We Don’t Talk About Grading


by Dr. Laura Boyle

I started teaching high school biology midway through the 2009-2010 school year after completing the first semester of an alternative certification program for those hoping to teach in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). While this program eventually led to a master’s degree, I entered the classroom as a new teacher with no student teaching experience, and what can best be described as a crash course in education. I immediately adopted the grading policies of the teacher I replaced and continued using those policies for the next full school year. During this time I had very few conversations about grading. Nobody spoke to me about how to determine letter grades, which assignments to grade, whether or not to curve a test. I was flying solo until the building administration asked all departments to come to a consensus on grading policies. At this point, the science department decided not to accept any late work for a grade, and we justified this by saying students needed to be prepared for class, especially for lab work. If students did not complete prelabs on time, there was no point to doing the work after the lab. Looking back at this policy now, I want to cringe and shake myself.

My students at this time were freshmen, just making the transition into high school, and many of them traveled long distances to get to school. I taught at a selective enrollment high school, where all students had to pass an entrance test for admission and all classes were at the honors or AP level. Teachers in the building often justified rigid grading policies as “rigorous” and appropriate for the selective enrollment environment. However, many of us failed to consider who our students were outside of school. The high school was located on the far south side of Chicago but pulled students who qualified for a selective enrollment school from all parts of the city. CPS, however, did not provide transportation for these students. Students either needed to be driven by family, or they needed to use the CTA buses and trains to get to school on their own. It was not abnormal for student commutes to and from school to be over an hour long. Often this commute was done after students completed their after school sports, clubs, and other activities, leaving less time for students to complete school work at home. This school was a Title I school – most of the students received free or reduced lunch, and many had parents who worked multiple jobs or second- or third-shift jobs, leaving them home by themselves. And since all classes were at the honors or AP level, many teachers regularly assigned large amounts of homework, leaving students with hours of homework to complete each night.

This all started to change with a new building principal who started the 2012-13 school year by asking us what we think grades should mean and communicate to students and their families. We came to the agreement that grades should reflect what students know and can do in class. Then he asked us if that was what our grades actually showed. If a student forgets to do their prelab, but comes to my class and performs the lab activity perfectly and completes all the postlab work, should their grade reflect the missed prelab? Had I ever talked to my students about why they didn’t complete the prelab? Or why they had other missing assignments? The questions kept pouring in and I had no answers, at least no good ones.

These conversations continued all year at our building-wide meetings and the following year led to a pilot group of teachers testing out equitable grading practices that were modeled off of Standards Based Grading techniques. I have been using many of these grading policies for nearly a decade, and they have changed not only how I grade, but also how I talk to students about school, and how I talk to students about their lives. There are seven equitable grading policies that I use in my classes.

  1. Standards-based learning objectives are provided each day to inform students of the expectations for class and the criteria for success (Guskey & Jung, 2009; Shippy et al., 2013).
  2. Smaller formative assessments are given each time a standards-based objective is completed; some take a day, some take a few days to cover (Butler & Nisan, 1986).
  3. A unit tracker is provided at the end of each unit for students to record their summative assessments, their mastery score on each, and determine their retake needs (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014).
  4. I plan ahead for one retake day for each unit assessment to occur during class time after students receive their retake practice work (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014).
  5. I do not assign homework. My courses are structured so that students have time during the class period to complete the necessary work (Feldman, 2019).
  6. I provide ungraded formative assessments to students prior to summative assessments. These formative assessments are only used to provide students with feedback on their learning (Iamarino, 2014).
  7. I provide students with rubrics for all summative projects and labs (Feldman, 2019).

            These grading policies are more equitable for several reasons. First, they remove some implicit bias. I am a middle-class white woman from the suburbs of Chicago. I have never looked like the majority of my students. If I included things like effort, participation, or behavior in my grades, this could be impacted by implicit bias (DeCuir & Dixon, 2004).  Next, by not including homework as a grade, I remove bias my students might face if they don’t have the time, space, or support at home to complete the homework. Those are things outside the control of students, and when we include homework in their grade we are grading them on social and familial structures they have no control over (Feldman, 2019; Ladson-Billings, 1995). I also provide them with information on what success looks like, and how they are progressing towards that goal  (Guskey & Jung, 2009; Shippy et al., 2013). I give students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning more than once and provide additional time and opportunities for students who need them (Feldman, 2019; Iamarino, 2014). Every student can learn, but they don’t all learn the same way or at the same pace. Providing more individual support for students can help more students to achieve academic mastery (Ladson-Billings, 1995). I have found this last point to be the most important for me, especially in my current role. I teach many English Language Learners who are not only learning biology, but also how to read, write, speak, and understand a new language. If I were to simply grade a test and move on, many of my students would continue to struggle, not only in biology but also with their language learning. By incorporating practice work and test retakes, students are given the time and support to continue learning the content, but also the language objectives that are tied to the content. For example, my students are getting more practice with reading scientific texts, using data from a graph or figure to answer questions, or being able to justify a conclusion based on data. These are skills that they will use in every science class and are language-heavy. Giving them the opportunities to continue to master these skills makes them better at biology, but also more scientifically literate and better citizens.


