Giving Kids Choice in HS Reading Class

Today, as part of Literacy Month, we have one of our favorite guest posters, Kristina Peterson to share the evolution of what she is doing in her HS English classes in terms of reading.  ~EMP

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.

They weren’t.

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. My real goal is to introduce the love of reading to all my students. In one school year. And I needed help.

Stephanie Yao Long / The Oregonian

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.

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Article by Kristina Peterson

Kristina Peterson is a certified English teacher and has been teaching at Exeter High School since 2008. She has a B.A. in Literature from the University of Southern Maine and an M.A.T. from George Fox University. She keeps in touch with the ever-changing educational practices through extensive continuing education at UNH. She recently presented at the 2012 National Convention for Teachers of English in Las Vegas about the importance of choice in reading and writing. She co-advises the poetry section of Inkwell (EHS literary magazine), the EHS Writer's Club, Page Turners (a book club), and the annual Poetry Out Loud contest. She blogs for The Inspired Classroom about the importance of maintaining creativity in the classroom and is leading a session at the third annual Teacher Arts Retreat this summer.
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  1. Kristina – I love this post and your ideas. You really love to rock the boat and it’s great to see the passion you bring to the work you do. It’s all for the love of kids and the love of reading!

    It’s getting me think about how I need to revamp what I do in fourth grade. We give students reading time each day, but I think (actually I KNOW) I have been slacking when it comes to reading circles, reading response, etc. The students are allowed and encouraged to read their own choice books, but I need to follow up more and engage them with the texts they choose.

    Thanks for a little kick in the pants! 😉

  2. Those 10 minutes of reading time each day are my favorite part of the day. People often ask me what I do during those 10 minutes. Here are two options:

    1. Read with your kids. Model good reading. I’ve done this and more often then not, I’ll loose track of the time!

    Or, option 2: Reading Conferences. I do this for the first half of the year. I spend those 10 minutes each day checking in with a few students. I’ll see what book they are reading and ask them if they like it and to tell me a bit about it. This helps me tell if they are truly reading. Also, if I check in on a student who is still reading the same book 3 weeks later, I may suggest a new book. I keep notes on a legal pad and can use these notes as future book suggestions.

    Honestly, that falls to the wayside after Christmas as we move into Poetry, Shakespeare and the Multigenre Project. Now, I use that time to get ready for that period. I take attendance and make sure my handouts are in place and check in with any students I need to about their projects. Our 50 minute periods fly by and then I’m on to the next class. Somedays I feel like I don’t even have time to breathe. Give yourself the gift of those 10 minutes! Especially for the classes coming in after the insanity of lunch (or recess in your case). =)

  3. smorrison says:

    Hi, Kristina–
    I love many of your ideas. I have a logistical question. How long are your class periods? And how many times a week do you see your students? It’s a boring old question, I know, but how many class minutes do you have a week per class?

    I’ve often started the year off with similar intentions: write or read at the beginning of every class for 10 minutes, and then time gets the better of me. Our students are permitted only 45-50 minutes a night of homework for each class-meeting time, and for many students that means only 20 pages of reading. How do your students read so many books each year AND also read class books? (I can see that once they “love reading again,” they may not clock it like they used to, but still, I’m wondering where they find the time in their busy schedules.

    I’m impressed, and I want to hear more about how you make it work.


    • Excellent question! And I have certainly struggled with balancing Independent and Whole Class reads. My approach is not perfect, but it works for me.

      I have 5 sections of 9th graders and we run on a modified block schedule, so I see my classes 4 days a week. Mondays, Tuesday and Fridays I see all classes for 50 minutes. On “block days” (Wednesdays and Thursdays) I see them for 100 minute blocks (odd classes only on Wednesdays and then even classes only on Thursdays). So, mathematically, I believe I see each class for 25o minutes per week. I devote 50 minute each week to in class reading and use the other 200 minutes for everything else we need to get done.

      An ideal 50 minute block would look like this:
      Read – 10 minutes
      Book Talk – 5 minutes
      Quick Write – 10 minutes
      The rest of class is set aside for the main lesson of the day/unit (writing, whole class discussion, poetry, etc). On block days I double the reading.

