“Why did you choose this text?”, I asked the ninth grader, noticing the I Have A Dream speech in his hands.
“I had always heard about MLK and wanted to read the speech,” he smiled. He gave me a copy and gathered the other two members of his group to the table.
They began to read aloud together and at the second sentence, a student breached, or stopped the group, “Five score? What does that mean?”
“A game?” a student replied.
There were no handy dictionaries, so I gave them my phone to google it. They learned a score was equal to twenty years, so five score meant 100. “Why didn’t he just say that?” a student quipped. “Well, it’s a speech, and that’s an old-fashioned way of speaking, so maybe he is just trying to make it sound special or formal.” Satisfied, the group kept reading.
They breached again at the end of the next phrase, “This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.”
“What’s injustice? I mean I know justice is something that is good. Like the police.”
“Or not, like when the police beat Black people up.”
“Well, if justice is like doing the right thing, maybe injustice means the opposite.”
“Maybe that’s what “in-” means”.
I take a moment to point out what they were doing, following in to where their own attention already was focused– and explained how they were identifying parts of the word they knew, and taking strong guesses at the “in-”, which I told them was called a prefix, a term they’d heard of.
Then the focused turned to “withering”, and the student leader said, “let’s use the strategies we’ve learned so far so we don’t keep looking up words. I notice -ing which means a kind of action. So withering must be some kind of action.”
A second student responded, “we could read around it, break it down into parts, sound it out…”
“None of those really help,” his friend replied. “Let’s re-read the sentence and think about it.”
“It is also talking about injustice, so withering is describing a kind of injustice and the earlier part about being seared in the flames.. That’s really negative. It’s talking about the horrible things slaves went through.”
Although I was itching to explain or have them look up the word, I understood their desire to just try and understand the gist without looking up every unknown word, especially since their motivation was to challenge themselves. I pointed out the strengths in what they were doing but suggested we jot withering down to look up later, before moving on.
They continued to read, noticing how MLK says 100 years ago, connecting to what they had read earlier. They also noticed the metaphor and poetry in his use of phrases like, “flames of withering injustice”, and “manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination.”
What was so exciting about this particular UR was that while one student knew more word attack strategies, one student knew more of the history and context. Reading independently or with my constant instruction and interruption, would never have allowed this kind of shared learning and student success. By allowing students to create the focus, they are able to identify problems in their reading, and are challenged to delve into their collective banks of lesrned strategies for such problem-solving. Rather than me playing the role of pre-planner and problem-solver, I am freed up instead to follow in to their noticings. This allows me to teach at an authentic point of challenge and difficulty, and I can use what I learn through their struggles and successes for whole class “grassroots” lessons, rather than pre-planned lessons for which I have to create “connections”.
One of the literacy strategies I had learned as a new teacher was guided reading, where a teacher gathers a small group of children to read a book that is just above their independent reading level (guided reading goes hand-in-hand with a leveled classroom). The teacher chooses the book because it can teach a skill or strategy the students need practice with, whether it’s differentiating the sh vs ch sounds, or keeping track of multiple characters in a book laden with unmarked dialogue.
As an ESL teacher, I abhorred guided reading (GR) for two main reasons: I hated reinforcing the levels in class and because I didn’t feel it helped my students to really learn whatever skill or strategy I had chosen for them to learn; I never felt it stuck with them.
I think if I had had more freedom over what we learned or read, perhaps I could’ve used GR in a way that I felt could be beneficial but it wasn’t until I read the book on Unison Reading (which I have posted about here), that I realized the whole theoretical foundation GR stands on is problematic.
I started using Cooperative Unison Reading as a tool for teaching reading since joining my new school in September. Some background: Five-six student leaders (which rotate) choose a short text they’d like to read. In my ELA class, there are no restrictions on content but in my Citizenship & Sustainability class, the leaders are encouraged to choose a text relevant to what we are studying, and there are options available in the class.
The chosen texts get posted in the room and students choose among the five until there are five students in a group. The next day we begin reading. The teacher takes notes on the “breaches”, leading kids to notice and discuss the strengths of their Unison Reading.