Butler, R., & Nisan, M. (1986). Effects of no feedback, task-related comments, and grades on intrinsic motivation and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 78(3), 210–216. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.78.3.210

Decuir, J. T., & Dixson, A. D. (2004). “So when it comes out, they aren’t that surprised that it is there”: Using critical race theory as a tool of analysis of race and racism in education. Educational Researcher,33(5), 26-31. doi:10.3102/0013189×033005026

Feldman, J. (2019). Beyond standards-based grading: Why equity must be part of grading reform. Phi Delta Kappan, 100(8), 52-55.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Guskey, T. R., & Jung, L. A. (2009). Grading and reporting in a standards-based environment: Implications for students with special needs. Theory Into Practice, 48(1), 53-62. doi:10.1080/00405840802577619

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-12

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312032003465

Shippy, N., Washer, B. A., & Perrin, B. (2013). Teaching with the end in mind: The role of standards-based grading. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 14-16. doi:10.14307/jfcs105.2.5

About our Author

Laura Boyle, Ed.D
Joliet Central H.S., Joliet, IL

Dr. Boyle is a recent graduate from the University of South Carolina Educational Practice and Innovation program with a STEM concentration. She has 15 years experience teaching life science courses including Biology, Environmental Science, and Anatomy. She taught for eight years in Chicago Public Schools and has spent the last seven years at Joliet Central High School. All of her experience is at Title I schools, serving students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. She has been working to implement equitable grading practices in her classroom for nearly 10 years and completed her dissertation on the impact of equitable grading practices on student outcomes and biology self-efficacy, for which she was the recipient of the 2024 Outstanding Achievement in STEM Education Doctoral Award.

How do we make literacy assessments equitable in the age of standardized testing?


Olivia Moore sheds light on the relationship between instruction, standardized testing, and equitable assessment in her blog this week. She will be a member of the panel featured in our upcoming webinar. For more about Olivia, see below.

As teachers, we sometimes feel we don’t have a say in the summative assessments we give, such as those meant to evaluate learning like an end-of-chapter test. Doing what we know is equitable can be difficult when so much rests on standardized test scores. This, in turn, leads to the belief that the assessment content is more important than learning and the information gathered from formative assessments that inform our teaching (Elish-Piper et al., 2022). This is dangerous because, as we know, teaching “to the test” is inefficient, inequitable, and often not enjoyable because it can lead to removing teacher autonomy and limiting what we can do with our students – think drill and kill teaching instead of teaching based on students’ interests and needs.

The Center for Enhancement of Learning and Teaching at Tufts University defines equitable assessments as “the on-going activities that allow students and instructors to understand student progress on meeting the course learning objectives” (Tufts, 2022). Therefore, to truly be equitable in our assessment practices, we need to focus on meeting the needs of all learners while we teach, gathering data through formative means, such as observations and conversations, during teaching. Additionally, we need to gather diagnostic data across a multitude of assessments every lesson, unit, month, and even across the year.  You may be wondering what we need to do to make our assessment practices and teaching more equitable when we must use standardized, one-size-fits-all assessments that are only snapshots of student learning and not very accurate, with many wondering if they are even ethical. Below, I share a few things I consider and reflect on when I meet my students before and during assessments across the school year.

  1. Get to know your students.

Knowing your students is the first step because if we want to understand what our students know or don’t know, we need to know them as people. We must understand and care about their identities. That is, who they are, what they think about themselves, and their funds of knowledge (Muhammad, 2020). The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) states that accomplished literacy teachers use their knowledge of children to differentiate learning experiences for students (NBPTS, 2012). With that said, if we know we need to differentiate instruction, why don’t we differentiate assessments, too? If you know that Sally loves snowboarding, giving her a biography of a famous snowboarder for her comprehension assessment may align more with her interests, which impacts her motivation to read, ultimately, a part of creating equitable assessments. When students have more background knowledge on a topic, we can better see what they comprehend from the text (Fisher & Frey, 2020).

  1. Get to know what you are assessing.

Using engaging texts within instruction is a start. However, we also want to consider how we assess students’ learning and if the assessment considers what a student already knows, capitalizing on students’ strengths to gather data on their needs. Let’s look at Carter. Carter is extremely bright, but his written expression and spelling are considered behind or low for a typical middle schooler his age. Students are required to engage in research and then share their learnings. Carter’s facial expressions and fidgeting show that he is stressed, possibly because this typically means writing a report, and he struggles with writing. If we want to reflect on the intent of the assignment, for students to demonstrate their learning, possible assessment modifications include Carter using a dictation program on his device to type for him, recording a video of himself sharing the information, or even reporting to you orally. Another potential modification comes in the form of what he writes. Carter loves rap music and did very well in the poetry unit. Therefore, maybe Carter would enjoy sharing his findings by creating his own rap song. This will allow Carter to demonstrate putting thoughts in writing and synthesizing information into a composition, aligning with concerns he isn’t writing. No, he may not be writing a research report, but he is writing. We always want to come back to what we mean to assess with the assignment or project. Is the goal to assess his ability to write words down on paper or his ability to research and put coherent thoughts together? Were you intending to assess spelling or his ability to share his learning? Assessment doesn’t always have to look “traditional”; it needs to align with the task at hand. If the goal for Carter is to research and synthesize information, then how he shares his learning doesn’t have to be in a written report.

By creating assessments that center students’ interests and strengths, the process builds confidence and efficacy.  Carter used what he knew and loved, rap, to build from a starting point and then showcase his learning. This centers his growth versus what he can’t or won’t do, such as asking him to write a report or another assessment that would cause Carter to shut down. Therefore, when we create assessments, we want to think about the purpose of it and determine if it is designed to simply give a score or to inform how to support students’ learning better. Requiring Carter to write a research report or take a test may assess his learning; however, only the one that aligns with his interests is equitable for Carter.

