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Out of the 4 secret ingredients that make up a Co-Created education-- empowering, inclusive, rigorous, and supportive-- this final ingredient is the one with...
... the most information readily available online about it already,
...the most trainings geared in its direction already,
...the most attention paid to it already.
Yet, when it comes to putting all those things into practice, most schools and classrooms still have a lonngggg way to go in this area.
(So, on second thought, maybe the most lip-service paid to it, would unfortunately be a more accurate statement.)
Spoiler alert: the “it” I’m talking about supporting here is behavior and discipline.
There are a whole slew of resources and professional developments available on behavior and discipline, which shows that we all see a need.
So if we see the need, and the knowledge is out there, why is it still so rare to see it done really well in practice?
One explanation is that it comes down to mindset; handy tips and tricks can only go so far without addressing the beliefs, attitudes, dispositions, and expectations that we hold about behavior and discipline in our minds. We have to go further upstream and get to the source.
Before we do all that, let's get some definitions out of the way.
What does it mean to be supportive from a behavior and discipline standpoint? What does it mean to cultivate a supportive environment?
Students feel supported when their whole-person needs are met: clear boundaries provide security; a tightknit community provides a sense of belonging; and explicitly-taught social-emotional skills and executive functioning skills provide a practical toolkit for finding success.
Alright, now that we're clear on exactly what it means to co-create a supportive educational experience, let's take a deeper look at the role of mindset.
What's mindset got to do with it?
Dr. Marcia Reynolds is in the business of changing minds; she teaches leaders and coaches how to help people have breakthrough moments where they examine and challenge their own thinking patterns.
Check out how she visualizes the way we construct and deconstruct our mindsets:
Many things shape our mindsets-- our upbringing, our experiences, our education, our culture... the list goes on. These formative elements are what make up the "walls" in our minds that sometimes need to be brought down brick by brick so we can make positive change.
Self-Assess: What are the mental walls you've built around your concept of behavior and discipline?
Chances are, your responses to these questions reflect the type of environment you are creating in your school or classroom. Our actions don't come from nowhere; they come from our mindsets.
Everyone wants to feel successful and happy in their day-to-day work. Being honest with yourself about the questions above will feel uncomfortable in the short run, yet could lead to greater happiness and success in the long run for both you and your students.
If it's helpful to you, you could even draw it out-- literally visualize the mental walls so you can begin to break down any that need it.
Once you've done some big picture self-reflection, then it's time to drill down into the 4 specific mindshifts that will help you become a more supportive educator and help you cultivate a supportive learning environment.
TOP 4 SHIFTS TO GET YOUR MIND INTO SUPPORTIVE MODE
Supportive Mindshift #1
Support students as whole people-- instincts, needs, flaws & all.
Fifty years ago, legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow said,
When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of a basic human need such as security, love, and self-esteem."
Put in simpler terms, no one is their best self when something is missing or something is hurting.
Trauma, skill gaps, unmet needs, sensory sensitivities, or even unclear boundaries can all contribute to a student requiring some additional support.
Come to think of it, that doesn't just apply to our students-- that applies to all of us!
When we look for a root cause instead of looking for a culprit to blame, we move ourselves into a space of curiosity and compassion.
When we see that our students are just as human as we are and vice versa, we tap into empathy and connection.
A bit more on Maslow
Maslow’s work has since been commonly summarized in a hierarchy of human needs, visualized as a pyramid:
Although not all psychologists agree about the order or hierarchical structure of the pyramid, it still serves as a concise and accurate summary of our basic human needs.
It's likely that whatever might be hurting or missing for our students falls into one of the categories of that pyramid.
The simple act of recognizing that our students might be missing out on a basic need or hurting on a fundamentally human level helps us reframe the way we work with them, and it better positions us to provide support.
*Disclaimer* -- To be clear, this is in no way a plea to lower our standards based on students' circumstances, or to make excuses for them, or to let them off the hook. In fact, one of the most caring things we can do is hold students accountable.
The difference is in making sure they know it's coming from a place of human understanding, coupled with strong belief in their high potential.
Supportive Mindshift #2
Support students’ sense of security & belonging first.
