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Responsive Teaching in Action

By Justin Stygles
 | Aug 01, 2018

responsive-teaching-2Recently, I had the opportunity to present a lesson to my readers on “voice.” My intent was to better understand students’ beliefs about self-expression and reading. When I asked students questions such as “Who owns voice in reading?", I expected them to detail how they responded to questions after reading, maybe worksheets, or wrote a summary after reading. From there, I could launch into a lesson that would liberate their comprehension. 

To spice up the situation, I asked two new teachers to observe my lesson and acquire ideas that would invite their students into writing about reading. Not surprisingly, the lesson did not go as anticipated. 

When I opened the discussion, my fifth graders provided responses about voice that didn’t match my expectations. As much as I wanted to hear students say, albeit generically, “I own voice in reading because I can express my opinion,” they instead replied:

  • “Voice is what you sound like when you are reading out loud to people.”
  • “Voice is how you sound when you sound like the person in the story using his accents.”
  • “Voice is what I hear inside my head when I am reading to myself.”
I then introduced the idea of voice to my class, focusing on comprehension, specifically the instructional concept of writing about reading. I wanted to empower students to harness their perceptions and perspectives through writing. In the coming days, we would be discussing, sampling, and then constructing various responses to reading, including index card book reviews, our class newsletter, “Wiscasset’s Middle-Grade Reading Flyer,” and archetypal comparisons across genres.

Back to the lesson. Since my readers were not familiar with this concept of voice, I had to make an instant shift in my instruction. I looked to the two teachers who observed my lesson. Both seemed at a loss of what to do, since the lesson had not gone according to plan. 

Meghan Schofield, a new third-grade teacher, recounted, “Being a new teacher, I haven’t taught ‘voice’ with respect to reading. Although I’ve mentioned during writing conferences, ‘You have such strong voice in your writing,’ I hadn’t considered the voice as a personal perspective of text. This lesson made me reflect on what I’ve said to my own students.

I knew Justin’s lesson wasn’t going according to plan. From my seat, I started panicking because I didn’t know the outcome. I thought to myself, ‘What would I do in this moment?’ I probably would’ve made my best attempt to get myself back to where the original teaching point, because I felt committed to the planned outcome, resulting in non-authentic learning.”

I proposed to students that “voice” has two roles in reading. I acknowledged students’ recognition of the oral competent of reading followed by the comprehension component, which includes participation in book groups, opinions, and perspectives, which I described as “articulation.” Finally, I suggested to readers, perhaps most importantly, that writing about reading is developing their voices, giving them a chance to preserve their legacies.  

Meghan noted, “I was impressed with how quickly and seamlessly responsive teaching can happen. I’m not yet comfortable with my lessons not going as expected, although it happens frequently. I find myself trying to get my students back to my original teaching point rather than being comfortable with responsiveness or adapting to their needs and knowledge on the spot.”

During our post-conference, Meghan and I discussed how responsive teaching is not always about data. Rather, responsive teaching is about making instructional moves that attend to students’ knowledge while simultaneously rerouting students to meet the overall lesson goal. 

During this lesson, I made sure to celebrate students’ knowledge before offering another definition of voice. In doing so, I didn’t discount what they knew, or bring my lesson to an abrupt end, rather I invited an opportunity to learn something new. When new teachers can see this instant adaptation, they realize that it’s ok to fall off the script or plan, which can define good teaching. 

“I learned, rather than panicking about a change in a lesson, I should acknowledge celebrations of what students do know and their attempts to connect with a lesson," she said.

Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher in Wiscasset, Maine. He's taught for 15 years in various settings. You can follow him on Twitter at @justinstygles.


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