  1. Getting to know your biases.

While we all try not to make assumptions about our students, it is important to consistently reflect on how we learn about each and every student who steps into our classrooms. It is crucial that we only assume to know a child after getting to know them. Perhaps you have a special education student or an English Language Learner on your roster. Don’t assume you know who they are and what they can do because of a label given to them by someone else; it could impact how you teach them (Savitz & Kane, 2023). Think about Carter again. When Carter steps into your classroom, it could be easy to make assumptions about his reading and writing abilities. However, if you take time to get to know him and what he likes and excels in, where he is comfortable, and consider his strengths, you can create assessments to support his success in ways that work for him, such as changing how he demonstrates his learning. This is not just for Carter, though: Do this for ALL your students! Let them come in fresh each year. Don’t listen to the teacher in the grade below who talks about what a troublemaker Samantha is. Talk to Samantha yourself and get to know her yourself, and then consistently pay attention to her during instruction to formatively assess what she needs. 

  1. Getting to know students as people and not one test.

Lastly, remember that one test does not define a student’s capabilities or yours as a teacher. Even the code of ethics in those thick test training books says that making standardized test scores the only indicator of how well a student is learning is unethical. By gathering lots of ongoing data and creating more equitable assessments across the year, you will know (and be able to share with students and parents) the growth a child has made, regardless of their end-of-the-year test score. This positivity is needed when the stress of state testing starts to make our students feel like they aren’t smart enough to pass, when they may just not be good at taking a standardized assessment that isn’t equitable.

It is up to us to plan classroom assessments through an equitable lens. Therefore, I leave you with the following quote to ponder:

“As we shed our respective sources of blindness, perhaps we can envision a transformation in literacy assessment theory and practice, one that supports the pursuit of equity, opportunity, and rich learning.” – David Slomp and Bob Broad in Monsters, Inc.: Curing Ethical Blindness in an Era of Test-Based Accountability


Childress, J., Backman, A. C., & Lipson, M. Y. (2019). Reframing Literacy Assessment: Using Scales and micro‐progressions to provide equitable assessments for all learners. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 63(4), 371–377. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.1016

Elish-Piper, L., Matthews, M. W., & Risko, V. (2022). Reading assessment to promote equitable learning: An empowering approach for grades K-5. The Guilford Press.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2020). Improving adolescent literacy: Content area strategies at work (5 ed). Corwin.

Muhammad, G. (2021). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. Scholastic.

National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. (2012). Literacy: Reading–Language Arts Standards. Author.

Slomp, D., & Broad, B. (2020). Monsters, inc.: Curing ethical blindness in an ERA of test‐based accountability. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 64(2), 232–235. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaal.1077

Tufts University. (2022, November 4). What are equitable assessment practices? Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. https://provost.tufts.edu/celt/inclusive-and-equitable-teaching/what-is-inclusive-and-equitable-teaching/what-are-equitable-assessment-practices/#:~:text=Inclusive%20assessment%20is%20about%20more,meeting%20the%20course%20learning%20objectives

Olivia Moore works at East McDowell Middle School as a Reading Specialist. Her undergraduate and Master’s degrees are from East Carolina University – Go Pirates!! Her passion is reading and she is determined to help all of her students feel confident with reading. Those who don’t enjoy reading just haven’t found the right book yet!

Counternarratives in 6-12 Classrooms: Disrupting Harmful Narratives and Engaging Students in Critical Thinking and Reflection


Christy Howard returns with additional thoughts through the eyes of a literacy educator who works with preservice and in-service teachers as they navigate the changing expectations of education. Read more about Christy at the end of her blog.

Through my work as a literacy educator, I have the opportunity to work with preservice and in-service teachers as they navigate the changing expectations of education. I also work with school support staff, administrators and district-level curriculum leaders. Through this work I have recently been engaged in many conversations around curriculum materials and text selection for classrooms. Educators want to know how to engage students in the learning process, and how to help them in their journey to becoming critical consumers of texts — especially in a world where they are bombarded with so much information. Many secondary teachers recognize the need to look beyond the textbook for classroom materials, often acknowledging content area textbooks fail to provide all the information needed to support student learning. Many of them also acknowledge textbooks provide incomplete stories. My response to these educators as I nod in agreement is, “Let’s take a look at the role of counternarratives in your materials and text selection process.”

What are counternarratives?

There are many definitions of counternarratives. Here I would like to share the definition from Tricia Ebarvia’s new book, Get Free. She shares:

“A counternarrative is a story that stands in contrast to and challenges the values, beliefs and an established dominant narrative. Often counternarratives do this by focusing on the perspectives that are missing, marginalized, or actively erased from the dominant narrative” (Ebarvia, 2023, p.3).

This definition stands out to me because of the discussion of erasure. When I think about my conversations with educators and their stories of how some of them are dealing with curriculum mandates and banned books in their districts, this is an example of how perspectives are actively erased from the dominant narrative. Curriculum mandates and book bans often minimize access to the ideas, experiences and histories of marginalized groups. This is a clear reason why we need to provide space for multiple perspectives, allowing students to engage with both dominant narratives and counternarratives.

Why are counternarratives important?

Stories that only show the dominant perspective can be harmful. Students need exposure to multiple perspectives. These perspectives are not always readily available in neighborhoods and families. Tatum (2017) reminds us, Many of us grow up in neighborhoods where we had limited opportunities to interact with people different from our own families… Consequently, most of the early information we receive about “others”– people racially, religiously, or socioeconomically different from ourselves–does not come as a result of firsthand experience. The second hand information we receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete (p. 84).

This incomplete information can lead to harmful actions. For example, incomplete, distorted information shaped by cultural stereotypes has led to physical and emotional harm against people in this country. We have seen this highlighted in news stories about hate crimes against marginalized groups, that in many cases have led to death. These incomplete stories and distorted stereotypes can be addressed through counternarratives in our classrooms, and if we believe dominant narratives can be harmful, it is easy to believe that perhaps counternarratives can be healing.

