Wall of genre-specific tools

In my 11th grade class, my students have divergent opinions about what makes for a good book. They have a long list of different interests and life experiences. Some gravitate toward realistic fiction while others swear by graphic novels and manga. It might seem obvious to discuss students in this way, yet there are some who would describe my students first in terms of their reading level, country of origin, or levels of English proficiency.

When discussing ELLs, we often focus on the gaps and needs and what they don’t know. We talk about the way they differ from the “norm” whatever that imaginary category may be. Even at my school where every student is from elsewhere, we often view them through the lens of how they differ from some other median.

For years that’s certainly a lot of the PD I received from officials within my city’s department of education. It can often feel as if their immigration status and language experience are all we are trained to define them by.

It’s more than just terminology: ELLs, MLLs, or emergent bilinguals; our teacher instinct to categorize and understand our students must stem from them as individuals first. Otherwise we are defining them primarily from our stance as teachers, rather than from their stance as individuals who are members of many overlapping communities.

Now, this is not to say we should ignore these parts of them: immigrant, language learner, etc., as this is something that is a significant part of their personal story arc, it is something we need to accommodate for as teachers, and a strength they bring to our school, widening a school’s definition of “us”. There is certainly something special to have a student from Cameroon next to a student from Senegal, talking to a student from Honduras and the Dominican Republic. That shouldn’t be ignored. Instead, I am challenging the external eyes we have been taught to use, defining them primarily or solely in these terms. Because, unfortunately, what I have witnessed throughout my career are language learners who do not enough trust themselves with their adopted language as a result of this static view of them.

We post here a lot about how to abandon a deficit mindset. Part of this is seeing what distinguishes our ELLs from monolingual students as strengths, but the aim of our curriculum is to take that even further. It’s to see our students as individuals even while being cognizant of their particular needs, or shared needs, and the ultimate standards and goals that will define their success in society.

So, one strategy we use in our curriculum development is a deductive approach (which my iPhone, perhaps insightfully, wants to autocorrect to seductive) to genre analysis. This means we allow students to discover patterns of texts and genres largely without teacher direction at the start.

In our reading curriculum, students only read texts that are chosen by the teacher when we are introducing a mentor text. We use mentor texts to model the actions readers take as they read. We define them in academic terms but also terms that apply to life (like showing empathy for a character is a way to infer or analyze about their motivations or reactions).

Since students choose what they want to read both for their independent texts and the texts and they read and discuss in small groups, we don’t organize our curriculum around genres per se — not in the Lucy Calkins sense anyway–where everyone reads or writes in one genre at a time to achieve some level of expertise in that genre.

Instead, our mini-lessons over the course of a week might focus on a shared short text we analyze to learn skills or strategies that apply to most approaches to reading while seeing how it applies to a particular genre. Or one day I might dive deep into one short text where each group will read and discuss it if I feel its message or techniques could apply universally to texts they are reading.


Which brings me to where we are now. The image above shows a recent addition to my resource wall. They are questions about texts organized by genre. If I had given them to kids at the start of the year, the students—who have internalized school as a place where you do things because teachers tell you to do them—would have turned them into a series of questions to answer to “learn” the genre.

We had started the unit which required them to analyze a literary text of their choice, with the guidance for analysis simply being, “find sentences that cause a strong you to have a strong reaction (feeling, wondering, confusion, understanding, etc) and write them down. Write what you feel and why, and why you think this moment is so important“. (In conferences, we went deeper as needed, but mostly it was about teaching them to trust their own ideas. ) So now it feels safe to give them more guided questions that invite them to look more deeply at the genre itself.

So now, as students prepare for their presentations around their texts, these questions will allow them to look at their text in a new way, at a point where they can understand what the questions are trying to do and how they can choose from them without a feeling of obligation or directives.

So, in this way, we are providing resources and instruction for addressing student need, especially around digging more deeply into their ability to analyze a genre, but only after they have had sufficient time to discover their perspective of their texts with minimal teacher intervention around those ideas.

p.s.
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