Tuesday, June 2, 2015

What Bruce Springsteen Can Teach Us About Text Complexity, Choice, and Student Agency

     Since Bev and I are living in NJ, at some point we would have to get into all things Jersey.  Or actually, since Bev and I are transplants from other places (Philly and New York respectively), we can get into some things Jersey. Namely, Bruce Springsteen.

     Why Bruce Springsteen on a blog about teaching and learning?

     Well for one, he is the Boss!  And who doesn’t like him, anyway?

     But more seriously, Bruce’s records and his evolution as a singer and songwriter can teach us a lot about text complexity and how to cultivate students to read stronger, with more engagement, and with more reading prowess.


     When we look at Bruce’s music, we see that his first two albums are much less complex than his third – the iconic “Born to Run” album.  Why was this third album more complex and what did Bruce do to evolve?

     Well first of all, his “Born to Run” album contained more complex music—including the integration of a mini orchestra and some tinkering of the amp. Next, Bruce evolved in his song writing—layering his songs with lyrics that both capture and build images in the listener’s mind, as well as resonate with many - young and old, male and female alike.

     How did he evolve?  Well for one, he kept at it, standing on the shoulders of previous albums to increase the complexity of next albums. Next, he kept at it, practicing, learning from others, bringing in advice from experts.  And last, he kept at it, developing his craft and strength as a singer and songwriter by the choices he made and through the agency he had as a musician destined to cultivate his own career.

     And isn’t that exactly what our readers should be doing?

     With all that has been said about developing readers so that they are ready for complex text, it is important to recognize that this readiness should be a journey—one where the trajectory is clear, the staircase smooth, and our students involved.

     That means that as teachers, we too need a clear sense of the trajectory and an ability to smooth out the steps of the staircase. And for me, this means choice and agency.

     We start with choice.  In chapter 5 of my new book about student engagement, Engaging Every Learner: Classroom Principles, Strategies, and Tools, I unpack the principle of choice. 

     Choice begins with the teacher and is seminal to bring depth and engagement to teaching and learning.  We as teachers need to feel that we have the ability to make choices in our teaching, and that these choices reflect what we want the journey to be.  These can be choices for whole class instruction, choices around learning materials, pacing or learning connections, choices around student groupings and differentiated instruction, and choices around “the what” and “the how” of one-to-one teaching conferences. I think that it is important for each of us to outline the choices we have and the decisions we are making about student instruction.  Even when we have plenty of decisions that others may make for us, we have decisions we can make too.

     Like Springsteen chose to include the glockenspiel in his orchestra, and chose to put the amp outside when recording, we can make decisions on what we teach and use to teach and where we place our instruction.

     But more importantly, our students should have choices as learners, but most especially as readers.  And that means that we need to balance the use of core texts, alongside the use of choice texts. For it is in both of these texts that our readers will soar.

     Take for example the work that Jean DeSimone and I did with her seventh grader readers this spring.  Jean and I are alike in many ways, including our belief that there are certain texts that we want for our readers to transact with. 

     For example, I can make the case that every reader should read Wonder by RJ Polacio sometime in his or her upper elementary or middle school career.  Every single student.  The context can be different (an instructional read aloud, an independent book choice, summer reading, a book club, etc.) but no student should leave middle school without reading that text.

     Yet Jean and I are just as alike in our belief that independent reading is essential, that it is instructional, and that it matters just as much to the reader and to his or her trajectory to reading complex texts.  Our readers know best what they should be reading, what they want to read, and what will lead them to read long, strong and well.

     So Jean and I decided to build a bridge and create a smooth path between these two types of reading experiences.  We took her next unit of study, a unit where the core text was The Outsiders.  This text would be the shared text that would hold the instructional teaching points of the unit.

     Equally as important to the unit was the independent text (s).  But because Jean and I were clear about the trajectory we wanted for the students, we wanted to make sure the connection between the choice text and the core text was strong.

     So we looked at the core text, and at possible options for connecting the core text to an independent text, and ultimately decided to ask students to choose an independent text, any text, that they would consider to be a “character centric” book.

     Now the interesting thing to note is that one might say that any book is character centric.  Honestly, what good literature does not have well-developed, central characters?  However, we angled this not only toward the idea that in a character-centric text the character drives the plot and that the writing is grounded in the character actions, but that character-centric also means that the character resonates with you.

     See, complex reading is about the reader and the agency and interest they bring to the reading.  So, for these students we put forth the idea that character-centric is a character that resonates with you. This enabled us to keep both the shared text and the independent text central to the unit, as well as engage students as stakeholders, a concept I feel is essential to student engagement, and to the development of readers.

     Our conferences with students around choosing the paired independent text were amongst my favorite this year, and our conferences around the intersection between the core text and the independent texts, both in comparison and in contrast, were dynamic and rich and so much more than the conferences would have been if the conversation was grounded in only one of those texts.

     The students stood on the shoulders of the core text, on the shoulders of their prior experiences, and on the shoulders of their choices and decisions as readers, and their reading capacities grew—they are different and yes, much more complex.  Because text complexity is not just about the text, it is about the reader—the complex moves this reader can make in all texts.

     Agency in their own learning, the ability to be the “boss” of their own reading lives, has helped to engage and develop these readers.  And isn’t that what complex reading is all about?

– Patty