Counternarratives can also help us disrupt deficit perspectives and harmful narratives about people and places. For so long in the publishing world, we saw so few books written by and about the lives and experiences of people of color. This has been well documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2018). With this approach to publishing, the lives, experiences, and voices of marginalized people have been silenced. Tatum (2017) describes an experience where a preservice English teacher commented that she had never learned about any Black authors in her English courses and was concerned she would have difficulty teaching them if she had not learned about them in her schooling. A classmate commented, “It’s not my fault that Blacks don’t write books” (p. 85). This narrative is harmful, inaccurate, and is rooted in a deficit perspective. We must provide access to books for students that serve as counternarratives to this mindset, showing that we indeed have successful, amazing, authors across marginalized groups writing award-winning stories and creating award-winning film, art, poetry, music and dance. These counternarratives can show our students they, too, can be successful, amazing creators if they so choose to embrace that identity.

Counternarratives in Classrooms

There are many learning experiences you can provide for students to engage with counternarratives. I believe it’s important for students to read counternarratives. I also think it’s important for them to have opportunities to write counternarratives as well. Christensen (2017) asserts, “In writing about themselves, students learn to praise their beauty that the world overlooks or cannot see” (p. 82). Writing experiences through this lens allow students to write against false or inaccurate narratives, take ownership of their writing and show their beauty to the world. Here I want to share some opportunities for both reading and writing with you.

Children’s Books as Counternarratives

We know that children are often exposed to negative dominant perspectives through children’s stories, cartoons, and movies, where they have seen inaccurate representations of Indigenous People, as women portrayed as needing to be rescued, and People of Color, as lazy or villains. As educators, we have the opportunity to disrupt these narratives by using well-chosen, multi-perspective texts in our classrooms as counternarratives. At the bottom of this post, I have listed picture books, middle grade books, and young adult books that can be used as counternarratives. These are all beautiful stories, several of them focusing on love, joy, and community, while also speaking back to the dominant perspectives of marginalized people.

As we consider using such books in our classrooms, there are so many resources that can guide us in choosing texts, such as Diversifying Your Classroom Book Collections? Avoid these 7 Pitfalls. In addition, Ebarvia (2023) provides some questions to guide our thinking as well:   

  • Can this text provide meaningful insight to students about identities with which they are unfamiliar?
  • In what ways can this text help to develop a positive social identity for my students?
  • How can this text challenge incomplete or harmful dominant narratives about different identities?
  • Does this writer treat their subject with complexity and nuance and avoid stereotypes?
  • What does this text not do or include that I will have to supplement with another text? What counternarratives will my students need after this text?

I hope through these resources, you find some helpful texts to meet the needs of your students and engage them in exploring counternarratives in your classrooms.

Visual Autobiographies

Visual autobiographies are an opportunity for students to engage in creating counternarratives. Students can generate multimodal projects that include items such as photos, drawings, poems, songs, and videos. This type of assignment is open for students in a way that they are able to choose what they want to present and how they want to present it. They are able to share their identity, culture, history, beauty, and brilliance. They begin by exploring the dominant narratives that might be told about them, parts of their identities or their communities. They, then, consider how they can create visual representations as counternarratives to these dominant narratives.

Talking Back

Talking Back is an activity Christenson (2017) shares where she asks students to “criticize commercially produced images about the way they should look, sound, or act” (p. 82) and to speak back to these perspectives through poetry. In her example, she uses the poem, “what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton. I have also used Maya Angelou’s Still I Rise poem as a mentor text. Additionally, I have created a poem as a mentor text for this assignment so students can see my thinking in this process as well. As an educator, what would you like to “talk back” to? What texts could you use with your students as representations of “talking back?”

Reflections of…

I believe in self-reflection. It is an important piece of all of my instructional practices. When I consider what it means to include counternarratives in my classroom, these are the questions I am asking myself. I encourage you to join me in reflection as you consider integrating counternarratives into your classrooms.

  • What is the role dominant narratives have played in my life?
  • What is my role in promoting the dominant narrative in classroom spaces? How have I believed or accepted deficit dominant narratives?
  • How can I challenge the negative perceptions in dominant narratives?
  • How do I use narratives to help students construct new understandings of the world?
  • Whose experiences and voices are centered in my classroom?
  • Whose experiences and voices are marginalized?
  • Whose voices are missing? What does this mean? Why does this matter?
  • How can I continue to provide space for my students to “talk back?”

Children’s Books and Professional Resources

Picture books

We Are Still Here: Native American Truths Everyone Should Know by Traci Sorell

Something Beautiful by Sharon Denni Wyeth

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom

My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

Middle Grade books

Mascot by Charles Watters and Traci Sorell

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

Indian No More by Charlene Willing McManis and Traci Sorell

Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson

Swim Team by Johnnie Christmas

Young Adult books

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

The Silence that Binds Us by Joanna Ho

The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater

Professional Resources

Christensen, L. (2017). Reading, writing, and rising up: Teaching about social justice and the power of the written word. (2nd ed.) Rethinking Schools.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York, NY: Scholastic.


Christensen, L. (2017). Reading, writing, and rising up: Teaching about social justice and the power of the written word. (2nd ed.) Rethinking Schools.

Cooperative Children’s Book Center. (2018). Publishing statistics on children’s books about people of color and First/Native nations and by people of color and First/Native nations: Authors and illustrators. Madison, WI: Cooperative Children’s Book Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved from https://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/literature-resources/ccbc-diversity-statistics/books-by-and-or-about-poc-2018/

DeHart, J., & Staff, L. for J. (n.d.). Countering the narrative. Learning for Justice.

