When I first became a teacher I distinctly remember being taught that what my kids read doesn’t really matter as long as they are thinking “critically” and using “higher-order” thinking skills. And I thought to myself “okay, I can do that”. And I did. I taught novel after novel. I created (or borrowed) worksheets, tests and projects that I felt taught “critical thinking skills”. But something was off.
It took me three years to figure it out.
My kids weren’t reading. At all.
In fact, they had mastered the art of not reading. They read the Sparknote summaries before reading quizzes. They reworded what classmates in our Socratic seminars said. They took copious notes from our “discussions” (i.e. PowerPoint lectures) and parroted back everything I said in their essays.
I thought this meant that they were learning.
I had no clue how to teach students to read. I knew how to assign reading and how to assess reading, but I had abandoned my students in the process. And don’t even get me started on how I once taught writing. We’ll have to save that for another post. Let’s just say that I firmly believe that very little of what I learned in my MAT program really prepared me for teaching. And that’s not a slight on my program in particular, just a comment on teaching programs in general. Nothing prepares us better for teaching than actually teaching.
But I had to figure it out. I wanted to take pride in my craft, what little there was at the time. So, I took several post-masters graduate courses and created a PLC of my own though which I learned several thing about myself:
- Like many English teachers, I came into this profession armed with all the books I read as a kid — all the books that impacted my life in some magical, profound way. Many of us enter this profession because books mean something to us and we want to share that passion with students.
- The books I was teaching (the classics) were not inspiring my students to be lifelong readers. If that were the case, then all of my students would be readers before they walked into my classroom.
- My real goal is to introduce the love of reading to all my students. In one school year. And I needed help.
So, I did what I do best. I broke the rules. I challenged the traditional classroom that I had become accustomed to. Don’t get me wrong – I did ask for permission. I asked the principal and curriculum coordinator if I could pilot a new readers workshop “program” that I called “The Reading Initiative”. Which isn’t a program at all.
They said yes.
And here is what I did.
- I started by meeting my kids where they are in reading, much like Penny Kittle explains in Book Love. I have created a wonderful classroom library and I encourage my students to choose any novel to read during our first quarter. And I do mean any novel. Well, in the spirit of full disclosure I have said no to one – 50 Shades of Gray. Yes, a freshman did really ask to read that.
- I approached reading with a 50/50 approach, much like Kelly Gallagher explains in Readicide. My students are invited to read 20 novels with me. 15 they choose for themselves. I choose the rest. I call this 50% because I also choose short stories, poems, plays, and the nonfiction articles we read together.
- We read in class for 10 minutes each and every day. I book talk books from my library each day to give them more options. They journal about their books, they talk to me and each other about their books and most importantly, they enjoy their books.
- I collected “data” on this. My students write essays on what they thought about reading before my class and what they think about it after the first quarter. Here is an excerpt from a boy named Evan in November: “Before this year, I hated reading. When I was told I had to read 25 novels this year, I wanted to drop out, but one novel completely changed my mind: The Maze Runner. This book is like one of those movies where you have to pee so badly but you don’t want to pause it because it is too good. I could not keep my eyes off this book! This series has forever changed my perspective on reading.”
- These kids build the stamina and fluency required to sit with a “complex text”. When they pick up Lord of the Flies for the first time (our first “whole class” read), they are not as daunted by the dense details of the island in chapter 1. They can sustain the concentration required of that novel. And, they have faith in their love of reading. They might not love this novel (most don’t, but that’s not why I teach it), but they can read and understand it.
I believe students need to remember the love of reading that they (hopefully) once had. Too many walk into my classroom and proudly proclaim that they never read a single novel in middle school. I believe students need CHOICE (as much as possible) and TIME (in class) to sit with a book. 10 minutes a day is enough time for them to get to a “good part” of the book. Maybe they’ll want to read it on the bus instead of playing on their iPhones. And I believe students need to be able to read a novel for the joy of reading and not be required to take a test on it.
So, that was two years ago.
And now we’re at the present where several of my colleagues have joined me on this workshop approach to reading and writing and together we have woven our current curriculum around this idea. And it’s been wonderful. This year has been the best year so far.