by Jeff Austin
When I took over as my school’s English department chair in 2017, there was a need to engage in long-range planning to ensure that our systems, structures, and mindsets were responsive to the needs of all students, but especially those whom school and society marginalizes. The goal of the long-range plan is to normalize high expectations for all students in humanized classrooms that honor students’ languages, literacies, and identities. As a department, we created a long-range plan with four prongs:
1. Creating inclusive and humanized spaces that encourage belonging.
2. Enacting culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogies.
3. Making room for student choice and agency.
4. Nurturing lifelong positive readerly and writerly identities.
In our formal and informal conversations with student groups about what these prongs would look like in practice, students consistently demanded more inclusive reading experiences—more “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors,” as Dr. Sims Bishop would say—and more ability to make important choices about their reading lives. Alongside our students, we were able to clearly identify a concern and use that concern to help frame necessary instructional changes that would make our current classroom practices more responsive to students’ current learning realities.
Meeting students’ demands meant helping teachers shift the prevailing instructional mode away from using a narrow range of teacher-selected texts in whole-group settings. Prior to engaging in goal-setting and student outreach work, student reading experiences focused on seven core texts, with the most recent written in the 1960s. Asking teachers to shift text selection and instructional practices away from those that mirrored their own educational experience and had become a kind of pedagogical “common sense,” may cause conflict and dissonance, which is a natural and expected part of advocacy work.
This year, with the support of administration, we asked teachers to work with students to design and implement at least one literature circle or book club during each semester. Students would have a say in choosing the texts and in setting goals, designing reading calendars, and in leading discussions. For several teachers, moving to a student-driven instructional model challenged fundamental beliefs about how curriculum is built, who is at the center of a classroom, and even what books should be taught, especially when the texts students wanted to read weren’t aligned with their teacher’s vision of what they should read. For such a large change to be sustainable amid the conflict and dissonance, I intentionally called upon some of the tenets of everyday advocacy, in order to build allies and advocate for material support whenever possible. Some examples of these everyday advocacy efforts include:
Collaborating with district leaders to purchase and provide seed money for an eBook platform for secondary students to have fast access to a wide range of texts, even during virtual instruction.
Developing school criteria for purchases with stakeholders, including students, that honored our community’s wishes for greater access to inclusive reading experiences that are equity-driven, identity affirming, and justice seeking.
Writing and securing a grant to continue to grow our collection in future years to align with student interests and needs, as students’ reading habits continually evolve.
Ensuring access to high quality professional development materials and training to support teachers’ reorientation to a new teaching method.
Even with resources and professional materials in place, the biggest key to making such a seismic shift in our department work was the support and allyship of our school librarians. As literacy experts with a knowledge of current trends and titles, they helped bring our values to life: they helped design our literature circle program at foundational levels, they offered teachers and students book talks, they worked with teachers to set up the eBook technology, and, for those who were reluctant to engage, they offered a friendly nudge and offers to help. Indeed, our librarians have values-oriented conversations with teachers that don’t carry the weight of formal leadership implied in administrator or department chair roles, which can feel safer and less formal, especially for those reluctant to shift their practices. These conversations can help us be responsive to teacher needs and provide additional support when necessary.
Since late 2020, 834 of our roughly 1300 students have participated in a literature circle that they helped design with a book that they selected. While that isn’t every student in every English classroom, it is a victory worth celebrating, especially in a school year when any victory was hard won.
Jeffrey Austin is the instructional coach, English Department Chair, and Writing Center Director at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He was named one of the first members of the State of Michigan’s Innovative Educator Corps in 2018 and used the position to help grow the number of secondary school writing centers. His writing and advocacy focus on building humanized, student-centered spaces through culturally responsive curriculum and pedagogy, fair and equitable grading and assessment practices, and transformative justice