Ebarvia, T. (2024). Get free: Anti-bias literacy instruction for stronger readers, writers, and thinkers. Corwin.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating genius: An equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Tatum, B. D. (2017). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?: And other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books

Christy Howard has been an educator for over 20 years. She is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Literacy Studies, English Education, and History Education at East Carolina University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses. In her free time, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family.

Rethinking Disciplinary Literacy: Equity, Expertise, and Inclusive Education


This week we welcome Heather Waymouth and one of her students, Hery Castro as they share the positive effects of rethinking the relationship between disciplinary literacy and equity, expertise, and inclusive education. Read more about Heather and Hery at the end of the blog

I (Heather) came into the field of disciplinary literacy as an excited doctoral student who finally saw a way that my certifications in science and literacy could make sense together. I’d spent years thinking about science as a science teacher and literacy as a literacy teacher, and never the two should mix. That I could now teach students to read science like a scientist and history like a historian felt like putting on a comfortable, old sweater.

Yet, just as my old, comfortable sweater has some holes, so, too, does disciplinary literacy. Heller (2011) and Collin (2014) encourage educators to question what counts as a discipline and if our intent really is to mold students into “little experts.” Saying that we are apprenticing students into the literacy practices of disciplinary experts should cause us to examine who counts as an expert.

That question didn’t meaningfully exist for me until I watched the movie Dark Waters (Haynes, 2019). At the film’s core is a farmer, Wilbur Tennant, seeking to sue DuPont over environmental contamination. He’s reached out to the company several times, they’ve conducted a study of his land and their nearby disposal area, and DuPont’s scientists have claimed there’s nothing wrong. Yet, Tennant has gathered his own data. When his lawyer visits the farm, there’s a poignant scene in which Tennant pulls deformed cow organs wrapped in tinfoil from his freezer, deformed hooves stored in a jar, and a video of himself conducting his own necropsy. However, because Tennant is “just a farmer,” his lived experience and expertise aren’t initially seen as “expert” enough for the law firm to justify taking on his case.

I began to rethink my devotion to disciplinary literacy. Was our focus on a narrow definition of experts and expertise helping to build and maintain the world in which Wilbur Tennant’s decades of intimate knowledge didn’t count? Rather than seek an answer from literacy scholars, I dove into science education research. After all, the newly crafted Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) were intended to promote equitable learning opportunities for ALL students (Lee, Miller & Januszyk, 2015).

In science, I found a conceptualization of literacy that gave me hope for a more inclusive disciplinary literacy. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report on Science Literacy which defined it across three levels: individual, community, and society (2016). Here, literacy wasn’t a form of property able to be possessed by some folks and not others. Sure, individuals’ mastery of reading, writing, and oral discourse is a necessary consideration of literacy within this model, but it isn’t the end goal. Considering how communities – especially those historically denied access to quality science education – engage in literacy as collective praxis (Roth & Lee, 2002) by bringing their diverse voices, experiences, and literacies together – provided me with a vision for disciplinary instruction which could introduce experts’ literacies and value other forms of literacy and expertise as equally valid.

Then I found Windschitl, Thompson, and Braaten’s (2018) Ambitious Science Teaching. My heart sang – here was a framework that balanced attention to equity and rigor. Not only that, it established students’ collective sensemaking as the objective of science learning. Throughout my dissertation, I observed a group of middle school science teachers using Ambitious Science Teaching to breathe life into the NGSS and had the pleasure of hearing, in their words, how this type of teaching was creating space for all students to engage in sensemaking. While even in their expert teaching, opportunities existed for a closer consideration of equity as foundational rather than supplemental to science learning, I knew I had found my soapbox to stand upon.

Now that I work full-time preparing pre-service teachers, I do everything I can to further the possibilities for equity and inclusion in disciplinary literacy. I have taken up equitable sensemaking (Calabrese Barton & Tan, 2019) as the foundation of my undergraduate class on literacy in the content areas. Throughout the semester, preservice teachers work in small groups to craft a unit plan in a content area other than ELA:  science, math, engineering or social studies. We adopt the ambitious science teaching framework (Windschitl, Thompson, & Braaten, 2018), understanding that while this framework was designed for science, it can be applied to any discipline. Preservice teacher teams identify an inquiry question ripe for exploration from multiple viewpoints and for incorporation of social justice and equity, such as “Why do we get sick?” Then, they map an explanation of that phenomenon, incorporating multiple viewpoints and opportunities for students to engage with new ideas, rather than be taught (told) those ideas. As my desire is for authentic learning to drive the bus, I don’t introduce standards until after the ideas mapping process has begun. Students map content area standards first and subsequently “engineer” (Moje, 2015) opportunities for literacy development within their unfolding storyline (Reiser et al., 2021).

Considering equity as foundational is often a new concept for my preservice teachers, given that most are white and from middle class backgrounds. We spend several classes learning what it might look like to incorporate perspectives other than our own early in the planning process. The works of three scholars are particularly helpful to us. While students are developing their unit’s question, we listen to Dr. Danny Morales Doyle’s interview with Abolition Science in which he discussed using social justice science issues, like pollution from a local factory, to ground high school chemistry instruction. Several days into unit planning, students use the twelve questions Dr. Gholdy Muhammad outlined in her AMLE blog post to (re)consider the cultural and historical relevance of  their unit. To illustrate what an equitable sensemaking activity that draws upon diverse voices might look like, I conduct a fishbowl discussion in which each student embodies a chapter of Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (2013) Braiding Sweetgrass, using three guiding questions: What counts as knowledge/expertise? Whose expertise matters? How do we use the knowledge we are gaining from this text to impact our teaching?