As educators, we of course cannot meet our students' every need all on our own. We need partnership with families and the greater community in order to do that.
However, there are two particular areas of need that-- if we were to actively and purposely target them in the classroom-- could be making a HUGE impact in our students' lives.
Those areas are security and belonging.
The mindshift here is prioritizing those two areas as highly as any academic goal. The environment in which students learn makes *all* the difference in what they learn, how they learn, and to what degree they learn. Security and belonging come first if we have any hope of academic excellence.
Here are a few ways to make sure your students can answer "yes" to both those questions.
First, Community-oriented classroom management shows everyone they belong.
The dictionary defines community as:
"a unified body of individuals who feel a sense of fellowship with each other, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals."
( ...Ok, technically I combined two dictionary definitions to get that one, but still. It's a good one!)
That's the kind of community that will help our students (and us!) flourish and thrive. It's an environment where their innate need for belonging will be met, so that they can focus on learning instead of on survival. (Instincts are powerful things!)
That type of community doesn't happen magically or automatically. It takes purposeful effort and action. It takes working together to explicitly define what common attitudes, interests, and goals you all will share together.
To help kickstart that effort and action, here's a freebie for you, along with an example of the community commitments my class and I made together back in the day:
Second, clear boundaries make everyone feel more secure.
"Wow, I'm so thankful my teacher sets such clear boundaries and holds us all accountable!"
... said no student, ever.
Yet, even though they don't say it out loud, and even though they're probably not even consciously aware of it, they feel it.
Boundaries provide the safe perimeter that surrounds and defines the limits of the community. Inside of them is what we do tolerate in this community; outside of them is what we don't tolerate in this community.
As the leader of the classroom or school community, it is your sacred responsibility to ensure that those boundaries are defined, honored, and reinforced. While you will serve as the main caring authority holding students accountable to the boundaries, if those boundaries are clear enough, students will also hold each other accountable to them. Especially in the elementary years.
In the adolescent years, a hallmark of students' development is the need to push boundaries. So they need something sturdy to push up against! It is developmentally essential that the boundaries are clear, fair, reasonable, and consistently reinforced.
This is where natural and logical consequences come in as part of the learning process. A consequence is simply a result of an action; consequences can be negative, positive, or neutral. Students improve their decision-making skills each time they have the opportunity to reflect on what consequence resulted from the choices they made.
Final key to meeting students' security need: be the "solid object" in the room.
For just a moment, imagine yourself caught in a powerful storm, maybe even a hurricane.
You're out in the elements with no shelter, winds gusting, waters rising, hail pummeling. Just as you feel like the raging winds are about to sweep you away, you reach out desperately, grasping for anything to cling to. Your hand makes contact with a solid object, and you hold onto it with all your might. It's your lifeline. Over time the winds subside, and your safety is restored, thanks to your solid object.
I once heard an emotional meltdown described as a storm. During a meltdown, a child loses control-- sometimes emotionally, sometimes physically. Inside their minds and bodies, a storm is going on; everything is in tumult, swirling around in a cyclone of chaos.
Students need us to be the solid object in their storm, so they can feel safe and secure.
(Credit to the Handle With Care Program for this spot-on term and helpful model!)
Serving as a "solid object" looks like:
Supportive Mindshift #3
Support students’ behavioral challenges as learning needs.
What if the reason a student is behaving a certain way is because they genuinely don't know any better?
We've all been in situations with students where that explanation is true, and other situations where it very much is not. However, whether it's true 100% of the time or not is something I would challenge us all to let go of, and instead replace it with a new question:
"What can this student learn from this situation, and how can I support that learning?"
"What skill is this student missing that would help them do better next time, and how can I help them gain that skill?"
The two main learning gaps that result in behavioral challenges are in the areas of 1) social-emotional skills, and 2) executive functioning skills. Helping students fill these two gaps can be a complete and total game-changer, for them and for you (hello, regained sanity, reclaimed time, and renewed job satisfaction!)
Ideas for Supporting Social-Emotional Learning
Ideas for Supporting Executive Function Development
To sum up this third mindshift, there are specific skills students can learn to help them excel as students, as friends, and as people.
We can use this knowledge to reframe how we look at behavior challenges.
