Wednesday, September 22, 2021

I Teach Literacy as a Tool for Liberation

When I was a twenty-nine-and-a-half-year-old middle school English teacher, I bought my first house. I was also single. Normally my singledom isn’t important but then it signaled my financial independence: no dual income to fall back on, no wealthy partner to sign the check. I was fully dependent on me to make the biggest financial decision of my life.

I was terrified.

I knew I would have to sign a ream of paperwork. I also knew that my signature is the only promise I cannot afford to break, either morally or financially, so understanding all the documents was in my best interest. I had never bought a house before, but I had taught reading, so I made a plan: I would use as many reading strategies as I needed to during the signing to aid my comprehension. The morning of the signing, I got up, greeted the butterflies in my stomach, put on my good suit and my mom’s pearls, and gathered important things: my checkbook, a red pen, a black pen, red, yellow and green sticky notes, a note pad, and two highlighters. 

When I got to the table with the lender, I read every word on every page. I annotated. I made t-charts. I asked questions. I highlighted and underlined parts of the text I didn’t understand. I used reading strategies to help me comprehend the text and make real-world decisions. 

I was still terrified. But now I was terrified and informed. 

I brought to bear a host of literacy knowledge and skills so I could realize one facet of the American dream, home ownership. Later, with the keys in hand, I thought about the ways my literacy education had prepared me: the bedtime stories my dad read me while I fell asleep on his lap; the word games my mom played with me in the car with street signs and license plates; the reading contests I won in elementary and middle school; the middle and high school science projects that required me to walk to the University of Detroit library, sift through the card catalogue for informational texts far above my “reading level” that I had to use to form my hypotheses; the rhetorical analyses I wrote in high school about “The Bluest Eye” and “Pygmalion”; the texts I breezed through and those I cried through as an undergrad; the teacher PD sessions on teaching English and reading. An array of reading experiences had prepared me to do whatever I wanted—and I wanted to buy a house. 

There Is Power in Reading 

There is power in knowing you have the skills to do whatever it is you want to.

As a literacy teacher, I used my power to craft empowering experiences for students, to give them opportunities to be brilliant and to grow. This was hard sometimes, because there is a lot of noise about how to teach reading. I often needed silence to think through the complexities of teaching reading and English.

There is a lot of noise about what to teach. I’d like for us to consider why we teach reading. 

It took me years to figure this out: The only moment of silence is the one you create for yourself. Everyone—everyone—has noise: an opinion, a perspective, or a think piece about how to teach reading, what texts to read, what texts not to read, what prepares students for the “real world” (as if they’re existing in an imaginary one until they turn 18). One need not look too far to find the latest reading battleground in secondary ELA: the canon warriors lined up on one side, armed for battle with copies of Hamlet, and the Young Adult warriors lined up on the other, shielding themselves with contemporary texts written specifically for young adults. There is a lot of noise about what to teach. I’d like for us to consider why we teach reading. 

Why We Teach Reading 

We teach reading for security. We teach reading to a 6-year-old so the 26-year-old knows what questions to ask when she’s buying her first house as she’s presented with a stack of texts with the heft of a 1996 yellow pages.

We teach reading for compassion and empathy. We teach Charlotte’s Web to 8-year-olds so they internalize friendship and have healthy relationships as teenagers and adults. 

We teach reading for freedom. We teach reading to the 13-year-old so the 28-year-old knows his rights when he’s read them by the police, knows what questions to ask his lawyer when he reads the charges.

We teach reading to children so they have power to navigate socially, economically, and politically as adults.

We teach reading for economic security and freedom. We teach reading to the 10-year-old so the 30-year-old knows how to analyze a contract.

We teach reading for imagination. We teach science fiction and fantasy to tweens so they can see the not-yet-imagined possibilities in the world around them and have the creative space to invent things we don’t even know we need yet.

We teach reading for self-advocacy. We teach reading to the 15-year-old so the 45-year-old knows what questions to ask the doctor when she’s given a diagnosis.

We teach reading for self-efficacy. We teach reading to children so they understand how to evaluate scores of online “news” and “data” before casting a vote as adults. 

We teach reading to children so they have power to navigate socially, economically, and politically as adults. We teach reading for social justice. We teach reading for advocacy. We teach reading for social advancement. 

We teach reading for liberty.

Teaching reading for liberty means respecting it as a mode of literacy while attuning to all the other modes, including writing and communicating. It means being intentional about addressing literacy across the school day. It means recognizing that reading bolsters every content area: if students are to learn the content of science, and social studies, mathematics and English deeply and meaningfully, they must have direct, explicit reading instruction tailored to each content area.

Teaching reading for liberty means understanding that the liberated confront challenges, so we must expect students to confront and conquer grade-level complex text that is rich, engaging, and worthy of their time and attention.  

My pre-K through post-secondary literacy experiences gave me the power to create the life I want. I wanted to buy my house, to pursue graduate school, to be a teacher. Why do I teach literacy? So the students I impact are prepared to actualize the life they want for themselves. Why do you?

Miah Daughtery
Miah Daughter, Ed.D., is the literacy director of content advocacy and design at NWEA, where she spends her days figuring out how to get kids more excited about reading and writing. Prior to joining NWEA, she was a classroom reading and English teacher for almost 10 years, a district literacy specialist, the state literacy coordinator for the Tennessee Department of Education, the director of literacy for Achieve, and the executive director of professional learning for Odell Education. She earned her BA in English at the University of Michigan, her MEd in reading at Wayne State University, and her EdD in public policy and educational administration from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education in 2016. She believes literacy is an ethical and social justice issue, and she prides herself on finding books for reluctant readers.

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