The units my students are ultimately able to build astound me. I’ve seen a math unit on how to affordably feed various sized groups, a social studies unit on why we haven’t yet had a woman elected as president, and all sorts of other units incorporating joyful learning, literacy in service to disciplinary learning, incorporations of diverse viewpoints, and opportunities for students’ identities and experiences to inform ongoing learning. But, as I heard on Reading Rainbow as a child of the 90’s, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Hery Castro is one of my students currently engaging in planning for equitable sensemaking. I’ll let him tell you what it’s like:

            Including equitable sensemaking in my unit plan caused me to reshape my thinking, and put critical literacy first, alongside relatable science phenomena. Although there was some slight confusion on what exactly Dr. Waymouth was looking for, I loved working on my assignment. As a person of color who has experienced difficulties with teachers understanding where I’m coming from, I’ve always known that I wanted more perspectives like mine included in school. Being told that it’s not only possible, but necessary to include them in this science unit (a subject area I don’t intend to teach), was affirming.

            By reshaping the question of equitable sensemaking into “how can we have this relate to students’ lives outside of the classroom” and “how can we get kids to think about the impact of these scientific phenomena in communities and lifestyles other than their own”, I realized there are countless answers and options for engagement. We started with a universal question: “why do we get sick?” and broke it into more universally experienced questions like “how do diseases spread?” and “what can we do to prevent them?”

            These driving questions are great; however, equitable sensemaking asks that we take a question that could be answered with just a personal tidbit and transform it into something that requires scientific and social research. My group added “why do some diseases affect some communities more than others?” and “How does access impact care?” At this point, I could tell we were approaching equity, as students would get the chance to talk about various perspectives in addition to their own lived experiences.

            I found that I used this equitable sensemaking framework as the basis for each question and activity I planned for my unit. If I knew I wanted students to question why certain areas or groups of peoples are affected by a disease more than others, I knew I needed to have a lesson about how disease spreads and one that requires students to dive deeper, asking and answering the critical questions through activity. Repeating this process for each driving question, and crafting more and more activities that build upon the students’ developing understanding of both biological and social science, led to a unit plan that is rich with equitable sensemaking. This balance of social justice and grounded scientific questioning has led my group to craft something that not only reshaped our ideas of teaching, but will allow us to help create a new generation of critical thinkers in not only science, but across all domains.


Calabrese Barton, A., & Tan, E. (2019). Designing for rightful presence in STEM: The role of making present practices. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 28(4-5), 616-658.

Collin, R. (2014). A Bernsteinian analysis of content area literacy. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(3), 306-329.

Haynes, T. (Director). (2019). Dark Waters [Film]. Participant Media.

Heller, R. (2011). In praise of amateurism: A friendly critique of Moje’s “call for change” in secondary literacy. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54(4) 267-273.

Kimmer, R. W. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teaching of plants. Milkweed Editions.

Moje, E. B. (2015). Doing and teaching disciplinary literacy with adolescent learners: A social and cultural enterprise. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 254-278.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2016). Science literacy: Concepts, contexts, and consequences. National Academies Press.

Lee, O., Miller, E., & Januszyk, R. (Eds.). (2015). NGSS For All Students. NSTA Press.

Reiser, B. J., Novak, M., McGill, T. A. & Penuel, W. R. (2021). Storyline unites: An instructional

model to support coherence from the students’ perspective. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 32(7), 805-829.

Roth, W. M., & Lee, S. (2002). Scientific literacy as collective praxis. Public understanding of science, 11(1), 33.

Windschitl, M., Thompson, J., & Braaten, M. (2018). Ambitious science teaching. Harvard Education Press.

Dr. Heather Waymouth has been an Assistant Professor in the Literacy Department at West Chester University of Pennsylvania for three years. She is a former high school literacy specialist who also holds teaching certifications in middle and secondary sciences.
Hery Castro is in his Junior year at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, in the Middle Grades Preparation program with a concentration in English Language Arts. As an Army veteran from out of state, he brings a new perspective to many of his colleagues and classes.

Navigating Education, Policy, and Advocacy in the Face of Anti-Truth Legislation


This post was written by Ian O’Byrne. You can read more about Ian at the bottom of this post.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend of anti-truth legislation being introduced at the state and local levels. These bills often target discussions of race, gender, and other sensitive topics in public schools. While framed as bans on teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) or LGBTQ issues, legislation such as this is ultimately a ban on truth and history that impinges on K-12 educators’ First Amendment rights and threatens to upend the structure of education law and policy. As educators, it is important to be aware of these bills and to take steps to advocate for the right of all students to learn about the full and accurate history of our country.

A recent example

This past year, the South Carolina Transparency and Integrity in Education Act (H.3728) sought to prohibit “certain concepts from being included in public school instruction and professional development” and to provide a means for addressing violations. The bill wanted to prohibit the teaching and training on concepts related to race, religion, politics, gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Supporters suggested it’s a way to stick to state education standards while opponents say it opens the door to censorship. 

It is important to note that this is one of many anti-truth pieces of legislation that we’re seeing across the country.    

This legislation is organized and funded by groups like the Heritage Foundation as they provide templates to allow lawmakers and copy/paste into bills. Review the CRT legislation tracker from the Heritage Foundation here.  

Anti-Truth Legislation and the First Amendment

Anti-truth legislation refers to laws that restrict or prohibit the teaching of certain historical or factual information, which can be seen as a violation of the First Amendment rights of K-12 educators and students.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the freedom of speech, religion, press, assembly, and petition. In the context of this post, the First Amendment applies to the constitutional protections afforded to K-12 teacher speech and the potential violations of those protections by anti-truth laws. Anti-Truth laws impinge on K-12 educators’ First Amendment rights by restricting or prohibiting the teaching of certain historical or factual information, which can be seen as a violation of the freedom of speech.