We wouldn’t kick a student out of class for struggling to read a challenging paragraph.
We wouldn’t kick a kid out of class for solving a math problem incorrectly.
Because those are learning problems. Learning problems don't trigger us the way behavior problems do.
But if we can train our brains to see behavior issues as learning opportunities, we can keep kids in class, learning, where they belong.
Because depriving a child of learning is not a fair or reasonable punishment for just about anything.
In Closing ...
Being a supportive educator and cultivating a supportive environment requires us to shift our mindsets around behavior and discipline in 3 key ways:
If becoming supportive educators and creating supportive environments were easy, it would be a widespread commonality. It would be the norm instead of the exception.
As you and I both know, that isn't the case.
If only there were an easy button for discipline and behavior! Sure there are several grab-and-go options out there. And those off-the-shelf solutions sound SUPER appealing when you're a hard-working educator, trying to fit everything in, without enough hours in the day.
I get it, I’ve been there. It makes sense.
Without the right mindset in place, though, that off-the-shelf solution has a pretty low ceiling of effectiveness. It can only go so far and can only do so much without a mindset to match.
The trouble with "mindshifting" is, it's inherently uncomfortable. A mindshift challenges our beliefs and paradigms, and brains don’t enjoy that feeling. Humans are wired to resist change. Which is why I’ve said it once before: a mindset might be the hardest thing in the world to change.
I’ve also been accused of being an eternal optimist, because I remain hopeful that we can all do hard things, and that change is possible, even when it comes to mindsets.
We are educators: we are in the business of shaping minds, literally.
Let's start with our own.
When was a time you effectively supported a student through a behavior challenge by connecting on a human level and responding with empathy?
This is the final installment of a 4-part series on the foundational pillars of a Co-Created education.
Check out the full series here:
Does this sound like the kind of environment you're trying to cultivate in your school or classroom?
Get in touch-- we'd love to work with you!
You may have noticed by this point in the series that the 4 secret ingredients of a Co-Created Education are all words you’ve heard before.
In fact, they’re often terms that get overused, misused, or vaguely used, which is unfortunately a pretty common phenomenon in the education world. We get these buzz words stuck in our heads, we throw them around too much, and they lose meaning.
I really hate it when that happens, because some of them are such good words!
So instead of spending time hating on these watered-down words or scrapping them altogether, we want to give them new life--
We’re taking them one by one and defining them ourselves so that we can all work off of a shared set of definitions and a common language for the Co-CreatED community.
(input welcome; let us know what you think, too!)
A learning experience is rigorous when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
AND NOW... MYTHBUSTING TIME :)
In this article from Edutopia, Brian Sztabnik calls out some of the common misconceptions about rigor. Despite common practice, rigor does NOT mean MORE work. And it does NOT mean “harder” work (whatever that means).
These misconceptions have led to what the author cleverly describes as “push-down and pile-on syndrome” --
College-level work gets pushed down onto highschoolers; reading fluency expectations are pushed down on Kindergarteners and even Pre-K’ers, before they’ve even hit the developmental readiness window.; so on and so forth.
Or-- a "pile on" example I observed firsthand when touring schools once--
An admissions professional from a prestigious, elite private school brags about the 2 hours of homework piled onto students each night, starting as early as 4th grade. Because "rigor."
These “push-down, pile-on” efforts, while well-intentioned, are misguided. They can even be harmful, squashing the love of learning right out of overburdened students.
Luckily, there are ways to reach the pinnacle of Rigor Mountain without overburdening learners and without extinguishing their spark for learning.
TOP 3 WAYS TO MAKE “RIGOR” A REALITY IN YOUR CLASSROOM OR SCHOOL:
THE *NEW* RULES OF RIGOR
Rigor Rule 1: Create a culture of high expectations for all.
Ever heard of the Pygmalion effect or the Golem effect? They are two psychological principles about our tendency as humans to rise to the expectations placed upon us.
The Pygmalion Effect explains that when others anticipate high performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver. On the flip side, The Golem Effect shows that the opposite is also true-- when someone expects low performance from us, that’s what we tend to deliver.
