and go back to work also produced a hole in my budget.  A friend suggested I take a graduate class, so I could teach something called the Lindamood Reading Process.   By the end of the course, I was hooked.  The instructor of that class invited me to teach for her in a more clinical setting serving children with dyslexia and reading disabilities.  Just as will happen when you give a moose a muffin or a pig a pancake, or in my case, when you give a curious mind a new rabbit hole, a series of events developed before me that changed my life mission. I began an M.Ed program focused on secondary literacy.  Then I returned to teaching in the aforementioned second largest urban district in my state. That turned into a lot of action research and a return visit to a graduate school for my reading specialist. The die was cast, and I was off to change the lives of urban adolescents any way I could manage.

What is your story?  Why do you care so much about the literacy lives of teens?  What are the struggles that absorb your thinking about struggling secondary readers?   I would like to hear about the journeys of other literacy-minded educators.