I understand that legislation such as this serves as a chilling effect on educators and students. Not many educators at this point are challenging these laws on First Amendment grounds. This may be due to teachers not wanting to test these boundaries, due process, or established legal precedents.

In the tumultuous landscape of modern education, book bans, stifling class discussions, and curtailed written work have emerged as alarming consequences of anti-truth legislation. As educators grapple with navigating these challenging times, the very essence of intellectual freedom is put to the test. Book bans, often driven by ideological agendas, limit students’ access to diverse perspectives and critical thinking, hindering their ability to develop a well-rounded understanding of complex issues.

Likewise, stifling class discussions on controversial topics suppresses the exchange of ideas, hindering the development of open-mindedness and empathy. Concurrently, stringent restrictions on written work can restrict students’ creativity and force self-censorship, stifling their growth as independent thinkers. In the face of anti-truth legislation, educators and advocates must unite to safeguard the fundamental pillars of education, fostering an inclusive, truth-seeking environment that empowers students to become informed, engaged citizens ready to navigate a complex world.

What can you do?

One of the most important things that educators can do is to stay informed about anti-truth legislation in their state and local area. There are a number of organizations that track this legislation and provide resources for educators, such as the Education Law Center and the American Civil Liberties UnionThis spreadsheet from PEN America helps keeps track of these bills. Once you are aware of the bills that have been introduced, you can take steps to educate your community about the importance of these issues.

Another important step is to interact with policymakers, school boards, and parents. This can be done by writing letters, attending public meetings, and speaking out at school board meetings. It is important to be respectful and to present your arguments in a clear and concise way. You can also encourage your students to get involved in advocacy efforts.

It is important to remember that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech. This means that schools cannot censor discussions of race, gender, or other sensitive topics simply because some people find them uncomfortable. If you believe that your school is violating your First Amendment rights, you should contact the American Civil Liberties Union, The ProTruthSC CoalitionSC United for Justice and Equality, or another organization that can provide legal assistance.

This protection extends not only to educators but also students in schools. Students could challenge these broader laws by arguing they have a First Amendment right to take in lessons and information from schools.

Advocacy and activism can be challenging, but it is essential to protect the right of all students to learn about the full and accurate history of our country. By staying informed, interacting with policymakers, and educating your community, you can make a difference in the fight against anti-truth legislation.

Ian O’Byrne is an associate professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. His research focuses on the dispositions and literacy practices of individuals as they read, write, and communicate in online and/or hybrid spaces. His work can be found on his website (https://wiobyrne.com/) or in his weekly newsletter (https://digitallyliterate.net/).

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

The Impact of Educational Policy on Secondary History


This post is written by Tori Young. Read more about Tori at the bottom of this post.

As educators, we are masters at adapting to new scenarios and thinking on our feet. Whether it is behavioral challenges in the classroom, changing grade levels or content areas, or being told a new acronym that will guide our students to academic achievement. While the patterns stay the same, change remains the one constant in our world. In a time of attention on literacy policy in our public schools, what do we do as educators when our curriculum is criticized, and our livelihood is on the line? And how do we engage students in the process of not only understanding the necessity to examine policies but also how to do this and why?

In secondary history, many communities have questioned the intentions behind the curriculum presented. Talks of Critical Race Theory and indoctrination have instilled fear in parents and policymakers for the minds of students as they become passionate voices in movements for climate change, women’s rights, and racial equality. As teachers, the impact we have on a student is apparent, and sadly there are few enough instances of teachers abusing that role to teach their own agendas. In a time of great societal change and political bipartisanship, parents have expressed their concern for their children’s beliefs being influenced. As teachers, a lot of this skepticism falls upon us, even though forceful influence is very rare to see and is quickly reprimanded. Yet, we fall victim to the fear for our careers when discussing important, yet sensitive issues. Fear is valid, even if it is a small number that has created cause for concern. Fear should not prevent us, however, from doing our job of teaching true history.

True history is based on facts and first-hand accounts. Primary sources are the best accounts we have of our world before modern media, but a good historian is aware that these diaries and newspaper articles are just as full of bias. Our role is to teach students how to spot perspectives through context and draw their own conclusions based on facts. This skill is what makes not just a good historian, but a great citizen. Evaluating the world and the policies that impact our lives through an unbiased narrative is nearly impossible. Teaching students how to maintain their own beliefs, while also educating themselves with facts and truths is far from indoctrination. Instead, it is the foundation of a true democracy. Our republic is made up of diverse cultures, lifestyles, and needs. Raising a voting population that can make change for their communities while respecting the various opinions and preferences of other citizens is what makes a democracy free and fair. When teaching tough subjects such as religion, slavery, and civil rights, have students follow up the lesson with reflection. Depending on the classroom environment, it may be good to have a discussion so that students can hear and learn from each other’s perspectives. In some cases, it may be beneficial to have students write down their beliefs and receive unbiased feedback from the teacher to ensure that they understand the content while knowing that their views are validated and safe in the classroom.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/neon-signage-2681319/

As policies in schools change, students do not always have the context. By pointing out instances in history where similar changes have occurred, showing the verbiage of standards and indicators, and creating discussion in the classroom about policy that impacts students directly, they are practicing this critical thinking skill.  By questioning the “why” behind literary policy in our social studies classrooms, students can come to their own conclusions based on the facts and their personal beliefs. This may look like having students recall a previous reading from a social studies or ELA class and having them reflect on the overall message of the author. Then, students can share with a partner what they found and try to spot context – why the author thought the message would be important. Lastly, students can analyze the impact if that message was never received. For example, if George Orwell’s 1984 was never written, would there still be people who believed that the government was completely trustworthy? Why would it matter to question the government? Where do we see examples in history where questioning the government has created change? How might the world be different if governments were never doubted or challenged? Our curriculum may be judged and altered to fit the new narrative of society, but it does not have to be a hindrance. We are always living in history; the context just looks a bit different.

