“Just What MAKES Any Text Challenging?”

This November (2019), I had a special treat to listen to and talk with teachers at the Pearson booth for a new project, Teaching Challenging Texts. Several teachers asked me just what makes a text challenging. What a brilliant and prescient question.

I decided to write a Blog of my conversations with teachers because our present PreK-12 student population—is our audience—not us or our students of the past. While I suspected then and now, as I compose this Blog is how race immediately takes and consumes the definition of challenging. Now, I want to expand and examine this notion further. The first and most pertinent distinction I wanted to make: “Any idea, word, place, moment, or interaction with which our students are unfamiliar makes a text challenging and impedes reading.”

Yes, race and ethnicity are critical components of challenge for our students and for us adults. For this generation, especially, however, other concerns pose equal literacy challenges. For example, regional dialects, culture, geographical location, cultural practices/traditions further add depth and complexity to the diversity of our students. Scaffolded into our students’ own contemporary diversity as they interact with texts are period/historical references, gender and children’s roles/identity/voice—or lack thereof—with an ever-expanding world of difference/Other.

All of these challenges for our students are further complicated by cultural and social stereotypes and lack of first-had exposure/experience. Many of our students are simply unaware, for example, that language itself is alive—protean—always moving and changing, evolving, and reflecting the immediate audience using it, while always in tandem with the past. With all of these components weaving in and out as we and our students read texts, our making sure that wecan read a text through their literacy-lens is critical to foment students’ critical thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listing and research for life.

The final, and, perhaps most subtle and critical, issue that can make texts challenging for our students emerges with our own assumptions of what we think students do or do not know, have or have not experienced, where they do or where they do not come from. During West Virginia’s Council of Teachers of English’s conference this year, teachers and I discussed how we sometimes assume what we think we know about our students—their experiences, their background, their aspirations—and their potential.

For example, as ELA teachers, we truly intend no harm, and yet, because I am an African-American woman from the South—Houston, TX—I have been and continue to be aware of how assumptions others make can impact one’s interaction not only with people but also with texts. To this day, I have recently experienced being told, “You are so smart,” “How do you know scholars in other countries?” “You’re not first generation college? Really?” “You are not Black enough.” And, no, not any of these assumptions emanated for students—Pre-K-12 or graduate. The queries emanate from colleagues of different cultures, ethnicities, and states.

I share a very few of these very personal experiences because I have seen just how the literature we teach canempower our Generation Z students not only to inquire with depth and seriousness but also to identify, hone, and assert their voices. And I am so enjoying learning and discovering with them. I stretch them; they stretch me more. I no longer read any text as I did in the past, for this generation engages every text differently.

Whether the text is age-old or newly minted, GenZ approaches all of them from the same entry point: So, what does this [text] have to say to me? Why should I care?

For those of us who hold close the theories and approaches of Aristotle, Longinus, Freire, Dewey, DuBois, Langer, Burke, Applebee, to cite a very few, we must be ever-aware that GenZers in their own way, also subscribe to the essence of these scholars’ intent. Simply put, GenZers do not just sit and await knowledge to be poured into them. Rather, they have inquiring minds and perspectives they want to share and explore. And I love it.  As Freire cites, we can no longer “deposit” content.

I now reread every text through the lens of GenZ—not allowing my predilections to interfere. My expertise informs but does not impede. And I am always open to students’ voices and perspectives and experiences. I also have ceased to assume what students “know” or “should have experienced,” just because I think they should have. Income levels and geographical location and exposure truly do play critical boundaries with ALL of our students across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, class. And we as their ELA teachers cannot assume we know who has come from where.

Last summer during the Center for Mark Twain Studies (CMTS) Summer Teachers’ Institute, Hendy Elementary School principal and assistant principal, allowed our inviting a few of Michelle Halperin’s 4th graders with whom my co-author, John E. Grassie, and I have been working for some time—in person and digitally. The students who had listened to me read aloud to them Mark Twain’s “A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It,” (1874) shared their experiences with 60+ teachers. Our collective experience was unscripted, immersive, and profound. The students felt solid in their own voices, perspectives, and recommendations to the teachers. At no time were the teachers aware of which students had personal, challenging circumstances/challenges. The parents, administrators, and amazing teacher all pulled together with us at CMTS to make it happen for the students and the participating teachers. The same experience has occurred time after time with students and teachers around the country.

What I have learned is that no one “thing” makes a text challenging.

Rather, any singular or combination of terms, experiences, moments, events, locations, and/or culture, can impede a student’s total experience, possibly, squelching voice and inquiry and relevance GenZers seek. The potential result? No equity. No equality. Hobbled life-long literacy. This looming possibility keeps me moving and learning.

So, to every teacher who came to share with me during the roll-out of our new project with Pearson, Teaching Challenging Texts, THANK YOU. Like our students, you and I took a bit of time to address the hard questions.  It’s our hope that this free-access  project will serve as a reliable resource that aids in our new mission with this generation—allowing our students to develop and hone their perspectives and voices and identities through their lenses, using the literature we teach—past and present and future: https://mypearsontraining.com/channel/program/999-1011

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is only the beginning. Pearson will post books and short stories and poems and essays to come, in groups of ten in each series.

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