Powerful Decisions in Reading

So there you are – there we all are – working our butts off to help our students learn to read and write. We try all sorts of things. We teach them new skills and strategies. We look for new texts to read that we think will challenge them. We do everything as right as we possibly can and then get frustrated when none of it works or falls short.

Sound familiar?

Truth is, it may not be that you are doing anything wrong or need to do anything different. Does that surprise you?

When you’re having trouble reaching your most challenging kids, it is a good thing to stop and reflect on your practice. It is a good thing to think about what you are doing that is working well and to look for ways to improve, but here’s the thing….

It’s not all about you.

Remember that we have kids involved here – and if you’re like me you’re working with teenagers for goodness sake. These kids have agency. Agency is a fancy term that simply means people are going to decide what they will/won’t do and make these decisions based on the particular context.

Agency means that you,me, all of us, can teach our hearts out but ultimately it is up to the kids to decide what they are going to do with the information they have been provided with. That’s right. Students have power. Gees….somehow people seem to forget that when they are spewing about how bad schools are. This isn’t a one-way street.


Whenever I hear some politican (usually it’s a politician) blaming teachers for kids not being able to read – and citing test scores as their only form of evidence –I always think back to a student I had named Jamal.

Jamal was a very bright kid. He had no issues with reading or math. At the end of the year, he took his tests. When we got the scores back, guess what? He had passed math but not reading. At the time I taught in the great state of Texas (I truly love Texas by the way). If you failed the end of the year test in reading or math, then next year you got to take an extra reading/math class in place of an elective. So now Jamal had to take this extra reading class that he really didn’t need.

I pulled him aside and asked him what the heck happened, and do you know what he said?

I didn’t eat my Powerbar that morning, and I was tired of taking tests.”

It’s not that he couldn’t pass the reading test. It wasn’t that I didn’t teach him well. That kid just didn’t care about passing a test. And he claimed he didn’t care that he had just lost his elective for the next school year. He was really pretty even keel about it.

Jamal was enacting his agency. He didn’t care about any long-term consequences. At the moment he took the reading test he just knew he didn’t give a crap and so he bubbled in whatever and moved along. And you know what? I’m not sure how we make Jamal or any kid like him care because even then, before testing was as out of control as it is now, I didn’t blame the kid at all. Even then I would have agreed with him that it was an unreasonable thing to make him do with an unreasonable conseuqnce of losing an elective the next year.

So there you have it. Agency. It’ll bite you in the butt, but it’s a factor in terms of how kids think about doing the things they do (or don’t do) in your class.

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