Letting Literature do the Work: How I Started an Inclusive Literature Workshop

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I have taught middle school ELA for over a decade. My first year, I tried Nancie Atwell’s reading workshop model. My second year, I tried it again. I struggled to implement Atwell’s model. I followed her guide from In the Middle, but there seemed to be an art to the process that I could not grasp.  Then, I gradually became the teacher who chooses what students read almost all the time,  writes the discussion questions, and makes the independent reading something students “did” at home. I reverted to the way I was taught even though that did not work well for me. Still, I had a whisper in my soul (I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true) that I was making excuses for why I just could not commit to a reading workshop model in middle school.

Over twenty years of teaching reading in a workshop, my classes of seventh and eighth graders have read an average of at least forty books each year. In the lower grades at our school, the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), in Edgecomb, Maine, the numbers are similarly remarkable. This is not because of our population of students—our kids are typical of the rural state in which we live. It’s this: The K–6 teachers and I make time every day for our students to curl up with good books and engage in the single activity that consistently correlates with high levels of performance on standardized tests. And that is frequent, voluminous reading. A child sitting in a quiet room with a good book isn’t a flashy, or a marketable, teaching method. It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to become a reader. (Atwell)

“It just happens to be the only way anyone ever grew up to be a reader.”  Right. I know this. I believe this, and yet, time for independent reading was always the first thing to be sacrificed to the time gods. Why? Fear? Peer pressure?

I have spent the past five years finding my way back to the reading workshop, making more time for in-class reading, student choice, and diverse literature, i.e., building up confidence to restructure, revise my approach to teaching reading and literature.

What I realized last summer after taking a look at my book collection  was that my “diverse” literature was almost exclusively diverse in genre and culture — not so diverse in ability, gender, and sexual orientation. The whispers in my soul got louder. I was a little afraid to take on the politics that can come with greater inclusion of voices, but I really believe in the power of literature to nurture compassion for ourselves and for others. I just had to act on that belief.

I read a great article about how when we read, the brain doesn’t know if the aesthetic experience is fiction; the experience, the emotion is real and is imprinted as part of our way of being and seeing. Readers learn how to infer and understand other people’s experiences. And doesn’t our world need more of that? Without access to unfamiliar ways of being in the world, we cannot nurture compassion for differences and be more inclusive. Without access to familiar ways of being in the world, ways that validate our own, we may feel othered. Teaching is a political act — deliberate or not — and so I made a decision to be more explicit about the books that I made available to students in our classroom library.

It seemed to me that the reading workshop with inclusive literature would be the most efficient and effective and ethical way to invite students to read into the lives of human beings within and beyond their experiences.

Building an Inclusive Classroom Library

This year, I went all in. I applied for a grant that I called “Reading Humanity: Inclusive Literature for an Inclusive Society” and earned $1,000 to buy books that first and foremost told a good story and second represented gender, sexual orientation, class, ability, race, culture, landscape, and religion for teen readers.  This grant was in the memory of Mr. Richard Bokor: teacher, coach, and district board member. Mr. Bokor was passionate about inspiring and motivating students, and I was honored to earn this grant in his memory.

To support my proposal, I shared a study by Emauele Castano and David Kidd published in Science about how literary fiction supports what English teachers have known forever (and what the state overlooks in their high stakes tests):

This genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world, which is full of complicated individuals whose inner lives are usually difficult to fathom. Although literary fiction tends to be more realistic than popular fiction, the characters disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes. They support and teach us values about social behavior, such as the importance of understanding those who are different from ourselves.

To add to my classroom library, I worked with the people at We Need Diverse Books, reached out to scholars in LGTBQ, was inspired by “We Stand With Queer Youth,” and “friended” a couple thousand English teachers and librarians for book recommendations. I spent the summer reading (and reading) .


After reading over a hundred books, I ordered books for my classroom what I thought would fit well in middle school and help students to stretch their reading experiences. Here is my Inclusive Literature Book List:

Inclusive Literature, page1

Inclusive Literature, page 2

Ethical ELA, Bokor Books

Revising My Practice

To revise my pedagogy,  I read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer , Penny Kittle’s  Book Loveand, of course, Nancie Atwell’s In the Middle

Then, I unpacked my boxes of books (class sets boxed by genre and new books recently delivered) and made a classroom library.

