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Reading Apprenticeship as a Culture Shift

The phrase “culturally-responsive” has become a bit of a buzzword in the world of education and social services. Even a light-handed implementation of this practice will invite the instructor more into dialog with their own practice, more than is captured in the composition and analysis of learning objectives.  It is something much more organic than that.  

It is a kind of cultural engagement that seems almost subversive in this society, which increasingly values individuation, even as our collective civic duties sit derelict and neglected.  A former student said it well in pointing out a simple (and sadly ubiquitous) observation: that those with privilege are disproportionately represented in the spaces where decisions are made that will affect their lives. 

She observed this herself as she began to attend City Hall meetings and participate in true community-building from the grassroots.  Nevertheless, this lack of representation perpetuates a cycle of disenfranchisement that feeds disengagement in a vicious cycle, but as I cautioned this student: how we define the problem will influence the kinds of solutions we can envision.  This is an invitation to broaden our thinking about the problem. 

For complex societal problems, many voices are needed at the table.  In recognizing the cultural competence already present in the classroom, we can begin to build truly inclusive communities.  Reading Apprenticeship has been my way in, to completely revolutionize the ways I invite students to participate in a shared learning journey.  Along a continuum, the class they will take with me is just one in a chain that they will have to connect with and make meaning in their lives.   

The more we invite our students to let us know them and we accept that gift, we can’t help but want to shift our practice to offer them a gift in return - to help them integrate into the world they are helping to build, the future that we must collectively and cooperatively envision together.  The only way to do this is to empower their voices.  

I speak in the abstract, but the practical implementation has at last become clear.  Choice & Agency. Contextual Overlap. Planning & Execution. Communication & Teamwork. Analysis & Application. Problem-Solving & Learning through Failure.  These are really the attitudes and aptitudes we want to cultivate through skilled practice.  

Our particular content area or discipline is just the lens through which we will capture these processes in action.  And because this is global content, of universal access, each students’ learning experience can be tailor-contextualized by their own volition with a proper framework of support.  

The structure is just enough, and just flexible enough, to allow for the shifting chaotic mess that is learning soup.  But the structure is key because it is what invites all into a safe space.  

If something is not well-defined, the students, as co-engineers of this learning landscape, have the responsibility to bring it to attention so that all can explore its relevance together.  This culture of inquiry must permeate the best problem-solving minds, which is truly the only skill that matters for those who would become leading co-constructors of the world we all share.  

At its essence, Reading Apprenticeship becomes the lens that allows for careful examination of the cultural composition of the community that you are an active part of building.  The real “community” part is to truly illuminate the paths available to students based on the paths they have already tread - the doors are wide open, but they need opportunities to discover what they enjoy and how they enjoy doing it. They need to explore possibilities. They need imagination beyond the confines of screens, something between the bits and bytes that are merely tools. Yes and the screens too and all the bits and bytes - a veritable treasure trove of data and information: what’s reliable? what’s relevant? how we craft questions to lead to useful conclusions? The ability to generate meaningful questions is a skill that will serve students in any endeavor because it empowers them to become more effective lifelong learners.  This is why the  most consistent feedback I give my students on their semi-weekly metacognitive logs is to “stay curious” or “keep questioning.”

The realization of how to achieve a truly inclusive classroom that empowers student agency came to me slowly and is still in process of implementation and refinement.  I share my short journey leading me to these practices that you may identify with it and join in a conversation of ways that we can all improve our collective practice.  

By no means, do I claim to be an expert educator.  I am still learning, and perhaps this thirst for knowledge is part of what helps me to sustain growth that is responsive to students’ needs.  Learning requires an openness, what some have called a beginner’s mind.  Learning a new subject or skill requires that we practice the very metacognition that we are asking our students to try.  By being an active learner, I can better serve my students in two ways: (1) be more engaged and present with them as I learn where they are in the journey and how I might best support them in growing their knowledge and understanding and (2) by remaining fresh in the metacognitive strategies that I use so that I can give authentic and enthusiastic demonstrations.  

Let me give you an example. Recently, I learned soft-fiber basket weaving and completed my first project.  In starting my second project, I began to notice things and adjust them based on what I had learned through the process of making the first.  This was an aha moment for me as a metacognitive educator. To design truly meaningful learning experiences, students need a chance to do it (at least) twice in a very safe and reflective space to begin to make it their own.  So to go extra-meta, not only can I use this new skill as a demonstration of my own metacognition to my students, but I can also apply it to my teaching practice and course design in real and practicable ways.  Significantly, this is true of our profession as well.  Teaching it one time in one way, inevitably invites us to shift and adjust the metaphorical fibers of the disciplinary stories we weave in subsequent iterations. Such it is that I have come to view even a light-seasoning of Reading Apprenticeship in my classes as a subtly subversive act.  

Let me explain what I mean. 

When I was first introduced to Reading Apprenticeship, I was excited and nervous. What the facilitator demonstrated was so elegant and simple and yet offered so much. I did not know where to start. She advised me to start small, just one thing, maybe two.  So the first time, my implementation included norm-setting on the first day and a “getting to know you survey” modeled after the Interests and Reading Survey in the Appendix of Reading for Understanding. That’s it.  

