Academic journal article English Journal

Empowering Stereotyped Readers through Self-Directed Learning

Academic journal article English Journal

Empowering Stereotyped Readers through Self-Directed Learning

Article excerpt

It's nearing the end of third term for my ninth graders. One class is finalizing plans for flyers to be distributed in the school parking lot to educate their peers about the way people across the world are exploited as cheap labor and how, shockingly, some of the major brands these students buy are guilty of this exploitation. They're working from a 20-page Google doc where they have spent the previous weeks gathering research from across the Web, including statistics on exploitative labor practices and evidence of the allegations against major brand names. A second group is putting the finishing touches on an anti-bullying video that they're posting to YouTube so their peers across the school can view it. In another class, students are creating a webpage with advice on surviving and succeeding in high school for next year's ninth-grade class.

I selected these ninth graders for this class based on their performance on the eighth-grade ACT Explore and DRP (Degrees of Reading Power) tests. I first filtered the students who were below benchmarks in Reading (16) and English (13) on the ACT Explore, and then cross-checked their DRP scores. The bottom 120 students (25 percent of the ninth-grade class) were placed in the class. After some parents pulled their kids, I was left with 105 students to start the year.

Although their scores indicated that they were struggling, I made the conscious choice to not treat these students as struggling and to avoid the systemic trend of reducing their course work to a focus on "the basics." I decided to challenge this label and give them, instead, the trust and respect they deserve by allowing them greater control in their learning. I also changed the name of the class to College and Career Literacy, reframing a negative label into something that represented high expectations. To document and help me make sense of this challenge, I turned to two university professors and methods instructors (Raquel and Jon) to help me assess the quality of work and level of engagement undertaken by my students. As I approach the final term of the year, I'm inclined to call the challenge a success.

Laying a Foundation

Rewind to the beginning of the year. After seven years of teaching remedial English to "struggling readers," I was through pretending that my students were deficient in some way and that I was the one whose magical instruction was going to fix them. Although the labeling of these students began long before they entered high school, I inadvertently perpetuated the stereotyping along with their former teachers. At the end of each school year, we would get together to talk about these students and their "deficiencies" in the most sympathetic ways and place them in my smaller classes where I could focus on reading instruction. In truth, all we were doing was continuing the institutionalized oppression these students had experienced in school for many years.

But what I had long suspected was that all but a few of these students could read but they didn't see any relevance to the reading they were assigned. So with a resolve to quit pretending came the need to try something new. Rather than treat my incoming students as deficient and struggling, I decided to empower them with choice and challenge in what and how they learned. That choice, I reasoned, would motivate them to raise their expectations for themselves and their learning, giving them a reason to develop new literacy skills or make use of latent skills that had not previously been valued. To help me in this effort, I asked Raquel and Jon to collaborate in implementing self-directed learning. To help us assess the impact of these changes, they interviewed a dozen of my students throughout the year about their experiences in the class.

My plan was also influenced by research from Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, who reported that the young men they observed in "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men enjoyed being challenged. …

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