Getting these books into the hands of students is just the first step of an inclusive literature classroom. I book-talked these books every day and made time for students to read every day. I walked around during reading time to conference with students about their experiences. Now, once a week, they blog about their books. It is a place for me to respond to their insights and give suggestions for further reading or just a critical perspective. These books are rarely on the shelf with almost 90 students in my 3 reading classes.

The next step was to move deeper into conversations about how stories represent the human experience. When I asked Lyn Miller-Lachmann, author of Rogue,  for book recommendations, she cautioned me about Out of Mind by Sharon Draper and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon because these authors are not “insiders.”  She did not suggest that we not read these books; rather, for more critical reading, she suggested I introduce students to  Disability in Kidlit where authors and readers with an ability difference review books featuring characters with ability differences. I use these reviews during conference time with students depending on the books they are reading. Here are just a few excerpts:

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The book normalizes abuse, presents the autistic protagonist as responsible for it, and suggests that he is not harmed by much of it. This happens toward autistic people in real life, too, and it is very harmful. That is the strongest reason you should not recommend this book. Instead, please consider recommending books that don’t normalize abuse, that acknowledge the harm it does to us, and that call out characters who abuse and victim-blame. There are much better books about autistic characters, some of which are being reviewed here this month. Recommend one of those instead!

Review: Marcelo in the Real World  by Francisco X. Stork

I can’t say that they wholly humanise autism, because they don’t depict the full diversity of the spectrum, and they also humanise only a very specific form of autism, and that’s the one closest to and perhaps most understandable to the neurotypical reader. Is it really a bold blow for the autistic community when all the narratives about autism are only about one kind of autism, and it’s one neurotypical readers can easily connect with?

Review: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

Autism is often portrayed as non-stop, inherent suffering, but for many people, our difficulties come from all kinds of “secondary sources.” In Oscar’s case, he compares himself to other people and ends up feeling different and lacking, like he’s “not a person.” This matches ableist ideas of autism—our humanity is often questioned—and unfortunately probably matches many autistic people’s fears, particularly pre-diagnosis. (Important is that the narrative never agrees with Oscar’s self-assessment.)

Review: Rogue by Lyn Miller-Lachmann

I felt a mixture of emotions when I finished the book–a definite sadness for how cruel the world can be to the most vulnerable people, and incredible heartache for the innocent lives destroyed by drugs and greed; encouraged and heartened by the indomitable human spirit, unbroken by the devastating trials it was forced to endure; inspired to make my own mark on the world, to use the power of words to help heal the broken pieces of my own heart, and to hopefully help others to do the same.

I did experience a few eyebrow-raising moments, the most prominent being the cause of Kiara’s autism.  One theory is posited that it was her father’s chemotherapy that led to her “mutated” genes.  Considering that this book is marketed for a much younger audience, I felt that it was a bit problematic that this went unchallenged, considering the lack of scientific evidence to back that theory.

These reviews and many more on Goodreads and other young adult literature sites about ability difference, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation help us to think critically about the socializing influence of literature– the ways it can perpetuate and/or interrupt stereotypes, move readers to consider what questions of humanity the book is asking, nurture or deny compassion for others.

But the thing is, we have to get students to sit down with a book, to engage with the text, to find the flow in the narrative in order for any of that to happen.

Reading for Joy, for Understanding, for Humanity

The idea of the inclusive literature reading workshop is for students to return to the days when they’d go to the school library and check out lots of books, excited to dive into the stories. I wanted to see students loving (or at least liking) books in middle school. And I wanted books to find their way to readers as they need to and be conferenced rather than taught. I also wanted to bring more voices into the classroom,  authorities beyond my own. My hope was that with more voices of students, authors, and characters, our conversations about humanity would be more rich, nuanced, and, well, compassionate. I am learning to step aside and let the literature do the work.


One Reply to “Letting Literature do the Work: How I Started an Inclusive Literature Workshop”

  1. This is a thrilling account of teaching in ever widening ways for students, with them, as you have been doing for years. But students having greater choices, latitude, self-efficacy, trusting them more, that’s what the workshop is about. Later, after In the Middle, Attwell lost her nerve a little, she felt she needed to “teach” more, to help student learn more about various genres, get them to see HER passions and favorite poems, and so on, but I understand she has found a balance between teacher direction (that Big Desk she gets out from behind as a teacher in the workshop) and allowing students to follow their passions.

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