Davis, W. (1925). Tennessee v. John T. Scopes [Black and White Photographic Print]. Smithsonian Institution Archives. https://siarchives.si.edu/collections/siris_arc_386642

Schools have been at the forefront of societal change several times in United States history. Challenging separate but equal through Brown v. Board of Education, questioning religious influence in curriculum with the Scopes Trial, or providing equal opportunities regardless of gender with Title IX, schools have been an environment for questioning society and legislation as the new generation learns about the world that they live in. Having schools targeted and subdued for speaking true history is not a new phenomenon, and it is not a purely American phenomenon. That does not make the changes and adapting any less scary for educators, but it does follow a pattern. Studying history helps us learn from patterns, so don’t panic. Instead, acknowledge the signs of the times, and help your students connect the dots for themselves just like you have been doing all along.   

Tori Young is a high school social studies teacher in Anderson, South Carolina. She is currently working on her Master’s in Instructional Design and Learning Technology at Anderson University.

Cover Image CC0

Discussion Grouping


This post is written by Shannon Bosley. You can learn more about Dr. Bosley at the bottom of this post.

Discussion is a critical part of developing literacy for all content areas in a secondary setting, but it takes practice and planning for those rich academic discussions to take place. Teachers have told me they have avoided classroom discussion for a variety of reasons: time constraints, fears that the discussion could spiral out of control or even lead to disruptive behavior, worries about not having all the answers if additional questions are surfaced, etc. These are all valid concerns. Along with having pre-established norms and expectations, those concerns can all be alleviated with planning, practice, and protocol use.

Once you have decided the purpose of a discussion, created your guiding questions, and determined the protocol to use, you need to think about how you will group the students. (If you are unsure of which protocol to use, check out the School Reform Initiative’s listing of protocols.) These groupings can be affected by the content, the purpose, the protocol being used, the number of students in the class, or even the furniture or structure of the room. As a 25+ year educator, a piece of advice… don’t let secondary students select for themselves; be strategic. Some considerations to think about when planning for grouping are:

  • Heterogeneous groups or homogenous groups?
    • Skill level – Do you want the groups to be students of similar skill levels or a variety? This could also be affected by the protocol you selected. For example, if you selected Socratic Seminar, did all students receive and read the same text prior to the session? If the readings were differentiated, then that may be a factor in determining the groups.
    • Student interest – grouping students of similar interests could help with engagement.
    • Student diversity – grouping students of different backgrounds or genders can allow for unique perspectives to be shared.
    • Group size – Are there certain roles each person has within the protocol? Too many in a group can lead to some students being left out of the conversation.
  • Are there any students who need specific considerations due to an IEP, EL status, behavior plan, etc.? Does a particular student need to be or not be with another?
  • Are there any social dynamics currently happening that could affect the groups? A reasonable question to consider when working with adolescents.
  • How will the groups be communicated to the students? Will there be a list posted on the board or screen? Are students already sorted into named groups and you are utilizing those?
  • Do I need to consider furniture movement for the discussion? And if so, does my classroom management address movement in the classroom?
  • What supports will my students need? Graphic organizer, sentence stems, etc.

If this is the first time to attempt a certain protocol, remember to practice first. Students cannot be expected to be experts on the first try. A practice discussion session focused on a lighter issue such as pop culture topic not only helps the students learn the protocol but you as the teacher can access the interactions of the groupings and make needed adjustments while making sure your discussion norms and expectations are being followed. Take notes on how things went, have students reflect on the discussion, and make changes to the groups as needed.

Students need guidance and practice to engage in academic discussions. It takes time for students and teachers to learn what works and adhere to your norms and expectations. If the first time doesn’t go well, that’s ok! Try again. You could think about a different protocol, changing the groupings, adding a graphic organizer, or revising your guiding questions. Check out the planning checklist below for help in getting ready and reflecting so that your next classroom discussion is even more engaging and productive.

Planning for Academic Discussions Checklist

Do I have any IEP, behavior or social needs I need to consider? Does the topic have any impact on how the groups are determined?    
I determined the protocol for the discussion…Have the students used/practiced this protocol?  
How do the desks/tables need to be arranged for the protocol? Do the groups need to be able to see the board/screen?    
How do the desks/tables need to be arranged for the protocol?Do the groups need to be able to see the board/screen?    
What is the best grouping size for this protocol?    
How will I communicate the groups to the class?    
What resources do I need to have ready for use during the discussion? (graphic organizer, sentence stems, etc.)  
Is there any follow-up, exit ticket, etc. required for students to submit?Is there an evaluative tool for me to use during the discussion or after?    

Cover Photo by Kier in Sight on Unsplash

Shannon Bosley, Ed.D., is a 25-year K-12 educational veteran who has served as a middle language arts teacher, school librarian, instructional coach, district technology and curriculum coordinator, and educational consultant. She earned her doctorate in Leadership Studies at Xavier University where she studied reading engagement and leadership effectiveness for school principals. Currently, she is the Principal Investigator (PI) of a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant from the Institute of Educational Sciences. Her research project examines the Sustainable Coaching and Adaptive Learning for Education (SCALE) model that Reading Ways uses to bring research-based practices to classrooms nationally. Shannon is passionate about promoting adolescent literacy and continues to research reading engagement and motivation for both adolescents and adults.

Please connect with Shannon on Twitter (@shan_bosley) or via email: shannon@readingways.org