“Reading opened up the world” (Rose 21).
I just read that sentence in Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose, a book assigned to me for one of my classes. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what kind of teacher I want to be and what kind of teacher I will be, and that sentence succinctly states a lot of what I want to convey.
I want to give kids an opportunity to better their lives through reading and writing. I want to expand their horizons. I want to teach them about our civic responsibilities, which Randy Bomer, author of Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classroom, agrees is important. He says, “It’s essential that [students] be ready to participate in democratic communities, which means not just reading to become informed about those issues that may require a vote but participation well beyond that” (8). I want to encourage that participation.
As I’ve grown older I’ve become more aware of the world around me, specifically what is happening with our government, situations other cultures deal with on a day to day basis that I couldn’t even imagine, and social issues I feel very passionately about. These three items (and many, many others!) are something that can be explored in English class through reading, writing, and research and are things I strongly believe will make my students better people and more prepared to go out into the “real world” and find their place.
But, how do I teach these things? (Me wearing my VOTE shirt will only go so far in teaching civic responsibilities, but I’ll still proudly wear it every November.) How do I promote inclusion and respect? What is the best way to approach topics when students have different stances than I do? How can I make my students understand that through reading they gain many important skills? Or even more simply (and probably the question I will need to focus on first as I embark on my journey of teaching), how will I motivate them to read at all?
Cult of Pedagogy has put together a lot of information teachers can use when teaching social justice in the classroom. Not only does this site give helpful ways to go about teaching some of the important things I listed above, but it helps answer how to discuss topics in class that not everyone will agree on. Cult of Pedagogy warns you to be aware of potential disagreements but “teaching students how to respectfully discuss an issue with people who don’t share their opinions is a lesson that will serve them for the rest of their lives” (Gonzalez). Literature (whether a novel, short story, play, or poem) is full of controversial topics, contains arguments for or against historical problems, and oftentimes tries to be didactic by nature. Being aware as a teacher that issues may arise because of the texts I’m teaching will be important, but teaching my students how to respectfully debate and intelligently cultivate arguments for those debates (or even papers they will be writing for class) will be even more important for my students.
Coincidentally enough, a student in my mentor teacher’s class gave me one answer (of many) to my question about how to convey reading as important and how to motivate the unmotivated. The class is reading A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, a harrowing story about Beah’s life as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and his rehabilitation process after he was taken out of the war. In the first set of reading questions the students were asked to write a reflection/reaction on the first five chapters of the book. This particular student wrote about how he didn’t intend to actually read the book because he never did, but once he picked it up out of curiosity, he saw himself in Beah and was inspired to keep reading. He realized if circumstances in our country were different, or if he was born in Africa, that could be him.
What that means is picking books that students can see themselves in (whether that’s because of a situation they’ve gone through or simply because the protagonist looks like them) is extremely important. Penny Kittle advises to “start where they are” (161), and that is advice I plan to follow. As a teacher I want to make sure my students are represented in the texts they read, and when they’re reading about someone who doesn’t represent them, then through discussion and research learning about new cultures and building empathy will be the goal. Bomer offers another answer to the motivation question by stating (what should be the obvious, but is probably often forgotten), “people generally get more excited about things they have chosen to do” (10). Offering my students choices throughout the year will also be something I strive to do.
There’s so much to think about when designing your curriculum to convey what you believe is important and in getting your students to believe those items are important as well, but being with my mentor teacher’s class for not even two weeks I’ve learned a lot from both her and the students. I can tell this semester will be eye-opening, not only in answering many of the questions I posed but in constantly creating new questions I plan to explore.
Bomer, Randy. Building Adolescent Literacy in Today’s English Classrooms.
Gonzalez, Jennifer. “A Collection of Resources for Teaching Social Justice.” Cult of
Pedagogy, 14 Feb. 2016, https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/social-justice-
Kittle, Penny. Book Love: Devloping Depth, Stamina, and Passion in Adolescent
Readers. Heinemann, 2013.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary. Penguin, 1989.