Blog Series

MISSION: LITERACY ... Empowering and Engaging Students As Agents

by Antavia Hamilton-Ochs on Dec 9, 2015

  • Education Technology
  • Literacy
  • Reading Intervention
  • Struggling Students

Year after year, I struggled with students who claimed to hate reading. They didn’t like to read. They told me so, over and over again. I have a stock response: “You know, every time you say that an English teacher cries.”

Handing out reading assignment packets or calling for volunteers to read aloud was consistently met with gut-wrenching groans. I am an unusually peppy person, but I was deflating. Must I hear this every time? We hadn’t even started the reading yet.

I had to end this cycle of abuse on innocent texts. They weren’t to blame. The curriculum, teachers’ interests, accessibility, and availability were all factors in killing reading for our students. Alas, poor little packets of photocopied words take the bulk of the wrath for students being told over and over again “Reading is FUN!” as they gaze down, bracing themselves for one more double-sided, black-and-white chore.

As she hands out the papers, their English teacher is going on and on about the rip-roaring good time they will have in a voice similar to the one Mary Poppins used to get the kids to drink what she knew fool well to be awful medicine. Why? Why did Mary Poppins and English teachers nationwide—myself included—continue to push things that we know to be downright hard to take and truly awful? Because it was good for them.

I started to really pay attention to what the students were telling me. For years, educators have been telling them “Reading is FUN!,” but what about when it isn’t? What if it’s scary, frustrating, boring, hard, or the many other things reading can be. Why should anyone continue to press on in light of all these very good reasons to move on to something more appealing?


I needed to share with my students the big picture. They had to gain the reading skills needed to support successful lives. My students needed to understand how critical literacy is to their futures. This was serious; it went beyond the superficial view of whether or not they liked a text. That was baby stuff. They are critical thinkers and young adults. We are preparing for real life, not likes, followers, or shares. We had to go deeper into the text and deeper into learning.

I challenged my students to enlist in their own education. Instead of talking about lesson objectives, I started to speak of “missions.” Instead of lessons, we had trainings. We were preparing for adulthood, and the classroom was our training ground. Each time we tried our hand at a new task, my students were encouraged to discuss the real-world connection. The conversation began to shift from how they hated reading to what they disliked about what they were reading.

The point is, my students were reading! I never try to sell them a text. If a student won’t read an assignment, they don’t have any chance of liking it. Besides, there are underlying skills that will serve them long after they recall liking or disliking Shakespeare. Instead, I give my agents specific tasks to accomplish—annotate, find words they don’t know and locate a synonym, pull out and document evidence. For those students who didn’t like reading, the excitement of becoming spies and having an alternate task (which can’t really be accomplished without doing the initially resisted task of reading) was enough to get them back on board with learning. I de-emphasize reading and emphasize the real-life ability we are practicing.


I try my best to make each lesson as entertaining as possible. Engagement and I are old friends. Lessons that are fun for me to teach are also fun for students. Historically, one of the hardest activities for me to jazz up is a vocabulary lesson. I’ve always seen them as painful for everyone involved. However, I felt I would be negligent in my duties if I didn’t address the severe word drought I was seeing in my students’ vocabularies. Many times I was surprised by seemingly ordinary words students in high school should know, but my students didn’t. I resigned myself to allotting a portion of class time to vocabulary-building lessons.

I’d stand in front of the SMART® board with my painstakingly created PowerPoint® introducing each new word. Students would furiously scribble down the words, and some would struggle to keep up. I’d keep looking at the clock and raise my hand to move to the next slide. Someone would frantically cry out they weren’t finished yet. I’d apologize, while glancing at the clock again. A finished student would then start talking to another student, the student in front of her would turn around and join the conversation, and quickly the entire class would fall into a low roar—all while my two slowest writing students looked frustrated as they tried to focus on finishing their notes. Some students wouldn’t even pretend to be listening. I’d spend a lot of time introducing the words, only to find that the students would do poorly on their weekly assessment. I had to do better. My agents were well aware that one thing I cannot stand is for my agents’ valuable training time to be wasted.


The very next week I formerly launched MISSION: LITERACY. Students walked into a classroom where the lights were partially dimmed. I placed my finger over my lips, and motioned to the SMART board, where the following message was displayed:

Special Transmission

AGENTS! It appears as though our room has been bugged! It is no longer safe to speak openly about our mission. Silently read the directions below and follow the orders given. SPEAK TO NO ONE.

  • Quietly collect a computer off the cart.
  • Get a set of headphones from the basket under the SMART board.
  • Return to your seat.
  • Log in to Google Apps and use your headphones to maintain security.
  • Place your red Mission Booklet (My Vocabulary Journal) beside your computer to indicate readiness.
  • Reach under your chair. If you find an orange star, you have been designated the Head Agent. Please quietly come to the front of the class and click on the video to load the special transmission for your class.

One agent reached under his seat and located the star. He came up to the board and started the video message introducing the head of our mission, Pink Leader.

Students were in hysterics about the video. It was all so silly. Students quickly figured out the crazy character introducing their lesson was me in disguise. The entire stunt was so hokey that it won the kids over. They laughed and settled in.

Agents pressed pause and played lessons at their own speed. I had a mini activity handout for agents to grab when they were done with their vocabulary. The handout included a very simple review of something we’d gone over previously. That way students were quietly perfecting their abilities, while allowing others time to finish their lessons without pressure. No one was rushed. The lessons included insider tidbits about our class and silly jokes. I’ve set it spy music to keep the excitement up.

Students were given hot pink badges that declared them to be agents of my Literacy Squad. They had to collect signatures verifying their use of their words “in the field.” Our weekly quizzes were referred to as Mental Preparedness Assessments, and our mastery goal was set at 80 percent. Agents were told to document sightings of their words and collect info for our evidence room. Each week, they tune in for a quick comic book-style video, then on to their video lesson. Surrounding the vocabulary task with an air of importance and partnering with entertainment and technology has made this an activity we all now enjoy.


My detectives are starting to approach learning differently because I changed my approach. I’m so very excited about our trainings, and so are they. I communicate daily to my students how these lessons and tasks are related to their success later in life. I make it clear that we are never to lose sight of our goal: Reading Literacy to Support Successful Lives.

I also changed the language I use surrounding learning. I elevated students’ status from students to agents, detectives, scholars, academics, lifelong learners, world changers, and more. I’ve let them know that I—and everyone else in the world—am counting on them to do their very best every day. Their MISSION is LITERACY; THEY WILL NOT FAIL.

To watch videos of the success stories Antavia's school is having with the blended literacy intervention LANGUAGE! Live, click on the button below.

See Antavia in Action

Do you have questions or your own tips for motivating adolescent readers? Please share your thoughts in the comment field below.

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