Others’ expectations of us often become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This is why it is critically important for us as educators to believe wholeheartedly in our students’ capabilities. Our students need to know that they are surrounded by caring adults who hold them accountable, push them to their highest potential, and believe in their capability fully.
Our expectations must communicate the message,
“I believe in you! I know you are capable! I care enough to push you, and I’m here for you every step of the way! I see your potential and I see you becoming the best version of you!”
You can't have high rigor without high expectations.
So how do we do it?
I got you. Use this free guide.
Rigor Rule 2: Focus on HOW to think, not WHAT to think.
In the digital age, how students think matters far more than what students know. They have nearly infinite information at their fingertips-- they carry tiny computers around in their pockets (that's what smartphones are, really).
I had a rule of thumb in my classroom: I’m not going to ask you to memorize something you can easily Google. That’s a waste of brain space.
Instead, I’m going to challenge you to think critically, to think creatively, and to apply what you know (or what you Google) to solve authentic, meaningful problems.
Because that’s what today’s world and tomorrow’s workforce demands.
A rigorous learning experience is one where students either deepen or build thinking skills-- they use their brains in new ways.
No matter your starting point, here's a full buffet of options for you to start from exactly where you are with increasing rigor via thinking skills:
Rigor Rule 3: Go Deeper. Aim Higher.
Bloom’s Taxonomy first came on the scene in 1956, as basically a ranking system for ordering cognitive processes. Then it got a makeover in 2001.
For reasons unknown, it is often visualized as some version of a colorful pyramid. (?)
When we use the term “higher-order thinking,” it usually means the upper tiers of Bloom’s pyramid; the higher a thinking skill falls on the pyramid, the more complex it is.
Bloom’s goal was to give educators a tool and a language for setting rigorous learning goals, and then assessing students’ mastery of those learning goals with the same level of rigor.
A second and relatively newer framework for ranking cognitive demand is Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (D.o.K.), developed in 1997.
Webb’s goal was actually very similar to Bloom’s-- to help educators align our assessments to our expectations. In other words, are we actually measuring what we think we’re measuring about students’ learning?
To figure that out, let's first break down the most basic structure of teaching and learning into its 3 component parts:
Sometimes when we go...
from point A (goal) → to point B (activity) → to point C (assessment)...
the rigor can get lost in translation like a bad game of telephone.
Instead, we want to focus on aligning the three, and keeping them all as rigorous as possible. Both the D.o.K. framework and Bloom’s Taxonomy can help with that.
A quick note about verbs...
One very ironic thing that has happened to both Webb's framework and Bloom's Taxonomy is reducing them down to a list of verbs to match each level. In fact, some people only ever know them to be menus of verbs.
When you stop to think about it, how could a tool about complexity have possibly gotten so oversimplified over the years?!
Phew! Now that we got that part out of the way, we can move on to a few tools that don't come with PSAs.
The 3 tools below are intended to be simple enough to be usable, yet meaty enough to maintain the complexity that is measuring cognitive rigor.
The bottom line is, we want all students thinking deeply and doing work that challenges them to grow.
Deepen Rigor Across Subject Areas
Wondering how to tell how rigorous an activity is within a certain subject? There's a tool (or 2) for that!
The first is a menu of learning activities, arranged by increasing Depth of Knowledge for each of the 4 main subject areas. This handy chart is just a visualization of Webb's 2002 article "Depth-of-Knowledge Levels for Four Content Areas."
The second is Dr. Karen Hess' Cognitive Rigor Matrix, which overlays Webb's D.o.K. and Bloom's Taxonomy. This particular version combines her 4 subject area matrices into one master tool.
The trouble is, those matrices are still a bit dense as a starting point.
To help use them more purposefully, here's a nice "decision-tree" type accompaniment. Together they make a perfect pairing!
Ask these 3 "more than one _______" questions:
Here's a tool to use as you're doing a quick "more than 1" check on your assignments and assessments:
These 3 "more than one ___" questions hone in on the main factors that distinguish one Depth of Knowledge level from another. Used as a quick rule of thumb, they help make D.o.K. a bit more approachable!
