Using Student Interests to Guide Text Choice and Instruction

  • Adrianne Moe

In the article “Attending to Class Discussions to Support Argumentative Writing, ” Dance, Watson, and Sonnenberg explain the importance of student interests in argumentative writing assignments. Our students have very ripe and full social lives in which they are engaged constantly through the use of social media. In order to get students motivated, we have to tap into their interests.

Students are more politically and socially engaged than they, or we, realize. In the article’s example of Beyonce specifically, students were inspired by her performance at Super Bowl L. The student’s interests in Beyonce as an artist allowed Dance to engage with students critically about the politicalness of the performance. I am thinking through Lady Gaga’s performance at the following SuperBowl. She was praised for keeping politics out of the Super Bowl, except Lady Gaga is an extremely political artist; she literally wore a meat dress. Her choice to perform “Born This Way”, especially soon after the inauguration of Trump, was an extremely political choice. The lyrics to the song explicitly reference being “born this way” and that “whether you’re gay, straight, or bi, lesbian, transgender life” you’re on the “right track, baby” because you’re “born this way”. To suggest in any way that those lyrics are not politically charged is simply ignorant at best. When students listen to artists like Beyonce and Lady Gaga they are participating politically. By having students dig in and engage with their interests, we can show students how everything is connected and that most performances, artists, movies, and texts cannot be objective or apolitical.

Dance goes on to ask his students “[to] explore [the] question: ‘Is an artist’s responsibility in his/her music to his/her audience or to him/herself?’” Many artists, like Lady Gaga, make sure to address their fans directly and certainly blur the lines between music as their creation and music being created for fans. Fan names like Little Monsters and Beliebers, among others, show just how connected students feel to artists they admire. This also opens up an interesting place for teachers to show students how powerful their consumer voice can be. Students can choose to support artists, and by extension their messages, by purchasing their music and brand. Besides the ability to vote, an individual’s most powerful action of political engagement is what we choose to buy. Students spend most of their day in a powerless position: in school, at home, with peers, and their inability to vote. Showing them that their consumer voice matters is a way that students can develop agency and choose to participate in their society in a meaningful and tangible way.

I recently asked students to analyze an article about the stigma associated to male nurses and the poem “Same Song” by Pat Morra. The students did well on the assignment and provided expected answers and analysis of the texts. Then I asked the students to complete the exact same assignment (same worksheet, same questions) but allowed them to choose their own texts. I gave them the freedom to pick song lyrics, tweets, Instagram posts, or music videos, among other options. Not only were student answers better overall, but they were more fully developed, answers were clearer and more concise. Students also wrote more and they took longer to complete the assignment, even though it was exactly the same! When given an opportunity to discuss post-assignment, they were more excited to share with me and their peers.

Grades aside, the fact that students simply wrote m ore and took longer to finish is a clear indication that the assignment had more meaning for them. Additionally, students chose texts that were inherently political, whether they knew it or not. Many students chose the explosive song “I’m Not Racist ” and other popular rap songs. Their answers indicated a passion and explicit understanding of these texts because they “[drew] on the interplay of students’ lived experiences and within the context of artistic  or athletic events within the popular culture”(Danceetal.). Students are struggling to see shorter texts (like social media posts, images, and advertisements) as texts to be analyzed or used in school. It is important for me to continue to stress to students that all texts can be analyzed, even the ones they are consuming in high amounts every day.

I am consistently being brought back to my strongly held belief that texts that we teach don’t really matter. Of course, it is important to provide students with accessible texts and options and we want to make sure we are giving them texts that will push them. But I would argue that it is equally, if not more, important to allow students agency in choosing their own texts – even if this means a Tweet, a divisive rap song, or an image from an Instagram ad. We must meet students where their interests are. We must design units around skills, instead of texts. By allowing for student choice, teachers can “codesign units and lessons accordingly” to help fit student interests (Dance et al.).

Additionally, allowing students to choose their own texts aides in differentiation. Students are very aware of their own levels and abilities. With texts that are at their level and within their interests, students will feel more comfortable digging in because the risks are lower. Students can also be given the opportunity to teach us about the texts they have chosen, which builds student confidence as owners of knowledge, information, and ideas. This is not to say that we shouldn’t occasionally provide students with texts we find worthwhile; we absolutely should! However, we should not plan a unit out to the point that we’ve got texts chosen for every activity for every lesson of every unit.

We must be flexible and collaborative in the responsibility of text choice with our students.

AdrienneAdrianne Moe is an English teacher at a high school in New Jersey. She is a proponent of critical literacy and radical pedagogy.  You can follow her on Twitter –  @MsMoePHS


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