This post is by member Lauren Nizol.
What do students truly need from us to engage in literacy? As an academic interventionist of students who have difficulty engaging in reading and writing, I am often reflecting on this question.
While unpacking my room this year, I stumbled across senior pictures and notes from students. Reading over the notes of gratitude reminded me of just how important it is to be present as an educator.
By present, I mean our students need us to connect with them. And by connections, I don’t necessarily mean that students and teachers know each other’s deep, dark secrets or even the nuances of our personal lives. Students need to know they are supported and cared for when walking into their teacher’s room. When I consider just how vulnerable and risky it is for some of my students to be readers and writers, this notion of presence is not just good practice—it’s practically nonnegotiable when it comes to literacy instruction.
Being a strong presence with my students has shown me just how far this one simple factor can take a struggling reader or writer. Low skill levels can actually appear as apathy, disruption, and avoidance on the surface, and especially if this relationship is nonexistent. Through building this rapport, I have been able to determine which students need my targeted and intentional support. Furthermore, this rapport has led me to determine what kind of support my students need.
One thing I’ve observed is that many underperforming students do not feel a part of the literacies going on in our classrooms. Literacy is a mammoth exchange of ideas, and we assume that many of our students know how to enter this conversation by the time they reach the secondary level. Yet, many of these students need an invitation to the conversation because reading and writing can be very intimidating for students who feel as if they don’t belong in an English classroom. That is why taking extra efforts at the start of the year to build and nurture positive connections between students and teachers is so vital.
While instruction and curriculum are critical parts of the classroom, establishing a positive classroom environment is ultimately what shapes instruction and curriculum. If the environment is not ideal, it doesn’t matter how competent, well-learned, or experienced a teacher is—students who struggle need to have a connection to their teacher. When students feel connected to their teachers and peers, they are more willing to take risks as readers and writers. The first week is always a rush, but building community in week one is the best way to connect with students who are disengaged with school.
Greeting students by name at the door is a simple entry point. At the start of the year, I took attendance while students entered my room. This prevented any mispronunciation mishaps and gave me a chance to ask them how their day was going. New teachers are often told to “stand firm” the first day. Yet, this can be intimidating for kids who don’t know how to “do school.” A warm welcome is your first entry point toward establishing a positive relationship.
Creating small groups rather than rows also helps students feel comfortable for speaking and listening tasks. Students are more willing to speak and offer ideas to the group when they feel recognized by the group. I often mixed up the seating chart, so it was the norm that students were exposed to many perspectives and voices. During instructional time, this arrangement allowed for strategies like “think-pair-share” to take root. In addition, by the time we reached a class discussion of a text, students were much more ready to share their ideas.
Small-group seating also supported the reading and writing routines that I wanted to establish during workshop time. I found that many students were hesitant to ask for support or clarification after a traditional “sit and get” lecture. Yet, when I shifted away from lectures to mini-lessons, I saw a marked increase in engagement.
After the lesson, we transitioned to workshop time, and I circulated around my classroom checking in with students for understanding and creating a comfortable space to ask questions. For disengaged students, creating such a space is the most important entry point to boost their achievement. In addition, when struggling readers and writers hear their peers asking for support, they are more likely to ask as well. Normalizing support and fostering a classroom environment where students feel comfortable expressing that they need help is an entry point that will move all readers and writers, not just those who are disengaged, struggling, or at risk.
At our opening professional development, students from our district presented data from a student survey about staff-student relationships. Though students expressed how knowing their teachers well was important, many explained that a simple smile or greeting goes a long way. One student even said, “We don’t need you going on about your life for 20 minutes. We just need to know you care about us.”
Working with students who resist reading and writing may be the biggest challenge some teachers will face in their career—I know it was for me. However, by growing a supportive relationship with their students, teachers can invite disengaged readers and writers into the conversation. Creating a comfortable space and environment for learning is the driving factor in student growth and achievement. And it all starts with a smile and warm greeting.
Lauren Nizol (@CoachNizol) is an MTSS Student Support Coach and Interventionist at Novi High School. She has eleven years of classroom experience, teaching English, IB Theory of Knowledge, and English Lab. Lauren completed her undergraduate degree in history, English, and secondary education at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and her Master’s in English education at Eastern Michigan University. She is a National Writing Project Teacher Consultant with the Eastern Michigan Writing Project and an advocate for underperforming students and literacy interventions.