*DISCLAIMER: This tool is by no means meant to be used in isolation or as a replacement for a full understanding of Webb’s Depth of Knowledge framework. We’re not here to oversimplify complexity! That said, I also know how much is on your plate as a teacher, so a rule of thumb can come in handy from time to time. You’re a smart, competent, thinking person— use your professional judgement. You got this!
Turns out rigor is a pretty daunting topic to try to cover in just one article. It is HUGE!
So to recap:
A learning experience is RIGOROUS when it pushes students to think deeply, to stretch their thinking in new directions, and to lean into their curiosity, knowing that the adults around them fully believe in their high potential.
To make rigor a reality:
Get the COMPLETE new rules of rigor toolkit for FREE here:
The free New Rules of Rigor toolkit comes with everything you need to make rigor a reality in your school or classroom. Because bottom line, rigor is an equity issue-- it has to be accessible to all. Use this toolkit to make that happen.
How will you step up the rigor
in your classroom or school?
Leave a comment!
A sheet of paper rests on the table top. Two opposing teams lob legal jargon back and forth across the table, staying laser focused on the document between them. The plaintiff makes their case, and the defense makes theirs. The nonstop clickity-clack of fingers on keys fills the air as the recorder captures every word, every detail.
For a moment I forgot where I was. Was this a courtroom?
No. It was an IEP meeting.
It was the first one I’d ever attended, so I was shocked by how legalistic the whole thing was.
Weren’t we talking about a child? A real-life person who we all knew and cared about?
There was no human aspect to the meeting; it was sterile, rote, mechanical. We were dissecting a document. It had become all about the sheet of paper.
Well, that and making sure no one pulled any fast ones on each other. Which everyone seemed fully convinced was going to happen. There was no trust, and we’d forgotten all familiarity.
Perhaps as a coping mechanism, I caught myself daydreaming back to what felt like a past life, where students with disabilities were treated like humans, and where educators and families partnered together to collaboratively meet the needs of the child. Where students took an active role in advocating for their own needs, sitting at the same table as the adults if the conversation was about them. (It was their education, after all.)
It felt so far away. I let my mind take me back there for a moment.
Flashback to another place and time...
Being part of a school start-up team was one of the most formative experiences of my career. We had the unique opportunity to build a school basically from scratch, designing every aspect of the experience to reflect what we believed to be best for our students.
The school we were building was specifically purposed to serve students with a range of disabilities-- ADHD, Autism, and other learning differences.
Instead of IEPs, students got to know themselves by creating Learner Profiles that captured their unique learning style, regulation strategies, strengths and challenges.
Instead of high-stakes standardized testing, they curated portfolios of work that they showcased at Celebration of Learning events.
Instead of stuffy formal menus of accommodations and modifications (that rarely get followed correctly), class size was small enough that teachers could truly know the students and tailor the experience to their needs.
Instead of students with differences being suspended or expelled at disproportionate rates, we designed a school-wide positive behavior support system that met students where they were and helped them acquire the skills they needed to find success in a school setting.
But, doesn’t that sound a lot like the things that would be good for ALL kids?
It doesn’t take a diagnosis to benefit from a humanizing, student-centered education.
The only trouble with the environment I just described is that it technically wasn't "inclusive" by definition. In fact, it was purposely exclusive-- a whole school built just for students with disabilities. But I wanted more kids to have access to that kind of education. I knew it was time to try scaling up and sharing it in the public school world.
As you may have noticed in the first vignette above, I was a little naive with my ambitions and clueless about what it would take to bridge the gaping canyon between education as I'd known it in my tiny bubble, and what was going on in the wider public education world.
Regardless, I still haven't given up hope and I never will. I believe education can be better and can serve all kids well.
So how do we do it?
We co-create an inclusive experience.
Let's start with some definitions. At Co-CreatED, we define inclusive a little more... well... inclusively, to be frank.
We're talking differences in any of the dimensions of identity and culture.
Because inclusive means just that: it includes everyone.
(PS: Rosetta Lee, who made that model, is awesome!)
There are three particular elements of inclusion that if approached differently, could result in radically different outcomes for our students.
Whether you lead a classroom, a school, a district, or otherwise, these tips will help you do the self-work necessary to reframe your mindset around inclusion. Change comes from within. That's not to disregard the systemic factors at play-- trust me, I rack my brain about those pieces all the time, too. I know individual change can only go so far without systemic change. But ya gotta start somewhere, and looking inward is an important first step.