      When I first switched from a traditional classroom to this Reading/Writing workshop mode I figured there was no way I could get through everything. But I soon realized how much time I was wasting with busy work. I would assign a chapter for homework and 5-10 comprehension questions and then waste time to next day going over the questions. My kids learned pretty quickly that they didn’t have to do the reading to get credit on the homework. I need to reassess my intentions. Why was I assigning the novels? Because I had to? And why did I create these study guides? (You can read more about that on my blog if you’re interested:

      I still teach 3 whole-class novels and a play (plus poetry, short stories, articles and tons of writing) but I weave it around the workshop model. (Again, I blog about that here:

      In the end it was a simple switch for me. I was still pretty new to teaching. And I’m still one of the only people in my school that approaches reading and writing this way. But I’ve seen amazing results. I don’t think my kids would be able to tell you the type of gun George uses to kill Lenny at the end of Of Mice and Men or why type of pants Jem gets caught on the fence in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I know they are reading these novels with me and I know they are slowly becoming stronger readers, writers and critical thinkers this year. And, for me, that’s more than enough.

      I’m happy to talk more about this if you have additional questions!

  4. Deb Day says:

    A friend tweeted me your link and said “You could have writtten this.” And she’s right, I could have. I had always believed in choice (reading, writing, speaking), but this year, that 10 minutes of reading at the beginning of class has transformed my freshmen and their reading. This year, I want to see their test scores. I truly believe that those who have read a lot will see better scores.

    • I feel the same way about my freshmen. Those 10 minutes each day has improved so much about my classroom. I, too, am looking forward to seeing test scores. Administrators love data, and mine are a bit uncomfortable with my “I know it works, I see it working” responses. They want to see numbers.

  5. I was really surprised, after reading the blog, to hear that you are teaching at Exeter. If this is the situation with Exeter freshman, than certainly public school English teachers need to rethink their approach. I’m a YA author, writing workshop teacher, reading specialist, and homeschooling mom to a freshman. So, I have multiple perspectives on this topic. I agree, kids should have choice and be guided in their choices, as well. I still think it is valuable to tackle at least one novel or play together, especially if it is taught in an engaging way. I think the average freshman probably wouldn’t get the richness of To Kill A Mockingbird without some background information and guidance along the way. On the other hand, I have see teachers KILL this wonderful novel by assigning 20 questions after each chapter and too many essays.

    • You’ve hit the nail on the head! We teachers need to balance whole class reads with choice. I’m expected to teach between 3 – 5 whole class novels each year. And you’re absolutely right, when taught in an engaging fashion, there is something special (and necessary) in the act of reading a novel together and you don’t get that same richness and background information from independent reading. It becomes a pretty precarious balancing act. I have found that by inviting kids to read on their own terms at the beginning of the year, and using this choice to increase their stamina with a book and fluency with reading in general, then most kids are ready to tackle dense classics by Christmas. We’re in the middle of Macbeth now and we start Mockingbird after April break. I’m excited to see how it goes this year now that most kids are avid readers!

  6. Kristina,
    I love this. Due to some “restructuring” within our school, I now have to teach two new high school electives next year…and I have to create them! I was thinking of adding a New Literacies that uses 21st century literacies with Digital Citizenship mixed in, but I also thought about a class strictly related to building the passion for reading and/or reading comprehension strategies. I’ve read Harvey Daniel’s Literature Circles. Do you base the class of off that? I have LOTS more questions about how you structured this class, more importantly, how you assess it. Would you be willing to Skype or Google Hangout? I really need all the help I can get, or even see if I have the resources. Email me at or Direct Message me on Twitter @jbormann3. Thanks for the ideas!

    • How lucky you are to create two new electives! Your ideas sound wonderful. I have read the Daniel’s novel you mentioned and I like it, but there are some additional sources out there that I believe will serve you better. The book I base my independent reading workshop off of the most is Book Love by Penny Kittle. I would encourage everyone to start there. Her book contains everything you need to know about structure and assessment. I’m running a PLC around her book at my school now and I constantly turn to it for advice. I would also encourage you to pick up Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. Additionally, I also base much of my writing instruction off Write Like This by Gallagher and Write Beside Them by Kittle. All 4 books have really helped me design and defend a workshop approach in both reading and writing. Additionally, both Penny and Kelly have wonderful resources on their website. I’d also be happy to Google Hangout or communicate through email and send along anything I have that would be helpful.

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