If you tell your students what to say and how to say it, you may never hear them, only the pale echoes of what they imagine you want them to be.

—Donald Murray (as quoted by Penny Kittle)

Where we teach, we value project-based, mastery learning, and embedding language and academic skills into every course. In the act of examining, concurring, contextualizing, disagreeing or analyzing, students learn and use the language structures that serve those functions. By creating curricula where students create projects, engage with real-world problems and delve deeply into a subject, our students learn skills and language that are meaningful to them, to the discipline, and hopefully to their ability to contribute to the world.

When we created our new Reading & Discourse class, moving away from the traditional ELA course, we did it on the basis of what we have seen in the world of teaching English to emergent bilinguals, and we wanted to bring together the strengths of seemingly contrasting approaches — reading workshop, Learning Cultures(c), and explicit language instruction. With the development of Reading & Discourse, we created a place where student interests and voices make up the curriculum, rather than teacher-selected texts and topics.

I don’t just mean that student discussion is frequent. Or that students lead them.

In our course, students choose what to read and discuss whatever comes to mind about those texts. We allow those thoughts to take them in unpredictable directions — we don’t pre-determine where they will end up. It is an authentic experience of discovery and insight, and hopefully compassion and empathy for each other as well.

Our course is based on a synthesis of several theories and research around literacy, second-language learning, reader response theory, self-determination theory, and cognitive theories. We have re-envisioned the Reader Workshop model where students are taught and given time to practice reading strategies and processes in texts they have chosen. Our vision still provides time for independent reading, but at the heart of our approach is small group, student-led discussions of texts they have chosen. This is the cornerstone of our model because language is a communicative tool.

Also inherent in our approach, is an explicit repudiation of deficit biases that invade instruction both subtly and glaringly, especially with students who are considered language minorities. Students come to us filled with interests, experiences and ideas that should serve as sparks for internal motivation, curiosity for broader interests, and lead to deeper understandings of texts. We let their interests drive the curriculum. Our role is to cultivate and nurture their curiosity and skills.

The theoretical basis for this approach is known as dialogic inquiry, or dialogic comprehension-as-sensemaking, which “privileges students’ textual ideas regardless of ‘rightness’” (Aukerman, 2013). Teachers who view reading this way:

“believe that students’ ideas will transform classroom discourse, other students’ understandings, and even their own understandings of text; thus, [these teachers] pose questions aimed at better understanding student ideas and helping these develop and collide. […] Dialogic comprehension-as-sensemaking pedagogy is not a matter of simply nurturing and celebrating student understandings, but rather of engaging students in dialogue about text in which understandings are transformed through encountering the understandings of others; even when students read alone, they will be engaging with a plethora of possibilities as they make sense of a text. From a dialogic perspective on comprehension-as-sensemaking, then, neither a text meaning nor the way in which a student arrives at meaning for a text are pre-determined: they are surprises […] that unfold in re-fraction with other voices that are also working at sensemaking” (ibid).

Students’ social sensibilities are an untapped resource that we wish to rely on to foster a democratic classroom filled with students learning how to navigate working in cooperation with diverse others, to be curious about topics, writers and genres that their peers are into, and learning to make sense of texts together.

As a result, we do not use complicated/detailed teacher-designed group roles and routines which serve to create structures that have a different, usually teacher-designed, task-based purpose. Those exist for teachers and classes where the cooperative work is a vehicle for a larger focus. For us, that cooperative work and the higher order executive functions embedded in such work are the focus. Because language is a social cognitive tool, as are reading & writing, it makes sense for our curriculum to teach into the skills that readers use to cooperate, to make meaning and be literate, including empathy, flexible thinking, selective attention, working memory, self-regulation, etc. Yes, those are skills we teach when teaching literacy. When we think about relating to characters, determining an author’s message, relating a text to ourselves, the world, etc., we are talking about using the same skills we use to relate to people in our lives. If we nurture those skills, we build on their strengths to nurture literacy.

The social-emotional focus also benefits our students’ ability to adapt to and create new cultures. This is not a class where we study the canon or even create a new one.

We will create, however, a culture where all students learn the benefits of learning how to learn with others.

We believe that if we do this, students’ agency, collaborative skills, and literacy will be evident across classes.