TRY THESE 3 INCLUSION POWER PLAYS:
1. Want to be inclusive across ability differences?
Learn more HERE.
2. Want to be inclusive across racial/ethnic differences?
Try this activity to discover your own cultural identity:
3. Want to be inclusive across socio-economic differences?
Buy Eric Jensen's book, Engaging Students With Poverty in Mind.
You won't regret it. See:
Make no mistake: leading a classroom or a school full of widely diverse learners is Really. Hard. Work.
One teacher trying to reach students across a range of ability differences, racial/ethnic differences, socio-economic differences, and more is a BIG undertaking, not for the faint of heart. Then throw co-teaching in the mix and you get a whole other set of challenges to navigate ("you mean I have to share my classroom with another grown up?!").
At Co-CreatED, we don't believe there are easy solutions to complex challenges. Inclusion is a big deal, and we'll only improve it by combining the necessary self-work with the necessary systemic and policy work.
To continue the self-work, check out:
To get involved on a systemic level, check out:
What's been the biggest mindshift for you in making your classroom or school a more inclusive space?
Last month (May 2018), Stacey Abrams made history.
Not just local GA history, but national history. The whole country was talking about the first black woman to become a major party candidate for governor (...in the year 2018...in the entire United States. While that is indeed progress and a milestone to celebrate, I still have to acknowledge that it's pretty appalling that it hasn’t happened before now).
Y'all, this is important on so many levels. I immediately think about our students of color all over the country, and especially our girls. As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Now they see they can run a whole state one day. It’s about damn time!
College junior and co-president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA) at Spelman College, Makailah Pempleston said to Teen Vogue:
“Her primary win gave hope and broke the glass ceiling for more possibilities, and that's what it meant to me. To Atlanta, this means liberation. Keisha Lance Bottoms [2nd ever black woman as] mayor of the city and Stacey Abrams as governor of Georgia will change the whole political atmosphere for the better.”
As her quote reflects, representation matters. Big time.
At a recent event I attended, I learned about the term “windows and mirrors.” We were discussing the show Sesame Street and the role it played in shaping parts of our racial identities.
We learned that for many suburban white viewers, the show served as a “window” to see perhaps for the first time (or at least for the 1st time positively portrayed by the media), an urban setting and a racially diverse array of actors.
On the other hand, for viewers of color, the show served as a “mirror;” an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the tv. As shamefully underrepresented as minorities are in the media today, the problem was even worse back when Sesame Street launched in the 1960s.
As Newsweek put it:
Perhaps the most radical part of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids—the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
What do the Stacey Abrams primary election and Sesame Street have in common?
Making history, pushing society forward, and giving us the gift of windows and mirrors.
How can we bring more windows and mirrors into the classroom for our students?
CREATING THE SPACE FOR CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT
In the traditional education system, the teacher is seen as the giver of all knowledge, and the student is the receiver of that knowledge. Within that tradition, we know that the process of giving and receiving has worked when students can correctly regurgitate the facts they have been given on a multiple-choice test -- a test in which only one option is right and the others are wrong.
With this as the measure of success, it is no wonder that students understand their world tends to be right/wrong or always/never. Learning has been largely reduced to memorization, and the education system has played a major role in reinforcing simplicity over multiplicity.
However, a true understanding of our world (and the complexities that exist within human and natural systems) necessitates a release of the tradition of rigidity and an embrace of multiple perspectives.
It demands an acceptance of evolving definitions, and often an acknowledgement of the unclear or unknown.
It demands that we value asking meaningful questions and seeking varied solutions more than we value memorizing the one right answer.
It demands that we create space for multiple truths to exist simultaneously - a space with the flexibility to think in “both/and”s rather than “either/or”s.
As educators, we have an opportunity to help students shift from rigid thinking to critical thinking, and we can't let that opportunity go to waste.
One powerful way we can impact this shift is in how we approach literacy instruction.
GRADUATING FROM LITERATE TO CRITICALLY LITERATE
Once we have created a space for critical engagement in the classroom, we are ready to critically engage with texts.
