Literacy Instruction: From ‘Best Practices’ to Centering Student Voices

I am thinking about the intersections of literacy instruction and learning that centers the voices of Black students.

I know that even as I am thinking about this, and sharing my own thoughts and questions, that I have been indoctrinated with racist tendencies that I have subconsciously absorbed: 10 Ways Good White People Can Help Black America (If ‘Good White People’ Exist)

I am thinking about how often we engage in discussions about the best ways to ‘teach’, that are deemed to be ‘best practices’. They look ideal on the surface, and are built from data that are considered to result in student success and achievement. These practices are often what is measured and monitored to determine if a teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or not. They are also considered the practices that will close the ‘gaps’ that exist in literacy for marginalized students. This could include, but not limited to practices such as

  • how we build effective lessons that get students thinking about a problem or concept, interact with the problem or concept, and then help them share and consolidate the key learning.
  • how teachers assess student understanding,
  • how comprehension skills are built, including eliciting evidence from the text to draw conclusions, making connections to the characters;
  • what texts are used and how they are used including the provision of leveled readers for students based on assessed reading levels
  • how students should read and write
  • how lessons are taught with the ‘best’ activities for all students
  • how lessons are consolidated based on discussion of other voices and ideas from specific texts and resources

This seemingly ideal organization of lessons can be a big part of a problem that promotes racist practices. Therefore, I want to think deeper and far beyond the ‘best practices’ to think about changing the how and what of we do, to thinking about the why and who in order to center the voices and experiences and histories Black students.

As I think about literacy, I think a lot about how to teach literacy comprehension and skills. Often, these skills and strategies are taught in isolation, or in relation to a text that centers whiteness. I think that we need to go beyond teaching the comprehension skills themselves – and instead harness the the rich content of the student’s own background knowledge, and co-create new opportunities to build upon the students own literate identities that already exist. I am still learning about the best ways to do this.

I am also making a connection to the research about leveled readers, and will share this one article here that explains it a bit more: Leveled Reading Groups Don’t Work. Why Aren’t We Talking About It?

What harm do leveled readers create for our students that we need to understand? Do leveled readers result in leveled lives? What students are privileged enough to succeed with the best-practices currently provided?

Why can’t we co-create literacy content with our students from personally lived experiences and stories? Why can’t we ‘play’ more with language to create meaningful texts for a variety of audiences? How can we provide students with opportunities to write themselves into the curriculum? Write themselves into the classroom? Center the lives of students right in the curriculum?

Can we center student’s own background knowledge, and co-construct new knowledge and experiences that facilitate richer literacy learning?

How can we harness mentor texts to help students learn to read and write from authors with similar ways of being in the world?

How can we help integrate social justice opportunities with students AND their families? How are families using literacy, social media and more to co-construct the discussions that center and engage Black families?

What do we know about the racist constructions of the best-practices, the language we use in our literacy programs, and who is able to succeed and achieve in literacy?

What if these best-practices actually serve to further racialize Black students in how they come to understand themselves as literate learners?

Do students have opportunities to also create the language and texts in learning environments?

What are we missing when our literacy instruction for marginalized students if it is only data-driven to ‘close the gap’? Does this become the foundation for the only ways that we interact with Black students? Indigenous students? Racialized students?

How can we begin to center the rich languages and literacies of Black voices right in the intellectual work.

Can Black students’ histories and identities and experiences be used to re-write the curriculum and de-center whiteness?

What does it mean to be a good student? What does it mean to be a ‘good’ reader or writer?

What does it mean to be a good teacher? What if great pedagogical practices are in place, but students are continually silenced? Humiliated?

Literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It also includes background knowlednge and experience, it includes social lives and emotions, it also includes how we compare literacy used among students and families, with the mainstream ‘school’ literacies.

What does it really mean to be literate?

What do education practices and pedagogies need to look like in order to center the cultural experiences of students?

What does this look like in early literacy versus adolescent literacy learning environments?

Do we center approaches based in white English canon, or are there other ways we can empower students. Are there other ‘best-practices’ that we can use to help students become the creators of the knowledge in our classrooms, and build on the literacy skills that students already have?

Can we help Black students write themselves into the classroom curriculum?

How do we help students understand and reflect on their own strengths as readers and writers? Above and beyond what is imposed from curriculum?

Are we really providing our students with regular opportunities to think of themselves as readers and writers in our schools?

Further, because we care very deeply about all of the students we teach, how can we use texts and other resources that help students to understand how we look at literacy from white, settler, colonial perspectives – yet in a way that does not blame white students, or shame them. Instead, how can all students develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

In addition, I feel the same way about helping educators learn. Can educators learn that literacy instruction is frought with racist beliefs and practices, and work for greater equity and justice without being shamed? How can all educators develop agency to center voices that have not been included in our curriculum?

These are a lot of questions.

I am just scratching the surface of my learning.

I have to say that I would appreciate having job-embedded access to knowledgeable facilitator to be able to receive coaching and guidance on my own practice moving forward to center Black lives, and to focus #BlackLivesMatter in my own coaching practice. I believe that this would be a key resource to support job-embedded learning that goes beyond webinars and one-time courses or workshops.

Any helpful comments, resources, supports to help us along our own journeys are much appreciated,

Published by Deborah McCallum

Author of The Feedback Friendly Classroom Literacy Instruction and Assessment Facilitator | Author | AQ Instructor & Developer | MEd @OISEUofT Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development

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