I will tell you that, although norms were set that first semester, they were not necessarily re-visited.  For some students, this was enough to open the door to say to them “I care about your agency and safety” and helped create a class where students felt included and were impelled to participate. In other sections, that was not the case.  I learned new things about norm setting each time I initiated it, learned to provide adequate time for self-reflection and paired sharing, different ways to invite student contributions. 

The survey though, is turning out to be the most subversive to my own teaching practice.  The survey was administered through Canvas in such a way that after students responded, they would be able to see my own personal answers to the same questions. It was meant to be a way to get to know one another.  Because the students took the time to share their thoughts with me, I took the time to read and respond to every single one.  It was a lot to take in, impossible to retain all the details, and incredibly time consuming (some semesters students got better replies than others).  This act also tells students “I care about you, where you come from, and where you want to go.”  This helped to connect with students in two ways: (1) so they know I am available to them and (2) so that I know how I can best serve them. Establishing this channel of communication between teacher and student is essential, but the second part seeped into my awareness ever so slowly.  This is how I began to acquire the knowledge to be a culturally-responsive practitioner. Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to notice patterns, ways to categorize my students.  Maybe you already do this, certainly in obvious ways.  If you have ever been involved with Program Review, then you know how to disaggregate student data by different metrics (gender, ethnicity, etc..).  Then there’s classifying them by major or career aspiration. There are myriad creative ways to craft these categories, limited only by your imagination.  

The social dimension of learning is one of the pillars of metacognition central to a Reading Apprenticeship classroom.  Being able to put students into workgroups, where their knowledge/purposes/motivation overlap in novel ways is the first key to build a class that features growth opportunities for partnered critical reading and authentic problem-based learning that actively engages students and gives them a chance to “try-on” different career aspirations that may or may not be informed by the discipline of the class.  For example, in my class, students are grouped in several ways: (i) by major/career/aspiration, (ii) by their opinion of the biggest problem facing the world today (from a curated list of about a dozen choices), (iii) by assigned article. Each week, the class reads one or more recent news articles centered on the themes we are studying.  Students can be invited to read and discuss the article with others in their major group, which can help them emphasize a certain perspective or reading strategy specific to each group’s lens.  Contrariwise, they could be invited to do the same exercise with a mixed majors group to diversify the lenses present in a single group.  Alternatively, when there are multiple reading options, students can be grouped based on which article they chose to read.  This in-class work was an outgrowth of a metacognitive reflection that asked students to curate a “News of the Week” (NotW) story.  This was a way to help keep the material fresh and show students how the subject matter is relevant in the real world.  This kind of individual reflection maximizes individual student agency and can help build social dimension as students are invited to share their NotW reflections with others at the start of class. As an in-class exercise, individual student agency is shifted from curating to participating in the conversation and helps to build a more cohesive community by putting the focus on the collective act of learning.  Students can problem-solve together and identify problems that might help inform their unit project. 

The most subversive part of Reading Apprenticeship, however, is not how it’s shifted the work I assign or my in-class practices. No. The most radical change I’ve adopted is to eschew exams in favor of team learning and project-based learning.  I recognized this need about a year and half into my implementation of RA.  I remember talking it over with a mentor.  She shared her experience with having to re-tool the way she did assessments to align with her practice.  Her perspective is relevant here. She helped me see that if we’re going to emphasize metacognition as central to learning the material then we should invite students to demonstrate their metacognition in assessments.  

At first, in my classes, this was a simple shift.  Already I offered low stakes quizzes as a sort of formative assessment to help students correct course as they learn the content.  Then I asked myself, why not extend this learning opportunity to exams too?  Thus, I began to allow students to earn back points by doing metacognitive test corrections. 

But still, this did not strike me as quite “authentic” - how often do we get a re-do in our jobs and careers? Sometimes, if we’re lucky, but sometimes there is no proverbial dress rehearsal. 

Thus I am taking the leap.  

I will invite students to complete group projects in groups that they self-select.  They will have a choice between developing: (1) a hands-on lesson for target grade (Pre-K through 12); (2) a business plan/model; (3) a research proposal; (4) policy proposal with regulation & enforcement plan; (5) community service announcement (video/podcast).  Through much brainstorming with colleagues and former students, I have come up with a rubric that provides clear criteria for completing the project at different expectation levels.  It emphasizes content knowledge as well as highly transferable skills like contextualizing a problem and working with a team to implement viable solutions.  Building these teams will invite students to complete personal and group-level SWOT analyses, provide justification for their proposed project, and develop a communication protocol. At the end, they will be asked to do a self-assessment that parallels the SWOT analyses.  All of this work will add points to their portfolio and give them work samples that they can be proud to share with future employers.  Now that is authentic.  And the best part?  It gives ALL students the chance to learn by doing, which research shows is one of the most effective ways to help level the playing field and close opportunity gaps that have created barriers to students achieving their full potential.  

About the author: Rachel Ridgway teaches Earth Science at Glendale Community College where she serves as faculty advisor for Glendale Students for Sustainability.