In the practice of critical literacy, individual texts are not simply accepted as “truth.” Rather, texts are an avenue for exploring the author’s perspective, seeking diverse perspectives, and reflecting on how it resonates with the student’s own way of seeing the world.
So as students are becoming literate, they're also becoming critically literate, honing important critical thinking skills.
There are a few key questions to ask when developing critical literacy:
1. Who is the author and what is their perspective? (Understanding the Text)
In traditional literacy, the focus is on the text itself and developing the pure skill of reading in a vacuum devoid of context. We dehumanize books-- we pay little mind to the author aside from some cutesy “P.I.E.” charts and perhaps a brief look at that author’s other literary works.
In critical literacy, on the other hand, the author of the text is not overlooked; rather, we seek to understand the author as we view reality through their point of view. We analyze the work to see how the author’s identity and experience influences the content they create.
Writing is a human act; considering the humanity of the author re-humanizes the reading experience.
2. How does my perspective affect my interpretation? (Relating Text-to-Self)
“Making connections” is a common reading comprehension strategy taught in a traditional literacy classroom-- connecting text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text/other media. Critical literacy builds upon this practice and takes it a step further by calling us to examine where our interpretation of a book is coming from.
We weigh the author’s perspective against our own experience and create our own meaning from it. In the process, we develop an understanding that a text can have many interpretations-- students may discuss with one another the different meanings they made from the same text. The meaning depends on the lens through which the text is read, and on the context in which it is read.
A few helpful prompts at this stage could be:
In sharing different perspectives and understandings, the student-teacher partnership is strengthened. Students become teachers, and teachers become students.
3. Whose perspective hasn’t been heard? (Relating Text-to-World and Text-to-Text)
Once we have examined the author’s perspective and our own, we are ready to venture beyond those immediate perspectives into imagining or discovering the lived experiences of others. We challenge the commonly held assumptions, and we seek out the perspectives that are not represented in the text.
There is usually a “default” or commonly adopted interpretation of a text. In critical literacy, we engage in the practice of not only analyzing the default interpretation, but also examining gaps and contradictions that typically go unexamined:
Where did this default view originate? Why? Whose perspective does it reflect? How does that differ from my perspective? Whose perspective does it ignore or leave out?
When building text-to-text connections, we consider how the ideas are similar and different from texts we previously explored, and how that understanding shapes the evolving meaning we are creating together. We compare and contrast the perspectives of two or more authors and how their content varies accordingly.
Next, we connect the text or texts to the broader world context. What was going in in the world at the time the book was written that might have shaped the content and influenced the author’s perspective? Why does this matter?
Prompts for this stage might be:
JUST AS HOW WE READ MATTERS, WHAT WE READ MATTERS
In the Western world, the perspective of the white male has manifested as “universal” for so long that it seems invisible -- in all modes of media and culture, the white male reality permeates.
This creates a problematic mirrors/windows scenario that shortchanges everyone.
White men are surrounded by mirrors that reflect back their lived experience, but encounter too few windows to develop understanding on the experiences of others.
Conversely, women and people of color are hungry for the opportunity to see themselves mirrored in media, but find only windows to gaze through.
As educators, we have the opportunity to change that. All students deserve a curriculum that mirrors their own experience back to them and validates their reality.
The fresh air of “windows” breathes life into the curriculum. However, this can be a challenge when we lack representative resources.
Each year, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) of Wisconsin curate and publish statistics on diversity in children’s literature. Hannah Hehrlich of Lee & Low multicultural book publishers analyzed the CCBC’s findings to shed light on the diversity gap in children’s book publishing, summarized in an infographic:
The gap is startling and troubling. One glimpse of hope though, as the graphic indicates, is the statistics are finally showing signs of progress, and we are starting to have more options to draw from.
To help continue this progress toward more diversity in children's literature, here are a few of our favorite sources to find diverse texts :
Lee & Low
A Mighty Girl
Critical Literacy in the 21st Century
What We Do All Day
We can create windows and mirrors in the classroom by becoming more mindful and purposeful about WHAT we read and HOW we read it.
What are some of the windows & mirrors in your classroom?
We'd love to hear from you!
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